The Room We Don’t Use

There was always one thing I found ridiculous about scary movies involving haunted houses, back when I used to watch scary movies – why don’t the people just move? It’s always the same: a family moves into an old, creepy house, unexplained paranormal activity starts to happen, and then they try to battle it themselves. But wouldn’t any normal person just immediately check out as soon as undeniable evidence of malicious spirits presented itself? Just go. That night. Pack up the necessities and just leave.

I used to think that, every time. Back before I found myself living in a – ugh, this is still a hard thing to say – a real, actual, honest-to-god haunted house. I know better now.

It’s primarily a matter of practicality. Unless you’re super rich (we are NOT super rich), who can afford to simply pack up their belongings and live somewhere else on a moment’s notice? You could stay in a hotel I suppose, but that’s hardly a long-term solution. Even finding a hotel room that can accommodate a family of four and all their necessaries is tough, before you factor in the bank-breaking aspect of it. That’s not to say we didn’t try that. The first time my mom saw… what she saw, in the room, she refused to even go back into the house. And after a long, tense argument in the front yard, my dad finally agreed to let us go on the “sleepover” at that little resort hotel with the water slide.

Julie and I actually kind of had fun, but I was worried about mom and dad. They didn’t tell us why we were staying in a hotel 10 minutes away from home, and they spent the entire trip staring off into space, biting their nails, and quietly arguing.

And we did the hotel thing a second time after we got out of the emergency room, when Julie had her encounter. That trip was less fun… The point is, our home was our home. We could leave whenever we wanted, but eventually we always had to go back.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It had been, let’s see, eight or nine months? Eight or nine months since we collectively agreed that something was very, very wrong with the spare bedroom. It was supposed to be MY bedroom. The apartment where we lived before, it only had two bedrooms, and they were tiny. I was getting way too old to be sleeping on a bunk bed with my little sister. It seemed like our whole family was always on top of each other in that place. So moving into a house – a REAL house – with three bedrooms, was a big deal.

I picked it myself, the very first time mom and dad took us there to show us our new home. To the naked eye, both regular bedrooms were the same size, but I paced it out myself and found that this room was a foot longer on one side than the other one. Plus it was farther away from our parents’ room. But my mom didn’t let me move into it right away. She knew how badly, and for how long, I wanted my own room. But we needed the space for all our boxes while we worked on unpacking, she said. Plus, they couldn’t afford to buy me new furniture right away. I offered to sleep on the bare floor, between the boxes, but mom wasn’t having it, even though I could tell dad was sympathetic. That decision on mom’s authority might have ended up saving my life.

One thing most haunted house movies DO get right? Everything starts off small. For us, it was the whispering. In that room alone, if it was quiet enough, you could sometimes hear it. You could never make out any actual words, but it definitely sounded like voices. Like human voices playing in reverse.

It’s amazing the lengths the mind goes to to reconcile the unexplainable. Each one of us came up with increasingly convoluted theories about what the “whispering” actually was – none of them invoking the supernatural. First it was air flow from the heating system. Then it was water pipes inside the walls. Or electrical lines picking up stray radio frequencies. Once, my dad walked up to us and confidently declared that he had figured it out. It was obviously coming from the WiFi router we had hooked up in the closet. It was occasionally emitting a hissing noise that could be mistaken for whispering, or so dad claimed. So just to be sure, he went in the room one day, closed the door, unplugged the modem and router, and stayed in there for several minutes. When he came out, he quickly closed the door behind him and said “that wasn’t it.” and walked to the other end of the house in a hurry. He looked upset. Later, I overheard him and my mom talking and he said the voice had gotten clearer. It had said his name.

Dad still refused to allow for any unconventional explanations for the whispering noises, continuing to insist that it was something dumb and simple we hadn’t thought of, and honestly, that’s what I thought too. But I noticed he tended to avoid the room whenever possible. And when he did go in there, he shut the door behind him every time. That didn’t stop the rest of us. When me or mom or Julie couldn’t find something it would usually turn up tucked away inside a cardboard box somewhere in that room. Sometimes, if I had to go in there, after I’d found what I was looking for, I’d wait for the whispering to start and see if I could pick up any clues to its origin, or what it was saying. And one time, while I was doing just that, well… things escalated.

I learned pretty quickly that to hear the whispering in the room, you had to stay really, really still. So I was doing that, not moving, barely even breathing, my ears picking up the tiniest little traces of sound, when everything went sideways. Literally. First, all the sound left the room at once, like when your ears are popping, and while I was trying to get them to un-pop, the gravity got all funky. It felt like I was falling over, like I’d lost my balance, but when I looked at my feet I was still standing. I dropped to all fours to try to get my bearings, and then I saw it. A face. But not an entire face. Just eyes and a mouth. The eyes were no more than black spots on top of white spots, darting around, but also focused squarely on me, like they were trying to figure me out. And the mouth… the mouth was… well, I really don’t like talking about (or thinking about) the mouth, but the best way I can describe it is it was like a void. Or a black hole. I perceived it as a mouth, but it felt like something much more horrible. Like the universe had a chunk taken out of it and sent far away, and nothing could be safe again until it was restored. It’s pretty hard to explain.

As quickly as I’d seen it, suddenly I blinked and there I was, lying on my back on the floor of that room, reality having pieced itself back together again like nothing happened.

So what do you think I did after that? Obviously, a normal person would freak out about this, and probably go straight to their parents and explain what happened, and insist on immediately getting as far away as possible from that room and that house.

I did not do that.

Believe it or not, at the time, I was pretty certain I’d had a seizure. I mean, what other explanation could there be? Like I said, the mind is very good at warping memories to fit one’s accepted model of reality. So I said nothing. I was terrified, but I chalked it up to a bizarre, isolated mental episode. Ultimately, I didn’t have much time to grow acclimated to that made-up truth, as the other members of my family also experienced more intense phenomena inside the room not long after my little “episode”.

My little sister Julie has always been quiet and shy. Around strangers she’s effectively non-verbal, and even at home she’s a girl of few words. About 10 days after my seizure experience, we were hanging out in the living room watching TV when, out of the blue, Julie told me there was a little kid living in the extra bedroom. I asked her what she was talking about, and she only replied, “there’s a kid in there.” I don’t remember much else about that conversation, because the very same day, my mom had her encounter that resulted in the first “sleepover” at the hotel.

I pieced this story together from what mom saw fit to tell me herself, from reading between those lines, and, as always, from eavesdropping on my parents from outside their bedroom door. Apparently, the same day Julie made her assertion that we had a surprise fifth tenant in our house, my mom was doing some house cleaning. She took the vacuum cleaner into the spare bedroom and noticed that the air duct in there looked really dirty. Unhooking the hose attachment from the vacuum, she approached the air duct and saw that it wasn’t dust or dirt or grime clogging it up – it was hair. Black hair, jammed into the slits with loose strands dangling down. Not knowing what else to do, she grabbed a handful of those loose strands and tugged, and at that very moment, a sound came from the vent that sounded like (in her words) “the sound a person makes when they’re trying to barf but there’s nothing in their stomach”, and all the hair suddenly sucked back into the duct.

If I had known the details of that story at the time, I doubt I would have been able to enjoy the resort and its water slide to any degree.

Like I said, we had to go back home. We had left for the resort in such a hurry we forgot to bring a lot of basic stuff. Phone chargers, extra socks and underwear, clothes to sleep in. Mom and dad talked around in circles about making a trip back to the house for those things, which would bring up the question of how long we would be staying in the hotel in the first place, and where else we could go if not our house. We have family in town, but I wouldn’t say we are terribly close with them. It’s the kind of family you see on major holidays, nothing more. Looking back, I can see that both my parents were conflicted about whether to call Aunt Cindy or my Great Uncle Mark and ask them to put us up for a while. How would we explain what was going on? Where would we even sleep?

I just wanted to go home, if we couldn’t stay in the hotel. I knew we were there because of something that happened in the room but since mom and dad wouldn’t tell me what happened, I couldn’t bring myself to get too scared about it. Nothing weird ever happened at home outside of that bedroom, so as long as we stayed out of there…

Sure enough, that’s exactly what we did. Mom cried when we walked back into the house after only two nights at the hotel. Julie was young enough to be blissfully ignorant of all the recent drama about the room, and she went back to business as usual without asking any questions. Dad attempted to exert some control over the situation by immediately emptying the room of all our belongings, then locking the door behind him.

I’ll be honest: I felt robbed. All this time, I dreamed of having a space of my own; getting to put my own posters on the walls, having my own TV, getting to actually be by myself for once. And now I come agonizingly close to that being my reality, and THIS happens. Yes, I was being selfish. And I may have taken it out on my parents in my own way, even though I had to admit I was too scared to seriously consider sleeping in that room by myself. I pretended it was my parents keeping me out of there, and not my own fear. I’m not proud of it.

We STILL never spoke openly about the room being haunted. It just became “the room we don’t use”. When people came by to visit, the story was the room didn’t get good air circulation, so it got hot. And since nobody wanted to sleep in there we were using it for storage until we got the duct work fixed. No need to bring up the locked door…

That became our new normal. No significant paranormal activity troubled us for quite some time, apart from the occasional thumping or rattling noise to be heard through the locked door. Mom got over her fear. I stopped complaining about sharing the other bedroom. We got fully unpacked and stored a lot of stuff in the rather spacious attic, which as far as we could tell was NOT haunted in spite of how creepy it looked. We settled into our home.

And then… I’ll never forget the date. October 10th. I was playing around on my iPad when mom walked up and asked me if I knew where Julie was. I shrugged “no”. She stalked off and returned a few minutes later and asked where the last place I saw her was, this time with more concern in her voice. I told her I thought she was watching TV in our room (but I honestly wasn’t sure when that was). Mom’s worry found its way into me, and we both started calling for Julie, looking inside the closets and cupboards, under the sofa, in the back and side yards. Her bike was still in the garage, and anyway Julie wasn’t the type to leave the house on her own without saying anything. She was only five.

I started to get scared after I’d looked in all our favorite hiding places and came up with nothing. No sign of Julie. Mom was getting frantic. Just when she was about to jump in the car and start searching the neighborhood my dad came home from the grocery store. Mom nearly jerked both his arms out of the sockets screaming that she couldn’t find Julie anywhere. Now I had two parents running around the house conducting the exact same search we had already done, when they both walked by the room we don’t use and stopped. Dad tried the door. Still locked. But he and mom read one another’s minds. The look on both their faces was the strangest mixture of hope and utter terror.

Dad grabbed the key from his hiding place in his closet, which even I don’t know about, unlocked the door to the room with a loud, echoing *CLACK* and disappeared inside. I stood frozen at the other end of the hallway, heart beating out of my chest, while mom clutched her mouth and waited for any sign. When dad started screaming “Julie? JULIE! JULIE!!! NO!”, my blood went cold. My stomach curdled, and I started to cry.

From that point forward, my memory gets really hazy. It was a chaotic scene with my dad stumbling out of the room holding my sister’s lifeless body in his arms, my mom weeping and trying to get her to wake up, asking what was going on. I could see that Julie’s skin tone was very, very wrong. Gray, almost black. Worse on her hands and arms but fading to almost a normal pink in her face. Clutched in her arms was her favorite pink stuffed dog that talked when you squeezed its belly. I had no idea if she was alive or dead.

The next thing I remember was us in the car, my dad driving like a madman to the emergency room. I was in the front seat, mom holding Julie in the back. I heard her repeating “She’s breathing. She’s breathing.” and trying to talk to her and get her to wake up.

I’ve been to the emergency room once before, when I broke my wrist, and it was discouraging how long they made us wait to see a doctor in an “emergency” room. It was different this time, when they saw Julie’s color and the panic on my parents’ faces. They brought her in a wheelchair directly to a hospital bed, but no sooner had they started checking vital signs, she woke up. It was a miracle. Within minutes her normal color returned, and she was asking my parents where she was. I don’t recall a time I’ve ever felt more relieved in my entire life.

The doctors decided to keep Julie there to continue monitoring her condition until well into the night, asking if she had any history of breathing problems or bad circulation, if she’d ever fainted before, if epilepsy runs in the family… it made me think about my “seizure”. Could that really be it? For the next several hours we stayed by that bed, an endless parade of nurses and doctors, and tried to piece together what had happened.

Here I am going to attempt to transcribe the conversation my parents had with my little sister in as much detail as I can recall. Suffice to say, I’m paraphrasing where I don’t remember the exact wording:

“Julie? Honey, what were you doing in the Room?”

“Looking for my Kimmy.” [Kimmy is Julie’s stuffed dog.]

“How did you get into the Room? Did you find daddy’s key?”

“No…”

“So how did-”

“I was looking for my Kimmy…”

“Yes, sweetie, but do you remember how you got into the Room?”

“The door was open.”

“The door to the Room? The room we don’t use?”

“Yeah.”

[Me, mom, and dad have a short conversation to establish that none of us had accidentally left the door open to the Room or even gone in there.]

“Julie, was your Kimmy in there? In the Room?”

“Yeah.”

[My parents look at each other for a long moment trying to decide what to ask next.]

“Honey, do you know-”

“It was in the closet.”

“The closet?”

“Yeah. It was up – it was on the top of the closet. It was on the top shelf.”

[Dad closed his eyes tight at this point, looking troubled.]

“What happened then?”

[Long silence] “Dunno…”

“Honey… honey it’s really important that you remember what happened in the Room, OK?”

[More silence] “It got really cold and then it grabbed me and I was cold.”

“Wait, someth- someone grabbed you? Who grabbed you?”

“It was cold and an arm came down from the top of the closet and I tried to run away but the arm grabbed me and, um…” [Julie starts to tear up.]

[Dad stands up and turns away from us, hand on his hips, looking down.]

“What happened after that?”

[Silence]

“Honey I know it was scary, but please honey, do you remember what happened after that?”

“I was here.”

That was all we could really get out of Julie about what happened in the Room. My dad had found her practically stuffed into the corner of the top shelf of the closet, non-responsive, skin black and clutching her dog. There was no way to tell how she got up there, or how she got into the Room in the first place, or how the door got locked behind her afterwards. But there was no denying what it meant: something lured her into that Room. Something tried to take my sister.

It was after 11pm when we were finally released from the emergency room. The doctors couldn’t give my parents an explanation for what happened, but they referred us to a neurologist just in case and told us to bring her back in immediately if anything like this happens again.

We didn’t even bother returning home for our things this time. We went straight to the hotel. Dad went out briefly to stop into the drug store and get toothbrushes, bottles of water, cheap generic clothes and other things for our last-second stay. I felt like I was in a daze. It seemed impossible to consider returning home now, knowing what happened. And I kept thinking, we left home in such a hurry, dad left the door to the Room wide open…

Five days we spent in the hotel that time. Five days of just numbness and confusion. Being late Fall, it was too cold to use the pool. We could use the hot tubs, but there was hardly any point. None of us were able to relax. I kept wondering what we were going to do. Where we were going to go. I even wondered – God help me – what was going to happen to all my stuff back at home. Would I see any of it again?

After the hotel, it was Aunt Cindy’s. Apparently mom and dad were sufficiently motivated to swallow their pride and ask her and my uncle to let us stay there. I don’t even know what they ended up telling them, just that it had something to do with our house not being safe to live in and a lot of work needed to be done to it.

It was Halloween when I saw the house for the last time. My heart was pounding faster and faster as our car took the many turns through the neighborhood and onto our street, but I felt relief when the house came into view and a large moving truck was outside. Workers were rolling our furniture into the truck already and stacking boxes. And there was a For Sale sign sticking out of the ground in the front yard. We just needed to do a final walkthrough and make sure the moving company didn’t leave anything behind.

When I saw neighboring houses with plastic Jack O’ Lanterns and skeletons and fake spiderwebs adorning their front yards, I became sad. Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays, even though trick or treating was pretty… crude, in the apartments. Once or twice I went trick or treating in my friends’ neighborhoods and got to see what it was really supposed to be like. In this moment, standing outside our would-be home, a number of things occurred to me at once: That in all the fear and chaos of the past few weeks, I had pretty much forgotten Halloween was coming. That this would have been my first, and probably last chance to trick or treat in my own real neighborhood. That I hadn’t actually considered what it meant to outgrow the practice of trick or treating, and now I was suddenly facing it without warning. That, of all things, it was living in a real-life haunted house that ruined Halloween for me.

I walked through the front door of the house and headed down the hallway, sidestepping moving guys along the way. I hesitantly glanced at the Room. The door was closed. That seemed odd to me. From there, I went into mine and my sister’s room, which was already nearly empty. Nothing but a few boxes, a bunk bed frame with no mattresses, and dust.

Then, I heard one of the moving guys asking my dad where the key was for the locked room. Dad seemed taken aback by the question, but he went to fetch the key anyway, mentioning that the Room was totally empty regardless. He unlocked the door, opened it up, and even from another room I could feel the fear in the air.

The Room was not empty after all. In the center of the room, on the floor, was a scattered collection of items: A few of mom’s necklaces, dad’s box of rare coins he inherited from his grandpa, a stack of framed photos that used to be on our hallway wall, some of Julie’s toys, my Nintendo Switch… and over and around all of it, loose, long black hairs.

…………………………………………………………………………………..

We’re in a rental house now. It’s quite a bit smaller than the one we just sold, but it does still have three bedrooms, and one of them is all mine. Of course, we all sleep in the master bedroom together most nights… Christmas is almost here, and I actually think we might be able to salvage THAT holiday, because we’ve had no unexplained phenomena in this house. Although, mom and dad have warned me and Julie that it was going to be light on presents this year – very light. The speed at which we sold our house and lined up this rental probably meant we didn’t get the best deal on either, and we were broke. But we were safe. That’s all that matters to me.

Now I just have to find a way to cope with the knowledge I have. I know that paranormal forces exist, and they tried to take my family. Our experience calls into question everything I thought about the subject of ghosts and hauntings, and definitely how I think of movies about those things. I don’t watch them anymore, and I imagine I won’t for a very long time. It just makes me think about what could have happened if things played out a little differently. What if mom had let me have that room for my own?

And there’s another thing. Mom and dad didn’t have much of an active role in selling the old house – they left it entirely up to the realtor and just instructed her to unload it as quickly as possible. She called us today to let us know that the buyers had just finished moving in. She says they’re absolutely thrilled to have gotten it at such a great bargain. And their three children are over the moon about it.

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