Stranger on the Third Floor
by William Max Miller

What dark secrets waited for me among the shadows of the third floor?
Illustration by William Max Miller, copyright 2003.

    The third floor of my parents home on Salt Street held many compelling mysteries for a ten year old boy. Filled with dust, cobwebs, and darkness, the three top-storey rooms were used as a storage attic when we took over the house after my great-grandmother's death in 1963. Ornately framed mirrors, grotesque Victorian furniture, Art Deco knick-knacks, leather-bound books, and boxes of forgotten toys from long faded days of childhood stood in deep shadows within their gloomy walls. Such curiosities inspired many an expedition up the steep, creaking stairs to the attic, where I would search for hours among the boxes or turn the time yellowed pages of books to gaze at strange old engravings or quaint wood-cut illustrations. But the third floor contained more than antique furniture and boxes of old memories. I discovered that it held the key to my mother's mysterious past.
    The third floor had not always been an attic storage space. It had once been an apartment, with a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room. And my mother had not always been married to my father. She and her enigmatic first husband had lived a long time ago (so it seemed to me then) in the three rooms at the top of the third-floor  steps, and tantalizing glimpses of her seldom-mentioned life with this man remained hidden away, like whispered secrets, in the unused desk drawers, dressers, and closets.
    I first learned about Thomas Murdoch sometime in the summer of 1965, when I was ten years old. We had only lived in the house for less than two years, and it seemed like an unhappy place to me then. My little white dog, Lucky, had died the previous year, and I still missed her. In March of 1965, I became seriously ill with Scarlet Fever and remained bedridden for days, delirious and plagued by horrible nightmares and fever dreams. My best friends, Todd and Terry, moved away that spring, leaving me feel lonely and friendless. But most unsettling to my young mind was the ominous change that occurred in my parent's behavior. A palpable tension seemed to grow between them, which expressed itself only in their hostile glances and sullen silences when I was present. But I often heard them arguing in hushed, hissing voices downstairs after I had gone to bed. What were they fighting about? I wondered anxiously while trying to eavesdrop from the second floor hall. I could never clearly make out  what they were saying.
    The situation worsened, and I found myself spending more and more time alone, often in the attic, as though trying to distance myself from the uneasiness that troubled my parents. One day, while playing in the cobwebbed solitude of the third floor, I found an old pair of binoculars packed carefully in a wooden box. I carried this newly-discovered treasure downstairs with great excitement, and quickly hurried for the back door with my prize. As I ran through the kitchen, my mother stopped me. "Where did you find those?" she asked, a strange expression crossing her face. I explained that they had been in the attic. I was puzzled by how sad she suddenly looked as she gently took the binoculars out of my hands and held them quietly for awhile. It seemed like forever before she spoke. "These were Tom's," she finally explained. "He was my first husband."
    I remember feeling dumbfounded by this sudden unexpected revelation. " were married before?" I stammered.
    My mother must have sensed a surprise  in my voice that bordered on shock. "That was years ago," she answered soothingly. "Tom went away a long, long time ago." She handed me the binoculars and told me to go on out and play. "But be careful with them," she added as I numbly walked out the kitchen door.
    I can't explain why this brief conversation effected me so powerfully. My upbringing probably played a major role in forming such a drastic reaction. Divorce and remarriage, when they were discussed at all by my conservative family members, were always described as terrible mistakes with scandalous implications. I never dreamed my own mother had another husband before she met my father, and finding out this fact about her somehow violated my childish concept of marriage, which I believed was supposed to be a "forever after" kind of thing. But more than this, the fact that she had never spoken about her first husband, and that I had never heard the name of Tom Murdoch, even in a whisper before that day, disturbed me profoundly. It made the man seem sinister, as though he were a dark secret she had wanted to keep buried; a secret I'd accidentally stumbled upon. The tears that had momentarily filled my mother's eyes as she held the binoculars close to her breast and told me about Tom confused me. I felt a sense of guilt for having unknowingly confronted her with something capable of evoking such strong emotions. But other, more ominous feelings also began to stir inside me.  My mother seemed suddenly different, not the safe, familiar person I'd always thought she was. All excitement with the binoculars vanished, and I played distractedly in the back yard that afternoon, oblivious to the sunshine as I struggled to comprehend the meaning of this new and oddly troubling knowledge.
     The arguments I overheard between my parents, and the dismay which they caused, intensified as the oppressive, stifling days of that hot summer slowly passed. I found the idea that my mother had once loved someone other than my father to be strangely disconcerting, and gradually became convinced that this was the cause of their frequent quarrels. It further upset the safe, secure image I'd formed of my parents, and unsettling questions, each built upon a different insecurity, rose like mute specters in my mind, demanding answers, receiving none. I lacked the courage to voice them out loud, and endured the anxieties they produced in bleak solitude. Did my father know about Tom, or had my mother kept this part of her past hidden from him, too?  A shadow of doubt fell over both my parents, and I wondered if they really were who they seemed to be. If my mother had once been the wife of Tom Murdoch, did that mean she was still in love with him? Did she really love my father, or was all that just a pretence? And what about my identity? Was I really my father's son, or had my parents conspired to conceal from me the disturbing truth that I was really the child of this other man, this stranger who had lived a different life with my mother on the third floor? What if she had wanted to have his child rather than me? What if I were just second best...?
    Naturally, I began to pry into this dark, secret past, and I gradually learned some meager details about Tom Murdoch,  supplied (somewhat reluctantly, I observed) by my mother in response to my vague, hesitant questions. He had worked on the construction of the near-by Loyalhanna Dam during the Great Depression, and married my mother before leaving for a tour of duty during WWII. Stationed for several years in Egypt, he had sent her many letters bearing exotic Egyptian stamps, beautiful jewelry purchased at the Cairo Bazarre, and even several small, flat pebbles from the banks of the Nile river. My mother showed me all these things along with old, faded photographs of Tom Murdoch, who looked dapper in his military uniform while perched atop a camel in front of the pyramids and sphinx. But although she portrayed this man as a benevolent being, he always seemed like a dark interloper to me, someone whose past existence had somehow reached across the years to suddenly disturb the peaceful security of my family life.
    As my mother lost a little more of her reticence to discuss her first marriage, I began to apprehensively learn that more and more traces of Tom lingered around the house. Things I had known since earliest childhood, objects which I had always assumed belonged to my father, or grandfather, or even to one of my dead uncles, turned out to have once been his. The broken gold watch in the bowl on the parlor shelf had belonged to Tom. I had played with it a hundred times, and always wondered why my father never had it fixed or tried to use it. The overstuffed chair in the library, in which I always curled up to read Hardy Boy mysteries, had been Tom's favorite seat. He even used to wear the onyx signet ring which I had found in a box in the living room desk and had, without knowing its true history, begun to wear on my own hand, day and night. I thought the "M" in raised silver relief at its center stood for Miller, my father's name, my own name. I felt strangely chilled when I was told that it actually stood for Murdoch, and stopped placing it on my finger immediately. Wearing it seemed uncomfortably like a betrayal of my father.
    All these little revelations took place over a single summer, and my mother eventually told me more about the third floor--but only when my father was not around. I'd played there often, and, with only one or two memorable frights among its cobwebs, I had loved the quiet, almost lonely feeling of the place, and had looked forward to my excursions into that dusty realm of old memories and discarded treasures. But  now it seemed haunted and forbidding, full of awful secrets, and I began to feel like a trespasser when I climbed the old staircase and entered its shadowy rooms. I now knew that he had lived there, this strange man who had led another life with my mother, a life in which neither my father or myself had held any meaning or significance or reality.
    This unwelcome feeling grew as I realized that the rooms were still basically arranged like an apartment more than a cluttered attic. A dinner table still stood in the kitchen, by a long-unused gas stove, with dust-covered plates and silverware still set for two. Decaying boxes and rusty cans of food remained on the cupboard shelves, their familiar labels faded by the passage of the years. A man's moth-eaten business suits, dress shirts, and ties hung from hangers in the center bedroom closet, and a medicine cabinet with a mirror above a non-working sink screeched open on rusty hinges to reveal a straight razor and a can of shaving cream beside a toothbrush and a still-open tube of tooth-paste, now hard as a tomb-stone. Beside these stood a small, green glass bottle filled with crumbling pills. It was labeled "Thomas Murdoch--take one 3X daily with meals."
     Everywhere I looked I saw signs of the man who had once occupied this place, camouflaged by the more recent boxes and junk piled there since our move, but now easily detected by eyes alerted to their significance. I was surprised I hadn't noticed and comprehended the meaning of all these things earlier. Even the old maple-wood coffee table in front of the tattered over-stuffed couch in the front living room held a litter of yellowed men's sports magazines, all dated to early years of the last decade, strewn across the dust covered table top like they had just been carelessly tossed there by a bored reader the night before. Some of them still remained opened and turned over, to mark a page for that vanished reader, as though waiting for his return.
    Why had my mother kept all these things just the way they must have been back then, when he lived here? And why did she come up here so often, and stay so long, saying that she was looking for an old cook book or floor lamp, only to return downstairs empty handed with eyes red and swollen as though from crying? Did something still  remain alive for her up there, concealed among the dead relics of the past?
    I became determined to discover as much about Tom Murdoch as I could, and embarked upon a thorough search of the third floor for clues to his current whereabouts. Childishly, I half expected to find hidden love letters and cards which he still mailed to my mother from an address in one of the neighboring towns. I harbored a fear that he was still clandestinely in touch with her, perhaps plotting a return to oust my father and me. And during one of these searches, conducted while my father was at work and my mother was out grocery shopping, I made a great discovery. As I rummaged through an old dresser drawer in the third floor center bedroom, I spied a rectangular box, slightly smaller than a shoe box, near a stack of old letters and newspaper clippings. I was surprised by its weight as I  lifted it out of the drawer, and realized that it was made out of some kind of metal. It's brassy surfaces dully reflected the light from the single window in the darkened room. I laid it on the floor and tried to open the lid, but it wouldn't budge. At first, I thought the box was locked and searched along its upper edges for a catch or some other mechanism with which to open the lid. But then I noticed that the lid was held firmly in place by four screws set flush with the surface. I found this to be exceedingly curious! I reasoned that there must be very valuable things inside if the lid was kept screwed shut, and immediately remembered that Tom Murdoch  had once gone to Egypt. I knew the box was his because his name appeared engraved on a metal placard that had been attached to the lid along with dates which I took to be the years he'd been in the service. I grabbed the box and shook it, and my heart began to pound excitedly when I heard a dry, scraping, rattling sound inside. Jewels! I thought. Jewels from Egypt! I could almost see the glittering  gems, by the hundreds, which  the mysterious treasure box must contain, and remembered the screw-drivers which my father kept in a drawer downstairs, in a cabinet by the sink. I've found Tom Murdoch's hidden treasure! I thought triumphantly, and ran down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen, the metal box held tightly in my hands.
    I placed the box on the kitchen table and took one of my father's screw drivers from the cabinet drawer. Practically shaking with excitement, I began to remove the screws. I was so preoccupied with fantasies of Egyptian treasures that I didn't even hear my mother return from the store. I had two of the screws removed and was working on the third when I heard a sharp gasp, and turned to see her standing in the door to the kitchen, a bag of groceries in her arms. A look of utter dismay was on her face, and she seemed frozen in her tracks, with eyes wide open in alarm as she looked from me, screw driver in hand, to the metal box with its partially unscrewed lid on the table. "Oh my God, Bill," she moaned through whitened lips. "What are you doing with Tom's ashes?"
    For the briefest of seconds, the meaning of her words failed to register. Tom's ashes? It made no sense to keep worthless ashes in a jewelry box. Why would he want to keep...And then it hit me like an avalanche. Tom Murdoch had died. He'd been cremated, fried, burned to cinders and ashes, and put in a little box, like my friend Terry's grandmother. And he himself, the very man who existed at the epicenter of the emotional earthquake that shook my world that summer, the man I'd encircled with anxieties and fears, like the evil eye of a deadly hurricane, now lay inside that tiny metal box on the table in front of me. And if my mother wouldn't have found me in time, I would have removed the lid and plunged my searching fingers into his charred, blackened remains....
    I felt suddenly sick and dizzy. Confused emotions clawed blindly in me for expression, like a herd of frantic drowning animals in search of dry ground, but they all ran blindly into one another and kept slipping back down into the roaring black currents that surged deep within. Shock, horror, revulsion and shame spiraled out of control, forming a devastating tornado of whirling thoughts and feelings in my mind. "I'm...I'm sorry, mom," I kept stammering over and over, fighting back the flood of tears that threatened to fill my eyes. She just stood there, clutching her grocery bag like a life preserver, unmoving and pale with her eyes wide open. I finally made a dash through the back door into the yard.
    I can't remember how many hours I hid in the weeds which choked the small space between our tool shed and my aunt's garage, totally overwhelmed by a flood of feelings I couldn't understand, express, or control. Tom Murdoch was dead. I had never even considered that as a possibility, and my mother's oblique references to him as being "gone" had only led me to believe he'd left her to live elsewhere. I'd searched the attic for letters that I'd stupidly imagined he'd been secretly sending to her, letters that motivated her to spend tearful, solitary hours alone in the gloomy third floor rooms. But what I found was worse. Much worse. I now knew my mother furtively climbed those attic stairs so she could be close to him, and it seemed to me that some kind of presence must still remain in that little metal box, some lingering trace of consciousness, some invisible yet still vital wisp of being, that stirred restlessly, perhaps resentfully, in its metallic container and called silently to her. My mother had lied to me. She told me Tom was gone, but he wasn't. He was still in our house, in his metal box on the third floor. He'd been there all the time, right beside me while I searched through his things....
    The horror of this realization became mixed with a more mature guilt and shame for having pried too deeply into another person's private, intimate world, a world I was too young to understand and had no right to meddle in. I felt like I had trespassed onto forbidden ground, and feared that a terrible punishment would surely follow and that my whole world could never be the same again. When I finally came out of hiding,  in response to my parent's worried calls throughout the back yard and the neighborhood, I ran unseen to my room and shut the door, my father's screwdriver still in my hand. I'd been clenching it tightly, my knuckles whitened from the effort, the whole time.
    My parent's expressed their relief to find me in bed with a pillow jammed over my face. And I took a little comfort in the fact that my mother didn't intend to exact any parental reprisals for my terrible transgression. "Never touch that box again, Bill," she admonished me privately in a stern tone. "I've put it back. Please leave it alone." These words were the extent of her wrath. But the relief I felt at not being punished was completely swallowed up by a much greater horror, made all the worse because I couldn't share it with anyone. My mother was part of it, so I couldn't talk to her. She'd concealed the truth from me, and my feelings about her were painfully ambivalent. And I definitely couldn't talk about this with my father, because I wasn't sure if he even knew about Tom Murdoch, his wife's other husband, still secretly buried in the cobwebs and shadows above us like a splinter in a wound, reduced to ashes but still able to reach out and infect my mother with unnamable emotions from the dark corners of the third floor.
    As I lay sweating in bed through most of that stifling night, the now louder voices of my arguing parents downstairs formed a disturbing background to my fearful thoughts. I knew that
he was up there, listening, waiting. In my mind, Tom Murdoch's ashes were every bit as fearsome as an actual corpse, maybe even more so. I found the very idea of cremation to be repellant and sickening. The whole process horrified me, and in my mind I saw what it must look like for a person to burned completely to ashes. They must have thrown Tom Murdoch in a furnace or an oven, and my mother probably waited nearby while his skin turned red, and blistered, and split open like a scorched sausage in the flames. He'd sizzle and fry in his own fat for a while, and they'd have to turn up the heat in order to make all his flesh broil off and his bones bake to ashes. Then they'd open the oven door, and use a spatula of some sort to scrape what was left of the man out, like burned ground meat off a skillet, into the little box for my waiting mother to bring home. And that was what she kept hidden in a drawer upstairs, those horrible scrapings from a frying pan, those charred arms and legs and eyeballs that had once been parts of a living human being.  I could see those ashes somehow rising up from their miniature metallic coffin in the dresser drawer, like black, greasy smoke, swirling and reforming into the twisted shape of a fire-ravaged man, into a form that could descend the stairs and silently creep beside me in the darkness, into a shadow-like thing that could reach out with its ashen hands and softly touch my face with the charred stumps of its burned, blackened fingers...For what seemed like an eternity, I lay flat on my back, with wide open, sleepless eyes riveted on the ceiling, my ears straining for a sound, any sound, of furtive movement on the floors above.
    When sleep finally came that night, the first of a series of recurring nightmares began. Since my horrible discovery earlier that day, I  instinctively knew that I would shun the third floor forever, even in the daylight, as though it were a leper colony, but my dream relentlessly carried me up into the oppressive shadows of those fear-haunted rooms. I found myself playing in the dreary center bedroom, surrounded by a strange, acrid odor and alarmed by the thin wisps of smoke that began to drift in hazy circles toward the ceiling. Behind me, I could sense the dresser which held the dwarfed metal coffin, ominous and almost invisible behind a stack of boxes, like the camouflaged lair of a gigantic trap-door spider. I  heard the sound of wood sliding against wood, and turned in time to see the dresser drawer moving, as though slowly pushed open from the inside by invisible fingers that strove to conceal their stealthy labors. Thicker smoke now poured from the opening drawer, along with a withering wave of heat, and the dresser nightmarishly transformed into a monstrous incinerator which contained a roaring inferno. The dreaded metal box came into view, like a red hot, glowing ingot from a blast furnace. In a panic, I tried to bolt for the door, my heart thundering deafeningly in my ears. But the floor was covered with molten lead, and I only managed to move a single, skin-sizzling inch before that awful heat seared all my strength away and melted my terror-weakened muscles like wax in a blow torch.  The lid of the box suddenly jerked wide open with a sickening pop like the sound of crackling bones, and a form with black smoking holes for eyes and a face of smoldering cinders burst out; a hideous, flame-scarred Jack-in-the-box, which shrieked its fiery rage at me through swollen, blistered lips....
    As the final, sweltering days of that grotesque summer burned away in a feverish heat wave, both my parents began to ask me what was wrong. I couldn't tell them. They blamed the hot spell for my half finished meals and uneaten snacks, and told each other that I'd become withdrawn and depressed because my dog had died and my friends had moved away that spring. But I knew better. The real cause of my incessant anxiety remained hidden up in our dry, old attic, where a secretly smoldering ember of dread threatened every second to blaze out of control and consume my world.
    Then came a night when I had a very different kind of dream, one that didn't begin on the third floor like all my nightmares. I was at the annual family reunion, with lots of hot dogs, potato salad, and apple pie to eat, and all my favorite aunts and uncles and cousins were there. I felt happy in this different, bright dream world, surrounded by all those smiling, friendly, trusted faces, and played baseball with my cousins in the sunshine while the adults drank lemonade and took care of all the worries life might hold. Even my mother and father were in good moods and seemed to be laughing a lot and enjoying each other's company. Everything seemed back to normal, just the way it used to be, before we'd moved to my great grandmother's big, dark house: safe, secure, carefree. The happy family reunion began to melt into other good memories, and soon the garish lights, whirling rides, and illuminated Ferris Wheel of the yearly Fireman's Carnival appeared to light up the night. Some of my relatives stood in line for the Merry Go 'Round, while others knocked bottles down with weighted balls to win cute stuffed animals, or had their fortunes told by gypsies with strange decks of colorful cards. A loud calliope piped a slightly out-of-tune waltz, its sharp, clear notes weirdly harmonizing with the shouts and laughter of the crowd. And through that writhing roar of sounds, I heard someone call my name.
    I glanced around and spied a man in the distance, heading toward the blazing web of lights suspended over the carnival midway, and as I looked he called to me again and beckoned with his hand. "Over here, Bill," I heard the words clearly. "Come on! You've got to see this!" Is that my dad, I wondered? No--I caught a glimpse of my father standing with my mother in line at one of the booths beside me. The shape of the beckoning man was blackly silhouetted against the burning lights, and I couldn't see him clearly in their glare. As I  edged through the crowds and moved toward him, the man walked farther away, toward the Fun House. I suddenly thought that he must be my uncle Dale, who had taken me through the Fun House last summer, and  began to follow his retreating form more quickly. Taller adults kept milling around, blocking my view, and I zigzagged around them, often having to stand on my tiptoes to keep the man in sight. I watched him walk past the food concessions with their sizzling food and smoking grills, and saw him pause at the foot of the steps leading up to the Fun House entrance, where he turned and glanced back to make sure I was following. I still wasn't sure he was Uncle Dale, and I watched him climb the steps and stand in the dark entrance, an unidentifiable shadow. I hesitated for a second, and the man began to motion for me to follow him again. All around me were happy aunts and laughing uncles, cotton candy and kids having fun. I was surrounded by relatives. It all seemed so safe, but...The man began to wave his hand in the air, and I could see that he held two admission tickets and wanted to take me into the Fun House. I had been scared in there last year, but also had lots of thrills and fun with my uncle Dale while we jumped and yelled in momentary fright at the monster shapes and gigantic fake spiders that leaped out to startle people. The man kept waving at me, and I headed toward him again.
    I avoided a sober-faced man in a black suit and tie selling balloons and made my way past stands of big floral arrangements and a small knot of formally dressed people who stood looking oddly somber near the foot of the Fun House steps. The flowers stood around them, and they seemed strangely sad standing quietly by the entrance with their eyes turned toward the ground. They didn't seem to be waiting to get in. Funny how there wasn't a crowd of carnival goers lined up for the Fun House this year. As I begin to mount the creaky wooden stairway, the shadowy figure who waited for me at the top spoke down to me. "That's right, kid," I heard the words clearly, "Come on up. I want to talk to you." Was there an almost imperceptible undertone of menace in that voice now? Why did uncle Dale sound so creepy? I wondered. Was he trying to psych me up for the thrills of the Fun House? In the distance behind me, the siren of  one of the fire trucks that the firemen parked on display at the carnival every year began to howl, its mournful wail blending weirdly with the piping of the calliope. Was something bad happening? I wondered. But before I could turn to look, the man faded into the darkness of the Fun House and I followed him through the black, gaping entrance.
    I started to bump into invisible objects in the dark, twisting corridors. It seemed so much darker inside this year. I couldn't even see the man ahead of me now, but I knew he was there, leading me farther into the gloom. Now the other fire trucks outside began to blow their sirens and clang their bells in a jangling symphony of alarm which rose ever louder and more stridently in the night behind me. I stumbled several times and almost fell. No other people were wending their way through the lightless, empty passages for me to hold on to, and the only thing which guided my faltering footsteps was the unfamiliar voice of the man somewhere up ahead, who uttered his commands in an echoing whisper. "Turn to your left," I heard him instruct. "Now lift your feet--there's another step in front of you." I followed him blindly, sweat starting to trickle down my face. It seemed so hot inside the Fun House tonight, almost like an oven, and each halting step I took seemed to bring me farther into the intensifying heat. I turned a corner in the blackness and felt a railing on my left. I couldn't even see my feet as they probed the darkness in front of me. I felt a step, then another, and blindly began to  climb upward. "That's it. Keep coming," the voice instructed, and I cautiously mounted the stairway, wondering how the man could be so sure of his way in the pitch blackness. It got even hotter as I climbed higher, and I started to smell an odor like burning  meat. I finally reached the top, where the acrid smell of smoke filled the air and began to sting my eyes. In the distance, the calliope piped wildly now, while alarm bells clanged, and sirens wailed like banshees. I realized now, too late, that something was wrong, terribly wrong, but I knew I could never find my way  out of this place alone. Where were the rubber monsters and phony spider webs? Why were there no other people with me? A roaring, crackling sound suddenly rumbled through the Fun House and shook the floor beneath me. Now frightened and disoriented, I felt around crazily and banged into something solid. "Now reach out with your hand and feel for the doorknob," the voice commanded sharply.  In the gloom in front of me, a reddish-yellow glow suddenly ignited and flared up like a bonfire, followed a heart-beat later by a blasting wave of heat that singed my eyelashes and hair. I cringed back a step, shielding my face with one hand while frantically reaching out with the other for something to grab and hold on to for balance  "You're almost here, kid!" the voice rasped exultantly. "Just turn the knob and come on in!" Clawing and grasping blindly for anything, I suddenly felt a globe of burning fire in my hand, and heard a horrible, sickening hiss as the red-hot metal painfully seared into the flesh of my agonized fingers---
    I woke up with a spasmodic jerk, soaked with sweat and gasping for breath. I was in total, silent darkness, and it took a few seconds before it registered to my disoriented senses that I was standing. I didn't know where I was, but I knew I  wasn't in my bedroom. My right hand was extended into the inky blackness, and I was tightly grasping something hard and round. Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the gloom and began to discern familiar shapes in the faint, almost imperceptible light. In a convulsive moment of mind-wrenching horror, I suddenly realized that I was on the third floor, standing in front of the doorway to the center bedroom, holding the doorknob in my hand....
    My mother and father awoke to my screaming, and the hall light downstairs clicked on. Their running feet pounded on the steps behind me, and soon they were both there, my father waving a flashlight in his hand. "What the hell's going on?" he demanded in alarm while my mother stared wide eyed behind him. I gibbered incoherently, and dad carried me back downstairs, my mother following closely.

    The next day, I watched from the living room windows as my mother got in the car with my father, a paper bag holding the metal box with her dead first husband's ashes tucked under her arm. I'd babbled everything to them last night, all the anxieties of an entire summer rushing out between tears and gasps for breath. Beyond words, however, lay the deep-down, gut-level certainty that I'd been called to the third floor on that final night, that Tom Murdoch had summoned me from his eternal ashen repose and led me up the stairs to his center attic room for some unnamable purpose all his own. Only my wakening scream, and the hurried arrival of my parents, had thwarted his dark designs.
    After my mother buried the coffer with the ashes in the family plot at Woodlawn, a calm, relieved feeling settled on our home and things slowly returned to normal. My parent's arguments stopped, school began, bringing new friends, and that terrible summer when my house was truly haunted--if ever a house can actually be haunted--slipped into the past. I never had another episode of sleep-walking, and the stranger on the third floor, now buried and at rest, never troubled me again.

Enhanced negative of my old house in Saltsburg, PA.

    Sleep-walking (or somnambulism) is a serious problem for some people.
Here's a webpage that provides lots of data about this disorder:



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