Dust floated in aimless specks in and out of the golden light flooding in through the attic’s sole window. It was really more of a crawlspace, with a growing number of cardboard boxes among other miscellany crowding the floorboards and only a couple of square feet where one could stand up without craning the head to the side. The slightest movement between the boxes sent up another small gust of disturbed cobwebs and dust-bunnies. Leighton sneezed and stacked the newly filled box she was holding on top of another to her right, weaving her way through the growing cardboard towers.
People say that moving house is one of the most stressful things a human can do. Leighton, meanwhile, felt nothing save a numb sort of relief. You pick up everything you own, gather all the material pieces of your life, and pack them away to be used another day—if not abandoned altogether. The temptation to do so was certainly there, and it was unavoidable. The opportunity to recreate herself. Destroy the past. Rebuild from scratch. She was moving somewhere nobody knew her story or her name. Hell, she could even choose new ones if she wanted.
Except there would be at least one person in the new place who knew her. Hetty was downstairs, finishing packing up the tiny kitchen and the remnants of the living room. Leighton had given her girlfriend the easier job and undertaken the attic herself, a place she hated traipsing through on the best of days. Better herself than sweet-faced Hetty going through all this junk—mostly childhood keepsakes, relics that had belonged to her mother, and other emotional heavyweights that made Leighton’s shoulders ache. Some things were better left under their blankets of dust. And some things would stay that way. She would pretend she had forgotten them, convince herself that that old smiling photograph wasn’t mocking her out of the corner of her eye. Whoever lived in this apartment next could dispose of the leftovers themselves.
An old television was set against the wall, one of the last things not lost in the sea of cardboard. A chill crawled up her spine at the sight of it. This would be one of the things she left behind. The early evening sun cast a beam that just missed the top edge of the screen. A window-shaped square of light was able to sit on the floor in front of the television completely unbroken. Taking in the work she’d done in the past hour or so with a sigh, Leighton gave in to her impulses and sat cross-legged in the square of light, seeking the setting sun’s warmth like a cat.
A musical voice drifted up through the attic’s dangling-open trapdoor. “Leighton,” it sang.
She winced out of her reverie, stretching her neck back and around in a slow circle. “Yeah?” she called back.
Hetty’s sneakered footsteps sounded from below. “Do you need any help? Everything else’s pretty much packed.”
“No,” she said. The melancholy in her own voice prompted a wrinkled-nose cringe. The old TV sitting in front of her bared its long-dead screen without sympathy. Her reflection was dulled and ghoulish. Absentmindedly, her hands fiddled with the set’s loose cord.
A shuffle and a grunt, and then Hetty’s hands grasped the edge of the trapdoor. She heaved herself up until the top of her blonde head bounced into sight, followed by the rest of her agile body. A smirk lifted her face as she caught her breath and saw Leighton lounging in the light. “Hard at work?”
Leighton mumbled some response and stretched her arms above her head, turning her back on her girlfriend. She heard Hetty’s footsteps come up behind her, and then pause. “What’s that old TV all about? Thing’s a dinosaur,” she said.
“Never got around to selling it after I moved out of my mom’s place,” Leighton shrugged, and tried not to wince at the mention of the late woman. “But I wanted to take it with me when my uncle was clearing out our old house. It’s kinda funny—it used to scare me when I was a kid.” Her mother had been more sentimentally inclined than Leighton ever was, but she had certainly passed on a compulsive tendency for hoarding (along with a plethora of other unsavory predispositions). The abyss of boxes containing god-knows-what in the crawlspace was evidence enough of that. It was far more likely that Leighton had kept the old television set because of her own associations with it rather than in an attempt to preserve any image of her mother. As if the dead could feel the weight of such time capsules anyway.
A snicker sounded from behind Leighton’s back. “You were scared of a TV?” Hetty asked. Crinkling cardboard indicated that she’d taken a seat atop a sturdy box.
Leighton kept her eyes fixed on the cloudy glass screen. The corner of her lips twitched into a reminiscent half-smile which was reflected back at her as a grimace. “It used to turn on when I was alone in the living room and just play static. Real loud white noise for no reason. Must’ve been a broken power button or something.”
Hetty was silent, so she continued. “It was weird, though. Never turned on without touching it for my mom. And she never took me seriously when I told her about it. Just scolded me like she always would whenever I did something she didn’t like. Couldn’t have been more than ten or so years old. I pretended the TV was haunted, I guess as a way to pass the time. Have something to talk to even if it scared me, because nothing could ever scare me more than her. I don’t know.”
Still silence. Leighton broke her attention from the blank screen and swiveled around. Dozens of boxes, fading sunlight, and settling dust. No Hetty.
“Babe?” An almost-forgotten fear brought a skip to her heartbeat. “Hetty, that’s not funny. Don’t try to scare me. Come out.” There was no reply. The air was heavy and dense.
“Hetty?” Leighton stood up from the warm patch of light and tiptoed towards the trapdoor, her joints creaking with each slow motion movement.
A voice called from the floor below then, near the kitchen and far away in the depths of the apartment. “Leighton? Are you calling me?”
She felt the blood drain from her face. “Were you just up here?”
Hesitation. “. . . No?” Hetty yelled back.
Leighton swallowed with a mouthful of broken glass. She dared not to move as she waited for the inevitable.
An electric pop. Then a deafening crackle that left an ongoing ringing in her ears. She looked over her shoulder, and yes, the TV was on, black and white specks darting across the screen in an electric storm. She fought the primal urge to scream for Mother.
The trapdoor slammed shut behind her and made Leighton jump out of her skin. And then the static from the TV changed. Just as it had before.
The monotone ringing and buzzing cut out, rose and fell to different frequencies until it took the sound of a distorted radio breath. It spoke, the noise a nearly unintelligible vocal fry.
(You were scared of me?)
Leighton closed her eyes and exhaled, forcing the tension from her shoulders. “Yes.”
(Are you still?)
She could still see her reflection in the static-filled screen, despite the distance from it now. It raised a hand and waved. She shoved her own hands into her pockets. “You were like a friend. No.”
(I am not your friend. More so an ally. A business partner, if you will. Maybe you should be scared.)
“I’m not scared because you can’t get out. I thought I told you to sleep.”
A burst of static like someone breathing into a microphone. She knew she was right. It had always stayed inside the TV, even all those years ago. Ever since she trapped it in there and tried her best to forget what it had done.
(I only sleep when I do not see you. Now I see that we are moving. What are you running from this time?)
“I’m not running from anything. But you’re not coming.”
(Am I not? You have not changed at all since we last spoke.) It crackled in some morbid attempt at laughter. The light from the screen was giving Leighton a headache. (I saved you. I can do it again. From whatever it is that’s driving you away. Name it.)
She wanted to protest. No, you didn’t save me, you ruined everything, I was fine before you. But the words caught in her throat. Her nails dug into her arms. “You haven’t changed either. Don’t act like you were some great hero back then. I just want a fresh start. No more bad memories. And that means you’re not going to follow us, because I won’t pay your price.”
(I would be offended if you were to call me your hero, Leighton. You know I take great pride in my manifestations. What I did was merely a bit of fun which happened to benefit us both. Free of charge. I saw the opportunity to exercise my influence on a weak-minded person and I took it.)
Slurs and Bible passages. A cross on the mantel above the TV set. The bright red imprint of a hand up the side of Leighton’s childish face. She swallowed as she felt its phantom sting again.
Then Mother had her stroke. In the middle of one of these famous confrontations her face went slack, previous yells fading out into slurred mumbles. The woman was never able to function normally again, mostly bedridden for the next—and last—decade of her life. Leighton had cared for her as any frightened daughter would, as soon as she was old enough to afford it herself without the need for other family contributions; with the room and board fee of the nearest special needs nursing home.
The static morphed into something of a growl. (You want to reinvent yourself in this new place. I can help with that, if you take me with you.)
“There’s nothing you can do, you can’t change anything,” her voice wavered. She took slow steps closer to the TV.
(Heed my proposal: If you let me in, we could do great things, Leighton. Noble things. You will be in control—for I am too spent to perform a typical possession after laying idle for so long—but I can protect you and Hetty. Others like you. Like us. Especially from weak-minded people like Mother. We can help them.)
That familiar fear churned her stomach. But there was also a promise in its words. To become something new, stronger, able to defend both herself and Hetty. Something new and yet more Leighton than she ever had been before. She could remember her past but still live in the present without the bricks tied to her feet. She hadn’t thought it was possible.
Like a moth throwing itself into a flame. That bright, irresistible light of who she could be and what she could be. Something greater, warmer, safer. The ecstasy of burning up in the pursuit. A phoenix’s birth. A desire that she shared with the static. I can help them.
Leighton tugged a dusty extension cord out from one of the boxes to her side, plugged it in to the sole electrical outlet in the attic, and held the dangling cord of the TV in her other hand. She plugged it in.
The static bulged out of the screen. Morphed upwards, bent the light around it. The sunshine from the window passed straight through it as if nothing were there. It stopped at exactly Leighton’s height and tried its best to take on a mirrored silhouette.
A break in the static cut through where its face might be, a grotesque grin stretched up like a vortex-bent jack-o-lantern. (What do you say?) it crackled without moving its mouth.
Dreamlike, as if she were moving through molasses. She was a child again, couldn’t have been more than ten years old or so, standing beneath Mother in the living room while the TV watched from an impassive screen. Mother screaming that she would burn in Hell for her sins. Leighton crying, bleeding. And then silence as the TV cracked into static that was mirrored in the old woman’s eyes. No pupils, no whites or irises. Only static pulsing beneath aged eyelids, the smell of charred flesh, and then a thud as the woman collapsed.
Young Leighton unplugged the TV when it was over. Told it to sleep.
Everything will be okay. “I will keep us safe.” She closed her eyes. Heard its electric hum pick up a higher frequency. Her arms opened as if for an embrace. A shock like a bullet went through the center of her forehead. And then she floated, farther and farther away into blackness, the static creature receding and receding until she looked through cracks in a pane of glass screen which used to be her eyes. The static stuttered, and then leaked between the shards and was there too, floating in the dark with her. She remembered it all.
Leighton went downstairs some moments later, and pulled Hetty into a tight embrace, their hearts pounding in near-perfect time.
Ellie Roy is a 20-year-old writer from Maine, USA. She is most fascinated by all things macabre and strange, loves dogs, and has a penchant for button-up shirts with ugly patterns. Her previous publications can be found on her Twitter.