The house is ancient, and its two redbrick chimneys pierce the lead-coloured sky like a pair of dead fingers. We fill it with boxes from a hired white van reversed up close to the front door, and as we go in and out dry leaves scuff around us in the driveway. The house is unfamiliar, with angles and echoes that we do not yet recognise.
“Have you been up into the attic yet?” asks Vicky as I manoeuvre past the stack of boxes in the hallway.
“We need somewhere to put these when we’ve unpacked,” she says. With every new box the house shrinks a little.
I pull the stepladder out of the hired van and carry it upstairs, and I set it beneath the entrance to the attic. The entrance panel in the ceiling is stiff, which makes me think that it hasn’t been opened in some time, but with a little pressure it creaks open and I pull myself up. The attic is dark, and although the light from the entrance doesn’t penetrate far into the gloom I can make out enough to see that the space has been used as storage for years. I call down to Vicky and she brings two torches.
The torches reveal a narrow space piled unevenly with what might accurately though unkindly be described as junk. There is a full-length mirror with a baroque gilt frame. There are African shields made from animal hide. There are artisanal tools with handles smoothed by the years: a bradawl, a rasp, a hammer. It is the debris of a life well lived, a disordered array of memories lost beneath cobwebs and dust.
“Look at this,” says Vicky. Illuminated by her torch is an old wooden crate, which stands about four feet high and perhaps half that wide and deep. It seems very old, and the ancient wood looks as hard as marble. The front of the box is hinged, such that it can open outward like a door, and the whole thing is fastened shut with a brutish metal padlock.
“What do you think’s in it?” she asks.
“I’ve no idea.”
“Try one of the keys.”
I pull out the bunch of keys that the estate agent gave us, and I poke them into the padlock until one clicks home. I turn the key and slide the padlock out of the hasp. There is no handle on door of the box so I grasp the edge of the front panel and pull, but it won’t move. Then I notice the rows of metal studs thumped into its edges.
“Pass me that hammer,” I say, and Vicky lifts it from the pile of antique tools.
“Why would they nail it shut?” she says.
I work the claw of the hammer into the join and ease it backwards and forwards until, with a loud crack and what feels like an exhalation of breath, the front of the box comes loose. I pull it open, and we are greeted by the sight of something quite grotesque.
Inside the box is a large glass case, almost as large as the box itself, and inside the case is a shrunken figure. It looks like a mummy, but it is unlike any that I’ve ever seen before. The position is all wrong, for a start: it is sat upright, hugging its knees to its chest, and its chin is perched neatly upon its folded arms. There are no bandages; instead it is naked apart from a perished woollen loincloth, a couple of dull gold bracelets and a woven headdress tied with feathers made almost translucent by age. Its dead skin is the miserable grey of wet slate, and dry black fingernails protrude like chips of bark from its fingers. Worst of all is its face, from which two black pebbles stare dully out of the puckered sockets of its eyes above a collapsed nose and two desiccated lips that have shrivelled into a cruel grin.
“What’s it doing in the attic?” says Vicky, “Shouldn’t it be in a museum?”
“The guy who lived here before must have been a collector.”
“We should call someone about it.”
“Look, there’s a little plaque on the bottom of the case,” I aim the torch at it and read: “‘Atoc Capac’.”
“Is that Egyptian?”
“It doesn’t look Egyptian.”
“We should call a museum,” she says, “Get them to take it.”
“It could be worth some money.”
“It’s creepy. The sooner we get rid of it the better.”
“We could bring it out for dinner parties,” I say, but I’m only saying it to tease her. I can barely stand to look at it. The way the light from the torch gleams at the edges of those black pebble eyes seems unearthly.
“Close it,” she says, and I gladly shut the door of the box.
By evening we have unpacked the larger items of furniture and most of the kitchenware, and though there are still boxes heaped in every room it feels as though we have made progress. Vicky pours us a couple of glasses of wine and we sit on the sofa and share our plans for our new home.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m shattered,” she says eventually, then she declares that she’s heading to bed. I tell her that I’ll join her after I’ve finished my drink, and she kisses me and heads upstairs. The bare walls make her footsteps sound oddly brittle.
I finish my wine, then I head up after her. The old staircase groans as I climb it, and when I reach the landing I pause to listen to the sounds that our house makes as it settles.
That’s when I hear a kind of dry scraping noise. Every house has its own language of creaks and sighs as pipes cool and timbers relax, but this is different; this noise sounds almost like a sack being dragged across a wooden floor. I hold my breath and close my eyes: the noise seems to be coming from above me. Yes, definitely from above. From the attic.
I wait under the entrance panel for a time and listen. The noise continues, unmistakeable: scratching, scraping, a hoarse sound reminiscent of something heavy being pulled along the floor. Then it stops.
The silence is more awful than the noise. I imagine something holding its breath, trying to detect me. I wait there for a long time, silent and still, my breath caught in my chest, and I have no idea how long I would have stayed if Vicky hadn’t appeared in the bedroom doorway.
“What are you doing?” she says, rubbing her eye.
“I thought I heard something,” I say, and I suddenly realise how ridiculous I must seem.
“I’m tired. Turn the light off and come to bed.”
I do as she says, and climb into bed beside her. I hear no further noises, but I don’t sleep well.
The next morning over breakfast I ask Vicky whether she heard the noises from the attic the previous night.
“What noises?” she says.
“It sounded like there was something up there.”
“I hope we haven’t got rats.”
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t rats.”
She takes a bite of toast and chews it thoughtfully.
“When I was little an owl made its nest in our loft,” she says, “Every night it sounded like someone was stomping around on the rafters. I was terrified, I thought it was a monster. So dad went up and blocked up the hole where it was getting in.”
“You think that’s what it was?”
“I’ll take a look up there later. See if there’s a hole anywhere.”
“You should put some poison down.”
When we finish eating I take a torch up into the attic to have a look around. I poke every corner with the beam of the torch, but nothing seems any different to the way it looked the previous day. The wooden box is as we left it, but there is something about it that draws me to it, and I can’t prevent myself from opening it up and looking inside once more. Atoc Capac is just as we left him, scrawny grey limbs folded up tight and staring out into oblivion from those black stone eyes.
The silence up here is absolute, almost unnaturally so, and I realise that I can hear neither Vicky downstairs nor any birds outside. All I can see are the pebble eyes and that petrified grin, and all of a sudden this attic feels impossibly distant from all the warm and comforting places of the world. Outside of the cone illuminated by the torch the darkness seems to pulse, as though it is something alive that wants to pinch out the light. I quickly close the lid of the box and retreat back down the ladder.
“Are you all right?” asks Vicky, “You look a bit shaken.”
I tell her that I’m fine, that it’s just my eyes readjusting to the light, and she asks me if I found any holes or nests. I tell her that I didn’t see any, and she seems surprised.
“You were up there a long time,” she says.
“I suppose so, if you call ten minutes a long time.”
“You went up an hour ago.”
I look at my watch. She’s right; an hour has passed. I have no idea where it has gone.
“Anyway, guess what I did while you were up there,” she says.
“I looked him up. On the internet.”
“Atoc Capac. He was an Inca chief.”
“So what’s he doing in our attic?”
“Did it say anything about a mummy?”
“A French explorer found it and shipped it back to Paris, but it looks like he sold it almost immediately. Then it skipped between owners for a few years until it just kind of…fell off the map.”
“Well it’s back on the map now.”
“The odd thing is that no-one seems to have kept hold of it for more than a few months.”
“And nor will we. I’m going to call the museum on Monday.”
The rest of the day is lost to unpacking, and as pictures appear on walls and ornaments on window sills the house warms and begins slowly to take on something of our character. That evening we go to bed feeling for the first time that this is our home.
Before long I can tell from her breathing that Vicky is deeply asleep, but for some reason I am unable to drop off and I lie there wide-eyed in the darkness. As my eyes adjust I trace the imperfections in the walls, map the contours of the ceiling, but nothing I do to distract myself does anything to hasten the onset of sleep.
Then I hear it. The same noise as the previous night. The awful dry scraping, the dragged hessian sack.
“There’s that noise again,” I say, but as I say the words the noise stops.
“What noise?” says Vicky.
“Can’t you hear it?”
The room is silent.
“Go back to sleep,” she says, and turns over.
I lie in bed staring at a crack that runs like lightning across the ceiling, my ears sensitive to every sound. I hear every ping of metal contracting, every sigh of dry leaves on stone. I am utterly awake.
Then the noise begins again. Scraping, scuffling. Unmistakable. Right above us. I shake Vicky’s shoulder.
“Did you hear that?” I ask.
“What are you doing?” she says.
She closes her eyes and waits for whatever it is she has been woken to hear, but again, the sound has already stopped. Eventually she sniffs and rolls back over onto her side.
I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep until I have resolved for myself the source of the noise. I slip out of bed and pad onto the landing, out beneath the entrance panel to the attic. I stand there and wait, stand there in silence, barely daring to breathe. My heart thumps in my chest. And then I hear it. Once more the scraping noise comes from above.
“Did you hear that?” I call back to Vicky, but she doesn’t answer.
It doesn’t matter. I set the stepladder in place, grab a torch and climb up.
When I get up there the attic is still, and I stand in the darkness and strain to make out the noise that I am sure I heard.
For a long time it is silent, but then the noise begins. I follow my ears and swing the torch around, and the light falls on the wooden box. I hurl the lid open and fire the torch into the case, and as I do so the noise stops. The hunched little figure is perfectly still, grinning out into infinity.
I am so sure that what I’d heard was real. I begin to wonder if I might be losing my mind.
Under the glare of the torch the pebble eyes glint darkly, and in the dancing shadows that unbearable smile seems to widen. I feel light-headed, overcome by a strange vertiginous sensation as though I am tilting forwards, about to fall. I reach out to the box to steady myself, and I lean heavily against it. It is draughty up here, but I feel sweat on my forehead, on my temples. I feel dizzy. Nauseous.
My gaze falls on Atoc Capac in his glass case. He looks grotesque sat in there, folded up like a dead spider. Then I realise that the door to the case is wide open. Did I open it? I don’t remember opening it.
I feel suddenly faint. The strength in my legs drains away and I begin to tip forwards, begin to collapse towards the mummy. I reach out to stop myself and as my finger makes contact with the papery skin of his forehead there is a flash of light and what feels like a clap of thunder, then everything goes dark.
When my vision returns it takes me a moment to regain my bearings. I am still in the attic, but my view has shifted; the entrance panel in the floor that had been behind me is now in front of me. I must have turned as I fell. I try to move my head, try to get to my feet, but I can’t.
“What are you doing up there?” shouts Vicky, “Is everything all right?”
I try to answer her, but I am unable to make a sound. My throat feels as though it is packed full of sand.
Then I hear myself reply.
“Nothing,” says my voice, from somewhere nearby, “Everything’s fine. I’ll be right down.”
Then I see myself appear in front of me.
Only it can’t be me.
The imposter smiles curiously and reaches out to a point just beyond my vision, then he closes in front of me what I realise is the door to a glass case.
At this I understand what has happened.
I try to stand up, to reach out, but my limbs will not respond. The folded grey arms just visible are utterly lifeless.
“You’re not messing around with that mummy, are you?” calls Vicky.
“Just locking it up,” says whoever is inhabiting my body, “I’ll call the museum tomorrow.”
He smiles again, then he reaches out and closes the door of the box. I try to move, I try to call out, I try to scream, but I can make no sound. The light from his torch slivers and then disappears, and in absolute darkness I hear the click of a padlock, then footsteps, then nothing.
This piece was written for the Tunbridge Wells Writers Hallowe’en Fright Night event (which should have been called Write Fright Night or Tunbridge Wells Frighters if you ask me).
Atoc by Simon John Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.