Justin Krall

The May Editor's Pick Writer is Justin Krall

Please feel free to email Justin at: emptyshadowbox@gmail.com


by Justin Krall

It’s a unique feeling to wake early in the morning with the sun. It’s perhaps just the contrast with the nighttime coolness, but the rising sun always feels the warmest to me, and, knowing that much of the rest of the town is still asleep, I feel like I’m the only person on the entire planet. It’s just me and the singing birds.

I’m listening to those birds as I lie on my back in my cloth pajamas that were too small for me when I was nine, and now I’m ten. My skin feels my clothes and tingles, the way it does whenever I have a cold. Despite the somewhat frigid morning, my blanket is a heap at my feet. Suddenly, I throw my legs over the side of the mattress, bend forward and vomit my dinner onto the carpet.

With my stomach emptied, I sit there until I can no longer tolerate the sickly smell of the acidic pond between my bare feet, and I slowly and shakily rise to a stand. I cross my bedroom, still mostly unfurnished, and through my tall door into the hall.

Sunlight shines through the windows and is casting warm, orange squares on the carpet, but everything else is still partially trapped in dark. Like my bedroom, the hall is still mostly empty. Only a towering, mahogany grandfather clock stands at the very end beside the spiral staircase and against the balcony that overlooks the entryway. With one hard push, even I could send it over the railing and to its death.

The clock’s face is a creamy white with ornate, stiff black hands. Below the face and behind decorated glass, a gold pendulum swung back and forth like a metronome, slow and enchanting. I watch it sway as I walk down the hall.

I pass by the clock and laboriously descend the stairs one step at a time. On the main floor, I walk through an awkward maze of furniture, passing the couch that, for some reason, is in the dining room, and into the master bedroom.

A Beatles song is playing inside from my mother’s record player on the floor, but it’s an old vinyl and the track continually scratches then skips or repeats. The bedroom has several of the moving boxes scattered about. I start across the room, but my foot catches on one of the boxes and makes a sound.

Fearfully, my mother’s voice yells from the bathroom.

“Who’s out there?”

“It’s only me.” I say, “I’m sick again.”

I continue through the open door and find my mother curled up in a full bath, covering herself with her hands and with eyes bulging. When she sees me, she exhales and lets her hands fall.

“What is it?” she asks curtly, like I meant to scare her.

“I’m sick.”

She silently cups a hand to her ear and leans out of the porcelain tub, dripping onto the floor, so I step closer and repeat.

“I don’t feel well.” I say, “I threw up in my room, near my bed.”

Her nose scrunches up, smelling the bile on my breath.

“All right,” she sighs and sinks a little in her bathwater, “I won’t make you do any schoolwork today. Go wash up. Brush your teeth.”

I leave her to enjoy the rest of her morning bath (while she still can). I climb the staircase, which has now become Everest, and, by the time I reach the top stair, I’m heaving. I start toward the hall, but I stub my pinky toe on the leg of the grandfather clock. I fall to the floor with my fingers gripping my numb foot.

I curl up on the carpet, breathing through clenched teeth. The pain subsides shortly, but I lay there a little longer until my eyes find the pendulum of the clock just beside me. It drags back and forth and my eyes follow it. Then, suddenly, as it swings to either side of its glass cage, it picks up speed, swinging faster each oscillation until it is nothing but a gold blur.

Afraid, I run into the restroom and slam the door, leaning against it as I catch my breath. When I eventually am able to slow my breathing, I reopen the door and peek out it at the clock to find that the pendulum now swayed at its correct pace again. I decided that the clock was only reacting to my accidental kick and my fear turns to guilt and I hope that I didn’t break the old thing.

I wash my face with cold water then gargle some to rinse out the lingering taste of barf. I then sit on the toilet to pee, as I am too weak to stand. Other than the trickling sound of the pee below me, there’s a strange noise, like movement, echoing from behind. I turn only to see the bare wall.

The upstairs is separated, partially, with a storage scuttle attic, right on the other side of the wall behind me, that connects to a larger space above the upstairs. The realtor used this as a selling point, suggesting that it could be made into more rooms someday, unknowing that my father, being an inveterate collector, would use all of that space to store his old and rare items. The movers, however, shouldn’t be back today and my father is at work.

Facing the wall and staring at it, I waddle away from the toilet and slowly pull my pants back up. After a moment of mental debate, I slide beside the toilet, cup my ear to the wall and listen like a bank robber hearing for the click as he turns the dials on the vault door. At first, there is nothing, but then, very faintly, there is something: a breathy, whispering voice.

I jump away. My heart is racing as I backpedal and gape at the talking wall behind the toilet with a combination of fear and bewilderment. While I can’t make out any of the words being spoken, they are definitely words, only too muffled to be understood.

But I am sure of something.

There is someone in the attic.

I scramble down the hall, nearly falling over with dizziness, and go into my bedroom where I hurriedly slide my bare feet into my new red Converse sneakers. From my closet I retrieve a hardly used, heavy wooden baseball bat.

By the time I’m back in the hall, I’m drenched in sweat.

With the bat resting on my right shoulder like a lax hitter, I walk down the hall again, back toward the watchful clock at the other end. Its pendulum is still swaying slowly, as it should be. I pass it by and mutter an apology to it.

Downstairs I hear my mother’s music echoing from out her room, though from here it sounds like a dreary and haunting whale’s song. I go to the laundry room, open the door into the garage and very warily enter. It’s chilly inside, giving me goosebumps.

The garage is fairly empty, with just a few more boxes on the epoxy floor, the mover’s extension ladder leading up into a rectangular hole in the ceiling. When I reach the metal ladder, I find that I am afraid; deathly afraid.

As I stare up, the ladder only grows longer, taller, more distant, more deadly. I chew my lip and force myself to step onto the first rung and grab onto the fourth with my right hand, my left carrying the bat. I carefully ascend one rung at a time. I keep my eyes upward into the lightless hole.

“Don’t look down.” I say to myself like a mantra, “Don’t look down.”

But I don’t listen to myself. Halfway up the cold metal rungs, I look down. The floor of the garage is miles below me, like I’m looking down from the top of a skyscraper, and my muscles tense up, freezing me in place.

I begin to uncontrollably shake, making the ladder clamor under me. I force myself to look upward again, and despite my trembling, I jerk my hand from the rung then reach for the next.

Very slowly, I continue my ascent until I’m encased in blackness, and I pull myself up onto the barewood floor of the attic. I crawl away from the deadly hatch and try to fight my hyperventilation.

It’s a little warmer in the attic. The air, though, is stuffy and thick and I have to breathe in small huffs, which makes it even harder to calm down. Eventually I’m able to stand, though hunched over to not hit my head on the low beams, and I find the cord for the hanging light. With a tug, it illuminates a lone, orange bulb.

The attic looks like a secret antique shop. There’s lots of old, rickety furniture, but there isn’t enough to perch all of the miscellaneous knick knacks and trinkets on top of, so many of them are set on the floor, some even resting precariously on the connecting beams that hold up the roof. The light, offset above the terrifying hole, casts between the many items to create weird shadows of varying shapes all around me.

I grip the bat with both hands and begin my search.

The plank boards beneath my red sneakers whine with every step. If there is someone up here, they’ve already heard me.

A little ways further and I’m able to straighten up. Looking upward at the underside of the roof peaks, I can see a profusion of sharp nails poking downward like a booby trap and shining silver from the light. I continue forward, passing by the many pieces of my father’s collection. Everything is still and frozen, like they want to be that way, like they’re all eagerly ready to be left forgotten up here for a long, long time.

I become suddenly aware of someone watching me. I snap my head to look and I find, peering over the top of an old dresser, the make-upped face of a grinning clown. His eyes are beady black dots that follow me from above his cherry nose and toothy smile. His paint is chipped and faded. He’s old and decrepit like everything else up here.

I reach the end of the straight path and arrive before a small, wood plank staircase that leads into the upper portion of the attic, which has no light and is nothing but a black abyss. I climb the few stairs and squint into the dark. It’s impossible to see anything, but I can hear something. Echoing from deep in the blackness, there’s a thick, raspy and panting breath.

I squeeze the bat in my hands, ready to swing, and I step onto the top plank of the stairs, creating a loud creak that echoes through the hollow void. The breathing stops. The boards, somewhere ahead, somewhere in the dark, are whining under someone else’s steps. They’re coming right for me.

In a panic, I drop the bat, turn on my heel and run back the way that I came, nearly hitting my head on the low beams. Behind me there are struggling, limping steps, following in chase.

I reach the ladder and scramble down the rungs. At the bottom, my foot catches on the leg of the ladder and brings the whole thing down with a loud crash. I burst through the garage door without looking back.

I find my mother in my room, sponging at the carpet near my bed. I try to tell her what happened, but she is too busy to give me her full attention. She ignores me as though I don’t exist. Later that day, when my father comes home from work, I try to tell him too. Like my mother, he ignores me.


Days pass. I abandoned my efforts to make the intruder in the attic known to my parents. But I know that whoever it is, is still up there.

It’s morning when I leave my bed for the bathroom to vomit, this time, into the toilet. Having not really eaten in the last few days, there isn’t much that spills into the toilet bowl other than the water I was trying to keep down.

I flush and I’m about to leave, but instead I slide beside the toilet and put my ear to the wall. I listen for a long time, but there is nothing. I know that is not proof.

I leave the bathroom and go to my room. I put on my red Converse sneakers. I don’t have the bat to defend myself this time. Perhaps the person is gone now, but I need to make sure. I just need to know.

With plenty of effort, I go into the garage and find the ladder as I left it on the floor. I grab its middle and, with lots of struggle, I lift it up and barely prop it into the hole in the ceiling, the top legs just hardly touching the lip of the hatch.

I climb the ladder. This time I don’t look down. The light is still on. At the top, however, I’m feeling brave in my illness-caused delirium, and I reach again for the light’s cord, tug it and absorb the attic in total darkness.

Hunched over, I make my way toward the back of the attic, toward the makeshift stairway, toward the dark that hid the intruder. The smell is different than before. While the intrinsic musty smell of the antiques is still there, it’s eclipsed now by a fetid stench that grows stronger with each squeaky step through the attic. I reach the wood stairs and find the bat left abandoned before the first step. I don’t bother picking it back up.

I look up the stairs and into the lightless dark of the upper attic, seeing nothing, like I’m staring into a light-trapping black hole. Though I should be, I’m not scared as I climb the small stairs.
By squinting, I’m able to see mountains of pink fiberglass insulation that surround the middle of the long storage space, creating a valley between them, but I don’t see anyone.

The smell is now nearly overpowering, choking my breath that is already stifled. I arrive at the end of the valley only to find nothing. Sure that the person must be up here somewhere, I start to dig through the fluffy, cotton candy insulation, which is a lot of work for me, and I’m panting raspy and thick sounds.

Suddenly, I hear a creaking of someone approaching from behind.

I snap my head back toward the way I came, and I find a small figure watching me from across the upper attic. A person stares for only a moment before turning and sprinting away. As quickly as I can, I chase after him. He beats me to the ladder by a long ways and they hurry down it.

I try to call after him, “Wait!”

The ladder falls with a deafening crash.

I reach the hatch and look down at the floor far below and the ladder that lay collapsed again. I quickly grow terrified at the sight of the steep drop and I turn away. My heart racing inside me, I sit on my knees and run my fingers through my dirty hair. My eyes are wide and I’m crying in panic when I hear a trickling sound echoing in the attic.

I rise and gaze with wet eyes past the maze of furniture, figurines and mechanisms at a pipe that stuck out from the wall. The wall is shared with the upstairs bathroom. Someone was using the toilet.

I hurry across the attic, balancing on the beams that run along the floor, and I pass a dead rotary phone, its plastic face broken and its guts exposed, sitting with its receiver lying beside it like a mourning friend. At the wall, where the pipe is still sloshing fluid, I cup my hands to the sides of my mouth.

In my loudest voice, I scream “Help! The ladder fell!”

But the voice is as it always is: nothing more than a murmur. Born largely mute, this is the best that I can do. My voice is strong and loud in my head, but when it leaves my lips it is only just a whisper.

The trickling sound stops, but there’s no guaranteeing that the person heard me. I sigh and leave the wall. I sit in an empty corner of the attic and cry with weak, pained sobs.

Through my crying, I come to a sudden realization. The hanging light is on. It glows a dull orange above me and the rest of the collection and sways slightly, back and forth. I stare at it unblinkingly, like a blind boy staring into the sun, and I finally, gravely understand.

I get back to my feet. I numbly retrace my steps back to the stairway and ascend it once more to the upper attic. In the blackness again, I walk through the valley between the pink hills and, through the dark, I finally find what I was looking for: a pair of red Converse sneakers sticking out of a mound of insulation.

I hurry over and dig at the mountain until I uncover my own stiff body, curled in a fetal position and already beginning to decay.

Justin Krall is a young writer from Arizona who is still learning and developing his voice. He is currently working on the fourth draft of his first novel and distracting himself with short, weird tales just like this one. To keep updated on new stories and more, you can follow Justin on twitter: