Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Much like the details of his life, the cause and manner of John’s grandfather’s death had been a matter of much secrecy and speculation. Rumors had sprouted and cast their seed like weeds, until all whispers of truth were washed away in a flood of conjecture. The executors of his estate had glided in; liquidating assets, settling debts, and, perhaps most importantly, buying privacy.
Many of those involved were suspected of taking bribes. Neighbors of the local coroner watched from their bay windows with pursed lips as construction began on his home extension. When the sheriff’s daughter rode off to her first day of private school, it was accompanied by many raised eyebrows and side-long glances. Nevertheless, secrets remained such as the old man’s fortune was picked clean to the bone and left to bleach in the sun. When the dust settled, all that remained was a massive, unoccupied estate on the edge of the woods. Passersby took note over months as its forlorn for-sale sign slowly faded.
When John thought of his grandfather, feelings of anger and resentment burned in his brain. He had no relationship with him, nor did he have the opportunity to share in his opulent lifestyle. For a man of means, he had done shockingly little to support his family. The extent of their resemblance was that John, much like his grandfather, had a desire for wealth and an aversion to people. So far, he had succeeded only in the latter. John lived alone in a small, dark apartment, existing in limbo and on the verge of eviction. Life had been as unkind to him as he had been to others.
He was not unaware of his grandfather’s death, nor was he sorry to hear of his passing. He had called lawyers, left messages, and finally got in touch with a woman who was able to verify that he was not a beneficiary of any assets. The dial tone had echoed in his head as his attention fell once more to the final notices piling atop his counter.
It was a news segment on the unsold estate that set the rusted gears of John’s head in motion. As the newscaster delivered their lines and the camera panned across the grounds, he envisioned himself looking down from one of the great windows. The idea intoxicated him; energized him, making his head spin.
The next morning, he packed his bags. The hissing of the gas stove was punctuated by the front door shutting behind him. On the counter, a pile of bills slowly burned.
It was not hard to find the house, nor was it hard to break inside. To John’s surprise, the house was functional and still sparsely furnished. It was apparent that items of significant value had been removed, but what remained could still be exchanged for more money than he had ever had at one time.
Days of exploration yielded many items of promise. The house itself was massive, with long, dark hallways and stale air that tasted like old leather. It was at the end of one such hallway that John came upon the record room.
The room was small, lit only by the sun filtering through a single curtained window facing the woods. Peeling wallpaper was yellowed from years of cigar smoke, with white rectangles suspended like ghosts on the walls where picture frames once hung. Littered across the hardwood floor were vinyl records coated in a layer of thick dust that puffed in all directions with each footfall. What caught John’s eye was an old record player sitting in the corner. It was made from a rich, dark wood with ornate carvings and garnished with embossed metal. A brass horn flowered up and out from its base, and a hand crank sat ready at its side. On its turntable laid a record of such a dark red that it was nearly black. The red ridges and grooves of the vinyl gave John the impression of blood-caked hair.
He knew that the record player must be worth something as an antique, but the price it would fetch would depend on whether it could still play. Carefully, he moved the needle to the edge of the record and gave the crank a few turns. The horn released a disembodied shriek that made him flinch as the turntable twisted to life before falling into static. There was a pause. Then, from the static came a woman’s frantic whisper.
His stomach sank and his breath caught in his throat as the desperate hiss of her voice crackled through the room.
“There’s a finger in the attic. There’s a finger in the attic. There’s a finger in the attic. There’s a finger in the attic.”
The whisper repeated with increasing urgency for what seemed like an eternity until the turntable came to a halt. With the hair on his arms raised, John tossed the record aside and picked up another, replacing it on the turntable and giving the player a few cranks. This time, a big band burst forth with rich, full-bodied tones. Letting out a nervous sigh of relief, John silenced the record and continued his search.
Eventually, that search would bring him to the attic.
The attic could be accessed by a pull-down staircase lodged in the ceiling. As John’s head crested the floor of the pitch-dark, cavernous room, he felt vulnerable; at the whim of the unknown. Panning a flashlight across the void comforted him. The light fell on bare walls and a barren floor. It was after sundown, and John had every intention of calling it a night as he descended the staircase with disappointment, when a loud bang from above, as if someone had struck the ceiling with a hammer, shocked him into falling down the remaining steps.
Panicked and furious, John picked himself up off the floor and slowly ascended once more. An eerie stillness fell as he pulled himself up and over into the room. Again, his flashlight panned across the attic. There could be no doubt he was alone as he was met as before with chilly silence. Then, in the beam of his headlight, he saw it; a small sparkle of light in the darkness. Moving closer, its source fell into view. There, on the floor, lay a massive diamond ring. With his light aimed down upon it, the gem splashed light across the room like shattered glass.
In the elation of the discovery, it took him a moment more to register that the ring was not alone: it was worn on a pale, severed finger.
Even as chills trickled down his body, John stood with his beam fixed down, frozen in thought. How had it gotten there? How long had it sat there? Before his nerves could get the better of him, he reached down and carefully picked up the finger using the sleeve of his shirt. Through the fabric, the finger almost felt soft to the touch. Disgusted, he slipped the ring from the finger and into his pocket. After a wary pause, he decided to leave the finger where he found it, dropping it to the ground with a thud and hurrying back down to the floor below.
John returned to the record room and immediately started searching the floor for the red record. Had it really told him about the finger? Had it led him to the ring? And who was that whispering woman? His flashlight fluttered nervously across the room as minute after minute passed by, and still he could not find it. But there it was, finally, nested in place on the record player’s turntable. Had he misremembered taking it off, or had he forgotten putting it back on?
He took a deep breath and gave the crank one turn, two turns, three turns. Again, the record player screeched to life and fell into static. John leaned into the horn and listened for the woman’s whisper.
“THERE’S AN ARM IN THE ICEBOX!” a man’s voice bellowed from the horn. “THERE’S AN ARM IN THE ICEBOX! THERE’S AN ARM IN THE ICEBOX! THERE’S AN AR-!” The record scratched as John knocked the needle away. Breathless, his heart pounding, John put his back to the wall and shined his flashlight around the room and through the doorway. There was no movement or sound except the distant chirp of crickets. Dust lazily fell through the beam of his light.
In his gut, he knew that he should wait until morning to go looking for the icebox, but in his pocket, the ring began to feel heavier and his breath began to calm. The excitement of the find emboldened him, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was meant to find that ring. Maybe, with some luck, there was more wealth left for him to find. The answers laid somewhere below him in those dark halls.
His search took him through room after room, hallway after hallway. John did his best to keep his flashlight out of sight of the windows, holding it low to the ground and toward the interior of the house. Through this lens, the house looked quite different. Shadows fled before him and edged past him into the unknown.
Minutes after midnight, John finally discovered the icebox hidden in plain sight in the parlor. The room was nearly empty, save for an old chandelier above and a broken chair lying on its back near the fireplace. In the back of the room, the icebox sat with its back to the wall, looking much like a big, antique chest of drawers. Upon closer inspection, John realized that the doors were made of metal and cold to the touch. For the first time, he noticed the fog of his breath clouding the air.
John tensed as he reached for the icebox’s latch. Part of him feared that there may be nothing to find – that this had all been a fluke. Another part of him, one that he could not repress, feared that he may find what the record had promised. He was met with a surprise when the door creaked open. As if it had only just been stocked, the old ice box was filled top to bottom with large bricks of ice, each the size of small logs. With freezing, numb hands, John emptied it brick by brick by brick until there was nothing left inside. No arm, no treasure. Just an empty metal box. Remembering how he had missed the ring the first time around, he very carefully felt around the edges for any seams or secret panels. He heaved the ice box forward and checked behind it, under it, all around it. Nothing.
Nothing, that is, until his flashlight turned to the growing puddle of water on the floor. There, within one of the melting bricks, was the outline of a man’s arm from hand to elbow. Conspicuously missing was the ring finger on the frozen hand. John had no doubt where the finger could be found, but wondered why the man’s finger had been discovered wearing a woman’s ring. Did it belong to the woman whose voice was on the record?
Still, before the ice had even fully melted, it was clear that the record had brought him another gift. Around the wrist of the arm was a luxurious gold watch. Through the ice, John could see the second hand making its journey around the watch’s face.
The watch band felt ice-cold on his wrist as he made his way back to the record room. Like the finger, John left the arm where he’d first found it, packing it back in with ice to stave off the stench. Once inside, he closed the door behind him with a long creak. His heartbeat pulsed in his stomach as once more, he moved the needle to the record and gave the player several cranks. John took a step back and waited. As before, a screech followed by static crackled from the horn.
Seconds passed, then minutes. John waited with anticipation as his gold watch marked the passage of time. Suddenly, from the record player, came a thump, then the voice of a little boy who spoke in a slow, uncertain voice.
“Somebody’s laying in th-the woods,” the tiny voice mumbled. “Th-They won’t wake up. They won’t wake up… They won’t wake up…. They won’t wake up….They won’t wake up…. They won’t…”
The record slowed to a stop, warping the voice into a deep drone. In the silence, John felt an overwhelming urge to search the woods. The ring weighed in his pocket as if beckoning him down the stairs. The watch’s ticks grew louder. “Go. Go. Go. Go,” they urged. Terror echoed somewhere from the back of his mind, urging him to search in the morning, but he couldn’t wait another second. “Go. Go. Go. Go.”
He made his way down the dark hallway, down the grand staircase, through the black, empty rooms of the first floor, and out the rear entryway. As he crossed the overgrown lawn, a dark wall of trees loomed up to meet him. Suddenly, John’s shadow loomed up before him and the woods lit up. From the mansion’s drive, a police car’s spotlight was fixed on his back. John turned around and shielded his eyes, but the blinding light wouldn’t subside. Without hesitation, John pushed his way through the brush and sprinted into the woods.
Neighbors had called in a little after midnight when a flashlight was seen through a second-floor window. The sheriff had been dispatched to investigate, but by the time he arrived, the house was as dark and quiet and dead as ever. He was preparing to leave, when, across the grounds, he saw the figure of a man stumbling toward the woods. The sheriff put his high beams on and trained his spotlight toward him.
Even from afar, it was obvious the man was injured. Blood soaked his shirt and jeans, and when the light fell on him, he raised up what remained of his own severed arm before lurching into the woods. The sheriff radioed for backup, but was met only with static. From somewhere in the woods came a disembodied shriek.
A search of the house the next day told a bizarre story. Drops of blood trailed around the house and led to the attic where a man’s finger was found. In the parlor, police found a large pool of blood and a freshly-severed arm in an old ice box. This much larger trail of blood led to an old room full of records and back down again, leading investigators out the door and to the edge of the woods.
The conclusion of the forensics team was that the degree of blood loss was fatal without medical attention, but strangely, searches of the woods came up empty. After several days of searching with dogs, helicopters, and volunteers, investigators were forced to give up the search. Wherever their John Doe was, there was nothing more they could do for him.
Only the sheriff knew just how similar the circumstances of death were to those of the estate’s previous owner, but his lips were sealed.