He’d gone mad.
That’s what they said about him. Of course, most folk didn’t really know what happened to Frank that winter, except that he had lost his job as caretaker of the old mill. After that, things in his life just seemed to go south; first his job, then his pride, and then his wife. Mrs. Sutherland had left the comfort of home, and headed to the city to stay with her sister. Before she had even stepped a foot out of her house, however, the gossip and rumors were already spreading to the outskirts of Applecroft. People said that she was leaving Frank for good this time, and that it was about time, too. Some said that Frank was having an affair with a local school teacher, though she was much too young for old Frank, and besides she was far too pretty. Some even said that Frank had begun to lose his mind. They said they had seen him on several occasions wandering around the town square with a bemused, and yet confused look on his face. When approached, he would shake his head and head off in the opposite direction, mumbling under his breath and shoving his hands into his pockets. They said his eyes burned with intent, and seemed to be hiding something horrible and frightening underneath them, though nobody could quite decide what that could be.
Whatever the reason behind it, Mrs. Sutherland left the town of Applecroft, and Frank was now left alone in their small home near Oak’s Grove. With no job to occupy his time, Frank often took to long walks to keep his legs warm and his mind busy. Often, he would trudge up to the old mill, and sit quietly beside the pond nearby and attempt to fish. He never caught anything, of course…but he enjoyed the silence and comfort of isolation near his old charge, as if the old mill had become a quiet friend. On occasion, Frank would walk along the old fence and try to mend any breaks in the wire, for nothing more than to keep the area looking respectful, even if the town had all but forgotten about Oak’s Grove pond.
It was on one such occasion, while he was mending a particularly taunt and frisky piece of barbed wire on the southern side of the pond, that Frank Sutherland had heard it. He stopped what he was doing, and cocked his head to the side, listening. No other sound pierced the quiet, save for the quiet trickling of the pond, as the wind blew across the water. It did not take Frank long to go back to his business, and he set his mind back on the fence wire before him, and concentrated on the repairs.
Then, he heard it again. This time, he was sure he had heard it. There was no mistaking that sound, to be sure…but where was it coming from? He turned his gaze towards the pond and the tree, but saw nothing there. Then, as he turned to look up at the old mill, the quiet sanctuary of the pond was shattered by the frantic and terrified screaming of a woman. It seemed to be coming from the top of the mill, and as Frank gazed up there he caught a glimpse of a woman in one of the broken windows. Even though he was not able to make out anything more, he was certain it was the woman he could hear screaming, and set out to help her any way he could.
His old, stiff legs carried him across the snow towards the mill, and each breath he pulled into his lungs felt cold and sharp. As he neared, the screaming became louder, and more hysterical. His chest was heaving up and down now with effort, but still he pounded through the snow, towards the mill. He was right at the door when the screaming became louder than ever. My God, thought Frank, what is happening up there? He ripped open the old wooden door, and flung himself inside, instinctively looking around for signs of trouble, but there were none. As he reached the stairs, the screams above him continued, almost as if they were coming from a record that had become stuck and was now repeating the same parts over and over again. He climbed the stairs, and his heart pounded within his chest. He wasn’t sure why, but Frank had the idea in his head that if he didn’t stop right now and head home, he would surely be harmed by whatever was up there. He tried to shake the thoughts out of his head, and thought again of the poor woman who was obviously in great peril. As suddenly as he thought this, however, the screaming stopped. Frank stopped, too and listened, his breathing fast and raspy. He heard nothing above him at all, anymore. The old mill groaned, as it usually did, and Frank listened even more intently for signs of life above him. Surely he hadn’t been imagining that, had he? It was impossible…there was a woman screaming above him, only 10 more steps and he would be in the mill attic and face to face with whatever had been making the noise.
He decided to continue upwards, and investigate. Perhaps it was some teenagers from town, trying to scare him? Ever since he had lost his job and Edith had gone to live with her sister, people had started talking about him like he was crazy. As he made up his mind, he found that he could not move his leg. For whatever reason, Frank was afraid to go up there. Every fiber of his being told him to just turn around and run. Run down the stairs and out the door, and head straight home and never look back. He did not move, though…he simply stood there frozen, and listened. His heart began to beat harder in his chest, and his breathing quickened. He had to leave, he had to get out of there.
Then, he heard it. It was laughing…but it was not laughter of joy or fun. It was sick, evil sounding laughing, and it was close. Right above him, in the attic; ten more steps and he would be staring at this person laughing at him. Then the laughter changed screaming again; more high pitched and frantic, it chilled him and make his stomach drop. He knew it was time to leave, but still he could not move. Then, as quickly as it had started, the screaming once again subsided. Silence filled the old mill, and Frank felt more alone than ever. He listened once more, trying to decide whether or not to continue up the stairs. Suddenly, he felt his body go cold and his hands began to shake as he felt hot breath on the back of his neck and then a high-pitched shrill behind him, as if there was someone standing on the very step behind him, screaming in his ear. With a sense of true panic and fear, Frank bounded up the stairs, yelling in fright and confusion. He reached the top of the stairs and charged into the attic, ready for anything. The screaming behind him was following him, yet he could not bring himself to look at it. He knew if he looked at it, he would die. He headed towards the center of the room, and stopped in his tracks. Whoever was chasing him had stopped screaming, and he no longer felt like he was being pursued. Slowly, he gathered his courage and turned around, trying to find the will to see what was behind him.
The room was empty. The blades of the windmill groaned and creaked outside, and the wind blew into the room, chilling him. Frank turned around again, and saw nothing…the attic was empty. He breathed softer now, and wiped his forehead with the back of his gloved hand. He had no idea what was happening, but he knew he had to get out of there; something bad was there.