Alphonse was the eldest, and he was the first to go. Or rather, he was the first to be taken. On his twenty-seventh birthday, he entered the library to acquire a book of poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and was never seen again.
Bertholdt was the next in line to inherit, being the second son. But he, too, was claimed. He was twenty-two, and had retired early to his room for the night. There were no screams, no one heard any sounds of a struggle, the bed wasn’t even mussed. But the next morning, he was gone.
Now there was only Conrad.
He sat in the drawing room on the eve of his twentieth birthday, filled with dread. Although, he sat in the drawing room almost every evening, filled with dread. Everyone was watching, waiting to see if he would also fall prey to the Donaldson curse. Conrad was also waiting.
“Your tea, Master Conrad.”
Gerald crossed to the side table with his silver tray, placing it carefully so as not to spill.
“Thank you, Gerald, that will be all.”
This came from Emmaline, the younger sister. She was only thirteen, but ran the house like a true lady after the passing of her parents. Gerald paid his respects and retired from the room, pulling the doors shut.
“Really, Conrad, you mustn’t brood like this!” she scolded.
Conrad pinched the saucer of his cup and lifted it carefully from the tray.
“The Lord your God is a jealous God,” he muttered as he brought the cup to his lips. “Punishing the children for the sins of the father, to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him.”
Emmaline frowned. “I never knew you to be a religious man.”
“I’ve been considering it,” he admitted. “Perhaps if I am as faithful as our father was wicked, I’ll be the one to survive.”
“You’re speaking nonsense.”
“Nonsense didn’t take Alphonse and Bertholdt. The Thing did.”
To this, Emmaline said nothing. Her brother had arrived long ago at the conviction that Alphonse and Bertholdt had fallen prey to the Thing in the walls. Some called it the “Donaldson Demon”, but Conrad felt that was too pretentious.
“We don’t know that it’s a demon,” he argued. No one had clearly seen it, but Conrad, himself, had caught glimpses. As he stared at the floral wallpaper that lined the room in which he and Emmaline sat, he recalled his first encounter.
He was ten. He and the brothers had been playing Blind Man’s Bluff, and pushed the furnishings against the walls to make more room. Bertholdt was blindfolded, and clumsily chasing Alphonse across the rug. Conrad was poised atop the settee, his back against the pink roses, when he felt a prod. Something poked him at the base of his spine. When he turned, he saw a face trying to push its way through the paper. The face was quite without a nose, with four horns crowning its head. Conrad had screamed in horror, causing Bertholdt to remove the blindfold, and both brothers to run to his aid.
“There’s something in the wall!” Conrad had told them, pointing to the place where the face had manifested. But when they looked, it was gone.
Since that time, Conrad had studied the walls of the great house carefully. He spent many days inching along the paneling, tapping his knuckles against the notched wood, wondering if there would be a response. There never was. But sometimes, at night, he would open his eyes and see the face trying to push its way past the paper in the nursery. And again, he would rouse Alphonse and Bertholdt. And again, the face would vanish before they arrived.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” Conrad remarked to Emmaline as he took another sip of tea. “The Thing doesn’t want you.”
“What makes you so certain?” she offered.
“It only wants the sons,” he replied. “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.”
“Stop it, Conrad.”
His eyes returned to the roses. Those pretty pink roses, set amid pale green stripes. Row after row. Line after line.
“Verse after verse,” he whispered.
The walls were not as smooth as before. Perhaps it was their age. The stripes didn’t seem to settle in some spots. They appeared almost rotund. Conrad stood, his gaze fixated on the spot.
“Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block.”
His fingers reached out, pressing against the curve of the paper.
“You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
It moved beneath his palm. The paper swelled with motion as something scurried from his touch, and his eyes followed the swell as it passed just beneath the paper.
“Do you see it, Emmaline?!” he cried out, giving chase.
But she only screamed at him. “STOP IT!”
The Thing was there, and it was running from him. But why? What was it afraid of? Hadn’t it claimed the other two? Wasn’t he next? What made the creature so frightened?
“Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you!”
Round and round the room he chased. He pushed the tables aside, and vaulted over the chaise, but he could gain no ground. The Thing was too fast. It kept just out of his reach. Emmaline was clinging to him, now, trying to hold him back. She cried for him to come to his senses. She reassured him over and over that there was nothing in the wall. But he would not be deterred. Not when he was this close.
He charged at the wall, his body crashing against it with all the strength Conrad could manage. If he could not catch the Thing, he would crush it. Crush it’s strange, horned, noseless face.
But something was wrong. The paper wasn’t there. The little roses amid the pale green stripes. They were gone. The wall was blank. And white. And Emmaline was crying.
The doctors were gripping his arms tightly, now, pulling him back to a simple wooden chair. They had brought the jacket. He hated the jacket. His hands always sweat inside the restraints, but they always managed to put it on him.
He looked up at his sister. She seemed so sad.
“Didn’t you see it?” he asked. Emmaline shook her head.
No, no! This was all wrong! It was there! It had to be there!
Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he’d finally done it. Maybe he’d finally crushed the strange creature that haunted the walls of the Donaldson house. The strange creature that claimed the sons.
The doctors were talking to Emmaline now. They seemed sad, too.
“We’re sorry, Miss Donaldson,” they told her. “He had shown such progress.”
Emmaline nodded, and crossed to the door, placing her gloved hand on the small, metal knob. It matched the bars that filled the square window in the door’s center.
“Goodbye, Conrad,” she whispered.
He watched her go. Listened as the door creaked open. Listened as it shut with the same painful wail. She seemed so sad.
“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord will be with you.”