The Third

by Nicholas Barner

Cole had a bad feeling about the Third. He moved quietly to the bathroom. It was two o’clock, and the inn was dark. A normal time to see it.

Door’s shut—that’s odd. Dark night and sweetie’s asleep. The Third was in there. He knew it. Cole slowly opened the door. Undefined gray shapes lurked behind. Towels, soaps, sink, claw tub. Moon in the mirror. He went inside. Nothing.

Still dark though. Cole thought the Third must be small. In someplace like the bathroom, The Third would be slunk to the corner, knowing it was close to getting spotted. Or it would be on the floor, lying on the bathmat doing something screwed up.

The curtain was drawn open in the tub, just like Millie insisted. “Mold grows,” she said, “in the wrinkles.” Cole looked behind it. The Third was not there either. It was never in the bathtub. No use searching the whole house. Not tonight. Too many times down that road. Sweet Millie comes out, half-awake, and there’s Cole in the kitchen with a flashlight, pantry open. No good.

“Go back to bed,” she’d say. “Try and get some sleep.”

Not good. Not helpful. Cole hadn’t told Millie about the Third. There were reasons it would scare her. He returned to bed, and the feeling stayed.

In October—primo leaf peeping season—Cole and Millie closed on the two stories, attic, and root cellar of the old Alewife Inn, right on Main Street, needing a remodel. Next March, the upstairs was finished. Downstairs was getting there. Plywood and bare studs were showing. Wires sprung from the drywall holes. Cole was working on it. Anyway, they were on track. Summer was not the big push. All about the autumn. Bright foliage, top-down car rides, maple candy, apple bobbing. Bring the kids or not. All Cole and Millie had to do was cook flapjacks and change the bedding. The money took care of itself.

Millie was born in a small Vermont town named The Cut-Through, so she felt totally at home far away from the hustle and bustle. She lacked remodel skills so instead worked at the library. By March, she had two friends. One was the niece of the prior Alewife owner. The other seemed always to be judging Cole, and she was named Sister.

Cole was not like Millie at all because he was from Toronto. Cole built a cabin with his granddad when he was a teenager, so he had solid construction chops for remodeling. Nonetheless, the city was in his blood. Country people seemed to him like characters in an eerie painting. Cole knew the guy at Ace pretty well, and there was a guy who sometimes called him up for beers. But that guy was named Jeb, and the whole town had already written Jeb off.

Cole and Millie lived alone in the Alewife. That was the deal until tourist season. Still, Cole had a bad feeling there was someone, or something, in there with them. Cole figured he and Millie were one and two. And this unexplainable thing? This presence? That was the Third. It could be a spirit, Cole thought. But it wasn’t a person, or an animal. It was something stranger. Something bad.

Cole got the bad feeling almost every night. He would wake from a dream, a dream in which he’d envisioned the Third lurking in the hallway, or the root cellar, or crouching like an elf on the screened-in porch, peering inside the dark windows. Then Cole would listen to the house. Noises. Clacks. Taps. Creaks. Wheezes. He swore twice he heard coughing. Cole would get up and look. He never saw the Third, but the feeling kept him up until the morning.

Due to the lack of shut-eye, the remodeling went downhill. Cole would stack up too many projects. He smudged grout, misplaced tools, bent nails, eyeballed cuts that needed measuring. Totally disorganized. One day he was on a ladder drilling a light fixture and slipped, falling off. He sprained his wrist. Cut himself. It was only 2pm but he called it a day right then. When Millie got home from the library, Cole was halfway through a sixer of Molson at the kitchen table, watching hockey online.

“You do not look good,” said Millie, seeing Cole’s blood-seeping hand bandage, his eyes recessed and shadowy from skipping sleep to hunt the Third.

“I’m okay. I hurt myself. I’ll be better tomorrow.”

Millie sat. “Honey,” she said, “I want to tell you something. This house is not haunted. If the Alewife were haunted, Sister would have told me. She always comes right out with what’s on her mind. Her aunt and uncle used to own this place. She would know.”

“Sister hates me. We can’t trust her.”

“You’re scared because this is a small town. You aren’t accustomed to quiet. But it’s safer here than in the city. No violent crimes in a half-century.”

“It’s not the quiet,” said Cole, “It’s the noises. I can’t believe you sleep through them. You must be pretending not to hear.”

“Okay,” said Millie, “I think you should see someone about this. Or use sleeping pills. I don’t care.” Then, depleted by a day’s work, and by her own candor, she went upstairs, leaving behind a scooted-out chair and the empty smell of April fog.

When September came, the Alewife sheltered more than just Millie, Cole, and (maybe) the Third. There were Fourths, Fifths, Sixths, Sevenths, and even more. Lodgers and tourists who paid big bucks. The vacationers supplied awkward conversation, a new job for Millie that was better than the library, and the reassurance to Cole of safety in numbers. All that fall, while the Alewife bustled with chatter and life, Cole rarely even thought about the Third. But sometimes, when he locked up alone, when the last lights dimmed, the fleeting reflection of small eyes in the mirrored windows restruck panic like a match.

Nicholas Barner writes. He is in all likelihood a real person, and he can currently be found in Maine, USA. These days he is just trying to get some sleep.
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