A year ago, I went to visit an old friend of mine from college named Chris. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Susan and their son Todd. The plan was for us to hang out for a few days, so they had promised to prepare a guest room for me.
When I arrived, Chris took me aside.
“I know we promised you the guest room,” he said quietly, “but something’s come up. Susan’s Uncle John just got divorced and she offered him a place to stay until he can find an apartment. He won’t be in our way, but I had to let him have the guest room.”
“No problem,” I said, “where am I sleeping then?”
“It’s going to sound creepy, but I’ve set you up in the attic. There’s a small room up there which we’re planning to turn into a playroom for when Todd’s older. It’s got a futon that turns into a bed. You just have to watch your step coming down the stairs at night if you do that.”
I shrugged. “That sounds fine with me.”
That night I woke up to the sounds of the house settling. There was a creaking coming from just outside my bedroom door like someone pacing slowly back and forth. I lay there with my blankets pulled up to my chin, staring out into the darkness of the attic and feeling very vulnerable. The only way out was through that door and down the stairs.
As is often the case when one wakes up in the middle of the night, I felt the sudden need to use the bathroom. I tried holding it for what seemed like an hour, but eventually my fear of that strange creaking noise was overpowered by my bladder’s need to empty itself.
“I wish I’d brought a flashlight.” I mumbled to myself, stepping carefully to the door. I put my ear to the wood to listen to that creaking sound, but as I approached the door, it stopped. I halted a moment, my ears prickling trying to hear the slightest sound above the silence that had suddenly enveloped me. Finally, desperately needing to pee, I stepped back and opened the door.
Feeling foolish, I crept along the attic to where the stairs down were, trying to make sure not to fall down them. I made it down the stairs, found my way to the bathroom thanks to a nightlight, then headed back up the stairs to the attic.
As I got up into the darkened landing, I realized the creaking sound had returned. With it, I could hear some sort of swishing sound, like someone dragging their feet and a muffled sort of sobbing. I held my breath, frightened but not wanting to show it, in case it was just Chris playing a prank on me.
“Hello?” I said in my bravest voice.
The shuffling and sobbing stopped.
“Who is that?” Came back a very quiet voice.
“It’s Wil. Who is that that’s ‘who is that’ing?”
“Oh, you’re Chris’ friend.” Someone moved forward. I couldn’t quite see him in the dark, but I could make out a white shirt covered with dark stains and striped pajama pants.
“I’m John, Susan’s Uncle. I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“You didn’t,” I lied, “I just had to use the bathroom.”
“Why are you up here?” he asked.
“They’ve set me up in the attic room.”
He sniffed. “Oh, I see. I’m in the way again.”
“No, nonono.” I wasn’t sure if he meant he was in the way at that moment, or in the way by claiming the guest room, but it didn’t matter. Really I just wanted to get back to bed. I felt a strange sense of unease and dread standing there in the dark with this vague form of a man.
“I’m sorry, I thought this would be a good place to…contemplate things.”
“It’s fine,” I lied again, “I’m just heading back to bed. Sorry to have interrupted you.”
And with that said, I crept past him, praying that he wasn’t so completely out of sorts that he couldn’t tell when someone was just being polite. If he stays up here doing that sobbing and pacing, I’ll never get to sleep, I thought.
And I was right. As soon as I closed the door, Uncle John started up his pacing again. From inside the room, all I could hear was the swishing of his slippered feet on the floor and the creak of the floorboards.
Three nights of this. Every night, I’d wake up and it’d be pitch dark and I’d hear the floorboards creaking and Uncle John shuffling back and forth. Sometimes he’d break out sobbing again and I’d have to cover my head with a pillow to try to muffle him out.
I barely saw him during the day. He never ate with us, never sat around the house. He just hid in the guest room and then shuffled past to go out to his car and drive away without even a hello.
By the third morning, I was exhausted. Chris and Susan noticed.
“Are you sleeping okay?” Chris asked me as I dangled my chin over a bowl of cereal.
“I have to be honest, I’m not.” I looked up at him from above the dark circles under my eyes. “Uncle John comes up to the attic every night and paces back and forth and cries. I ran into him the first night and I didn’t say anything, but honestly, he keeps waking me up and then keeping me up for hours with it.”
“I’m so sorry,” Susan said, her face turning red, “He’s been really depressed lately, as you can imagine. I’ll talk to him about it.”
“I don’t want to upset him or cause a problem. He’s staying for who knows how long. I’m just here a couple more days.”
When Susan left the kitchen, Chris grumbled, “I’d rather have you here than him. I hope he’s not staying ‘who knows how long’. That guy gives me the creeps.”
I understood him completely. There was something unsettling about Uncle John. I didn’t want to say it aloud, but I nodded at Chris and he nodded back at me then rolled his eyes.
That evening as we were all saying our good nights, Susan approached me. “I talked to my uncle this afternoon. He said he won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Did he say it like that?” I asked, feeling slightly guilty.
“Yeah, basically. You have to understand… my uncle really loved my aunt. He’s devastated by this divorce.”
“I shouldn’t ask, but…” I paused, making sure we weren’t being listened in on, “do you know what lead to it?”
“The divorce? No. They always seemed happy together.” Susan whispered. She seemed to dwell on something for a moment. “Uncle John was in Vietnam, and he’s suffered from PTSD for years. Aunt Ellie told me once that he used to wake up in the middle of the night crying because of it, but he’d been getting better. She said at his worst, he mistook her for someone trying to kill him one night when he woke up. Almost strangled her. Maybe it just got to be too much for her to deal with.”
“Aren’t you worried he might attack you or Chris… or Todd?” I whispered.
“Not really. He keeps to himself in his room almost all the time, as you’ve seen. He’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to be here, but he’s got nowhere else to go just now. He’s got too much pride to leech off our good will for too long.”
At that point, we said goodnight and I went to bed wishing I hadn’t asked any questions or complained to begin with.
I woke up a few hours later when something loud fell over.
“What the F!” I yelled, sitting bolt upright in bed.
Creak, creak, creak outside my door.
“You have to be kidding me.” I mumbled to myself. I pulled the blanket over my head, but it was no good; I was awake and now I needed to pee. I climbed out of bed and trudged across the dark room.
Creak, creak, creak
“Uncle John, I’m just passing through to the bathroom.” I said in a loud whisper as I opened the door. I felt around in the dark attic, not wanting to bump into him.
Creak, creak, creak in the dark.
He was somewhere to my left. I remembered seeing lots of packed boxes over there during the day. He must have knocked something over during his pacing. I figured that was the best he could do for “not bothering” me. As I descended the stairs, I heard him sobbing quietly behind me. I had to stick my fist in my mouth to stifle a groan.
When I came back up a few minutes later, he had stopped pacing, but there was a strange thumping every couple of seconds like he was sitting there punching a box. Yep, that’s normal, I thought, Just a grown man, sitting in a dark attic, punching a box and sobbing to himself.
I crawled back into bed and lay there, staring up into the dark ceiling rafters, listening to the quiet thumping outside my room. He stopped making the sound a few minutes later, and I fell back to sleep.
I woke up to screaming. It was Susan. All I could think was, Uncle John has flipped his lid and is killing them! I leaped to my feet, stumbling over my suitcase and tore out of the room to help.
It was a casual thing, glancing to the left as I ran out of the room. Kind of a “I wonder what it was Uncle John knocked over last night?” glance.
The answer was a chair. Uncle John had knocked over a chair in the dark. And honestly, it made sense to knock over the chair, because how else was he going to hang himself from the rafters without finding a chair to stand on and then kicking the chair out?
That’s what he had done. Uncle John was hanging there, right in front of me, an orange extension cord taut around his neck. His face was swollen and purple and his tongue was sticking out of his mouth like he was making an expression of pure disgust. His eyes were bulging out of their sockets, staring blankly into space.
I stopped my mad dash for the stairs and forgot all about the screaming for a minute. I stood there, staring at John’s corpse, reliving those moments in the darkness when I thought I had heard the creak of floorboards as he paced. It was the sound of the cord shifting against the wooden beam with each swing of his body. The thumping must have been when his feet bumped into the nearby boxes.
The screaming continued downstairs, and it took me a moment to realize they couldn’t possibly be screaming for the same reason I wanted to scream. I descended the staircase slowly, watching Uncle John disappear from view as I went. I don’t know why, but I had come to the irrational idea that if I turned my back he’d come down from the rafter and grab me. Maybe stick me up there in his place.
When I got downstairs, Susan was in hysterics. Chris was alternating between trying to talk to somebody on his phone and yelling at her.
“Just take Todd and go!” he was shouting, occasionally accentuating the point by shaking her like a rag doll. When he saw me, he let go of Susan and hurried over.
“132 Burgess Lane!” he yelled at the phone. “I don’t know, send anybody! I don’t think paramedics will be effective though!”
“Uncle John…” I stammered.
Chris stuffed the phone in a pocket of his bathrobe. “Yes.” he said, gripping my shoulders. We stared at each other. Chris looked determined and focused. I’m sure I looked horrified and pale. “I need you to help me. Take Susan and Todd and get them out of here. I can’t have Todd seeing this.”
I nodded dumbly and walked past Chris. Taking Susan by the arm, I guided her crying downstairs, then went back up and got Todd who was sitting in his bed looking confused and worried. I bundled us all up, and with Todd in my arms I lead Susan to my car. She sat there in the passenger seat, gasping for breath as I buckled Todd in in the back. I could hear sirens in the distance getting closer.
I climbed into the car and looked at Susan. “Susan, I’m so sorry.”
She looked at me through tear-filled eyes. “There was so much blood,” she whispered.
“I’ve never seen so much blood.”
“Wait right here.” I told them both as I unbuckled myself and got out of the car. I ran back inside and took the stairs three steps at a time to the second floor.
Chris was slumped against the frame of the door to the guest room, looking in. I went up to him and looked into the room.
There was a body in the bed, curled on its side in a ruined nightgown, arms and legs stretched out like it was welcoming a hug. The head was on a dresser across the room. It was an elderly woman. Her hair was long and silver, her eyes dark and empty. Her mouth hung open slightly. The sheets and pillows were brown with days old dried blood and the otherwise green carpeting was brown around the bed and dresser.
“Aunt Ellie.” Chris looked up at me. “That fucking psycho killed her and brought her into my house. God knows when. He cut her head off. He cut her fucking head off! When they find him–”
“They won’t have to look very far,” I said, the image of that room of death burning into my brain. “He’s up in the attic.”
“He hanged himself.” I held his shoulder and he squeezed my hand.
We stayed the next night in a hotel. Chris needed help calming Susan down while taking care of Todd. She was in severe shock. I took Todd out to a movie so Chris and Susan could be alone for a few hours. We had told Todd that his Mommy had found an infestation of ants and the house had to be fumigated. Uncle John had found a new place to live. Terrible, terrible lies, but he was only six and he believed every word.
I left for home two days later. They spent another week and a half in the hotel while police documented everything and then cleaners came and tidied up. Chris told me Susan insisted on throwing out all the furniture in the guest room. She redecorated it to look completely different. She never wanted to see it the way it had been again.
I’ve been back to their house only once since then. Chris gave me a sideways glance when I requested the attic room over the guest room. Susan developed a bit of a nervous twitch at the request, but said nothing.
I only spent the one night. Hours after everyone else was asleep, when the world seemed darkest, I woke up with a chill under my skin. I was covered head to toe in blankets, but there was a distinct frigid cold that seemed to settle over me. I lay there, looking up into the infinite shadows, I swear I heard sobbing outside my door.
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The difference between a good worker and a great worker can often come down to how you cope with unexpected circumstances.
While some may crumble under the pressure of the unfamiliar, others will thrive and find ways to overcome adversity.
Luckily, dealing with the unexpected in work isn’t something you’re born with: you can practice and get better at it.
Follow this blueprint to effectively handle the unexpected.
While some crisis situations might require you to act immediately, in most circumstances the better option would be to take a moment or two to make sure you have a composed, considered response.
If the caterer for your meeting later in the day cancels at the last minute your first thought might be to start making sandwiches yourself – give it a second thought though, as this probably won’t seem like such a good idea once you’ve started buttering slices of bread.
Whatever you do, do not panic – people may be less inclined to agree or co-operate with you if you aren’t even in control of yourself, and panic can be contagious.
Remember all those times in your past when a spanner was thrown into the works and yet you managed to overcome the problem? Good – you know you’re capable of dealing with the unforeseen.
But what about all those times when you didn’t react so well and you made mistakes. No problem – you can learn from those mistakes. Whatever way you look at it, you couldn’t be better placed to cope with what’s in front of you.
Here’s another way to think about an unexpected problem: it’s actually an opportunity in disguise. It’s an opportunity for you to show your initiative, to show how you cope under pressure and to show your leadership skills.
Trying to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity will inevitably pay dividends.
No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.
While an unexpected event can give you the opportunity to prove how dependable you are in a crisis situation, this doesn’t mean you need to cope by yourself.
In fact, if you ignore the people around you and the skills and knowledge they have, you could just be making life harder for yourself.
Seek help when it makes sense and ask for a second opinion if you’re unsure.
Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.
A word of warning, however: it’s best not to go blaming people for the problem you find yourself in, which might make it best to avoid certain individuals.
Execute your Plan
You’ve carefully considered what to do, letting reason and logic triumph over emotion and knee-jerk reactions.
You’ve sought advice where necessary, and you’ve gotten feedback on your idea to solve the problem.
Now that you have a clear plan of what you need to do, you can put it into action.
Because you’re handling a live, unexpected situation you should be ready for things to change at any moment. To ensure nothing else goes wrong make sure you actively manage your plan. If you’ve asked other people to do things for you, set a time to pro-actively check up on them.
Focus on the Big Picture
Sometimes a grand plan of action isn’t really needed, and you just need to get on with doing your job in less than ideal circumstances.
In these situations it’s worth remembering that whatever your role in the business, ultimately your job is quite simple: you’re there to help the business make money. You do that by being productive, so if something unexpected stops your usual way of being productive think of what else you can do instead.
For example, if there’s an internet outage in your office you might find that you’re unable to carry out your usual tasks. However, there are plenty of things you can do while the internet is down to boost your productivity. You can start drafting emails you’ve been meaning to send, read those articles you saved for reading later, or even start tidying your desk.
Evaluate What Can be Done to Prevent the Problem in Future
So you’ve successfully weathered the storm and in the end things turned out fine, so you can forget about the problem and get back to normal, right? Wrong.
Evaluate what happened: how the unexpected problem came up in the first place, how you handled it, and how you could have managed it more effectively.
This is also the time to discuss with your colleagues what happened and whether they could have handled anything better. Always begin any conversation by asking for their version of events – you might find that they had as little control over what happened as you.
Accept the Unexpected
Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.
John Allen Paulos.
However routine or habitual your job might seem, there is always the possibility of the unexpected waiting for you around the corner.
There is no way to avoid it, and for some this can be unsettling. But if you can accept that you can’t plan for every eventuality you will actually be more equipped to tackle life’s surprises with confidence.
Bonus Tip – Expect the Unexpected
Some people cope well with the unexpected and others seem to actually enjoy it.
Why? Because they expect the unexpected. They know how they’ll manage to get to work if their car breaks down, they back up their computer data in case a virus should wipe everything, and they have a dongle ready for when the internet fails.
No, you can’t prepare for every eventuality, but you can protect yourself against common problems.
About the Author
Shawn Hunt is the owner of Satellite Broadband UK. Working with technology on a daily basis has taught him the importance of being able to deal effectively with the unexpected.
This is a guest post for Skills You Need.
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