Estimated reading time — 24 minutes
The head of yet another six-inch nail is forced crudely into the hard flesh of what feels like the millionth wooden plank, its end contorted by the panicked blow it had been dealt by my shaking hands.
There must have been about forty or fifty wooden boards covering every possible opening now. In truth, I had lost count hours ago because the only thing I was focused on was making it go away. What “it” actually is remains a mystery to me even now as I board up the tiny back window in the basement, banishing the last few rays of sunlight that had crept their way into my house, and the strange kaleidoscopic colours that threw themselves violently against the shutters. Each room is now in a state of half-dark, simulating the night that was already fast approaching. Walking around the house with flashlight in hand, it looks like some kind of silver-screen apocalypse scenario; boxes of nails spilling out onto the floor and misshapen boards hammered clumsily into the plaster. To anyone passing by my house over the last few hours, I most likely came across as a lunatic as the sound of my hysterical pummeling permeated the thin walls, but I don’t care. There is something out there that wishes to do me harm, and it isn’t going away.
The catalyst for the anxiety that had led to this began two days ago, presenting itself in the form of a series of events that were stranger than fiction, and far too close together to be coincidental. Each time something happened, I knew that it was a ploy that this thing had set up to try to get me to let it in. It started with that fire pit in the field. At least, I think that’s what it was.
Allow me to explain, if I can. My family used to live in a fairly rural back country area that consisted of flat, earthy fields punctuated by the occasional copse or astoundingly small housing community. After my dad passed away, my mother wasn’t ready to sell the house, not even when she eventually moved into a flat in the nearest town. She treated the old house like a “country retreat” and told me that any time I took a break from work, I was welcome to stay there. I had recently taken up a new job that permitted me to work from home, and so, I took up residence in the house to swap the bustle of the city living that I was so used to for a more tranquil setting. The fields around these parts are mostly used for growing potatoes, and extend on for miles and miles, until the only thing that accompanies them on the horizon is the setting sun. The house is situated at the end of one of these small pockets of housing, next to yet another expanse of dirt that is overlooked by a looming forest; one of the larger ones in the general area. The terrain out back is owned by a local farmer; a somewhat grizzled older gentleman whose name I could never recall. All I could assume about him from the perpetual scowl on his face was that he would never take kindly to anyone messing around on his land, which is ultimately why I was so confused when those kids set up a fire pit in the middle of his potato field late one night.
It was a comfortably warm night in July; one of those rare times where the air neither warranted taking a coat on a walk, nor did it cling to your skin or hang heavy with gnats. I think it was a Saturday, meaning that I had spent most of the day working in my study, sifting through crumpled paperwork and taking intermittent coffee breaks that always ran on a little longer than I told myself they would. An hour and a half after the sun had concluded its sluggish retreat behind the trees, I had been standing by the printer, my eyes growing weary as I watched the outdated machine groan loudly as it struggled to spit out yet another document. As it wrestled with its own mechanical innards, my gaze wandered to the window beside me. It was considerably dark outside, and all I could see was a faint reflection of myself and the surrounding room, the vague shape of the distant treeline a dark blob against the navy sky that grew inkier by the second. The printer forced out a piece of paper with an obnoxious whine, briefly pulling my attention from the window and onto the document that had been considerably creased by the ink roller. I sighed deeply, but as my eyes shifted back to the window, the irritation dissolved and was replaced by a sudden curiosity.
In the middle of the dark frame, a faint glow had appeared, seeming as though it were floating there. I walked to the other end of the study and killed the light, knowing that I would perhaps be able to see the outside a little better. Upon flicking the switch, I returned to the window and found that the dull glow was not dull at all, it was in fact stunningly bright. As my eyes adjusted, it occurred to me that I was looking at a fire, seemingly man-made but due to the distance I couldn’t really be sure. For all I knew, I could have been witnessing the beginning of a forest fire.
Knowing that I couldn’t just ignore it, I rushed down the stairs, hurriedly sliding my feet into a pair of hiking boots and fumbling clumsily with the door handle as though I had been blind drunk for the last hour. I dashed out into the night and around the side of the house, nearly tripping over a hosepipe that lay snugly in the gravel. I vaulted the fence that divided the potato field from the house and started towards the brilliant blaze at the edge of the woods, trying my best to ignore the awkward ridges of dry dirt that crumbled under my feet as I moved. I must have been about halfway across the field when a sound cut through the silence of the otherwise still summer night, stopping me dead in my tracks. It was a cry; clearly that of a human, but not one of distress or pain. I listened closely, making sure to not do so much as shift a grain of dirt under foot. Sure enough, more voices followed the yelp from up ahead, seemingly close to where the fire was.
The voices that carried on the air were those of young people; teenagers or perhaps university students who were messing around on their summer holiday. They were laughing and yelling in what sounded like a half drunken state, the alcohol impairing any consideration they may have previously had for keeping their gathering a secret to the local farmer. Looking on, it occurred to me then that the blaze that had been set at the foot of the woods was not what I initially feared it to be, it was instead a fire pit that had been set up by the group. Despite the ferocious brightness of the flames, I could not make out any figures or even silhouettes of people sat round the fire pit. I assumed they had perhaps started making their way into the woods, and so I began pacing toward the fire once again, with a mind to let them know that they needed to put that damn thing out before they knocked it over and turned the forest into a hellish inferno. I had not walked more than six feet before my left boot came into contact with a particularly hard, stubborn clod of dried mud, tripping me over and sending me sprawling onto the rocklike ground before me.
With a groan, I pushed myself up, spitting the bitter taste of soil from my mouth. I shifted my eyes from the ground to the fire that was now… gone. The fire was gone. I had gotten up almost as soon as I had fallen over, so there was no way that those kids could’ve put it out in such a small amount of time. Moreover, the night was now as still as it had been before. There were no laughs or shouts of joy, hell, now there wasn’t even so much as the occasional rustle of leaves by the woodland’s edge, or the distant hum of a car engine. I ran toward where I believed the fire to have been, pulling out the torch that I had crudely stuffed into my pocket on the way out of the house, again nearly tripping on more rigid clumps of dirt. I reached the edge of the forest and shone the wide beam around the area. No acrid scent of smoke lingered in the air to indicate that there had been a smoldering bonfire there moments before, nor were there any discarded bottles that would’ve suggested the presence of those kids. There had been no one here, but I had heard them, clear as a goddamn bell. I had seen the fire too, yet there were no charred logs littered around, and there was no sign of the fire pit that I had assumed it was contained in. How the hell could I have imagined it?
I stumbled back through the field, considerably shaken up from what I had either witnessed or imagined, my shirt and jeans stained with mud from the fall I had taken. Just as I reached the gate, a great whoosh sound invaded my ears, followed closely by a chorus of raucous laughter, just the same as the shouts of those kids that I had been so sure I heard earlier. I wheeled around, the flashlight nearly falling from my hand as it cut a swathe through the now pitch darkness of the field. I fully expected to see the fire pit before me, the flames battling the night as those youngsters sat around it with half empty beer bottles, laughing and joking and swapping stories. Once again, there was nothing there; the night lay in the same state of eerie quiet as before the cacophony of sounds had assaulted my ears. Bewildered, I threw myself over the gate and stumbled as I hit the ground on the other side, quickly regaining my balance and sprinting to the front door, kicking up the gravel as I ran. I practically jumped through the doorway, slamming the door hard behind me and turning the key in the lock with a panicked ferocity.
A thousand questions rushed through my brain, some hurrying by before any answer, no matter how nonsensical, could be conjured up. Had there actually been anyone out there? Had the stress of a long week of staring at faded ink on inordinate amounts of crumpled paper bent my mind to such a point where I hallucinated the fire, and the voices of those kids? No, the fire had been burning for too long. Were it a hallucination, the flames would’ve all but disappeared in the blink of an eye, and the voices would’ve been nothing but the misconstrued cry of an owl. There must have been something out there. I tried not to think of it as I lay my head down to rest that night.
The unanswered questions rushed back to me as soon as my eyes shot open the next morning. I won’t bore you with the mundanity of the uneventful daylight hours that followed, since all they entailed were a few half-hearted attempts at sifting through yet more paperwork, only to be constantly interrupted by thoughts of the previous night. As I sat at my desk, my eyes continuously wandered from the mass of documents to the window as the sun once again slowly descended into the horizon like a coin in a battered arcade machine, waiting with an ever-tightening knot in my stomach for that familiar glow to explode through the darkness.
It came eventually. Not in an interval when my gaze had returned to my desk, but in the fleeting third of a second that it took to blink. I had been fixed upon the window, now having turned the light out in order to better see the field and the edge of the woods. The fire had reappeared, as bright as it had burned the night before. There had been no dim glow that would have been indicative of somebody setting the fire, nor were the flames slowly climbing higher. In an instant, the blaze was as tall and strong as it would have been were it burning for twenty minutes before. I had to know what the hell was going on. This time, I had to see it up close.
I grabbed the torch and descended the stairs, trying amidst shaking breaths to maintain a calmer demeanor than I had done the previous night. I donned the same hiking boots, exiting the house and locking the door behind me. The keys in my quaking hand produced a metallic clatter as they came into contact with the door; another reminder of my persistent anxiety. I began to make my way to the gate, readying the torch for the moment when I would step out of the floodlight-bathed driveway. The hosepipe from the night before still sat half-buried in the gravel, contorted in such a way that it resembled some kind of snake awaiting its quarry. As I rounded the house and my eyes were freed from obstruction, I could see that the fire was indeed still burning, the darkness so prevalent that even outside, the blaze looked as though it were hovering in mid-air. The sky was a ragged black cloak, the few holes in its delicate fibers revealing shy specks of stars, all too meager to decorate such a hostile picture.
After walking through and shutting the gate, I switched off the torch and pocketed it, trying to stay as quiet as possible as I approached the fire pit. I made sure to keep my steps sure-footed and light to avoid alerting whoever was around the fire-if there was anyone at all- that I was there. As the fire grew bigger and bigger in my field of vision, I started hearing the familiar youthful laughter, the shouts of joy, and the occasional clink of a glass bottle. There was something else, though, something different. Three silhouettes were sitting in front of the fire pit, the flames so tall now that from a distance, those vaguely human shapes were unnoticeable.
My breath quickened and the knot in my stomach shot up into my throat, yet I still continued my steady approach toward the fire. The laughter continued, and as I grew closer, I could see a hand raising a beer bottle into the air, confirming that these silhouettes were indeed those of people. It felt far more real than it did the previous night; this time, the scent of smoke was now hanging in the air, growing stronger with each step. The thing was, it wasn’t just smoke. Smoke tends to maintain a smell that somehow sits comfortably between pungent and pleasant, but now, a far more offensive scent had climbed atop the aroma of the burning wood. It was the unmistakable stench of decay, so sudden and so strong that it was impossible to ignore. The flames were now no more than ten feet away from me, and I could make out more details of the previously vague silhouettes of the three-people hunched over next to the fire pit. I could still hear them laughing, yet none of them seemed to be moving now; no turning to look at one another, no swaying in their seats and no raised arms as they told drunken stories.
I walked another five feet and cleared my throat, preparing to address the three youngsters. Jesus, that smell was so strong.
“Hey!” I barked in the most authoritative, gruff voice I could muster. “What the hell are you lot doing out here? This is private land!”
The three kids didn’t respond, but the laughter ceased as soon as I spoke, as though the jovial sounds of their gathering were being played on a tape that had just reached its end. My eyes darted to the fire, expecting it to disappear in a flash, just as it had last night. Yet it still burned, and I could’ve sworn that the flames had now climbed even higher. The rotten odour had only gotten worse, invading my nostrils to the point where I nearly gagged.
“Look…” I started with a far more sheepish tone than before, shining my torch at them, “You kids need to put that out and find someplace else, this isn’t my land but the fella who…”
The kid on the far left, a girl, turned around all of a sudden, her hair whipping round violently. I gasped sharply as the beam of the torch fell upon her face, a horrified jolt shooting through my body.
The girl’s face was deathly pale, like the flesh of a maggot, painted crudely with sores and patches of deeply decayed skin. Unlike it had seemed when her back was turned, her hair was now dirty and unkempt, hanging down in grimy strands in front of her face. There was little to say about her eyes other than that they were those of someone who was dead, completely milky white and devoid of any traces of emotion. With a seemingly excruciating stiffness, her mouth fell open; a festering, darkened graveyard packed with filthy tombstones. Then, with the same ease of someone in the prime of their young life, she spoke. Not with the voice of some otherworldly horror or with the croak of an old hag, but instead with the smooth, pleasant tone of a young woman.
I felt like I had been struck by lightning. Every hair on my body stood on end, my heart beating furiously as though it were trying to escape from my chest. My name. She said my fucking name.
Slowly, the other two members of the party turned around. My measly hope that they would appear normal died as soon as I laid my eyes on them, both their appearances the same grim picture of death that the girl was. The boy in the middle, a skinny blonde kid, looked as though he had drowned; his skin was a wrinkled, mottled grey and his hair was thoroughly soaked, some of it sticking to his face in a messy clump. The flames grew higher still.
I began to walk backwards, bile rising in my throat and the knot tightening so tautly that I found myself unable to speak.
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember us, Oscar.” The blonde boy said in a nasally tone, a small torrent of dirty water spilling from his mouth as he spoke.
The laughter started back up again as the three corpses sat there and stared blankly at me, the same joyous cackling as before. It didn’t sound cruel or malicious, but that only made it worse because of how chilling the distinction between the drunken laughter and the hollow expressions of these decaying youngsters was. The fire was a gargantuan funeral pyre now, reaching up past the trees and licking the onyx sky with its many forked tongues.
I ran faster than I had ever run before back across that field, their laughter still as loud as it had been when I was no more than five feet from them, only stopping when I vaulted over the gate and fell with a painful thud onto the gravel driveway. Until the door was shut and locked behind me, I could still feel the heat from the fire, and the grim scent of acrid smoke and death still clung to the inside of my nose.
The sheer terror that coursed through my veins made a mockery of the panic I had felt the night before, the adrenaline not even close to wearing off. I bolted up the stairs and into the study, knocking a stack of paper to the floor as I rushed to the window. It was now pitch black; the clouds having obscured the few stars that had shone dimly in the sky. The fire, like it had done so before, had disappeared. It had been so tall, higher than the biggest tree in those woods, yet now it was gone.
I locked the study door and moved my small book cabinet in front of it as some kind of barricade, fearing that at any moment I would hear a series of sharp raps on the door, followed by the eerily calm voices of one of those kids attempting to lure me out. Those dead kids.
The only gun I had in my possession was an old shotgun, which I always left outside in the shed. There was no way I was going to get it because I wasn’t about to leave the study, let alone the house. I curled up in the corner, grabbing the only slightly effective means of defence I had; a rusted letter opener from a pen pot above my desk. I brandished it with a quivering hand, my imagination filling the emptiness of the silent house with sickly taunts in the voices of those corpses.
“What are you going to do with that, Oscar?”
“Are you going to kill us, Oscar? Surely you know that we’re already dead.”
I passed out somewhere between three and five hours later, the exhaustion of my experience taking its toll on me.
I awoke with a start as the sunlight streamed in through the window, immediately grabbing the letter opener from the floor and staggering to my feet. From what I could see, the study door had remained locked during the course of the night, and the cabinet had not moved an inch. Cautiously, I opened the door, still clasping the feeble makeshift weapon and surveying the hallway, expecting to see something out of place, even if it was as insignificant as a missing ornament from the table. I slowly moved from room to room, my breath quickening and my grip on the letter opener tightening with each door I opened. The house was untouched; there was nothing at all that signified that anyone had broken in, yet there was still undoubtable tension in the air.
I sat atop the stairs, pondering what to do about the situation, if there even was anything to do at all. There was no denying that there truly was something out there, something that wanted to hurt me. Those kids, those… things, knew my name somehow and they were mocking me, reveling in my confusion.
At that moment, the only thing I could think to do that would bring me any comfort at all was to pay a visit to the old farmer who owned the field and tell him what happened. He was a hard-faced man whom I had never spoken to before; hell, I’d only ever seen the guy from a distance. Of course, I didn’t expect him to buy a story about how I stumbled across a gathering of talking corpses next to a bonfire, so I settled on simply telling him that a group of teenagers were routinely messing around on his land.
I left the house and walked out of the driveway, the afternoon air sticking to my skin. The farmer lived at the end of the road in a substantially large white farmhouse, next to a barn where I assumed he kept his tractor and other machinery. I paused at the half open gate, looking round his driveway to see if he would emerge from the small shed that sat beside his house, the ancient wooden door hanging half open. No sound emitted from inside, so I strolled into the driveway and up to the front porch. I knocked timidly on the screen door, listening closely for any movement inside. After about thirty seconds of silence, I knocked again, louder this time, hoping that somebody was home even if it wasn’t the old farmer. I heard what sounded like footsteps on the stairs inside, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief, but drew it back in when my eyes shot from the door to the window on the second floor of the house.
The old farmer was watching me through the window, that characteristic scowl creased across his face as he studied my features. I raised my hand and gingerly waved to him, opening my mouth to speak but finding myself unsure of what to say, or if he’d even hear me if I spoke at all.
“Uh… hello sir, I need to speak to you about something…”
The man sat, unmoving, still peering at me with the same expression on his face. About ten more painfully awkward seconds passed by, when suddenly, his eyes widened and his frown disappeared, his face descending into an expression of shock.
Before I could get another word out, the shutters slammed violently closed, obscuring the man from my vision. I watched as the blind on the small window above me was pulled down in a flash, and no more than ten seconds later, the window on the right side of the second floor had its shutters drawn too. I was too bewildered by the situation to move from where I was standing, my body starting to tremble. I heard the thunderous rumble of the man descending the stairs, and watched with rapidly growing confusion as the living room shutters were closed as well. A few moments later, I saw the door crack open very slightly, and panic started to well up in my gut. The first thing I saw before so much as a strand of wispy hair on the man’s head was the cold steel barrel of a shotgun, peeking through the crack in the door.
I didn’t wait for the door to open all the way. I sprinted out of the driveway, turning only once to see the farmer standing on his porch, lowering the gun as he realized I was too far away now for the shot to reach me. It occurred to me as I rushed back to the house that the man had fully intended to use that weapon, and somehow, I knew it wasn’t just so he could fire a warning shot into the dirt next to me.
Not one word had been exchanged between that man and I in the month that I had been here. I had been so sure that he had seen me before, even if it was only across a field or through a window. Yet, when he had seen me standing outside his house, he wore a look of the most unimaginable terror upon his face. What the hell was going on?
I retrieved the age-old shotgun from the shed and stumbled inside, confused beyond belief. Something sinister had a vice grip over this place, and now that I was new in town, it wanted me in its grip too. I had no idea what kind of link a gathering of should be-dead people had with a crazy old man pulling a gun on anyone who knocked on his front door, and I didn’t want to know. All I knew was that this place was fucking crazy and I needed to protect myself. Panic leaked from every pore on my body in droplets of sweat as I ran down into the basement, my racing mind finally settling on my first course of action. I flicked the light switch, and after five seconds of the bulb emitting stuttered bursts of light, it sprang to life and illuminated the somewhat bare basement floor.
I looked into the large alcove in the right-hand corner, where I found what I was looking for. My dad had been somewhat obsessive about storing wood for the winter months, and as a result, the basement acted as a storage space for all the logs, kindling and chopped wood that he would bring in during the autumn. At the foot of the great pile of logs that were stacked up to the ceiling lay what must have been around two-hundred wooden planks, all crudely cut into different shapes and sizes, but wooden planks nonetheless. I hurriedly grabbed an armful of them-maybe nine or ten-and ran back up the stairs, dumping them in a heap by the front door, and then retrieved a toolbox containing a sturdy hammer and several boxes of nine inch nails from a dusty kitchen cabinet. I silently apologized to my dad for what I was about to do to the interior of the house, and got to work.
I had been putting boards up for nearly an hour when I first heard it. My arm ached from steadying the planks in order to hammer them in place, and there had been more than one occasion when a misplaced strike had left my thumb throbbing in pain. I had been slumped against a window in the upstairs guest room when the unmistakable crunch of gravel under heavy boots filled my ears, making me tense up even more than I already was. I moved slowly away from the window and picked up the rusty shotgun that had been leaning up against the wall as I worked. With shallow breaths, I peered through the tiny crack in one of the boards, and there, pacing around the yard with gun in hand, was the old farmer, the same scowl upon his face. Clearly, he had not just intended to chase me off of his property, because now, it was apparent that he had come to kill me.
He paced the yard angrily, yelling something in a thick Suffolk accent that was mostly indecipherable.
It sounded like; “Where are ye, ya sick bastard?” but through the wall it was considerably muffled.
I watched intently, unblinking. The farmer whirled round all of a sudden, his attention seemingly caught by a sound that had come from the shed. Without a moment’s hesitation, the farmer pressed the shotgun butt against his left arm and a brief explosion of light was emitted from the weapon’s muzzle, followed by the splintering of old, musty wood as a hole was ripped in the side of the shed.
I fell back from the window, knowing full well that the old man had assumed I was in there, and confirming my fear that he fully intended to blow my head off if he found me. I had considered calling the police earlier, but saying that a man pulled a gun on me whilst I was on his property would hardly be enough to get anyone out here, especially since he could argue that I was trespassing. Now, the man was shooting a gun on my property, and I had reason to believe that my life was in danger.
The nearest landline phone was in the hallway outside the bedroom, so I quietly made my way to the door, crawling on all fours to make sure that the man did not see so much as the top of my head through the crack between the boards. As soon as I had rounded the corner, I darted to the table and swiped the phone up from its cradle, punching the number nine three times.
The drawn-out tone sounded in my ear as I raised the phone up, which was suddenly cut short by the operator’s voice; “Emergency, which service do you require? Fire, police or ambulance?”
“Police” I breathed unsteadily into the receiver.
A couple more seconds passed, and then the comforting human voice of the emergency call-taker sounded through the receiver.
“999, what’s your emergency?”
The culmination of the severity of the situation and the relief I felt that I had got through to the police had opened a floodgate inside my brain, and the information spewed forth from my mouth faster than I could think.
“My name is Oscar Connors, I’m at Stutridge House near Farnham, there’s a man in my yard who’s trespassing on my property, he’s got a gun…”
The reassuring voice of the call-handler came again; “Sir, sir… try to calm down. Where is the exact location of this residence?”
I tried to steady my breathing. “It’s uh… Stutridge House, fairly close to Farnham. The post code is… GU10 2JX.”
“Okay sir, you say the trespasser has a weapon?”
“Yes, he’s been walking round the grounds with it for the last five minutes and he just started firing it randomly.”
“Where are you now, sir?”
“I’m inside the house, but I think he knows I’m here…”
“Find a safe place to hide if you can sir, I’m sending four officers down to…”
He paused so suddenly that I thought the line had gone dead. “What did you say your name was, sir?”
I hesitated before answering, confused as to why the handler had changed the subject under such pressing circumstances. “Oscar. Oscar Connors.”
Another drawn out second of silence hung in the air. “Oscar… Kenneth Connors?”
I felt my heart sink. How did this handler know who I was, and more importantly, what the hell did it matter? I responded slowly, my voice an amalgamation of confusion and suspicion. “…Yes?”
The handler did not respond to what I had said, but I instead heard the faint sound of multiple people talking over the receiver. Thinking he had perhaps not heard me, I spoke again with slightly more confidence. “Yes, my name’s Oscar Kenneth Connors.”
Suddenly, the background noise from the receiver cut off and silence crowded the house again. The handler had hung up on me. It feels weird to say even now after the chaos of the last two days. The emergency services had hung up on me. I tried calling them again multiple times, but I was met with nothing more than a dull, ceaseless drone.
I set the phone down slowly and leaned back against the wall as it dawned on me that no one was coming to help. I returned to the guest room, once again keeping myself low to the ground just in case the man was trying to peer through the crack in the boards for any signs of movement. I positioned myself next to the window, and then cautiously scanned the yard for the whereabouts of the madman.
The yard was empty, but the farmer had certainly left his mark. The hole in the shed was now wider, and it looked like he had either taken another few shots at it or just decided to kick it in. I waited for about a minute to see if his hunch-backed frame would emerge from the shed, but nothing came. Not a single sound emanated from the yard, and so I took the shotgun from its resting place and made my way down the stairs, and walked into the kitchen. One of the kitchen windows had only been partially boarded up, so I peered through the thin net curtain, worried that the man would catch sight of me if I moved it aside.
Through the wafer-like fibers of the curtain, I could see the man latching the gate back up, the shotgun now nesting in the crook of his arm. Relief washed over me as I saw him walking back down the road toward his house; a small victory among all the odds that were against me. I pulled the curtain back very slightly as I watched him disappear from view, hoping that now, I could finish boarding up the windows and figure out who could possibly help me.
Just as I was about to let the curtain fall back into place, I caught sight of a figure standing inert next to the gate. The farmer had not acknowledged this person as he trudged past, which I thought to be incredibly strange. I moved the net curtain back further and squinted at the person who was standing there.
I instantly regretted my curiosity as my vision was filled with the same pale skin and decaying flesh of the corpse that had spoken to me the previous night, the light breeze now toying with her straggly dark hair. I pulled my eyes away from the gruesome sight for just a second, and when I looked back at the window, the girl was not as she had been moments before. Her skin, whilst still fair, was no longer pockmarked with sores, and her hair shone in the afternoon sun, falling neatly upon her shoulders. Despite this, her face was contorted into a terror-stricken expression, her mouth agape and her eyes wide with fear. I was overcome with a sickening and very alien feeling of déjà vu, as though without the mask of death that she had worn up until now, I knew exactly who she was and what she was seeing through her eyes. I turned away and let the curtain fall back over the window, wishing the mocking phantom away.
I tried to force the fear back down, picking up another board and hammering it into the wall, covering up the image of the girl who may or may not have still been there. I kept putting boards up with a robotic work ethic, until I lost count of exactly how many I had hammered into the walls and the ache in my joints didn’t bother me anymore.
It’s 10.30 pm now. Around half an hour ago, I heard the sound of tires on gravel as what sounded like three cars rolled into the driveway. Through the tiny cracks in the wooden planks I could see rhythmic flashes of red and blue light that illuminated the rooms of the house for fragments of seconds, and I can intermittently hear a man talking through a megaphone, barking out threats and sometimes using my name.
This thing, whatever it was, was attempting to lure me outside yet again by imitating a squadron of police officers. I let out a humorless chuckle to myself when the lights started up. I had to admit, this thing was getting good at trying to coax me out of my rag-tag stronghold, but I knew what it wanted. It was ceaseless for almost thirty-minutes, but now something’s changed.
There’s a new voice coming through the megaphone now, a stark contrast to the low male shout that had been addressing me for the last half an hour. It’s the frail stutter of an elderly woman, a heavy dose of concern in its tone. My mother’s voice. I had been ignoring everything the police officers’ voice had been saying for the last half an hour, but now, I guess I was listening.
The words it said in my mother’s voice began slowly and timidly; “O-Oscar? Are you in there dear?”
Jesus Christ, it sounds just like her. Down to every individual inflection.
I listen as tears well up in my eyes, exasperated that something would be so malevolent as to take the form of my own mother in order to get to me.
“Oscar…” the voice continues, more assured now. “I know you’ve done some bad things, sweetheart. You’re very poorly, but these men can take you somewhere safe.”
I choke back the lump in my throat and yell as defiantly as I can; “You’re going to have to try harder than that!”
Bad things? It’s just screwing with me now, putting shit in my head to confuse me. I make sure the shotgun is loaded, and I point it at the front door from my vantage point at the top of the stairs, waiting for it to fly off its hinges at any second.
“There’s nothing that’s going to bring those young men and women back Oscar, and I don’t… I don’t know if we’ll ever understand why you did what you did, but please, just come outside.”
It’s just ad-libbing bullshit now. My name is Oscar Kenneth Connors. I’m thirty-three years old. I was born in Surrey and I worked for an estate agent just outside of London for ten years. For the last year I’ve… Bullshit. It’s ad-libbing bullshit to get me outside of these walls. For the last year I’ve been…
Images I can’t place flash through my mind. A skinny blonde kid in a red hoodie stumbling out of a bar. A fresh-faced young man and a girl with dark hair, both sat around a bonfire.
“Oscar, please…” my mother’s voice again.
I stand up and walk to the study, flick the light on and walk over to a weathered cardboard box in the corner of the room. I open it, revealing a stack of printed news articles, crumpled and messy. I hear shouting outside and a violent thud against the front door. The news page at the top of the pile is dominated by four pictures, profiles of three young people whom I now recognized all too well as reality lodged itself uncomfortably into my brain. These three photos are dwarfed by a much larger photo; one of my face. I look around at the hundreds-maybe thousands- of outdated documents that I had been printing over the last God knows how long in an attempt to drown out the real world. There was no “new job”. It was nothing like that at all. Another thud echoes through the house, followed by a clatter as one of the boards falls to the floor. I can’t bring myself to read the headline that sits above those pictures. The front door is forced open, and gruff shouts fill the house.
My eyes dart to the mirror in the corner that reflects the top of the stairs, my diseased mind projecting the image of a dead, expressionless girl into the vacant space, her form a disheveled parody of the young woman on the newspaper page. Three people in police uniforms ascend the stairs with their weapons drawn, and her ghost turns to dust.
Credit : Julian J. Alexander
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