The house had an uneasy feeling about it.
Mark had seen it first, and he’d fallen in love with it. She knew that any house she showed him after that would never match up to the chocolate box cottage on the outskirts of the small, old fashioned village: the quirky wooden beams in the rustic lounge, the quaint thatched roof, the overgrown, bewitching garden with its secret hideaways and colourful flowers - he’d fallen for the house the moment he saw it. And from that day on, Sophie knew her fate was sealed. It was inevitable. Her husband always won.
They moved in on November 11th.
All their modern things looked strange amongst the old, brick walls and the looming ceilings. Sophie put her juice mixer on the stone kitchen counter and stared at it, thinking how displaced it looked - and then, how displaced she was herself. She’d always wanted to live in the city in a modern apartment. But they couldn’t afford to live in the city unless they sacrificed comfortable living for squalor, and all the apartments she had shown Mark had failed to impress. Deep down, she too knew they were horrible.
So here they were, in the desolate countryside with an hour’s commute to Mark’s job every single day. Sophie was still searching for employment, and she thought glumly of how she would be on her own day after day until she too found a soulless office job. Still, a soulless office job surrounded by other people had to be better than life in the country by herself, without even a pet to keep her company due to Mark’s allergies.
They began to settle in over the next few days, unpacking boxes, putting up pictures. They met some of the neighbours - mostly retired couples, who were bemused that two twenty-somethings had moved out to the back of beyond, and come voluntarily at that.
Sophie took an immediate liking to the woman who lived next door: an old lady in her eighties who was virtually housebound and had a dry sense of humour that reminded Sophie of her own deceased grandmother.
Sophie decided that she would be neighbourly and offer to bring the woman groceries, even take her out once in a while, but it appeared quickly that the woman had several friends in the village who had already cheerfully taken on these burdens. Regardless, Sophie went to visit her often anyway, as she enjoyed listening to her stories. The old lady had lived all over the world, and her husband had died a few years back. It emerged after he died that they were almost destitute financially, and so she lived in her little cottage with no heating and no electricity, and survived almost completely on the kindness of friends and neighbours.
Sophie liked listening to her talk about her experiences; it made her feel like she was worldly herself, even though Mark never expressed an interest in going abroad. The old woman painted a colourful picture of the most exotic places Sophie could imagine - of cows roaming the streets in India, of African tribes dancing to the beat of a drum, of people more rural than they who lived off the land and were at one with nature.
‘I’ve seen real life voodoo dolls, I’ve danced naked round trees, I’ve participated in animal sacrifice - the strange practices of others have always fascinated me,’ the woman said to her. ‘Perhaps, sometimes, to my detriment.’
One day, however, they got on to discussing the village.
‘Are you enjoying it here?’ the old lady asked.
Sophie wasn’t sure how to answer. She’d been living in the village for about three weeks by this point; most days Mark was out, even on some weekends, and whenever he was home he was absolutely exhausted and locked into his own world. She felt very alone, but then she had felt like that in her marriage for a very long time now.
‘I’m getting used to it,’ she said, truthfully.
‘How’s the house?’
It was spotless. She cleaned it every single day, for lack of anything else to do. But it was also cold, and dark, and as the nights started to draw in earlier and earlier she found herself hurriedly shutting all the curtains and turning on all the lights, for fear of what she might see out of the window. She had no idea why.
The old woman waited for her answer, but she trailed off, leaving the sentence dangling in the dank air.
Sophie thought of something to say. ‘Did you get on with the people who lived there before? Did they come round much?’
A dark look passed over the old woman’s face. She twisted her leathery fingers, and coughed.
‘I didn’t much like them,’ she admitted, looking away from Sophie. ‘We were friends, once. But I didn’t always agree with the things they did. So we weren’t friends anymore.’
‘They passed away there, didn’t they?’
The estate agent had been required to inform them of this. The couple who lived there before had passed away in quick succession, one after the other, within the week, both from heart conditions. The deceased wife was found cradling her even more deceased husband on the sofa in the living room. Sadly, he had died seven days earlier and she had not thought to inform the police. His decomposing body had been found in her own lifeless arms by a neighbour concerned about the smell. Whilst Sophie was repulsed by this, Mark was thrilled. Death made houses cheap.
‘Corpses were found there, yes,’ the woman said. Sophie thought her phrasing was interesting, but she couldn’t put her finger on why.
‘It’s terribly sad.’
The old woman pursed her lips. Then the conversation moved on.
Mark didn’t get home until late that night. Sophie had made spaghetti, but he called to tell her he was delayed and had already eaten at work. She spooned the congealed, misshapen lumps into the bin, trying not to cry, or to rekindle the old familiar feeling of suspicion. It was the fourth time that week he had got home as she was going to bed. This was her life now.
As she cleared up the mess in the kitchen, she heard an odd sound, like a floorboard creaking. She paused, stock still, like an animal sensing prey is near. She breathed out, trying to pull herself together - it was common for floorboards to creak or radiators to gurgle as the house was old, and it often made strange noises. And then she heard it.
She froze. Someone was calling her name.
The ‘e’ sound was elongated, like they were taunting her in a game of hide and seek. She stayed as still as possible, waiting for it to come again. It did not.
Cautiously, she crept out of the kitchen into the hallway. She wondered whether she should arm herself with something, and grabbed a pot-plant. What she would do with the pot-plant she did not know, but she felt better for holding it.
‘Who’s there?’ she called out. The house lay silent before her, giving nothing away. ‘Who is it?’
She searched every room, but no one was there. She breathed out as she got to the bottom of the stairs, and put the pot-plant back in its place. Nobody was hiding. Loneliness did strange things to one’s imagination.
Over the next three weeks, she heard the sound twice more. The first time, Mark was in the house as well, having a bath upstairs. She was in the kitchen again, making brownies to see if it would appease his mood. It was Sunday afternoon; a day of rest. Mark’s work phone and his laptop lay across the kitchen table, and it had buzzed three times already in the time he’d been out of the room. Sophie wouldn’t have been surprised if he needed to go back to the office today.
As she stood over the stove, she heard it again.
The sound was far away, yet she knew it was her name.
At first, she thought it was Mark, and went to find him. He was lying in the tub, reading the news on his iPad.
‘Did you call me?’ she asked. Her heart was pounding a little.
‘I asked if you’d called me.’
‘No. Don’t think so.’
She nodded, and left him to it. She felt a prickly feeling crawling up her arms. It had to have been the house - the sound was coming from far away, and was most likely just the pipes gurgling.
The second time was a couple of days later. This time, she and Mark were lying in bed. She was lying, unsatisfied, in the scratchy sheets, trying to sleep after their all too quick lovemaking. Mark was already snoring.
She had definitely heard it this time. The sound had been close, like someone was standing outside the door. She shook Mark awake.
‘What?’ he grunted in his sleep, irritated by her hands scrabbling at his back.
‘I heard my name,’ she said. ‘Someone’s outside the door.’
‘You’re just dreaming, Soph.’
‘I’m not asleep yet, how can I be dreaming? Go and check will you, please?’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake.’
He hurled himself out of the bed and flew the bedroom door open. Its creaky hinges groaned at the sudden movement.
‘There’s no one out here,’ she heard his voice as he padded around the landing. ‘There’s nobody here, Sophie.’
He stood in the doorway, his large frame blocking most of the light behind him. For a second, Sophie thought she could see a figure advancing up the stairs, something dark and slow, but then he moved, and there was nothing.
‘You’re just imagining things,’ he told her, turning off the lights and clambering back into the itchy sheets.
‘I’m not, Mark. I heard someone. I’ve heard it three times now.’
‘Sophie, you know what you’re like. You make things up. None of it’s real though, is it?’
She knew what he was referring to. The last time she’d ‘made things up’, as he put it.
‘Mark, this place frightens me.’
But he wasn’t listening anymore. In another couple of minutes, he was back to sleep. Sophie stayed awake the whole night, staring at the door.
A few days later, Sophie went on another visit to see her elderly neighbour. Today she did not find her in good spirits: the old woman sat hunched over the fire, her wispy hair poking out of the bun she tied at the back of her head, her face pale and sickly.
‘What’s wrong?’ Sophie asked her.
‘I’m not feeling very well,’ she replied.
‘Why? What’s happened?’
‘I’m old. I’ll get older and I’ll get sicker. Then I won’t get old anymore.’
Her voice was resigned in a way that conflicted with her usually positive spirits.
‘How are you getting on?’ she asked Sophie, changing the subject. ‘Do you feel more at home yet?’
Sophie sighed, wanting desperately someone to confide in. She sat down on the armchair opposite, ready to relinquish her woes.
‘No, if I’m being honest,’ she said. ‘If anything, I feel worse. I’ve been…I’ve been hearing things.’
‘What kind of things?’ the woman’s attention was pricked. She tilted her withered head away from the fire in Sophie’s direction. Sophie suddenly noticed how blue her eyes were. She would have been pretty, once.
‘I’ve been hearing someone calling my name. But nobody’s there.’
‘Is that so?’
The woman did not look surprised. Just sad. Like what Sophie had said was as inevitable as her own ill health.
‘I know it’s an old house,’ Sophie continued, ‘But I know what I’m hearing. Last night it was completely clear, like it was just outside the door.’ Her neighbour nodded her head, drinking in the information. ‘And I’m sure I saw a figure moving behind Mark on the landing. I know it sounds crazy. But there’s something in that house.’
The old woman sighed. ‘You shouldn’t be afraid, Sophie. It’s just an old house. We can twist sounds to what we want to hear - or rather, what we don’t. You’re very isolated. Just put it past you.’
‘But I think I’m sending myself crazy. I know I’ve imagined things before - things which nearly destroyed our marriage, because I was so paranoid - but this feels real to me. Like someone’s trying to get my attention.’
‘Sophie, in all the years I have lived next door to that house, I have never heard anything strange going on there. Honestly. We do this to ourselves when we don’t have much else in our lives - I’m not trying to offend you, or upset you, but that’s what happens when our minds are not occupied. Take it from someone who knows what idleness is.’
Sophie nodded, feeling a little better. Perhaps her neighbour was right, it was just her imagination. She left the house, her burden feeling a little lighter now she had confided in another soul.
The old woman watched her go, a feeling of dread creeping upon her. Was it better that the girl didn’t know? Was it better that she’d lied, that she’d kept from her who those awful people really were, the ones who had lived there before? Yes, their bodies had been found. They could not torment the old lady anymore, they could not blackmail her for the things she had seen go on in that house.
But darkness never truly dies, she knew that. The kind of sins that went on in that house - rituals, as they had called them - they would never really die. To think that she had once been a willing part of it. She shuddered, hearing the door click as the girl left.
The old woman knew that she would be subject to the same fate, when it was her turn. Bodies can die. Other parts of you never will.
They had been living in the cottage for three months when Sophie found them. The underwear with the lipstick mark on them. What a cliché. She was almost embarrassed.
She wasn’t angry, because she had known for a long time. Yet, she’d hoped, perhaps naively, that moving to a new place meant it would have stopped. She’d obviously been wrong.
She confronted him that night. He denied everything at first, before breaking down - yes, he’d been seeing her on and off for a year now, yes, he loved the other woman, no, Sophie had not been paranoid after all, yes, he had carried on lying even when his wife confronted him with her suspicions.
Sophie left the house and was enveloped by the night. She let the darkness carry her through the village lanes, round the church, through the graveyard. She allowed herself to be invisible. After all, in Mark’s eyes, she already was.
Mark splashed his face with cold water in the upstairs bathroom.
Christ, had he really been so stupid? He always checked his underwear, he showered after every encounter, he kept his condoms hidden in the boot of his car. He’d obviously been tired after he got in and flung them in the laundry hamper without thinking. And he’d got away with it last time! He’d talked her out of it - made her think she was just paranoid! Had he destroyed his marriage? He cursed himself.
It was then, as he was standing in the cool of the bathroom, that he heard it.
The voice was soft and playful, almost a sing-song.
‘Sophie?’ he stepped out of the bathroom, onto the landing. It came again.
The voice was louder, more insistent this time in a rasping, desperate way. A chill ran through him when he remembered that Sophie had gone out, that he had not heard her return.
Yet, it sounded like her voice. Was she calling him to forgiveness?
He skulked down the stairs, following the direction of the sound.
It was coming from the lounge, he was quite sure of that. He walked into the gloomy room, lit by an orangey lamp in the corner, and saw his wife sitting bolt upright on the sofa. The sofa faced away from him, so he could only see the back of her head. Her long brown hair gushed over her neat shoulders, though he was sure she’d worn it up today.
There was something wrong with what he was seeing. Her hair did not look real. It almost looked like doll hair, made of straw. The head was too large to be his wife; her position, bolt upright, felt like he was looking at a corpse.
And - was she cradling something? As he drew closer, there appeared to be another figure on the sofa, one that was covered by a blanket.
It was then that he saw the gnarled hand resting on the arm of the sofa. Where his wife’s long fingers and chipped nails should be, were white, withered digits, with blackened fingernails. As he got closer, the hand clenched up.
‘Sophie?’ he prayed she was playing a trick. But, as he stood behind it, a feeling of pure dread came upon him. His breathing quickened; he could hear the beat of his own pulse.
The figure, hearing him approach, began to slowly turn its head.
Sophie was walking back to the house and deciding whether or not to go back in or just keep walking in the other direction. She had been crying, and her face was bloated from it. Though, she couldn’t feel anger anymore. She was just tired.
It was as she was passing the front garden of the cottage that she heard the scream.
It was a shrill, piercing scream, tortured, and it seemed to go on for minutes. Sophie stopped, knowing that it was coming from inside her house. Knowing that it was her husband.
Yet - what was she thinking? He’d told her that she’d been imagining things, hadn’t he? That she was just paranoid?
She hovered at the gate, debating whether or not to go in and investigate. All the lights seemed to be off. The house was still.
Sophie kept walking down the lane, whistling as she left the little cottage in the distance behind her and the echoes of the scream died in her ears.