I was young when my mother died – only eight. I guess that’s why it affected me so deeply; I was old enough to have known her, to have shared trips to the park, multiple arguments and conversations, and her warm, loving hugs.
Her absence left emptiness and cold. My father, a lawyer whose firm operated internationally, was often gone, and even when he was there something separated us – the smooth, impenetrable barrier of stress and heartbreak.
It was difficult, and sometimes it hurt, but employment changed that. I left school and approached the local police department, and the superintendent took an instant shine to me. His name is William Kelly, and since my appointment he’s been a father to me.
After seven years and three promotions, I was sitting with a good job, a happy life, and a good replacement for a father.
So my dad’s death really didn’t bother me. I don’t have regrets; but mark me, he ought to.
But it did make me vacate his home. When my father was on his almost constant rota of work and travelling, I was left in the house – I predictably threw a few parties, brought girls home, and got stoned on WKD thinking I was cool.
My dad had never bothered to repay the mortgage – and I didn’t know what he bought with all his money – so his death left me the option of renewing it under myself, which, with my then current salary, would have essentially rendered me a financial slave to the bank.
I backed out and lived with William for a few years. He and his wife were great to me. She couldn’t conceive, and I like to think I was their impossible son.
I realised after a while I’d need my own place to not look like a scrounger, so I snooped around a few real estate websites for cheap accommodation. The best option I found was a house whose bank had been knocked reeling by the recession and were selling their properties like half-price condoms at a strip club. I took it, feeling a connection to it that a pensioner will understand when they buy their last house.
I’ll never forget my stay.
_ _ _
I checked the number saved onto my phone and looked around, trying to found something that would contradict me. Then I sighed and gave my new house a once-over.
New house; more like old one. A gravel driveway where most stones are covered by tufts of green. Slabs of concrete, some unsteady and uneven, weeds squeezing through the joint lines. Black railings with the paint flaking off. Windows smudged opaque. Squashed between the others like the loser in a bully circle. But not dilapidated, and it could be fixed with a few days’ work.
I climbed up the steps and took out a key. It was an old bronze type, clunky and unreliable, mailed in the post by an unmarked letter. My hand hovered over the keyhole, and I hesitated.
Despite my buying of the house, despite its suitability, despite my odd, almost aching familiarity and longing for it, I felt unwelcome, and then even a little betrayed – like meeting an old, near-forgotten friend who treats you with cold distaste.
But the key slid into the keyhole, and a few hard pulls forced the lock open. The door swung ajar, squealing sharply, to show darkness – not the comforting kind, but cold and impenetrable. My hand reached tentatively in, groping along the wall and sliding across cheap plastic. A dim yellow light flickered and stayed.
The living room was spacious, but only because it lacked personal effects of any kind – otherwise he would have felt slightly cramped. The wooden windowsill was old and chipped, and there were no curtains.
It led into the kitchen, which was part of the same area; no door separated them, the only defining barrier a square archway of wall that faded into the paint. Everything was dirty – from the cooker to the unwashed mugs in the plastic grille next to the sink.
A glass sliding door was open and offered an unpleasant view of the garden. A patio led out to a long stretch of tall, tangled grass among boggy earth, halting eventually at a moss-covered fence. Beyond that there was a forest.
I shut the patio door, took my time locking it and looked upstairs. There were four rooms – one was a toilet I checked until I realised the bowel contained something resembling a shit-caked submarine. One was empty with a window showing the forest. Lying in the other was a smashed-up, dusty rocking chair.
And then there was the bedroom. It surprised me – it had a clean desk, the carpet was dust-free, and there was a functioning lamp. It even had a mirror, long and full bodied, outlined in wood, hanging on the opposite wall.
My sleep, when I took it, was dark and troubled and potent, and…lucid.
I look at him as he sleeps. He is turned slightly, the moonlight catching his face. So pretty, so handsome, and, oh, she felt so jealous. The best she’s seen. Beauty unmarred, young, self-assured, everything she had before and everything she wants now.
Her hand outstretches.
The bloody haze descends; her hands writhe.
“Franklin!” she screams. “Franklin, you motherfucker! Franklin!”
I woke up. It was late – how late, I can’t remember. Past midnight, certainly, attested to by the gentle silver light illuminating the desk, carpet, and the edge of the bed. I moved, but its gaze never left me.
I needed my sleep. Rubbing my eyes, I stumbled to the curtains and released them, plunging the room into impenetrable blackness as I stiffly fell into my bed.
Its gaze never left me.
_ _ _
The next night, I was tired again – my disturbed sleep allowed for little banter or progress at work, and I went home kicking cans and telling off packs of mangy schoolchildren for spitting on the pavement. Feeling too bored and drained for any real leisure, I decided to give the house a good clean.
The dining room was first, with the tables, the worktops, the ceramic plates, and the cutlery polished. The living room went from dingy and uninviting to both warm and – dare I say it? – welcoming to any visitors. All the other rooms I gave a general clean, until I came to my own room.
The table was cleared and dust-removed, the carpet vacuumed, the bookshelf ordered alphabetically and with colour, and I finally came to the mirror.
I rubbed the cloth into its stained surface, watching myself blur and smudge and turn…different. Everything was distorted, but also slightly…sinister in its change. I looked thinner, and darker, and my smile…
I wasn’t smiling.
Then the wetness dried, and the mirror reversed to normal.
I stared at it for a few moments, not moving and not quite thinking either – just staring. Then I shook my head, turned and walked out of the room, pausing to shut the door behind me.
The toilet was dirty and needed a scrub, especially the shower – but the bathtub, with its cheap, flowery curtain tangled up in a pernicious fashion, made me think twice about going to that bit. Something about it unnerved me, though it wasn’t doing anything weird.
I was cleaning the sink when I heard, above the hum of the air conditioner, an audible clack; it was as if someone had run their nails along coat rails and sent them scattering. I stopped, my heart beating – I had definitely heard it.
I shut off the air conditioner and moved out into the now silent house. It was the early stages of twilight, and I swore under my breath – I had left the lights off in the hall. It had seemed a good way to save money, but what’s the point if you’re not around to pay?
The hallway, the stairs, and the rooms seemed as foreign as a forest – I would have felt exactly the same if I had heard it in a cave. The darkness enshrouded me, and my hands stubbed loudly off the wall.
Then I felt a rush of relief, though I was still alert. I frowned, puzzled. I didn’t understand why I was suddenly so much less afraid.
A sweep of the house revealed nothing.
_ _ _
The following day was uneventful. I went to work, sat at my desk, and provided information to investigators whenever I wanted. But throughout the day I couldn’t rid myself of that feeling in my house – the indefinable oddness of the place.
Halfway during the day, during a coffee break, I hesitated, the ceramic Scooby-Doo cup at my lips. I put it down and typed my address into a compiled database.
112 Highroath Abbey
One result – Highroath Deaths
My brow seemed to gain weight for the next twenty-two minutes of reading. It had originally been built in the late fifties, but despite growing local pressure and publicity by the estate agents and the company, no-one bought it.
I could see why – the place, though nice enough from the earliest photos, seemed uninviting. Something in its squat stoop, in the way it stood in the forest’s shadow.
One-one-two Highroath Abbey had been the premise for a pair of puzzling deaths. The first owner bought the house before this event for storage purposes and never used it. With his death five years ago, a local citizen bought it as a second home.
This is puzzling. He died within two weeks of his purchase, managing to somehow strangle himself with his shower curtain. It had tangled with a built-in safety cord and caught his neck. The police found him half-out the shower, suspended so his naked ass couldn’t touch the ground, but so his heels could – he was in disturbingly sitting-like position.
But there had been no fingerprints, so the police ruled it as accidental. The next owner, also a man, wasn’t told of the death and enthusiastically bought the house. The man who delivered shopping to him found the door open one morning, and having been invited in before, snooped around before going upstairs. His customer was on his bed, staring at the door with a ‘what-the fuck-took-you-so-long-?’ expression, a less disturbing greeting for the guy than, say, his torn open chest cavity.
So the corpse was shipped to the morgue, the man was shipped to a mental institution, and a small piece of paper was shipped to the commissioner with the words, “we really need to look at that case again”, on it.
The house was investigated, and the local populace was questioned. Nothing. The weeks of the murders had been notably pedestrian, even verging on spectacularly lethargic, which bamboozled the officers – in their job, there is usually something, initially innocuous, that provides a key to the whole filthy building. But here there was nothing.
The mortuary’s statements suggested mauling by a wild animal, or perhaps even by a starved cat that had found a way in to his room at night. Remember, this was before DNA analysis and fingerprinting. They had to go on fibres and marks, and all they could discern was the creature must have missed a few dinners and sharpened its cutlery.
So the investigation was filed away and soon forgotten under crushing amounts of paperwork. And during the big transfer from dusty paper to new-age documents, displayed on a fluorescent screen that caused dull cranial throbbing through the hours of relocation, most people just wanted to forget about the immense workload; forget about the thefts, the muggings, the rapes, and the murders – who wouldn’t?
I looked at the words on the screen. A word in serif font seemed to dwarf all others – MURDER? They had decided not.
I continued to look.
I switched off the computer and went back home.
_ _ _
My workload dominated the rest of the day – compiling confessions, court cases, criminal records…I had imagined it would be different. But it was what I had and what I lived on. I tapped the keyboard and the screen faded to opaque.
I went down stairs and poured some white rice into the rice cooker, took out some Balti sauce, some pepper, some chicken fillet from my rucksack, and I switched on the frying pan.
Forty-five minutes later, after finishing my curry, I cleared the plates, washed them, and went upstairs. I drew the curtain and sat on the bed, grabbing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – light reading before bed.
I flicked through a few pages, my eyes scanning the coarse paper but not really seeing them. I looked up. I turned another page and then stopped.
I didn’t know how it was possible – the door and windows were shut – but I knew, deep down, something in the rush of my blood and the way my fingers gripped the book, that I was being watched.
I tried to place the book down but my body mutinied, like it could be some absurd weapon. Chills slithered up and down my back, and I couldn’t move.
I couldn’t see anyone under the desk (how could they fit?) and the curtain was thin and flimsy and the windowsill was narrow and impossible to balance on, the walls and ceiling were smooth and blind, and the mirror reflected the room and the faint outline of a person, their arms raised right behind me.
I pitched forward with a scream, fell, thrashing onto the ground, and rose with my teeth bared to see…
No one. My bed was empty.
The thundering batter against the inside of my ribs quietened, and ceased. I felt, suddenly, very alone, standing in the silence of my room.
I ducked out of the door and ran.
_ _ _
The bar was dim and dingy, but surprisingly spacious considering the amount of people drinking. Sitting at the bar with the lads, all former college friends, beat partners, and current colleges, gave me confidence, strength, glazing over my inadequacy and preening my disarrayed feathers.
But banter and beer couldn’t disguise my quietness. They prodded me, my friends, asking, “You okay?” I just nodded and gulped down more and more shots.
In the end, only William could see through me – the forty-four year old watched me the whole night, hardly speaking, and then pulled me over just as we left.
“What’s wrong,” he said. I didn’t answer, trying to pull away. “Oi, don’t ignore me. You’ve been acting freaky the past few days – come on, spill it.”
I felt the flash of anger fade, and I realized I was astoundingly grateful for his insight.
“My house is creeping me out.”
I expected a smile, or a joke. I didn’t get one, so I went on.
“Weird stuff’s been happening. I’ve been, like…just getting spooked, y’know? Noises in the night, things like that.”
“Anything else?” William asked.
I hesitated. “I keep on thinking I see someone. I’m not bullshitting or anything, but it’s not like I’m seeing people out of the corner of my eye, it’s…it’s, like, have you ever seen how monkey’s act sometimes?”
He shook his head.
“Sometimes when they’re out, all of them, in a pack, one will spot a banana or…or a predator. They won’t make it obvious, though, they won’t be like hey, I’ve found this. It’s like they think pretending it’s not there will stop them getting beat up by the rest for having it, or…or keep them safe.”
“You’re losing me,” William said.
I seized a fistful of my hair. “You don’t get it, they…they think if they don’t see a threat, the threat won’t hurt them, even if it’s creeping out of a dark room at night when you’re walking by, teeth and saliva bright, moving like a fucking rat, eyes black as tar, and you just seize up and tremble, honest-to-God fucking tremble, and walk right by, and then it…”
I stopped, my breathing loud and heavy in my ears, my face flushed. William was looking at me, the eyes reflecting the orange of the street lamps.
“Son, if you need to stay anywhere, you know where to go.”
To this day, I don’t know why I done it – the adrenaline, the fight or flight, went to the first in fantastical idiocy.
“No,” I said. “I’m just…talking shit.” My eyes were darting anywhere but his face.
William went to speak, but I walked away, hands in pockets, and was swallowed by the street.
_ _ _
It consisted of five hours for me to go back to the house. It was, I reasoned on the ride back, a trick. A fantasy, a fabrication, a silly daydream drawn from lack of good sleep and stale ingredients I probably put in the curry.
Because it couldn’t be real – after all, there is no such thing as ghosts.
I felt good about coming then. While night was unquestionably unnerving at Highroath, nothing bad happens at three o’clock on a sunny afternoon.
I watched TV for the rest of the day, and as daytime wore on, my nerves started to slowly fade back into red-alert. By the time it was bed, I was more nervous than words, illustrations, or music could ever, with all its express complexity, convey.
I lay in bed, the light dying with a awful flick, and I stared at the ceiling for a long time. I could feel my own heartbeat, unsteady and erratic, and I began to feel an urgent pressure, from my gut, to leave the room.
I stood up, fumbled in the dark, and saw my silhouetted reflected in the mirror. I looked at it for a moment, and the feeling of fear increased to paranoia. I left the room and made for the toilet, shutting it behind me.
I sat on the toilet and stared at the door, completely clothed. I was thinking about tomorrow – I was bailing from the house, I didn’t care what explanation I had to give, and-
The doorknob started to slowly turn.
I leapt for it, heart exploding in a chocking fear, and the door was already opening when I slammed it back. The pushing got stronger, the door slowly sliding me across the tiles as I tried to scream, and I really did when a hand twisted and squirmed through the crack, the veins bulging and the nails ragged. I heaved with all my strength and the hand got caught in between the wall and door with a thump. It writhed, fingers scrabbling for my hand only inches away. I pushed harder, and with a thump it slid away.
I pushed the door back and locked it, shoving myself into it; and then it started to shudder and bang, wood creaking, splintering, and bending. I wept, a low, terrified moan coming from deep within.
The pressure suddenly stopped, and I heard a cars breaks crack outside.
I heard rapid thumps as someone descended the stairs. Footsteps sounded from the living room, and then there was a loud smash. Silence.
I realised the patio door was gone.
Fear fled me; I ran out, into the next room, and, as I pulled back the blinds to the back garden, I chocked, my sight sparking and fading - I had caught a glimpse of someone twisting themselves through the broken fence.
They were emaciated, grey-skinned, with vicious nails, long lank hair, and filthy coverings. They caught my gaze. Their eyes were dark and dead and heartless, and their smile, so innocent, was black-toothed and immense.
And as I fainted, I realised it had been a woman.
_ _ _
It took a few weeks of talk-therapy to get me back to normal – even now I sometimes wake up screaming in the night, the darkness enveloping the sound, smothering it. It doesn’t affect my distant neighbours, which is good.
He looks across at me – the phycologist. His expression never changes; always an interested yet sympathetic expression.
“Just an account, please; nothing more.”
“It’s…”. I shifted, twitching slightly. “It’s hard.”
“I know, I know”, he said, patting my hand. “But an explanation, a confrontation of what happened, will really speed up your rate of recovery.”
“Yeah,” I said, breathing deeply. I could be about to give my darkest confession to a priest. “Yeah.”
My dad was a murderer.
After what I saw, I realised, and I couldn’t accept it; for months I just couldn’t accept it, refusing all calls, barring myself in – he was distant and cold and cruel but I knew him.
I don’t know when it started, where it came from. Beat in through years of abuse, maybe; ingrained through years of jerking-off to shady porn videos, moving from BDSM to more violent tapes; welcomed, eventually, after a lifetime of misery and hate – the only feeling that ever gave him life, or happiness.
My mother was his first. It’s horrible, because I don’t even remember anything being off – just my mother, her carefree and joyous self, and my quiet father. Then she was gone, vanished one morning, for weeks, until she, “died”.
My father had bought the house. It was in the police records, and I missed it – another idiotic lapse that made it worse in the end. I should have recognised the initial “F”. And I found out that my father had, somehow, used this house to kill them. Inspectors still didn’t know how.
So my mother was at least one victim. And I now wonder, I now wonder, if that woman was her. I hope not; in its eyes I saw a smooth, poisonous blackness of hate and homicide. My father had been caught by her, in the end. I know that’s how he died. Cruelty unimaginable – I want to live with the certainty that she was never twisted by it, always stayed good.
The officer’s told me that, from my description, she must have been starved, beaten, attacked in numerous ways. She apparently would have resembled a pack animal, and that was probably why the rangers couldn’t find her.
They never did.
_ _ _
I sit alone, back in the house, typing on my computer, its blue light illuminating my lap in the dark. I’ve barricaded every door and window after a thorough search by the officers – nothing’s getting in; for that matter, nothing’s getting out either. The old case notes of the Highroath deaths; missing girls in the area; witness statements. I know that somewhere, somewhere, the key is hiding – something that will make everything make sense, how it happened, where…
Everything is quiet, muffled, my sight blinded by black.
Did I hear something?
I swivel in my chair, squinting.
The mirror is the only thing I can make out – it’s big and glints as it throws its shadow. I grip the armrest. Why? Why when I look int-
The mirror is moving, slowly, soundlessly, opening outwards.
It thunks against wall. A void beckons.
A moment passes in silence. And then, staring at the blackness, I see something.
A pair of big, black eyes.