"Can we start telling ghost stories yet or do we have to wait 'til we get there?"
"Bored already, Dylan?" I tease.
"He's got no attention span," Josh adds in unhelpfully.
"There's nothing to pay attention to," Dylan retorts.
"There's me," Josh pouts.
"Fishing for compliments pretty boy?"
Josh shoves him playfully and Dylan attempts to tickle him in response, causing Josh to squirm over towards my side and squash me against the wall of the car.
"I have no idea why I agreed to go in the back with you two," I complain to no one in particular as the open-topped Mini turns another corner at an alarming pace. I lean forward and tap Charles on the shoulder.
"Hey, Charles – to paraphrase Dylan – are we there yet?" I whine in a high girly voice. To this Dylan lunges over Josh in an attempt to jab me. He can't reach. I grin at him.
"About five minutes, Andrew. We're supposed to be close, but I've been driving around the same area for like ten minutes because our navigator can't actually navigate." Here Charles shoots a pointed look at Neil, who is sitting in the passenger seat holding the map as though faintly bemused by the paper quality if anything. It's a lost cause.
"Hang in there Neil," I grin. I blink a little at Charles though. He'd actually called me Andrew instead of shortening it to Andy or Drew as I always object to. It almost makes me wonder if something is wrong. Anyway, I think telling people not to shorten my name perversely just encourages them to in order to wind me up.
The car turns another corner onto yet another dimly lit residential street. It's the evening of October 31st and its endlessly associated occasion of Halloween. We're supposed to be staying overnight at this abandoned haunted house, or so I've been told. At this rate though, given our communal lack of direction, it looks like by the time we get there we'll be the ones haunting it.
"Oi, numbskull, it's a map, not Painting By Numbers," Dylan drawls at Neil.
Charles sniggers from the driving seat. "Yeah Neil, come on, what are you, five?"
"Oh shut up, you're the one with the baby face now. By the way, did you have to use hedge trimmers on that beard before you could shave it?" Neil runs one finger down Charles' smooth cheek.
Dylan lets out a burst of laughter but then shortly cuts himself off, as if he's just realised something. Josh punches Dylan's shoulder in chiding and is evidently trying to suppress a smile himself. I frown, puzzled.
"Shut up," Charles hisses at Neil, and I am shocked by how suddenly serious he sounds. A solemn silence descends almost instantly and without warning over the whole car. I'm just confused. Charles has never had a beard as long as I've known him. I've always been insisting he get one though – it would suit him. Maybe he and Neil have had an argument I don't know about.
"Hey hey, I think I recognise this bit," Dylan says quickly, a bit too loudly.
"Yeah, 'cause we passed it like five minutes ago," Josh grins and mutual chuckles pass through the car again, the odd moment ignored.
"Fine, why don't you read the map," Neil mutters.
"No, hang on, I think I know where to go now," Charles says, voice gentle again, and the car swerves around in a last minute fashion to turn into another residential road.
Perhaps it's an inappropriate thought, but I can't help feeling that the scene is sort of magical as the car slows down so Charles can scan for the house. Pumpkin lanterns amongst other low orange and green light sources speckle the driveways and glow in various window ledges. Some children dressed in costumes rattle a trick-or-treat bucket outside one of the houses, and a lady gives them some chocolate before they go on their way. It's almost surreal that an occasion meant to be themed around horror and all things scary and creepy actually brings people together in what is generally a friendly manner. Like us, now.
"There," Charles says, and his tone is so quiet that I don't think anything of it until suddenly the tyres are crunching over a gravel driveway and I realise he means we've arrived. They're all strangely quiet, actually, as they get out of the car and grab their backpacks and sleeping bags ready for the night ahead. I grab my stuff and join them, looking up at the house.
I can't really say that it looks especially haunted as I look up at it. It looks empty, obviously, and that's kind of off-putting in its own way. No lights or decorations or signs of activity here. Weeds have taken over the front lawn which lies to our right. The window frames and front door are a dark wood, the brickwork visible where it isn't covered by the large tree that looms over the garage or the ivy that sprawls across the house's side and front. It's large and detached and quiet. There's a metal tray and two large wooden buckets at the top of the driveway that look like they should contain decorative plants but they, too, are taken with weeds, the original plants dry and dead beneath the overgrowth. There are no objects littered about, no eerily clinking wind chimes or anything. The place doesn't even look especially old, just empty and abandoned. Overall, I find that I am mostly pleasantly unbothered by the sight of it. In morning sunlight it would look completely harmless.
I turn to look at the others to see their reactions and find they are all looking at me. That's a little unnerving. I shrug, wondering if I had inadvertently been staring at the house too long.
"Well," I say.
The single word seems to get them all in motion and there's a general inclination of movement towards the house. Charles tilts his head to one side though, still looking at me.
"Do you recognise it?"
"Uh…is it famous? Should I?" I ask. I squint back at the house, pondering the question. It does seem somehow familiar, perhaps, but only in a vague sense – it just reminds me of every other house, really.
"Nah, just thought I recognised it myself for a moment," Charles shrugs after a moment's pause, heading towards the house. I follow him.
"Dude, the Halloween atmosphere is getting to you," I grin.
Neil is responsible for picking the lock. We always tease him about this talent – given his general lack of direction we say that it's pointless being able to pick locks if you can't find doors. Actually, thinking that has me wondering how he had ended up as 'navigator' on the way here in the first place.
The door is framed by an arched wooden trellis. I think it used to hold a flowering plant of some sort, but one that had at some stage been taken over by the ivy which now hangs thick over the structure, obscuring half the entrance where it straggles down in wind battered strands. It makes huddling underneath the trellis feel more enclosed and secretive, adding something to the adrenalin of the occasion.
"Don't worry, the house is empty," Josh says pointlessly.
"And the sky is blue," Dylan answers, his way of pointing out Josh's pointlessly obvious statements.
"How do you know the house is empty? There are supposed to be ghosts, you know," Neil corrects, whispering over-dramatically, and then with a decisive click he unlocks the door. Me and Charles make ghost noises for added effect.
"In we go," says Josh.
We all shuffle into the hallway.
"Right. Torches everyone," Charles says once we're inside. We all fish in our bags for our torches and flick them on to illuminate the gloom inside the house. It's significantly darker inside than it was outside. Neil lets the front door click shut behind us.
"Okay. Let's dump our bags in one of the rooms and then go explore," Neil puts in, whispering.
"You're whispering," says Josh.
With something of a universal eye roll at that we all take our stuff into the nearest room, which appears to be the living room. The bags fall to the floor with resounding thumps, disturbing silence and dust simultaneously. I flick my light around the room, peering into the corners. There is still some furniture here, left behind. The house, though, has obviously been completely abandoned. Maybe after the owners discovered it was haunted. There's a dusty, cobwebbed fireplace in one wall and I admire it for a moment. I've always liked fireplaces. There's even old coal still in it.
"Right then. Shall we split up and have a look around?" Dylan says. It's a general question, but I see his eyes flicking to Neil in particular. How odd. I wonder why he wants the group to split; it's not like we can't all go looking around together.
"Sure. I'll go with Andrew," Charles offers, nodding towards me. Again with the full Andrew. Maybe he's actually secretly unnerved by this whole haunted house thing and is forgetting to shorten it teasingly as usual.
It appears that Dylan and Josh have paired up to explore together, which only leaves Neil. He moves towards me and Charles. I smile at him and drift back towards the hallway, curiosity burning and wanting to go upstairs. Charles and Neil follow me, and we ascend the creaky staircase together. I don't touch the wooden handrail as we go up – it's covered in dust. It's a large house, and I look around admiringly once I reach the top. Whereas on the ground floor the space is taken up by only a few very spacious rooms up here the space is divided into more, smaller rooms. There also seems to be a smaller second staircase tucked away to one side leading up further – presumably to the attic. Neil heads towards that immediately.
"Come on, if there's going to be a ghost anywhere it'll be in the attic," he encourages, already halfway up. I make a step forward to follow him, but when I glance behind at Charles the expression on his face stops me where I stand. He looks…lost, and inexplicably sad.
"I want to check out this floor – catch you in a minute, scream if anything leaps out of the dark!" I call up after Neil. He's already out of sight by now. I turn my flashlight back in Charles' direction.
He waves his hand in a dismissive gesture but doesn't move, looking away into the dark.
"What is it?" I move closer to him. "Are you scared?" I ask doubtfully.
He laughs, but it is lacking humour and it only increases my confused worry.
"What's wrong?" I repeat.
"Nothing, let's –"
"No." As he steps to walk past me I catch his shoulder and push him back. "What is it?"
"Don't lie to me."
"God, Andrew, must you always – look, it doesn't matter. Don't make a big deal out of nothing. I'm fine. Leave it," he says firmly.
I stop, then, even though it is in my nature to bluntly push for answers when I think I am right, and I definitely think I am right in believing there is something upsetting him. His tone stops me, though. I try to think. How could I get it out of him? He'd snapped at Neil in the car too – something has to be wrong.
"Let's check out the bedrooms," I suggest.
He nods silently, and I turn away to look in the nearest one. This turns out to be the master one. There's a room that's obviously meant to be a walk-in wardrobe, and a very nicely fitted ensuite bathroom. There is no bed, though. I wonder why there is still some furniture left in the house whilst some pieces are not – perhaps the occupants had moved to a smaller house and therefore took some things but had to leave others behind. I want to voice this thought to Charles but when I look at him there is still that sad edge to his expression. It almost annoys me that something is bothering him and he isn't telling me. I cast a final glance at the room and then leave to look in another room.
My 'moved to smaller house' idea seems to prove correct as I look in the other bedrooms – there are beds in most of these still, guest rooms I suppose. The main bathroom is large and luxurious. I flick my torchlight around it in awe – in sunlight it would look so grand. I think I will look around the whole house again tomorrow morning; places can have such a different feel in daylight. I admire the large size of the bath, the elegance of the tap fittings. The dust dulls the place, but it is obviously a beautiful room.
"What do you think of it?" Charles asks after a long pause. His voice sounds odd, slightly strained. I look at him, and the urge to push him to explain how he's really feeling and why bubbles like a cold fury inside me. But he'd told me to leave it. I clench my fist.
"It's very grand," I say. "The owners must have been rich." The small talk hurts me, but perhaps if we can do enough of it he will cheer up anyway.
But Charles only says, "Yes." He moves almost with jerky steps into the bathroom and makes a show of looking around. Not looking at me. My resolve breaks. I can't even focus on a supposedly haunted house with that look on his face.
He doesn't answer for a long moment, and then he simply sits on the edge of the bath. My heart rate increases. What do I do? I've never been good at comforting people.
"I'm fine," he says. "Why, aren't you?"
"I'm worried about you at the moment," I state bluntly, sitting down beside him.
"I'm fine. And you?" he asks straight back.
"What about me? Have I done something?" I'm completely confused. He has his torch pointing away and I can't really see his face. But as I move my own torch to rectify this I feel his hand close on my wrist before I can fully direct the beam.
"No," he says softly, his voice catching just a little, and I'm not sure if he's referring to the action or answering my question. I can just about see his face. It doesn't look like he's crying but then why would he –
A scream breaks the silence.
There is a heavy thud. We both jolt upright simultaneously and rush out onto the landing. When we get there the light from our torches falls on Neil, who is lying at the bottom of the stairs to the attic with his eyes closed. His torch is off and rolling away from his right hand. Charles rushes up to him and kneels down by his side.
"Neil? Neil?" He slaps Neil's cheek gently. I stand nearby, not really knowing what to do. Charles slaps Neil again, a little harder. "Neil!" He puts two fingers to Neil's neck and gives me a brief nod when there's obviously a pulse. He gives one more slap and then he just sort of pauses as if not knowing what to do next. I speculate on how we would carry an unconscious Neil downstairs. There is a long second of silence and then –
I yelp and jump, even though it is Charles who Neil has just lunged towards and grabbed the shoulders of. My heart hammers in my chest and I find myself flushing with embarrassment. Neil lets go and laughs heartily as he looks between us both.
"The looks on your faces!" he mocks.
I'm about to tell him in a clipped voice that it wasn't funny when I catch Charles laughing along with Neil, his face split in a wide grin. Some of the tension in me loosens at the sight and I find myself smiling back at them both despite myself. I walk over and help pull Neil to his feet.
"Did you find anything in the attic?" I ask him.
"Beams. And dust. There's some empty drawers and a desk – I think it used to be a room but it's deserted now." Neil shrugs. "What about you guys?"
"Nothing much," I answer.
He turns to Charles, and lowering his voice slightly, asks again, "Anything?"
Charles shakes his head. "Nothing."
I have no idea what the double confirmation was for – maybe Neil did see something in the attic after all. I grin at the thought of Neil pretending not to be afraid.
Something smashes downstairs.
Given Neil's little stunt we all look at each other with suspicious eyes.
"Ghost?" Neil ventures sceptically.
"Dylan," I drone back.
We head downstairs and – following the sound of two more smashes – reach the kitchen. Dylan manages to keep up the 'there was a poltergeist' act for about a second before he cracks into a grin and Josh shakes his head with a smile. It seems there's more pretend ghost activity going on than actual ghost activity. Because Dylan doesn't have a great deal of foresight we have to clean up the broken plates before we can do anything else.
"You should have thought of that before smashing them," Neil points out.
"I did," Dylan snaps back, even though he obviously didn't.
"So you actually thought before you acted? Really?"
Dylan glares up at him at this, and Neil's own expression is equally hostile. I look between them in disbelief. Why are they getting worked up over something so small? Plus Charles' earlier snapping at Neil in the car – has Neil done something I don't know about? We finish clearing up the pieces of plate and – as it's not being used – dump them in the sink. Then we all return to the living room and someone brings up the idea of card games.
Time passes relatively easily after that. Josh has brought a large portable lamp which he lights so that we can all see, and at some point Charles actually steps to one side and manages to get a fire lit in the old fireplace, warming us all. I tease him about being motherly and he blames everyone else for acting like a child. This leads to a minute or so of general roughhousing and then we all settle back down in good humour. Dylan has brought a six-pack of Magners and we share them around. I'm losing pretty badly at cards, but I don't care. And maybe it's the alcohol or the firelight but everyone seems to be having a particularly good time. Especially Dylan and Josh, who keep muttering jokes to each other and laughing and nudging each other. We've always all been friends as a group of five, but I thought Dylan and Josh were less…close. After all, I'm pretty sure Dylan's a little homophobic, (although he tries not to discriminate), and Josh is openly gay. Dylan, from what I recall, isn't an affectionate drunk either. But whatever. I take another sip of my own drink.
About half an hour later, just when I think we've quite possibly forgotten the whole 'haunted house' thing altogether, Dylan suggests a game of Wink Murder.
The game is simple enough. To start with one person leaves the room, the 'detective', and those remaining sit in a circle and nominate a 'murderer'. In this case the person to leave the room is Neil, and we nominate Charles as murderer. We call for Neil to come back in and he stands in the middle of our 'circle'. I wait. It's deadly silent. Neil looks between each of us with a scrutinising expression. Then when he's facing the opposite way I see my cue out of the corner of my eye – Charles winking at me. I fake my death spectacularly, clutching my throat and spluttering before flopping back. Neil looks at the remaining three suspects even harder. He keeps flicking his gaze towards Charles, making it harder for Charles to 'kill' anyone without giving himself away. I lie where I am on the floor with a smile on my face, anticipating the next 'death'.
It is in this exciting, humorous wait that it happens – the living room door creaks open.
I think the silence of the game is the only reason we notice the sound. Naturally we all look towards it. And, to my surprise, instead of seeing the expected nothing, I see a person. Just a shadow of a figure that I can't really make out in the lighting and through the small gap, but there's definitely someone there.
I sit up. "Hello?"
Charles laughs at this, and that's when I realise no one else has kept looking at the doorway – they are all looking at me now, because I spoke.
"What? There's someone at the door," I inform them. I do a quick scan of the room – all five of us are here. Whoever is at the door is not one of us pulling a prank.
"Very funny." Charles rolls his eyes. I look back to the door. The figure is still there. Reasonably tall, so not a child, but I can't tell much more than that with the current lighting. I look back to Charles and roll my eyes.
"I don't mean a ghost, idiot. There, in the doorway. A person." I turn back to the figure in the doorway. The door opens a little wider; I can see the person more clearly – male, I think. "Hey, are you here to check out the haunted house too?" Another alternative occurs. "Because there's nothing here worth stealing, believe me," I add.
"Andrew, save your acting, let's just get on with Wink Murder, okay?" Dylan sighs.
"Look I'm not trying to pretend there's a ghost – there's a person in the doorway! Look –" I stand up and take a step towards the door but simultaneously I see the figure hastily retreat in response and feel Charles' hand around my wrist, stopping me.
"Wait! Hey!" I call after the figure, trying to pull free of Charles. But he holds firm. I frown back at him. "Didn't you see him?"
"There was nothing to see, as you well know," Dylan drawls tiredly.
"I'm not trying to pretend there was a ghost!" I protest, getting angry. "There was a person there!" I turn to Charles. "Let me chase after him, I'll show you."
Charles narrows his eyes a little, and I think he might believe me but somehow I think he didn't see the figure either.
"You probably just saw some shapes in the shadows and misinterpreted them," he says gently.
"There was definitely a person."
"There… We can check it out later, if there was. Let's finish the game." He's being kind, trying to spare me embarrassment, I can tell. He doesn't believe there was anyone there.
I look at him and then at everyone else who had just been watching our argument.
"Did none of you see that person?"
There is a mix of shrugging and shaking heads. I frown, then narrow my eyes.
"You're all having me on, aren't you? He's an acquaintance of ours or something and you've staged this to scare me, arranged for him to arrive –"
"God, will you stop already? We didn't!" Dylan snaps. He sounds so irritated I find I believe him. I sit back down, trying to suppress my own irritation.
Neil guesses incorrectly that the murderer is Dylan, so that means technically Neil should have to go out again, but I volunteer instead. It'll give me an excuse to leave the room and investigate. Not to mention the strange tension that seemed to arise again when Neil accused Dylan of being the murderer – I think they must have had some sort of falling out before today. I almost feel like they're itching for an argument, both of them.
I leave the room, taking my torch, and close the door behind me. It's cooler out here in the hallway. I pull the arms of my jumper down a little further and then flick the torch on. I'm going to find that person I saw, if they're still in the house. I hope they're not dangerous. Remembering the peeking through the gap in the door that they did I somewhat doubt it. I cross the hallway and look into the kitchen first. No one. There is no natural light left at all now – my torch is providing the only light. I find my heart rate rising for no real reason. I feel like I'm alone and threatened somehow, even though my friends are just one door and a hallway away. I reach the back of the kitchen, where there's another door. The door handle is cold in my hand. I push down on it and pull the door open. It creaks horribly and makes my heart pound harder. I tell myself not to be so ridiculous, but I feel a sort of instinctual desire for a weapon as I step into the next room. I clench my hand tighter around my torch instead.
I'm standing in a long room which I believe was a games room – there's an empty bookcase on one side as well as a pool table in the centre. The room blends into a conservatory on one side overlooking a large garden. But the first thing I notice is the figure.
"I knew I'd seen someone," I say, satisfied, my fear ebbing away.
He looks about my age at eighteen, perhaps older. He's wearing an ACDC t-shirt and grey skinny jeans. The light in here is playing some weird trick, as the effect on him seems to be more one of overlaying tracing paper above black card than a person cast in normal shadows. My appearance seems to have frozen him in whatever he was doing – he stands and stares at me with wide eyes as if I've caught him mid-crime. Perhaps I have. But I can't see what he could possibly have been trying to steal. He stares at me without speaking.
"Hello?" I prompt.
He's about my height but he's hunched over, as if shy. Suddenly aware that I might be blinding him with my torch I turn it down towards the floor. Amazingly this doesn't affect how well I can see him. I need to give myself more credit for my night vision, it seems. His lips part and move to form a word.
"You," he says, his voice raspy as if he hasn't spoken in a while. Then, "You can see me." He looks into my eyes and I find myself looking away, as if matching his gaze is like trying to look into strong sunlight – except there's no sun. I rub my eyes and make myself look back at him. He looks shocked, almost afraid.
"Of course I can see you. If you're trying to pretend to be a ghost you can stop the act right now."
"I…" he trails off and takes a step backwards nervously, then another.
Perhaps he's homeless. Looking for an empty place to sleep overnight – or maybe he always sleeps here. I step closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from escaping.
"It's okay. Why are you here?"
He tenses violently at my touch. "You can touch me." There's shock again in his tone. It's a statement, not an invitation. I still find myself laughing awkwardly, not knowing how to interpret that.
"I don't want anything from you. But why are you here?"
In the back of my mind I'm aware that his shoulder feels a little strange under my hand – textureless, temperatureless. Just pressure, like I'm resting my hand impossibly on solid air. It doesn't look like he's going to answer any time soon, but I do hear a voice.
"Andrew, where are you? Andrew!"
Charles stumbles into the games room and I step away from the stranger.
"Andrew, are you playing this game or not?"
"I was…" I look to the stranger, but when I look back to Charles he's still just looking at me. "…talking to him," I finish, jabbing my thumb in the direction of the guy next to me. Charles follows the direction I pointed but his eyes move back to me blankly.
"Not funny. Did you just…want to go exploring?"
I frown at him. He sounds gentle rather than mocking, but he still sounds confused. I wait for him to make some sort of comment on the guy right next to me, but he doesn't. I keep one finger pointed to my right where he's standing, and prompt with, "I went to look for the guy I saw open the door."
"Oh. Did you find anyone then?" I can hear the patience in his voice.
"Not funny," I mirror back at him.
"Come on back to the living room."
"But what about –"
"He can't see me," the stranger says softly. I look between them both.
"No, no. Stop it, it's not funny, you two." I'm embarrassed at an underlying tone of panic building in my voice.
"Stop what? You two?" Charles raises an eyebrow.
I force myself to calm. "Yes. You and him." I nod towards the stranger.
"This isn't funny," says Charles. A similar warning or worry is rising in his voice too.
"No, it isn't! So please stop it and tell me you can see this guy, right here!" I look at him with all the honest earnestness that I can muster.
"I don't think –" the stranger tries.
"What guy?" And Charles, gentle as he is, looks as genuine as I feel, and as worried.
"Oh for god's sake!" I'm nearly screaming now. He has to be acting, even though I swear Charles hasn't got that level of skill. I'm willing to be proved wrong. I have to be proved wrong.
"Andrew…Andrew, you're okay…" Charles sounds placating now, trying to calm me. I'm not sure which one of us he's trying to reassure. I think he believes me now…but…what exactly does he believe?
My own panic is rising. It strikes me all the more now how the stranger looks different in the dark to Charles, even though the lighting is the same. The stranger seems as little affected by torchlight as by darkness; his whole self seems to be subject to the same level of illumination, yet no light is being reflected from him or emitted by him as I can tell. Logic tells me this is impossible. I don't believe in ghosts. I'm also terrified that it is more likely that I am hallucinating that something is there than Charles is hallucinating that something is not there.
Charles reaches out to me and on impulse I grab his wrist and then the stranger's wrist. The stranger pulls back against me, but he's not fully resisting. I'm going to prove Charles is acting, for my own sanity. I push their hands together with a single firm movement.
The stranger's hand passes straight through Charles'.
That's when I freak out.
A/N: With especial thanks to ImmanenceEnsured and JHeartbreak, who in different ways have helped motivate me to get writing again. (Don't worry, that doesn't mean you have to be nice if you review this by any means)
This story is not really meant to be scary. Also, I'm estimating about 10 chapters long, so this is a maybe-warning for unpredictable updates (I'm not so good with long projects). If you're worried I've dropped off the face of the earth then, providing I have internet connection, palindromeisntone-tumblr-com (dots not dashes) should tell you what I'm up to. (Also going to use that when I feel A/Ns would interrupt too much maybe)
Summary may change.
Each and every review means a lot to me!