A boy is visited in the night by a haunting figure -- is she a spirit of the house or is she something else entirely...?
Short Story with multiple endings.
The house was breathing again: drawing in the western wind through every ill-fitting plank or beam orifice and exhaling by way of heavy creaks and moans. By day it was a charming reality, subtle in the material noise, but upon the fall of night the phantom songs were all but reassuring. Any passing ear might hear the footsteps on the stairs, the shapeless music box that played in dissonant tones like a miniature grand piano – out of tune – composed within a nightmare, or a child’s laughter – disembodied and disconcerting. These were the realities of such an elderly estate, rooms once empty, now filled with artifacts of life and mortal fetishes. The rooms had been rearranged, and the heavy, velveteen curtains fell away in the stead of patterned cotton. The silken upholstery had run, replaced now with microfiber and other stain-resistant blends. From the darkness the dead watched, in haunting anonymity, as their reality was packed into cardboard boxes, pawned, pitched or priced for auction. Broken would have been their hearts if not for the memory of spirit.
The house was breathing again, and the boy was not amused. He exhaled a bitter breath, teeming with annoyance – but perhaps, beneath, there was born an ounce of fear. He was caught within the eternal loop of subconscious rationalization while his consciousness was painted in hues of red and emerald. From under the metal-frame bed he drew the headset replete with noise-cancelling pads. Shuffle. If the house could not be remedied, then at least his mind might be put at ease. Or so he thought: for the isolation from the house sounds made it all the more alarming. He refused to concede defeat and closed his golden eyes to the humming lights. The music took hold and the atmosphere changed from within him.
With cinched eyes, he ran his narrow fingers through tufted ochre-colored hair. He tousled the waves, lightening the weight against his head and pushed the stray strands from his face. There was a chill, then, creeping up from beneath the floorboards and ensnaring his bare feet. Cracking one eye, he reached listlessly for the blanket that lay wrinkled at the foot of the bed. It remained just out of reach, encouraging the other eye to open. The lights began to flicker. He let out another exacerbated groan, not unfamiliar with this particular ailment associated with old wiring. Putting both feet beneath him, he danced gracelessly to the light-switch, jostling it up and down. After numerous attempts, the lights maintained their electric composure, beaming proudly. Taking the opportunity, the boy stretched, wildly grasping at nothing. Given his upright position, he turned the knob and stepped out into the dark hallways, shuffling toward the gleaming thread of light at the end.
He pushed the door ajar, squinting an eye at the immediate brightness that now surrounded him. Mindlessly, he lifted the toilet seat and squared up. As he prepared himself, he noted a strange noise. There was a sudden thump and from the vent came a burst of warm air.
He relieved himself and wrestled with the toilet-handle, shaking it gently to make sure it caught. There came a dripping from the faucet, little droplets beginning to pool upon the iron belly of the claw-foot tub. He waved a hand dismissively and pulled the door nearly closed behind him. The hallways seemed all the darker now, given his exposure to the bright bathroom bulb. He cast a glance down the stairwell, adjusting the elastic band of his cotton boxers. The draft had returned.
In the momentary quiet, his mind registered a disturbance. He immediately turned back around and pushed the bathroom door open once more. Behind the tub, the window was cracked ever-so-slightly. He crossed the room, lending a great weight to his blow, the stuck window gave in, sealing to the sill. With heavy lids, he closed the door again behind him and began the trek down the hall.
The draft was gone, and the warm, dry air lurched from the rusted vents attempting to warm the cool, wooden panels beneath his grasping toes. Walking headlong, he turned to the right, fiddling with the doorknob to his room. Had he closed it? Surely.
He fought against the vacuous pull from the other side, swinging the door wide in his overzealous display. The room was dark, the light having gone out on its own accord, and naught but the beaming moonlight lit the billowing curtains. The window had been thrown upward and an icy wind rushed presently through its gaping maw, enticing the black curtains to dance.
“What the –“
“Language, young one,” mustered a voice, feminine but not the least bit delicate.
“Shit!” he yelped, abruptly turning on his heels and dashing headlong for the door. The vacuum snapped the door closed again, slamming hard against the antique frame. The color drained from his cheeks as he heard the familiar click of the locking mechanism. Where was she?
His eyes darted, searching the shadows for the hidden form before transfixing on the open window. Suddenly, narrow fingers snaked at the window’s mouth, long, talonous nails clicking at the wooden frame. A head draped in a shroud of silken hair glistened in the scant light and forced itself through the window-frame. Another hand righted her form as she brought her dirty feet through the window. He watched in complete terror as she pulled the entirety of her docile body through the opening, separating the blackness of her clothing from that of the sky beyond. The light overhead flickered, each bright ray coloring her unperceivable. She could not be seen in the brightness, but in the black, her delicate features became more readily apparently.
She was astoundingly beautiful, delicate features arranged symmetrically upon her heart-shaped face, outlined by a silvery-blond curtain of hair. Her body was wrapped in gauzy, black filaments that moved without her instruction, overlaying an inky, collared gown that seemed to have been ripped violently just below the knee.
“I thought I commanded that you watch your language,” she snapped, moving as smoke, closer to the rattled boy who stood petrified against the furthest wall. She lifted a delicate hand to him, outfitted with pointed nails that wrapped precariously about his collar before pulling away, only to find that she may not have moved at all, for she was once again at the mouth of the window. His voice cracked as he tried to contain a whimper.
“Sit with me, won’t you, child?” at once, she was upon his bed, perched at its edge in such a way that she seemed to float above it. Her eyes cut at him, animistic and daring. His mind raced and his heart followed suit, ragged lungs now burning in the frosted air. She drew a claw upon the bed, beckoning for him to sit. He remained motionless, save a single finger that arched unconsciously toward the doorknob at his back. She smiled then, a mouth of pointed teeth, as his hand wrapped about the knob. He turned.
The wind whipped, throwing the door open and him along with it, sending his narrow body cascading forward toward the bed. He scrambled in the gloom to claw his way toward its opening, only to watch as it snapped back into place. He felt a hand at his ankle and flipped to face his assailant sobbing silently at the prospect. The room was empty. The house was silent: eerily so. All the haunting, atmospheric noise had fallen away and in its stead, nothing but the soft whistling of the wind through the open window. He paused to catch his breath, twisting his neck frantically to search the room for any traces of the phantom figure. Empty.
He rolled onto his stomach, curling his knees under him and working his way to his feet, clutching fastidiously to his pounding ribs. The silence yet enveloped the room, the thunder of his pulse echoing through his crowded mind. He padded softly to the window, cautiously reaching for the lip. With shaking hands, he pressed at the pane, trying to work it downward so that he might reach the wooden bar that framed the top. It gave slightly, groaning at the prospect of movement after so many years of sedation. It moved another inch.
He felt two hands wrap about his chest from behind. Screaming wildly, he pushed himself backward with great force, sailing through the empty air to the floor. He coughed in pain, the cold floor having knocked the wind from his lungs. His bleary eyes caught her shape before him, a serpentine silhouette at the window. He wanted to scream, but knew that none would hear.
“I only wish to…” she spoke, her sentence trailing off into a strange noise unlike any human language. Her form seemed to vibrate, pulsate, billowing like smoke. Her movements were jagged, immediate, not like that of the living. Her hand was out now, and from the nothingness in her palm cascaded golden coins which fell through the floor, the wooden boards rippling as naturally as a reflecting pool. The walls began to shake, vibrating in unison with her. He began to slip: his consciousness was fading, his heavy lids a great burden that could scarcely be maintained. She was upon him now.
Her form straddled the boy’s chest, her silken hair cascading around his face. Her open mouth neared his, which latched instinctively, teeth grinding at locked lips. With surgical precision, she drove the nails of her thumb and index finger between his lips, and unlocked his jaw with ease. From his stomach he felt a painful churning, acidic and corrosive, he felt a fire bite at his lungs and coil from his throat. From his mouth was born a tendril of smoke and ash that writhed like a serpent from within him and coiled gingerly into her own mouth. He watched as the serpent’s tail slithered over his lips and disappeared between her own. Warm tears began to run down his frozen cheeks, a final sob rocking at his chest. ******
Suddenly the window slammed. The locked door swung gently jar and the light overhead flickered back into its familiar warm glow. His frightened sobs gave way to tears of joy, and the warmth of the room at last surrounded him. Gone was the cold air, gone was the fear, and gone was the woman who ripped that blackness from his chest. Moved now to such great emotion, the boy laughed uncontrollably, racked now with a joy that tickled at his fingers and toes.
“The Nightmare made you see me that way,” spoke a soft voice.
But he did not fear this voice, for it was familiar, almost maternal.
“The Nightmare can make you see terrible things – and distort your reality, the true reality. I drew the beast from within you, so that you might see…”
He opened his eyes, searching the warm glow for the origin of the voice. She stood before him, bedecked in red and gold, attended then by a court of wanton spirits. She was all the more beautiful, even the Nightmare could not destroy that – but no longer was she clad in inky blackness or gossamers, but ornate golden bands and rings and jewels, enrobed in a garment of scarlet silk. The Spirits around her spoke amongst themselves, joking, laughing. Two children played in the hall, laughing gaily, three matronly women – governesses, no doubt – calling after them.
“You have nothing to fear now, little one,” she smiled, “Sleep well…”