This was going to be so good!
He straightened, his face pulled taut and the bottled glee lit up everything in his bright blue eyes. His lips pressed together into a thin line, pulling back at everything he had to say. Control was difficult; the laughter and anticipation was burning in his chest and he swore she could sense it bubbling away inside of him. It was a kind of lunacy, an exhilaration that only came with waiting and the knowing of what was about to happen…
She halted mid-step and he almost ran into her back. He mastered the monumental urge to push her forwards. What was her delay?
“What exactly are we doing here?” Sarah asked, the cloying tone of suspicion making him freeze in panic. Jason told himself to relax and act natural. He took a sweeping glance at the tranquil surrounds that wrapped around them both like a quilt and fervently hoped he had given nothing away.
The afternoon was dulling, tarnishing with the progression of time. A burnished light peeked through the deadened, dark trees but it was cold and growing colder as they stood. In the middle of this quiet wilderness was the house and it looked like a mistake, obviously something that someone had abandoned to be reclaimed by nature. With a little stretch of the imagination you could see that when it had been constructed it was neat and angular; the last vestiges of white and emerald green paint clung to the cracks and crevasses between sections of the house. The windows were tiny and those old sliding things that got jammed all the time and were half opaque. Wildflowers had decorated the back end of the house, slowly creeping their tentative fingers against gravity and up onto the dented roof. Bits of rusted metal that might have been anything years ago – bikes, chains, padlocks, fence poles – peeped out from the long grass. It was a very dead place and nature was doing its best to eradicate the last gasps of it.
Jason gestured a little helplessly with his hands and flashed Sarah a lopsided grin. She just stared and waited, hands on her hips.
It was a condescending pose that Jason knew well. Sarah was a kaleidoscope of contradictions. Typically, the first thing anyone noticed about her was that she was built fit and muscular for a girl. She wasn't bulky - not by any means of the imagination - but to anyone she appeared solid and lithe. But what became quickly evident about Sarah with a little conversation was her incredible intelligence. Her mind moved at speeds others could not even dream of and she made connections, associations, solutions, conclusions and observations at a blindingly quick pace. Her ferocious intellect, together with her complete inability to consider the opinions of others as remotely significant upon herself unless they were more correct, generally made the most impact upon a stranger's impression of Sarah. She was too taciturn for most people’s taste but Jason admired her resilience and her ferocious intellect. She was an impossibly methodical, blunt girl and although their relationship was an odd one, he very much thought of her as ‘one of the guys’ and was constantly on a mission to surprise her.
Hence their slight detour out this way. He could hardly wait. Oh god, he couldn't wait to see the look on her face...
“We are just having a look at the… local real estate.” Jason wiped his mouth. The joke seemed to do little to ease her tight suspicion. “It’s just something to do…” He gestured, a flamboyant show of twirling hands and a mocking bow. A subtle challenge. “Ladies first.”
Sarah was immobile for a moment and his request hung in the air.
“You’re hiding something,” she told him but did as she was bid, carefully picking her way up the dirt path to the front door of the house.
It didn’t spoil his anticipation in the slightest. She might have been able to spot him concealing something but what that something was… The mystery that must have been gnawing at her was intoxicating. He told himself to settle but the thought of her expression had him giddy.
The small rectangular porch was littered with stuff that was either broken, rotted or now part of the wilderness. Vines ensnared what may have been a chair once upon a time, curling through the cracked seat, pinning it resolutely to the ground. A mouldy bin overflowing with leaves slumped against the side of the house, a decrepit fixture in use no more. Everything smelt of that potent, moist scent of the bush – something that hinted at fresh rain with a cloying sweetness and tones of musk. Crickets chirruped. The air was still. Everything was holding its breath, along with Jason.
Sarah inspected the doorframe and a small moue of disgust crossed her face. She wrapped her hand in her shirt and used it to push against what remained of the door. It swung inwards easily.
“Well, someone’s been here recently,” she muttered, almost to herself.
“How’d you figure that?” Jason demanded, hoping that she wouldn’t figure it out too soon and spoil the game. She turned in one fluid motion to fix him with an astonishingly cutting ‘mother, please’ expression.
“Old doors don’t just hang ajar, genius. Someone else got it open.” She pointed at some marks on the ground. From the long grooves left behind, Jason guessed it must have taken a hell of a lot of force to knock that thing open.
He didn’t reply. She shook her head and stepped inside.
The smells of the bush fell away once the two of them were inside. Some element in the room – the moisture in the walls perhaps - stank of something awful. Jason tasted something disgusting and had to swallow it. He hadn’t realised it would be this pungent in here.
Sarah didn’t seem to notice the smell or if she did, she ignored it.
“I… Jason…” Sarah’s voice barely rose above a whisper. “I think…”
Then she stopped. Jason’s nervous energy faded a little. This wasn’t happening as he had envisioned.
Sarah inched forward, extremely cautious of where she was putting her feet with every step she took. Her boots wouldn’t be much good against a rusty nail. Her toe brushed the remnants of a low table and something rustled, sprinting away from her. Jason smothered a shriek. This visit was derailing from what he had imagined and he wasn’t so keen on venturing anymore.
They crept through the living room, towards the staircase. The house moaned and creaked; the scratch-scratch sound of animals against the wood occasionally interrupted, together with the noises of the enfolding night that were quite loud through the thin walls.
Jason hadn’t realised what time it was. Had they really only been here a few minutes? It was icy. Goosebumps crawled over his flesh and he rubbed his bare arms in an unconscious effort to make them disappear.
They crept onwards, Sarah in the lead. The seconds stretched out. Jason felt distinctly uncomfortable and with every moment that passed, his uneasiness grew. His original plan had fallen flat. Where was Kiel? He was supposed to be hiding just inside the door, waiting to jump out to give Sarah the fright of her life.
They had planned this, so where the hell was he?
And stoic Sarah, the girl who was usually nothing more than an emotionless husk, had a wild glint in her eye. Jason had never seen that sort of gleam before, in all the years he’d known her. Was it awe? Was it eagerness? Was the joke on him?
No, it couldn’t be. Not Sarah. Not the straightforward, practical, hard woman he’d known since they were both toddlers. It wasn’t her style. This place was spooky, that was all. Fear made the eyes find scary things in innocent places.
“Look at this!” Sarah exclaimed. Jason wheeled around and almost screamed.
The wall on one side had bulged but the way it had bulged made it look like faces were tearing out of the structure, their mouths gaping unbearably wide, and black pits for eyes staring beseechingly in a silent scream that never ended. There were dozens of them, all the way along the wall, all looking at him, all desperately trying to communicate something but locked in that one horrifying, frozen scream. Jason felt as though he was falling into those cavernous mouths. Their expressions were beleaguered, their flesh stretched out from the wood - these foul ghouls fixed forever in their last apocalyptic moment of torment…
“Woah. Hey, Jason,” Sarah’s warm hand touched his back. Jason realised that he felt light-headed. “Are you okay? You’re really pale.”
She moved in front of him. Her mousy features shielded him from that terrible view and he realised he was panicking. His heart was suddenly a fierce beast in his chest, trapped and beating at his chest in a desperate effort to get out. Sarah touched his cheek and he felt something that he hadn’t felt since he was five years old and he was convinced that there was a monster waiting under his bed for him to expose even the slightest bit of toe to the air.
This is bad. His thoughts whirled about and tangled in on themselves. This is very, very bad. We have to get out. Right now. Right this second.
“I’m…” His lips were numb and trembling. In his head, something was slipping. “Sarah…”
“Jason. Relax.” Her pert demand was sharp. “Just relax.”
There was a ringing in his ears. It sounded like a train whistle, high and piercing.
“Sarah… Kiel is supposed to be… Kiel and I…”
Why can’t I say it? Jason’s head was a hurricane of alarm. Why can’t I think straight?
His heart beat out a hard, staccato warning against his ribs.
Get out. Get out. Get out.
Sarah had his shoulders and was shaking him.
Get out. Run.
“Jason? Talk to me. What’s wrong with you?”
It happened then, while Jason was fighting unconsciousness in the middle of an anxiety attack and Sarah was pleading with him. There was an almighty creak, the distinct sound of wood snapping and the buckle of weight and then, from the very top of the flight of stairs a great mass dropped down almost on top of them. Dust shot up where it landed and the great, flopping noise of it crashing down was sickening.
Jason tried to scream in horror but he couldn’t suck in enough air and it lodged in his throat. The body had fallen, smacked down like a slab of meat and draped over a mound of soil and grass growing in the centre of the room. It slumped there like a marionette with the strings cut. He saw the deathly pallor of dead flesh, the zombified face of the corpse, wide-eyed and slack-jawed with black blood marring its neck… And he recognised it.
They had found what was left of Kiel.
Years later, Sarah was able to muster the fortitude to return to that house. Jason was committed to a psychiatric unit and had to take a rainbow of pills and spend hours in therapy for the trauma he’d sustained. He woke at night sometimes, his nurse said, gasping in the middle of a delusional episode about all the faces on the walls, those horrible yelling faces, moaning about his dead friend at the top of the staircase, screaming...
Sarah supposed that it was a kind of guilt that made her drive out this way again after all this time. Guilt and resolve to see things finished. She thought that perhaps there were some things that festered inside people for so long that to face the reality of what it was now, in the here and now, would wreck them. Jason had suffered so much after his stunt that had gone wrong and found no closure. They never really had figured out what had happened. All they knew was Kiel was dead and it had happened in that house.
But she could see things finished. It wouldn’t wreck her.
It’s just a house, Sarah rationalised to herself. Just a house.
There was a bakery that smelt irresistible so she bought herself a bagel and a juice on the way. She knew that some would consider it weird that she could eat her fill so calmly before revisiting the scene of old nightmares but Sarah didn’t care. She wished Jason could have come with her, though. Maybe some of his ghosts would have been put to rest if he had been able to manage it.
Maybe he could have told her not to bring the thing she had buried deep in her left pocket.
The drive wasn’t far and the scenery was quite lovely. Places where horrible things happened weren’t necessarily horrible themselves. Sarah could appreciate that.
Then there it was. It hadn’t decayed much since the police had ransacked it all that time ago. There were a few more holes in the walls now, to be sure, some major structural damage. Those blackened looming trees, the silent sentinels of that house, seemed to appraise her. Sarah shut the car door with a little more strength than was necessary and almost spooked herself.
Ghosts didn’t linger but memories could. Sarah’s skin prickled.
Stop being so frightened, she instructed herself. It’s just a house. It can’t hurt you.
The door was still ajar. Sarah retraced her own timid footsteps. It no longer stank so badly in that house, now that the body had been long removed and the gentle tug of nature had dragged most of the house’s innards to be exposed to the elements. The conversion was almost complete. The house was a wretched shell with nothing left inside but memories. The ‘faces’ on the wall had long since degraded, to be etched out of existence by mould and moss.
Sarah painstakingly dragged what little dry wood she could find into a pile against the sturdiest wall that remained. It took her a good half an hour but she made a tepee of sorts and packed in some of her bagel’s paper packet for tinder. The cardboard juice box was tossed in too. Then she fished the box of matches out of her left pocket and lit one. Warm, red light spilt over her fingers.
It’s just a house.
Just the house.
But house or not, the memories clung to her and cut her deep within. Sorrow and guilt and horror were not things she wanted to hang onto any longer. The improvised tepee of tinder caught alight and Sarah trekked back outside to watch the house burn. Flame was dancing up the walls and shining out of those tacky windows within a couple of minutes. By the time she was satisfied that the fire would catch and smoke had begun to etch the orange sky, it was time she required her headlights on to drive away.
It’s not a house anymore.
Sarah trailed off down the road and didn’t look back.