Dark and Moving Things
|true story |ghosts |supernatural |fear |imagination |terror
This story was both difficult and cathartic for me to write. Some of you may recognise elements of this that found their way into The Sandman and Crawl. I deliberately employed them in those stories, reasoning that if they scared me, they might just, perhaps, scare others too.
Here though, I have tried to write the 'story' as I actually experienced it (real or imagined) as a young girl. As I wrote, the old, familiar stirrings of dread found their way into my heart and mind. Wanting to hide from it, I had to focus on it instead, in an effort to convey to the reader just how intensely frightening these 'events' were. The physical descriptions of the house and furniture are as I remember them. They were genuinely real. As for the supernatural nature they took on; well, you might have to decide that for yourself.
I am the first to admit that I have a wildly overactive imagination.My family and certain friends will also readily attest to that. Other things may have played upon my psyche too, as a youngster, contributing to these experiences, but some things are best left in the past. At the time, of course, I did not know any of this. All I knew was it felt real, my fear was very real. What other criteria needs to be fulfilled I wonder, for something to be 'real' to a person?
Susannah told herself it was absurd that an armchair, of all things, should give off such an air of menace. It hulked in the corner, its green, faux-leather skin gleaming cold and clammy; looking in the dim light like some giant, venomous amphibian, emanating malice.
Susannah could barely tear her eyes from it, convinced she had seen the fat, padded backrest rise and fall as if breathing. She watched closely, her eyes wide and dry, hardly daring to blink. Any minute now the stiff wooden legs would take a step towards her, she just knew it.
The armchair stayed where it was. Susannah remained tucked under the oval coffee table, her feet curled up into her nylon nightdress. The remains of a fire glowed weakly in the grate, offering little warmth, even less light. A few remnants of coal shifted and settled in the fire basket, offering some small comfort; it was a sound she knew well.
It was followed almost immediately by another she knew just as well, though it was far less welcome.
Tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock… Not the innocent marking of time passing from the large wall-mounted timepiece. This was a hollow sound, coming from deep within the walls. Susannah listened in dread as itgrew slowly nearer. She didn’t want to hear it; she wanted to block her ears, close her eyes and curl her knees up tight to her chest, to bury her face in her lap and arm herself with fervently whispered, desperate prayers for salvation. But the same fear that made her want to hide also meant she did not dare close her eyes or ears in case something nameless and terrible caught her by surprise. So she froze, tense and terrified, listening.
Tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock…. The entire room seemed to have fallen still and silent, as if listening as intently now as Susannah was. Tick-tock-tick – it had rounded the far corner, passing behind the armchair without pause, making its inexorable way across the chimney breast towards her. It always came for her, though when it drew level with her useless hiding place beneath the table it stopped, ticking softly for a while; softer, softer until it faded away altogether. It never did any more than this, its real harm lay in its sinister approach, its steady, unrelenting beat, always leaving her feeling that there was little time left to her; that it was waiting, patient and eternal, in the cool, dusty recesses of the very walls that were meant to keep her safe.
She swore she heard a sigh of relief escape the green armchair when it was clear the tick-tocking had ceased, taking its latent and un-nameable power with it. It was for all the world as if the armchair knew whatever force drove the sound was greater even than its own. She and it shared a surreal moment of collecting themselves; readjusting to the subtly changed atmosphere, before the armchair became aware that it was once again the biggest, baddest being in the room, reasserting its hold over the girl.
Susannah would swear it glared at her, two newly made dimple-eyes in its back appearing to shrink and swivel in her direction. She shut her own eyes tight, hopeful that if she could not see it, it might not see her. She could feel those dimples boring into her; burrowing into her thoughts, searching out her weaknesses. Her eyes snapped open in a flash of defiance as she aimed a thought back at it; “No way! Get out of my head!”
As if shocked at such boldness, the coals in the grate flared suddenly, brought back to momentary glowing life by a breeze that whistled hauntingly down the chimney to echo weirdly round the room.
There was a newspaper on the table top above her, Susannah knew. Her father had been reading it earlier, before he went out. Hungry for more of the light that the embers promised, Susannah untangled her feet from the static-ridden nylon and stretched her arm out, feeling cautiously for the paper. Her touch was timid, half expecting a cold, clammy hand to grab hers and drag her out into the open. She encountered the bruisingly cold edge of an abandoned cup and saucer; the handle of a mug which wobbled at her touch but didn’t quite fall over, before her fingers brushed the edges of the folded paper. She snatched at them hurriedly, panicking as the first few attempts resulted in triangular crumbs of torn paper between her thumb and forefinger. She tried again, more determinedly, and was rewarded with the whole thing.
It came to her untidily, unfolding and shedding its pages as it fell to the floor like the disjointed wings of a wounded bird. She didn’t care; her courage was beginning to fail her. She glanced at the fire, dismayed to see the embers were less fierce now. She retreated under the table, scrunching the paper up into loose balls as she went. She took aim, the first ball barely reaching the hearth before falling harmlessly back onto the rug. The next did little better, bouncing off the iron grating onto the tiles. Trying to compose herself, she tried a third time.
The loose ball landed squarely in the fireplace, unfolding itself a little more in the process. For a dark moment Susannah thought the force of its landing had dampened the flames too completely. Then the paper caught and began to writhe and bend as the new flames ate at it hungrily. Encouraged, she threw two more balls onto the fire, then another, then another and then, desperate to enact her feeble plan, she stood and threw the entire newspaper onto the freshly revived flames.
They leapt, as if vying with one another for the best of the feast. Susannah took in a needy eyeful of the bright warmth, then turned, using the image as fuel to her bravery as she ran to the light switch.
She reached it in good time, the flames still at work on the sacrificed paper. Breathless, Susannah flicked the switch. The room became bathed in a flood of powerful electrical light, banishing the shadows to only the furthest corners and rendering the room suddenly ordinary.
Susannah looked around cautiously. The green armchair had lost its wet look, the dimples had creased and reformed, its back now smooth, the whole thing looking more like an innocent bystander than a willing perpetrator. The flames in the hearth had sunk low, the smell of papery ashes tingeing the air slightly. The coffee table seemed a weak defence, sitting low and stick-like, barely able to withstand the cups resting on it much less an attack of supernatural proportion.
Susannah allowed herself to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, though the laugh was somewhat forced. It hadn’t been funny; not really. It never was. But now the light was on and the room appeared as any other might, and so she laughed, because it was all she knew to do next.
Her laughter fell flat in the dead cold air; the room did not appear to share the joke. She realised again that her feet were cold; that she was cold all over. She would give anything for a pair of socks and her dressing gown; but they were Upstairs, and Upstairs meant opening the living room door and braving the hallway, the stairs themselves and the landing.
It was too overwhelming to consider all at once and so Susannah focused only on the door. ‘One thing at a time,’ she told herself, ‘one thing at a time.’ She had been holding her hand crab-like over the light switch as if guarding it. Now she moved it, resting it lightly on the cold door handle, working herself up to opening it and facing the darkness that she knew lay beyond.
Steeling herself, shivering at more than the chill air, she pushed downwards. The door opened near silently, though as her hand slipped from it, greasy with sweat, the handle flipped up with a metallic twang, incongruous in the circumstances. The sound was like an affront, doing nothing to boost her flagging confidence.
The door had fallen slightly inwards, resting on her bare toes and revealing only a slice of darkness from the hallway beyond. Needing to flood that dense blackness with light before she dared to set foot into it, she stepped back and pulled the door wide.
The area immediately around the door was transformed into a pool of light, clearly showing her the bare lino floor, the cupboard under the stairs and above them the banister rails, like whitewashed bars of a flimsy jail. The edges where the light began to weaken were tinged a strange greyish yellow, leading into increasingly darker shades until once more the thick blackness asserted itself on its furthest borders, as if the hallway had been dip-dyed in shades of night.
This was what she had to conquer next; the hallway. In some ways the most fearful of all her challenges, seeming at times to be the place of greatest danger, the place from which all the unnamed, unwanted forces of this eerie house appeared to emanate; the place in which she felt the most exposed and vulnerable of all.
She risked a look behind her at the living room; nothing had changed, though the newspaper was little more than ash in the grate now. The green armchair; had it moved? Changed position, to better watch her discomfort?
She turned her back on it before her thoughts wandered so freely that she lost control of them; if that happened, she was lost. Let the fat frog chair watch; she had other things to worry about now.
She stepped out onto the lino, cool beneath her already chilled feet. She felt the raised pattern of diamonds push gently into her soles as if reading Braille barefoot, but the symbols told her nothing more than that she was at home. She ignored them, useless to her as they were. They were a distraction, nothing more. She could not allow herself to become distracted; not here.
To her right was the kitchen, the door wide open, giving a clear view down its narrow galley length to the back door, shut to the outside world, the key in the lock like an invitation. The darkness outside seemed lighter than in here; the moon was high and bright, indifferent in the sky, oblivious to her plight, seemingly content in its position high above her. She sneered at it and turned to her left.
The small area inside the front door, the square of tiles, the mirror on the right, coat hooks on the left at the foot of the stairs, was what they called ‘the hallway.’ A grand title it did not match up to. She walked hesitatingly towards it, careful to keep her arms at her sides in case of grabbing hands reaching through the banister bars. She passed the door of the front room on her way, always shut, always unwelcoming, a room she rarely stepped into and never alone. That room did not want her in there, she knew that absolutely. No matter to her; it was not a room she wanted to be in. If it left her alone she was more than willing to return the favour.
There was a knock as she passed; a slight tapping sound that came from behind it, gentle, almost imperceptible but enough to make her freeze, statue-like, in dread of more to come. It felt like an age before she could will her legs to move again, her heart as overworked as her imagination as she passed beyond it and drew level with the mirror.
The mirror confused her. In daylight, surrounded by her family, it appeared friendly; a frame to all the good things in her life. Yet at night, alone, it took on another persona, as if something hid just out of sight beneath the age mottled glass; something ugly and spiteful that pretended to smile when the sun shone; a smile that turned to a black-toothed, gaping grimace when night fell, telling her that she was the only one who knew its true character. It seemed to dare her, sure that she would never give voice to her suspicions and give its existence away to any other living soul. It was right; for reasons Susannah could never have explained, she would never breathe a word of it to anyone. This was her terror, her fear, her own private despair; this could never be shared.
She kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she passed the mirror by, determined not to look into it, sensing its disappointment. The stairs lay before her, carpeted in dark brown, little brass arms either side of each stair holding the carpet in place. As a small child those arms had fascinated her. She had spent many content moments flipping the ones on the lower stairs up and then down, up and then down, absorbing the strangely familiar aroma of old carpet, dust, floorboards and a slight tinge of polish as she did so, whilst her mother busied herself in the kitchen which always seemed so full of steam, life and above all, light.
Light. The stairs were dark and looming. There were two light switches set into the wall, one for the hallway light, a bare bulb that hung, defeated, somewhere above and to the left of her head, the other for the light that was poised more assertively over the landing, serving as a light source for the stairs too.
This was the point at which she was most likely to give in to her fear. Although she knew flicking the switch could bring her light, it could also bring with it a battle she was not often equal to. There was a companion switch at the top of the stairs which operated the same light. Many times, Susannah had switched it on at one end, only to have it switched impossibly off at the other, when there was no-one there to flick the switch. It was an action which reduced her to tears, sending her to her knees, sobbing, gasping for breath when alone, or else screaming, screaming, screaming for help to her bewildered family, who had long since ceased to come running and instead came wearily, more often than not scolding her for jumpiness and sending her to bed; could she not see the light was on, silly hysterical girl?
It was a fight no-one else witnessed and therefore no-one else ever believed in. But she knew it was real and she dreaded it.
There was no way she would even contemplate breaching the stairs in the dark, so she had no choice. Her hand shaking violently, she reached up and turned it on.
The response above was bright and immediate. The stairs were swept with light, welcoming and encouraging. It was a clever ploy to tempt her upwards, but Susannah knew better. Keeping her hand on the switch, she mounted the first step; then the second; then the third, the stretch to the switch becoming more difficult, her fingers barely reaching the edge of the square plastic it was embedded in. She knew the next step up would render it totally out of reach, but there was nothing for it; she had to keep going.
Step four swept her unwilling fingers beyond the reach of the light switch as she had known it would, her fingers brushing over the ancient flock wallpaper with a gentle rustling sound. She stood still and tense; nothing happened. The light stayed on, she remained bathed in safety. Warily she took the next stair, knowing there were seven more to the top. Growing in confidence she took the next two stairs more quickly, then the next, then the next.
She was two stairs away from the landing, horribly out of reach of both sets of switches, when the light flicked noisily off. She was plunged into darkness, sudden and unwelcome, heavier and colder than before and full of capable menace. Unable to see much past her own hand, Susannah anyway shut her eyes against the hulking, shapeless forms she knew would begin to shift and form, jerking and leering towards her as she stood trapped upon the stairs.
This was her one small defence; it was all she had and all she knew to do. Screwing her eyes so tightly shut that small stars erupted and burst behind the lids, she felt her way to the top stair, feeling the smooth gloss paint that topped the banister, the harsh plastic grating of the lid of the wash basket and then, terrifyingly, nothing but cold air that represented the gap between her and her bedroom door; salvation, of a kind.
The deceitful light switches were in the wall next to her door frame, but she no longer trusted them. Worse, she dreaded contact with the invisible hand that had switched them off. What if was still there, crouched and waiting to act again? She never even considered attempting to turn them back on. Her only focus now was her bedroom door; she had just enough energy to get her that far, as long as she remained unmolested on her way.
Stifling a whimper that clogged in her throat, Susannah took the leap. Her already heightened imagination burst into unhelpful life, showing her images of skeletal faces, dripping frames, gorged flesh all reaching out to her as if hungry or desperate; craven images that weren’t reaching, but ripping. Not yearning, but grasping, tearing, sharp-edged and eager at her in the blackness.
She reached her door untouched and fell against it, shoving it open with her hip and slamming it behind her, leaning against it to add her flimsy weight to her defence.
A soft laugh floated on the air behind the closed door; evaporating into nothing, leaving her wondering if she had really heard it at all.
She reached expertly up and flicked on her own light with practiced ease, her eyes still firmly closed. It was only when she heard its reassuring click that she finally opened her eyes, blinking back tears and allowing her vision to readjust.
She went to her bedside and switched on her lamp, eager for more brightness to fight back the evil darkness. She opened her curtains wide, praying the moon would finally see her distress and join in with its bright beams, searching out and illuminating the deepest pockets of night.
Then she hid herself beneath her bedclothes, wrapping them tightly around her, forcing her breathing to slow, her mind to stop racing; wishing fervently that her parents would hurry home.
At last, exhausted and wrung out with the exertions of survival, Susannah slept. Her last thought as she gratefully succumbed to oblivion was that she had better get as much rest as she could.
For she knew those horrors, those manifest, subtle hauntings, were not gone. Perhaps they slept too, gathering their strength just as Susannah did; until tomorrow night, when they would once again try to paralyse her with fear and have their way with her, whatever that might be.
In her sleep, Susannah muttered something guttural and strange. She tossed and turned, her features twisted in fear yet somehow defiant; she would not give in.
Downstairs, in the living room, there came a sound like a leathery groan. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but for an instant it looked for all the world like the padded, cushioned back of the old green armchair had two broad eyebrows, pulled into an expression something like a frown…
S P Oldham