In the end, it always came down to a house.
The woman stood alone on the street. The streetlights spun golden halos behind her, but nothing could push back the dark emanating from the house. A low rumble in the distance. The highway? Thunder? Something else entirely? No way to tell. A caul of clouds had crept across the sky, muffling the stars. The black around her thick and cold, even the air itself heavy and damp. Expectant. The woman who stood alone on the street took one last look around her, then began the walk up to the house.
Stephanie had already broken one of her rules for this by coming at night. Every amateur ghost-hunter with a night-vision setting on their camera was proud to break into old hospitals or apartment blocs then act as if they’d accomplished something miraculous by catching an artifact of light on the recording. As if ghosts cared about what time of day it was. As if they cared about anything at all. But the academy didn’t understand that, nor did the public. If she wanted to ever tell this story, she needed to do so professionally, not by falling into the traps so carefully laid-out for her by the charlatans. The nighttime visit had had been necessary; this was the closest she’d come in years, and she wouldn’t waste that chance. She couldn’t risk the cops getting called on her for poking around an old house. She promised herself that she’d do the rest the right way. Her way.
What might happen if she were caught? A part of her had almost considered it, just to see how the situation would proceed. She’d tried to research the address, but couldn’t find any record of its construction in city records. Moreover, there was no sign the people in the neighbourhood had ever considered the house. True, the house itself was not particularly remarkable; as an off-white two-storey home turned faintly yellow with time, constructed in a style some thirty years out of date, it failed to stand out among the busier homes on the street for anything more than having an overgrown, weedy lawn. Suburban development had passed through this section of Kingston years prior, and now the residents were focused on renovations and property revaluations. Stephanie wondered if the comparative lack of development was due to a heritage designation — maybe, she considered, the owner simply wished to sit on a museum piece — but could find no evidence that this had ever existed. In fact, she could find no zoning information for the house at all. From all appearances, it was a forgotten artifact of a different city.
When Stephanie reached the front porch, she stopped. A couple of cracked concrete steps sat half-sunk and led up to a squat plateau. A wilted plant crept out from the crevices. Nothing stood on the porch to distract from the flat, unmarked door. A single thumb-sized hook poked out from the wooden awning over the short patio and wept rusty water in the damp night. Stephanie regarded this for a moment, somehow discomfited by this, the first sign of habitation she’d seen in this place. She looked over her shoulder, back at the night. The short distance from the porch to the street seemed somehow lengthened, as if the walkway had unrolled itself, a chameleonic asphalt tongue. Anticipation and fear swelled inside her. This part never made the stories, she reflected. She promised herself that the only lie she’d ever tell was that she wasn’t afraid.
She watched as her hand floated up to the knob. Couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t try to stop it. The brass was dull with time and weather, but unmarred by actual use. Her hand gripped it. Turned. It was locked. Of course it was locked. She hadn’t actually expected it to be open, had she? She stepped back and down from the porch. She took quick glances up and down the street to confirm it was still empty, then began to peer into the windows. They were slightly above eye-level and so she had to step on her tip-toes to see inside. The first was blocked by some thin curtain, preventing her from seeing anything more than faint shapes in the dark. The second, around the side of the house, proved more fruitful; part of the curtain here had been torn away, revealing the room beyond. It had evidently been some kind of sitting-room, judging from the furniture arrayed within. The shape of a sofa and armchair could be seen underneath great tarpaulin sheets like the kind movers used. There was a rug rolled up and leaning on the wall behind it. A single clock with a different songbird at each hour mark waited to be set.
Stephanie considered the next steps. She had all the proof she needed that the house wasn’t occupied, and yet the next part gave her pause. She knew it was her only way forward — the police certainly weren’t going to do anything, and she didn’t have any solid proof that the Bric-a-Brac Man had stayed here while stalking Jeffrey King. If she tried anything by the proper authorities, the best case scenario was that she lost her lead. The worst-case scenario involved an asylum.
She returned to the front lawn, eyes scanning the overgrown grass. Annoyingly, the lawn was remarkably free of detritus, despite the lack of maintenance, but she eventually found a rounded rock roughly the size of a tennis ball. A strange thrill grew inside of her, pushing out the fear. She realized it was more than just a window. The rock in her hand felt heavy with portent. Years of dogged pursuit had led to this. A heady rush filled her and she curled her fingers around the rock and wound back her arm.
It was then she realized that the front door had opened and now stood ajar. A vertical black line welcomed her.
The rock fell from Stephanie’s fingers. She walked up the stairs and pushed the door wide before being swallowed by the darkness beyond.
Motes of dust danced in thin beams of streetlight. The door shut behind Stephanie and a silence unlike anything she’d ever heard fell over the place. The foyer itself was cramped and cold, but as she stepped into the sitting-room adjacent, she noticed a strange humidity dappling on her skin that reminded her of a time she’d been sick while visiting relatives in Florida.
The feeling did not pass as she explored deeper into the house. She passed through the heavy shapes in the sitting-room and on to the kitchen, where the regular black-and-white of the linoleum told her more about the house than she’d ever gotten from walking around the perimeter. Drawers hung open half-tacked and emptied of anything worthwhile; a matchbook reading SAVE NOW BUY TODAY over a laminated graphic of an ancient Mazda shouted at her from its shadowed corner. Her hands found it and clutched it, figuring that any physical evidence from this place could be useful in some capacity.
She peered out the kitchen window to the spot in the backyard when picketed fence turned into gnarled and overgrown hedge. Beyond it was a trampoline. Old ivy rust-trails curled around the trampoline’s masts. Grass grew long up against its feet and watching it Stephanie found herself
into a memory. She was back in a kitchen, not this grimy dark nightlit kitchen but rather one of gleaming browns, an earthy place with adobe walls and outside the sun was shining hot and bright in that extra energetic way that seems to slow down time itself. A girl sat across from her and she had an Eggo waffle in her right hand and blueberries lay on the plate underneath it, floes on a sea of syrup. She saw Stephanie and she smiled at her and Stephanie smiled back and then the world outside spun, day to night to day to night to day to night, two seasons long, until the world was dark and blue in that cold southern way. They sat around a Christmas tree and the night sat next to them patient, it was time and Stephanie didn’t know it, how could she know it? If she had known she could have said something maybe even done something and of course that wasn’t possible but it didn’t matter because no matter what she thought of
Katie was still dead. Stephanie was back in that quiet kitchen. She pulled herself from the window and walked round through the sitting room back to the foyer where the staircase climbed upstairs. Stephanie considered this option for a long moment before she realized something and returned around to the opposite side of this staircase, set between the kitchen and the dining room, to see another door. She pulled and opened it and another set of stairs fell away before her.
The staircase managed to combine all of the most frightening configurations of staircases together. First, it opened up with a steep and narrow view of the decline into the earth, a yawning black space that swallowed the light. The stairs were set not with wood, but rather had been carved into granite steps and inset to the earth such that they curved slightly and were angled irregularly as one descended. The ceiling was slightly too low, and the whole space rang with sounds of water dripping that echoed and bounced in that too-small space.
The staircase creaked under her weight as she took the first step. Only a faint filter of light from somewhere outside was able to creep through the hallway and down through this door to a thin line along the wall carved in blue-grey. Stephanie’s face passed through it but briefly as she descended and for a moment she looked to all the world like the girl who’d woken up Christmas morning excited to spend the day with her sister, the happiest she’d ever been and could ever hope to be. Then the light passed and the world swept back to the place where time had brought it, and she was a scared scholar, pressing her way downward into a stony dark. It took her too long to reach the bottom but at last her footsteps scratched against the stoop and she stepped forward to the next step and found that there wasn’t one — she’d arrived.
There was a hallway under the house. Stephanie thought about this for a moment and how many houses she’d been to that had hallways in their basement and she realized then that something about the thought of a hallway under a house was strangely discomfiting to her, and so standing there in a black so inviolately bleak and still she found herself struck then with the first true creeping sense of fear. The basement was warmer still than the main level of the house had been and Stephanie found her flashlight at last and an arc of light split out from it, not so much illuminating the dark as pushing it aside. Stephanie scanned the walls with the light as she advanced deeper into the basement where even the stone-and-earth walls began to degrade and turn more into packed hardsoil where the roof began to climb in and roots spun out varicose from the walls and at last she came to a door under the house where all the heat seemed to be held. She placed her hand on the door and felt a pallid warmth underneath her fingers. They crawled down to the latch and released the door.
It swung open and inwards into a space womblike and old, a place that stunk of a faint musk as if something dead had recently been removed. Fibrous streamers drew themselves half-taut across the ceiling of that place, gathering around a bulbous pink-and-ochre pod. The light fell across this too and Stephanie looked up to where the pod had burst open, ragged tissue hanging dead now above her, spatting some strange plasm across the ceiling. It had stained and flaked like old paint. Stephanie traced her light across all of this until it landed on a small shape, covered by linen. The cloth was stained dark brown and it grew in a whorl from the center of the shape, disappearing to feathering lines at the very edges. A horrible well opened up in the very bottom of her stomach. Stephanie knew what was under there, and she knew now the terrible truth:
The Bric-a-Brac Man was nothing supernatural. There had never been any ghosts haunting this house. It was creepy and old and dank and yet it was nothing more than a house, a staging ground for the creature’s hunt, or perhaps a place for it to rest while it digested. Stephanie pulled out her phone to dial for help, then realized how it all might look. An anonymous tip would be better. Something to point the police in the right direction. They would likely censor all mention of the organic debris stuck to the walls, but at least they would find the body. At least Jeffrey King’s family would have answers.
And Katie? asked a voice. What about her? You know what this means.
Stephanie pushed the voice away. There’d be time for it later. The walls around her felt as if they’d begun to close. The stone but inches away from her skin. She turned her body sideways and slid through the halls, holding her breath as if the air had turned miasmic. Earth turned to stone turned to wood as she wended her way along, until at last she was at the bottom of the stairs. The clouds must have cleared because moonlight shone cold white light through to the landing. She began her ascent, her mind filled with memories of childhood, of running up the stairs from the basement on her hands-and-feet with Katie so that they might go faster, might escape whatever it was that surely lurked below with silvered teeth and pointed claw.
This thought was torn away from her by a shadow filling the doorway. It was then that Stephanie received an answer to a question she’d yet to ask. The front door had not responded to her ministrations at the windows, nor had a ghost swung the way open for her.
It had opened because somebody was home.
Stephanie opened her mouth to scream. The basement door slammed shut.