Not Haunted By Rachel Watts

 

Delia was a sensible woman and on the morning of the sixth day she told herself sternly that the house was most likely, very definitely probably, not haunted. Besides, she was in her 60s already, deathly ill, and simply didn’t have time for hauntings.

The spirits watched with growing curiosity.

By this time, she had been awake for five nights. The phone rang unanswered in the kitchen after missed hospital appointments. Her body rebelled to even the smallest movement, aching from exhaustion and too long in the same position. And that was aside from the way it was destroying itself on a cellular level. Taking itself apart, piece by piece.

The room was small, but enough for one old lady, as she told the agent when she moved in. Furnished by the previous owner, or one of many owners before that, the décor was dark, burgundy fabrics and spindle legs in wood that was almost black. Crucially for her current concerns, it was small enough for her to be able to see every corner at once, so long as she kept her back securely against this one wall, so long as the lights stayed on.

Delia had moved to the old house alone after Henry died and the kids had moved out even before that, one after another, home life growing a little calmer and more contained each time. Eventually, after she buried her husband, she took the furnished and equipped 150-year-old cottage for a price so low even the agent who sold it to her looked awkward. The property had some history, the agent had said, duty of disclosure and all that. Well, at her age Delia had history too. She’d always wanted an old house, something with character, and maybe a little cottage garden. Henry had said it would be too much upkeep. But now she could live wherever she wanted. She moved in with just a suitcase.

The months passed quietly, as Delia made simple meals for one in pots cast at the turn of the last century. Solitude agreed with her. She spent her time cleaning the four long unoccupied rooms, sweeping the dark floor boards that seemed eternally dusty, and polishing the big ornate mirror in the bathroom. The ramshackle little garden was charming enough, so she left it almost as it was, carving narrow paths on the soft earth from the back door to the potting shed and the clothes line. She’d refused to move to the home the doctor suggested. Then she knocked back suggestions of a regular carer.

“I’m dying, not incapable,” she had said.

If she had sensed eyes following her as she pottered up and down the hallway that was the spine of the building she didn’t admit it even to herself. She was a sensible woman.

Now she wasn’t so sure.

The changes had started with the creaks in the night. Creaks that were more pointed than any house seemed to have a right to, sounds that woke her with a start.

Normal, Delia thought, nothing to lose one’s mind over. All houses breathed and moaned at night, especially old ones, so they said. She was just sensitive because of the chemo treatments. And sure, a few wobbly floorboards were all it took for the sound of a child’s night-time footsteps to make their way up the hall.  One-hundred-year-old floorboards don’t need much prompting to offer that small disturbance. Though it was strange to note the shadowy little footprints each morning.

Call handyman, she scratched on the notepad next to the phone and the list of emergency medical numbers. Perhaps the stumps needed fixing. That was probably it.

And then the house key started disappearing.

Back in her day she never used to lock the doors while she was home, and not always when she went out either. But things were different back then, and now the police said to keep the doors locked even when you’re home, especially at night – there’s all sorts of strange folks about at night, so they said. Her new home had solid wood doors and satisfyingly mechanical cast iron fittings. A door to die for, Delia thought every time she opened or closed one. They don’t make them like this anymore. The front door in particular: it was a door that could repel an invading army, and possibly had.

So, when she came home, she opened the front door just a slither and slipped inside quickly, almost too eager to have its oak weight closed behind her. She locked it with the skeleton key from the inside, and left the key in what she was certain was its usual spot: in a dish on a little table in the hall. Another blessing from a previous owner.

Except, when she returned they would be gone, and she would find them on the kitchen bench, or in the sitting room hours later.

“Ridiculous absent-mindedness,” she muttered to herself, finding the keys under an old embroidered cushion while the impatient postman bent to place a package at the front stoop. “How can a woman get locked in her own house?”

One time they were in the refrigerator. Now, that was odd.

“I must be losing my mind,” she said out loud, just for the comfort of hearing her own voice. The spirits did not respond.

She thought about how it would feel to explain it all to the girls at the badminton club. They would laugh it off and tease her and at least that would be normal. Normal is good. But something about the cold chill of finding the house keys behind the access panel in the ceiling suggested it would, in fact, not be normal to mention to the girls. So, she resolved to say nothing. Best not bother anyone.

What changed everything was The Woman in the bathroom.

The Woman didn’t do anything per se, was barely there really, just a strong impression. The mirror would mist over and dark hair drifted like seaweed through the red stained water, though the big clawfoot bath had not been filled since Delia moved in. Sometimes it seemed the woman had just left the bathroom, her perfume lingering in the air. Strange perfume too, nothing Delia owned, not a scent she especially liked either. It was a woody scent and made Delia think of moss clinging to ancient trees, buttress roots and the occasional spell cast by moonlight.

Eventually, Delia declared the bathroom off limits. Particularly after the night the spidery letters appeared on the mirror’s surface.

It had been a wet week, the rain so dense it drew a veil around the old cottage on the hill. Delia had just stepped out of the shower when she noticed the writing, drawn in steam on the glass. She had needed to get her glasses to read it, eventually finding them behind the locked door of the potting shed for reasons she couldn’t fathom. She crept along the narrow path through the overgrown garden, into the house and back to the bathroom silently, as though trying not to disturb whatever lived there. The moonlight shining through the window cast strange shadows in the room. There, on the ornate mirror, the letters were clear in wandering capitals.

DIE WITH US

Behind her The Child’s footsteps sounded, little running feet away down the hall.

Delia’s skin turned to gooseflesh and she turned to half-run, floorboards carrying the sound of her panic. She fled to the sitting room, slamming the heavy door behind her, and stood panting with her back against the wall, just so. And all the lights on.

“I’ll need someone to replace the mirror,” she told herself under her breath. “Maybe it cracked somehow. Maybe I imagined. . . everything else.”

She had developed a habit of talking to herself, just for the company, and she now realised she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen anyone else. A vision of the brightly lit and cheerfully anonymous cafes at the end of the street loomed in her mind. It occurred to her that perhaps she could walk there, right this second, cancer or no cancer, and she edged out of the room, her back to the door jamb, eyes probing everywhere, and reached out for the front door key on the little tray on the hall table. It was, of course, not there. Her hand, splayed in panic across the little bowl, felt dipped into an icy bath. She drew it back into the room, so pale as to be almost translucent, little cluster of veins at the wrist deathly blue. Adrenalin and cancer flooding her brain, she slammed the sitting room door and returned to her position, back to the wall. The lights started to flicker.

The spirits watched and waited.

They saw Delia’s aching, self-destructing body.

The Woman paced the floorboards in the moonlight that shone through the leadlight glass in the front door, her hair hanging wet and stringy down her bare back. Her son ran up and down the hall, his slit throat black in the half-light.

The Man stood outside on the porch, glowering at the front door, a dark temperament hanging from him as new storm clouds rolled in. The thunder rolled over the tableau. That door could repel an invading army. But only when it stayed closed.

The spirits saw more than Delia could, of course. Call it cancer, call it an untimely end, the old lady would never leave. And the house key, treacherous thing, had eluded her for the last time.

The spirits had been thorough, The Child’s tiny hand had slipped its dark weight into the letterbox.

Of the house at the other end of the street.

Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Practice and teaches creative writing to adults and teenagers. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018.

 


Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Practice and teaches creative writing to adults and teenagers. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018.