An Unusual Excorcism by Maria Dean


All is quiet, nothing stirs. It is as if the night has spread a heavy blanket over the house and told it not to move. Even the air appears to have powered down, floating aimlessly as if in a gravity-free chamber. All I hear is the insistent ticking of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece, each deafening stroke slowly counting down the infernal hours until the light will return, and the house will breathe again.

I wait patiently at my post for the rest of the house to wake. These hours of lifelessness are my least favourite. It is during this nothingness that my mind begins to wander to darker places, of times before and things yet to come. I try to steer from these thoughts, from dipping a toe into the murky waters of what has been. I think of the here and now. Of Harry.

He will be awake soon and the house will come alive. He will charge from room to room, his blond hair billowing, his screams of laughter filling every crevice and bouncing off every surface, filling my ears with a sound that I have longed for all my life. His infectious energy will restore me and keep the old cobwebs at bay.

It is when the daylight, much like illuminated fingers, has begun to grapple with the edges of the heavy curtains when I hear his feet on the stairs. It seems impossible for a seven-year-old to make such a din. He thuds down each step as though he is stamping out a fire.

I wonder what he will be wearing today. Shorts, no socks − he hasn’t the time for such trivial items of clothing. His T-shirt will have some smart slogan across the front like Too Cool For School or just the word Trouble in capital letters. The anticipation of his entrance is almost too much: like a child on Christmas day, I can’t wait for his arrival. 

He bursts into the room like a firework. His hair is stuck up, his T-shirt on back to front although it probably isn’t a T-shirt at all; it could be a bulletproof vest or a scuba diving outfit depending on this morning’s assignment. I can barely contain my joy at seeing him, larger than life, bounding through the room as if the cavalry were after him.

He stops suddenly and stands with his arms raised at the side of his head and I recognise immediately that he is brandishing an assault rifle − the weapon of choice these last few days. His back is against the closed door, and he is looking around the room for some imposter that must have stowed away during the night. He gives the room one last sweep before he looks at me.

“Shush,” he tells me. I nod at him. I don’t dare to disobey with a mission as important as this one appears to be. “Not a word,” he whispers. “The enemy is on his way.” We share a look before Len’s voice bellows down the hall.

“Harry!” he calls, “breakfast is ready.” Harry rolls his eyes and lowers his weapon, his arms hanging limply by his sides. He turns and opens the door, his body half out when he spins around and looks back at me. “Remember, Hetty, not a word.” He then attempts a conspiratorial wink, but it comes across as more of a facial tic before sliding out of the room.

He returns later, with jam smeared across his face and toast crumbs down his front. 

He reminds me to be quiet with a finger to his lips before striding over to me.

“Have you seen the enemy?” he hisses. I shake my head. “You must tell me if you see him.” I nod my head quickly. “You mustn’t be a traitor.” He looks at me carefully. “You know what we do to traitors.” He levels his gun at me, the barrel aiming right between my eyes. I almost laugh with excitement, but I try to keep my face serious; it won’t do to spoil his game. His finger is on the trigger, and I wonder if I am going to have to play dead, but then I see the look in his eyes. He is motionless. For the first time, I wonder if this really is just a game.

There is a noise somewhere in the house. Harry lowers his gun and turns his head towards the sound.

“This is it, Hetty,” he tells me through gritted teeth and wide eyes. “The enemy is here.” And before I have a chance to say anything, he runs towards the door, closes it, and pretends to lock it. He dashes back over to me.  

“If we are going to defeat the enemy, we need a plan,” he tells me, but before he can elaborate, the door flies open, and Len strides in. 

“Ah, there you are Harry,” Len observes. “Who were you talking to?” He looks blindly around the room.

“No one.” Harry turns his back to me and hides his gun.

It is then that the other man walks in. He is crisp and functional, his body too long making him resemble an eel in a cheap black suit. His tan shoes squeak on the floor as he makes his way over to where Len is standing. 

“Remember what I said, Harry, about keeping out of the way whilst Mr. Sugden is here.” Len smiles.

“Yes Dad,” Harry says. We all look at Mr. Sugden. He has moved further into the room and is clutching something in his arm. He looks down at Harry and smiles. But it is not a nice smile. It is the kind of smile that arrives on a face only after it has been perfected in the mirror. Harry stares at him, his trigger finger twitching.

“Oh, he’s fine.” Mr. Sugden’s grin widens, his white teeth clashing with his dark features.

“Go on now Harry.” Len ruffles his hand through Harry’s hair. Harry doesn’t move right away. I can sense that he doesn’t want to leave me here with Mr. Sugden, but I give him a look that tells him I am alright. Harry seems to get the message and makes his way out of the room, his gun tucked in his back pocket.

“Sorry about that,” Len apologises.

“No problem.” Sugden shakes his head. “You were telling me about the house and how you acquired it.”

“Ah, yes, well we inherited the house last year from an uncle on my father’s side; quite the character he was. I thought it would be great to live here. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to live in an old mansion,” Len laughs but it trails off quickly when he is met with Sugden’s blank face.

“How long have you been here?” Sugden asks.

“A year,” Len stumbles, shoving his hands in his pockets. “A house this size has its drawbacks. It’s a devil to clean and the heating bill is astronomical. We don’t use half the rooms and it feels like such a waste.” He clears his throat. Sugden regards him warily.

“Well, just so long as you don’t mention any of that during a viewing,” Sugden states, the hint of a smirk upon his lips.

 “Of course.” Len smiles at Sugden as if they have shared some private joke.

 “And what would you say this room is?” Sugden asks, wafting his hand through the air.

 “Well, I think it was probably an old drawing-room, one time or another. We don’t use it.”

“It’s functional though,” Sugden comments, “Could be a home office.”

Sugden looks again around the room, detailing the original features, the fireplace, the cornicing, the wooden floor. Then his eyes land on me.

“And this?” He screws his face up as if I am a vagrant squatting in the corner.

“Oh, this is one of my uncle’s; he was quite the collector. It was painted many years ago by a local artist. It has a bit of a strange story attached to it.” Len takes centre stage, forgetting that I am the leading lady. “The story goes that the artist was a bit of a madwoman who insisted that she had no control over what she painted. It is said that she would become possessed by a spirit or ghost that was lost upon the earth, neither in heaven nor hell, a sort of purgatory, I suppose.” I wince at Len’s weak attempt to add some drama to his voice, his inarticulate storytelling leading much to be desired. 

“And this is one such painting?” Sugden asks, his eyebrow raised.

“This is The Rain Woman,” Len replies. “Not to everyone’s taste.”

“It is rather sombre.” Sugden glares at me. I can feel his eyes roaming across my gloomy face, his gaze almost evaporating the droplets of rain that are scattered across the canvas.

“As a matter of fact, my wife can’t stand it, says it gives her the creeps.”


“It’s become a bit of a sore point.”

“Is that so?” Sugden looks back at Len, his grin transforming into something more curious.

“She says that she can feel it looking at her wherever she is in the room and that it changes facial expressions. She won’t set foot in here.”

“All because of a painting?”

“I know, crazy isn’t it.”

“Why don’t you just take it down?”

“We’ve tried.”


“Yes, several times. But Harry got terribly upset.” Len doesn’t go into details. He doesn’t want this stranger to know that his son had wet the bed, woke up screaming and crying the first night I had been taken down, or that he had tried to scratch his own eyes out the second time. “He seems to love this painting. He’s extremely attached to it.”

Sugden inhales deeply before he poses his next question. “Will it be here during the viewings?”

“Do you think it would be best if it weren’t?” Len asks cautiously.

“I think it would help any potential buyers to see the room as blank as can be, their own canvas, so to speak. Besides,” Sugden leans in slightly, his eyebrow raised, “we don’t want any potential buyers to be put off by a haunted painting.” Sugden laughs at the absurdity of this, but as he does, he flashes a knowing look at me out of the corner of his eye.

“No, definitely not,” Len quickly replies turning his back to me. “My wife and Harry are going away this weekend to stay with my mother-in-law. I will take it down then and put it into storage.”

“A wise decision if I may say so,” Sugden beams with an air of triumph.

“Shall we move on?” Len suggests.

 “Lead the way.” Sugden shuffles behind Len as they begin to leave the room, but before he does, Sugden turns. I watch in horror as he raises his hand and makes his fingers into a pistol. Through one closed eye, he aims his imaginary gun right at my forehead and shoots.

I can already feel the oppressive darkness of storage. I can taste the dust, smell the foist and hear the rats nibbling away at me. My colours will begin to fade, my background obscure until I am nothing but a myth.

And what of Harry? He will be lost and alone, with no one to play his games, no one to watch his back.

I cannot let that happen. 

I will not go back into the darkness.

Harry was right, the enemy is here. 


Maria Dean lives in Yorkshire, England. She has had her work published in various places including A Cup of Comfort For Cat Lovers and Writing Magazine. She writes purely for pleasure along with walking her dog and spending time with her family.

Published 5/5/22