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    Mawgrim
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
2021 - Spring - Potluck 2021 Entry

The House of Thorns - 1. Chapter 1

Albert stopped outside the house. It didn’t look anything like the place he’d first seen nearly sixty years ago. Then there had been darkened brickwork covered with glossy green ivy, the windows peeping through like half-lidded eyes. Now the walls were rendered and painted in a warm yellow shade. The garden had been tamed. Brightly coloured plastic toys on the front lawn showed children lived here. He couldn’t suppress a shudder at the thought.

He’d felt compelled to return one last time. There had been other visits through the years, and always he had been relieved to see ‘No Entry’ boards across the gates; the house empty. Who on earth would have wanted to restore it after so many years of neglect?

People scoff at ghost stories and pretend they’re all just ignorant superstition. During forty odd years of paranormal investigations, Albert had seen it happen again and again. Fair enough, some of the cases had turned out to have a perfectly ordinary explanation, but he had learned the importance of keeping an open mind and not discounting anything at first sight. His first lessons had been right here, when he was just ten years old.

They’d come to live at Coldbrook because his father had managed to find a job in the area. Apparently, he’d been offered the house on very favourable terms. Albert still remembered him coming in full of enthusiasm as he always did when about to embark on some new venture.

‘Just imagine,’ he’d said to Albert and his younger sister, Florence, ‘A room of your own. A big garden and an orchard to play in. Only ten minutes’ walk to school in the village.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’ Albert’s mother had said sharply.

‘Nothing, Mary. Why should there be?’

‘The rent’s too cheap for what it is, that’s why.’

Albert desperately wanted his father to be right this time, even though the last house he’d found them had been damp and the roof had leaked.

‘That’s because it’s been empty since the war,’ he explained. ‘An old lady lived there. Her eldest son died, and what’s left of the family don’t want the place. I’ll admit the garden’s rather overgrown, but the house itself is in sound condition. You’ll love it and so will the children.’

They moved in on a sunny March day. Spring’s soft fuzziness was just beginning to erode the stark edges of the winter landscape. Fields were full of young lambs tottering on gawky legs. There was a constant background of birdsong, which stopped abruptly as soon as Albert set foot inside the gate. That was odd. Sound didn’t usually cut off just like that. He took a step back outside the boundary and once more heard the bleating of sheep and a blackbird’s trill. In again and it faded as quickly as when a radio was switched off. It was as if the house was surrounded by more than just high thorn hedges and sprawling rose bushes.

‘Albert! Don’t dawdle,’ his mother called.

‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘Listen.’

She paused. ‘Listen to what? I can’t hear anything.’

‘The agent said it was a nice quiet place,’ his father remarked.

It was like something out of a fairy story. Albert remembered the tale of Sleeping Beauty; the prince having to hack his way through the thicket to wake her. Looking up at the house, he sensed there was something slumberous about it. Windows peeped out from the ivy, their stare blind and black.

As his parents continued along the path, one of the long, arching rose shoots caught at his mother’s coat. As she struggled to detach it, a thorn bit deep into her finger. Drops of bright blood fell to the beaten earth path. The ground drank them greedily.

His father pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and covered the wound. ‘I’ll have to cut those back,’ he said, sounding suddenly purposeful, leading the rest of the way as if to ensure safe passage for his family.

Albert noticed his mother seemed oddly subdued as she waited for the front door to be opened. She clutched the white handkerchief tightly around her punctured finger. All the colour had drained from her face.

Red and black tiles in a chequerboard pattern covered the hall floor. Deep brown panelling clad the walls. The stairs and banisters were fashioned from the same dark wood. It was much colder inside the house than outside.

Florence paused on the threshold. ‘I don’t like it here. It smells funny.’

‘It smells damp,’ said their mother, recovering herself and sniffing suspiciously as she made her way further down the hall.

Father sighed. ‘That’s just mustiness. Houses get like that when all the doors and windows are shut for a long time. Once it’s had an airing you won’t smell anything.’ As if to prove his point, he attempted to open the hall window, but despite his efforts it refused to budge.

Albert felt acutely embarrassed for him. ‘Don’t worry, Dad,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t smell that bad.’

He banged the frame hard. ‘Some idiot’s gone and painted it shut…’ As he hit it a third time the window pane gave a sharp crack then shattered into a razor web. ‘Damned thing!’ he swore.

Florence looked as if she was about to say something else, but Albert forestalled her, pulling at her hand to drag her off in the direction their mum had gone. They found her in the kitchen, drawing curtains to let in some light. The handkerchief wrapped around her finger shone like a beacon, white against the dirt and darkness.

‘Is your father all right?’ she asked. ‘I thought I heard something break.’

‘He broke a window,’ said Florence.

‘It was an accident,’ Albert put in.

She sighed. ‘We seem to be a rather accident-prone family today. I hope you two will bear that in mind and be very careful.’

‘I don’t like it here,’ Florence repeated.

‘Well, we just have to make the best of it. Would you like to see your room? Your very own room?’

Florence shrugged.

‘Don’t start your sulking, young lady. Come along. You too, Albert.’

They went back through to the dingy hall, then up the creaky stairs. At the top was a landing, equally sombre in its choice of colours. A runner of heavily patterned maroon carpet led the way down a narrow corridor. The floorboards on each side had been stained black. As they walked along, Albert felt a prickly sensation at the back of his neck, as if someone invisible was watching him. Florence huddled closer and slipped her hand into his.

‘This is it.’ She opened a door and a rush of cold air met them. Over on the far side of the room the curtains danced, even though the window was tightly shut. His mother shivered.

Florence tightened her grip on his hand as if she feared being blown away. ‘It’s cold,’ she said.

‘Damp, I expect,’ said Mother, with a tight expression. ‘I’ll need to make up a fire.’

Albert’s own room was directly opposite. He unpacked his clothes and toys, then stared out of the window at the tangle of unpruned roses and brambles covering the garden. Beyond the orchard was a large wood, so dense with undergrowth that even this early in the year it seemed impenetrable.

The wood was still there today, dark and forbidding behind the house. Albert glanced up at the window of what had been Florence’s room. How could his parents – both sensible people – not have suspected something was wrong? Even the untrained could often sense presences; most people had, at one point or another during their lives, felt that all was not well. Sixth sense, some called it. He let his mind flow back and remembered their first night in the house.

When darkness fell, it seemed as if they were even more cut off from the outside world. Mother lit paraffin lamps – there was no electricity outside the village – and they sat around the range in the kitchen, which had warmed up nicely. Albert hunched close to the lamp and tried to read, although his father warned he’d ruin his eyesight. They listened to the radio, which ran off a large battery that would need to be recharged each week in the village shop. Once the programme had finished, Albert became aware of all the unfamiliar noises of the house. Creaks and cracks and occasional tapping at the windows which his father said was caused by branches.

At eight the children were sent to bed. Despite having had a fire going for several hours, Florence’s room was still chilly. When his mother tucked Albert in and left his room, the afterimage of the lamp’s flame writhed in strange shapes, and the darkness seemed thicker than he’d ever known. He couldn’t even see his own hand, just six inches in front of his face. He thought this was what it must be like to be totally blind. Eventually, he fell asleep.

At first, the screaming was part of his dream. Then when he realised he was awake and it was continuing, he sat up abruptly. He fumbled for his pocket torch in the drawer of the bedside cabinet and ran out into the corridor. The door to Florence’s room was wide open. Florence’s screams subsided to hiccupping sobs as Mother hugged her.

Father stood awkwardly to one side, holding a candle. ‘She had a nightmare,’ he explained.

‘It wasn’t a nightmare,’ Florence choked out through her tears. ‘It was real.’

Albert noticed a strange smell in the room, like the mustiness when the front door had first opened, but much stronger. The room was dead cold, as if no fire had been lit in years. He could see his breath in the air.

‘I don’t want to stay in here.’ Florence wept. ‘It’ll come back.’

‘Don’t be silly. There’s nothing in here.’

‘Yes, there is.’

Their father forestalled more tears. ‘Let her have the spare bed in Albert’s room, just for now. You don’t mind, do you, old chap?’

He shook his head.

‘We don’t want her getting into the habit….’

‘Shush, Mary. It’s just for tonight.’

‘Well, I don’t suppose it will do any harm just this once….’

It was a good half hour before everyone settled down again. A nightlight was left burning on the cabinet in a saucer of water. When their parents had shut the door, Albert turned towards his sister’s bed. ‘So, what was this nightmare you had?’

‘It was horrible,’ she said, huddling under the blankets. ‘And it wasn’t a nightmare.’

‘Tell me about it, then.’

She stared ahead into the tiny, yet reassuring, flame. ‘I woke up because my feet were cold. That’s how I knew I was awake. I never have cold feet when I’m dreaming.’

Albert nodded. She was right about that.

‘Then the cold started spreading up from my feet until I felt like I was frozen solid. I couldn’t move. It was hard to breathe. That’s when I got scared. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t even do that.’

‘You nearly screamed the place down. I heard you.’

‘That was later. After…’

‘What?’

‘After it breathed on me.’

Try as he might, she wouldn’t – or couldn’t – tell him any more.

The following morning, Mother set to cleaning the house thoroughly while Father mended the broken window. Florence and Albert were dispatched to the garden, instructed to mind the thorns and keep themselves amused. Florence found a snail with a pleasingly-patterned yellow and black shell, then busied herself with collecting similar specimens. Albert pretended he was an explorer, like the ones he’d read about in books. He hacked his way through clumps of dried grass and young nettles, down to the orchard. The silence of the place soon enveloped him. He felt as if he really was in the middle of an untamed wilderness, miles from anywhere. When he found the tumbledown shed, it seemed like a true discovery.

The door hung off its hinges and was slightly ajar, giving a narrow view into cobweb-veiled darkness. The ubiquitous ivy had insinuated itself through gaps in the planking and continued to grow inside. Pale tendrils clung to the dirty glass in the window, like corpse fingers seeking the light.

Albert peered through the gap cautiously. A thick smell filled his nostrils; rotten wood, damp earth, decaying vegetation. Something made a noise at the far end, and his heart gave a leap. Coward, he told himself. It was probably just a mouse scurrying away.

Taking a deep breath, he wrenched the door open. The rusted hinges groaned, then gave way. The door fell slowly onto its side. Daylight chased shadows away and revealed an interior full of normal garden shed rubbish; chairs with broken legs and stuffing oozing from their seats, a table whose veneered top had peeled back from the damp, a pile of books covered in a furry greenish-blue mould. He picked up a twig and poked at one of them, flicking it open to reveal mottled pages filled with tiny print. He prodded again, moving it closer to the light. Now he could see the layout of the pages, narrow columns of text with each line numbered. Suddenly he realised what he had found and immediately stopped poking it. No matter that someone had thrown a Bible into this shed to moulder away; it felt wrong to mistreat it any further.

He thought he should tell someone about his find. Besides, his stomach nagged that it must be time for lunch. He returned to the house, scraping his boots dutifully outside the kitchen door. Inside, his parents were sitting close together at the table, which was odd, as they weren’t eating. They both looked around as he opened the door, as if they hadn’t expected to be disturbed just yet. He noticed how pale his mother looked.

His father beckoned him over. ‘Glad you came back. We were just talking about you.’

Albert’s immediate thought was that he must be in trouble. But as his father leaned close, he caught a whiff of alcohol on his breath. That wasn’t normal at all, not before dinner. Then he noticed his mother cradled a glass in her hands, too. She never usually drank, except for a small sherry at Christmas time.

‘We’ve found… a problem in Florence’s room. The chimney is, er, blocked. So, you’ll need to share your room with her for a while.’

He didn’t know how, exactly, but he knew that was a lie. He also knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask questions.

It wasn’t until years later, when he was a grown man and she an old lady, that his mother told him exactly what had happened to her in that room. She’d said she wished they’d left right then, before it was too late. He’d reassured her as best he could. ‘Hindsight’s easy,’ he’d told her.

That night, when they were put to bed, Albert felt uncomfortable. A nightlight had been left burning in their room again, but no sooner had their mother’s tread retreated down the long corridor than he felt utterly abandoned.

Florence must have felt it too. ‘I’m scared.’

‘It’s all right,’ he said, not wanting to seem a coward in front of his little sister. ‘I’m here.’

He shut his eyes, trying to sleep. His whole body was tense. It was as if his subconscious knew something was waiting. Once or twice, he opened his eyes but nothing was there. Nothing but the nightlight’s flickering shadows, anyway.

‘Are you asleep?’ Florence whispered after a while.

‘Yes,’ he replied fiercely. ‘Stop disturbing me.’

‘But Albert, look at the door.’

He did. ‘There’s nothing there.’

‘The handle. Watch the handle.’

He didn’t want to open his eyes again. Keeping them closed meant he could pretend she was just being silly, even though the high note in her voice told him otherwise. Yet something made him look. The handle was moving very slightly, as if someone in the corridor was trying it. ‘It’s probably Mum or Dad come to see if we’re asleep.’ He didn’t like the way his own voice sounded, either.

Common sense told him if either parent had been at the door, they would have opened it by now. No one came in. The handle turned several more times, then rattled once and stopped. It was only then Albert realised he had been holding his breath.

‘It’s gone,’ Florence said. ‘For now, anyway.’ All of a sudden, she sounded far older than her years, tired and resigned.

Each night after that the same thing happened. A short while after they went to bed, the handle would move from side to side, noiselessly. Albert felt compelled to watch while the strange phenomenon continued. Always, Florence knew when it was over and they’d feel able to sleep in peace. After a few nights, he’d almost managed to persuade himself that it was normal. Normal for this house, anyway.

Around a week after they’d moved in, he fell asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. Perhaps he was so used to it by then it no longer bothered him. Or tired from helping his father hack away at the overgrown garden. Whatever the reason, this night proved to be different.

He woke with a start, shivering. The door was wide open, as was that of the room opposite; Florence’s original room. The nightlight guttered, sending wild shadows over the walls and ceiling. He glanced over to his sister’s bed and saw it was empty.

He had no idea what time it was and whether his parents were still downstairs or had come to bed. It didn’t matter anyway. He knew, with an awful certainty, that if he called them, they wouldn’t hear. Once again, he felt that sensation of utter loneliness. It was as if everyone else - possibly the whole world outside the environs of this place - had vanished. A firm voice inside his head said, ‘Be brave. This is something only you can deal with.’

He threw back the covers, swung his legs out of bed, and reached for his torch. The steady white beam pierced the trembling darkness of the corridor, blazing a trail into the empty room. ‘Florence!’ he called, seeing his breath turn to mist.

The walls of the room looked white. He put a hand to the door frame. It was icy cold. The heat from his palm sent trickles of moisture running down, dark as blood. He realised there was frost on the door, the walls, everywhere. Florence knelt by the window, covered in white herself, as still and cold as a little girl made out of snow.

He called to her again. She didn’t seem to hear, but carried on staring out of the window, as if captivated by something outside. Albert knew he would have to go and wake her from this strange trance, even though common sense and fear of the unknown told him it would be much more sensible to stay where he was. He stepped over the threshold, shivering as the chilly air engulfed him.

‘Florence,’ he called softly. ‘Come back.’ His teeth were chattering noisily, and he wished he’d thought to put on a dressing gown. Too late now. He felt as if he had to reach her as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t until he stood next to her and put a hand to her shoulder that she stirred, like someone trying to wake from a nightmare.

‘Wake up, Florence,’ he said. He’d heard it was dangerous to wake someone who was sleepwalking, but he didn’t think this was anything so natural. Besides, Florence had never sleepwalked in her life before.

She stared up at him, her eyes glassy and unseeing.

‘Please. Wake up.’ He didn’t like the way his voice trembled. But something got through to her, wherever she was. She suddenly blinked and shook her head. In a moment, her rigidity vanished, and she would have fallen if he hadn’t been there to support her.

The air in the room became suddenly thicker, pushing in on him and making each breath an effort. Once again that inner voice he was learning to trust spoke. ‘Get her out of the room. Now.’

He wasn’t strong enough to carry her, so he dragged her out into the corridor, then gave the door a light push to close it. It slammed shut. The noise reverberated through the entire house and finally woke his parents. No one had much sleep for the rest of the night.

By morning, Florence was running a high temperature, and in the afternoon Albert’s mother decided she was in need of medical help. As his father was at work, she left him in charge and walked to the village to call the doctor.

That half hour was one of the longest in his life. Florence was flushed and fevered. He could do nothing to help except replace the damp cloth their mother had laid on her forehead to try and make her more comfortable. Every time she moved, which was often, it fell off. Sunshine streamed in through the window and made hard shadows across the floorboards. It seemed to belong to a different world, one in which boys like himself could play in the garden instead of sitting beside a desperately ill sister. He began to feel the situation was partly his fault. Why couldn’t he have wakened earlier? If he had, she might not have been in that room so long and wouldn’t have become so deeply chilled.

When the doctor arrived, Albert was ushered from the room. The corridor was dark and airless. No sunshine reached this far inside the house. The voices from behind the door were hushed. He waited there a while, then decided he’d better move further away in case they thought he’d been snooping. He went and sat at the top of the stairs, where the hall clock punctuated the silence, and he began to count its measured beats. When he had reached four hundred and fifty-three, the door along the corridor re-opened. He stood to let the doctor and his mother pass, feeling a strange sense of being one step removed from reality. Everything seemed like images on a strip of film and just like a film, he could only watch, with no power to interfere or to change the plot.

The front door closed gently behind the doctor. His mother turned slowly and looked up at him. That was the moment in which he knew there would not be a happy ending.

His feet made no sound on the path. Silence still enveloped the house. Once again, he looked up at the window, where a misty shadow flickered like a candle flame.

‘I’m too late again,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I should have come back before now.’

The front door was ajar. He hesitated on the threshold, aware that he would be trespassing. ‘Hello,’ he called, hoping that someone inside would hear, even though he wasn’t sure how he would explain his presence if anyone did appear. In this day and age, a strange man snooping around a house where children lived would be instantly suspected of far worse motives than mere burglary. But he felt driven on regardless and found himself standing in the hall for the first time since his father had locked the door behind them, so long ago.

‘Hello,’ he called again, although now he was certain there was no one there to hear. It was rather careless of the occupants to leave their home unlocked and unguarded. Mind you, even the criminals around here probably knew better than to step inside this house.

The hall had been transformed. All of the dark wood was gone. Primrose paint gave an illusion of cheeriness and pale laminate flooring covered the chequerboard tiles. Yet it still felt… wrong. Not homely. Not welcoming, except in the way a spider’s web might welcome the unwary fly.

‘Albert,’ someone called from upstairs, with a voice that came from his distant past.

‘Florence,’ he replied. He’d experienced these sorts of phenomena before; a sort of auditory haunting. Many times, he’d wondered if his experiences in this very house had created the pathways in his mind that allowed him to hear and see so much more than the average person.

She would be in that room, he knew. Not the one which had originally been his, then shared, or the sick room where he had spent weeks watching her dwindle into a pale effigy of the lively little girl who had first stepped into the house. No, she would be in the cold room, where he had found her on that night. The room where his mother had collapsed, where she had felt something that she couldn’t begin to describe, yet still made her shudder, years later.

It had been decorated and refurnished but as he stood in the doorway, he saw past superimposed onto present in disorienting fashion. Florence was at the window. She turned as he entered. All of a sudden, he could see the woman she had never had the chance to become, all the lost years of life she might have had if she’d never set foot in this place. Anger and some of his old guilt welled up.

‘It wasn’t your fault,’ she said, as if she could read his thoughts. ‘You mustn’t blame yourself.’

‘Why am I here?’ Even as he spoke, he knew the reason. His joints didn’t ache anymore. He wasn’t out of breath from climbing the stairs.

‘I’m trapped,’ she said, gesturing to the window.

In an instant he was beside her, seeing what she saw. A towering wall of roses, each stem covered in thorns as wicked as barbed wire. The garden had become an impenetrable barrier. But because he had entered through it, he could see the clear paths, whereas she, imprisoned all these years, had no way of reaching anything beyond.

‘I always knew you’d come back,’ she said.

He took her hand, wondering for an instant how it could feel so solid when they had both become beings without any real substance. Almost at the same moment, he realised his thought processes had altered. No sooner did he think of going somewhere, than he was there.

The front door stood open before them. He clutched her hand tightly as they stepped forward together onto the gleaming path that led to a strange and wonderful unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
2021 - Spring - Potluck 2021 Entry
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Chapter Comments

Wow! Quite a spooky tale, but very well written and full of a chilling sense of the untoward.

The mention of taking the radio batteries to be re-charged, brough back a long forgotten memory. When I was but a lad one of my jobs was to take the accumulator from my gran's radio to the local electrical shop where it would be exchanged for the one from the previous week which had been re-charged. Those were the days.🙂 

'

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Darcy Coates, eat your heart out!  An atmospheric, creepy tale--well done. 👻

(As an aside: Pairs well with Darjeeling.  😉)

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A very creepy, well-written tale. I want to know where that path leads. :) Excellent work, Mawgrim. Cheers! 

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Aditus

Posted (edited)

Good thing I read this in bright sunshine, albeit in the garden... and, there were roses....well done.

Edited by Aditus
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Mawgrim, this was an amazingly spooky tale!  I'd like to think that, despite my love of old houses, I'd have run from that one like my tail was on fire.

Stories like this are so much better than what passes for horror these days which universally depend on violence and gore to shock their audiences.  Perhaps that's why monster movies never really scared me as a teen, though I might go from light to light on my way to bed after watching one in case something jumped out at me...

Pop in a ghost or some aspect of the supernatural and I'd hide my eyes at the scary bits; I think the worst scene I can recall was in the old movie 13 Ghosts where the canopy bed's top came down and smothered the occupants--it took me more than one tv showing to finish watching that movie!

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Like all good stories, it has a basis in fact. When my mother was a little girl, her father rented a house in rural Ireland. She remembered vividly seeing the bedroom door handle turning most nights and how scared all the kids were. Her mother, who was quite a sensible, practical woman, was terrified after having seen something she'd never talk about. On certain nights, they heard the noise of a cart going past, faster and faster until it crashed on a bend in the road. Apparently, this was the ghost of a local farmer, whose horses used to get him home after a drinking session, until one night something spooked them into bolting. The cart crashed, killing him and both the horses.

I agree with you about the blood and gore not being as frightening as something unseen. 

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Eerily, chillingly and spookily well written, it had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. Well written and worth the chills it sent down my spine while reading. 

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