Aphelion Issue 228, Volume 22
May 2018
 
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Fantasms

by Steve Collman




"Congratulations, you're now the proud owner of this beautiful neo-colonial house!" The agent held out a single large key. It looked as if it might unlock a dungeon.

"Is there only one key?" Leo asked, looking at it but not taking it yet.

The agent nodded. "It's a...skeleton key," he blinked as he paused, though otherwise he kept a poker face. "Fits the front and back doors. All the other rooms have their own keys still in the lock, including the basement." He held the key up closer to Leo, who could see barely suppressed tension riding the agent's body.

That's one of the first things I'll need to change, Leo thought. He looked at the key again without taking it, wondering what other work there was to do still. The agent held the key at arm's length, and Leo watched as his hand began to tremble. He took the key off the agent, who visibly relaxed.

Leo put the key in his pocket for now. "And you said there was cleaning and repair work to be done?"

The agent was already on his way to his car. He turned around while still walking. "All completed last week. It's ready for you to move in. Enjoy!" He made it to his car and drove off without another word.

Leo raised an eyebrow at this strange behaviour, but shrugged. There was nothing he could do about it. He pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket.

"Hey, honey!"

"Hi sweetie! How's it going?"

"I've got the key now – the agent just handed it over and then zoomed outta here!" He looked up at the building. "It's such a lovely house – I'm sure my aunt would be happy with how we're spending the inheritance money! And there's so much space in the lobby area – perfect for me to try my hand at sculpting – I can't wait!"

"Careful, honey, don't get too excited. You know if you go too far it can make you crash and get really anxious later."

Leo closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The excited buzz in his body died down. "You're right. I'm calmer now."

"Good. I don't want you to have another panic attack while I'm not there to help you."

"I know. Thanks. How're things going down there?"

"We're just in the last stages of loading up the truck. Another half hour, and we'll be on our way."

"Ok, I'll have a wander round the house and make sure everything's ready for when you get here. I love you, Megan. I'll see you later."

"I love you too. We'll see you in a few hours."

After hanging up, he walked to the front door and tried to open it. It was locked, so he put in the key. It turned smoothly, though the click and clonk sounds it made on the way round reinforced his mental image of dungeon locks from films set in Mediaeval times.

Once unlocked, the heavy door swung soundlessly inwards on its hinges. After the Mediaeval vibe when he'd unlocked the door, he'd half-expected it to creak.

The hinges must be well-oiled...

He stepped into the space beyond, and looked around in awe. In front of him was a large open lobby area about ten metres square. Doors littered the side walls in even spaces, and on the opposite wall was a grand staircase, sweeping up to the next floor with galleries on each side.

"It really is a beautiful house," Leo commented aloud.

In the distance, from the depths of the house, he heard a sudden strange thud, like the smothered sound of a bell being struck. He looked at his watch. 10.30am. Why would a bell be striking now? He looked up at the ceiling in confusion. What am I doing? This place doesn't have a clock tower anyway. He shrugged, deciding maybe it was his imagination or a coincidence.

In front of him to the left, nearly below the left-hand gallery, was an ornate furniture set including an armchair and chaise lounge. They looked like they could be several hundred years old. "Hang on a sec! They were meant to have been moved already! The agent promised ages ago!" Two more muffled thuds came out of the gloom, but this time Leo barely noticed. He was too busy dialing a number on his mobile.

Instead of ringing, a recorded message with a woman's voice came through. "I'm sorry, the number you have called is unavailable at this time. Please try again later." A pause. "I'm sorry, the number you have called is unavailable at this time. Please try again later."

The message repeated once more before Leo clicked off his phone in disgust. What was the agent playing at?! He looked at the furniture again. "Looks like they'll have to stay for now."

Thud.

He looked up and around quickly, but couldn't locate the source of the sound.

His attention went back to the unwanted furniture. "But they'll have to be moved," he said to himself. "I need the space here for my equipment."

Thud. Thud.

Leo frowned. Where are they coming from? He listened for a few minutes, straining to hear any noise, but the house was now deathly quiet.

He carefully moved the furniture closer to the wall so they were actually beneath the gallery, then climbed the stairs. He chose to turn left, walking along with his hand on the railing. The wallpaper had large rectangular patches where it hadn't faded: a series of old portraits had obviously been hanging here until recently.

One portrait had been left on the wall further along. Again, it wasn't meant to be there still. Leo walked along the gallery towards it with his left hand on the balustrade, enjoying the feel of the smooth varnished wood under his skin. He came closer to the portrait, which looked rather grand, a part of history, with a gorgeous ornate wooden frame. When he was only a couple of metres away from it, he felt an inconsistency in the balustrade under his hand. Studying it, he found a dent less than a millimetre wide between two distinct sections of wood: the section on the left was darker and varnished; the section on the right was slightly lighter, unvarnished and was not in perfect alignment with the rest, being half a millimetre above it. He looked along to the right and saw another transition between new and old wood. He shook his head.

"Shoddy repair work."

Thud.

Leo frowned. Where was it coming from? The wood and portrait temporarily forgotten, he continued his walk along the gallery to the end, where he knew there was a staircase leading upwards to the attic.


*****



Half an hour later, he'd thoroughly searched the attic for any sign of a bell or tower, including having managed to look through a skylight at the roof. He was no closer to having found the source of the noise, but he had tidied the attic ready for boxes to be stored. It was such a large space, he reckoned Megan could use it as a study for her fledgling writing career. Certainly her desk could be brought up and fitted into the space, along with her filing cabinets.

But before that, he still wanted to find the source of the mystery sound, so he decided to check each room. The first of these was a library, its thick oak shelves nearly empty apart from one single solitary tome. Leo picked it up and blew a layer of dust off the front cover.

It was a history of the house, and the families who had lived there. Leo opened the front cover to read the contents page. It looked like several families had owned the property in the more recent past, but going back in time it had been the property of generations of the same family right back to the Founding Fathers. In the intervening time, though, it had been partially demolished, rebuilt, added to and restyled into its current form.

Leo raised his head for a moment, his jaw dropping. The house was more of a part of history than they'd realised! I bet Megan will find this fascinating!

He opened the book to have a general browse inside, and the pages flopped open naturally to a portrait he recognised. It was a reproduction of the portrait in the gallery, of a previous owner of the house in the 19th Century. He was smartly, almost aristocratically dressed, with a strong jaw, a thick moustache and a stern look in his eyes, which were looking up and to Leo's left.

"This might be an interesting read," Leo said to himself.

Thud.

Leo's head jerked up as he remembered why he was searching the house in the first place. Carefully putting the book back in its place on the shelf to read later, he continued his search. The next couple of rooms yielded nothing, so he continued to the next door, before which was the portrait. Leo looked at it as he passed. It stared straight back at him. Leo stopped for a moment and cocked his head. Hang on, wasn't it staring off to one side in that book?

He ran back to the library room and opened the book. Sure enough, it was staring into the distance as Leo remembered. He took the book with him out to the gallery and compared it to the real portrait: they both had the same stern expression and stared up into the distance on Leo's left.

Leo shook his head. I could've sworn... he thought, mouthing the words without realising. I was sure it was staring directly at me... But then, as Megan always said, the human mind could be tricky sometimes -- it was likely he'd imagined it. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head, then blinked several times. No, it was still staring into the distance. Leo sighed.

"I must be going mad... "

Thud.

Leo spun round quickly, trying to work out the source of the noise. It seemed to be all around him.

"It's almost like it's responding to me," he mused.

Thud.

"Whoa! Where are you? Tell me where you are!"

Silence.

What'm I doing?! Leo thought. I'm talking to an empty house! Pull it back, Leo...

Thud. Thud.

When the first thud sounded, Leo began running towards the stairs, trying to pinpoint the origin. The second sounded just as far away, and still all around, even though he was now at the staircase. Leo looked around, trying to catch the remnants of the sound, but there was now silence once again. I didn't even talk that time! Unless it's reading my thoughts as well... ? As he looked, something downstairs caught his eye. The furniture had been moved back to its original position.

Leo ran downstairs. He'd heard nothing, no movement, no door opening, but someone had to have come in! Yes, the front door was still unlocked. He hadn't remembered to lock it when he'd started searching. Outside, he couldn't see any sign of an intruder on the driveway; his car was where he'd left it when he'd met the agent. The only other set of tyre tracks in the dust from the agent's car coming and going. There was no other sign of life. Leo shook his head as he turned back toward the house, wondering what was going on.

As he walked back through the front door, his eyebrows raised -- hang on, there's a back door as well! I'd better check to see if it's unlocked -- people might've sneaked in that way!

He hurried through the kitchen to the back door, trying to see if he could see anyone through the windows. There was dust, grass and the woods beyond, but nothing else. He tried the door handle, which wouldn't open. He tried the key in the lock to make sure the door opened, which it did just as smoothly as the front door.

So they couldn't've got in that way... Hang on, there's a basement too!

He found the basement door on the side of the massive staircase, the stairs to the basement running parallel downwards. Using the light from his smartphone screen, he located the switch for the basement lights and descended. The space was piled high with boxes, crates and assorted bric-a-brac. A thin layer of dust covered every surface, and the visible walls were thick with grime.

For goodness' sake! Leo thought. So much for the cleaning and repair work the agent promised! Did he not think I'd be checking down here too? He thought back to how the agent acted outside, and how he'd hurried off as soon as he'd given the key over. Mmm, that explains a lot. Oh well, I can clean some of this up while I'm waiting for Megan to get here.

He made a mental note to check the kitchen for cleaning supplies, then continued his search for another exit. Unless it was hiding behind piles of boxes, though, there wasn't one. Even if there was, he doubted anyone could get through both ways without disturbing anything or making an audible noise. There were frosted windows, but none of them had handles and none were smashed.



At that moment the sound of wind blew through the room, though he couldn't feel a breeze on his body. The wind carried a strange sound with it.

...Nnnnnoooooooo...

Leo looked around, frowning. Was that a word he could hear on the wind? Then he shrugged. Oh well, he couldn't hear it any more.

"This place would be good to store some stuff for now -- I just need to clean and tidy it up!"

...heeeeeesssssss...

Was that a ‘Yes'? Like the house is giving me permission?! He shook his head. No. Come on. It's just the wind! Calm down! "Might be interesting to see what's in these crates as well! We could get rid of some of them to make a bit more room!"

...Nnnnnooooooooo...

Good grief, it's blowing a gale out there! Oh well, I'd better check if there are any rags and spray in the kitchen.

He ascended the stairs to check. As he passed the back door on his way, he paused to check that it was locked. No one could have got in that way. His gaze went past the handle to the view beyond. The air outside was completely still; the trees in the near distance weren't even trembling from the after-effects of a strong wind blowing.

"What the hell is going on here?" Leo exclaimed. "Am I going mad?!"

Thud.

"Not that again! Stop it!" Leo snapped.

Thud. Thud.

"Agh!" Leo gave a throaty grunt of exasperation and ran out of the kitchen. He took a deep breath, then remembered something.

Darn it, I forgot to check under the kitchen sink for cleaning supplies!

He took a few moments to calm his jangling nerves and then went back, but there was nothing under the kitchen sink – the cupboards were empty.

"Rgh!" he grunted in exasperation at the wasted time and effort. Maybe there's a store cupboard in the house somewhere?

He found a small cupboard just off the kitchen, but it was empty – not even a mop and bucket were stored there.

I can't get a break! There's a painting and furniture still here, but nothing to clean with?! I'd better take the car to the hardware store to pick up some stuff.

In the lobby area he paused to move the furniture back under the gallery overhang.

"And stay there!" He pointed at the furniture like his finger was the barrel of a gun.

Thud. Thud.

"Argh!" He covered his ears with his hands and ran out of the front door, shutting and locking it on the way. He then stepped away from the house and took a couple of deep breaths, closing his eyes.

Ok, calm down, calm down. It's beginning to get to me. I'd better call Megan.

"Hi Megan. I'm sorry to disturb you again."

"Hi Leo. Don't be sorry -- what's up? You sound out of breath! Are you ok?"

"No – there's something up with the house -- it's getting to me!"

"Ok, honey. It's ok. Listen to me: there's no need to panic. Keep breathing steadily, and tell me what's happened."

When Leo felt he could talk again, he braced himself and told Megan everything he could remember in one long jumble, including the way the furniture kept moving, the portrait's eyes, and the strange noises he was hearing in the house and the basement. Megan asked him to repeat it, slowly.

"Ok, well, there could be rational explanations for each bit," Megan said after he'd finished. "You're not used to the house and the noises it makes, so maybe the thuds and the words in the basement are just the house naturally moving or settling? And maybe those noises unnerved you enough for you to forget where the furniture was and how the portrait looked?"

"So I'm just crazy, then?" As Leo thought about it, he began to doubt any of it had really happened. But I heard it! I saw it!

Megan gave a mirthless snort. "No, you're not crazy! Stressed and anxious, maybe, and in need of a break, but not crazy. The mind can play tricks, remember. I don't think there's anything to worry about. Breath slowly, regularly and deeply until you feel calm again."

Leo did so. He blinked, and his mind cleared. "Thanks, babe. I feel so stupid."

"You're not stupid. You've been through a lot recently, and your mind's trying to cope. Now, I promise we won't be long. Will you be ok until we get there?"

He thought about it for a few seconds. "Yes, I think so."

"Good. And remember, it's not real. Your mind's playing tricks on you. Stay calm, and we'll see you soon."

She hung up and Leo put the phone into his pocket. She's right -- there's nothing there. It's all in my mind. It's not real. Deep breath in...out. In...out. Ok, I'm ready. Let's go.

He got into his car and drove to the shops.


*****



An hour later, he was back with a bag of cleaning supplies for the basement. He was about to unlock the front door when he stopped. While he was there, he could check the outer wall of the building to see if there were any other entrances he didn't know about, that someone could have used to play a practical joke on him with the furniture. He circled the building looking for doors, open windows or hidden entrances and checking that the obvious entrance through the back door was still locked. There was nothing he could see -- it all looked secure.

Returning to the front door, he slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door swung open to reveal the furniture apparently back in the exact same place as it was before he'd moved it, past the overhang of the gallery. Adrenaline flooded through Leo's system and he began shaking with tension and anger.

"How are they moving?!" he shouted. "Who's moving them?!"

But there was silence this time. No thud, no wind blowing, no nothing.

"Oh, you're not answering me this time?"

Still silence.

"What d'you want from -" Leo shouted, then cut himself off. He was shouting at an empty house. He nearly laughed at the absurdity of the situation, but then drew in a deep breath, inflating his cheeks as he blew it out again through pursed lips. Ignoring the furniture for the moment, he headed straight for the basement.

"Ok, let's get started," Leo muttered. "Time to clean up... "

...heeesssss...

Half an hour later, he'd done what he could, but it was difficult to reach some of the walls. Boxes and crates blocked his way, so he did his best to rearrange some other piles and moved the boxes over. The large crate beneath, however, would barely budge no matter how much he pushed or pulled. The basement now felt boiling hot to him, and he wiped sweat from his eyes and brow with a sleeve.

"What's in this?"

...nooot yourrrrssss...

He tried to get a grip on the top, but it wouldn't budge. Then he noticed nails at regular intervals along the edge – if he wanted to get it open, he'd need tools.

Something strong, with a flat edge. Did I see something like that in the attic?

Grateful for a break, he climbed the basement stairs, then the parallel stairs up to the gallery. The portrait drew his eyes as he approached. They seemed to be staring at him.

But that's not possible! Paintings only seem to stare at you, and that's when the subject is looking straight ahead. He's looking away, into the distance!

The eyes stayed on him as he walked in front of the painting. They were moving, and yet not moving, in some undefinable way.

How is it possible? They're staring at me, but staying in the same place! No matter where I move on the gallery, they're following me! Urgh!

The effort of keeping his eyes open to stare made them sting, and he blinked involuntarily. The eyes were staring up and to the left into the distance, as they'd always been. He scrunched his eyes up and shook his head; he couldn't shake the feeling they'd moved, somehow. He moved his head around while watching the painting, staring at the eyes.

He blinked and shook his head again. "Concentrate on the job...you're not going crazy... "

Thud.

"Argh!" Leo clutched his head and ran to the attic. Once there, he glanced around to refresh his memory of the layout.

Now, where did I see it... ?

He started methodically searching once more, and eventually came upon it: a pair of rowing oars. He hadn't taken in what they were before because he'd been so focused on finding the source of the mysterious thuds. He picked one up and had a look at the blade.

Hmmm...too thick...it'd never fit under the crate's lid...

He put it back down, looking around for something thin enough that wouldn't break. Then his head snapped up and he slapped his forehead.

"Of course! I've got tools in the car!"

He ran downstairs past the portrait, which was still watching him as he passed. He gave it a wide berth and a sideways look, but shook it off as he descended the main staircase and outside. He'd put tools into the boot ages ago, for a reason he couldn't remember, and had forgotten they were there. He took his keys out and clicked the lock open. Yep, there they were! He selected a claw hammer and a crowbar, shut the lid again and ran back inside to the basement.

The nails in the lid were hammered down too far for Leo to get any grip with the hammer, so he began with the crowbar, trying to push the thin edge into the sliver of a gap between crate and lid.

...Nooooo...

The wind breathed, but Leo was concentrating too much on his work to notice. Bit by bit he forced the crowbar into the gap. When he finally had enough purchase, he pushed down on the lever the crowbar had become, and the lid creaked upwards. He peered inside, but it wasn't high enough to see anything. He could only see vague objects in the gloom.

...Noooooooo...

He continued levering the lid up bit by painful bit, having to squeeze between crates to do the far side. Finally the lid came off, and he put it onto another pile, making sure he didn't catch himself on any of the nails. Turning back, light had flooded in and his eyes widened when he could finally see what was there: gold in the form of coins, statuettes and icons. It must have been worth a fortune. His heart hammering at the find, he reached inside and picked up a statuette.

...Sullieeeeeed...

It was quite heavy, in the rough shape of a man standing to attention. It was smooth all over with no distinguishing features, though part of it was a pedestal base. Leo turned it over to find an inscription on the base: The God Of Death.

...Kill yoooouuuuu...

Leo suddenly felt an intense fear rush through him. His skin prickled and his fingers became slick with sweat. He fumbled with the statuette and it fell back into the box.

Why'm I feeling like this? Calm down...there's no reason for me to be scared...

...Yeeeesssss...

It was still only a breath of air, but Leo was certain he could hear the affirmative word.

"What, so you can read my thoughts as well now, can you?" Leo shouted.

...Allwaaays...

This time it was no longer a breath. This time it was a distinct word, spoken in a loud whisper.

"It's just my mind playing tricks! You're not real!"

...Yesss. I aaam...

Leo backed away, tripping over boxes in his haste. "Whaddaya want?!" he screamed.

...Your deathhh...

"Why?"

...Sullieeed my aaart...

Leo ran up the stairs, nearly tripping in the process, but made it through the door at the side of the main staircase and slammed it shut. He took several deep breaths, shaking his head. His lungs were spasming as he tried to inhale, causing his breath to stutter.

This place is getting to me! I'm not sure I can cope with much more! He looked down at his hands, which were shaking as much as the rest of his body. I need some air! I swear, if just one more thing happens…

Thud.

His heart almost exploded in his chest at this, and he ran towards the front door. It was now tantalisingly wide open, but when he was about six feet away from it, it slammed shut in his face. He frantically turned the handle, but it was somehow locked now. He reached for the key in his pocket, dropped it on the floor in his panic, picked it up again and tried to insert it in the lock with trembling fingers. It turned a few degrees, but then caught as if the lock was already open. He turned the handle both ways and pulled the door to try and open it.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

It almost sounded like an evil laugh. Leo kicked the door in frustration and ran towards the back room, nearly tripping over the furniture which was now in the centre of the open space. He didn't have time to think about that, though, as he ran to the back door to try and gain his freedom.

It wouldn't open any more than the front one, though, with or without the key. Leo's breathing became rapid and his throat tightened.

I can't see! Things are blurry! Why's the room spinning?! Oh Jeez no, not this again!

He recognised the symptoms of a panic attack and tried to remember the steps he'd been taught to fight off the immediate reaction. He closed his eyes, stood still and bent over with his hands on his thighs, taking deep breaths. He stayed in this position until the buzzing in his head had died down and his breathing was under control.

"I'm ok. I'm ok. I can do this," he muttered.

Thud. Thud.

He ignored this and continued, "I'm in control. I don't need to panic."

Thud.

Something snapped inside him. "Oh, shut up!" he screamed. "Leave me alone, can't you?!"

Then he caught control of himself again, taking a deep breath and raising his hands. He lowered them as he blew it out again.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Leo's jaw clenched, but he held onto his control. There was nothing he could do about the sounds, so he needed to ignore them. He took his phone out of his pocket and dialed Megan's number, forcing himself to walk out of the kitchen and past the main staircase as he did so.

"Hi babe, what's up?"

"I'm having another panic attack," Leo replied. His jaw was quivering and tears were threatening to overcome him. "The house -- it almost feels like it's doing things to provoke me."

"Hey, sh-sh-sh-sh," Megan soothed him. "It's ok -- we're on our way and we'll be with you soon. Now, what's happened?"

Leo described everything he could remember since they last spoke, including the voice in the basement and the front door slamming shut on its own.

"Are you sure you didn't catch the door yourself?"

"No I did not!" Anger flared up before he could catch it. He took a shaky breath to calm down. "Sorry. I'm sorry about that. No, I was about six feet away from it. Even if I had, it doesn't explain why it wouldn't open or unlock again."

"Hm. It is weird. Are there any other ways out?"

Leo scanned the room, trying to think of other exit points. His eyes swept past the portrait upstairs. There was something different about it...

"Hang on -- you know I told you about the portrait?"

“The one where the eyes seem to follow you?"

"Yeah. Well, I could swear the eyes are actually closed now. I'm gonna have a look."

"Ok, but be careful...don't take any risks -- we'll be there soon. I love you."

"I love you too, honey."

Leo put the phone back in his pocket and crept up the stairs to the left-hand gallery. With his hand on the balustrade to support his trembling body, he walked closer to the picture. Once again, he felt the slight variation in the level of wood under his palm, but this time he barely had time to take it in -- he was staring at the portrait. The eyes were indeed closed. Leo's jaw dropped in surprise.

He let go of the railing and edged closer, curiosity overcoming his shattered nerves. He blinked a couple of times and shook his head to make sure he wasn't imagining it. No, it was right in front of him, almost within arm's reach. The eyes were closed! As he stared, the eyes suddenly opened and stared directly back at him. Leo took a sharp breath and backed away again.

Almost as if it had been caused by his backing away, some sort of energy started crackling and buzzing around the portrait's eyes. It was like an electrical current sparkling and leaping between them. He could feel the fizz of energy encircle the air around him, and he felt rooted to the spot, though whether this was the portrait's doing or his own fear he couldn't tell. As he watched, still frozen, the eyes narrowed and the energy shot from the portrait towards him. It struck him square in the chest and he felt the energy crackle through his body as if a boxing glove had punched directly into his heart. It sent him flying backwards and the bannister buckled and snapped with the force.

Then he was falling through the air towards the floor below and he could see the furniture beneath rushing up towards him. He tried changing position in mid-air, but had only managed to turn to the side when his head struck the back of the chaise lounge and his neck cracked-



THE END


2017 Steve Collman

Bio: Steve is a librarian by profession, and has been writing stories since he was in his teens. He lives in Crewe with his wife and two cats.

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