A Halloween dare.
The moon is ripe, watching my every move. I conjure up figures on broomsticks flitting across its broad grin, the fancies of a child’s imagination. Wistful, but I?m much too old for such nonsense.
The night smells of mischief and autumn. From far away, I catch the scent of burning wood, perhaps a bonfire crackles merrily, and people huddle cozily about its warm cinders.
But not for myself. I stand alone, in defiance of scorn and fear.
The house looks diseased. Shutters hang limply along the vine-strangled walls, the rotten wood clapping dully as the breeze moves one of them, unseen in the blackness. The steps lead upwards, broken and chipped. I need to be careful. The rail is rusted and unsteady, I decide not to touch it. I find myself soon perched upon the front porch, the windows staring vacantly at me like the dark orbs of a patient, malevolent beast.
They told me the door is unlocked, and I?m disappointed to see that they were right. I turn the knob in my hand cautiously, and plunge forward into the darkness. Clouds of lint spiral lazily into the air, disturbed by the intrusion, my lantern reflecting musty furniture and crooked tables.
A blur at the corner of my eye, spider-chills crawl my spine - I turn my head to an empty room. A whiskered-face hunkers by my side, tail lashing, contented purring changing into a low growl of agitation. The cat’s face slowly moves, its gaze fixed along the wall, perhaps hearing something within the cracks of this aged dwelling. Mice, I tell myself, and walk onwards.
Steps creak beneath my booted feet as I climb an oak stairway, twisting upwards into a dark chasm overhead; the wooden rafters choked with cobwebs, the house lurking above me like the hungry maw of a predatory animal. Floorboards moan in warped protest and the air grows cold. I feel no draft as icy fingers tap along my back and I hurry past the isolated spot, shivering uneasily. The feline companion has disappeared, scurrying down the stairs into oblivion. Was it ever really there?
The staircase ends, and a brooding hallway opens before me. Beyond the encircling rail a dusty chandelier sways gently, as if prodded by an unseen hand. The dull crystal tingles eerily in the corridor, and it sounds like the chiming of tiny bells, summoning guests to a dinner. A host of specters? I shudder, hurrying forward into the heart of the slumbering estate, the lantern dangling in my uncertain grip. I wonder again about the whispered tales of this ancient manor, ones that I laughed off easily enough when sitting in lighted taverns among boisterous comrades. Solitude eagerly feeds the gullibility of the human sub-consciousness, and I chide myself for being susceptible.
An emboldened skeptic to the fears of ignorance, I walk firmly down the path I have taken, renewed vigor evident in the briskness of my stride. Doorways loom to either side, each of them partially open in unspoken invitation. Casting aside such thoughts, I head towards the master bed chamber which lays before me, hearing the echo of footsteps from somewhere behind, hollow and forlorn, a light patter which ceases as I look back. The shadows scatter from my flame, and I find myself trembling and nervous, troubled by the heaviness in my chest. The phantoms of imagination have waded upwards to the surface of my awareness, assaulting me with innuendo, bolstered by the dreary atmosphere of this wretched house. My previous words of doubt come back to appropriately haunt me, rash sarcasm directed at those believing in old wives tales.
I enter the room, the unpleasant sensation of being watched fueling my apprehension. The floor is coated with a chalky, swirling dust, and I have the strangest impression of walking into a surreal snowstorm. Approaching the forsaken bed, I notice that it still holds an old, marrow-white pillow, stained with moss and faded memories. Staring down at the blankets, my body grows numb as an impression becomes visible before my disbelieving gaze - the outline of a body lacking any occupant. I blink, hold the flame closer, and the anomaly vanishes. What trickery is this?
My limbs quiver in fear, my heart races in panic. Although reason can explain away the bizarre events, blaming them on anxiety and restless fantasy, my mind negates such logic, my senses and instinct pipe dreadful warnings to my inner voice - I am unwelcome here.
I retreat from the bed, brushing against a broad, mahogany dresser supporting a looking glass, the mirror cold and unfriendly. My eyes match the frightened gray orbs within, and I appear fragile, the victim of self-doubt and tension. It is too much for me - the house can claim its victory. No longer will I mock children’s stories about shades and shadows.
A part of me has succumbed to the tangible signs of latent activity, distressed by my intrusion, but the more stubborn area of my brain, the one steeped in education and enlightenment, denies all. I am merely alone, it says, victim only to the fragmented workings of an overactive imagination. I shake my head, the decision made. Discretion wins over my brashness.
Turning to leave, I watch in horror as the image in the mirror wavers, and I look upon a host of grim, bodiless faces surrounding my motionless form. The air is frozen; my legs are encased within a cloak of terror, unable to move.
Hideous and wicked, they leer at me through the reflection, the glass painted with beads of frost. A scream is buried within the constricted passage of my throat, and my shock could not be greater as the faces turn inward, staring directly at me now from inside the cursed mirror.
I shiver as something brushes against me, tiny pinpricks of ice latching onto my skin, pinching and holding me fast. The hands of the dead. Unable to move, my lantern flickers once, then dies, leaving me in complete darkness.
And then the whispers start.