The Fear of Ghosts - a short story for Halloween!
I fumble at the front door for the doorbell, a rusty handle set into the eroding stone archway. My fingers curl around the eroded metal. It’s stiff; I imagine it hasn’t been used in a long time. I pause, steeling myself. I don’t have to be here; I could turn around and go home. She’d never know.
Except the taxi pulls away, crunching along the gravel driveway and onto the main road. I swallow as I listen to it purr into the distance. My heart misses a beat. I yank the handle, and a bell jangles inside the house.
The doctor said he’d be here. He said he’d been staying since my mother got worse a few days ago; one of the perks of having a friend as your family doctor, I suppose. It should have been me, of course, tending to her, providing comfort in what might be her final hours. But I put off visiting for as long as possible. Now, it’s almost too late.
“Michael, it’s good to see you.” Jack grabs my hand and shakes it. His fingers are sharp, his skin papery. He’s got old. I pull away quickly.
“Doctor Jack,” I say, with a slight bow.
It’s what I called him when I was a child and he was newly-arrived in our one-track village.
He chuckles. “Come in, come in.”
Stale air creeps towards me. A cold breath brushes the back of my neck. I hear the whispers. I wince.
Jack takes my bag and places my hand on his out-stretched arm. He guides me into the house. I scuff my feet on the thick carpet, and he holds his hand against my chest to steady me. “Okay? We’ll go into the drawing room—it’s warm in there. Turn left.”
“I know the way.”
He ignores me. “Two more steps, that’s it. You’re in front of an armchair.”
He allows me to turn and touch the chair with the back of my legs. I hesitate, unable to catch my breath. The room sucks the oxygen away from me. I take a deep gulp.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” I perch on the edge of the chair, stiff and straight-backed—both the chair and I. “How’s…?”
A bell rings from upstairs.
“Excuse me—your mother calls.” He exits, mumbling how he wished he’d never given her the bloody thing. I laugh softly.
The room is noisy without him. The steady ticking of a clock; the crackle of logs on the fire and sudden thump as one settles; the screech of a shrub scraping against the window. I scratch at the threadbare arms of the chair with my too-long nails. I prise my hands away, and my fingers curl around themselves instead, scratching at skin.
The house hasn’t changed, this room hasn’t. The air is oppressive and musty; my mother insists the curtains stay closed to keep out draughts. It has a waning smell of beeswax polish and burned candlewick. It will still be cluttered and claustrophobic, as though the over-sized Walnut furniture is closing in—tall dressers, chairs and side tables, all squeezed together.
And the cabinet. Of course. I’d forgotten about that.
That robust, foreboding cabinet; that bristle in the air.
It’s watching me. I tremble. I’m nine again, petrified. Under my bed, with my fist shoved into my mouth to stop me from making a noise. Running, only to be thwarted at every wood-carved doorway or over-furnished landing. Calling for help, but my voice too feeble. My parents assuming I’m playing a game—admonishing me for disturbing them.
My body rigid, my feet pushing into the carpet to anchor myself. They’re coming, prowling; their icy fingers reaching out…
The sound of my mother’s bedroom door shutting echoes into the large hallway.
How did I forget the ghosts?
They draw back into their closet confinement, and I can breathe again. I smirk at my foolishness. I’m safe, of course; I’m an adult and my nightmares can’t harm me anymore.
I trace Jack’s footsteps down the stairs and into the drawing room. “She’s hanging on,” he says. “She’s a resilient woman.”
“Yes, she is.”
“Would you like a drink? It’s been a long day, I could use one.” He sounds drained and defeated. I should have been here sooner.
I shake my head. “Is this it, Jack? Is she…?”
“She’s been ill for a long time. She’s lucky to have made it this far, to be honest.” He’s over at the sideboard, chinking the decanter—whiskey, maybe—against two glasses, even though I said no.
“I didn’t realise. I’d have been here if…” If what? If I’d known? If I’d had nothing better to do?
“I know.” He presses the glass into my hand. “Here. Drink. Doctor’s orders.”
The cabinet was in my bedroom at first, storing neglected and disregarded toys. An aunt I never met left it to my parents in her will. There wasn’t space for it anywhere else, so it was left in my room.
It gave me nightmares, looming over me as I tried to sleep, forcing me to hide under the scratchy woollen blankets. I’d peek out periodically, to catch the ghosts as they evaporated into the darkness.
“It’s been in the family for years,” my mother said as I stared up with trepidation. Up and up and up.
I told her about the nightmares.
“Don’t be silly. It’s just a cupboard.” Dismissing me with a brief flick of her hand.
“It moves when I’m sleeping!” I called as she withdrew.
She didn’t tell me—and I didn’t find out until later—that each of its previous owners had suffered ruin and torment. Houses razed to the ground, ancestors found guilty of treason and hanged, or crushed and mutilated by a horse and cart, or blown off cliffs and drowned. One poor woman was tried as a witch and burnt. Family folklore blamed the cabinet for it all.
The ghosts were tentative at first; prodding me, analysing me. Testing me. It was a game, a secret; a weapon I could use against my parents. But they grew stronger, and they made me weaker. They bullied and taunted me; intimidated me, terrified me.
Even when it was brought into this room, the ghosts didn’t let go. Seeking me out, clinging to me, invading me. I tried to fight back, but they always beat me. Occasionally, I felt an extra strength, sustaining me when I couldn’t stand anymore.
But it didn’t work. I got sick. They made me sick.
My parents didn’t hide their disappointment in me. They’d had high hopes for their only child: Head Boy, cricket captain, Cambridge, a career in law or banking. Instead I told them ghost stories, and withered away. Some days, I could barely leave my room. They paid for the best doctors, but no one could tell them what was wrong with me.
The day I left home, for boarding school aged ten, I recovered. The fog of infirmity lifted. I never went back.
I have a good life, now: a job I enjoy, close friends, occasional girlfriends who come and go by mutual agreement. I didn’t want to return. I put it off for as long as possible.
“How have you been?” Jack asks, in a tone that suggests it isn’t his first attempt to break my ruminations.
“You look well. London life agrees with you.”
“This house has a habit of dragging me down.”
“Ah, yes, your tales of ghosts.” He chuckles and sighs. “I remember them well.”
I nod cautiously. Yes, tales. My fingers follow the intricate pattern carved into the crystal tumbler. “Did my mother ever explain it to you, why she sent me away?” I swig the remainder of my drink. I regret asking; I don’t really want to know. It was my salvation, after all. I should be grateful.
Jack sucks air, and shuffles in his chair. It creaks as he leans forward and his glass thuds down on a coaster on the side table. I imagine his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers pressed together—his signature pose, the stern doctor persona that used to frighten me into taking my medication.
“She said she had no choice. Her grief was too severe, and you needed so much care.” He pauses, stumbling over his words.
In my mind, he’s perspiring copiously, mopping his brow with a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. Or perhaps I’m just recalling old black-and-white films my mother used to watch. There was always a lot of brow-mopping in those.
“She couldn’t cope on her own,” he continues, faintly. “Do you remember how she took to her bed and refused to leave?”
”No… well, you were recovering from your own injuries, I suppose…” The ticking clock infiltrates the room. “She said… she said you reminded her too much of your father.”
“It’s my fault. I should have done more. I should have saved him.” His voice is blunted, caught in his throat.
“You did everything you could.”
There was a fire. I was trapped in my bedroom. I remember screaming from the window, but no one came. Finally, standing in the doorway, my father held out his arms and I stumbled into them. He hugged me close and struggled through the furious fire. Part of the ceiling crashed on top of us. We scrambled out, bleeding and concussed, battling towards the door. I couldn’t see through the thick smoke. It attacked my throat and eyes; I choked and convulsed, clutching onto him. He collapsed onto the lawn, and I was blind.
I blamed the ghosts, but nobody listened.
The doctor and I sit in silence, contemplating how that one event changed so much.
“Are you ready to see her?” Jack asks.
I tilt my head towards the ceiling. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”
A hideous gargling cry emanates from above. Jack rushes from the room, calling out to her as he bounds upstairs. I stand, but don’t attempt to follow. I listen closely. The floorboards groan as he moves about the room, at first with purpose, then calmer, slower.
He’ll bow his head respectfully and cover her with the crisp cotton sheet. I sit heavily, and wipe a tear from my cheek.
Suddenly, there are no sounds. Nothing at all. Is that possible? The wind diminishes, the fire ceases its relentless crackling, and even the clock has retreated. As though a shroud has been thrown over me to block everything out.
“I’m so sorry,” says Jack, returning eventually. His appearance is sudden, and I flinch. “There was nothing I could do. It was her time. I held her hand and she passed peacefully.”
“Thank you.” I should say something else, but I’m numb. I struggle over the words, then give up. I’ve had time to consider this moment, but it’s nothing like I imagined. I’m hollow, remorseful, ashamed. “What about… um, her body?”
“I’ll send someone to take her. Unless you’d rather she stayed here tonight?”
“What about you? Are you staying? Can I give you a lift to the station?”
“I planned to stay for a couple of days.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. I assumed Jack would be here, that my mother would hold on for a while longer.
“I should stay. You’ll need help—you don’t know your way around.”
“No, I’ll be fine. You should get back to your wife. You’ve been away long enough. Thank you, for everything.”
He paces the house, collecting all those things that people deposit when then stay—toothbrush, nightwear, medical bag. The sound of the front door slamming as he leaves seems so final.
I sit in the drawing room while the undertakers collect my mother. The atmosphere alters immediately. The air chills. A draught curls around my legs, as though a door has been left open. A voice laughs softly.
“So,” I mutter, “you and me…”
The ghosts and me.
They don’t reply. Of course they don’t. Because ghosts aren’t real. They’re a construct of my childhood imagination.
I rise and totter towards the dresser to top up my drink. Jack was right. I don’t know my way around this house anymore—I haven’t been here for so many years. I visualise perfectly how it used to be, but over time my mother has reduced the number of rooms she uses, squeezing furniture around her while other rooms stand practically empty. As Jack walked around the house, I could hear the varying concentrations of timbre.
I snag my shin on a low table and change direction. When I arrived, Jack settled me into the closest chair, but now, traversing the room, I have obstacles. I reach to my left and stroke the curtains. I turn slightly, pointing myself to the corner where Jack filled our glasses. A drink shouldn’t be this difficult to obtain.
I grope my way across and grab the dresser with relief.
Not the dresser.
I lean close and breathe in the warm aroma of my childhood. A conflictingly soothing scent of linseed oil, of citrus, of the Walnut itself. I press my forehead against it and listen. If they’re inside, if they’re real, then I’ll hear them.
My chest tightens, my heart races. My fingers trace the beading and the detail carved in the wood.
“There are no ghosts. There are no ghosts,” I whisper to myself, recalling my childhood, my isolation and abandonment; recalling that the only constant was my fear of the ghosts.
I find the bronze handles, smooth and worn after centuries of use. And I pull. The doors are stiff and open abruptly, creaking on their hinges. I hold my hands up to defend myself.
No ghosts. I laugh at myself, a harsh acerbic laugh. No ghosts. Of course! Stupid man. My nightmares, my juvenile anxiety, they were all just in my head. The fire that killed my father was just an accident.
I relax—my shoulders, my arms, my fists. The knot inhabiting my stomach unfurls.
Now what? I’m aimless and empty; everything is meaningless, now. For so many years, the ghosts filled my head, my fear of them pushed me away, my spite for them drove me forward. It was all a lie. I pat the cabinet the way I acknowledge an old friend. Time for that drink.
Gently, at first, I feel a soft tug. I brush myself down, in case my trouser leg has caught on a splintered corner. I take a step, but still I’m unable to move away.
A sharp icy finger strokes my arm. A malformed hand wraps itself around my torso.
The sensation becomes stronger, more urgent, pulling me. I try to resist. I grab the nearest piece of furniture, a table, to brace myself.
A bright light burns my eyes; distorted and muffled but nonetheless painful. I can’t move. It overwhelms me. I’m transfixed as it refines into a piercing point. I’m drawn to it, towards the cabinet. I wriggle away. I must resist, must be stronger than them. I’m losing my grip. The light magnifies, enveloping me.
The voices start to whisper again, like before. Telling me what to do. Coaxing me, urging me. Soft, gentle, cutting, stark. They’ve been waiting for this, for me to let down my guard. I’m the child who got away, the last of the family line.
Closer and closer. The wood vibrates—their energy restoring, absorbing me, as it did in my childhood imaginings. The evil within calls to me; the voices of my ancestors beseech me to join them—the witches and monsters lurking down the centuries. The noise is incessant and confusing.
I reach behind me, fumbling for something I can smash down onto the cabinet to break the spell. I find a lamp with a solid metal base. I lift it to test its weight, then raise it above my head and crash it down to splinter the wood.
The cabinet shrieks, high-pitched and mournful. It rings out around the room, resonating against the high ceiling, sending a spasm down my spine.
I’m jolted, pushed, dragged towards the gaping doors. The arms around me lift me, and throw me to the floor. My head is heavy. I wipe my forehead and discover blood. Everything is foggy, clouded. I can’t… think straight. I try to remember where I am, what I’m doing.
I haul myself to my feet, and lift the lamp again, smashing it down onto the ghosts over and over. I’m shoved against the wall, winded, grappling for breath. I punch the air, trying to fight, but how can you attack something that doesn’t exist? I surge forward with a yell, and the resistance evaporates. I fall again, bumping into the corner of the dresser or table.
For a moment, I’m warm and embraced. I don’t want to move. I want to remain here. The throb in my head gradually dissipates. I’m drowsy, comfortable.
A hand snakes around my throat and tightens. I can’t breathe. I see my mother and father, young and smiling at me, holding their hands out to me. I’m running through the long grass in the fields beside our house. I see us all laughing and happy, so happy.
That’s what they took, the ghosts. They stole my childhood, and my father; they made my mother old and bitter.
I lash out in rage, but hit nothing, of course. Ghosts aren’t real. My parents said so. Jack said so. The hands around my neck are now around my entire body, constricting me, purging all the oxygen from me.
The air stagnates. I squirm, but I’m pinned down, paralysed. And the ghosts laugh. Arrogant and scathing in their victory. There’s a sharp pain, a trickle of blood down my face. I close my eyes, and my inert body is dragged along the thick shag carpet.
Voice upon voice, unspecified and indistinct. My ancient family lineage, welcoming me like a long-lost son. Claiming me as theirs.
The smooth antique Walnut imprisons me, holding me firmly within its layers. I scratch against the grain, searching for a way out; but the wood creaks, and contracts to restrain me further. My limbs seize until they are rigid. I try to squirm away, but I’m trapped.
Exhausted, I allow myself to drift among the molecules and atoms, assimilated.
I hear the stories of my ancestors—their tales of witchcraft and mayhem, of malevolence and domination. I see the cabinet being passed from generation to generation, stealing kin from the outside world, as though I’m living it. A collage of images, like memories, passing through me.
But what now? There’s no more family. I’m the last of the line.
We’ll start again, of course. The cabinet will be bought from a second-hand shop, nestled alongside all the other furniture from my mother’s house. We’ll be inserted into a new home, loved and admired. We’ll whisper tenderly, and a child will hear us, the youngest and weakest. Like me.
Thank you for reading The Fear of Ghosts. It was originally written many years ago, and had new life breathed into it so I could enter it into the Dark Tales monthly competition in 2017, where it won 1st prize.