The Barrington House is a short story of three chapters, posted over three days -- by me, your macabre host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Our Hallowe'en story concludes today, as young Mike Zhang Cuthbertson penetrates the Barrington House and prepares to rescue Bianca from the terrifying clutches of her comeuppance.
And now, our closing chapter:
Mike found himself in a small room, surrounded by the looming shadows of furniture covered in moldy sheets and hemmed in by the grey-blue sparkles of deep gloom. His eyes fought against the dark for a moment before he remembered Sarah's pumpkin-shaped flashlight.
He turned it on, projecting a fuzzy jack-o-lantern face through the clouds of dust he had raised with his clumsy arrival through the boarded-up window.
Mike sneezed. The motes sighed away, tumbling.
It was just a room in an abandoned house. Nothing more. It was not filled with unusual things -- just old cabinets and chairs. For a moment he felt like giggling, and steeled himself with his newfound lightness.
Ghosts, after all, were not real.
Buoyed with this confidence he wiggled his way to the door and turned the knob. It squeaked alarmingly but Mike was able to laugh at himself for jumping. He slipped into a wide corridor lined with staring faces, and after a fuller examination with the flashlight's beam revealed them to be a series of grimey portraits in oils, it took a more sustained effort to slow his thumping heart. "It's just a house," he repeated to himself. "Just walls and trash."
Unbidden his mind found references from movies and spooky books about "just walls" somehow absorbing imprints of living souls, especially when those souls were upset. His skin crawled. He suddenly couldn't help but think of the walls of the narrow, picture studded corridor as invisibly soaked with echoes of human misery.
He tried to keep the flashlight beam low, because otherwise it seemed like all the eyes in the portraits were fixed on him, and malevolent.
Mike emerged into the main hall.
A faint glow entered from a pair of dingy skylights partially covered by leaves, lending the hall a colourless, surreal quality. The front doors were to his left, nailed closed by a Bianca's captors. He rattled the handles experimentally, and wondered whether Bianca and he would have enough combined weight to smash the doors open without hurting themselves. He doubted it.
Something scraped around behind him. Mike spun, his jack-o-lantern of light peeling around the hall's many shadowed corners. "Bianca?" he whispered hopefully.
Mike reckoned the house was likely to be populated by vermin: squirrels and mice, voles or bats. He couldn't let himself jump at every little noise -- not if he expected to get through this without bursting into panic. He took a couple of deep breaths.
Twin staircases with broken risers rose around the sides of the hall, leading to a second floor railed landing. The flashlight was too feeble to probe any further details, so Mike dropped it down to the mouth of another corridor running off of the hall. Where did he dare go?
He tried to put himself in Bianca's shoes. Had Mike been shoved in through the front door and then heard it nailed shut behind him, where would he go?
He puzzled over this for a moment, and then opened his eyes wide and gasped. Bianca's shoes! He pointed the beam down at the hall's floor of cracked tile and fished around until he found his own footsteps in the dust. He backed away from the front doors, hunting for another trail leading away somewhere.
And then he found it: the slurred outlines of Bianca's Nikes, headed straight for the rightside staircase.
"Why would you go upstairs?" Mike said aloud, wandering cautiously forward while opening up the gloom on the second storey with his beam. "Bianca?"
He paused at the mouth of the second corridor, opposite the one he had come from, peering into its black infinitude. He was startled when his jack-o-lantern glow flickered across two eyes. He wondered if it were another portrait.
The eyes blinked.
Mike took an voluntary step backward, changing the beam angle and losing sight of the reflected points. He sought them out again and revealed two pairs, one now much closer, accompanied by a scuttling sound.
"Who's there?" croaked Mike, and then, before any answer might come, he lost his nerve and dashed up the staircase, wishing more than checking that he didn't put his foot through a hole in the rotting wood. The entire staircase creaked and groaned loudly, as if in warning of imminent collapse.
At the top Mike dropped to the floor, rolled over and trained the flashlight on the mouth of the corridor just in time to see a fat raccoon amble out. It sat on its haunches and stared at him with its ringed eyes, blinking and sniffing.
Mike sighed. "I'm such an idiot," he mumbled.
The raccoon skittered away, its claws clicking on the wood. Another raccoon followed. In their wake Mike noticed rolls of fog or smoke oozing from the mouth of the dark corridor. At first he thought it was dust, but it continued to thicken, now dense enough to show his beam as distinct illuminated rods of triangle eyes, nose and grinning mouth.
Mike got gooseflesh. He couldn't look away.
An airy voice moaned quietly, rising out of the silence in a precise and slow crescendo that made Mike second guess its reality three times before the sound was too clear to ignore. It made his hair stand up.
Similarly, he doubted that he could detect a glow in the vapour coming from the corridor until it saw the fuzzy shadows it cast on the high, stained walls of the hall.
Light but distinct footfalls were coming down the corridor at a painfully slow but terrifyingly certain pace. The moan came again, this time louder and more plaintive -- a mourning wind arriving on a bed of fog, chased by something that knew Mike was watching.
Before he even knew what he was doing, Mike fled.
He desperately tried one door after another until one gave way before him, spilling him into a velvet black darkness, utterly featureless, the air cold. He hit the floor and spilled onto his back, kicking out until he found the door and heard it knock shut. Then he set to feeling along the floor for the pumpkin-shaped flashlight, his heart pounding. He refused to look up to even attempt to penetrate the darkness until he had a way to ply it.
He found it. It wouldn't turn on. With shaking hands he felt out the battery compartment and pressed the lid in more snugly. The lid clicked. The plastic pumpkin turned bright orange, its features shining out. Mike allowed himself a small smile.
He was in a nursery. It was windowless, close and Victorian, filled by too much furniture. An uncovered crib stood in the middle, its sheet in a pile beside it. A doorway on the far wall appeared to lead into a larger bedroom -- the master bedroom.
Searching the floor again, Mike saw Bianca's scuffs in the dust leading to the master bedroom so he began to cross toward the door. He heard a faint rustle. "Bianca?" he ventured, his voice quavering. "Bianca, it's Mike. Let's get out of here."
When the rustling sounded again it seemed to be coming from the crib. Mike froze.
Reluctantly he looked sideways, and then even more reluctantly let the flashlight beam follow. It played over the fallen sheet, over the ornately carved bars of the crib's side, and then revealed a pile of old, dirty blankets resting inside. The blankets moved.
Mike nearly dropped the flashlight again.
He was telling himself how it must be a squirrel until the thing under the blankets began to quietly sob. The pile rustled again, and a weak, bubbly infant's cry surfaced from beneath it.
The room was very, very cold. Mike could see his own breath.
He felt as if it might pee his pants. His legs were made of iron, like in a bad dream.
With a mighty push of imaginary courage he managed to force himself to shuffle past the crib, wincing in dread when he came closest to it, trying with everything he had to ignore the rustling and sad gurgling. It sounded as if a baby were choking in there.
A board creaked beneath him and baby cried louder. It could hear him.
Overwhelmed by a mix of feelings Mike turned away and plunged into the master bedroom, sussing out each corner with his flashlight as quickly as he could: a canopy bed, stacks of boxes, more covered furniture, rolls of carpet. He closed the door to the nursery behind him, muting the eerie crying.
"Bianca!" Mike called as loudly as he dared.
Something primal demanded that he put more distance between himself and whatever it was wailing in that crib, so Mike sidled along the wall until he came to a door that presumably led back to the landing overlooking the hall. He tried and found it locked.
The next door he tried was a closet. His flashlight showed him a row of moth-eaten suits and moldy dresses, swaying in a distressingly human way in the wake of the aggressive way he'd pulled the door open.
A tiny, senseless, mammal part of Mike bleated to him to hide in the closet. Hide and wait for morning light.
He intellectually dismissed the notion, but never the less found himself reluctant to leave the closet. He decided for the purposes of curiosity to see what kind of a hiding spot the closet truly offered, so he timidly stepped forward and pulled aside the row of clothes with the end of the flashlight, revealing a dark face with wide, crazy eyes.
Mike screamed as he'd never screamed before, his throat involuntarily making noise as he fought to gasp for air. He fell over himself backward, arms flying before his face.
The pumpkin flashlight hit the floor and winked out, spinning off into a corner.
Mike kicked himself backward across the floor until he hit the bed, releasing a snow of dust from the saggy canopy that startled Mike into a fresh shriek. He stuffed his knuckles into his mouth to make the noise stop.
He could still hear screaming. It wasn't his.
"Bianca!" he shouted into the darkness. The scream faltered, so he shouted again.
The scream faded. Raspy breathing. Snuffling. "...M-Mike?"
Mike said nothing for a moment, his entire body vibrating. He clenched his jaw and his fists to steady himself, his eyes squinched shut and back tensed. He was finally able to draw a real breath. "Yup," he squeaked at last. "It's me, Bianca. Scared shitless."
"I'm f'ing scared shitless too," she groaned.
"Come here," said Mike.
"Where are you?"
"Follow my voice."
"I can't even -- I don't know where --"
"I'm coming to you. Stay still."
Bianca jumped when Mike found her. He awkwardly put his arms around her and gave her a hug and then, after a pause, she lay her head on his shoulder. He could feel her fighting against tears, muscles working.
"Everything's going to be okay, Bianca," said Mike.
Bianca lost the battle and sobbed. She had not let anybody hug her in a couple of years. She clutched her hands together over her mouth as what seemed like an impossible amount of wetness welled out of her eyes. For a moment she knew no shame before her brother, and allowed herself a kind of moment usually held strictly aloft. A layer or two of false, desperate dignity dropped away and Bianca found she could suddenly breathe more freely.
"Mike, there's something -- I don't -- like a ghost or..."
"I know. I saw it, too. And the baby-thing."
"Oh f, oh f...I heard it. Can you hear anything now? I can't hear it. Oh f Mike, maybe we should save it. Whatever sick freak put us in here, put that baby in here -- I thought I was going to die, Mike."
"It was kids, Bianca. Kids put you in here. It's just a mean prank. They didn't kidnap a baby."
Bianca paused before speaking, which was uncharacteristic. "Who would do that?" she asked sadly.
Mike swallowed. "I didn't see them all. Dini Butler was there. Arnold Drober. Merrick Underwater."
"Inderwater," corrected Bianca. "You retard," she added warmly.
Bianca sighed with relief, relaxed a bit, leaning her back against Mike. "So the baby-thing is just part of the prank, those twisted assholes."
Mike hesitated. "...Yeah, I guess so."
"It's all a trick," she said, nodding with growing confidence mixed with a thread of cathartic rancor. "Those f'ing freaks. F'ing Dini. F'ing shit-faced Gap-skank Dini."
"Okay: revenge later. Let's escape now," said Mike. He crawled across the floor, sweeping his hands out until he'd retrieved the pumpkin-shaped flashlight. He turned it on. "I know a way out. It's downstairs."
Bianca frowned. "Do we have to go past the baby-thing again?"
"I think so. But, like you say, it's just a trick, right?"
Bianca nodded firmly, accustomed to feigning confidence. "Right. Bastards. Let's go. Here, gimmie the flashlight."
Mike dutifully handed the flashlight to his older sister. He was smiling. He felt enormously relieved to be able to hand the mantle of leadership over to a senior figure. Though he had needed to reassure Bianca to snap her out of her fear, now he was happy to be reassured by her. Maybe the baby-thing was some kind of a contraption Merrick and Arnold had made.
Bianca opened the door to the nursery and strode in, Mike at her heels. She pointed the flashlight.
The crib was empty.
"Bianca..." said Mike slowly, "did you see anything else, um, like downstairs?"
"I saw eyes in the dark, and heard moaning. Like ghost moaning kind of crap. Must've been one of those spooky Hallowe'en CDs you see at the dollar store."
"Let's just run by that part quick, okay?"
Bianca rolled her eyes. "You're such a wimp, Mike."
Mike said nothing. They crossed the room and opened the door to the railed landing overlooking the hall where Mike had fled the apparent apparition. As they emerged from the nursery Mike's eyes were glued to the mouth of the corridor at the bottom of the curved staircase, seeking any sign of supernatural menace. "Can we go down the other side?" he asked Bianca, turning around.
Bianca was indeed looking at the opposite flight of stairs, the flashlight hanging limply at her side, illuminating the floor.
What had caught her attention was the pale woman draped in shredded white robes, standing at the edge of the landing while clutching the sickeningly loose form of a dead infant to her breast.
She opened up her mouth and wailed, reaching one arm out toward Bianca and Mike. The arm was translucent.
Bianca peed her pants. She tried to scream but could make no noise. Her knees turned to jelly and she fell backward into her brother, who caught her with a grunt. Then he folded and they both hit the floor heavily. In a scampering panic Bianca rolled over and lobbed the pumpkin-shaped flashlight at the reaching, weeping wraith.
The flashlight struck the wall, cracking. It went dark as it bounced down the stairs.
The woman took no notice, regarding them with out-stretched arms but proceeding no closer. Her the fringes of her robes drifted as if blown by a breeze but her hair was dark, wet, heavy, matted. Mike stepped closer. Her eyes were just sockets, and Mike stared into them. They flickered. He detected the characteristic stutter of a video disc switching layers.
He put his hand on his sister's shoulder. "It's fake, Bianca. You were right."
Mike stepped right into the apparition, then turned in place until he found the source of the projection: a square of glass inset into the wall over their heads just inches from the output spout of a dry ice machine. "It's a video projector shining on a cloud of movie fog."
The apparition wailed again, startling them both. Mike stepped to the left and, after a pause, the woman in the projection turned to face him. He repeated the experiment to the right. "Motion detectors," he concluded. "They must be wired up to the navigation controls of a DVD player or something."
Bianca furrowed her brow. "Is Merrick Inderwater smart enough to do that?"
Mike shook his head. "This would be a pretty big deal to set up."
Mike pursed his lips grimly. "Let's just get out of here, okay?"
She nodded mutely.
They went down the stairs and Mike led Bianca through the corridor to the room where he'd first come in, made somewhat more difficult by the lack of a flashlight. Mike worked his way to the boarded-up window and felt blindly for the corner he'd broken aside. He frowned.
"What's taking so long?" hissed Bianca.
"The hole's gone," said Mike, knocking on fresh plywood.
Even muffled through the wood they both instantly recognized Geoffrey Penobscot's low guffaw. Someone else snickered, possibly Merrick. "Oops!" called Geoffrey; "guess it's time for Plan B, eh Cuthbertsons?"
Mike clenched his teeth. "Those jerks!"
"F'ing bastards," contributed Bianca darkly. "What do we do now?"
"We find another way out," said Mike. He chewed his lip nervously. "We'll just have to find another window we can kick the wood off of. We'll try a bunch of them. There's nothing to be scared of anymore, right?"
"Right," confirmed Bianca. "Just tricks. Can't hurt us."
"Just tricks. Let's go."
They stepped back into the corridor and found themselves confronted by a furry shadow that growled menacingly. It only took one bark-punctuated lunge for Bianca and Mike to break into an all-out run to the other end of the corridor. They threw open a swing door and scampered inside a large kitchen, the echoes of their progress suddenly dully metallic. Mike turned around and leaned against the swing door. He was shaken roughly as the dog threw itself against it. "Bianca, help!"
"I can't see a damn thing!" yelled Bianca desperately.
"Don't you have a match?"
Cursing herself for own stupidity, Bianca withdrew a box of matches and broke two against the side before successfully igniting the third. She held it aloft and turned in a tight circle. "There's a little place to hide!" she said to Mike.
Mike glanced over. "It's a dumb-waiter. Yeah, okay. Ready to make a break for it? One...two...three!"
Bianca picked Mike up and stuffed him inside the boxy, shelf-like opening of the dumb-waiter as the barking dog burst through the swinging door and raced toward them, claws sliding on the tiles. With a yelp Bianca simultaneously burned her fingers with the match and jammed herself into the dumb-waiter after her brother, fumbling to draw the hatch closed behind her.
A split second later the dog's flailing claws could be heard scraping at the hatch. The beast whined.
"That dog is no trick," muttered Mike, compressed uncomfortably.
"No shit," agreed Bianca. "What're we gonna do, Mike?"
"Climb," he said. Wedging himself between the narrow walls of the chute Mike wiggled upward, inch by inch. By reaching up as far as his fingers could stretch he felt the lip of the dumb-waiter's next station on the floor above. He scooched up further and then knocked the hatch open. He reported his progress down below and then worked his way higher.
At the top he rolled out of the dumb-waiter and hit the floor with a thud.
He was still staring agape at the room he found himself in as Bianca struggled to fit her hips through the hatch, panting hard. "What the f...?" she murmured after hitting the ground, looking around.
There were in a compact anteroom in a series of connected apartments, every wall lined top to bottom with bookshelves, overlapping water-stains running between them. Several of the bookshelves were topped with ragged umbrellas, positioned beneath the ceiling's most explorative cracks.
The windows were covered by heavy curtains. There were dozens of candles. On the far wall hung a map of the world annotated with hundreds of tiny notes in scrunched, childish capitals with no spaces between the words.
Bianca blinked. "What...the f...is this?"
Mike wandered into the next room, finding a water-warped desk surrounded by more piles of moldering volumes. An ancient mechanical typewriter sat on the desk beside a stack of typewritten pages held down by a brick. Mike pushed aside the brick and read from the top page:
To me, she was beautiful."I think it's some kind of a memoir," said Mike, looking up.
By today's standards she'd win no pageants, that's true. Back in those days we liked our women womanly -- lumbering hips, pendulous breasts, belly of plenty -- and by that metric she was a goddess. In fact, on more than one occasion she was used as the model, or at least the inspiration, for hand-sized carvings in bone or stone meant to incarcerate the spirit of fertility for our admiration...
"Yeah, but whose?"
Next Mike stepped up to an elaborate assembly of strings and bells in a multi-chambered wooden frame between two bookshelves, each line marked with a scrawled label: KITCHEN, DRAWINGROOM, SERVANTSHALL, CELLAR...
As he looked on one of the strings tugged and its corresponding bell tinkled: MUSICROOM. Then the one next to it: WESTCORRIDOR. Mike squinted, furrowing his brow. "Whoever it is, I think they're moving through the house now."
"How can you tell?"
Mike pointed as the KITCHEN bell rang, then he scampered back into the first room and stuck his head in the dumb-waiter. At the edge of perception he could detect the low murmurs of a man's gravelly voice, apparently talking to the dog. Mike turned back to Bianca, eyes wide. "He's downstairs getting the dog."
"We should get out of here," said Bianca urgently.
Mike nodded. He picked up a candle and rushed to the end of the library-apartment, cautiously prying open the door and looking out into the corridor, holding the guttering little flame out ahead of him. He paused, and Bianca crashed into him from behind. "Go, go, go!" she hissed.
At the end of the corridor was a flight of curved stairs, the shadows playing and turning as a heavy-footed someone carrying a candle slowly, laboriously shuffled their way upward. Mike was paralyzed, blocking the doorway, his sister pushing against him.
A cloaked man came into view at the top of the stairs, a large dog at his heels. The candle he held illuminated a slice of his face beneath his hood, and Mike saw that the flesh there was twisted and ruined, scarred and lined.
The eyes, however, were not cruel. They were wide and brown and warm. Those eyes locked on Mike's now, and the hulking shape paused, leaning into a walking stick.
"I hear footsteps!" cried Bianca. "Is there something there?"
"No," Mike said in a clear, unfrightened voice. "Nothing's here. Just some stray dog, I think."
"Does it see you?"
"Yes," said Mike, his eyes still locked with that of the cloaked figure. "We should go back the way we came, leave this old house alone."
"But the door's nailed shut!"
Mike glanced down at the hammer hanging in the monster's scarred hand. "I don't think we'll have a problem," claimed Mike. "Let's just go."
The man nodded. Mike nodded back.
He withdrew into the room and shut the door, then led Bianca quickly back to the anteroom and opened the hatch on the dumb-waiter. They scrambled inside and dropped down, emerging into the dark kitchen. Mike carefully drew the candle out of the dumb-waiter and lit their way to the swinging doors.
Bianca did not let go his hand. Mike realized that he was the leader once again.
The passed quickly through the corridor and came out into the hall. As Mike had promised, a pile of rude two-by-fours lay beside the now functional front doors among a smattering of bent nails. Without so much as a look around they wrestled open the doors and stumbled out onto the verandah.
The night was still and cool, the sky sprinkled with keen stars.
Mike blew out the candle and put it on the porch, then carefully closed the front doors. When he turned around Bianca was watching him closely despite the dark. "What lives in there, Mike?"
"I told you, nothing. A dog."
She sneered and shook her head. "I know you and India think I'm stupid, Mike, but I'm really not. I f'ing saw the hairs on the back of your neck stand up." She paused, then continued more quietly. "You were just protecting me, weren't you?"
Mike said nothing.
"F it," she said at last, breaking the silence. "If it's so scary you didn't even want me to know, maybe I don't want to know."
"Okay," whispered Mike.
She mumbled something.
Bianca sighed. "You're a helluva little brother, Mike. Don't make me say it again, okay?"
Mike nodded, smiling a little. "Okay, Bianca."
They sussed out the hedges by the verandah and the walkway but Sarah had already taken India home. Together they made their way out to the sidewalk and then turned back to look at the tall, looming silhouette of the Barrington House. A curtain on the third storey was tucked aside just a tiny bit, an indistinct shadow peering from the window, framed by flickering candlelight.
"Goodnight, Monster," said Mike under his breath. "And thanks."
"What did you say?" asked his sister, starting to walk down the hill toward home.
Mike shrugged, following her. "I said happy Hallowe'en, Bianca."
She snorted. "Yeah, right. The happy part will come when I figure out just how I'm going to get back at those assholes for trapping me in there. That was sick. I never did anything to deserve that -- I mean, not really. F'ing Dini Butler, I hate that bitch."
"Sometimes maybe you could be a little nicer," offered Mike.
Bianca started to snap a harsh reply but stopped herself, perhaps feeling more humble on the subject of harassment. She patted her pockets and came up with a cigarette. "You're right," she said softly. "Want to try a cigarette?"
"You're the one who peed your pants."
"Shut the f up."
They veered around smashed pumpkins in the road, kicking aside the occasional dropped candy or squashed chocolate bar. Mike jammed his hands into his pockets and swaggered contently. He'd never felt closer to his older sister.
"Happy Hallowe'en, Mike," Bianca mumbled around her smoke.
"We'll get them next year."
"F'ing right," Bianca agreed. "F'ing right, Mike."
The kids walked home. The night waned. And the legend of the Barrington House grew.