The House That Never Was
This is a short horror story that grew to novella length. I previously worked as a photographer, so there are elements of truth. I did visit a decrepit house in the middle of nowhere once and took photos, but nothing untoward happened to me. This was a “what if…” type of story.
There’s a theory that the uncanny valley—where the closer something look to human, the creepier it looks—which plagues a lot of cg, came about because at one time during our evolution, we had to be wary of something that looked almost, but not quite, human—and they were to be avoided. This was the idea behind this story.
I hope you enjoy it, and I welcome feedback.
Story starts after the break.
In the fens, you can see forever. The area is so flat, and the sky so large, that sometimes you feel like you can see as far as there is.
I was travelling on the back roads, which no local council wanted to claim jurisdiction of, judging by the state of their disrepair. In places I had to drive at ten mph or less, to avoid wrecking my suspension. I was returning from a client consultation. We’d done the photoshoot a week before, and as arranged, I’d taken my laptop over to their house to show them the images, get them excited and secure a print order.
It had gone very well. The client was pretty comfortable, financially speaking. The house was an eight bedroom place, very rustic – possibly a barn conversion? Inside it was completely kitted out with new tech, in direct contrast to the exterior. They had a video doorbell, lights controlled from a phone, full wi-fi throughout – the works.
The matriarch of the family had plied me with tea and biscuits, and even offered to make me a meal if I was hungry. I politely declined the meal but ate as many biscuits as I could without seeming greedy, which was four, in total.
“You really like Gingernuts, eh,” she’d said. I wasn’t sure if it was rhetorical or not, so mumbled my confirmation between bites.
They were a nice family. Mum, dad, three kids. Two of them still lived at home. We’d done the shoot on their grounds, which the dad had told me extended through the woods out the back, and into the fields beyond.
They placed a large order for prints without any coercion from me, so I figured best not to push it, apart from asking if that was everything once I’d typed their requirements into my software, but before hitting the ‘place order’ button. It was enough that I wasn’t going to have to dip into my savings this month in order to cover bills.
I said my goodbyes, and asked them to email me once the prints arrived, so that I knew they’d got them ok, and got into my car. By this point, it was a beautiful evening. Red clouds streaked across the dimming dome of the sky, and the world turned a peachy colour. I drove over a rather lovely river and out into fenland. I recently found out that fens differ from bogs or other wetlands because fens are alkaline. I’ve lived in the fens for the past decade, and only found that out the other day due to a social media post I saw.
I drove on into the evening. Cool air breezed in through the crack in the window, and brought birdsong along with it. Fields of various crops flitted past, along with occasional fallow stretches. As I rounded a corner the hedgerow faded away and brought even more expanse of meadows and azure sky that gave way to a deeper royal blue, then up into a dark navy, speckled with the first stars.
After a minute or two more, I saw a single house, standing forgotten and forlorn in the middle of a field. It didn’t look like a farmhouse – more like a council semi-detached property. It looked abandoned, out of place, and in a serious state of disrepair. I had been looking for somewhere like it for a photoshoot I was planning. Something grungy, with an alternative model. Maybe a punk, with all the prerequisite piercings and tattoos. I could use some gelled lighting to create eerie colours in the background. “Yeah,” I thought to myself as I slowed the car to approach the property, “this could work.”
I turned off onto a hard packed mud track and took it slowly to avoid damaging the car on a hidden pothole or jutting rock. I pulled almost up to the front door and left the lights of the car on, as it was getting fairly dark by now.
I called out, but didn’t expect an answer. The front door had been painted green at some point but was now a collection of layers of peeling pigment that hung limply from its bottom hinge by a single screw that was holding on for dear life.
I sucked in my stomach reflexively as I slipped past it and into the hallway. I turned the torch on my phone on. The place was in complete disarray. The hall was strewn with pieces of bricks and smashed woodwork. Peering into the first room on the right, I saw a layer of shattered shards on the floor, as the wind suddenly picked up and howled a strange note through the empty windows.
There didn’t seem to be any furniture in the room, not even remnants. Presumably the previous owners had taken it with them when they left.
I moved cautiously over the rubble into the rear portion of the house. The kitchen was rear right, and amazingly, still had a cooker in it. It was one of those old seventies models, with a grill pan at the top. It had once been either white, or perhaps off-white, but now it was overgrown with moss and lichen. Those plants, which had overtaken most of the kitchen, along with some ivy vines that had crawled in through a break in the window, were drip-fed from somewhere above. Turning my torch on the ceiling, I saw it had collapsed completely in.
Peering into the hole, I saw a shadow skitter past. It moved quickly and I found myself breathing heavily as the adrenaline settled. It may have just been a rat, or perhaps a bird. In any case I was on my guard. I almost called out, but decided against it. If it was a rat or bird, they couldn’t answer me. A silent response would only heighten my fear, and if something did respond… well, that would probably be worse.
The sound of skittering came from somewhere upstairs, but it sounded too large to be rat feet. I tried to catch my breath, and pointed my torch into the ragged hole above me. There were splintered planks sticking out around the edges, and a steady trickle of water from one side. There was no noise from above now.
I sighed, and felt my shoulders droop into their natural poor posture. I decided to look around the kitchen some more before heading off.
The cupboards were hanging off the walls by rusted screws that were clinging on by their tips into red plastic rawl plugs that had been chewed up by the threads. Amazingly, one still had a few oddments of crockery in – mouldy plates that were chipped and cracked along their edges.
There was a kitchen table, with one leg missing and what looked to be gouges taken from its outer edge, maybe from falling planks and masonry.
Just as I was peering intently at the fungus growing on one of them, something clattered to the floor behind me, sending my pulse into a frenzy of syncopation. I wheeled around to see an old toy, sitting in the middle of the floor next to the table. It was an old toy telephone – the rotary dial kind. The sticker that had once showed a friendly face was now faded, scratched, and torn. The top edge was peeling away. I’d had one just like it as a child. I stared at it for a long moment before another noise from above shifted my attention immediately to the twisted hole.
There was a pair of shoes. Small, brown leather shoes. Their tips hung just over the edge of the hole. From my position I couldn’t see any more, but I was certain they hadn’t been there before. I slowly and quietly made my way around the table to the wall with the cupboard on it, shifting my gaze between the treacherous debris-strewn floor and the shoes.
As I pressed my back against the counter top, I froze. There were little socks in the shoes, and above them, pale little legs.
It was a boy of about seven or eight. Even though the sky outside was getting dark, he was still somehow silhouetted against it through another hole in the roof. I couldn’t make out his face, but he was wearing grey shorts, a grey jumper, and a similarly coloured blazer with a red trim. It looked exactly like the one I’d worn at school when I was that age.
He was staring straight down at me. I wanted to call out a hello, but my voice was trapped in my throat like a rabbit in a snare. For seconds that stretched into long moments, nothing happened. Then, he took a step into the abyss.
My body regained control of itself and I lurched forward, preparing to catch the boy as he fell, or at least break his fall. I tried to shout, “Wait!” but the only sound I made was an unintelligible cry that was embarrassingly an octave or two above my normal speaking voice, as I slipped on half a brick and my ankle stabbed with pain as it twisted outside of its normal range of motion.
I managed to grasp at the cooker to stop myself from falling, and it was at this point I looked up again, expecting the boy to come crashing down, and I was now useless to help. Instead, he now stood over the hole, as if the floor was still intact. Or rather, as if there was a sheet of glass covering the hole.
I stood, agog as the boy stood over open air, and continued to stare down at me. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the spectacle, and my left hand scrambled along the counter top, trying to find something to throw, that might dispel the impossible scene. It found something thin and cold – a teaspoon.
As my fingers wrapped around it the boy cocked his head to one side, quizzically. I launched the spoon underarm up into the ragged hole. It flew within inches of the boy’s foot, before sailing upward in an arc, rebounded off the wall in the upstairs room and clattered to the floor. The boy continued to stare at me from his impossible position for a moment, before running off after the spoon. He disappeared out of sight. I heard the spoon scrape on the floor as he picked it up.
He reappeared at the edge of the hole, and walked out into thin air again. This time when he was over the middle of the hole, he crouched down, held out his arm, and very deliberately dropped the spoon. It hit the toy telephone, the bell on it chiming coldly, combined with the metallic ring of the spoon, echoing in the space.
I trained my torch on the spoon, and the boy stayed crouching, with nothing supporting him. I suddenly turned my torch upward, and flooded his face with light from below. He winced, and shot his hand out to block the light before hissing like a cat and darting off into the darkness.
The strange transfixing spell broke and my flight response kicked in, along with a jolt of adrenaline. I was halfway to my car before I even realised I’d moved. I got in and slammed the door shut, fumbling for my keys in my pocket with trembling fingers.
I locked the door, although I had no idea if that would keep me safe from a boy that could walk on air. Perhaps he could walk through solid objects as easily as he could stand on nothing. I finally found my keys and scrabbled to get them into the ignition without taking my eyes off the house for even a split second, expecting the boy to come running out, hate-filled and screaming into the night.
Finally the key found its slot and the engine roared into life. I stamped on the accelerator like it was a spider in my kitchen, and sprayed mud and gravel in my wake. Screw the suspension, I thought as I thundered back down the rutted track. I kept my eye on the rear view as much as possible, leading to a few hairy moments as I bounded over potholes that I would have otherwise missed.
I could see no lights from either side as I came up to the main road, so threw the car an approximate ninety degrees – the back end bouncing onto the road. I almost lost it into the small ditch that ran alongside, but pressed hard on the break and counter-steered. The car juddered to a halt, a few feet from the ditch, the engine idling. I glanced back at the house. Still nothing, but it was too dark to see much of anything other than its outline now. I imagined the boy running down the dirt track, hissing and snarling, and my right foot hit the accelerator without any instruction from me.
I don’t know how fast I drove, but I arrived back at home safely. I checked behind me the whole way, but there was nothing. No boy running behind the car, keeping pace at improbable speed. I even checked the back seat with my torch after I got out, and locked the car, just to be sure. Nothing. Just a few photography magazines and a wrapper or two, as usual.
After getting inside, I locked the door, which I don’t usually do, but my breath was still heaving in staccato. I shotgunned two beers, one after the other and then uncorked my single malt and poured three fingers into a tumbler with shaking hands.
I sat in my living room, with every light in the house blazing. I wanted to put the tv on to have some form of distraction, but didn’t dare in case the sound from it covered the sound of my locked door opening, or the pat of small footsteps on my wooden hall floor.
After a while and two of the three fingers, I began to calm down a little. I couldn’t have seen what I thought I had, I told myself. It was patently ridiculous. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but then I also couldn’t explain how the boy had appeared to stand in mid air like that. Also, if it was a ghost, how did it pick up the spoon and drop it back down the hole?
Finally, I allowed myself to ask the question I’d been avoiding since the incident. The boy couldn’t have been a ghost, because when I’d shone the torch up, I’d caught a glimpse of his face. I had seen me, aged maybe seven or eight. It had been my face staring down at me and hissing, in the eerie under-lighting from my torch. It didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t dead, so how could it have been the ghost of me from decades ago? Or maybe I was dead? Maybe I had died aged seven, and my life since then had been some sort of deathly dream.
I shook my head to try and clear it of both the thoughts and the fuzziness that the drinks had brought on. I did the cliche thing of pinching myself. It hurt, and I felt pretty real to me. I sat drinking and pondering into the small hours, unable to even consider sleep, despite having drank enough to stun a horse.
It was around then that a creeping dread came over me. Slowly at first, like water streaming through a crack in a dam, before it suddenly gave way and I was awash with cold as surely as if I’d been standing under the dam when it buckled.
I’d left my camera in the house.
This was not a little point and click thing. This was a professional DSLR, that had cost me around three grand – and that was not including the lens currently attached, the battery pack, and the memory cards, all of which added around another thousand.
For a few seconds, I gave some serious consideration to just saying fuck it, and upgrading. It was almost time to do that anyway. Then I realised that I had some client photos on the card that I hadn’t transferred over to my computer. Photos that had been paid for.
I had to go back. Not tonight – my blood alcohol level precluded driving out there again tonight, and I wasn’t sure if I could’ve faced it while drunk anyway. Better to wait until morning, when hopefully it would turn out to be just a derelict house and a weird story that I would probably keep to myself.
Sleep came in fitful bursts that night. Whenever I dropped off, I would see my seven year old face hissing and snarling at me. In my dreams that little face had rows of small, serrated teeth like a shark or piranha, and pitch black eyes that showed no whites, or iris colour – just black pools of cold malice. Its skin was almost translucent, and displayed a latticework of blue and purple veins stretching out under it, and writhing like earthworms.
When I awoke, I could no longer tell what I’d actually seen the night before and what was dreamed. Perhaps none of it was real.
I showered and dressed, and sat holding a cup of coffee until it had gone cold. I made another and managed to drink half of it before my system reacted to the caffeine and I began to feel anxious again. I finally told myself that it had all been silly. Maybe tricks of the light somehow, although in truth I didn’t find my debunking particularly convincing.
In any case, I made my way out to the car. I must’ve looked pretty odd to my neighbours, standing next to the car for a full five minutes while alternately grabbing the handle before swearing under my breath and pacing back and forth next to the car door. At one point I turned and walked back toward the house for a few paces, stopped, and then walked back to the car.
As I reached it, something off-white on the floor behind the driver’s seat caught my eye. I licked my lips in apprehension and looked through the window.
It was an old rotary toy telephone, with a faded and peeling face sticker. The red handle laid limply next to it on the carpeted floor. I rubbed my temples and pushed my fingers into my eyes to try and dislodge the after image of it, but when I opened my eyes, it was still sat there. It seemed to radiate menace, despite being just a toy. I opened the back door of the car and grabbed it. It was as real as I was.
Perhaps it was to be traded for my camera?
I flung it onto the back seat, the sound of its bells jarring my nerves further. I backed out of my drive into the quiet road. The morning was clear and bright, with streaks of white clouds high up. At least this time it would be daylight.
I drove slowly, as the car had developed a slight knocking noise whenever I passed over a bump in the road, presumably from the misuse it suffered on the uneven track the night before. Another thing to worry about – but not right now.
As I drew near I almost hoped that when the hedgerow opened up into the field, that the house wouldn’t be there. I’d tell the client my camera was stolen and rearrange another shoot with them at my own expense. My insurance would hear a similar tale and I’d get that upgrade.
As I rounded the last corner before the turnoff my heart pounded like a crazed percussionist was hammering at it. The house was still there. Exactly the same. Was that better, or worse? I couldn’t decide. I turned into the track again, and took it slowly, aware of the damage I’d probably already caused and reluctant to add more. I eased to a stop about thirty yards from that front door, still askew in its frame, like a bad tooth waiting to fall out.
It took me seven minutes to pluck up the courage to open the car door and get out. It was a beautiful morning. Dew glistened on the overgrown grass that sprawled out to the woods in back and insects flitted about doing whatever it is that insects do of a morning.
I took a few tentative steps toward the house, expecting with each step to see the boy appear at an upstairs window, or even to appear in the doorway, but nothing happened. I continued walking forward as if on thin ice, picking my steps carefully. My ankle still throbbed from last night, but luckily it had been just a minor sprain and nothing more serious. I’d wrapped it in a support bandage and tried to ignore the sharp pangs that came with each step on that side.
I could see into the house now. I peered in through the front windows from a few feet away – far enough that nothing would be able to suddenly grab me through the lack of glass, but all was as before. Just splintered frames with cracking paint, that served as a vignette that captured forsaken ruin, and natural reclamation.
Another two minutes passed while I strained my hearing – eyes squinting into the interior gloom, searching for the unworldly or profane.
Part of me wanted to believe that nothing had really happened last night either, but a larger part knew what I’d seen beyond doubt. It could have been a hallucination, I supposed. I’d never been one for illicit substances and despite the previous night’s evidence to the contrary, normally only drank in moderation. A couple of beers was a big night. The single malt had been a Christmas present from two years ago, and had only been uncorked for the second time last night – and only then to help ease the overwhelming terror that I’d been left with after the incident. I’d also hoped it might make me sleep. I’d had a few restless nights recently for no particular reason, but I was definitely more tired than normal. I remembered reading that sleep deprivation could lead to hallucinations, but I’d thought that was only in extreme cases where people had been kept awake for seventy-two straight hours or more.
Suddenly I doubted myself. Maybe I was more tired than I realised. Maybe I was sleep-deprived. In which case, last night’s alternate turns of, ‘rampant insomnia’ and ‘horrific nightmares’, didn’t bode well for the possibility of seeing something again today, even in broad daylight.
But then there was the spoon. It had jangled off a broken piece of a chair, caromed off a pile of rubble, and been sent skittering across the floor like a silver scarab with a long tail.
But, my mind argued back, couldn’t the spoon have been a hallucination? I’d felt the cold of it through my skin though. It had seemed completely corporeal.
Maybe the spoon I’d thrown had been real, but the one that came back down hadn’t been? That was possible.
I’d stood on the threshold for about five minutes by this point, and decided that there was no use putting it off any longer. Whatever had happened last night, it was improbable that anything would happen today. The sun was shining, there was a cooling breeze blowing through the fields and the loudest sound around me was birdsong and crickets, chirping merrily to each other.
I sighed, still not utterly convinced by my own rhetoric, but plunged in through the front door. Once inside, the temperature was noticeably colder, but I was now out of the direct sunlight and what was a gentle breeze outside, whistled in through the empty windows, focussing it into gusts.
I picked my way along the hall toward the kitchen. Rounding the door frame, part of which came away in my hand as I grabbed it, I could see my camera. It was still sitting idly on the counter top where I’d put it down.
For the first time since the incident, I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me to take pictures of the boy. That way I’d have been able to debunk what happened – or have evidence of its reality. There I was, professional photographer by trade, and when something weird and scary happened to me, I’d put down my camera and gawped like a child at a sweet shop window, slack jawed and transfixed. Suddenly all those blurry and out of focus shots of UFO’s and Bigfoot made a lot more sense to me. At least those people had had the presence of mind to actually try to capture a shot of their experiences.
The camera looked so out of place in its surroundings. A modern, sleek looking piece of shiny technology in a long abandoned building that was decorated in styles from yesteryear, and was crumbling to ruin. The camera was covered in droplets and dust. Some of the former had traced little pathways through the latter, like a miniature network of roads, branching, crossing, joining. Luckily I’d had the foresight to buy a weather-sealed model, but I wiped off the dust with some tissue I had in my jacket pocket anyway.
I grabbed my camera, and decided to get some shots of the place. There was no way I was going to do a shoot here now, but I figured they’d make for some interesting shots on the theme of urban decay, which was a project I’d been meaning to start for a couple of years. These shots could be the beginning of that – exploring decay in forlorn places and reclamation by nature of desolate buildings that humans no longer needed or wanted.
I took a few shots of the moss on the cooker, backlit by the sun streaming in through the rear doorway, and of the rubble on the floor. I shot the broken chairs and the table with the missing leg. For a few minutes, I lost myself in the pleasure of finding the right angles, light and exposure, and the events of the preceding evening faded from my conscious mind.
Until I saw the spoon.
It was exactly where it had come to rest the previous night. Bowled head, flat stem and a standard mark stamped into the silver. I felt my chest tighten. Without realising it, I’d been avoiding looking up at the gaping hole in the ceiling. Everything I’d shot had been below eye level. I bent down gingerly to pick up the spoon. It was corporeal enough, and felt lighter than my ordinary stainless steel teaspoons at home.
Maybe it had rebounded off something in the room upstairs and fallen back into the hole? That was certainly possible. I winced, as I realised what I had to do next. I craned my neck to look up at the hole.
It was just a hole. I could see the yellowing wallpaper in the room upstairs, and the blue-grey of the plaster behind it where it had been stripped away in places. I could see the chimney breast, with its red bricks showing years of water damage. I could see the hole in the roof above, the rotten rafters jutting out into the air like the rib bones of some long dead wooden creature.
And then I turned to look at the edge where I’d first seen the boy that looked like me. The shoes were there. The little, brown leather shoes, with their tips hanging over the edge of the hole. My stomach lurched, but I could see that there was no one wearing them. It was just an old pair of child’s shoes, probably left on the floor when the people moved away, or evacuated in such a rush that they didn’t stop to ensure their child was shod.
Sometimes I hated my brain. I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d looked upstairs into the room itself. I needed to see that the shoes were just an old, discarded pair in an empty, and partially collapsed room, and not anything more sinister than that.
Cursing my own need for certainty, I walked back into the hall, and stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up. It was still bright inside, so I figured now would be the best time to explore the upstairs of the house while minimising the risk of having an accident.
I started up the stairs. The carpet underfoot squished. It was sodden from recent rain. The wood underneath complained as I tested each step before putting my full weight on it. The bannister had moss growing up most of it. It felt soft and actually quite nice against my palm. The bannister railings were mostly split or missing, so I tried not to lean too heavily on it.
The landing had previously been carpeted, as evidenced by the tacks still sticking out of the planks. Now it was wood in an array of shades. I decided to leave the haunted bedroom and its abyss until last, and went into the bathroom first. The sink was in two pieces, with the right third of it laying on the floor next to the toilet. The toilet itself was intact, but cracked and missing a seat. Luckily I didn’t need to use it. The bath was an olive green affair, which looked completely out of place next to the now stained whites of the rest of the set. I took a few shots and moved on.
The master bedroom had black mould growing pretty much everywhere. I stayed outside and shot a few pictures from the doorway. There were oyster mushrooms growing on the side of the wardrobes, and the net curtains danced in the breeze like plaintive spectres.
I moved out into the hall again and took some more shots, before deciding it was time. I had to face the child’s bedroom.
The door to the room was red, and as cracked as every other painted surface in the place. I pushed it gently and it swung open easily, with a squeal from the hinges like a stuck pig. Inside, the room was one of the barest in the house. I could see the shoes next to the hole. They had been put together tidily, but in the middle of the floor. I found that odd. I snapped some pictures of the shoes, the hole, and the room in general. Up here, it didn’t look frightening at all – just an empty room. I thought about kicking the shoes into the hole and down into the kitchen, but decided against it. They looked kind of perfect there. A forgotten memory in leather and laces.
I continued shooting as I left, shooting down the stairs from the top, and up from the bottom. I documented the rubble-strewn hall and the empty and echoing living room. For the entire time, nothing seemed awry. The only creeping feeling came from the memory of what I thought I’d seen the night before. Otherwise, it just felt like an empty house that had been open to the elements for too long.
I made my way back to the kitchen, determined to take a shot of the shoes poking out over the hole, of for no other reason than too assuage my fear. I rattled off a handful of shots, and felt better. I headed back to the front door, and turned to take a last couple of shots down the hall, taking in the staircase.
After that I got back in my car and drove home. Even the knocking sound seemed to have lessened. Maybe it wouldn’t end up costing me a fortune after all.
The drive back was uneventful, and I enjoyed the fenland countryside as it whipped past. By the time I got home it was early afternoon and I was ready for lunch. I put together a plate of what I generously called crudités, which was mostly hummus, olives, a burger bun with just cheese in, and a handful of tortilla chips.
I figured I’d have a working lunch, and connected my camera to my computer to load up the images I’d taken for the client. It was a bunch of headshots. Nothing too taxing or artistically inclined, but they’d come out well. I marked up at least one of each staff member as favourites, to be edited later that evening. On a whim, I imported the shots of the house too, just to have a look.
The early shots were pretty good. I could actually see this project having legs. Maybe even something that I could see going on display in a gallery. A local one, but maybe in time … who knew?
Then as I scrolled through the thumbnails, I noticed an odd dark spot in some of the images. At first I thought that some dust had got on to the sensor, and it would require a clean. As I looked further, I realised it was appearing in different places on different shots. It looked like a smudge of grease or maybe a clump of smoke hanging in mid air. Whatever it was, it was making about a third of my shots unusable. So much for the gallery, I thought.
As I scrolled down, the smear vanished and the shots were clear again. That meant it definitely couldn’t be something on the sensor.
I scrolled past pictures until I got to the ones taken upstairs. The smudge was back. This time it looked thicker, heavier.
There was the black mould in the master bedroom, but the dark stain was in front of the window. There was a great close up I’d taken of the oyster mushrooms on the wardrobe, with no smudge on, but the wider shots all had it.
I scrolled to the shots of the front bedroom and froze. There on the floor, next to the child’s shoes, was a body. It was an adult body. It was wearing a nondescript outfit of jeans and a grey hoodie sweatshirt, very similar to what I’d been wearing when I was there.
It was lying perpendicular to the hole, kind of awkwardly sprawled, and face down.
I didn’t know what to do. There had been no body in that room when I was there. Should I call the police? What would I even say? I could show them the photo, but to tell them there had been no body when I’d taken it … it didn’t just stretch credulity, it snapped it in half!
The next photo showed the same, but with something on the wall behind. Something trickling. I scrolled again but the next few were clear of trickle or body, which also didn’t make sense.
Then my finger stopped on the scroll wheel. I could already read the message that had been hastily scrawled on the wall with what looked to be three fingers, but I made the photo full screen anyway. It said, “Over and over again.” It was very obviously written in blood. I tapped the right arrow key to take me to the next shot. The body appeared again, only this time it was laid face-up. I say face up, but actually its face had been removed. I gasped unintentionally. It looked like there were claw marks or possibly even bite marks around the ragged edges of torn flesh and sinew. For some reason I found it difficult to look away, although I badly wanted to.
This made even less sense. Why would a corpse that hadn’t been there when I took these shots, suddenly change position? I definitely couldn’t go to the police with this. They’d immediately make me a suspect, quite understandably. If I was lucky, they’d think it was some off colour prank and charge me with wasting police time.
Over and over again. What could it mean? My brain played that phrase on a loop, apparently unconcerned by the irony.
For the next two days I went about my ordinary business. Whenever I had a quiet moment my brain would nudge me with the phrase.
Over and over again. Over and over again. Over and over again.
On the third day I decided to go back to the house. One last time. I would take some equipment with me: An infrared camera, on loan from a friend who liked to think of himself as a ghost hunter. An electromagnetic field sensor array, that he used to detect changes in the EM field in supposedly haunted places. A night vision scope from a bird watching friend, and a few other oddments.}
I managed to tell my best friend, Alex, what had happened. He was a sceptical sort, but listened intently as I told him what had happened on each prior visit, and he spent a long time studying the pictures I’d shot last time.
“And the body and writing weren’t visible while you were there?”
I told him that they weren’t.
He peered intently at the screen, zooming in on the body and the writing smeared across the wall.
“The shadows are perfect,” he said, “they match the lighting exactly.”
I knew what he was implying. I was a photographer. Photoshop was like a second home to me. I simply nodded in reply.
“So in terms of theories,” he said, “there’s three main ones.”
“Ok…” I said.
“One: You staged the whole thing. The ’corpse’ is a model, hired for the job. The writing is something you did. It’s either a project or some sort of guerilla marketing scheme, the purpose of which currently eludes me.”
“It’s not that,” I began before he cut in.
“I know, I’m just trying to be thorough,” he said, “Two: Someone is somehow pranking you. They took the photos after you left the camera at the house, then put it back in the same spot.”
This is exactly why I called Alex. He’s always been good at coming up with rationales for things that no one else would spot.
“That actually hadn’t occurred to me,” I said, “but I left the camera there overnight and the pictures were taken using daylight.”
“What time did you arrive, on the second day?”
“About 10.30-ish?” I ventured. I was famously not an early riser. It was possible someone had staged the photos before I’d got there. They would’ve had to start early in order to clean the blood off the walls and floor. That would have been very hard to do without leaving a single trace. Besides, I remembered taking the photos myself and there had been nothing but the house in the viewfinder. I explained this to Alex, who looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Well then,” he said, “that just leaves door number three. Something seriously weird went on.”
Alex also had a way of summing up things that cut straight to the meat, while also sounding innocuous, regardless of the issue being discussed. Alex was the one who settled pub debates, finalised plans, wrangled stragglers on a night out, and generally acted as a sort of point of calm in the chaotic turbulence of our friends, as well as a sort of lynchpin to the entire group. He was the friend you would phone if you were on one of those ‘Make you a Millionaire’ type game shows, and got stuck on an answer.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, both lost in the dizzying web of thoughts that started out with what that would mean if true, spreading out to thoughts of proving that some form of paranormal world intersected with our own, and on to a myriad of branching what if’s.
Alex stood up suddenly, startling me out of my fugue state. He announced that he was going home, but that he would accompany me tomorrow when I returned to the property. I asked if he was sure, but that was mostly out of politeness. Alex decided things in a way I’d never been able to. He would think for a minute and then declaratively state what would happen. He was like a force of nature that way. There was no use in trying to cajole, bribe or otherwise manipulate Alex once he’d decided something. You might as well stand in a field a yell at the thunderstorm to stop. If it did, it was due to forces outside of your influence. Same with Alex.
In truth I was relieved he’d offered to come. Going back a second time had been hard. Then when I was there, I half-managed to convince myself that it had been my imagination. Everything seemed normal. Just a disused house and my mind playing tricks on me. Now that I had photographic evidence, there was no doubt in my mind that something seriously weird was going on, as Alex put it.
After Alex left I packed my backpack for the trip. I took all the equipment, a lunch for the both of us, as well as some snacks. I added waterproofs and a few other items like a compass, which I wasn’t really sure why I’d put it in, but I remembered hearing that sometimes compasses go haywire in paranormal spots.
Eventually I settled in for what would be a fitful night’s sleep. The sea of dreams was choppy that night, and my mind was buffeted on swells of anxiety. Under the waves loomed larger fears that threatened to surface under my little boat of sanity and capsize me, which would pitch me into the cold ocean of dread.
I awoke with the sweat running cold on my forehead. After a longer-than-usual shower, I faced breakfast with tired apathy, pushing the muesli around my bowl more than actually eating it. Every time I yawned, I could hear the roaring rush of water in my ears, which triggered some ethereal memory of leviathan shadows circling patiently below me.
Alex arrived right on time and helped me load up the car. He commented on my visible exhaustion and asked if I wanted to postpone. I said I didn’t, but the temptation pulled at me like an unruly dog, straining at the leash.
Alex drove my car. I figured it might be best considering my reactions might not be as sharp as normal. He tried to engage me in conversation for a while, but my obviously lacklustre replies meant soon we were driving along in silence. It was brutally overcast – somehow both dull and bright at the same time. The sky was a rolling wall of grey waves. For a second I thought I saw a huge shadow moving behind them, before I suddenly snapped awake – not even realising I’d fallen asleep. Beside me, Alex raised a single eyebrow, which said, “I think we made the right decision to let me drive.”
“Kitchen,” I said, “and the back bedroom directly upstairs from it.”
He nodded, and got out of the car, and began unloading the backpack I’d filled full of sandwiches, gizmos and gear.
We clumped our way to the front door. That wooden snaggletooth, still hanging on by a thread, like a child’s milk tooth. Squeezing through the gap after Alex made me seriously consider taking up his offer as a gym buddy. He slipped through like a greased mink. I actually snagged my shirt on the door handle and had to quickly free myself before he saw.
Alex glanced into the living room briefly before saying, “Kitchen’s back right, yeah?”
He swept rubble aside with his foot to clear a path. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I sighed, but tried to pass it off as a yawn, and followed him. As I rounded the door to the kitchen, I could see him stood next to the table that looked like a bowing horse, gazing up into the collapsed ceiling. He looked transfixed. Suddenly I wondered if the boy was up there again, and looked up, but there was just the shoes peering over the edge that will one day crumble underneath them, sending them down into the kitchen to perform a short lived and offbeat tap solo before coming to rest in some awkward position, as if the child wearing them had suddenly, and inexplicably, exploded.
He was saying something. “What?”
“I said, where was the boy?”
“Oh,” I said, “he started off over there, then crouched down a little in front of where you are now.”
“Take a photo,” said Alex, “I just felt the temperature drop.”
I scrambled with my backpack to unload my camera, as well as the infrared one – partly because I wanted to see if it worked and partly because I just wanted to play with it. I also took out the EM field sensor, and the compass, although I think the EM sensor was probably more precise and quantifiable.
The compass needle pointed north, or stayed facing in the same direction at least. I fired off a couple of shots looking up into the maw of the hole and into the upstairs room. I quickly checked the back of the camera – there was nothing unusual, just what could be seen with the naked eye. The infrared camera showed nothing untoward either, although it was a little too bright for it to pick up details.
The EM sensor did show a small spike when pointed toward the hole, but that could have been any number of things. I told Alex about my findings.
“Ok,” he said, “how about you go take a photo from up there looking down?”
“Sure,” I said, “gimme a second.”
I left the EM sensor and compass on the counter top where I’d originally left my camera after the first visit and tried to make a mental note not to forget them on the way out. Part of me didn’t want us to split up, but I was going to be in the room above with a clear view of Alex below. Plus, the house felt somehow different today. It didn’t feel as foreboding. Maybe it was just getting used to my being here, I thought.
I began the ascent up the stairs. The moisture in the carpet welled up underfoot with each step, and the ninth stair gave way just as I was pushing off from it. The wood snapped, revealing a dusty space underneath with insects and spiders scrambling for cover. Luckily my foot had not gotten caught.
Alex called through to see if I was ok from the kitchen and I shouted back that I was fine and what had happened.
“Be careful,” came the reply, “these old places can be unsafe.”
I nodded, then realised he couldn’t see me and carried on up to the landing. The rooms looked the same as the last time I was here. Like previously, I poked my head into the other rooms before heading into the back bedroom.
There were the little leather shoes, as before. I took a couple of shots from the doorway and checked them on the camera’s viewscreen. Nothing. Just a room with a collapsed floor. I took out the infrared and took a few shots with that. While looking at them, I noticed an odd pattern on the far wall that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. It was very faint, but there were some sort of markings where I’d seen the words, “Over and over again,” written on my previous shots. The more I looked at it, the more it looked like it was that writing, but it was difficult to be sure. Besides, the writing had shown up on the shots from my normal camera, and yet were invisible to the naked eye. My regular camera didn’t have any infrared function, so how had the writing shown up in the shots?
A noise from below reminded me that Alex was still down there, waiting for me. I called down to apologise, and took some shots down into the hole. Alex had wandered off somewhere, exploring the rest of the downstairs presumably, after finding the kitchen lacking in any mystery. I continued to take shots with both cameras in all the upstairs rooms, sometimes recreating shots I’d taken before, only this time in infrared. I shot the oyster mushrooms on the wardrobe, the broken sink and cracked toilet, and the landing with its wet carpet and missing bannister rails.
Finally I headed back downstairs, avoiding the broken ninth step, and testing the others judiciously before putting my full weight on them.
Alex wasn’t in the living room, so I shot a few infrareds, and wandered back down the hall, avoiding detritus and shooting as I went.
He wasn’t in the kitchen either. I took more infrared shots.
Nor was he in the back garden. Or the downstairs toilet – I knocked first of course, although I knew he wouldn’t be actually using it. I had just come from upstairs and he hadn’t been there. My heart began to pulse. He had gone back to the car for something. That must’ve been it. I wove my way back down the hall, shooting a few shots of the hallway.
I walked out to the car. It was still locked. Alex was nowhere to be seen.
I began to panic, my breath coming in gasps.
I listened, intently as the sound of my shout died away. It was deathly quiet. Not even birdsong punctuated the rush of wind on grass.
I stayed for another two hours, searching both the house and the surrounding area for him, to no avail. I found the car keys sitting on the counter top next to the EM sensor. I snatched them all up and stuffed the equipment back into my backpack, and the keys into my pocket. I ran back out to the car, thinking maybe he’d seen something that had spooked him and made for the road, putting some distance between him and the house. That wasn’t like Alex, but fear could do funny things to people, and I was out of other ideas.
I drove slowly along the road back, glancing around to see if I could spot him. The backroads were empty. Even the little town that the route passed through seemed unusually quiet, as if it was holding its breath somehow.
I arrived home in tears and got straight on the phone to report Alex missing. I wasn’t sure how much to tell them, so I left most of it out, thinking they might dismiss me as a crackpot and not go looking for Alex if I divulged too much. We went through a physical description, as well as why we had been there – I told them I was a photographer scouting for a shoot location, and Alex had agreed to come along for a trip out.
They said they’d send a car out to have a look, but that I should stay at home in case they needed to reach me. I thought that was an odd request in the age of smartphones, but I complied anyway. Maybe they just needed to know where I was in case they needed to arrest me, I figured. A man had gone missing while he was searching an old house with me. I would be prime suspect if…
I didn’t let myself finish the thought. Alex would be fine. He’d turn up and everything would be ok. He would have gone to the nearby tree line to pee. For over two hours.
Or he’d found the atmosphere in the house to be oppressive and had gone for a walk to clear his head. Without telling me.
The next forty-eight hours involved phone calls with our mutual friends, Alex’s parents, the police and a couple of enquiries from local newspapers. I assisted the police with their enquiries down at the local station. They made little attempt to disguise their interrogation. I answered in short sentences: He’d come with me to the house that I’d spotted while driving by several days ago. I’d thought it looked like a good spot for a photoshoot. We’d checked the house out. I’d gone upstairs, and then when I’d come back down, he was gone.
I left out the parts about levitating younger versions of me, and the scrawled writing of “Over and over again,” on the wall, obviously. I didn’t think it would do any good to tell the police or anyone else about it anyway. All it would do is cast aspersions on my already fragile state of mind. It might even convince police that I was psychotic, and therefore, capable of murdering him.
I went with police back out to the site to conduct a formal search. The kind I’d seen on TV where people line up and walk along slowly, checking the area for evidence or clues. When we arrived, there was no house. It was an empty field, with trees a couple of hundred yards away. The worn track simply ended in the middle of the field.
I was nonplussed. I stood agape, jaw hanging limply as I scanned the area for what I already knew wasn’t there. I was asked to explain why there wasn’t a house there, and stammered that I had no clue. My phone’s location showed that it was the correct field.
I think if not for the fact that a man was still missing, I would have been charged with wasting police time. As it was I was kept under observation, given a psychological evaluation and subjected to more questioning. My phone was scoured for data relating to the case. Text messages between Alex and I were read. Luckily we’d only discussed the more unbelievable parts of the story in person.
Alex’s phone records were searched through too. They corroborated that he’d travelled with me to the site, going by triangulation from nearby cell towers, then suddenly, his phone appeared to vanish. Maybe he’d turned it off, or it had run out of battery, some ventured. I knew he’d been charging it in the car on the way there, but kept quiet.
Business enquiries slowed to almost a halt. No one wanted to be photographed by the last person to see the missing man from the papers. Friends stopped calling to see how I was. Alex’s parents wouldn’t even answer my calls any more. When I did bump into people, they were always ‘just on their way somewhere,’ and couldn’t stop to talk. My savings took an even bigger hit than before.
After a couple of weeks, the police officially called off the search. That evening I drank fully half of the whiskey left in the bottle and cried myself to sleep. Theories about Alex’s disappearance found their way to me from every source. Newspapers had pieces with headlines like, “What happened to Alex Gorton?” Twitter was abuzz with conspiracy theories, many of which constructed elaborate plots of how I was supposed to have killed him, although none could fathom any motive for me doing so – not that that stopped them. Facebook and Instagram were filled with photos of him, with numbers to call if people spotted him or had any information.
No one did.
I finally had to get on with my life. My career was in tatters, my social life had become an antisocial life. I got a job in the town shooting houses for estate agents. It felt not only like a step back, but also like a slap in the face, but it paid the bills. Everyone in the estate agent’s office became very quiet whenever I had to pop in. Only one of the staff was designated to talk to me – a young woman who kept a tight-lipped smile permanently on as she sat as far away from me as was possible during. She was polite and brief in our interactions.
Finally, I decided to load the images from that day onto my computer from both cameras. I’d been putting it off for ages. Part of me wanted to see the boy again, or something that would explain where Alex had gone, and part of me wanted to just see pictures of the house with nothing unusual on them. Hell, even pictures of an empty field would have been ok by me. If that was the case, I could accept that I’d gone potty, and learn to live with it. Maybe get some medication.
As the first images from the infrared camera loaded up their thumbnails, I couldn’t make out much. Some of the shots were completely overexposed. Once that happened, there was no software in the world that could recover detail from the brightest parts. I scrolled through, trying to spot anything unusual. It occurred to me that one unusual thing was that these were shots from inside the house – and that would prove that it had existed. I was not potty after all.
I considered taking them to the police, but thought it might only make things worse. So there had been a derelict house there – that proved that part of my story at least, but where had it gone? There hadn’t even been brick dust left when I’d gone there with the police.
Considering what I’d read online, people would probably say the photos were fake – taken in a different building somewhere else. There weren’t really any that showed surroundings that could prove they were taken where I said they were. Just tufts of wild grass or trees, seen through empty windows and doorways.
Suddenly I realised that my main camera had GPS. All the photos would have GPS coordinates in their metadata. I plugged it in and began the import process. As the photos loaded up, I wondered what people might say about that. The more rational theories might say I edited the metadata, but I could prove that wasn’t the case with the associated timestamps. Some of the wilder ones might claim I knocked the house down to get rid of evidence of my crimes.
Rather than sit idly waiting for the photos to load, I went into my kitchen and put the kettle on. The counter top was covered in unwashed dishes and takeaway tubs and boxes. The floor was in dire need of sweeping and mopping too, I thought, as a discarded noodle squished under my shoe. I reused a cup from earlier, giving the lip a wipe with a cloth that probably held more bacteria than the cup itself.
I took the tea back through and put it on a coaster – I had slipped in my cleaning duties perhaps, but I wasn’t a savage.
The photos were finalising their import process. Scrolling down I could already see anomalous things – shadows on the frame again, odd pale shapes that might have been light leaks, despite modern cameras being designed to minimise that kind of thing.
I loaded up the first shot from the session. Nothing unusual, just a picture of the hole in the kitchen ceiling. Several more of the same sort of thing passed by without cause for concern until I got to the shots I’d taken upstairs.
The first shot I’d taken in the back bedroom clearly showed, “Over and over again,” written on the far wall. I leaned in to peer at it and hit the right arrow key to go to the next shot.
I leapt back from the screen, almost tipping myself over in the chair. Stood next to the writing was Alex. He was standing facing the camera and pointing, as if looking directly into the lens, only he couldn’t have been, because his eyes looked like they had been burned out with something like a fire poker. There was charred flesh all around the dark cavities, and soot from the smoke streaked his forehead. Aside from the ragged holes where his eyes used to be, it could’ve been clown paint.
His entrails were spilling out onto the floor from a slit in his belly that started high enough to be able to see the bottom of his breastbone poking out, and ended presumably somewhere around his groin, seeing as it disappeared under his belt. Despite all this his expression was more one of concern – brows knotted through the soot. What could make a person so concerned when they were in that state, I wondered?
I pressed the right arrow key again, hoping that the next image would be less visceral in nature, but I was to be disappointed. The next image showed Alex again, but this time lying next to the shoes. He was in the same condition – belly splayed open like a treasure chest of offal. Eyes burned out. Soot stained head.
It took me a moment to take my eyes off him and notice that there was the top of a head coming up through the hole. A pale, bald head. It had so many veins visible through skin that resembled wet pastry, that it looked more like a road map had been tattooed there. I thought immediately of the boy. His skin had been similar. I still thought of him as ‘the boy’, because I couldn’t reconcile how he looked like me as a child.
I pressed for the next image. It was exactly the same as previous, only now I could see the eyes that went with the bald head. The whites were actually a more yellow in colour, but like the boy, there was no iris. Just a black pit, voracious for light.
With each shot a little more of the face showed. Now I could see the tip of it’s nose which looked purple, and criss-crossed with veins. I didn’t even remember taking this many shots in the same place. I thought I’d only taken two before at least changing angle, but they kept coming.
The next shot revealed the mouth. It was difficult to tell if it was contorted in a grimace of pain or grinning like a skull. The lips were peeled back over rows of small, sharp teeth, that jutted out at seemingly random angles. The lips were scarred where previous teeth had lacerated them. Once I could tear my gaze away from that mouth, I finally saw the face as a whole. It was my face that was poking out of the hole. Bald, pale to the point of translucency, and with a horrific collection of teeth, but definitely me.
I sat agog, staring at the nightmarish version of myself. It was like staring into a funhouse mirror in hell. Finally I forced myself to click through to the next shot. In this one, the other me’s gaunt body had been caught in motion while sliding up and out of the hole. Even with the motion blur, I could see it’s skin hanging off in sallow folds that looked like cold pizza dough, almost like it was dripping from the bones. Its spine was malformed and crooked, forming more of an ’S’ shape, and several of the vertebrae pierced though the skin, like malignant horns.
In the next shot it appeared more still, but had started to crawl on all fours toward Alex’s body. The dread of inevitability caused me to gag. I already knew what was about to happen, but I was compelled to finish my role as witness. I pressed the right arrow key.
The next few images were a symphony of gore. In the first image, the twisted hands were spreading the wound of Alex’s torso wide enough to plunge its head inside him, up to its collarbones.
In the second, it had pulled its head out and been caught rearing up over the corpse. Its face was plastered in congealing crimson, its mouth filled with guts, and snarling like a gloating wolf at its prey. The entire floor with slick with Alex’s blood, thick and dark.
In the third it was gnawing on Alex’s ribs. The thing that made this shot so disturbing, is that I’d posed in a not-dissimilar way last summer at a friend’s barbecue. I’d made a stupid, snarling face while biting the bones of another animal, and here was some freakish version of me recreating the scene, only with longpig.
It was too much. I doubled over and heaved into my magazine rack. After the retching had stopped and my stomach ached, I wiped myself off and pressed the right arrow key, filled with trepidation.
There was just the empty room again. No Alex’s body. No hellspawned, cannibalistic version of myself. Just the room, the shoes and the hole in the floor. After that there were no more photos. I cried for about ten minutes straight. I cried for Alex. I cried for myself and everything I’d lost due to this strange house and its demons that all looked like me – friends, my livelihood, my life as I knew it. I cried bitter tears about how unfair and random it was. How, if I’d only decided to keep driving that night, maybe none of this would have happened. Or maybe it would? Maybe the demons in the house really were me, and so knew exactly what I would stop for – a potential shoot location. Maybe they’d lured me there, in order to get me to bring them a victim. Was that what “Over and over” meant? That they wanted me to keep doing that?
I shook my head and dried my eyes. I suddenly felt that maybe I was going crazy. Maybe I had killed Alex? The thing in the photos looked like me. Maybe that was me projecting my guilt onto the photos. Maybe all the photos had nothing in them, but I was seeing flashbacks to my crime? I flipped back a couple of images. There depicted, was still some version of me eating Alex.
By this point I was exhausted and confused. I didn’t know what any of it meant. I just wanted it all to stop – to go back to how things were before. I wanted to sleep, but I was completely wired. I was frustrated, overwrought, and by now, dehydrated.
I noticed that in addition to the photos, there was a video file on my camera as well. I definitely hadn’t shot any video. It was impossible to do by accident, as the camera had a toggle switch to go between photos and video. In fact, I’d never taken video on it. I checked the switch. It was set to photo, as always.
I imported the video and then, sitting hunched in my large desk chair with my knees to my chest, I pressed play.
It only lasted ten seconds. It consisted of six seconds of the other me gorging itself on parts of Alex, accompanied now by wet, smacking sounds, ragged breathing, and the self-satisfied noises of a pig at the trough. After that, the other me seemed to notice the camera, then disappeared under the frame for a moment, before sliding up into view very close to the lens. I felt myself pushing back into my seat as if the monstrous, blood spattered and tissue strewn face was just behind the glass of my screen. It had several new open gashes in its lips, where those jagged spurs had penetrated during chewing. Some of the blood around its mouth must be its own, I thought, but there would be no way to tell which.
In the final seconds of the video, it grinned deeply into the camera. It was slightly out of focus, due to being so close, but it took little away from the ferocity of the scene. It coughed suddenly, and a small part of the view was obscured by an errant piece of Alex.
“Bring more,” it said in my voice, “over and over again.”