This is our 2nd Place Winner for our 1st Annual Horror Writing Contest.
HOUSE AND GARDEN
By Elizabeth Hosang
The hinges on the heavy oak door screamed in protest as Mr. Engles pushed against it, revealing a cavernous entryway. The lawyer pressed a switch and a cobwebbed candelabra flickered to life, casting paltry light from bare wire filaments in flame-shaped bulbs. The feeble light revealed dark wood wall panels and a rough stone floor but failed to reach the corners of the room, which were lost in shadow.
A granite staircase rose in front of them to the second floor, where hallways branched off to the left and right. On the ground floor corresponding hallways led off into deeper shadows. On the stone floor at the base of the staircase an irregular stain darkened the floor.
“I’m sorry we weren’t able to arrive before sunset. I hadn’t realized that signing the forms would take so long.” The lawyer paused for a moment, waiting for the petite blonde to cross the threshold of the great house. “Welcome to your great-aunt’s mansion Miss Waylen.”
The petite blonde said nothing as she stepped past the lawyer and into the dark hallway. She clutched the handle of a faded tapestry carpet bag with both hands and looked around, her pale blue eyes wide, her peaches and cream complexion ashen in the half-light of the hallway. As her gaze came to rest on the stain in front of the staircase she raised the carpet bag, holding it in front of her chest like a shield. “Is that …” Her voice trailed off.
The lawyer glanced in the direction she was looking. “Oh, dear, I am so sorry. We didn’t realize there were any other heirs, you see. We were planning to send in a cleaning crew to tidy the place up to sell it once the probationary period was over. When I received your letter saying you were related to my client, as you recall the priority was proving your claim. I’d forgotten that the unpleasantness with your cousin was bound to have left, well, marks on the house itself.” The front door groaned in protest as he closed it. “Unfortunately, the one year period defined in your aunt’s will is up on Sunday, so we don’t have time to make the house more presentable before your stay.”
Engles walked over to the hallway on the right and flicked a switch. The lights came on, showing more dark wood on the walls and floor. “Well, the house is large enough that you should be able to spend the mandatory three nights in the house without passing by these stairs. The living room and kitchen are down this way.” Outside the wind blew fiercely, causing the house to moan. The floorboards creaked underfoot as they walked. “Your aunt was quite the collector. Tribal masks, idols,” he gestured to the figures hanging on the wall. “Even real voodoo dolls.” He paused by the doorway to a room and turned on a light switch. A single bulb flickered to life, revealing gruesome faces looking out from the wall.
“That fellow your cousin David brought with him was an appraiser. It wasn’t against the terms of the will, having company for the three night stay, so long as they both stayed in the house for the entire period. Although in hindsight it might not have been such a good idea.”
They had reached an old-fashioned kitchen, a long room with a grimy window. In the centre of the room stood a long wooden table, its surface scarred and stained by the preparations of meals past. A large wooden knife block stood in the centre of it, with black handles protruding from the holes.
“You are allowed to explore the rest of the house on your own, but it’s up to you. There is some canned food in the pantry and the kitchen refrigerator has been stocked with a few basic items. According to the terms of your great aunt’s will you are required to remain in this house for three consecutive nights if you wish to inherit. Should you leave before then the house reverts to the trust she set up, and it and its contents will be sold. Are you certain you wish to remain?”
“Yes.” The word was softly spoken, but firm. “This is my family home. I came out east looking for roots. If I don’t have family, I can at least live in the family home.”
The lawyer shook his head. “All right. I’d give you my phone number, but you don’t have a cell, and the phone line was disconnected a few months ago. I will be back here at nine am on Sunday, three days from now. Good luck.”
Later that night Engles sat in his study, watching his cell phone like it was a cobra poised to strike. A half-empty decanter of brandy sat on the desk next to a glass. Despite his vigilance, he jumped when it finally rang, a sheen of perspiration covering his face.
“Well?” The voice on the other end of the call was grim.
“No problem. She won’t last the night.”
“You’re risking my money on a ghost story.”
“It’s not just a story. Look, I don’t know why, but everyone who’s stayed in that house since the old bat died has gone crazy or killed themselves. I found the great-nephew. He was covered in blood and his own filth. His friend cracked his skull open from the fall down the stairs and the kid was playing with the brains.” Engles squeezed his eyes shut at the memory, trying to keep from vomiting. “I’ve talked to the doctors at the psych hospital. He hasn’t said anything rational since they brought him in, just keeps humming. And the niece? The one who used to live with her? She bashed her head in against a basement wall.”
“Because the place is haunted?” The disembodied voice did not sound impressed.
“Haunted, infested with toxic mold, whatever. All I know is that anyone who stays there ends up crazy or dead within three days. By Monday morning there will be no more heirs, and the house reverts to the trust. The great nephew was the only other signing authority on the trust, meaning that it’s now at my discretion. I’ve got a mining company lined up. They’ll buy the whole property, no questions asked, and tear down the house to get to the minerals underneath. I’ll pay you back the second the check clears.”
“And if the girl isn’t dead?”
“Then she’ll be crazy. I’ve been in that house, and I’ve seen that girl. Her parents were hippies, raised her in a commune. She’s all about daisies and sunshine. That house will eat her alive.” And if it didn’t, there were poisonous plants in the garden, and lots of heavy objects high up on unstable shelves. He hadn’t put up with the old witch for thirty years to settle for a measly executer’s fee. If she hadn’t been so stingy with her money he wouldn’t have set up the phony hedge fund, and wouldn’t have had to deal with Russian gangsters who didn’t understand the concept of capital losses.
“You have one month to get us our money. And if you don’t, you might consider staying in that house yourself.” The line went dead, and a chill ran over his skin.
Three days later Engles drove through the iron gates and pulled up the long driveway to the front door. He climbed out of the car and paused, bracing himself for whatever horrors awaited him inside.
He knocked twice on the heavy door before forcing it open. “Miss Waylen?” He looked around, but there were no signs of life. He walked cautiously down the hallway towards the kitchen. “Daisy?”
“Mr. Engles!” The voice came from behind him, and he spun around. “You’re just in time! I made some biscuits and they should be just about done. They’ll be so nice with strawberry jam.”
Engles stared at the girl, confusion slowing his responses. “You’re okay?”
“Never better.” He followed her down the hall to the kitchen, staring into the rooms as they passed. Sunshine poured in through open drapes, sparkling off the glass cases and polished wood.
“You slept well?” He hesitated on the last word, not sure how to ask whether she had seen any ghosts.
“Oh yes. That first night I wandered around, exploring, you know, getting a feel for the place. It was just so hostile, you know? And then I realized why. All those things that Great-Aunt Edwina had collected, they were all wrong. She had Haitian masks next to African masks, and their energies are just not, like, in tune, you know? So the first thing I did was start re-arranging them, sorting them by heritage, not by some artificial museum type category. And that made it so much less tense. The energies in the house stopped fighting with each other, you know? Then I rearranged the furniture. Got the energies flowing. People scoff at feng shui, but chi is a real thing, you know? And now the whole house just sings instead of growling. Can’t you just feel the difference? It’s like the house is happy to have me here. I just feel like we understand each other, you know? Like I was meant to be here.”
Engles stared at her, his eyes bulging, as visions of broken kneecaps and missing fingers danced before his eyes. The pinkie finger they had already broken began to ache again.
“And it turns out there’s a fantastic garden. There’s some mint, just by the garden shed at the back, if you’d like some with your biscuits.”
“Of course.” Engles stumbled through the kitchen to the back door. He searched his mind, trying to remember what poisonous plants looked like. It would be easier than hitting her on the head with something. He stumbled along the path that led between the beds of plants, bending down to peer at the little stone labels that marked each row. Foxglove. That was poisonous, wasn’t it? With a sob of relief he knelt down and reached for it.
At first he thought he must have brushed his hand against a thorn. He pulled it away from the plants, dropping the herbs he had gathered. A small chunk was missing from the side of his hand. He sat back on his heels, only to feel another bite on his ankle. He whipped around, and came face to face with an ugly little figurine. Engles recognized it from the glass display case in the sitting room. It had sharp white teeth carved from bone and inset into an ebony mouth. He scrambled backwards and ran against something hard – a stone gargoyle from the roof above the front door. The gargoyle bent down and snarled at him. “What is this?” he cried. More figures surrounded him, razor sharp teeth glinting from mouths made of stone and teak and clay. They closed around him, crawling across the ground, hanging from the branches of the trees that bordered the garden. A tiny voice yelled, and the figures swarmed him, biting into him, ripping his flesh, tearing his hair. He fell back against their onslaught, swatting at his attackers and screaming as they pinned him to the ground.
In the kitchen Daisy turned from the stove and glanced out the window into the garden. She signed in dismay to see the lawyer rolling around, flailing at invisible assailants, crushing herbs and wrinkling his otherwise pristine silk suit. “I was afraid of that,” she said out loud to the empty kitchen. “Well, I trust you know best.” She turned away from the window, humming to herself, oblivious to the screams coming from the garden.