29 Dec House
“House”Written by Soren Narnia Edited by N/A Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 38 minutes
My name is Aramis Churchton. On December 14, 2004, I came to the town of Belconsin, Maryland, in order to spend a night in a tenantless house on a quiet road. It was a three-hour drive from the western part of the state, and I arrived shortly after 10 p.m., parking my car almost a half-mile away. I walked onto the property and went around to the back of the house unnoticed, as it sat on seven acres of fairly isolated scrubland. The previous owners, the Marclay family, had left a month before, after their daughter was kidnapped. The nearest neighbor was screened off by a thick stretch of trees to the east. The temperature when I arrived was slightly less than thirty degrees. I broke into the basement door with a crowbar and entered the house. The Marclays had left the heat on inside, and it was comfortably warm. I removed the flashlight from my backpack and shone it in front of me as I walked through the house. I did not want to turn any lights on yet for fear of drawing unwanted attention.
The house was large and fully furnished. Everywhere there was evidence of a normal family life, and no obvious signs that it had been interrupted by tragedy. The house had three bedrooms. One of them was Glory Marclay’s. She was seven years old when she was abducted in the middle of the night. A ransom note had been left behind, written by a man who only called himself ‘Swan.’ Nothing had been touched in her bedroom. It was filled with her drawings and possessions. I looked through every room in the house: the study, the playroom, the three bathrooms, the kitchen. In there, I studied a picture fastened with a magnet to the refrigerator. Glory had created it in red and green crayon. It showed a girl in a ruffled dress carrying an archer’s quill on her back and holding a giant bow. Glory had signed it below the girl’s feet. I then went back down to the basement, where I felt the house’s presence the strongest. I had little to do but wait. I decided to pass the time by reading the notes my colleague Savid Doud had made since July regarding potential investigations we would soon embark upon. I fully expected Theodore Gantt’s ghost to appear in some form before too many hours had passed. I had brought no monitoring equipment so as not to frighten him away.
Almost immediately after I settled in, there were three sharp, evenly spaced raps against the basement door. I rose from the chair I was sitting in and walked into the tiny alcove where the door was. I couldn’t see anything through the pane of glass set at eye level because there was too much frost. So I opened the door. I looked up the narrow flight of cement steps that led up to ground level and saw nothing there. The knocking had most likely been a simple physical preamble from the ghost I had come to Belconsin to encounter.
His full name was Theodore Jarrell Gantt, and he had bought the house in 1968 after his wife, Zoya, died under mysterious circumstances. She had suffered a sudden heart attack at the age of forty-one. It was the expression on her face that gave the paramedics pause. Her teeth had been clenched as if in anger, biting so hard on her upper lip she had punctured the skin there. Nor would they forget the bizarre way her eyes had become somehow disconnected within their sockets. They rolled like loose marbles as they carried her away. Theodore Gantt had been discharged from the army in 1944 as a section eight. He was observed by three different psychiatrists who all found him utterly delusional. He had been stationed with the Afrika Corps, but after his discharge he did not return to the states for over three years, disappearing instead into the forests south of Zaire. It was believed that he spent those years deeply involved in the study of the witchcraft practices of the Gy Chulthu, a primal tribe to whom zombification was an everyday practice. His private papers mentioned extensive experiments with cannibalism while he lived inside that little-seen community. Only after his death, when those private letters and papers were opened, was the extent of his psychosis revealed.
He kept over two thousand pages of diaries and a huge number of notebooks between 1941 and 1973. The diaries were found in a sealed room by Gantt’s brother, Bernard, who took custody of Theodore’s two children in 1973. Theodore believed that in Africa he had become a walpurdym, a kind of brain vampire who killed in order to eat the minds of his victims, in the belief that the amassed intelligence would grow and grow inside him. Theodore claimed in the diaries that he had no control over this affliction, and also that he had killed eleven people since 1948, eating their brains and dumping the bodies in a nearby river after they were dead. The diaries hinted that Theodore hatched plans to poison his wife over the course of six months, and he did actually commit this deed after she found some incriminating evidence of his crimes and confronted him with his delusion. After Theodore Gantt’s suicide, his brother Bernard, a prominent local businessman, found the diaries and turned them over to the police. The papers were then lost, never to be recovered.
Bernard took care of his brother’s children for just two years, and then he himself died in a fall from a ladder in 1975. The children became wards of the state until they legally inherited his fortune. They moved far away. I had not been able to find out what became of them. Theodore Gantt vowed in his diaries that he would haunt the house he owned after his death in order to protect his papers from probing outsiders. Those papers of course weren’t inside the house anymore. They had long since been confiscated by the police, and quite probably destroyed. Neighbors and those who had occasionally occupied this house over the past three decades had in the past noted strange noises and odd human shapes within at various times. Before the Marclay family bought it in 2002, the house had attained a joking reputation as a haunted place. The most well-known urban legend was that if one looked through the window of the east bedroom, which looked out on faraway Route 212, you could sometimes see a heavyset, bespectacled man standing by the road. He would place his hands over his face and sink to his knees, and then mysteriously disappear. Because this sort of sighting had on occasion been attributed to children, there was reason for extra caution when I began my investigation.
Between 10:30 and 11 p.m., I did little inside the house but stand for several minutes in the center of the dark living room. I listened to the almost undetectable subtone the house gave off for signs that its energy level was migrating toward any particular area. It didn’t seem so, but there was a slight change in the tone inside Glory Marclay’s bedroom. It was there that I chose to perform an attraction. I sat down at the little girl’s tiny red desk and settled onto the blue wooden chair beside it, which had been designed for a human one- third my size. I switched on the table lamp. Atop the desk there was a Mickey Mouse pencil cup, a sketch pad, and a calendar showing a different sort of horse for every month. I moved these things out of the way and set my backpack on the desk, along with a glass of water.
From the pack I removed a charcoal pencil. Sensing something, I turned to look at Glory Marclay’s small bed. On the coverlet lay three dolls. I noticed for the first time that the room was filled with them. There were giraffes, dogs, dinosaurs, fashion models, infants, cowgirls, and astronauts. For some reason, the three dolls sitting on the bed, staring in my direction, were the ones with the largest eyes. I began to rub the tip of the pencil back and forth across my open left palm so that the charcoal marked my skin. Then I continued in the other direction, cross-hatching. Soon my palm was entirely black. I sat the pencil down and made a tight fist with my left hand. I closed my eyes, and they remained closed for the next ten minutes. Slowly I tightened my fist more and more, until my nails were digging into my palm and my muscles began to tremble. I could feel the temperature inside the house climb by two or three degrees as I performed the attraction. When I finally thought it was time to open my eyes, I unclenched my fist. Virtually all of the charcoal had vanished from my hand. It had left behind only a string of tall, thin black letters. The letters had made this message on my flesh:
He m my k ll he
I stared at these letters for the better part of twenty minutes. I could not fill in the gaps between the letters with anything that made immediate sense. I eventually transcribed the sequence onto a piece of paper and placed it inside the pocket of my shirt. I left the charcoal markings on my palm as well. I heard the wind picking up severely outside the house. With the heat cut off, the temperature inside it should have been falling, but the thermometer I had brought with me showed otherwise. It had actually climbed two degrees. The temperature in the basement was identical to other locations above ground. I had hoped for this. It was a positive sign.
I had my first visitor at 12:40 a.m. I had been standing in the furnished basement, looking at several photographs of the Marclay family that had been set up on top of a small stereo system. Mrs. Marclay had been a stern-faced woman in her forties, and the photographic progression showed that she had lost a great deal of weight over the course of a few years, and not in a healthy manner. In the last photograph of her and her only child together, she seemed to be staring into some middle space, lost. There were three sharp knocks on the basement door. These knocks were identical in every way to those I had heard two hours before. I did not need a formal analysis to know that the spiky pattern those knocks would have made on a voxtrack grid back at the university would have matched the earlier ones precisely.
A man of about twenty-five stood outside on the top step. He wore thick, comically bookish glasses, and his eyes were barely visible. He wore a heavy flannel shirt that was two sizes too big, and stained dark blue sweatpants over a pair of ill-fitting corduroys. His sneakers were the sort one would usually see on a young boy. He greeted me and told me his name was Ben, and that he lived next door. His power had gone out and he did not have any candles, so he asked to borrow some. I said yes, and invited him to come inside while I looked for them. At this suggestion, Ben seemed both frightened and fascinated, as if he had never been inside another’s house. After a long moment, he came in. As he moved past me, there was absolutely no sense of physical human presence to him. I turned on a single lamp in the basement so he would not be standing in the dark. I was able to find some candles quite quickly, having seen some on the Marclays’ dining room table. I retrieved them and hurried back down to the basement, where the visitor stood awkwardly, unmoving, in a corner. I held the candles in my hand and did not offer them just yet, wanting to extract as much information as I could.
Through a series of careful questions, I was able to learn much from Ben. He told me in a very small voice that he had lived next door for one year with his brother, who had gone out tonight to Parsonsburg. When I asked Ben what he did for a living, he seemed baffled by the question, and told me that neither he nor his brother worked, that they had inherited some money from their uncle, who had been a real estate investor. His brother’s name was Donovan, and he took care of all the money. When I asked Ben what his last name was, he replied, ‘Gantt.’ It confirmed what I had already assumed.
As the conversation, or what passed for conversation, lengthened, Ben became visibly more nervous and no longer made eye contact with me. On two separate occasions, he asked me for the time. He was obviously very anxious to get back home. I noticed also that speaking the name of his brother caused him distress. He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a sort of psychologist. Instead of asking a follow-up question, he inquired immediately if I was sleeping when he had knocked on the door. Even though I said no, he then asked me if I had been dreaming. He seemed only partially connected to the room and to our exchange of words, as if most of his mind were completely occupied. Ben then said a most disturbing thing: that Donovan ‘made’ him relate all his dreams to him. When I asked him why this was, he merely stared off into the distance, and after several seconds refocused, having apparently forgotten what I had asked.
I asked more questions about Donovan, but the answers were vague. Donovan had worked for a time in a nursery but had stopped. The two of them did not leave the house unless they ‘had to.’ It had been that way, Ben said, for a long time. I was able to eventually glean the reason for his nervousness. His brother had gone out for groceries, and Ben was anxious to know how long such an errand might take. Surely he was risking something by venturing outside of his house and wanted to return as soon as he could so as not to arouse suspicion that he had dared leave. At the end of our talk, Ben blurted out that what he really wanted to borrow was a radio, because he wanted to hear what the newscasters had to say about the snowstorm that was on its way. When I told him I would gladly try to find one for him somewhere in the house, he again asked me how long it would take for Donovan to return from Parsonsburg.
I left him one more time and navigated the stairs up to the main floor with the flashlight. There was a small portable radio in Glory Marclay’s room. For some reason I am not sure of, I felt the need to reach out and touch the head of one of the staring dolls resting on her bed. The plastic was very warm to the touch. I left the room and returned to the basement. I handed the radio to the ghost of Benjamin Gantt. He took it, and his mouth began to quiver, as if he were about to cry. He told me he had to go and walked to the door quickly. I opened it for him, and he moved past me, climbing the steps and disappearing around the side of the house into the freezing dark. I had heard that both Ben and his brother Donovan had died, but I had not been able to find much out about either one of them. I knew that I was meant to follow Ben, that he was involving me in a playlet of sorts. Where it would lead was a mystery to me.
I let ten minutes pass, and then I stepped out into the cold, taking my backpack with me out of sheer reflex. There were flurries falling lightly as a snowstorm moved in from the north. The land was entirely dark. Far away, I could see the dim glow of lights on the side of Route 41. I started to walk in that direction. It was seventy-five yards or so across the Marclay property, which was cut off from the adjacent property by that tall screen of trees. I parted it and came out on the other side, in view of the closest house to the Marclays. This one was in a state of total disrepair, having been abandoned some time ago. I walked unnoticed across the large unkempt lawn, wrapping my scarf tightly around my neck. From what the ghost had told me, I believed it was possible that this house was where Ben and his brother Donovan had lived after their father’s death. It had most likely been sold or simply given to them by their Uncle Bernard. Half the windows of the house were boarded up, and the front door was firmly padlocked. It seemed unusual to me that a house on such a desirable stretch of property should stay abandoned. There was no way in unless I wanted to climb in through a low window, which was not boarded and whose glass pane had long since been removed. I decided to try it.
I managed to push myself over the window ledge and fall into the darkened house. I was grateful to be at least out of the wind, if not the cold. I could see almost nothing inside the house. Large portions of the walls were hacked away. There was no furniture left, just debris. Almost right away, I could make out a small object sitting precariously atop a pile of what looked like wood paneling. I walked over to it and lifted it. It was a book, bound in imitation black leather. The interior pages were college-ruled. A price sticker was still attached to the lower right-hand corner of the back cover, and an orange paint stain streaked the spine. It was a diary. Obviously it had been left for me as part of the manufactured drama, and I sat down with my back against one corner of the house, turned on my flashlight, and sat down to read it. I suspected it would tell me where to find Ben next. As I read, I sometimes had to turn my head to breathe so that the cloud of my breath would not obscure my vision.
The diary was written in Ben Gantt’s childlike handwriting. It began on April 10 of an undetermined year and covered approximately one month of the young man’s life. Benjamin began his first entry by describing how his brother Donovan ordered him to submit to treatment with a Doctor Spahn, because Ben was getting to be more and more of a burden to Donovan. One day Donovan drove Ben into the city after Ben made sure to hide his diary carefully to avoid one of his brother’s almost daily inspections of his personal belongings. Benjamin had found this Doctor Spahn, who claimed to be a psychiatrist, to be very strange. His hands were twice as big as Benjamin’s, or so he wrote, and Spahn was in his eighties. While Donovan waited in a car down the street, Spahn had asked Ben question after question about his heart condition. The man had gone out of his way to show Ben his medical degrees and textbooks. Ben was obviously frightened of Spahn. Later that night, Ben heard Donovan on the phone laughing and talking to Spahn.
Ben was hypnotized by the doctor for the first time on a Saturday. It was Spahn’s intention to use the power of subconscious suggestion to alleviate Ben’s general sense of fear of the world. Ben barely remembered what happened after he lapsed into unconsciousness. He found himself walking down the street, but he could barely hear any sounds. He watched people pass him silently, and he became aware that his brother was following his progress with the car from behind him. Ben wrote that the sunlight had been changed somehow into dark shades of purple and black, as if night and day had been reversed. It felt nice to him. The next thing he remembered was waking up on Doctor Spahn’s couch. Spahn was very happy. He said that they had already made a tremendous amount of progress. Ben and Donovan ate at a hamburger place on the way back to their house, and Ben wrote that Donovan forced him to eat more than he should have. The next day, Ben sat looking out his bedroom window while he was supposed to be asleep. He had been given some kind of tablets to swallow, but he had concealed them in his palm. Ben saw Doctor Spahn’s car pull up to the house, and the old man visited with Donovan.
Ben did not leave his room for two days. Daylight hurt his eyes and his throat. He only felt better when night came. The diary’s next entry told of Ben’s third visit to Doctor Spahn’s office. By this time the daylight stung his hands. This time, while Ben was under hypnosis, Spahn walked with him. It was already dark when they went out onto the street. There was now no sound in Ben’s ears, but he liked the feeling of the darkness now that the sun had gone down. People drifted by him, and Doctor Spahn’s hand never left his shoulder. Spahn talked profusely, but Ben couldn’t hear a word of it. After a time they left the main roads and walked through back streets and alleys. Once they went by a cemetery and Spahn stopped him there, talking very quickly, pointing and gesturing almost angrily. Then the two of them went on. Ben got a little dizzy, and at some point Spahn was actually pulling him along with his large hand over Ben’s wrist. Then they were in a place near the bay where the city’s garbage was sent out from the harbor on scows. Ben remembered tall buildings with broken windows. Spahn pointed at someone walking around there. To Ben, the person was just a shape made out of blue. Spahn made Ben run after the shape, but it had gotten away from him. He was too slow and clumsy. And so, Ben wrote, Doctor Spahn went after it.
Ben awoke back in his room, with Donovan standing over him. He said that Ben needed more therapy with Spahn. But when they returned to the office the next day, there was no answer at the interior door. Ben opened it to find many of Spahn’s books and papers scattered around messily. Ben lifted one of the books to find it was a medical text designed for a high school educational level. In the margins of its pages were scrawled dozens upon dozens of handwritten notes. Ben left the office and returned to the car, where Donovan was waiting. Furious, Donovan went up to the office to find Spahn but was not able to. He drove Ben home, and on the way he told him that he himself would hypnotize Ben from now on. He said he had learned from Spahn how to do it. The diary ended with Ben reporting a series of headaches, which dissipated dramatically at night. Donovan made him a deal: if Ben behaved and caused no further trouble with his fears, they could drive out to a different part of the city and walk around amongst those welcoming, silent purple and black shadows.
I left the diary where I found it and climbed out the window through which I had entered. Standing on the lawn, I looked to the west. Route 41 rose and stretched toward a faraway hill. Under the full moon I could see a human figure standing in the middle of the road, about a hundred yards away. I could not see any details, but when the figure turned and began to walk over the hill and out of sight, I decided to follow on foot, certain it was Benjamin Gantt. The wind rose and in less than a minute my face was almost numb from the cold as I got closer to the road. Upon my leaving the abandoned property and setting foot on 41, a single car rolled past me. I tried to use its headlights to see farther down the road. There was no sign of the ghost. I knew that Ben’s physical actions should closely mimic those of a living human’s, at least for a while, and so I reversed direction and jogged for a few hundred yards towards the car I had brought to the Marclay house. I got inside, out of the cold, and started the engine.
I pulled onto 41, and within a minute I was at the place where I thought Ben had stood. Further ahead, the road curved to the right between two farms. I saw no one. I covered another full mile before I pulled over. Almost no cars went past. That was when I spotted Ben, far ahead, standing under a lamppost beside a thick stretch of trees. I pulled back onto the road and drove toward him. He turned and walked into the woods. I drove right past them on a hunch. Another mile later, there Ben was, walking over a dark, hilly field on the other side of the road entirely. I kept going straight. Five minutes passed, then almost ten, and I saw Ben once more. This time I could see nothing more than a silhouette, but the way the tail of his long flannel shirt was ruffled by the wind gave him away, and the fact that no thinking human would be standing in the middle of a cemetery by the side of the road in such brutal temperatures.
I had never seen this sort of behavior from a ghost, appearing and disappearing without regard to the laws of motion and geography. I did not know what it meant. I pulled over and for a few minutes I did nothing but watch Ben as he stood between the rows of silhouetted tombstones. He seemed to be looking down at one of them in particular. I reached to shut the heating fan on the dashboard off, and when I looked up again, he was gone. I got out of the car and walked into the cemetery. I knew I would only be able to stay there for a few minutes; the cold was just unbearable even though the flurries had stopped. I walked to the approximate place where he had been standing. I could make out his name on the headstone in front of me. His brother’s grave was beside his. The dates of their deaths matched. The thought of a murder-suicide instantly entered my mind. I returned to the car and drove on down the road, planning to return to Theodore Gantt’s house. It was now well past 1 a.m.
I drove a longer distance than I wanted to, looking for a place to turn around, but there was only empty land ahead, and I would have to turn around in the middle of the road. Then I saw a road branching off to the right, and I took it, hoping to circle around. But this road twisted and turned again and again, and I was about to give up on it when yet another road turned again to the right, all but assuring me of a simple way back to where I had come from. But I had no such luck. After a full mile of driving on this road, it didn’t seem to be going in the ideal direction anymore, and at one point when I took a fork to the left, I believed I was on a different route entirely. I saw the lights of a small service station up ahead, the only business I had seen in the area. I pulled onto the tarmac and parked beside one of the two gas pumps. There was another car there, at the adjacent one, a white idling pickup truck. I walked to the cashier’s office, which was abutted by a small garage, and went inside.
Behind the counter was a rotund man in his fifties, slumped in a chair. He was swaddled in a massive blue coat. A name tag underneath it suggested he owned the place. I greeted him, but he did not immediately respond. He was staring intently through the window blinds that looked out on the tarmac. I asked him for directions back to Route 41, and for a moment he said absolutely nothing, did not even turn his head. I repeated my question, and he said only, ‘He’s been out there fifteen minutes.’ When I asked him what he was talking about, he said that the white pickup truck outside had pulled in fifteen minutes before, and no one had gotten out. I asked the man why he didn’t go out to the full-service pump and tend to him. He replied that he couldn’t go out there, and now, neither could I.
Frustrated by his opacity, I asked him what he was talking about, and the proprietor of the station told me in a low, strangled voice, as if he were afraid of creating the smallest sound. Never once did he look at me. He riveted his stare through the blinds. He believed the man outside sitting in the pickup truck, whom I had not looked at even for a moment, was the same man who had been spoken about on the radio that night. The news had made mention of a wanted serial killer, nicknamed Father Bones, who had been spotted in the area just a few hours earlier by a convenience store clerk. His description had been posted all over town. Even I had heard of him. I looked outside through the glass door.
The pickup truck kept idling, spewing out exhaust. It was impossible to see into the cab of the truck. The truck was old, beaten. I told the proprietor that he was being absurd. I based this mostly on his frustratingly childish and terrified demeanor rather than what I truly knew of the facts. But he said the description of the truck was the same. He said he had been able to see the man once as he sat in the truck, just once, when he shifted and the light struck him just so. And the man would not turn the engine off, would not get out. Through the glass door I noticed more details. The truck had a broken left taillight, an American flag sticker on the passenger’s side door, and a large muddy splotch on the frontmost visible tire. I could hear the engine rumbling low.
I asked the man behind the counter why he didn’t just call the police. He said he didn’t want to move. He told me this in such a weak voice that I barely heard the last two words. He said there was a shotgun in the adjacent room, and a phone. But he believed the man out there was watching us very carefully. I said I would call the police for him, and I turned toward the adjacent room. The man told me to stop, but I went anyway, stepping into a very small area beyond which the garage could be entered. It had no lights. There was a phone sitting on a messy desk in the corner, a desk topped with stacks of invoices and boxes of replacement fuses. I picked up the phone and dialed the operator, requesting the police. When she asked me if it was an emergency, I started to say no, but changed my answer to yes. I turned to look into the front counter area, but could not see the owner from my angle. The line clicked, and I waited for someone to answer me. I had a better view of the pickup truck from where I was. The blinds on the window were so old that several of the slats had fallen off over time. I saw that the truck’s wipers rested diagonally across its windshield. Still nothing could be seen inside the cab, which was maddeningly dark.
A policeman came on the line. I told him I was at an ARCO station on Vegasville Road in Belconsin. I was not absolutely sure I was giving him the fully correct information, but I had become very nervous. I told him that the proprietor of the station thought he had recognized a vehicle mentioned on the radio and that it was sitting there right now. That was as far as I got when the low rumble of the pickup truck’s engine cut out entirely. A shiver went up my spine, and I stopped speaking. The new silence was horribly noticeable. The policeman on the phone asked me one question, and I responded very quietly in the affirmative. I asked him to simply please come, and I lowered the phone. Then I moved delicately back into the other room.
The proprietor was gone. The front door, however, had not been opened. I would have heard the tinkling of the Christmas bells affixed over it. They had greeted me when I came in. He had vanished through some other exit. I very specifically did not look through the front window. Instead I retreated to the inner office again, nine or ten steps that took me out of the sightline of both the cashier’s counter and the outside world. I heard a thin reed of sound squeak through the phone. The voice there was trying to tell me that the police would be at the station in a few minutes. I crouched and felt under the desk for the shotgun I had been told was there. There was nothing at all. The only sounds from outside the building then were the wind and the noise of exactly one vehicle passing by on the road.
I emerged one last time into the outer room and saw that there was a partially closed exit door beside a soda machine. It led down two steps into the rear of the garage, which was utterly dark. I pushed on the cheap wooden door, and the garage came fully into view. I could make out only vague forms. A very large sedan lay inside the garage, its hood open. I stepped cautiously around it. I could see my breath floating in front of me. I lifted my right foot over a toolbox a split second before I would have kicked it and sent it skittering across the cement floor. There was one last door on the far side of the garage. It had no knob. I guided it open gently.
The wind struck me hard. Beyond was a thick mass of featureless woods. I edged along the side of the building over the space of a full minute, moving a total of about twelve feet, hating myself for my caution but unable to deny my disquiet. Then I put my head around the corner of the garage to get a full view of the tarmac. The pickup truck was still sitting there. Ten feet away from it, my own car waited beside the self-service pump. Without pausing to think, I began to walk forward, needing to cover about forty feet to get inside my car. I fixed my stare on the white pickup and listened for footsteps. I quickened my pace, and it became an awkward trot. I could not remember if I had locked the car, and I had a very vivid mental image of myself setting my keys down on the counter inside the station and forgetting them there while I went to call the police. But it wasn’t true. My keys were in my right front pocket. I had never locked the car anyway. I got in, closed the door fast, locked it, and started the engine. There was no movement from the pickup truck. I pressed heavily on the accelerator and turned back onto Vegasville Road without even bothering to look for traffic. I kept the car at a rational thirty miles per hour as I left, looking constantly in the rearview mirror. I nearly ran off once into a ditch. The lights of the station fell behind me.
I fully intended to drive all the way back to the Marclay house to resume my vigil for Theodore Gantt. But as Vegasville Road wound on and on, making me almost lose my sense of direction yet again, I decided not to return just yet. I still saw only one house every half-mile or so, set well off the road. The area was a series of empty hills and valleys. I pulled off about fifteen minutes away from the station onto a long, winding driveway that led up to a dark farmhouse. I stopped just a few yards up the driveway, turned off the car, and sat, listening to the wind. I found myself unable to do anything but sit and wait. I knew I would have to return to the gas station at some point. I knew it. So I would sit and let some time go by. The first car that passed by me on the road startled me quite badly. Its color was white. But it was not a pickup truck.
It was a two-mile journey. The only evidence of humanity I encountered on the way was the high beams of two passing cars. When I saw the lights of the ARCO station approaching, I was both discouraged and frightened. There didn’t seem to be anyone there at all. As I got closer, I saw that even the white pickup truck was gone. With an unpleasant feeling in my stomach I crept onto the tarmac, cutting my headlights off. Something seemed very wrong. The police should have still been there. I stopped my car exactly where I had before. I told myself it was silly to feel frightened. I would go into the cashier’s office and see if the proprietor was still there, and perhaps buy some coffee and a candy bar. Then I would find out exactly what had happened. But the lights were out in the service building. I assumed then that the proprietor had gone home for the night, and I felt a sense of real relief. If he had come back to shut the lights off and gone home so quickly after speaking to the police, obviously there had never been any cause for alarm. It had probably been a misunderstanding, a case of mistaken identity.
I stepped out onto the tarmac and closed the driver’s side door. The wind gusted and slapped the empty husk of a bag of pretzels against my leg. I walked toward the building. The front door was ajar. I stopped and looked at the knob for some time. I was roused from my reverie only by the sound of a car going past, a mustang doing about sixty miles per hour. I moved into the service building, listening for any movement. The heat had apparently been turned off as well. I couldn’t see more than eight or ten feet in front of me. There were no signs of anything being amiss. The counter behind which the proprietor had sat was empty save for a stained memo calendar. I went into the adjacent room.
Inside, there was one noticeable difference. I found myself unable to focus on anything else for what seemed like minutes. The cord to the telephone stretched from the base on the desk all the way up to the ceiling, a dangling black vertical rope. The receiver was hanging from a cardboard advertising mobile above. The receiver rotated gently, touched and guided by a thread of breeze that curled into the building from outside. I reached a hand out to touch the receiver. It was very cold. Then, from behind me, back in the cashier’s area, there came a creaking sound. I turned. The sound might have come from as far away as the tarmac outside, or as close as the front door of the service building. It had been a footstep, or something brushing against a window. Through the window blinds, I could see a panel truck rolling past the station on Vegasville Road. The sound of it partially camouflaged a creak that was almost twice as prominent as the first one.
I left the interior room, took a left turn at the counter, and pushed my way out of the building entirely. I felt an instant sense of relief when the wind struck me. I would simply get inside my car and never return. I took one, two, three steps toward my car, and I heard the creaking again, this time very, very close. My heart thudded inside my chest. I stopped after three more steps and looked at my car. The rear door closest to me was open, just an inch, the barest inch. I narrowed in on that visible crack. I hurtled back through my memory to imagine a circumstance in which I may not have fully closed that door. The arc lights above shone down and made the windows of the car only darker, more impenetrable. As I watched, there was then an infinitesimal movement of the rear door. Gently, so as not to make any sound, it was shut from inside by a hand I could not see. There was a small metallic clink as the metal components merged.
I turned to run. I ran across the tarmac as fast as I could toward Vegasville Road. I did not look back. My feet pounded on the cement. In seconds I was on the road and I kept going, running down the double yellow line into the darkness. I could not even pray for a car to come; my mind was a fog, and all I could hear was my own frantic breathing and my shoes hitting the pavement harder and harder. In seconds the cold air was ripping at the insides of my lungs, and I knew I would soon have to collapse. But I did not. The fear kept me moving beyond my physical limits. When the lights of the gas station fell behind me entirely, I was in almost total darkness. It was then that I was most terrified. I kept running. A spike of pain hit me in the chest, and my breath began to come in shorter and shorter spurts. No cars came. The wind stung my eyes, and my mouth was completely dry. Not even looking where I was running, I almost veered off the road entirely, into the woods. I looked down, trying to locate the yellow line, and was unable. I kept running blind. I eventually slowed to almost a jog, utterly unable to go on, when headlights washed over me from behind. I turned and instantly knew my own car had come for me, driven by a madman, a killer. But it was a station wagon, beeping its horn at me. To avoid being crushed, I stumbled onto the shoulder as I turned and waved my hands frantically. The station wagon stopped fifty feet beyond me. I ran to it, and suddenly my legs went out from under me. I collapsed and my head hit the pavement, causing consciousness to leave me entirely.
I was cursed with a terrible dream that I think I sunk into immediately after hitting the pavement. In it, I had been shot in my right leg with a thick wooden arrow, as if the little archer that Glory Marclay had drawn back at her house had shot me. The arrow had buried itself just below my knee, and blood pulsated from the wound. Even so, I was chasing someone through the woods, a woman who would not listen to me when I called out to her to stop and help me; she merely ran forward. I was asking her where I was, and what the senseless string of letters that had been mysteriously etched onto my palm in Glory’s room meant, and where the nearest hospital was, but she didn’t answer. So I chased her. Wounded as I was, I was faster than she. I caught up to her in an empty parking lot, crashing through a blizzard that unleashed itself overhead, and then I saw her face as she turned around to scream. It was the face of Glory Marclay’s mother, but instead of apologizing for the mistake, I somehow reached down and ripped the arrow from my leg and I thrust it into her chest, again and again, until she fell into the newly fallen snow. As she went down one of her hands grabbed mine, and the mere act of her desperate touch stripped away the letters on my palm, leaving only an h and an m just barely visible through the knotted tangle of her blood-soaked hair.
When I awoke, I was inside the station wagon that had almost run me down. For a moment I had no idea why. Then it came flooding back to me quickly. But the car was parked on the side of the road, a different road than where it had stopped for me. There was no one beside me in the driver’s seat. I was alone. The dome light was on. I looked to my right, groggy, unable to focus for a moment. Outside the passenger’s side window, I saw a dense patch of woods off the shoulder. Looking forward, through the windshield, I saw an unfamiliar country road, but immediately recognized a bullet-riddled speed limit sign that I had passed on my way down Route 41. I was less than a half-mile from Theodore Gantt’s old house, and the house that had belonged to his two now-dead children. The interior of the station wagon was clean, almost spotless. I could tell nothing from it about who had driven me here, or why they had done it. The clock on the dashboard read 3:24. I got out of the car, light-headed and still very afraid. I looked around in the dark and stepped around the car, peering into the woods. But there was no one there. I stood for three or four minutes, shivering, waiting. I had truly been abandoned, but by whom I did not know. I would not wait for whomever it was to come back.
I began to walk in the direction of the Marclay house. I had to cross the road to do it. On my way, I looked to my left and saw something that looked like an envelope stuck underneath the station wagon’s windshield wipers. I lifted the wipers and found not an envelope, but a single piece of notebook paper. I unfolded it and walked across the road to where a streetlight gave me sufficient illumination to read what was written there. It was only one line, written in the unmistakable clumsy scrawl that I recognized from reading Benjamin Gantt’s sad diary. The note said only this: Donovan is waiting for you now.
I reached the Marclay house in fifteen minutes. I was so exhausted that I spent another quarter of an hour simply huddled in a corner of the dark basement, shivering, trying to get warm. My backpack was gone, left in the back seat of my car back at the gas station. I felt sick, a sickness deep in my bones. When I began to compose myself again, I walked through the house, trying to sense if it had become different somehow. With my mind in the state it was in, it was difficult to tell. But there were physical manifestations that told me things had changed.
The stairs leading up from the basement were no longer clear. Instead, the entire collection of Dr. Seuss books that I had first seen in the upstairs den at ten o’clock, forty or fifty of them, now blocked my way. Each book had been placed there open and standing, fanning out, the spines facing me. I read the titles as I stepped delicately over them, moving upwards. I knocked one over at the top of the stairs, and I replaced it carefully. All the dolls that had been in Glory Marclay’s bedroom at the beginning of the evening had been arranged in a duplicate pattern downstairs in the living room, except now almost every single tiny face had been positioned to stare forward at me as I stood at the room’s entrance. They rested on the sofa, on the easy chair, on the ottoman, in front of the fireplace screen. The ones with the big eyes now lay on the floor at my feet, face-up, seeing nothing more than the ceiling. Glory’s drawing of the little archer girl was no longer fastened to the refrigerator with a magnet. Instead it lay inexplicably beside Ben Gantt’s diary on the coffee table in the living room. The diary should not have been there. I lifted Glory’s picture, traced my index finger over her signature, counted the sharp arrows in the smiling girl’s sling. Then I set the picture down and moved across the room.
I needed badly to splash cold water on my face and swallow some of it down. My lungs were still burning. I felt shaky on my feet, groggy and emptied out, as if I were only a shell with no internal organs. My blood pulsed thickly in my temple. A low hum reverberated inside my head from back to front to back again. The best thing for me to have done was to leave the house immediately. In a weakened state I was at risk. But there were only a couple of hours left before sunrise. I made my way into the bathroom on the main floor of the house and switched the light on. The overhead fluorescents made me wince. I scrubbed my face with the coldest water I could summon, then looked into the mirror to find that a vessel in my left eye had broken, and the cornea that stared back at me was almost entirely red. There was also a thin gash running from my left ear all the way to the fleshiest part of my cheek, a result of my fall to the pavement. I could not look at myself for very long. The overhead light went out with an echoing click, and a second later the rest of the house went completely dark as well. I put a hand out to silence the faucet. Then, seeing a shadow of something besides my own face in the mirror, I turned slowly to look behind me.
A small child’s flower print dress clung to the rear wall of the bathroom. My night vision made it out perfectly, even down to the gentle curve of the tiny roses that were scattered in neat linear patterns down the front. I recognized the dress from one of the many photographs of Glory Marclay spread throughout the house. As I watched, a thin trickle of murky blood peeked out from behind the ruffled collar, then slid downwards over the top three buttons, then down even farther, becoming a much thicker stream that quickly reached the end of the fabric and dripped down onto the toilet tank, striking it with dime-sized droplets. I turned away from that sight only when a maddening itch struck my left palm. There was something written on it again, in the same spiky charcoal letters as before, and I saw it was the fulfillment of the original string I’d begun upstairs, where Glory Marclay had drawn horses and mountains and archers before she was stolen in the night. The new letters, wedged between and around the first, had been etched so firmly and deeply that my skin had nearly broken. I brought the palm closer to my face and made out the message, misinterpreting it once before it became completely clear. It said this:
Her mommy killed her
I turned the faucet on again and scrubbed my left palm with all the soap in the dish beside the sink, going at it so hard that it began to bleed. One minute later, the bathroom light came back on by itself.
I left the bathroom and moved into the living room. Someone was waiting for me there. A man stood beside the coffee table, facing away from me. His hands were laced behind his back. He wore a clean white shirt and tan khaki pants. He turned when I stopped. Though the man was very young, his gaze was piercing, even in the dark. He greeted me in a low voice, and introduced himself as Donovan. He did not smile. His face never changed from one moment to the next. The ghost told me he was looking for his brother, for Benjamin. I told him that yes, Ben had been here, but only for a short while. Donovan asked if he had seemed frightened, and I said yes. He told me not to pay any attention to him, that Ben was very troubled, and that to protect him they stayed in the house most of the time. When I asked what was wrong with Ben, Donovan informed me that he had killed their uncle.
It was an accident, Donovan said. They had been sent to live with him after their father died. Bernard had been standing on a ladder one day, fixing the roof. Ben and Donovan had been playing, running around. Ben ran into the ladder, and Bernard grabbed a power line to break his fall. It sent a lethal charge through his body. He was essentially dead for three weeks before they took him off life support. Ben was seven. He grew up thinking that he killed Bernard, that he was responsible. His mentality was still a child’s, Donovan said. He could not take care of himself. In that moment I gleaned that in life, Donovan had made sure that Ben was never truly disavowed of the notion that he had caused their uncle’s death. I could tell by Donovan’s demeanor. I was standing in the presence of evil. There was no mistaking it. He was holding something low at his waist. It was a doll, a pioneer girl, and it had belonged to Glory Marclay. The dolls were still sitting everywhere, having been strangely relocated. Donovan bent gently, almost arthritically, at the waist, and set the doll down on the coffee table. Now he saw the other object on the coffee table, and reached for it in a motion that seemed planned, rehearsed.
He asked me what the object was. I told him that Ben had been keeping a diary, and that he had left it here, but also that it revealed very little. Donovan wanted to know if it made accusations. More specifically, against him personally. He flipped through the pages idly. I could no longer stand to be so far away. I had to see more detail of Donovan’s face. I stepped toward the center of the room, and then I lied, telling him no, there were no accusations. Donovan closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, as if warding off a headache. He was confused, vexed, as to why Ben had left the house. It didn’t make sense to him. He wanted me to give him an answer. But I would not do it.
When Donovan spoke next, he craned his neck to an unnatural degree, not moving his shoulders even an inch, like a mannequin. He began to speak, softly and slowly, about his uncle. After Theodore Gantt died, Donovan said, Uncle Bernard had come into possession of many of the man’s things, things that had been sealed away inside the basement that lay below our feet at that very moment. Bernard had been planning to use these things as evidence against Theodore in a court of law. I did not respond when Donovan asked me if I accepted this truth, so he went on. Bernard had found all of Theodore’s old books, all his journals. Donovan told me that he himself knew they were being kept, and he had read every word. Bernard always watched him. He didn’t think Donovan should be around Ben. Donovan said he felt the old fool would have eventually killed him as he slept, all because he refused to condemn his father. Donovan asked me how he could have possibly condemned him when the man spoke so many truths.
It appeared through an optical illusion that Donovan had gotten closer to me. Before, he had been standing directly in front of the coffee table. Now he was almost five feet away from it. Donovan told me that Ben was delusional, that he had to be watched very carefully. Nothing he said could be believed. He saw things and heard things that were not real, and sometimes he was so convinced of these things that people around him became convinced of them as well. But Donovan assured me none of it was real. Then, again, he asked me to tell him what the diary said. I reverted to a protective lie. I said I didn’t remember. It was not possible for Donovan to physically hurt me—no spirit physically could—but I was deeply frightened of him all the same.
Instead of paging through the diary to challenge my lie, he closed his eyes once more and lapsed into a quiet monologue, seeming to forget I was even in the room. All of us, all of us in the outside world, made him ill. He could not be expected to go on like this, with all this interference. It had begun with Bernard, who had first started claiming that it was really Donovan who killed him while he lay comatose in the hospital. He would wait until everyone was out of the room, and then accuse Donovan, telling him he’d be found out one day. And now, once in a while, there was someone like me, a stranger, who tried to get inside Ben’s head, and there were more accusations. They even wanted to know about his father from time to time—and the girls they kept finding mutilated in a nearby riverbed. Tonight he had only gone to Parsonsburg, and only for an hour, yet I had felt the need to open the door to Ben, and cause so much difficulty.
A grandfather clock chimed somewhere. But there was no such clock anywhere in the house. I felt feverish and weak. My heart was thudding as it had back at the gas station. Donovan’s ghost exhaled in a sickly rattle. As I watched, a deep cut on his chin produced two quick drops of blood. They fell to the floor and splashed silently on the carpet. He did feel better now than he had in some time, though, he told me in the dark. Maybe he could still live here, in the house. Without Ben, it was going to be much easier. After he said this, he became as inert as the paint on the wall behind his head, static and void. When I found the words to tell Donovan that I knew they were both dead, and had been dead for years, he responded as a plate responds to a fork set beside it, with the changing of not a single molecule of his nonbeing. But after a while, he did begin to speak again, and he spoke longer than ever before.
He spoke of his father’s brilliance, a brilliance accumulated through those long-ago studies in the continent of Africa, and the resurrection rites he discovered and had to fight for. It had all culminated in the sort of hand-to-hand combat his army unit might have been trained in, but for Theodore Gantt the goal had not been to take territory or defend his comrades. He had snuck into a small village under cover of darkness and butchered the sixteen people who protected those valid rites whose worth was beyond imagination. Donovan’s father had boiled the heads of the men and women and children he had decapitated. Donovan told me of the years it had taken to copy those rites by hand into books that would not fall apart and become dust, and of the cleverness it took to secret the books away inside this very house. The police had discovered them, of course, but Theodore Gantt had written in a code known only to himself, and in the end the police had put the books right back where they had been found. Donovan considered that honorable.
He went on and on, telling me that the key that would open the tiny closet beside the basement furnace had been inside the house somewhere since 1973. He wasn’t quite sure of the exact spot, but it was time to examine those rites, to go over them carefully, because he didn’t want to be like he was anymore, a ghost without hands or body to do the work he had been born to do. He was thankful that I had appeared there tonight, thankful for the special channeling abilities that I held inside me. He could enter me in a whisper. When he said this, a hot marble ball uncoiled in my stomach like a heart attack sprung from below, and I saw that there was a danger for me in that room that I had not dared to imagine. Donovan told me that tonight was my last night on earth as a seeker of ghosts, as anything at all. He was coming into me now.
The marble ball inside me leapt up, expanded, and exploded like the birth of a universe. It sucked me down into a place that had no definition. I stumbled backwards as a hideous, ripping pain engulfed me. I crashed into the front foyer and towards the front door of the house. I broke my right arm with the force of my impact against the knob. The door burst open and I was outside, running but having no way to fight off the sensation of Donovan’s cruelty and hate flowing into every cell in my body. I collapsed on the front lawn, shrieking. It was snowing. Every descending flake felt like a firebrand. Then the pain reached its plateau, something I believe no human being can ever understand. It was the pain of my soul being eaten. My body broiled with disease and rot and ghosts and the putrifacted spirit of Donovan Gantt. I begged God to release me, to let me die. He did not answer me.
When my colleague Savid Doud did not receive a phone call from me at 6 a.m., he realized something had gone wrong, and he drove right away to the Marclay house from Baltimore. It took him three hours. Upon entering, the myriad damages to the house, like the broken door, two upended lamps, and a deep tear in the living room carpet, told him the worst had happened. When he saw me standing at the back of the room, silhouetted by the dawn light sifting in through the wide picture windows, he was at first relieved. But when he moved closer and truly saw my face, he began to scream, and he did not stop until I tore his throat out. Then Donovan began the process of making my body search for that key that would deliver the books he had been promised by his brilliant father, books that had been unfairly denied him by monstrous humans who never understood him.
Donovan Gantt is no longer a ghost. It took him less than seven weeks to accomplish full human form through his experiments with the information those books contained in a language few outside the forests of Africa could possibly understand. During those seven weeks, I felt myself killing a half dozen innocent human beings and dumping their bodies in the woods despite the disadvantage of having a badly broken arm. I lived like an animal, completely at the mercy of the parasite’s will. No one ever saw the things I did. I was cursed to watch every moment that my hands committed Donovan’s atrocities, and was witness to his final act of witchcraft, the one that set him utterly free and left my broken body in the cemetery in which his own had been buried years before. The long possession left me partially blind and mortally afraid of the dark. I lost almost forty pounds of body weight, and my left ring finger was almost severed in a death struggle with one of my victims. Ironically, Donovan was so sickly brilliant that I need have no worries about the crimes I involuntarily committed ever being discovered.
I am alone and safe, and my one purpose in life now is to somehow recover enough of my health to find Donovan and end his awful existence before an untold number of others have to die. But every time the sun goes down and night falls, I find my focus wandering, and instead of collecting more and more information to find Donovan, I find myself just walking the streets of the city, feeling protected by the purple shadows that conceal me. I feel some peace then, and the tortured thoughts of what I’ve done cannot seem to find me. It is all I can do sometimes to stop myself from actively following the shapes of people I see passing by me. I must come up with some way to keep myself from going out into the dark. I have contacted two colleagues, told them what happened to Doud, and begged them to come help me through this madness. They are due to arrive tonight at the decrepit hotel I find myself living in. I pray they find Aramis Churchton, a trusted psychic researcher, and not a ghoul beyond hope, one who cannot stop himself from pursuing the strange and wondrous music I sometimes hear calling me into the shadows of night. It is the music of death and insanity, and sometimes it sounds so beautiful that I would surely slaughter anyone who dared come between me and its mysterious promise.
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