The man who bought the vacant house on Maple Street was watched closely by his new neighbours as he signed the paperwork and took the keys from Joe Skrout, who had never had such a stroke of luck in his eleven years as the town’s only real estate agent. As Skrout drove away the neighbours watched the newcomer walk up the front path to the three stories American Foursquare and worried. The man turned in time to see three sets of curtains hurriedly close but not before they saw his tired face, his crumpled clothes, and the single suitcase he took from his car.
He turned the key in the front door and stepped inside his property. Despite Skrout’s eagerness to sell the house, he had been decent enough to explain to his client the state of the place that he was buying. Some routine maintenance work had been done two months ago but the house had not been lived in for over a year. The interior was clearly beautiful through its thick coat of dust.
Extensive work had been done on the house around fifty years ago, Skrout had told the man, making it an unusual, very special piece of real estate. The ceiling in the living room had been removed, (“and the room above it, too!” Skrout had laughed) and the room now stretched all the way to the floor of the attic. The beams that lined the ceiling were thick, stout pieces of carpentry which Skrout felt confident using as a guarantee of the structural integrity. After all, it hadn’t fallen down yet. Why would it now?
A large fireplace stood in the far wall of the living room under a frame where a similarly large mirror had obviously stood. Skrout had not explained the mirror’s absence, and the man had not asked.
A door under the stairs led to a small cellar. Skrout had explained that it was where emergency supplies (“light bulbs, fuses, water, you know the kind of thing”) could be stored but he had decided not to take the man down to see it. The kitchen, like the rest of the rooms on the ground floor, was large for one man by himself. Skrout had asked if the man had family joining him and had received a non-committal grunt by way of a reply. But as long as the money was good, what business was it of his? He took the man upstairs and showed him the three bedrooms (“one double, and two for any little ones”), the study, and finally the attic.
Skrout explained that the attic was small and that the man could use it if he wanted to, but would be just has happy if he never touched it. There was enough house that the attic shouldn’t have to be used for anything. He was relieved when the man seemed happy with this statement and accompanied him back downstairs.
Throughout the tour of the house Skrout had the distinct feeling that his client wasn’t paying attention. He seemed bored with Skrout’s patter, staring off into space and nodding at unpredictable intervals. Skrout had worried that this had all been a waste of time. The man didn’t seem like the sort who would have the necessary amount of ready cash needed for his purpose. He needn’t have worried. The man had the necessary. When he returned to the office, Skrout decided he would close early.
At four o’clock, with half an hour before her children returned home from school, Mrs Polly Ledingly took a deep breath, summoned her nerve, and crossed the street. The autumn leaves had begun to fall and crunched underneath her feet as she made her short journey from her front door to the stranger’s. Her heart beat a little quicker as she moved quickly up the front path and the three steps before knocking on the front door. Her answer came almost instantly.
The man who opened the door was slightly shorter than she was. Mrs Ledingly stood at a little over six feet in flat shoes while the man in front of her was a little under in heavy boots. His salt-and-pepper hair had been combed down at one point, though it stood at alarming angles where he had clearly pushed his hand through it. His narrow-framed glasses were pushed right to the top of his nose, and through the lenses the red rims of his eyes were visible. He raised his eyebrows and when his voice came it was cracked and hoarse.
“Hello. Can I help you?”
Polly had come here for a reason and she wasn’t going to let nerves get the better of her.
“Hello, yes. My name is Polly Ledingly, I live across the street. I saw you arrive earlier and I wanted to…this is going to sound strange, but…”
“Would you like to come in, Miss Ledingly?” he asked. He pushed the door open a little further and Polly felt a chill run through her.
“No, thank you…It’s Mrs…I’m sorry, I don’t know why I…no, I can explain just as well out here, thank you.”
The man raised his eyebrows but didn’t budge, which she was grateful for. She took a deep breath, adjusted her posture, and prepared to speak her piece.
“I know I don’t know you…” she began.
“My name is Joe Manse,” he said.
“Pleasure,” she said out of habit. “But, Mr Manse, I felt that I had to tell you about…I’m worried that you might not have been told, I don’t know if Skrout told you, and I’m not judging, times are hard and we’ve all got to make a living, but he should have told you and if he didn’t, well, then…and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Manse nodded. “I see. And what is it that you are here to tell me?” he asked.
“I need to tell you what happened here. And I’m not a gossip. I don’t believe in stirring up other people’s business and spreading stories but you need to know what happened here. You need to know why everyone was watching you when you arrived.”
“And what happened here?” he asked. He sounded more intrigued than scared, and Polly wished that she could share that with him.
“The family that lived here before you, they were….well, they were killed here, Mr Manse. Murdered. Last year, you must have read about it? The man, he killed seven families and just disappeared. The family here, they were the first.
The police said that he must have got in through the attic window, though God knows why, or how. The glass up there was smashed and there was no other sign of forced entry. Then he worked his way down, killed those poor children in their beds, killed the mother in the bathtub, and killed the father in his armchair as he watched the television. He left the adults where they were but he took the children, the boy and the girl, down to the basement and sat them up against the wall, looking up at the stairs. Nobody heard a thing. But when we hadn’t heard from them for a few days a couple of us went over to see if Deborah and Matt were OK. We saw…we could see something from the downstairs window so I ran home to call the police.
We heard about the other murders from the papers. We couldn’t believe that he just seemed to keep going, it never seemed like the police had any idea what they were doing. And then a few months ago he just stopped. But you know what they say about these people, Mr Manse. They don’t stop. They just wait, and that’s why I felt I had to come over and tell you.”
Joe had listened to all this in silence. He hadn’t made a single noise of acknowledgement or agreement. When he was sure that Polly had finished he sniffed and pushed a hand through his hair.
“Well, that is quite a story, Mrs Ledingly. And I would like to thank you for sharing it with me. Mr Skrout obviously didn’t feel it was necessary, or perhaps he didn’t feel it was wise, to tell me.”
Polly felt a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She had done the right thing.
“I think you should go and see him right now,” she said, “and you should tell him that you want your money back. It’s not right that he should sell you this house and not tell you what happened here, what we all know happened here. I’d be more than happy to come with you, I’ll tell him…”
But Joe held up his hand, and she found herself coming to a halt.
“That’s really very nice of you, but it won’t be necessary.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand. How can you stay here, knowing?”
Joe took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Polly felt a tremendous compulsion to help him. He was exhausted, he wasn’t thinking clearly. This man needed help.
“Mrs Ledingly, it’s just that….I can’t ask you to understand. But I have to. Thank you for your concern. You have been most neighbourly, and a credit to your community.”
As Polly opened her mouth to argue he closed the door and went back inside.
Joe retreated to the living room where he watched Polly turn and walk quickly back across the street. When she was back inside her house he turned and opened his suitcase, which lay in the middle of the living room floor.
He took out a folded blue duvet. He took cushions from the sofa and laid them in a row on the floor as a makeshift mattress. He took out a thick black notebook and placed it next to where his head would rest.
He spent the next few hours moving slowly around the house. He went from room to room, lingering in the doorways. He went up to the attic and examined the new glass of the round window through which the killer had found his way in. He went to the basement, where he knelt down and picked at fresh coat of white paint at the foot of the stairs.
When night fell Joe opened a bottle of wine and sat in the living room. He moved occasionally from the armchair to the sofa, alternately watching the street through the flimsy net curtains and staring into the fireplace. He had been travelling through the country for months now. His work was tiring, stressful, and he felt utterly drained. But he had finally reached the end. Soon, he would be able to stop. When he had finished the bottle of wine he crawled under the duvet and closed his eyes.
When Joe opened his eyes the room was lighter than he had expected. The moonlight shone in through the tall windows, casting long shadows across the floor. But his eyes were drawn to the ceiling.
A young dark-haired boy in white pyjamas clung to the wooden beam a full story above his head. Directly above him. The boy’s expression was blank. A long dark line went across his neck.
Joe lay on his back. He did not move. He lay there, staring up at the boy. The boy stared down at him. Joe blinked.
The boy was barely an inch above him. The dark line was now plainly an open wound, a clean cut across the throat. The boy’s expression was unreadable. Joe felt his heart stop. He did not move. He blinked again.
The boy had gone. Joe exhaled and moved his arms and legs an inch, more to see if he could than out of any intention of getting up. He wanted to make sure everything still worked.
His left foot made contact with something. The heel of another foot. Joe stopped moving. With a great effort of will he turned his head to the left.
A figure was next to him in his makeshift bed, which had somehow stretched to accommodate this intruder. In the moonlight Joe could make out wet, frizzy, light brown hair. A thick dark liquid ran down her neck and over her back. He blinked.
The figure was gone. Joe took a deep breath and started counting. “One.” He sat up in bed. “Two.” He got to his feet. “Three.” He turned to face the door.
A dark-haired man sat in a t-shirt and boxer shorts sat in the armchair by the door. A mug lay upended with its contents spilled on the floor by his feet. He had the same wound on his neck as the boy. Blood ran down his front, staining his white t-shirt. Joe took a breath, blinked, and walked past him. He pretended he didn’t see the man’s eyes follow him as he did.
As Joe reached the stairs he opened the door to the basement. Turning on the light, he looked down towards the bottom of the steps and saw a young girl staring back up at him. She wore light pink pyjamas and had the same light brown frizzy hair as her mother. He went upstairs.
The floor outside the bathroom was wet. He could hear the tap dripping into what sounded like a full bathtub. He did not look inside. He walked past the children’s room. The door was ajar, and he could see the illustrated shadows of a nightlight. He went back downstairs.
When he came back into the living room he saw that all four members of the family had found their way there too. They stood by the fireplace watching him. Their expressions were unreadable. It occurred to Joe that they were simply waiting to see what he was going to do.
He took the notebook and tore out six pages. He moved slowly past the watching figures and put the pages into the fireplace. Taking a deep breath, he took a lighter from his suitcase and set it to the pages.
The effect was almost instantaneous. The room was filled with a cold glow and Joe was surrounded. The living room was now host to six more families, each one standing still, waiting to see what he would do.
For a moment Joe could do nothing. He merely stood and stared at the assembled company. But one group in particular held his gaze. A woman and two small girls stood a little closer to him than the rest. She nodded, and Joe turned and left the house.
From her bedroom, Polly Ledingly heard the front door of the house across the street slam shut. She got out of bed, quietly, to avoid waking her husband, and went to the window. She saw Joe walk down the front steps to his car. He opened the boot and removed a large brown trunk with some difficulty. He dragged it back up the steps to the house, pulled it inside, and closed the door behind him. Polly watched the house for another half an hour. At one point the light in the attic went on. It was only on for less than a minute, and she thought she could make out a silhouetted figure before it went off. But she could have sworn she heard somebody scream.
When she called round the next morning she found a note pinned to the door saying simply that Joe Manse had left and would not be returning. She felt reassured, at least, that he had gone, and that she had done her neighbourly duty.
When Mr Skrout came around to examine the state in which this eccentric had left his house, he discovered something else entirely.
He explained to the police that he had never realised quite how much blood a human body can hold, or how many parts go towards making a whole person. But his examination of the house that day showed him exactly how rich, complicated, and extensive a thing the human body is. Every room of the house contained a piece of the man that DNA tests would reveal to be Archie Teak, who had been missing for some time. It would be about a further month or so before the police found evidence that Teak was the man they had been looking for in connection with the murders. As for Joe Manse, they caught up with him a lot quicker, but not quickly enough. He was found in a hotel room bathtub, with a short, simple note explaining that his work was finished and he’d gone to join his family.
Hope you enjoyed this week's horror short story (That was my effort at tags!). It's partly based on a nightmare that I had recently (God, that sounds pretentious, but it's true. The bit with the boy on the ceiling and the woman in the bed anyway) and I wanted the house to be the one from the poster for the original Fright Night which I will link to here because it's just perfect. And the title comes from the song below. I'm going to be working on the two novel-shaped projects and the script-flavoured things a lot for the forseeable future so blog updates will be a bit less frequent but I will tweet and whatnot when I do post things. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.