As part of the Every House Is Haunted photo contest, I've written a short story inspired by the winning photo, taken by Tony Myles. At the end of the story I've posted a little extra you may find amusing. I know I did.
The kids wanted to go to African Lion Safari, but their father had other plans.
“This is better,” Ted assured them as he turned into the parking lot. He shot a quick look at his wife Claire as he said, “This place is even more dangerous!” She rolled her eyes at him.
The kids didn’t say anything right away. Ted glanced at the rearview mirror and saw their skeptical faces peering back at him.
“More dangerous than lions climbing on top of the car?” Zack asked.
“Way more,” Ted said.
“I want to see the monkeys,” Janey said. “Karen went last summer and she said they threw poop at the windows.”
One more reason we’re not going to that damn place, Ted thought.
“Don’t say ‘poop,’” Claire said in an automatic voice. “It’s a bad word.”
“‘Poop’ isn’t a bad word,” Janey said. “You’re thinking of ‘shit.’”
Claire’s eyes went wide. “Janey!”
Ted took one hand off the steering wheel to cover the laugh that blurted out of his mouth. Claire glared at him. “That’s real helpful.”
“I didn’t say a word,” Ted said innocently. He pulled into an empty spot — the whole parking lot was empty — and turned off the engine. “Here we are!”
They got out of the car and stood together staring at the house.
It was, to put it mildly, a dump. A sprawling Victorian dump, whose two storeys were going to become one sometime in the not-too-distant future. The top half of the house listed drastically to one side, as if a giant had come along and accidentally bumped it with his hip. The paint was peeling, most of the windows were busted out, the roof was full of holes, and the wraparound porch sagged like a frumpy skirt. The front yard was a yellow-gray sea of dead grass with a few scraggly bushes clinging desperately to life. A tall cast-iron fence ran around the entire property. A sign on the padlocked gate said:
ENTER DURING OFFICE HOURS ONLY
MON-FRI 8AM TO 4:30 PM
Ted wasn’t concerned about the state of the house — after all, it looked exactly as it did on the website. That was how he had found out about the place. He was on the computer one night, trying to Google up some family vacation fun, when an e-mail arrived, right out of the blue. He thought it was spam until he noticed the subject line: TOUR A REAL HAUNTED HOUSE! FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!
The place was only a two-hour drive away, and although the ticket prices weren’t listed on the website, Ted figured it couldn’t be more than a day pass to African Monkey-Shit-Slinging Safari. That place was a six-hour drive away, and it would be packed full of tourists at this time of year. His ulcer flared at thought of the long caravan of cars trudging through the “jungle,” hoping to catch a glimpse of some bored-looking animals lying around in the non-African sun. No thank you!
“We’re staying here?” Janey said.
“We’re not staying here,” Ted said. “We’re going on a tour.”
“A tour?” Zack said. “Of this dump?”
“You don’t know what this is?” Ted looked from the house to his wife and kids. “You’ve never seen one of these before?”
“I’ve seen a house,” Janey said. “Maybe not one quite this crappy…”
“Janey!” Claire snapped.
“What is it, Dad?” Zack was the only one still looking at the house. He hadn’t taken his eyes off it.
“It’s haunted,” Ted said, a small grinning curling the sides of his mouth. “What you’re looking at is a real, honest-to-goodness haunted house.”
Zack’s eyes widened in excitement, while the girls scoffed in unison.
“Does anyone live in there?” Zack asked timidly
“Too dangerous to live in there, son,” said a dry, cracked voice behind them.
Ted, Claire and the kids let out a collective squeak and turned around to see a short, wiry old man standing directly behind them. He was wearing an old panama hat, a chambray workshirt, and faded jeans.
“Sorry, folks,” he said. “Didn’t mean to startle you. ‘Course, if you want to be scared, you came to the right place.”
“So this is it?” Ted said. “The… haunted house?” He felt a little foolish saying it out loud.
“That’s right. Name’s Don Wood. And you must be the Pearsons.”
“That’s us,” Ted said. “Looks like we’re the first visitors of the day.”
“First visitors of the season!” Don said. “Except the season don’t really start until tomorrow. You folks are getting a sneak preview.”
“How much for four tickets?” Ted asked.
Don waved a dismissive hand. “You pay at the end of the tour.”
Of course, Ted thought. By then it’s too late and we have to pay whatever you say. But he didn’t really care. It was just nice to be doing something different for once.
“Do you lead the tour yourself?”
“Nope,” Don said. “You don’t need to listen to me flapping my gums. The house tells its own story. All you need to do is go inside and wander around. Take as long as you want.”
“Oh, okay,” Ted said. He looked at his wife and they exchanged a shrug.
Don unlocked the heavy gate and made a sweeping gesture. Tom put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and they went inside with the kids shuffling along in front of them. They were about halfway up the path to the house when Claire looked back over her shoulder and froze. Ted turned his head, following her gaze, and saw the old man was putting the padlock back on the gate.
“Are you locking us in?” Claire asked. Her voice had a hint of fear in it.
“Oh yes,” Don said with a mischievous grin. “When you stay in this house, you stay forever!”
Claire’s mouth fell open.
“Just kidding.” Don let out a good-natured chuckle. “I’ll meet you at the gate around back when you’re done.”
Ted and his family continued along the path to the house. Just before they reached the warped steps leading up to the porch, Ted’s gaze happened to drift down to the concrete path. Cracks in the surface seemed to form words. It took his eyes a moment to read them.
YOU WILL ALL DIE.
Ted sucked in a sharp breath. Claire gave him a look. He rubbed his eyes and glanced back down, but the words were just a bunch of random cracks in the concrete.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.
“Nothing,” Ted said, feeling a bit foolish. He gave Claire a reassuring smile. She returned it, but still looked a bit concerned.
The kids tromped up the porch steps. They creaked and groaned, but didn’t break. Ted took Claire’s hand and they went up together.
Standing at the front door, Ted raised his hand to knock, then realized there was no one inside to let them in. As he lowered his hand, the door swung slowly open on its own.
The kids said “Whoa!” in unison.
Ted looked back toward the front gate, but the old man was gone.
“It’s probably done by remote control,” he said. “He’s probably got the house wired up with all kinds of tricks.”
“Great,” Claire said, with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
The kids bounded across the threshold into the house. Ted and Claire followed them inside. A moment later, the door slammed shut behind them.
“See?” Ted said, as if this was proof of what he had said. He tried the knob, but it wouldn’t move.
“Locked?” Claire said.
“Well, he did say we’d be staying forever.” Ted gave her a broad smile. “What do you think? Could we spruce this place up, make it our new home?”
Claire’s upper lip rose in a small sneer as her eyes flitted around the interior of the house.
“Oh sure,” she said. “Nothing some Windex and a wrecking ball couldn’t fix.”
The inside of the house looked as broken down and dilapidated as the outside. The walls and floors were coated in a thick layer of dust that gave the place the uniformly grey look of an old, faded photograph.
A jingling sound caused the Pearson family to turn in unison to the archway on the left side of the main foyer. They peered into a space that might have been a living room or a sitting room or a parlour, but it was impossible to tell because there was no furniture in it.
As they drew closer, they saw the room wasn’t completely empty. There was a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It was swinging slowly back and forth, as if propelled by a breeze from an open window. But all the windows in the room were closed.
Ted and his family stood and watched the chandelier, almost hypnotized by its metronomic swaying. Then the chain holding it to the ceiling snapped and the chandelier plummeted to the ground. It landed, not with a brittle crash but with a creaking thump as the half dozen arms of the chandelier flexed and absorbed the momentum of the fall.
The chandelier squatted on the floor for a moment, glass pendants glittering like dozens of crystalline eyes, then it rose up on its arms and began to advance toward them like some strange brass spider.
Claire screamed, and that got the kids screaming, too. Ted grabbed Zack’s hand and Janey’s hand and dragged them down the hallway. Halfway down, he turned back and saw that Claire wasn’t following. She was still standing in the archway, screaming her head off as the chandelier thing clambered on top of her.
Ted took a hesitant step toward her. Claire reached for him. Blood was streaming down her face. She was screaming, a high, ululating sound like a siren. Then the arms of the chandelier enfolded her, one of them wrapping around her neck. There was a brittle snapping sound, and she fell silent.
It was Janey saying “Mummy” in a low, trembling voice that finally snapped Ted out of his daze. He stumbled backward, arms spread out to either side, pushing the kids back behind him.
“Don’t look,” he said in a colourless voice. “Go. Go!”
He turned and scooped them both into his arms and carried them down the hallway, through a swing door and into the kitchen. He put them down and went over to the back door.
He banged his fists against the door in frustration. He had to get his kids out of this house, but he couldn’t go back the way they’d come. Not with that… thing back there. It had killed Claire. He knew it was true, he had seen it with his own eyes, but his mind couldn’t process it. He was in shock, but he was also operating on an instinctive paternal level where his main concern was protecting his children. He could mourn his loss once he got them out of this horrible place.
Ted was looking around for something to barricade the door when the phone on the wall rang.
He let out a panicked scream, then thought: The phone! I can call for help!
He picked it up and started babbling.
“Please… you gotta help us… the house… Claire… chandelier… she’s dead!”
The voice on the other end of the line silenced him. It was Claire.
“I’m not dead, my darling.” Her voice had a low, burbling quality, as if she were trying to talk while gargling mouthwash. “I’m in the house. You always wanted a housewife and now that’s what I am. I’m the house’s wife. Soon you’ll be the house’s husband, and we’ll have the house’s kids.”
Ted dropped the phone and returned to the back door. He slammed his fists against it. He drove his foot into the bottom panel and almost went down on his ass when it went through a flap he hadn’t noticed before.
A doggy door! It was too small for him, but…
“Zack, Janey, come here.”
The kids came over and he crouched down with them next to the doggy door. He pushed the flap and a beam of sunlight poured into the dark house. It felt like years since he’d last seen the sun.
“I’m going to send you through one at a time, okay? You wait for me on the other side.”
Janey crawled through first. Zack was bigger and got stuck halfway through. While Ted was gripping his legs, trying to wedge him through, the voice on the phone, still dangling on its length of cord, suddenly blared out loud:
“NO ONE LEAVES! THIS IS FUN FOR THE WHOOOOOLE FAMILY!”
Ted was momentarily distracted by the voice, and when he turned his attention back to Zack, he found himself holding his son’s limp, blood-splattered legs and lower torso. The rest of him was on the other side of the doggy door, which was now a grinning mouth composed of long splinter-like teeth, flecked with blood and pieces of flesh. He could see a few pieces of shredded denim wedged between those teeth — the remains of his son’s jeans — and that was when Ted lost his mind completely.
On the other side of the door, Janey was stumbling backward away from the house, her eyes fixed in shock and horror on the bisected form of her older brother. Zack’s eyes stared back at her, through her, and beyond.
Janey was vaguely aware of her father’s screams coming from inside the house, but her survival instinct was firing on all cylinders at that point, and the only thing on her mind was getting as far away from the house as possible.
She ran down the path to the back gate. It was locked. The old man was standing on the other side, smiling at her through the tall black-iron bars.
“Hey there, girly,” he said. “You made it. It happens sometimes. Like a cat with a mouse. Sometimes a critter wants to play with its food.”
Janey looked back at the house and saw a strange thing. It wasn’t the same house. The one she and her family had entered was a huge Victorian mansion. The one she was looking at now was a dilapidated one-story bungalow.
“I wanted to see the monkeys,” Janey said in a small voice.
The old man shook his head ruefully. “I’m sorry as hell, kid. I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them.”
“Please, let me out!”
“I'm afraid I can't do that,” the old man said. “You’re the first customers of the season, and I’ve got a business to run here. This place is fun for the whole family. That includes you.”
Janey lowered her head and started to cry. She never noticed the bars of the fence curving down to meet her. With the spikes on top it looked very much like a mouth.
The old man smiled. The fence looked like it was smiling, too.
It was going to be a great summer.
* * *
[As a small added bonus, here's a video of my wife's reaction after reading this story for the first time. Enjoy!]
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