For The Fear Quest
It was a big old house, almost a mansion, out in the middle of nowhere
. Built out of red bricks, and with a roof of glazed tiles. You could tell someone had been adding to it over the years; it had become a maze of rooms and corridors, stairs and unexpected turns. Very easy to get lost in. It was obvious that whoever had added all the extensions had had no plans. Some wings you could only get to by leaving the house and entering it again by another door. Some places you had to descend two or three steps to get to the next room, and some places the doors weren't all that perfectly lined up with the top - or the bottom - of a staircase. It looked like a house out of a fairytale
, with turrets
, tall windows, and a clutter of chimneys. And everywhere little ornamental angels
looked out over the landscape, their stone faces streaked with centuries of rainwater.
The house had been slightly remodelled at one point to serve as a summer camp for city children. Some fifty years ago a summer camp had ended with a lot of children disappearing from the house, causing a big stir in the community - and indeed the whole country. No one ever found out what had happened to the kids, and the whole thing was shrouded in mystery. Ever since the house had been quiet and empty, nesting among the hills and thickets of birch and beech, just waiting for life to return.
This was my house, for good and for bad, and I had decided to try to revive the summer camp idea. I sorely needed customers to come and spend the summer in the house. It was not because I wanted the company, but I needed help if I was going to be able to retire any time soon. I had some acquaintances who worked at a school in the nearest city, and they had arranged for pupils from the lower grades to come and spend two weeks at the house.
They had been a little worried that the rumours about the old mystery would keep the parents from letting their kids come along, but in the end it hadn't been a problem at all. I hadn't asked any questions as such: I wasn't going to look after the kids anyway. I just wanted the business. I had hired four young people, two girls and two boys, to be camp supervisors to keep the kids happy and out of trouble. I'd mind the kitchen, and the kids were supposed to mind their own rooms. I was sure it would all work out fine. It wouldn't be for all that long, after all.
I was standing in the yard when a busload of cheering children spilled out on the dusty concrete slabs that lead up to the big entrance doors of the main house. Only a small busload, though; 26 kids, hauling backpacks and trunks across the yard while my four camp supervisors tried to get their attention by shouting out their names.
I didn't interfere and I didn't listen to the names. I didn't need to know. I smiled vaguely when girls and boys streaked past heading for the side doors into the house. I had spent quite some time cleaning out and restoring the old dormitories to some of their former glory. They would do fine, and, judging from happy squeals and shouts, the kids were pleased. The four supervisors had rooms in one of the wings that were not connected to the house by any doors. My rooms were in one of the other annexes, only reachable by walking around the corner from the yard. The arrangement provided privacy.
The first day went by in relative peace. I resided in the kitchen cooking and washing the dishes. The kids saw me behind the big counter, smiling and ladling food onto their plates, and most took a shine to me immediately. What's not to like about a nice lady giving you lovely food? That first night when I joined the whole group in the big parlour with the fireplace I was welcomed as if they had known me for days.
"Are there any ghosts out here?" asked one little boy. "Have you lived here for long?"
I smiled and sat down on the big fluffy rug in front of the fireplace.
"I have lived here for all my life and then some", I said. "And there is only one real ghost here."
My statement was followed by a storm of requests for a ghost story. A ghost story in this big, dark panelled room with a fire in the fireplace... it would be so perfect.
"All right", I said finally, giving in after listening to the begging and pleading. "Tomorrow night, after supper, we'll all meet in here", . "And I'll tell you the story. But it is very, very scary, mind!"
"YAY...!!"; the response was almost deafening. I smiled, a big warm and happy smile. I loved it when things seemed to come together.
"Until tomorrow then", I said, and got up. "Now I'll leave you to your popcorn and candy and whatever. Good night."
The next evening I stood at my upstairs bedroom window, looking out into the dusk. I was tired, and I needed to get it right now. I didn't think I'd have the strength to try again. If I failed... well, I'd have to make sure I didn't fail. I had planned for most eventualities, but even I could not plan for the unexpected. I just had to hope for the best.
The kids and their supervisors were waiting in the big room. They were scattered all over the place, on the floor, in the big chairs, and on the couches. They cheered when I stepped in.
"Story, story, story...", they chanted. I smiled. "Are you ready for this then?" I asked. "Once the story is told it cannot be untold."
"Pleeease... tell us the scary story!"
I sat down on the big rug in front of the fireplace, and the kids scrambled to get a good seat, as close as possible. "Okay then..."
"Once upon a time there was a man from the city who moved out to live in the countryside. He bought a big piece of land and decided to build a small house for himself. Then, as the house was almost finished, he met a young woman, and fell in love with her."
A few of the boys made gagging noises and giggled.
"He married the woman, and showed her the house. But she thought the house was much too small. She wanted more rooms, and she wanted him to build it higher and bigger. Of course this was very hard work, but the man loved his wife, and tried his very best to please her. The man hired children from the nearby farms and small towns to come and help him. They carried bricks and mortar, and ran errands, and slowly the house grew. But the woman was never satisfied. She had him and the children working day and night, in all kinds of weather - and one late night a storm came up. The man wanted to stop working, but the woman wouldn't let him.
All of a sudden lightning struck. It struck one of the children standing high on a ladder, and then another one struck the house itself, blowing it to pieces, and burying the children and the man under it.
The woman ran up to find her husband dying under a great big wooden beam, and he said to her: 'This was your dream, and you would see it finished, even if it meant sacrificing me and those children. Now you finish the house, my love. And don't stop until I tell you to.'"
"When's the scary part?" some of the kids complained. I sighed. "Wait for it," I said, and continued:
"The house in question is this house. The woman went mad, of course, and collected children from all over the country, brutally sacrificing them in the basement of the unfinished house. And the house has grown a little for every child that has been killed. Of course she was arrested and hanged, and no one believed her when she claimed that it was the house itself that had killed the children. Did any of you see the grave behind the patch of trees, just over the hill? That's her grave, but she still collects kids every fifty odd years, to make her house grow. They say the prettiest girls get to be angels, like the ones around the towers. The boys may become gargoyles. If you look closely you'll see that their faces are wet, even if it's not raining. That's because they are crying."
The kids shifted uneasily. "Is that why the house is so weird?" one boy asked. I nodded. "Do you want to see the basement where she sacrificed all the kids?"
As one they all jumped to their feet. I could tell they had thought the story pretty lame and boring, and this would be a nice contrast.
"Let's go, then..."
I led the way through the house to the heavy wooden door. It was locked with a big, old, and seemingly rusty padlock. I pulled on the keychain around my neck and produced an old, but disappointingly ordinary key.
"Remember, kids, that the staircase is steep and narrow. Don't push each other, and let me turn the lights on first of all."
I unlocked and opened the door. The light switch was right inside the door, and I flipped it.
"There you go", I said and stepped aside. The kids swarmed down the stairs, chattering and laughing. The four young 'camp supervisors' followed them, grinning. I sighed with relief, and was about to follow them when I saw one little girl lagging behind, looking scared.
"Come on", I said. "Don't you want to see too?"
She shook her head. I smiled at her, and held out my hand. "I'll carry you down the stairs", I said. "Then you won't be all alone up here."
She relented, and I picked her up and descended down the stairs. The kids were waiting for me to show them some blood stains or at least some bones. I did not want to disappoint them.
"Behind that door right there", I said, and pointed to the door. "That's where it'll happen. You can go in now."
And they did. Every last one of them, and the young supervisors. I could have wept with relief. I put the last child down - the one I was still carrying - and gave her a gentle push towards the door. She began walking but stopped dead in her tracks as we heard the first high pitched shrieks of terror from within the room. I was already on my way up the stairs. I was not going to watch. I had seen enough the first time, all those hundreds of years ago; I did not wish to see it again.
"NO pleeeeeease!" she wailed, almost drowning out the other screams. I stopped briefly, but I didn't look back.
"Tell you what", I said. "I'll make sure you get to be one of the angels. How's that?"
I never did hear her answer. I longed for my small piece of land, the soft soil behind the patch of trees just over the hill. My grave seemed to grow deeper each time I returned to it, and my rest grew more and more uneasy. The desperate voices would never let me be, and the screams haunted me always. But I could get my rest now, such as it was, until he called me to work again.
In time weeds and grass would grow back and cover the old grave. The house, once again quiet and empty, waited, while the morning sun touched gently on the faces of the little angels, tears slowly trickling down their stone cheeks.