Haunted

Something evil ripples beneath the surface of a seemingly ordinary town.

Someone is calling the dead back to life and only a mysterious stranger, and his confidante Emma Rhodes, can hope to halt the deadly march, before the whole town falls to the undead.

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Emma’s eyes never strayed from the pavement. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. The old playground rhyme ran through her head, but it was not a childish chant that kept her gaze fixed on the concrete. A small part of her wouldn’t care if the chant was true – if she did step on a crack and, by some supernatural law, snap her mother’s spine, it was no more than Rowan Rhodes deserved. Emma hadn’t seen her mother for over a year; not since the night they pulled the plug. In her dreams, she still heard the bleeps of the heart monitor and the final prolonged reeeeeeeeep signalling that her brother was dead.

The doctors had said it was simply a matter of mechanics, and her father agreed. In time he’d even talked Emma’s mother around. Talked her around, Emma hitched a bitter smile. There hadn’t been much talking in those last weeks. It was all just shouting and silence, her mother adamant that Richie wasn’t dead, that they could still save him if they looked hard enough. Look where? Bob Rhodes demanded. The doctors had scanned and scanned again, there was no activity registering in Richie’s brain. He was just a body kept alive by wires and fed with a tube.

Stop it, Emma told herself, and focused again on the pavement.

Connolly Avenue was a wide suburban street shaded with rows of silver birch. Only a few weeks ago those wispy branches had been crowned with the golden glow of autumn; now they stood pale and stark, their papery bodies like the ghosts of winter. Emma remembered her mother – Rowan, she corrected herself – telling her that the birch was the tree of Venus and was supposed to protect against dark spirits and the evil eye. Behind each tree stood an identical two-storey townhouse put up when the street was redeveloped ten years ago. Only one Connolly Avenue residence stood out. The Sparrow House rose from the earth like a diseased root and threw a tall and twisted shadow over its neighbours.

Emma heard Mrs Glock, the doctor’s wife, calling to her. There was no music coming through her iPod but Margery Glock didn’t know that. She pressed the buds into her ears and moved on. Whenever she walked along Connolly Avenue she never looked up. The memories were there, on every stretch of tarmac, swinging around every lamppost, sitting in every bough. Everywhere she looked, Richie was waiting.

Skeeeeekurgh. Pffffssst.

The asthmatic gasp of the lorry’s airbrakes hooked her attention. Before she could stop herself, Emma’s gaze had flitted from the pavement. Parked outside the Sparrow House, the removal truck idled while two deliverymen jumped down from the cab and threw open the back doors. One of the men operated a loading platform while the other leaned against the back wheel and picked his teeth. When the platform was high enough, they leapt up and began to unload.

A dank pile of tottering bricks, the old mansion had stood empty ever since Hiram Sparrow had gone mad and killed all those people at the theme park. Like Funland, most of the kids in the Lake, and quite a few of the adults too, thought the house was haunted. Even in broad daylight people tended to cross the road rather than pass its picket fence. Emma’s gaze strayed to the house and, just as she’d feared, memories crowded in…

Days like that one were rare in the Lake. Shrouded by the three hills that overlooked the valley, even the brightest of summers tended to be full of shadows. On that glorious afternoon, however, the sun had lingered directly over the town, as if someone had reached out and pinned it to the blue. Emma, Richie, their cousin Henry and his sidekick Sas had decided to spend the morning at the lake. They found most of the town kids already there, playing tag along the shore, disappearing in and out of Black Acre Forest, or simply sunbathing on the bank. That was what Chantelle, Madeleine and Lola were doing when they arrived. Emma had known Chantelle McGarry since primary school, a friendship cemented when a lonely Emma had helped the kindly but somewhat empty-headed Chan with her maths homework. Madeleine Chow and Lola Flick were Chan’s friends, and although Emma remained sociable with them for Chan’s sake, she had never truly felt accepted by the other girls. Fascinated by fashion and spellbound by boys, Lola and Mads didn’t really know what to make of the tomboyish Emma Rhodes. A fact borne out moments later when Emma decided to climb the rickety diving board that yawned over the lake. They all told her she was crazy. Lola repeated an urban myth in which a kid had jumped off the board only to end up buried headfirst in the sludge of the lakebed. Emma had just laughed, scaled the slimy ladder, saluted the spectators, and somersaulted off.

That was the day Miles Taggart noticed her. A few weeks later he asked her out.

The day ran forward in her mind: Emma and Richie sitting on the lawn outside their house. By the time they reached home, the lake water had dried from her hair and the sun had finally managed to unstick itself from the sky. The hills were tucking their shadows into Connolly Avenue when Richie made his announcement –

“Girls shouldn’t be braver than boys.”

“Huh?” Emma waggled her head. There was still a bit of Milton Lake whooshing around in her ear.

“I’m the boy. People should be saying I’m the bravest, not you.”

“You’re four years old, little man. No four-year-olds are brave.”

“But I am.”

“Then prove it.”

“How’s I’m assupposed to do that?”

Emma grinned. “Easy. Go ring the doorbell of the Sparrow House.”

Richie’s mouth dropped open. He was too young to know what had happened at Funland, and her parents had forbidden Emma, on pain of eternal grounding, to tell the tale. Even so, Richie was wise enough to know that a bad, bad man had once lived in the big empty house across the street. He also knew that the Sparrow House was absolutely definitely haunted.

“I can’t go over there. I’m not assupposed to cross the road by myself.”

“No problem.” Emma jumped to her feet. “I’ll go with you.”

The neighbourhood kids must still have been up at the lake, for all the pavements and lawns were empty. There was no one to watch as Emma guided Richie across the street and to the gate of the Sparrow House. Looking back, she felt ashamed, frightening a little boy like that, yet she knew that if Richie was still alive today she wouldn’t have given that summer dare a second thought.

Hands on his shoulders, she squared him up to the gate. “Time to be brave.”

Even if Hiram had never lived inside its walls, the house would always have inspired ghost stories. Emma’s mother, a doctor of social history at the university, had taken a special interest in the stories and legends of Milton Lake, and had once told her daughter that the ramshackle ruin over the road had stood there for almost a hundred years. Back then there had been no other houses on Connolly Avenue and the Sparrow House had towered over the Lake, alone and aloof. Built by Hiram’s grandfather, it had been a grand place in its day with a face of handsome sandstone bricks, a porch lined with smart Doric columns, and a beautiful rose window gracing the third floor. 

Now the once bright brickwork had turned tobacco-brown and several of the columns had fallen, taking much of the porch roof with them. All the windows were boarded up and the rose eye in the brow of the house was patched with a circle of bloated wood.

Richie licked his lips. “’kay. Here goes.”

She had felt a twinge then: this was a cruel game, and if her parents caught wind of it she’d be in serious trouble. No more sleepovers with Chan, no more film nights with her dad. This weekend the Kinema by the Lake was showing a double bill of movies by the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Emma had been almost as excited about seeing Rashomon and Seven Samurai as her film-fanatic father, but this stupid dare could ruin everything. She should take her brother straight home.

“You really want to do this, Rich?”

“Yup.”

“I can’t talk you out of it?”

“Nope.”

“Then let me come with you.”

“No way!”

“But–”

“How’m I assupposed to prove I’m braver than you if you come with me?"

He had her there. “All right, but I’m staying by the gate. You get scared, you run right back and I won’t tell anyone, I swear. Deal?” She spat in her palm and they shook on it. “And watch where you step, I don’t want to have to explain to mum why there’s a rusty nail sticking through her baby boy’s big toe.”

“I’m not a baby!”

To prove it, he pushed open the gate and hurried up the overgrown path. While his little boy legs scampered, shadows descended from the hills. They chased Richie down the path, overtook him near the steps and stole under the porch. Suddenly the front door of the Sparrow House looked like a dark rectangular mouth waiting to swallow the little visitor.

“Careful!” Emma called.

Was she telling her brother to watch out for rusty nails and loose floorboards or was it the doorway that unnerved her? Emma had inherited her passion for movies from her father, but whereas Bob Rhodes stuck to art house films Emma’s tastes covered all genres. She particularly liked old thriller movies in which shadows and sound effects created atmosphere. Now, as she watched her four year old brother grow smaller and smaller against the monstrous bulk of the ruined house, a hundred movie scenes came back to her: whispers in the basement, crazed laughter echoing from locked rooms, wasted fingers reaching for the door handle…

“Richie, come back.”

But it was too late. The house had cast its spell over her brother. He had already climbed the porch steps and was picking his way towards the door. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, step on a nail, boy, you’ll wail. He ducked under a section of sagging roof, climbed over one of the fallen columns, slapped away a curtain of spider webs, and there he stood, an inch or two from the door, craning onto tiptoes to reach the bell. 

Richie, come back now!

Her lips were shaping the first word when the rat poked its head out from under the door. Even from the gate, Emma could make out a powerful body housed in sleek black fur. It squeaked out a warning, enough push Richie back onto his heels and send him scurrying across the porch. He bounded down the steps and was back at the gate before Emma had a chance to open it.

“Did you see?” he gasped. “The rat. It was huuuuge!”

“I saw.” She took his hand and led him to the roadside. “That was stupid. I never should’ve let you do it. Don’t tell mum and dad, will you?”

When he didn’t answer she looked down at her brother. He was gazing back at the Sparrow House, those big green eyes fixed on the shadows that played under the porch. On the big black door that waited like an inviting mouth…

Within fourteen months, Richie Rhodes would try to return. Perhaps to complete the dare and ring the bell, perhaps just because the house called to him. It took a long time for the little boy to summon his courage and take his chance. And in the end, it was all for nothing. Richie never made it to the porch and the big black door. He didn’t even make it as far as the gate.

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