The clocks struck eleven.
Tony had been staring at his watch for twenty minutes, but only after hearing the grandfather clock on the landing did his mind finally register what time it was. As each of the eleven chimes rang through the empty hallway, Tony was reminded of Jean, trapped upstairs by her own loyalty to her job, petrified of the old bedroom because of him. Despite the fact that Dave had been the chief prankster, Tony found himself feeling equally guilty; perhaps it was because he’d wasted the chance to tell her the truth. They were the only ones who knew that, really, there was no ghost upstairs.
If we all live through this, Tony thought, Dave ought to tell her the truth. If he doesn’t, I will.
Tony cursed his own mind for wording the thought in that way; even when the words were spoken silently inside his head they still cut as deeply as they would if they’d been yelled.
Of course we’re all going to live. Tony’s attempts to reassure himself were proving fruitless. Even if ghosts are real, how could one possibly kill you? They’re intangible...
Refusing to follow the sensible path he’d attempted to prescribe, Tony’s thoughts went wandering and ended up arriving back at the suicide of the paranormal scientist.
For God’s sake, it’s like I’m thinking round in circles.
It was at around this moment that Tony remembered he was being recorded; it never failed to amaze him how often he became so absorbed in his own thoughts that he forgot he had a TV programme to make. Luckily, he was with Gerry tonight; Gerry was the cameraman most frequently tasked with him and as usual, he knew exactly how to deal with the situation. Giving a sharp, but not rude, whistle to jolt Tony more or less back into reality, Gerry snapped his fingers and silently pointed down at the camera. This was the pair’s agreed sign language for ‘open your fucking mouth!’
Like a freshly wound-up clockwork toy, Tony immediately launched himself into his pre-planned dialogue, realising as he did so that he wanted to be done with it as quickly as possible. He couldn’t quite be sure why.
“I’m here in the ruins of the kitchen, which is famous for being the final resting place of Mary-Ann Lansfield, and for having been the victim of two mysterious fires. Visitors to this part of the house often report... often report...”
What visitors to this part of the house often reported would remain a mystery to everybody except Tony, who was forced to stop talking as a tidal wave of nausea hit him with enough force to knock him backwards.
A bead of sweat began to trail down his forehead, and suddenly he was wracked with the sensations of being cooked in a giant oven; a cocoon of sweltering, stifling heat swiftly enveloped his entire body and clung solidly to his skin. His nose and mouth became filled with a smoky stench so strongly sharp that it stung like acid. The heat seemed to cut off the influences of all his other senses; he couldn’t feel the cold air around him, his ears seemed to have been rendered completely numb and his vision began to shift sporadically between shades of morbid black and piercing white.
Wiping a film of moisture from his face, Tony put a hand to his head and closed his eyes in an attempt to drive away the dizziness. He tried fanning himself with his hand, then the front of his shirt, and then he shrugged his jacket off and went to the window, breathing deeply to stop himself from fainting. The cold June evening air did absolutely nothing to neutralise the overpoweringly acrid smell of smoke that felt as though it would suffocate him, nor did it manage to break through the thick blanket of boiling heat encasing him. Tony lowered himself slowly to the ground, taking shallow breaths that seemed to dissolve in his throat and choke him. He could feel his consciousness beginning to slip further towards the back of his mind, and he knew he had a few seconds left before it abandoned him completely. The strength was beginning to leak from his muscles; his knees buckled completely and he collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, struggling to support himself on arms that had long since gone numb.
Well, he couldn’t help thinking. Looks like ghosts can hurt you after all. I stand corrected.
Finally, just as Tony felt sure he was going to faint from heatstroke and suffocation simultaneously, both sensations dissipated like fog in the wind and he felt the cool breath of the night air on his skin again. He half-leaned, half-fell against the wall, rendered weak with relief as his breathing returned to normal.
Tony gathered his composure and stood up, already feeling his cheeks starting to burn from embarrassment whilst his head reeled with confusion.
The experience he’d just had, whatever had caused it, had been extremely fleeting; he was already beginning to doubt it had even happened at all. Gerry was standing slightly closer to the window than before, as if he’d been about to come and help, but as he stared in shock he silently pointed down to the camera, indicating that he was still filming.
Tony gasped for air. “I... I just felt what so many other people have reported feeling in this very spot,” he said. “Suddenly I felt like I was encased in intense heat, and... I smelled smoke, so strongly I could barely breathe. It was just like the room around me was... was on fire.”
He wasn’t looking at Gerry’s camera as he spoke. He was staring past it, directly at the cameraman.
A single tear of exertion (or was it fear?) fell down Tony’s left cheek.
“Now I know how that poor girl felt in 1819.”
As was an extremely rare occurrence on the job, Tony wasn’t acting. He’d really felt the fear, the panic, and the desperation that must have come seconds before Mary-Ann’s death in that room.
“I’m so sorry,” he muttered, too quietly for anyone else to hear. That was just as well, because he wasn’t even sure who he was talking to.
Tony started in surprise as something hard and blunt hit the back of his head. Frowning, he bent to pick up the tiny piece of gravel from where it had come to rest next to his foot and raised it to his face, squinting in confusion.
“Cut! Dammit, Dave, not yet!” Said Gerry.
Tony had almost forgotten that Dave was there. For a moment, he’d forgotten Gerry and the camera, too, but there they were right in front of him, having captured the entire episode. Dave was in the corner, standing awkwardly with a handful of stones he’d scooped up from the driveway. With no furniture in the kitchen to tip over, they’d only seen one option for poltergeist activity, and that had been throwing stones.
Tony allowed his mind to focus properly on Dave; the expression of concern on his friend’s face could have easily been mistaken for amusement, but Tony was beginning to realise that Dave was simply incapable of complete sincerity, so it was easy to ignore.
“Are you okay?” Dave persisted. His eyes were slightly wider than normal.
Tony attempted to smile, but was fairly sure that he’d only succeeded in looking ill. “Yeah, I’m good. I think.”
When Dave smiled, he never faltered. “Okay.”
“Dave, I told you what we were doing!” Gerry interrupted. “You almost ruined that footage!”
“Sorry,” said Dave. I was just worried I wasn’t being of any use, what with Tony’s awesome, um, acting and stuff.”
“Tony’s paid to act. You’re paid to do as you’re told,” said Gerry, but he didn’t sound angry. He turned his attention to Tony. “Dave’s right; that was pretty good, but that part was meant to come at the end. It was the mysterious-distant-noises part first.”
Tony said nothing.
“Oh,” said Dave. “My bad. Anyway, we forgot the voice modulator. I’ll just go get it from upstairs.” He opened the door.
Since the door was already open, the producer had nothing to dramatically fling against the wall as he entered, but somehow his sudden and unprecedented arrival still managed to make everyone jump. Dave had to literally jump out of the way to avoid being flattened. If the cameras had been rolling at the time, whatever they’d been filming would have been ruined.
“How’s everything going in here? Hope you’re sticking to the plan I gave you, Gerry.” The producer barged past Tony and Dave to look at the camera. “You know you’re on thin fucking ice after that interview you filmed.” He looked pointedly from Gerry to Tony, and Tony felt his stomach twisting with a combination of embarrassment and anger.
“Well...” Gerry struggled, and Tony felt dreadful for him. “Not exactly- I mean, that is- we haven’t quite done these parts yet.” Gerry pointed at a page in his notebook. “Look at what we just got, though. It’s pretty incredible.” He fiddled with the buttons on his camera, and Tony edged sideways to watch the footage along with the producer.
He was shocked by just how dramatic it looked. If he’d been told to act out feeling hot and smelling smoke, he definitely wouldn’t have acted in that way; what Tony was seeing on the tape was just the kind of unflattering, non-photogenic acting that he found extremely realistic. He actually felt embarrassed by how ugly he looked when he was frightened.
After only about ten seconds of Tony’s ‘awesome acting’, the producer switched the camera off.
“Nah, that’s crap,” he said. “I know you’re not great at acting, Tony, but surely you can do better than that. Nobody’s going to believe you’re really feeling anything if you don’t act properly. Anyway, you’re not doing what I told—“
Something hit the wall next to the producer’s head. Another stone had been thrown from Dave’s side of the room, but this one was larger; it was about the size of a snooker ball and the shape of a pyramid with angular edges. Tony turned around and gave Dave a look which asked, ‘are you crazy?’
Dave’s eyes were wider than ever as he held up his empty hands to prove he wasn’t holding anything.
“David, did you just throw something at me?” Said the producer, spinning on his heel with astonishing speed and agility for a man of his size.
Dave was still holding his hands up by his head, but he used his left index finger to point down to the ground without averting his eyes from Tony. Everyone else’s eyes slowly followed his finger, to the pile of stones scattered haphazardly at his feet. It was probably supposed to be obvious that he’d just thrown the first one and then dropped them quickly, but Tony knew, by the way his friend was looking at him, that that was not what had happened.
Then, a second stone, no bigger in size than a grape, lifted vertically off the ground by itself. It hung in the air for a moment a few inches from Dave’s knee, and then suddenly shot forwards to strike a leg of the camera’s tripod.
Tony’s eyes widened in shock and he returned Dave’s astonished look as the whole room held its breath.
There was a brief silence before another, slightly larger, stone followed the same trajectory. Then another. Before long, they were smattering against the walls with the rhythm of a light rainfall, slowly picking up pace as more and more bits of gravel and rubble became airborne.
“What the fuck?” Said the producer, glancing around and upwards as if he was going to discover invisible wires attached to the ceiling. There were no wires. There was barely any ceiling left either.
The rainfall became a torrent.
The torrent became a downpour.
Gerry hurriedly turned his attention back to his camera, fiddling with it determinedly in an attempt to start recording again. Suddenly, he jumped backwards in shock and, as if smacked hard by an unseen force, the entire camera tipped sideways onto two of its legs before plummeting to the ground. It hit the floor with a startling and defined CRASH and then, as if dragged by an invisible line, it slid swiftly across the floor, picking up speed until it abruptly struck the wall next to the producer’s foot.
Simultaneously, the rest of the pebbles lifted from the floor and began sporadically shooting across the room, in various directions. Hurriedly, Dave took a step backwards and hurried sideways to stand next to Tony at the window, neither of them ever taking their eyes away from the far wall. The furious sound of a hail of pebbles dashing against the walls seemed to drill deeper and deeper into Tony’s mind with every passing second, stirring up a whirlwind of fear and bewilderment that made him feel dizzier than ever. He gripped the windowsill for support.
“What the fuck is going on?” Asked the producer in a demanding but shaky manner, looking in all directions for an answer before his eyes fell on Tony.
Tony no longer felt alone in the sudden silence. The producer was staring at him and so was Gerry, but it was Dave whose eyes he decided to focus on. He paused before answering, even though he knew exactly what he was going to say. Maybe the pause was just for dramatic effect.
“Mary-Ann,” he said quietly. Dave nodded back at him and finally, finally, he looked genuinely serious. Gerry nodded too, but it was with resignation rather than satisfaction.
“She just wants us to notice her,” Dave added, still staring back at Tony. The sudden mood change that had taken place in Dave was so jolting that it almost made Tony want to laugh, but somehow it was purely terrifying at the same time. Involuntarily, he reached his arm further into the gap between them and Dave put his hand on Tony’s wrist; his grip was so tight it was almost desperate, but Tony was just glad that somebody was holding him upright.
This time, only the producer was staring at Tony like he was crazy; his face remained unchanged from the jovial expression of contempt that Tony was so used to.
“Bollocks. Someone’s playing a joke on us. Our eyes are playing tricks. A little ghost girl couldn’t-“
The producer cut himself short as the final stone, a jagged apple-sized chunk of granite, was lifted and violently catapulted into his stomach. Tony began to protest on his behalf, but then he stopped himself.
Abruptly, the overwhelming sound of stones striking the walls stopped. They hung in the air for less than a second, but to Tony the tension made it seem like an hour. Then, every single stone shot simultaneously towards the middle of the floor and began to spin in a whirlwind.
Slowly. Quickly. Rapidly. Furiously. The whirlwind rose into a tornado, gathering momentum in complete silence before starting to encircle the producer.
Oh, no, Tony thought. He’s fucked.
“He’s fucked,” whispered Dave in horrified fascination beside him, tightening his grip even more.
“She’s targeting you,” Tony began, “Because you won’t acknowledge her or whatever. You’ve got to stop—“
“Oh, you STUPID goddamn IDIOT, Tony!” The producer bellowed. “Ghosts aren’t REAL! You’re just a fucking lunatic! When are you going to realise, Tony White, that you’re fucking DELUSIONAL?”
Dave loosened his grip on Tony’s wrist and opened his mouth, but Tony shot him a warning look. He’d never been in this particular situation before, but he was pretty sure that drawing attention to yourself was a bad idea. There was only one person in the room who didn’t seem to have learnt that lesson.
The producer burst out laughing, and Tony wasn’t sure whether he was mocking his and Dave’s belief in ghosts or actually mocking the ghosts. He’d always known that his boss was opinionated and boisterous, but it was still frightening to watch how he reacted when he felt threatened. Tony exchanged disturbed glances with Dave as the producer began to work his way back towards the door, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was no explanation for what was happening.
He’s bloody insane, thought Tony.
“You’re bloody INSANE!” Yelled Dave from across the room.
“No, you’re bloody insane!” Returned the producer. “You idiots who believe in ghosts, when there’s no such—“
“STOP IT!” Tony and Dave said at once. Tony could hear the frustration in Dave’s voice, but there was fear there as well. A lot of it.
Out of the corner of his eye, through the angrily rotating vortex of pebbles, Tony spotted a large blob of neon green and yellow moving slowly upwards from the ground behind Dave. Dave turned around, following Tony’s gaze, and saw it too, just as whatever- it- was—no, the mug— changed direction and shot straight towards the far wall.
Dave yelped in shock and covered his head with his free hand, but Tony grabbed his shoulder with his free hand and forced him to duck. Gerry was still standing on the far side of the room, completely out of the way, but someone else wasn’t nearly as lucky.
The producer barely had time to move a muscle in self-defence before his ‘I’M THE EFFING BOSS’ mug shattered right between his eyes in an explosive bloom of neon porcelain and dark blood. The force of the impact was so unbelievably huge that it splattered thin ribbons of scarlet all the way up the wall to the ceiling.
Tony clamped both hands to his mouth and fell to his knees again as the strength abandoned him; he reached the ground before the unconscious producer, who seemed to be falling in slow motion. Dave screamed aloud in horror; his grip on Tony’s arm momentarily tightened but then he let go completely.
Dave continued to scream and Gerry cried out in disbelief, but Tony’s ears had numbed again and he didn’t hear them. He barely heard anything; not the SMASH of a pound of cruel irony imploding a man’s skull, nor the heavy THUD of a body hitting the floor. He didn’t hear the clattering of dozens of airborne objects raining to the ground, rendering the night completely still again.
“Is he... dead?” Gerry whispered in desperate terror. Nobody heard him.
In the lull of the cold night air, Tony couldn’t even hear his own heartbeat.
All he heard was the clock, in the distant hallway, striking eleven-thirty.