The clocks struck eleven.
Jean had been pouring all her effort into hiding her fear from Kevin, but something about the urgency in his eyes told her he already knew something was wrong. She tried her best to relax and look at him properly; normally his smile was enough to melt away her worries, but tonight nothing could have made her feel safe.
With shaking fingers, Jean switched on her thermal camera and looped the strap around her neck; when she pulled her hair out of her hood it snagged on her finger and jerked her head painfully backwards. The red light just above Kevin’s camera lens was blinking, so she knew that she was already being filmed, but she wasn’t ready to begin yet.
The hallway twisted backwards like an endless vortex, dark and grey and desolate. The wind swirled softly through the corridor and chilled the back of Jean’s neck, rustling her hair so it blew over her shoulders and in front of her face. She was so jumpy that whenever a gust of breeze picked up she’d lurch, convincing herself that someone was whispering in her ear. Kevin was mouthing something at her from behind the camera, but she forced herself to ignore him; she felt like she’d throw up if she so much as opened her mouth.
Clamping her eyes and mouth shut, she silently willed herself to get on with the job, to be professional.
Ignore the fear.
Don’t let it take over.
Don’t fall apart in front of Kevin.
“Jean! Talk!” Urged the cameraman quietly, flapping his thumb and fingers together in a universal gesture which meant ‘open your fucking mouth!’
Counting her lucky stars that she was with the only cameraman who had the patience for her, Jean took a deep breath. She could feel her heart throbbing as her chest rose and fell under the thick, heavy fabric of her hoodie.
“I’m here in... in the hallway upstairs,” she said to the camera, and Kevin sighed in relief, appearing to relax at the sound of her voice. “I’ve got my thermal imaging camera and I’ll be sweeping the upper floor searching for any anomalies.”
Jean paused. Each word she said would temporarily lift away the murky mist of despair and confusion swamping her mind, but each second of silence pulled it back down to suffocate her more ferociously than before. Every step she took seemed to weaken her; every single item she was wearing or holding seemed to weigh her down. Trying to no avail to calm the nervous shaking in her shoulders, she swept the camera from side to side as she worked her way down the hallway as slowly as possible, trying to delay her inevitable arrival at the final doorway. She was beginning to regret choosing to wear her new platform heels; they were making her ankles ache with every step and she’d already fallen over twice since arriving that afternoon.
You’re such an idiot, Jean.
Tucking a stray strand of black hair behind her right ear, Jean managed to focus her attention back on the camera she held in her hand. On the screen, a large purplish-blue blob presented itself on the opposite wall; its colour told her that the foot-wide patch of stone was slightly colder than the rest. Jean sighed in relief, and her years of experience in faking paranormal intrigue finally kicked in.
“Oh my goodness!” She whispered in Kevin’s general direction, expertly controlling the tremor in her voice for his benefit. “Look at this huge cold spot on the wall!” Pointing to the thermal image, Jean moved closer to the wall. “This must be a sign of something paranormal. Look! Oh my gosh, there’s another one right here!”
Feeling the tension in her shoulders beginning to loosen, Jean took the opportunity to turn and double back, further away from the room she was frightened of. Looking at another identical cold spot on the wall opposite the stairs, she realised they was probably the result of holes in the outer wall, but her job wasn’t to explain things; it was to pretend to see ghosts. Jean was happy to oblige; she knew exactly what to do in that situation. However, she still didn’t know what she was meant to do if something unexplainable actually happened to her, let alone on-camera.
Jean remembered where she’d been six years ago, right after being offered her job. She’d known that she was being hired for her acting experience and not her superficial interest in technology (which she’d fabricated for her CV), but the inquisitive part of her had always wondered if even a shred of the action she’d seen on TV was real. In her very first briefing she’d jokingly asked what they were expected to do if they saw an actual ghost. That was how she’d first caught Andy’s eye, she reckoned, but the producer’s answer had simply been “Use it in the program, or ignore it and keep filming.” Jean had been too shy to ask if he was joking, but she doubted it.
“This is so strange,” Jean insisted stubbornly, desperately drawing out her dialogue. “This is the, um, the strangest cold spot I’ve ever, um...”
Kevin frowned behind his camera and silently pointed down the hallway, motioning for Jean to follow him. There was nothing she could do now. She was desperate to reassure him that everything was fine, so she followed.
Slowly and silently, Jean turned away from her last hope of distraction and managed to work her way past Kevin and towards the end of the corridor. As she drew closer to the room that she wanted to stay as far away from as possible, she stared desperately downwards at her thermal camera, searching for any more possible ways of getting sidetracked. She drew a blank.
They finally reached the door together and Jean forced herself to go inside, squeezing her eyes shut for as long as she had her back to the camera. When she opened her eyes again and realised that she was still alive, she became aware that Kevin was holding her arm, so she gently shrugged him off. Jean was used to him doing little things like that by now and had learnt to ignore it; hoping he’d eventually stop hadn’t helped, but perhaps that wasn’t what she wanted anyway.
Kevin was still recording her, so she took a deep breath and continued to talk.
“This is what remains of the master bedroom. Now, the ghost of Mrs Lansfield is often seen right here.” Jean’s breath caught in her throat and she shifted her weight onto her other foot, which was shaking just as badly. “So... let’s see if we can see anything interesting on-camera.”
A flicker of movement caught her eye. Jean looked down, at her camera screen, and she could swear she felt the exact moment when her heart stopped beating. Fear, despair, misery, confusion- all of the emotions she’d been feeling just a second beforehand- froze like icicles in mid-air and fell to smash on the floor, leaving an empty void in her mind. Despite her experience of the programme having become instinct over the years, her brain took at least ten seconds to process what she was seeing, and once it came up with an answer the truth was so petrifying that she wished she could be catapulted permanently back into blissful ignorance.
The consistent orange and yellow ripples on the camera screen had been suddenly interrupted by a violent slash of freezing blue. There was no way that the blue form could be a random water pipe or window; it stood out tautly on the screen in the unmistakeable shape of a person standing in the centre of the room. Minus the head.
A single tear fell down Jean’s cheek.
You knew this was going to happen.
Elegantly, the apparition stepped forwards, leaving blue droplets of residue on the screen which rapidly faded into nothing. Jean could feel Kevin’s breath glancing against her neck as he pointed his camera over her shoulder and she knew that, if she could only manage to manipulate the blank air in front of her mouth into audible words, this moment could be the best opportunity in her entire career. Instead of talking to Kevin’s camera, however, she felt her fingers slowly and stiffly going slack, letting her own camera fall to the floor. The crack of the screen striking the stone floor jarred her back into active consciousness, but when she turned to look at Kevin she saw that he was frozen in terror with one hand on her shoulder. For once, she didn’t want him to let go.
The cameraman was making no sound except from the ragged sound of his breathing. Only when Jean looked at him properly did she notice that his eyes weren’t fixed on her any more; he was staring at a spot beyond her shoulder. He raised his camera slowly without once breaking eye contact with the far wall, and when Jean turned around to follow his gaze she discovered why.
Standing in exactly the same place in the room as the apparition had been on the camera screen was a smudge of white smoke; as Jean watched, it became a hazy figure dressed all in white with an equally white complexion. The insipid lace of her skirt billowed and swirled loosely like fog diffusing into the air, but the hard line of the top of her neck cut through the darkness as harshly as the axe that had severed it. Jean didn’t see the blood drenching the front of the ghost’s dress; she barely even registered the absence of the head. All she needed to know was what she was looking at, and she knew. And she ran.
Jean didn’t even scream as she tore her eyes away from the ghost and sprinted towards the door. The sound of Kevin’s camera hitting the ground shot through the corridor as he turned to follow her, but she only managed to reach the top of the stairs before turning her ankle in her stupid shoes, tripping on a loose flagstone and plummeting downwards.
For fuck’s sake.
As she tumbled over and over on her way down, her head struck the banister twice, her twisted ankle was bent up underneath the weight of the rest of her body, and then her hair tangled in some of the yellow tape and jerked her to a halt. When she opened her eyes, the black curtain that swathed her vision became punctuated by explosive flashes of white light and the ground lurched as she tried to sit up. Through the dim fog of her consciousness Jean was vaguely aware of Kevin hurrying down the stairs towards her, calling her name in a panicked voice. She tried to reply to him, to reassure him that she was fine, but her throat wouldn’t cooperate and all she managed was a choked moan.
Kevin had almost reached her when a different pair of hands grabbed her arms and hauled her upwards; Jean tried to put weight on her throbbing foot but it buckled and she collapsed into a painful sitting position on the penultimate step. An involuntary sob of agony and fear escaped her lips and Andy crouched in front of her, holding her hand in both of his. In her terrified and perplexed state, Jean forgot that she hated Andy now and she clung desperately to his fingers as if they were the only thing anchoring her to the sensible world.
Jean looked down. Andy was still holding her hand, and she could see some kind of mark or handprint on the back of his wrist; it matched the one Dave had shown her earlier. He’d said Tony had one as well.
“You’re ok, you’re ok,” Andy said in a voice that was half soothing, half commanding. He made a move to hug her but she managed to push him away, still feeling completely stunned.
Her head was spinning faster than a fairground ride and her body felt as if it was filled with helium; maybe she’d have floated into the air if Andy hadn’t been holding onto her. Her ears were ricocheting with a sound that reminded her of rain on a tin roof, but she couldn’t see any rain through the old window to her left. The sound was so loud that she barely heard Andy when he spoke again.
“Ok, Jean,” he said. “What happened? Why were you running? Was it that bloody Kevin again? I’ll kill him if he did anything to hurt you!” Andy stood up and eyeballed Kevin, who ignored him completely, as usual. Jean noticed that Kevin was still looking at her, but the glazed look in his eyes made her wonder if he was really seeing her at all.
“Leave Kevin alone, you asshole! He’s never been anything but kind to me, which is more than can be said for you!” Jean looked up and tried to smile at Kevin, but his face was so pale with dread that she felt a wave of nausea just from looking at him.
“Then what? What happened?”
Jean braced her arms against the ground and locked her shoulders before responding. She thought she felt slightly better, but when her voice came out she sounded exactly the same as she felt: like she was six years old again.
“I saw... I saw...”
“What?” Andy’s expression clouded. Jean shook her head and bit her lip to stop herself from crying.
Andy’s confusion cleared. “Oh. I get it. You saw a ghost. Right? You saw the lady with no head, same as I did. Has anyone ever told you you’re an absolutely awful actor, Jean?”
Jean looked at him in shock. “I - ”
“I can’t believe how spiteful you are, Jean. You’ve just spontaneously decided to jump on the Let’s Get Andy bandwagon with those other two idiots. Well, I’m not falling for it, so it looks like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew this time! You could fall down a dozen flights of stairs and smash up your entire damn body in your effort to prank me, but I’m still not falling for your...” Andy’s voice began to rise in pitch. “Your stupid goddamn ghost pranks.” Andy made for the door that led to the garden, but then he turned back. “I’m not as gullible as Tony thinks. You may as well get up now; you’re not fooling anyone. Unless you really did fall and hurt yourself. In which case, you deserve it. “
Andy turned to face the door again but still didn’t make a move to go outside. Frozen with one hand on the handle, he decided to add a final insult. “Fuck you, Kevin. You can have her for all I care.”
Jean could have sworn she heard tears in his words.
I must be insane. He never loved me.
She looked to Kevin for help, but he wasn’t looking back at her now and he clearly wasn’t in a fit state to be of any use anyway. She bit her lip even harder, ignoring the taste of blood when it finally materialised, and tried to stand by herself, using the floor and then the banister for support.
Just as Andy reached for the handle of the back door, the three of them heard a sharp but very distant CRASH, followed by a sickening THUD. Then, the darkness was sliced in half by a hideous scream of terror; it was impossible to tell whose voice they were hearing but the sounds were coming from the kitchen.
Glancing back at his injured ex-girlfriend for less than a second, Andy changed course and barrelled towards the kitchen door, abandoning her completely for what she hoped would be the last time. Daggers of agony shot her in the neck whenever she tried to move her head, so she didn’t bother turning to see if Kevin was still with her.
Nobody’s going to save you. You can’t afford to be weak any more.
Just a few hours ago, Jean could have afforded to make mistakes. She could have afforded to depend completely on Andy to hold her up, both physically and mentally. Now, she was finally alone, and she knew that one little fuck-up could cost her life.
Well, that’s fine with me, because I’d rather die than give up.
Jean’s heart might have been broken, but her resolve had been hardened. That day, she’d learnt two horrible truths, and the fact that ghosts were real was the lesser of the two. She now knew that she couldn’t count on anybody.
She was sick of Andy treating her like shit, of Kevin feeling sorry for her, and of everyone scorning her behind her back. She’d been left to rot alone for the last time and she was sick of it.
Jean, whose ankle was almost definitely broken, had managed to stand up by herself before the clocks struck eleven-thirty.