Ghost Freaks

In Tony Belgrave's final year of university, two film students come to him for help with a satirical sketch about TV ghost-hunters. He's not very creative and can't act to save his life, but he does have an unhealthy obsession with ghosts and demons twenty years in the making,

Mocking crackpot conspiracy theorists, boobs-for-brains actresses and money-hungry producers is where it begins. But in a matter of years, Tony’s, Natalie's, and Jules’ caricatures consume them and a simple joke becomes a wildly popular YouTube series with ghost lovers clinging to its every lie.

The series eventually brings them to Lansfield Hall, a ruined mansion with a nasty habit of killing all those who step past its threshold. The rest of the crew brush away Tony’s concerns; after all, they know ghosts aren’t real. They’re there to act.

Only Tony knows they probably won’t need to.

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Author's note

TRIGGER WARNING:
Howdy, reader, and welcome to my least offensive novel! This is the one you should read if you're sensitive to horror tropes. Then again, of course, there's still content I need to flag up for you:
- Very, very mild transphobia and homophobia towards the protagonists (challenged by other characters)
- Cheating
- A side character with psychotic tendencies
- MIld sexual references
- Mild infrequent blood and gore
- Mild drug references
- Quite a bit of swearing
As always, my aim as an author is never to stress my readers out. If there's anything you feel I've missed off the list after reading, please let me know with a comment or PM. That being said, please enjoy the book!
Jem :)
AA

5. The Face at 14:04

IF JULES’ COMPARISON of Andy to a Greek statue was accurate, I think I want to start going to more museums. Even though he’s tall, he’s only just got the edge on Natalie, but his immaculate blonde quiff makes him nearly as tall as Kevin. His face is a mosaic of hard, chiselled jawline and cruel lips and piercing blue eyes and flawlessly tanned skin. His arms are huge and enough muscle tone shows through his tight blue t-shirt to betray the fact he’s as inhumanly jacked as a comic-book superhero. He seems to treat Natalie well, cradling her in the crook of his arm and looking at her whenever she speaks like he’s never heard anything so fascinating in all his life. He shakes Jules by the hand and congratulates her on her incredible work on the programme, his Essex-accented bass rattling the framed photos on the walls, and then he does the same to Kevin and me, smiling as wide as can be and telling us all it’s lovely to meet us.

And then, thankfully, at the end of the meet-and-greet, he finally gives me a valid reason to hate him.

“Guess I’m a part of the team now,” he says, smiling good-humouredly at me as he goes to follow Natalie out of the room. ”It’s Tony, right?”

“Yeah.” I falter, wondering why he’s pretending not to know my name. “Natalie told me you watched the series.”

“’Course I do; she likes me supporting her. It’s just I wasn’t sure if you went by something else. Y’know, in real life.”

I raise an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Uh… well, I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, uh, Tony, but Natalie did tell me you weren’t actually a man. But… don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great you’re doing your own thing.”

I look at him, my eyebrow still raised.

“Andy!” Natalie says angrily from the doorway. “I never said that to you.”

“It’s fine,” I tell her. “He didn’t mean anything.”

“Nah, course I didn’t.” Andy walks past me. “We’re cool, right?”

I don’t reply.

“I mean, living with girls can’t be much good to someone like you. If you ever need any tips on passing better, I’m your man.”

I laugh dryly, then leave the room to meet the others in the kitchen. Thank God, I think to myself as I go. Natalie’ll be furious with him.

I… I think.

“How’s the grope video doing?” Andy asks Jules as he comes into the kitchen and wraps Natalie into a massive bear-hug that makes her yelp and giggle.

“Sitting pretty at fifty thousand,” Jules says with a smirk. Concern flashes across her face as she glances at me, but I shake my head and she continues. “Eight thousand new subscribers already, and rising faster than the devil.”

“Woah, it’s only been up four days, hasn’t it?”

“Three,” Jules says proudly. “Took longer to edit than I thought.

“That’s amazing. Really, really amazing. You’re great, for a female producer. Really, really amazing.”

“She’s amazing for a producer, full stop,” I say.

Jules rolls her eyes. “If this flattery continues, you’re all getting fired.”

The rest of the meeting passes relatively quickly; Andy and Jules discuss payment, Natalie and Jules discuss Andy, Andy and Natalie discuss groping, and Jules, Kevin and I discuss the programme. The conversation I had with Andy hasn’t faded at all, but I’ve already decided not to bother mentioning it to Jules. Nothing changes her mind when she’s on a streak, and I don’t want to upset Natalie by making a fuss. Besides, he probably didn’t mean anything. I hear all that often enough, don’t I?

He’s going to ruin everything, something in my mind says as I watch Jules’ gaze wander back over our new addition. Jules smiles cartoonishly wide, the hearts in her eyes long since replaced by enormous dollar signs as she murmurs, “This is gonna create so much drama.”

She may have quit her job, but surviving on her programme isn’t enough for her. She’s up till four every morning editing and writing and emailing sponsors, barely ever remembering to do her homework before it’s due; even now, she’s scrounging coursework questions from Kevin, who probably did it the night it was set. I know she doesn’t care about university anymore, even though a university project is what brought her here in the first place. Now, all she wants is to keep making Ghost freaks bigger and bigger and bigger till it eats her. I watch as Natalie giggles and simpers at Andy, tossing her long black hair and fiddling it between her fingers as she pretends to think hard about something a twenty-three-year old woman ought to know instinctively. He hugs her against him, running his fingers lazily down the new tattoo on her nearly-exposed chest, and as he does, she blinks sleepily, smiling wider than the Cheshire Cat with her silver-studded lips.

Nah, he’s not going to ruin anything that hasn’t already been ruined.

“So, Jules,” Andy says at the end of the day as he gets up to leave, Natalie still wedged under his arm. “Where’re we going for my first episode?”

She smiles at him. “Oh, anyone’s guess. Well, no. More accurately, it’s Tony’s guess. He’s in charge of picking the locations. He loves all that stuff, you know.”

“Oh, really?” Andy flashes me his perfect smile. “What kind? As in, he believes in them?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jules says; I try to set my jaw in defiance as my head goes shut up shut up shut up.

“For real?”

“Yeah, for real. But don’t give him a hard time over it.” Jules thumps me on the back. “He’s the backbone of the whole show. The only real Ghost Freak, amirite? Tony?”

“Yeah?”

“You were gonna take us to that treehouse in Norwich, right?”

“Oh, uh.” I muss my hair as I remember yesterday’s phone conversation regarding filming at the treehouse. “No, I’m looking for somewhere else now. It’s privately owned, as it turns out- by the guy who owns the fields. He doesn’t want anyone on his land.”

“But it’s right near a train track!”

“Yeah. He said he doesn’t care how much we’re willing to pay him; we’re not coming anywhere near his land.”

“Sounds like a prick whose land I sorta want to invade,” Andy says with a laugh. Natalie laughs too.

“Yeah, same,” Jules says. “Don’t worry, Tony. I’ll sort it with him.”

“He won’t pick up the phone.”

“Well, then, I guess we’ll have to go incognito, won’t we?”

“What?” I stare at her. “Jules, it’s privately owned! We’d be trespassing.”

Jules shrugs. “So what? You can’t call yourself an adventurer if you stick within the law.”

“We might get arrested,” I say. Then, I stare around me and realise within an instant of seeing the other four faces that I’m the only one who cares. Well, Kevin’s wincing a little, but I’m the only one who cares who’s ever going to speak up.

“Okay, whatever.” I shrug.

Jules thumps me on the back again. “Great! You’re a star. Thanks for finding that one; it’s gonna be really popular. Gotta get a good place for our first thirty-minute episode, right?”

That’s when I remember another idea Jules mentioned in passing. Our YouTube videos usually vary in length from ten to fifteen minutes, the shortest eight, the longest (the King’s Head) seventeen. Jules now wants us to compete with the cable TV programmes she used to mock. It won’t involve much extra work, she said. Just a bit more filler content.

Throughout all this, only one thing seems to have remained consistent: Me. I’m the only one who ever cares.

And I’m ashamed of it.

 

 

In the end, nobody spots, reports or arrests us throughout the whole treehouse episode, though my body still tenses up every time a train click-clacks past in the dark. After Jules edits and uploads it, only three things about the episode seem at all remarkable: Firstly, its thirty-one minute runtime, which just means Jules left more of the conversations and long walks in place than usual. Secondly, the fact that Andy cannot act to save his life, unless one counts acting hot, which Jules told him to do before we began filming and which he did an annoyingly fantastic job of, flipping his hair, leaning on things with his conspicuously enormous arms, and touching Natalie whenever he had an excuse. Thirdly, the fact nobody gives a damn that Andy cannot act to save his life. Not Jules, not Kevin, not Natalie, not the viewers, who’ve sloughed Natalony like mud off their shoes, and certainly not me.

I know I was never a good actor, but I always figured I was part of the programme because I had intellect and passion. Now Andy’s proven neither of those things matter. I never wanted all these viewers and commenters and subscribers in the first place, so why the hell do I feel so betrayed? So fucking… emasculated?

“Oh, my God, the episode’s doing numbers,” Jules says, leaning back in her armchair till her freckled face disappears from the pool of firelight. “I’m an idiot, actually. How am I meant to analyse it right when I don’t know which one of two things is making it so popular?”

“What are the two things?” Natalie says, smirking at Andy, who’s lying in her lap as she plays with his hair.

“The long runtime, Natalie, and your boyfriend’s insufferable hotness.”

A few minutes pass, and I look up from my phone to see Jules’ finger frantically jumping up and down on the mousepad. She’s scrolling through comments, as she usually does when she’s evaluating a new video’s success, but I pause when I notice she’s scrolling much faster than usual. And the look on her face, now draped in harsher and harsher stripes of black and yellow as she leans further and further forwards, is maniacally confused.

“What’s wrong, Jules?” I ask.

“Nothing.”

Natalie glances up at her and giggles. “Oh. Jesus. Jules, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jules repeats, her teeth gritted. “Just people saying their usual shite, that’s all.”

I get up and walk over. Jules waves me away. “Don’t worry about it, Tony.”

“What’re they talking about?” I say, looking over her shoulder.

“They’re just saying something about… a face in a window,” Jules says. “It’s just the same as always. Go sit down.” As she says it, she’s scrolling through half-dozen upon half-dozen comments about the same face in the same window at the same time.

 

14:04 PLEASE TELL ME THAT’S A REFLECTION

 

Omg Im seeing a face in the window at 14:04???! Reflection? Or am I going mad lol

 

14:04 LOOK IN THE WINDOW BEHIND TONY’S SHOULDER

 

LOOK IN THE WINDOW AT 14:04

 

Guys, if you look into the window at 0:33 you can see the reflection of my knickers flying into the stratosphere, but if you look at 14:04 you can see the f*cking Devil staring in at you.

 

“Scroll up,” I say to Jules as Kevin gets up and Natalie pries Andy off her lap. “Scroll up to the video.”

“No, click on one of the time stamps highlighted in blue,” Kevin cuts in.

“I know,” Jules says, clicking on one of the blue links. As she does, and the page reloads, I catch a glimpse of her face in the corner of my eye. My heart’s pounding again, but Jules doesn’t look confused, or happy, or scared. For some reason, she looks furious.

The video finishes reloading, and my eyes settle straight onto the blackness of the window behind me. In the blink of an eye, a train whips past, a single-carriage by the looks of things, and lights up something behind the glass of the window. When the train departs, so does it.

Jules rewinds. The train passes. And there it is again.

“There there there!” Natalie squeals, pointing at the screen just as the face vanishes. She shakes Jules’ shoulder. “Go back again!”

“I saw it,” Jules says, stubborn as a spurned child.

“What was that?”

“Oh my God,” Kevin murmurs as Jules rewinds again and freezes on the image of the face. I feel almost pleasantly sick when I see it. It’s greyish beige, all empty black eyes and scooped-out cheekbones and sullen, gaping mouth. Somehow, even through the computer screen, I can feel it staring at me.

“Oh my God,” Jules echoes Kevin. Then, she jerks into motion and yanks her phone out of her pocket, her fingers flying over the screen. “Oh, my fucking God. I’m going to kill him.”

“Who?” I say. The four of us stare at her in bewilderment. “Who’re you going to-”

“Jules-” Natalie begins.

DAVE, I’M GOING TO MURDER YOU!” Jules bellows into her phone so loudly I topple back in shock and sit down on the ground. I knew she had a temper, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. “WHAT D’YOU MEAN, YOU DON’T KNOW, YOU DUMB FRUITCAKE?”

Natalie, Kevin, Andy and I exchange bewildered glances.

“What? What? How many views? Fuck off! You edited it in, didn’t you?” There’s a long silence, and I hear a voice crackling in response, but can’t make out the words. “The FACE, you pissworm!”

“Jules!” Natalie says, walking over and holding Jules by the shoulders. “Calm down.”

“I don’t care if it gets us the fucking Platinum; the harder the metal, the more it’ll hurt when I drive it into your nutsack! You what? No, he’s not. Fuck off. Fuck off!”

“Jules, who the hell’re you talking to?”

“Who’s Dave?” I add, getting to my feet. As I do, Kevin picks up Jules’ laptop and starts fiddling with the screen mode, squinting at the frozen image of the face.

“Jules!” Natalie repeats softly as Jules listens to the voice babbling on the other end of the phone, her face deepening from crimson to purple. “Who is that? Who edited the face in?”

Edited? My heart sinks into my stomach. Of course.

Eventually, Jules sighs, takes the still- muttering phone away from her ear, and presses the loudspeaker button. A male voice with Jules’ Geordie accent crackles into the room, abruptly stopping when he realises he’s on loudspeaker.

“Dave,” Jules says firmly. “Did you edit that face into the window? Yes or no?”

“Yeah, but, Jules, the comments you got on that thing-”

“Shut up. Or I’ll get on a train to Newcastle and punch you shut.” Jules takes a deep breath, Natalie holding her shoulders.

“Calm down,” Natalie says, looking at me in bewilderment.

“Who’s Dave?” I ask her, my mind jumping back to that face in the window. I was delighted at the thought it was real, but now I think about it… I’m shocked it’s not. The way it appeared, the way it disappeared, the way it melted so seamlessly into the smears on the window, the way it seemed to move as it flickered out of clarity, the mouth leering, the eyes staring at me… I can’t believe someone did that with computer effects. And if they did, I want to know who he is. Although from the handful of family stories Jules has told us, I’m already pretty sure I know.

“My brother,” Jules says with a heavy sigh, rubbing her face and shrugging Natalie off. “My piss-annoying excuse for a twin brother. He thinks he’s some sort of VFX wizard, but all he makes is memes.”

“Wait, who’s that with you?” the voice on the other end says. I grin, then smother it.

Jules ignores his question. “I gave him some of the footage to edit out some lens flares,” she explains. “It was a nightmare with those trains goin’ past. He’s been begging to join the show for a long time. I should’ve known he’d try something. I should’ve just done it myself.”

“Is that Tony with you?” Dave asks, his voice rising in excitement. “Does-”

Jules hangs up the phone. She stares at it for a couple of seconds, then growls again and flings it across the room. It hits the sofa next to Andy, who jumps out of the way.

“Woah, woah, woah.” Natalie grabs her again. “it’s okay. It’s okay.”

“I knew he was gonna screw me over, the little prick!”

“Calm down. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“I told him to stay outta my way; he’s always thought he was better than me. Prick’s been copying me since pre-school. Always wanted to do whatever his sister was doing. So of course, when I said I wanted to be a filmmaker, he was all “Me too!” He even stole my favourite colour, for God’s sake; you know how my favourite colour’s yellow?”

“Uh, no,” Natalie says, shooting me an amused grimace. This Dave must be a hell of a guy to reduce our calculating boss to a jealous child with a single phone call.

“It’s not.” Jules goes to get her phone, then sits down hard on the sofa next to Andy. “My favourite colour’s not fucking yellow. It’s fucking orange, but he said it was his, so I switched. I switched! And now he’s come for my fucking career too.”

“He hasn’t ruined everything!” I say, bewildered. “Look how many comments we’re getting! And views! This has already overtaken the King’s Head and it’s not even been up a night!”

“Yeah,” Kevin says, scrolling on the computer. “At this rate we’ll be picked up by a half-dozen top ten channels. Dave’s right…” Jules glowers at the mention of the name, Natalie patting her feebly on the arm. “We’ll get the silver play button this year for sure. I mean, how did he even do this?” Kevin plays the video again, scouring it. “There’s pixilation, sure, but it’s near seamless… this is an incredible job.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Jules, we could use him,” Natalie says.

Kevin, Andy and I all look at her.

“C’mon, there’s not a shred of shame in hiring your brother. It’s all in your head,” Natalie continues, her voice soothing. “You’ll still be his boss. In fact, once he’s working for you, you’ll have him under your control far more than you do now. He could do a lot for us, and you said he’s desperate to join, right? Jules, you remember the bullet points?”

Jules makes an argh sound at the back of her throat and rubs her face, pulling her eyelids down till only the whites of her eyes are visible. “Yeah, I remember the bullet points, Natalie.”

“Let them notice things for themselves,” I add, wondering why I want Jules to hire her brother so badly. He’s skilled, sure, but I’m starting to worry about how big the group’s getting. One Andy is bad enough. Two- and it sounds like Dave could well be a second, with his ballsy arrogance and the strange power he has over his sister- would be unbearable. “Jules, we need him.”

“The second we start using CGI is the second we make ourselves traceable,” Jules says weakly.

“Nobody else has ever gotten caught.”

“I think we should have a vote,” Natalie says.

“Yeah,” Kevin adds.

“I fucking concede,” Jules mumbles into her fingers. Then, she looks up. “Actually, no; screw that! I’m in charge. He’s not coming anywhere near my programme and stinking it up. We’re not voting.”

“We’re voting,” Natalie says calmly. I’m a yes.”

“Me too,” I say.

“Thirded,” Kevin adds.

We all look at Andy.

“What?” Andy says. “My vote? Well, honestly, I think the crew’s big enough, and I don’t get the obsession with all this computer-effect crap, so I’m saying no. He sounds like a right piece of work. And a bit of a weirdo to boot.”

“Oh, God, I could hug you!” Jules says, taking hold of Andy’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

“Jules?” Natalie says. “What’s your vote?”

She sighs. “I told you. I concede.”

“There’s no conceding.”

Jules stares at her like she’s stupid, but we can all see she’s given up. The result of the vote carries. “Then it’s a solid, thirteen-out-of-ten, enthusiastic hell no with bells and whistles and rainbow confetti.”

But it doesn’t matter.

Our five is now a six.

Natalie holds Jules’ phone to her. “You wanna call him yourself?”

Jules bats it away. “I’d rather eat a shite sandwich.”

“Suit yourself.” Natalie shrugs and dials Dave back. “I’ll tell him.”

“Give it to Tony,” Jules says as the phone starts ringing.

“Why?”

Jules grins. “Just cos.”

Confused, I take the phone.

Dave answers quickly. “Please don’t tell me you’re on a train,” he whines. “What’s that? Is that a train in the background? Jules, go home! I’ll do whatever you want!”

“Dave?” I say. “This is Tony. From, uh… from the programme.”

There’s a long silence.

Jules groans, burying her head in her hands.

“Tonyy!” Dave’s voice suddenly crackles out of the phone again, twice as loud as before. “How you doing, man? It’s awesome to h- meet you! Is my sister with you? Or is she on a train? On her way to punch my balls off? Are you just calling to give me a head start?”

“I’m going to punch your balls off when you get here, you tiny prick!” Jules yells. Natalie giggles.

 “Uh, no,” I say. “In fact, she wants me to tell you something.”

“Ooh,” Dave says, his voice going up and down like he’s wiggling his eyebrows. “Something she doesn’t want to tell me herself, I assume?”

“Oh, for sure.”

Dave laughs at the other end, and I smile a little.

“Dave?” I say after a pause. “I don’t know you, or why the hell Jules wanted me to tell you this instead of Natalie or Andy, but… welcome to the team.”

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