Daniel sat at the desk in his house. It had been over five years. Four and a half since he had left the hospital, and now they ask him this?
He had been found gibbering the in gardens, ranting about long-dead black magic preachers, skeletons in the basement and walking dead housekeepers. He had told everyone who would listen that he had killed himself, blown his brains all over the porch and watched himself die. He had felt the bullet that slammed into the side of his head. He had experienced his skull being opened like the tapping of a beer barrel. And, finally, he had seen the mess his brains had left on the porch of the house.
It was true that he had a large cut across his forehead and that his skull had been chipped open, but brains across the porch? Impossible. Yet he knew it to be true. He knew what had happened. Spend enough time in a hospital with people telling you that what you know happened is actually impossible, and you will eventually just decide to agree with them. It just makes life easier. You do, after all, want to get out in the end. So you lie, and the lie becomes the truth. It is the lie that you tell everyone, and the memory of the truth would usually drift into darkness. Swallowed by the lie that became truth. Only this one never did; this truth still haunted him.
Lisa and her brother Martin had been the only ones who’d believed him. In his moments of doubt, he had wondered at their sincerity, but he knew better than that; he knew them better. They were, after all his employers, he had taken the case file from them. The visits had started in unison and then trickled off so that only Lisa had come. She was his shining light in the worse of times, his guardian angel. She had sat there when he was rambling, she had sat through the ranting, and she had sat through the silence. Finally, when he had been considered well enough, Lisa had been the one to take him home. Pulling up in her ruby red mid-nineties Ford Escort Cosworth, she called it her pride and joy; he called her glutton for punishment. She had dropped him at home promising to visit the following day, a promise that she had kept.
Days had passed, and finally, Daniel had found himself asking the question. A question that he had wanted to ask but had not really wanted to know the answer to. In the end, curiosity had got the better of him. He had to know. Daniel had almost blurted it out, throwing it out quickly to save him the embarrassment of choking. “What did you find in the house?” he had asked. Lisa had been dreading this question, she knew it would be coming, but she still flinched at it. She trusted Daniel. Lisa believed what he had told her. In his most vulnerable moments, she even loved him, loved what he had become, seeing a different side to him. A weakness that he had up until now kept well hidden.
Lisa had always known Daniel as a driven loner, doing everything his way. Daniel was machine-like in her eyes, brilliant at what he did but robotic and inflexible. Lisa believed in the supernatural, Martin believed in the paranormal. Daniel wanted to believe. He wanted to see the world through their eyes, but he was too stubborn, too realistic. Daniel could not take that leap of faith into the unknown. A practical solution was always involved. In Daniels defence, he had – until now – never failed to find one. Daniel had stared into the abyss. What had looked back had not just stared into him; it had shaken everything that he had believed in.
Lisa and Martin discussed how they would cross this bridge and deal with the problem she now faced. They had not reached any kind of consensus, both having differing views and opinions, neither knowing the answer. If indeed there was an answer. Her love for him made her want to lie, not to hurt but to protect. How do you lie to the one you love? It was something that she would never understand. She had never done it, and she would not start now. Her respect for him made her want to tell him the truth. Daniel was a man of reason, and he would have the facts dished out as they were. Complete, as they came, with no fancy extras. Warts ‘n all. She just hoped he could handle them. “Nothing, we found nothing”, she paused, waiting for a reaction. When Daniel just sat there, she continued. “The house was in better shape than you would have thought. They don’t make them like that any more, I suppose, but other than that, nothing out of the ordinary”. Daniel considered this for a moment. It was what he had expected, but hearing it aloud for the first time made him pause. “So what now?” he asked, but to that question, Lisa had no answer.
Romance had ensued, a healing process for Daniel, perhaps, maybe even a Nightingale effect for both, who can know for sure. They were both adults, and when the flames of passion fizzled into embers, they knew it was over. Walking away from each other, still, as friends, knowing that things had burnt hot and fast, wondering what may have been, but never regretting what had been. That had been thirteen months ago, the visits had stopped, and soon after, the phone calls had ceased. Daniel was alone with just his nightmares to keep him company.
Then this letter had arrived, their first correspondence in months, and it was about that bloody house. Daniel read through the letter again; it did not make any sense. He reread it, and once more, just to be sure before he picked up the telephone and called the Institute. Old habits dying hard and muscle memory. Daniel keyed in the number without a second thought and waited for it to be answered.
The Institute, the home of his former employers and his lover, just to make things a little more complicated. Having an experience that will scar you for life, hospital treatment and then screwing the boss. All in a days work, right? Well, if you are going to fuck up, you may as well do it cosmically badly. The Institute for paranormal affairs, established in 1942 and came to prominence in 1980. The Butchers Fountain had become notorious and famous when used as an example of proof of the supernatural. Many experts were called in, and they all called the place one of a kind. The only known proof of the supernatural anywhere in the world. Lisa and Martins father, Alex Fletcher, who was head of the Institute at that time, having taken over from his father, decided to investigate.
Alex was an easy man to work for. Unlike his offspring, he did not believe. He would have had far more in common with Daniel on that front. His attitude towards any case was that it was bollocks until he saw it with his own two eyes. He’d have chosen a less crude word in public; poppycock, hogwash or maybe humbug. They all added up to the same; he took a no-nonsense approach. Maybe it flows in generations. The grandfather of Lisa and Martin had believed, as they do, the father had not. Like Daniel, Alex wanted to believe. Had he been born a few years later, he may have sported Fox Mulder’s poster on a wall. I want to believe, I really want to believe! It had not taken him long to prove fraud in this case. A mixture of deception with a dash of trickery, and he had proven that the owners were behind it. Case closed, job done? Not quite.
The owners of the pub, a Mrs and Mr Batten, had sued. They had a whole host of people who were willing to give evidence that they were not frauds and that the haunting was indeed real. The case rumbled on, the experts spoke, and many, with Alex and the Institute’s help, were discredited. Many were not. Alex did not think the experts were terrible people, not all of them anyway. He just thought that people saw what they wanted to see or were not objective enough. Many of them genuinely believed the pub was haunted. Amazingly, the court had ruled in favour of the Battens. A British court had, for all intents and purposes, ruled that hauntings did exist.
There is an argument that no publicity is bad publicity. This was, in the case of the Institute, undoubtedly true. They were an organisation formed to investigate and deal with the supernatural. In many eyes, they had proven the case against the Battens. At that point in time, most who called them wanted them to prove things to be natural! They wanted the creaky pipes and leaky windows. Alex had a problem. He did not like being called a liar, and he detested his report being disregarded in the manner that it had. He made it his mission to prove them all wrong.
Locked away and paying scant attention to other things, he reduced the Institute’s workforce to a bare minimum. It has been the same ever since. He had almost bankrupted them in the process, using every penny he had to prove a point. He bought a pub of a similar age to the one that the Battens had owned. And then he set to work. He ripped the windows and doors out, replacing them with ones that were the same as those found at the Butchers Fountain. The inside was gutted, and very little, if anything, of the original pub, remained. When the work was complete, the pub was a different building altogether. If you had seen the two side by side, you would not have thought it possible. The transformation was incredible. The ugly duckling had become the swan.
Alex had been unable to decide on a name, so he had given it two. One side of the pubs’ signage read The Beautiful Duckling, the other, The Ugly Swan. He had then invited everyone involved with the case, except for the Battens, to come and stay for a weekend. He had been honest in his intentions with them all, telling them that he wanted to prove beyond all doubt that the Battens were frauds. Most of the invited guests came, the important ones did, and that was all that mattered. They had a night to remember on the first night, a night that scared every single one of them. They had seen and heard things that were only written about, things that it was claimed proved the Batten case. Alex had to convince many of them to stay past the first night. Some had even wanted to leave in the middle of the night. The following day he had shown them everything, every trick he had used and every device he had hidden. The last evening, they slept – if you’ll excuse the line – like the dead. Not a squeak was heard, not a crack creaked within earshot, and the windows did not wallow with the wind.
Then he counter-sued the Battens. Alex sued them for damage to his name and business, even though it had been minimal. He sued them for costs. He sued them for the pub’s cost, the refurbishment and anything else he could think of. If he could add it to the list, then he added it. His day in court came. The days dragged on, the case rumbled along. It is impossible to say in those early days what way the case would go. It could have been for or against. What swung it, dramatically, were the witnesses. People involved with the previous trial all gave statements. They all gave accounts that they did not believe the Butchers Fountain to be haunted. They explained why, explained how they now understood the way things worked. That they had experienced all the tricks and secrets hidden behind cupboards or closed doors. The solicitor that had represented the Battens the first time around had even been a witness, claiming how now he felt he had been wrong.
Alex, and the Institute, had won the case. They had won everything. The Battens were broken. They lost their pub and savings. Jewellery was pawned, items and cars sold. They were broke. Alex didn’t give a damn. The Battens had thought they were clever, they had poked the Alex-bear, and the bear had bitten back. Their name was mud, and then the press got hold of it. Histories were dug, stories were written, and skeletons unearthed from the darkest closets. Now they were broke, vilified and ridden with scandal. Alex didn’t care, and he still didn’t give a damn. The Battens left the country, fleed to Europe. They had tried to run from their past, to leave it behind and start afresh. You can run from your past, and you can flee and never look back. You cannot run from your memories, as those will be with you forever. Mrs Batten died of a heart attack a year later. Mr Batten killed himself six months after that. Alex did not care; they had called him a liar. He should have cared, but he still didn’t give a damn.
If luck were on Daniel’s side, the phone would be answered by Martin, if not… Lisa answered the phone, and he paused and cursed under his breath. He took a second longer than he needed before speaking. “Hi Lisa, its Daniel. I just got this letter”. Lisa stopped him, butting in as he talked, impatience in her voice. “How could you not have told me?” she demanded of him. Daniel held the letter in his hand, and he clenched it into his fist. How could you tell someone what you do not know? He thought to himself. “I had no idea”, he told Lisa.
“You had no idea?” Lisa scoffed, “no idea that you owned that bastard house?” It was the unsaid that had hurt the most. For the first time, Daniel had sensed that Lisa didn’t believe him. They’d had their share of arguments in the past. They’d both said things that they had regretted. It was the tone in her voice. It was the way she had spoken to him. “Lisa, I would not lie to you, I had no idea! How the fuck could I have, I had the same information that you had”. Daniel pulled the phone from his ear, angry at himself for cursing, angrier because he had sworn at Lisa. Daniel took a breath and tried once more. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to swear”, he said. It is not the swearing that bothered him; she had heard him swearing many times. It was the anger and the temper that had held its hand as he had sworn. He just did not want to admit that Lisa was the one who would not believe him. “Daniel just call the solicitors and get this sorted, I have had this case file for too long now, I just want it finished”. That was how the call had ended. That was how he and Lisa had parted ways this time. They would meet again, but this left Daniel feeling cold, empty and alone.
Daniel called the solicitors, and sure enough, the house was now in his name. Left, apparently, by a father. A father he had never met nor had ever known. “But”, Daniel had said, shocked, “I’ve never known my father”.
“Well, he had known you”, came the unhelpful reply. A thought caught alight in Daniels mind, like a piece of furniture from days gone by it is soon aflame. “Don’t tell me his name was Faustus“, Daniel asks, hoping beyond hope that the answer was no. Daniel heard the shuffling of pages over the phone. Files being checked and papers being read. “No, no. The name we have is Stephen Johnson”, the voice replied. Unravelling quickly, everything Daniel had crossed uncrosses at speed, the relief lifting and leaving him feeling lighter. A coiled spring of tension released itself as he worked it out in his head—Stephen, not an anagram, not a known pseudonym, only a plain, boring Stephen. “So, what do you want to do with the place?” the voice asked. “Let it fucking rot”, Daniel replied, ending the call almost at once. He wanted nothing to do with it.
Then the nightmares resurfaced. Nightmares and terrors of old finding the way back to the surface, and this time Lisa was nowhere to be found. When they had happened previously, she had been by his side in the hospital or, later, in bed. Now he woke alone in a sweat. He reached for the bedside lamp and checked every corner of the room for shadows that should not be, a darkness where there should have been light. A light where there should be only darkness. The nightmares were different now, they had the same core, but something was edging in from the side. As they peeled to reveal themselves for what they really were, the insides were different. It was always the same, the visions and nightmares, just an old rerun of what he had experienced in the house. Now though, his mind was adding things, changing the experience. The tape that held his memories together had been spliced with another. He could not be sure. Was he actually remembering something that had happened? A memory so repressed it had stayed hidden for all this time, resurfacing only upon the discovery of new information? No, he pushed that to one side. The shadowy figure he had seen in his nightmares had been just that, a nightmare vision conjured from the darkest parts of his brain. Still, he’d had that feeling in his gut, the feeling like last time. He knew then what he had to do, knew what he wanted to do.
The following morning Daniel watched as the clock ticked forward, a clock that is observed goes slower, but he did not mind. He had set his mind to something. The time it takes does not concern him; Daniel could always be a patient if required. The clock tocked nine, and he grabbed his phone from the table. Reading the number from the letter, he dialled it and waited. He tapped his fingers across the table, it was a habit that Lisa hated, but he couldn’t shake it. He was transferred and got the same talking voice as the last time, Mr Richardson. “Bulldoze the fucking thing” was what he had said, no reason given; that was his order, his command as it were. Behold the voice of the great Daniel, and you will do as he commands. “Knock the fucking thing to the ground and be done with it. Sell the land and donate the money to charity”. The problem, something that he had not considered, would be the cost. “It’s not going to be cheap”, Richardson had replied. Daniel could ill afford to say, “donate the money to charity”. He had wanted nothing to do with that house, and he could certainly not afford the kind of prices being spoken about now. Flipety, Flapity, Flockety, FUCK! “Fuck, so what can I do?” Daniel asked Richardson. “Sell up, flog it, and forget it” had been the advice, but Daniel felt he couldn’t do that. He did not want to take the risk of the house falling into the wrong hands. Daniel did not know why, but it felt like destiny. Like fate had intervened and placed the house in his hands. He wanted shot of the fucking place, but it had to be gone for good. Not sold on. It was not something he could pass on to someone else. His only choice now was what he should do with it.
Daniel found himself sat in his car, once again. Five years on, the house and grounds remain unchanged. The nightmares he had been having a perfect recreation of what he was now viewing. A mirage of the imaginary drawn over the reality. Daniel could not help feeling that he was drawn to this place. Predestination on a journey he had no idea about, nor any way to escape, just along for the ride without any control, a passenger in his own life. Daniel shakes the thought from his mind. Wilp. Fuck off.
Daniel stepped from the car and into the moonlight. He headed for the boot and opened it, swinging up in the air, and he looked inside. Two full containers awaited him there. He had picked them up that afternoon. Daniel took them from the boot and placed them behind the car. He slammed the boot shut, not caring about the noise. There would be time for explanations later. Daniel grabbed the containers and headed for the gate; it lay just before him and was unlocked. Wilp once again intervening? Or just coincidence. He had the key for the padlock, a collection from his past to be used when ready. He kicked the gate, and it swung open, squealing as it did so. The trees hung as he walked through them, the memories of years scattered in the leaves as they sagged with sadness. The stories they could tell, maybe this is one that they will remember, perhaps it is not. Time would tell, as it often does.
Daniel felt calm as he walked the driveway. The weight of time and fear being lifted with each step he took. He should have been on edge, his nerves jumbling, but he just felt peaceful. This was the place where his nightmares fermented; instead, he just felt peace. The house loomed large before him, begging him to enter. He could feel that the house held no danger, he had planned to work from outside, but as he drew closer, his confidence soared.
Daniel approached the front door. Fear had wholly escaped him. Running away to join the trees, grounds, and gate, what will be will be. He knows deep down that he had to do this, that this is what had to be. As he kicked the front door, he expected resistance, a fightback from the house or a force within, yet nothing happened. The door creaked but gave in quickly enough. The wood had rotted with age, the lock broke with ease, the timber snapped in the frame, like a chickens wishbone.
Daniel looked inside, seeing the hallway of his tormenter. The first steps on his nightmare in this game called life. He shuddered and then stepped inside, expecting all of hell to break loose at once. Nothing happened. No ghosts and no visions. No knockbacks, not even a temperature change. Just a long-dead house sat alone on its grounds. The wind whistled through the hallway; it came from a room to the right. It was a howl he had heard many times in the past. It no longer spooked him, even here. Something long left open, a window had maybe rotted to nothing, like Alex, Daniel does not care. He had no concern about the house. Daniel made his way along the hallway and headed for the kitchen. The door at the far end on the left swung in a breeze, creaking speaking wordless stories.
The kitchen was as empty just as he had expected it to be, as he had known it would be. No Meredith waiting for him, haunting the kitchen and offering drinks. Only the smell of a long-dead past lingering on the walls. The door to the basement was missing; a gaping hole remained. Daniel thought about using the staircase and then decided against it; he did not want to push his luck. The house is dead, any life it had long gone, but the nightmares had remained. He unscrewed the top of one of the cans and poured the petrol from within onto the steps.
Daniel could hear it dripping to the ground below, much of it being swallowed by the wooden stairs. He backed out, leaving a steady stream as he did so, covering the kitchen floor. Daniel liberally covered the doorway and walls as he walked back into the hallway. One can empty; he just threw it aside and opened the second, continuing from where the first had emptied. He continued to retrace his steps, making sure to cover everything in the fuel. If he can’t knock the place down, he will burn the bastard to the ground. To hell with it. He stepped out onto the porch and finished emptying the can.
Daniel reached into his pocket and pulled his Zippo lighter from it. A relic of the past, from the days when he used to smoke. He sparked the Zippo, and after the third attempt, it lit. He looked into the hallway. “Fuck you“, he said to the house before throwing the lighter. It was as the hallway burst aflame that he heard the voice in his head. “Shall we say a spark“, replayed itself in his mind. The fire ripped through the walls of the house, a hot wave descended, slithering its way to the basement steps. The damage was done. He grabbed his phone, calling the fire brigade, but knowing it was already too late. The flames turned from yellow to orange, eventually settling on a crimson red. He felt it deep in his bowels. He has unleashed a hell; he had made such a terrible mistake.