Wickerton Hall burrowed into the landscape like a resilient tick. Long derelict, its integrity sagged. Gap-toothed slate littered the roof. The Cotswold stonework was encrusted with lichen and creeping vines. In the thin, winter light, a garment of mist wreathed its edges.
Two people walked up the drive. They stood small as figurines on the gravel and studied the glaring facade with wide eyes and craned necks. Wind whipped the hair from Tess’s collar. “This is it?”
“Yeah, must be,” her brother Michael replied. ”Buckinghamshire, after the Aylesbury turnoff. Left up the lane with the stone pillars and the little gate house, Danny said. There’s no other place around that fits the description.”
“It’s so big.”
Michael grinned.“I know.”
“It’s falling down!”
“So? Makes it more exciting.” He tilted his head at his sister. “Shall we?”
Tess swallowed and nodded. Her shoulders narrowed. Skeletal roses strangled the path. They stretched their arthritic limbs toward the sky. One snagged her leg. She tussled free but not before the bush pricked her thumb, leaving a signature of blood.
Michael juggled the key into the lock. Tess stood closer, sucking pain from her hand. The door relented with a groan of inconvenience, and together, they stepped inside. An unmistakable ‘hiss’ fell over the silence. Like a cut in the surface of one’s skin, the house knew it had been breached. The siblings listened, but no other sound followed; nothing but the tension drumming in their ears. Tess turned to Michael. Her face curled into a question. He shrugged. They walked into the entrance hall and scanned the shadows. To their left was a broken staircase; to their right, two doors that led to the west wing; and straight ahead, an archway through to a much larger space.
“Wow…” Michael’s breath pierced the silence. He walked forward, unable to resist the opening. Tess skittered behind. The room beyond was vast. Water damage had stripped the paneled walls and cracked the cornices. A chandelier hung from a bowed ceiling. Broken, one-eyed windows overlooked a terrace snarled with vegetation. The stench of rot insulted them. Dust climbed over their feet, molding them to the house. Higher up, the flecks drifted through splinters of dirty light. A thrill rolled down Michael’s spine.
“This is so cool…”
Tess clasped her elbows against the cold. “We shouldn’t be here.”
She had no answer. Michael walked into the hall and spread his arms. He kicked the remains of a chair, then propped his hands on his hips. “So, this was the ballroom.” His words were inflated with authority.
Tess didn’t reply. Her eyes traced over the shapes. The room where guests once danced in gilded wilderness now lay silent. A rug covered the floor, its flowers long decomposed. Sadness filled the empty chairs; the spaces in which years of love and laughter no longer lived, stories halted in time. She touched a lounge chair. Distantly, in another age, refined chat and tinging glasses floated on the air. A Strauss waltz weaved among the crowd.
“Hey, this way!”
Tess glanced up. Michael was across the hall, heading into the east wing. She ran after him, aware of her isolation and remembering her anxiety. They explored room after room, Michael declaring ‘Drawing room. Dining room. Billiard room,’ as they went. The decrepit spaces had little furniture, making it impossible to have this knowledge unless one had studied the house plans or was an educated historian. Tess listened to the dip and rise of Michael’s adolescent voice. He gestured wildly, his thin hands shaping too-big words. She often wearied of his posturing. They did not have the house plans, and her brother was no historian.
Deep within the east wing, the siblings found a door they couldn’t open.
“Huh, that’s weird. Wonder why it’s locked,” Michael said.
“To stop delinquents roaming the halls?”
Tess was shot a glare of irritation.
“Sorry,” she said with a sigh, not sorry at all. “Do you have the key?”
“Maybe.” He pulled out a ring of keys.
“There’s so many.”
“They open a lot of doors. Remember, there’s still upstairs and outside.” Michael’s eyes flickered. “This one’s a bit smaller.” The key found its home. The door argued, grinding on calcified hinges, then opened into a small passageway, which led down a flight of stairs. “Oh, cool.” He moved forward, then faltered. The yawning void swallowed some of his bravado. “I need a light.”
Tess disappeared, and then returned with a squat candle.
“Where’d you get that?”
“The dining room. There was one on the mantelpiece.”
“Yeah I know. But how are you going to light it?”
“My lighter, of course.”
The expectant air begged the words to be asked. “So . . . why don’t you just use that?”
He stared dumbly at the two objects. “This’ll be better.”
The siblings tossed comments back and forth, trying to mask their tension. Michael lit the candle. His fingers betrayed a slight tremor. The flame perched on the wick, shimmying a timid salsa. They descended the stairs. Michael held the candle in front, its light engulfed by the gloom. Tess followed, clinging to him like a shadow. As they reached the ground, the smell of decay overwhelmed them. Both clapped their sleeves to their faces.
Michael gagged. “Gross!”
“You think something died down here?”
Their muffled whispers stayed close to their lips. Michael swallowed. He sincerely hoped not. In the darkness, their four other senses stepped into the light. A sour mould mixed with the decay. Their shuffles echoed, bouncing off tile. The air was expectant. Tess could taste it. Her hand brushed against an object; square and wooden. She swallowed a scream, realizing it was only a table. As their eyes adjusted to the surroundings, they discovered they were in a kitchen. Cobwebs laced the ceiling, casting threaded shadows. A coke-fired cooker hunched against the wall. Above a copper-bar sink pewter dishes hung, scarred with patina. Michael fiddled with the cooker. He tried the taps. “No water.”
He scratched at the few eager hairs sprouting forth on his chin; an improbable beard. Listing sideways, as only an ungainly teenager could, he looked at his sister.
“Can we go back upstairs now?” Tess glanced furtively at the shadows.
“Aww c’mon, it’s fine.” Her brother pitched his voice a shade too bright.
A long corridor led off one corner of the kitchen. Doors lined either side, all closed, tunneling the dark. Michael peaked his eyebrows at his sister. “We’ve come this far,” he said, as though duty-bound.
Tess shook her head but he walked off, taking the precious candle. “Wait!” She dashed after him. They crept down the hall. Their shadows crouched beside them as the light licked the walls.
“Must be the service wing.” Michael’s confidence had a puncture. His words dropped to the ground like deflated balloons. They stepped past the mechanical bell panel: spring bells upon a long strip of wood, each with a label, marking the location of its caller. The deep arteries of the house were less exposed to the elements, but the signs had still aged. Tess just deciphered the words. ‘Library,’ ‘Guest Suite,’ and ‘Tea Room.’ They had not gone far when they heard a noise; a steady, paced dripping.
“Can you hear that?”
“Is there a leak somewhere?”
“It’s coming from behind us.” Michael went back into the kitchen. He swung the stuttering candle around.
“It’s stopped,” Tess said.
They listened, poised. Michael marched over to the sink, but the taps and basin remained dry, perished and cracked beneath his fingers. “Hmm. Definitely not from here. Never mind. Probably nothing. This place is full of holes. Could be a leak anywhere.” Back in the corridor, Michael reached for the door on the left. The dripping began again. Heavier, louder. He swept back into the kitchen. It stopped. His palms began to itch. “It’s nothing,” he repeated, his voice chalky, unconvincing. He turned to leave a third time, when a gush of water ripped through the air. He spun around. The sound ceased as abruptly as it had begun. “Oh, come on!” His voice rose into a shriek.
Tess, shrunken in the corner, studied her brother. All the color had drained from his face, as though a plug had been pulled. “Please let’s just leave it.”
Michael glanced back down the hall. Part of him was fearful, part longed to explore the basement, and part was righteously annoyed. The sum of his desires wrestled over what to do. He stood still, apart from the hand that held the candle. The flame trembled slightly, shaking out his nerves. “Fine. Let’s go.” Back on the ground floor, Michael headed to the staircase, new conviction in his stride. He hated being scared.
Tess scuttled behind. “Aren’t we leaving?”
“You can. I still want to check out the first floor.”
A skating wind slammed into the house. Wickerton Hall rumbled, already irked by its intruders. “See? This place isn’t happy. It wants us out,” said Tess imploringly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a building.”
“Then how do you explain the water?”
Michael glared. Even more than getting a fright, he couldn’t stand not having an answer. “I’m going upstairs.”
As much as Tess wanted to leave, she wasn’t about to wait outside alone. “Fine.”
The first floor opened onto a long gallery hall with rooms left and right, and a wing at either end.
“I reckon one side would’ve been ol’ man Howlett and his wife’s rooms. Then, the kids’ rooms, and the nursery, and the nanny’s room would’ve been up the other end.”
“And these rooms in the middle?”
Michael shrugged. “Guest rooms I suppose. And probably things like, breakfast room, and trophy room, and stuff.”
“How do you know?”
Michael tried a worldly air on for size. “When you get to my age, you just know these things.”
“Also, Danny told me,” he added quietly.
They began to explore. Traces of Early Georgian and Queen Anne lingered, but the oak paneling and ceiling emblems were harshly weathered. Tess peeked into one room. It had a musk of old velvet. The windows overlooked the stepped grounds; an overgrown rank of wet abandonment, spread out like a sheet. Weeds covered the remains of a fountain. A dovecot hunched beneath the trees.
“So this would’ve been the trophy room,” said Michael from the darkness ahead of his sister.
Tess followed his voice. He stood in a small space in the east wing, hands on hips once more; a proprietary stance. A stag hung lopsidedly over the fireplace, one antler broken. Tess stared at the beast, immensely sad. Man’s selfish pride amounted to naught. A few books lay open and back-broken in the dust. She loved books; beauteous and noble, they deserved respect. But their worlds only lived through the eyes of readers. Spayed and forgotten, they were merely debris. She bent to touch one and stopped. Graffiti had been scratched into the wall behind. She peered closer. It read ‘YOU WROTE THIS.’
“There’s writing here.”
“Huh. Just some kid trying to be clever.”
“It looks old.”
“This place has been abandoned for years.”
“Yeah but—” A bell pinged in the distance.
“Shh, what’s that?”
They listened, ears cocked.
“No. No, I think it’s the bell panel.”
“But surely we couldn’t hear it up here.”
Michael’s eyebrows puckered. “There’s likely more than one in a place this size. Probably one in the servants’ corridor we missed. Then there’s also the attic. It would’ve been a pretty complicated system. See?” He pointed to a lever beside the fireplace. The mechanical wiring ran up the wall into a crank in the cornice. The ringing continued. Paced. Methodical. Determined.
A swirl of fear rose in Tess’s throat. She whimpered. “What do we do?”
Michael clenched his fists, thinking. “We need to go check.”
Downstairs, they traced the noise back to the basement steps. Both knew the sound couldn’t have reached the trophy room. But it had. “I’m not going down there again.” Tess peered into the dark, her heart thrumming.
Michael re-lit the candle. It’d almost guttered into the holder. It wouldn’t last much longer. “Fine.”
He began to step down in a body larger than he felt. Tess watched his coat disappear into the dark. The bell went quiet. Minutes later, he emerged, his face as white as his eyes. His jaw opened and shut like shears. “It just stopped.” His staccato voice was colorless.
“Please let’s go. This place really wants us out.”
“No.” Michael shook the shock from his mind. His obstinate tone had returned. “There’s no reason why we can’t be here.” A child wanting his own way, he may as well have stamped his foot for good measure. “I’m going back to check out the west wing.”
“Are you kidding?”
Michael bordered on obsession. He threw down the expired candle and stomped upstairs. Tess ran behind. Now, not only scared of being alone, but worried for her brother.
They reached the west end of the gallery and entered a room with an ancient four-poster bed. The drawn curtains muted the light. Tess approached a mirror. Browned and spotted, it stood in one corner and eyed a gritty world. It emphasized her porcelain frame. She’d always been the hint of a person, a faded photocopy, having owned ‘a nervous disposition’ for longer than she could remember.
Michael banged a chest open, briefly distracting her. Turning back to the mirror, Tess jumped. Her reflection wore a soft, high-waisted dress. Tight ringlets corkscrewed over its ears. A shawl draped across its shoulders. Tess blinked. As quickly as it’d come, the image vanished. The figure staring back was dressed in her lilac raincoat and jeans.
Don’t be stupid, her conscience chided. She peered closer, the architecture of her face blunted by the dun. Her reflection blinked. She gasped and shrank away.
“I . . . I . . . this sounds crazy, but I think my reflection just blinked.”
Michael scoffed. “Yeah right.”
“No, really. It . . . first I was wearing old clothes. Like Jane Austen-style. And then, I’m sure my reflection blinked at me. I was looking right at it.” Tess’s voice tripped over the words. They tumbled from her mouth and collapsed at her feet.
“Oooh, spooky. The mirror’s watching me,” Michael said with a jeer. “Next it’ll be talking. Telling you where the treasure is hidden.” He wiggled his fingers and danced with a mockery all big brothers come to perfect. Moreover, covering his own nerves with ridicule.
“Stop! I’m serious.”
Michael glanced at the mirror, then his sister with speculation. She stayed folded by the door. He sighed as if greatly burdened. “Fine. Just so’s you’re happy,” and turned the mirror around. “There. Your reflection’s not gonna get you now.” He wiped his hands like quite the hero and chucked her a grand smile, his condescension patting her on the head. Tess glared at the space between her feet, unsure which emotion took precedence—fear or annoyance. As she shuffled through her thoughts, Michael continued to explore. When he opened the curtains a crack, something in the room shifted, offended by the light. The door swung shut with a click. A fatal silence followed. Michael stared at his sister. “Did you do that?”
“No, I swear, I didn’t touch it!”
He inhaled, the quiver audible in his throat. He crept toward the door and turned the handle. The corridor was empty. They looked at each other. “Must’ve been the wind.” A textbook retreat to reason. But Michael’s voice had a wavering timbre. Straining to reach a note of sincerity, his words fell flat on unconvinced ears. “The wind,” he said again. Firmly. Decisively.
Tess stared at him, maddened by his denial. “I want to go!”
“Calm down. We’re almost done. We can’t come this far and leave the last few rooms.”
“Just stick close. Or wait outside if you really can’t stand it anymore.” He knew she’d never leave by herself. They stared at each other. He won. He always did.
“Fine. But quickly.”
Michael began to walk down the corridor. Tess followed with a whispered, apologetic tread, shrunken within her skin.
“Hey!” He stopped after a few steps. A picture had snagged his gaze.
“This lady kinda looks like you.”
Tess squinted in the half-light. A young couple posed on the front steps; hands folded, shoulders stiff, spaniels at their feet. The fragile woman had watery hair and hollow eyes; her pallor further dilated by age. Tess froze. “That’s the dress.”
“The dress in my reflection.”
“Come on. How can you tell? The picture’s all faded and damaged.”
“I’m telling you, it’s the same cut. The hair is exactly the same. It’s the woman I saw in the mirror.”
“No. You saw yourself in the mirror. Your eyes were playing tricks. This lady just happens to look a bit like you. That’s all.”
Silence. Tess knew she was right. “She seems sad,” she finally said. “And scared.”
“Do you think they were the first owners?”
“Nah, I reckon that’s 1800s. This place would be older than that.”
“Well, Danny said early 1700s, but I’m sure some of it was remodeled afterward.”
“How do you know?”
“You can just tell.”
“No you can’t.” She squinted closer. “Something happened to them.”
“What makes you say that?”
Tess didn’t reply. The question hung in the air, reopening the silence. They continued to study the painting.
Eventually, Michael moved away.
“Wait. Do you hear that?” Tess asked.
Her brother halted. From the room with the mirror, there came a faint knock.
“Sounds like something’s tapping on a window.”
“Could be a bird.”
Tess cocked an eyebrow. By now, she knew it wouldn’t be something as reasonable as a bird. They crept back down the hall. She fisted her hands, her body rigid.
“Didn’t you shut that door?”
“I thought I did.”
They entered the room and looked around. Nothing had changed. They glanced at the curtain, hesitant to touch it again, given what’d happened last time. But the noise didn’t come from the window. It came from the corner. From the mirror. Michael moved closer, each step an eternity. Mortal fear coiled around Tess. Between each tap, her heart banged in her head. “Don’t . . . ” she pleaded. But Michael was transfixed. Hypnotized. His arm stretched forward; thin and bloodless. He touched the mirror. The tapping stopped. Tess’s heart arrested. Her breath trapped a scream trapped in her mouth. Her brother grasped the frame and heaved it around.
The mirror reflected her image, dressed as the woman in the picture, hanging above the staircase, limp and white and twisted at the neck. Memory floated behind her vision, releasing the scent of history. Panic roared between her ears. She couldn’t breathe.
At the same time, a black voice howled, “Get out! Get out! GET OUT!”
The thread of their nerves snapped. They both threw themselves at the door and tumbled down the stairs. Their limbs tangled as they hit the ground outside, knocking the air from their lungs. They lay in pieces on the path. Distress ratcheted through Tess’s frame. Her breath came in serrated coughs.
Tess sobbed. “It was me! It was me! I lived and died here!”
“Shh. Shh. Shh.” Michael hugged her, staring vacantly, his comfort expelled in metronomic breaths. Slowly, they gathered themselves together and stood on shaking legs. “You okay?”
They looked up at the house. The atmosphere was as it’d been when they arrived: still. Too still. Across the sea of field beyond, a murder of crows squawked a sorrowful flight. The bleak-scape was rinsed of color. A brunt wind tousled the clouds. It hooked under Tess’s collar and made her eyes wince. She closed them over her tears. “Please let’s go home. I don’t want to come here again.”
Michael nodded. “Danny needs the keys back at the estate agents by five…. We had to see for ourselves.”
The house settled on its foundation with a satisfied creak.
“What do we do about it now?” Tess asked.
Michael, for once, had no answer.
The two orphans stared at their inheritance.
Merran is an Australian physiotherapist and mother-to-be who has been writing since 2013. Her work has appeared in: The Legendary; Alfie Dog Fiction; Writer’s Forum; Seizure Online; Tincture Literary Journal; Darker Times Collection Volume Two; One Page Literary Magazine; was commended for the KSP Speculative Fiction Award 2014; and has been nominated for the Write Well Award 2014.