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The House Next Door
What evil lurked behind its blank windows?
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The House Next Door
It sat on the outskirts of the village, a detached house in a large enclosure - you couldn't call it a garden, or even a lawn, it was more like a field. A big grey house set back from the road. There was no gap in the fence which surrounded it, no drive leading to the front door. Never any sign of life. Ian had thought it was derelict, till he noticed the curtains at the windows.
He noticed his hands gripping the steering wheel, and made himself relax. Stupid to feel so nervous. He was a grown man now for God's sake, not a scared kid. He'd never been back. They'd asked him, Auntie Mag and Uncle Harry, said how much they'd enjoyed having him that summer when his mother was in hospital. He'd always managed to get out of it, and without giving the reason. The real reason, that was. He could hardly have told people that he didn't want to go because he was frightened of the house next door.
He wouldn't be going back now, if there had been anyone else available to clear the cottage, now that Auntie Mag had died. Anyone else with a van. He glanced at Lucy, drowsing in the seat beside him. Shouldn't take long with her help. Be out of there before nightfall. No way he'd be staying overnight.
Even during the day, as he had played in the garden, the house had been an oppressive presence, brooding behind the high ragged hedge. At night it was worse. The curtains never moved, and no glimmer of light ever shone at the windows. To all appearances the place was empty and yet - it did not feel empty.
His aunt and uncle never spoke of it. His questions were met by a tightening of the lips and a change of subject. All they had to say was that he was never, on any account, to go into next door's garden. The children he played with that summer, on the other hand, had plenty to say. An old man lived there, no, an old woman, no, it was a ghost. If you went in there you'd never come out. On their way out of the village to play in the woods they would fall silent as they passed it, and look away. In case, his friend Grant told him, they should one day see a figure at a window, beckoning . . .
Then his stay with Mag and Harry came to an end. On the last evening he was playing with a ball in the back garden. It was dusk, early September, the nights beginning to draw in. He kicked the ball over the hedge.
It was a new football, a present from Uncle Harry. He peered through the hedge. The ball lay in the long grass, halfway to the house. The hedge, though tall, had grown thin and neglected. He could squeeze through, if he wanted. The windows gazed down blankly. Nothing moved.
He wriggled through a gap in the hedge, twigs pulling at his jumper. Darted across the grass, grabbed his ball, turned to go - and stopped, caught by a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. The side door of the house was ever so slightly open.
Lucy shifted uncomfortably in her seat, blinking. "Are we nearly there yet?"
"Not far now."
To this day he could not think why he'd gone inside. He could hardly move for terror, and yet something drew him. He followed a dim corridor, turned right into a hallway. The dust lay so thick on the carpets it was impossible to make out what colour they had been. Up a wide staircase, with a stained glass window at the turn of the stair. Before him, across the landing, a half-open door.
Inside, a high wing chair stood black against the dying light from the window. Something moved in its depths.
"Ah, a boy. A little boy. How nice." said a thin, unpleasant voice, and giggled.
Ian's nerve broke. He ran back across the landing and hurtled down the stairs. Behind him rose a cackle of laughter.
"You'll be back. They always come back."
He raced along corridors, turning left, and left again. He burst through doors, to find still more passages stretching before him into dimness. White figures hovered at the periphery of his vision to vanish when he looked, whispers followed him. He could not find the way out.
"Ian! Ian, where are you?"
He heard his aunt calling outside, and in some indefinable way his surroundings solidified. A last door rose up before him. He wrenched it open and fell out into the real world. The next day he went home, never to return.
Except he did, of course. In his dreams.
He braked as the signpost came into view. Nearly missed the turn-off.
"Almost there, now."
He drove the white van with care along the narrow road, each turn hauntingly familiar. Then he rounded the last bend, and gasped in astonishment.
The house was gone. Where had stood there were now a half a dozen small detached houses, with leaded windows and twee little porches. Ian almost laughed aloud in his relief. The tension which had gripped him, tightening throughout the journey, relaxed at last.
He stopped the van outside the cottage at the end of the terrace. "Here we are."
"Isn't it pretty!" Lucy exclaimed as she climbed from the van.
It was pretty, with its roses clambering over the front. Even though the garden, Uncle Harry's pride, was a mess.
"I wish we could live here," said Lucy.
"Bit far for getting to work," grunted Ian as he let them in. Anyway, the cottage had to be sold, and the proceeds divided among the family. The furniture as well, at least the good stuff. The dross could be left for the house clearance people, but he had a long list of items to go to various aunts and cousins. It had sound straightforward enough when his mother had explained what was wanted, but some of the things on the list proved remarkable elusive. It all took far longer than expected. By the time the light began to fade they were still only half way through.
"We'll have to come back tomorrow."
"Why don't we sleep over?" asked Lucy. "The bed upstairs looks okay, and we've got the sleeping bags in the van. It would save a lot of time."
Well, why not? After all, his only objection had been demolished.
"All right. Let's go and get something to eat."
Some hours later they rolled back to the cottage, staggered up the stairs and collapsed onto the bed.
Ian woke from a dream of endless corridors and receding doors. Moonlight flooded through the uncurtained window. He got up and went to look out.
The house was there, square and solid in its half acre of unkempt grass. Silvery light picked out every detail. Oddly, he had no sense of surprise. It was all exactly as he remembered. He stiffened, peered more intently. Something moved in one of the darkened windows. A figure, white, raising a thin hand. Beckoning.
He groped for his jeans, began pulling them on. Lucy stirred on the bed.
"Mmmm . . . wassa marrer?"
"Nothing. Go back to sleep. I won't be a minute." He slipped his feet into his trainers. "I'm just going next door."
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© 2003 Moya Green
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