The lights flickered and came back on, though dimmer. Maybe sitting still wasn’t my best option. There were things going on throughout the castle that I couldn’t identify; sudden sounds that didn’t make any sense: voices, even screams in a dozen languages some of which were probably not human; footsteps running, stomping, and apparently jumping; obviously large and very heavy items crashing to the floor and more glass breaking. These sounds were all around me, or rather all around the room I was in. I went to the door that Hodgkins had just exited and looked out into a large hallway. Empty in both directions and no sounds here. Indecisive, I went back to the parlor and tried the other entry. I could still hear the sounds all around the room, but not in this hall, either. Back in the chair, the room was ominous now. I didn’t know what to do.
“It’s okay, Mr. Briscoe.”
I turned around, startled, and saw a thirtyish woman who was obviously beautiful even in the far shadows of the parlor. “I’m Marion. I’ll be your guide here.” She stepped into the light at the center of the room and confirmed my impression.
“Do I know you?” I said. There was something familiar about her: half a head shorter than me with sparkling blue eyes and dark hair. There was a moment when I thought I could place her but it flew away.
“How could you know me, Mr. Briscoe?” She was gorgeous up close and looked a little sad. She took my arm. “Come along, now. We need to get you upstairs.”
I nodded and we walked arm in arm into the interior hallway that Hodgkins had disappeared to. The sounds had stopped and the calm and quiet was even more eerie than the crashes and voices. The abundance of stillness despite my footsteps on the hardwood floors of the castle was nerve wracking.
“This is an unusual place,” I said.
Marion made no sound. We kept walking until we got to a wide, ornate staircase. She stopped and looked at me. “You can stop and go back now if you like.”
“No,” I said. “I can’t. I’ve come this far.”
She nodded and we went up.
At the top of the stair was a long hallway, doors up and down each side with a couple of small tables breaking the monotony of the cream-colored walls and the red carpet with gold accents offering a threadbare elegance. Marion stopped me going ahead of her. “Wait,” she said.
What happened next was not at all dreamlike. I heard blood-curdling screams and desperate shouts; doors opening and slamming shut in rapid succession but I couldn’t see anything happening. I felt a chill rush over my skin and through my bones with a force that would have knocked me to the floor if I hadn’t grabbed the wall to keep from falling. The wall itself seemed to ripple under my hand and I jerked it back, bumping into Marion. I smelled smoke from the ceiling: burning leaves that then seemed to be overwhelmed by an acrid, electrical odor. It worked its way into my mouth and I almost retched before I tasted a new flavor: blood. My mouth was dry but I distinctly tasted blood. Marion was staring at the far end of the hall. I tried to see what she was looking at. Finally I saw distinct forms flinging themselves across the hall, back and forth in time with the opening and closing of the doors. “My god,” I said. “Where am I? What are those?”
Marion said, “You see them, don’t you?”
“We have to avoid touching them, don’t talk to them and don’t go into any of the rooms if they offer. Do you understand? We have to go the entire length of the hall and up the stairs again.”
“What happens if we touch them?” I asked. “What’s the real danger here, Marion?”
Patient, she smiled at me. “It’s only uncomfortable if you touch them. The danger is talking to them and believing their promises or going with them. If you enter one of those rooms, you’ll be somewhere you won’t want to be.”
I nodded, still watching the riot of rushing figures, hearing the cacophony behind my eyes, feeling cold and uncertain. I looked behind me and was surprised to find that there was a solid wall behind us where a staircase had been a minute ago. I said nothing to Marion, who only inclined her head in a way that indicated we should get going. “No going back,” I said to myself more than anyone else. “Only forward.”
The gauntlet was terrifying and seemed to get longer as we walked. I dodged as many as I could but I jumped about three feet straight up the first time a spirit plunged through me, and by the time I’d reached the fourth door I was only shivering at their icy dive-bombing. The screaming and shouting became more coherent the farther we progressed and I did my best to focus on the end of the hallway. Marion was right next to me the whole way and I reached out to take her hand, but she pulled away.
“I’m sorry, Ray, you have to do this yourself,” she said. I don’t know how I heard her over the noise; she didn’t raise her voice. She looked a little sad.
“Let’s go, then,” I said. “Eyes on the prize.” I stopped when I heard my name called out behind me.
“Don’t stop,” Marion said next to me. “Don’t even look.”
I couldn’t help it, though. I had to look and I was surprised that I recognized the voice calling out to me. “Charlie?” No, it couldn’t be. “Charlie Danko?”
“Hi, Ray,” Charlie said. He looked good, rested and healthy. He died when I was in high school and his funeral had been one of the most moving experiences of my entire life. I could feel the pain of his family’s loss if I closed my eyes. I don’t know what I expected on this trip, but it wasn’t this. “It’s been a long time,” he said to me. “Come on in, won’t’cha? We’ve got the good stuff.”
“Charlie,” I said. “I can’t stop, I’m supposed to go upstairs.” I looked over my shoulder and Marion was moving on, about six steps ahead of me. “I can’t lose my guide.”
“She’ll wait, Ray. Come on in and have a drink.” He opened one of the doors and I could see into the room beyond. It looked to be a hotel party like we used to have in the old days. The kind I was almost never invited to because I wasn’t really part of any clique. “It’s been a long time, Ray. Twenty-five years. Shouldn’t we catch up a little?”
I took half a step toward the door and it got quiet, a vacuum of silence. I looked back at Marion who was screaming at me in slow motion but I couldn’t hear. She was desperate, appealing to me to come back to the center of the hall. “What?” was all I could say, and I looked back at Charlie. He’d made room for me to go past him and into the party. I could feel the blood pulsing in my head, my heart. I tried to smile at Charlie. “I’m sorry, man, I can’t come in. I hope you’re okay.” I paused. “I’ve got to go upstairs. Goodbye, Charlie.”
I turned away from my friend, took a step toward the end of the hall and the dissonance came crashing in like thousands of shards of glass ripping through a silken sheet. My eardrums nearly burst and I fell to my knees but I could hear Marion again.
“Are you all right?” she said. “I almost couldn’t see you any more. I thought you were gone for good!”
“Okay now,” I think I said and got to my feet, slowly, unsteadily. I lost my balance forward and nearly fell again. Marion waited for me to get balanced. “Really, I think I’m okay.” I stood straight. Regaining some dignity I smoothed my coat and we started forward down the hall again, ignoring the chaos all around us: the noise, the smells, everything.
When we finally gained the end of the hallway, I looked back to where I’d seen my friend from high school whose killer had never been caught. Charlie was watching me, nodded and gave me a little salute. I nodded back and he didn’t see the monstrous hands that were reaching out to grab him from behind.
Everything I imagine that could have happened to him probably did, but I couldn’t worry about that. I had to find my grandfather somewhere above. I couldn’t afford to care about a long-dead friend. This was about family.
Concluded in Part 4 next Wednesday! CLICK HERE FOR THE CONCLUSION
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
Can’t wait? You can buy the whole story for 49¢ by clicking on the button below and I’ll send you a DRM-free PDF via email!