(The estimated reading time for this is 10 minutes)
“First Blood” © 2014 by Gary Fry. All rights reserved.
A Prelude To The House of Canted Steps
If there was one thing Jackson disliked eating, it was cold custard. His wife made him sandwiches every day for work, bless her, but wasn’t so hot on puddings. Today’s offering was leftover trifle from their weekend meal with Jackson’s stepson (a sullen event during which the lad had only talked about what a loser his dad was). Jackson had relished the roast beef and potatoes, but really struggled with dessert.
He had a similar problem now. He didn’t like the thickish skin that formed on top of cold custard; it required a spoon to penetrate it before getting to the soft stuff beneath. All this felt uncomfortably visceral, like a medical examination, and he soon set aside the pot, shifting his attention to his next job.
He was parked outside the property, near its For Sale board. The estate agent had asked Jackson to check for a fuse box problem and given him a key for access. Apparently the sellers still lived in the house, but were always out at work and their child at school during the daytime. That meant Jackson could do the job without interruption, and at £80 for an hour’s work, he was eager to do so.
He climbed out of his van and collected his testing equipment from the rear. The street in which the house was located was affluent, certainly nicer than his own cramped row of terraces near Leeds. These were nice, big detached dwellings, probably over a quarter of a million each. Families would live here, those whose parents had middle-class jobs, perhaps up in York. Jackson envied their stability, the picture-postcard perfection of their lives, but there was no use thinking that way. Rot could exist at the heart of families from all social groups; some simply hid it better than others.
Jackson advanced up the empty driveway and stepped up close to the building. He hadn’t just seen someone staring out from an upstairs window; that had been just a play of the breeze this autumn afternoon, twitching a pair of red curtains, crumpling them into body-like shapes. Indeed, who the hell could be that thin?
He shook his head, produced the key he’d been given, and then let himself inside the house.
True to the estate agent’s word, nobody was inside. The property had a vacant atmosphere, as if its carpeted floors and silent staircase hadn’t been troubled in days. But that made no sense. If the family that owned the place – husband, wife, young son – didn’t sleep here, where did they sleep? Nevertheless, this feeling of emptiness pursued Jackson towards a sprawling kitchen, where the fuse box was likely to be located.
Ah now, that was weird. As Jackson passed the staircase in the broad hallway, he noticed how its steps tilted away, running slightly downwards towards the far wall. Had they been canted deliberately? This was something else that didn’t make sense, but what other explanation was there? Each riser definitely ran down from left to right at a five-degree angle. Bizarre.
Anyway, he must get on. The sooner he finished, the sooner he could knock off today. His wife was cooking fish this evening and had told him not to be late.
“You’re under the thumb, mate,” Jackson said to himself, and didn’t like the way his voice seem to return, echoing in the emptiness up the stairwell, the landing beyond, and what were presumably several bedrooms and a bathroom.
Jackson quickly made for the kitchen, glancing all around it.
There was no pantry; that was usually the place in which unsightly fuse boxes were secreted. Alternatives included storage cupboards, dedicated units, and even, in some unregulated cases, under the sink. But Jackson didn’t think he’d find one here in any of these places. In fact, he now knew where it would be.
In the cellar.
He’d just spotted a doorway in one corner of the kitchen, clearly leading to this underground room. The chill that stepped up was surely just the lack of heating in the house, coupled with an October wind feeling at the windows. Jackson quickly crossed the room and opened the door. Natural light flooded the top of another staircase, which appeared as unnaturally sloped as the first. What was it with the builder of this place? Jackson reckoned the property had probably been constructed about 90 years ago, in the 1920s. He’d worked in houses for two decades and had a good knowledge of such matters.
Wondering who’d once lived here and what troubles they’d inevitably suffered, he switched on a light switch at the head of more of those canted steps. Then he began to descend, thinking only about his family, all the complexities caused by his stepson’s father who played emotional pinball with the lad and his poor, struggling mother. Jackson was glad he’d never had children of his own; they were more trouble than they were worth, particularly when it went so horribly wrong.
As suspected, he found the fuse box at the foot of those uneven stairs. A naked light bulb on a wire swayed nearby in a breeze only he could have caused, setting shadows astir all around. With no natural light down here, it could be any time of the day…or even night. But Jackson, still a little shaken by impressions he’d suffered upstairs, refused to think this way. He put down his bag, removed his testing device, and then got to work.
The estate agent had told Jackson that a few light fittings inside the property were blowing with unusual regularity. To market the house without such a fault on his conscience, the guy had persuaded the owner to get it checked out. Then he’d contacted Jackson, who’d done odd jobs for the agency in the past. Jackson applied needles and grips, checking for voltage spikes, but nothing abnormal showed up on his meter. It must be a problem with the fittings themselves, he decided, putting away his device and wondering whether he should take the initiative by going upstairs, accessing those oddly quiet parts of the house, and examining each outlet.
But that was when he heard a noise from behind.
He turned that way at once, the swiftness of his maneuver causing the light bulb to stir again on its wire. He hadn’t had to kill the building’s power before making his tests; the light burned brightly, making dark pools cluster behind the few objects in the cellar: several boxes, a rocking horse, a bicycle.
And a boy now standing only yards from Jackson, looking unblinkingly his way.
So the family who owned the house was at home, after all. That was Jackson’s first errant thought. Maybe the kid – who couldn’t be older than seven years old – was sick and away from school, his mother looking after him upstairs, having locked the front door for security because the father was at work.
This seemed like a plausible explanation, but two observations contradicted it. The first was troubling enough: the boy was dressed in what resembled dated clothing, as if he’d been brought up in the 1960s. He wore a wide-collared shirt and flared trousers, his hair combed brutally to one side, as if by a vehement parent more concerned about social presentation than his child’s comfort.
But it was the second observation that nearly blew Jackson’s mind like a faulty fuse box.
Although the light bulb on its wire continued swaying back and forth in the cellar’s dusty chill, there were no shadows cast by the boy’s scrawny body – no shadows at all.
Jackson gasped, turning away, his stomach giving a sudden lurch that almost brought back his half-eaten lunch. He remained in that position for several seconds, eyes clenched, throat swallowing back bile, until his panic faded and he decided that all the familial stress he’d suffered lately must be catching up with him.
Then he looked again.
There was no boy, of course; it had been a hallucination. Indeed, where the child had stood in those dated garments, there was now nothing, just a…a…
Jackson edged forwards, his gaze adjusting to the wavering light. The floor, he noticed, was concrete, and spattered by a variety of dried lubricants: a black streak of bitumen, colorful spots of paint. But…what was this?
Unlike all the other blemishes, these two mirrored shapes glistened in the stark light overhead. About four inches long and two wide, they looked wet, and were by no means alone. Several more identical shapes staggered towards a wall at the cellar’s rear, which surely gave on to nothing beyond, just dirt and corpse-hungry worms. But someone appeared to have passed through that wall, as the eight or ten glistening shapes leading towards it could testify.
These were footprints moving away from where that boy had stood.
Footprints as red as blood.
“No,” Jackson said, his voice like an expulsion of gas from a leaking pipe. “No, no way. Impossible.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before irrepressible curiosity and perverse habit started drawing him across the cellar’s floor, following that line of bloody red footprints.
How could somebody with feet that wet just disappear? That seemed to be what had happened. The footprints led directly to the wall and then simply ended, straying neither left nor right. Now Jackson raised one treacherous hand, realizing he was dealing with something that might trouble his sleep for months. He needed reassurance that it had a rational explanation, just like problems in his working life, irregular power supplies caused by faulty equipment. It was how he thought, how he’d been brought up to think. There were no ghosts, spooks or demons; these were just misperceptions. The wall when he touched would be something less than a wall, possessing a few loose bricks that allowed passage beyond and into…where?
Jackson pressed his hand against the wall and was dismayed to feel only cold stone. There was no illusion here, then; the ill-lit edifice was exactly what it looked like: a wall.
But wait. What was this?
His fingers appeared to be sinking into several of the red bricks. Christ, half his hand was now submerged as the surface, previously firm and cold, gave way to his exerted pressure.
Jackson was disturbed to realize that the wall’s exterior was like the tenuously solid surface of cold custard, a thick skin that needed breaking. Moments later, his whole arm overcame this mild resistance, sliding into something horribly glutinous. By this time, he’d placed a lot of weight on his leading foot and almost fell head-first into this slopping mass. The wall was penetrable, almost certainly how the boy had escaped the cellar’s confines. But where on earth did the aperture lead?
That was when something large yet lacking in solidity tried grabbing the hand Jackson now had deep inside the wall.
Terror bolting through him, he yanked out his arm, turning and running back the way he’d entered. Somehow he managed to collect his bag on the way, even though liquid pouring down his violated arm pooled at its zippered mouth, like lipstick on a woman of few virtues. He hurried up those canted steps, burst out of the cellar doorway and then headed through the house for the main entrance.
Good God, his arm – the one that had slipped beyond that bogus wall – was covered in redness. This was blood, surely; it possessed a pungent, sulphurous odor. Nevertheless, he somehow used that hand – his strongest – to relock the building with the key, leaving sticky smears of red that surely wouldn’t go unnoticed later by whoever lived here.
As Jackson raced for his van, he understood why the sellers wanted to move out. The place wasn’t stable. Once his trembling hand had ignited his engine, still leaking red stuff like a scarlet rainfall into his foot well, he looked up at the building while backing away. The house glared back, those red-occupied windows squirming and scrutinizing.
The thing that had tried grasping Jackson’s hand, when he’d thrust one arm beyond the property’s natural perimeters, had been bigger than a child’s, but had boasted little substance, like a cluster of finger bones only tentatively combined by failing flesh and sinew.
It had been like an adult in there, but one who hadn’t lived in decades.
Trying to get out.
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