THIS STORY IS AVAILABLE ON THE DROPBOX
IN ALL DIGITAL FORMATS
The House on Lantern Lane
Published by Apiary Society Publications
Edited by Laurie Laliberte
Copyright 2013 Bernard Schaffer
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. No reference to any real person, living or dead, should be inferred.
I never noticed it before. Not in the months I'd lived and worked in that area. Not in the hundreds of cab rides I'd taken past that very spot, and strangely, no one ever thought to mention it. On that day I decided to walk to the office, choosing fresh air over the stifled, hours-old sickness of the backseat of a cab or the cattle compartments of the local buses. The sun was damnably high and bright already, and that is why I chose to walk Lantern Lane.
The trees that grow along Lantern Lane have gone wild. Even from either side of the road, they reach high enough and wide enough to cast their branches across the width of the street and intertwine, forming a thick knotted covering overhead that allows neither sun nor sky.
Thus, the lanterns.
Every house along the road has hung tall, bright lanterns to guide passersby, and even in the brightest October morning, it would be dark without them. The cobblestones were slippery beneath my shoes, their fine, flat leather soles meant for polished tile floors and not the roughhewn edges of hand laid rocks. I crossed a two-lane highway to continue up Lantern Lane, navigating the suddenly steep slope where no lanterns lit the path. The side to my right was an undeveloped and dark wood of trees and swaying grass. To my left, a tall earthen wall of brown dirt knotted with roots and clusters of fallen leaves.
As I crested the hill and the road straightened, I saw that there was a flat stretch of land filled with small, strange fixtures that dotted the ground like tombstones. But they were not tombstones. They were stacked formations of rock and brick, overgrown with roots and moss, set in a way that created a winding labyrinth that led all the way back to the entrance of a crumpled home. The windows were dark and the front door wide open. The shutters on the windows hung lopsided from rusted nails and the porch was littered with discarded things. A child's tricycle, so old the paint had faded to iron. A rake. A series of empty glass bottles.
Even more strange, the home seemed to be built into the craggy rock of the hillside, so that only the front of it was visible. It was as if the earth had swallowed the house and gotten stuck. Or perhaps it had birthed the house and I was witnessing the first slow moments of its delivery as it emerged through the hill's crumbling dirt and stone orifice. I stood looking at the front of the home in amazement when I suddenly felt something brush against my arm and I leapt in fright, only to see a small, smiling woman standing beside me. "Hello, Bernard," she said.
Betty worked at the office with me, a homely girl with a boyish haircut who kept to herself and rarely spoke above a whisper. She was dressed in an ugly blue pea-coat with broken buttons and flesh-colored pantyhose clung to her thick legs and swollen ankles. She walked in a low shuffle, scraping her flat black shoes along the office carpet in a way that left her perpetually vulnerable to static electric shocks from anything she touched.
"Hello," I said, still trying to collect myself. "Good morning. I didn't know you came this way to work."
"Every day," she said.
I nodded at the house and said, "Did you ever see anything like that?"
Betty shrugged and said, "It has been as long as I can remember. When I was a child we used to call it the Loch Ness Monster."
I frowned at that, "But why? It's not in the water and it's not a monster. It's a house."
"It's just something we called it, I guess," she said. She ran her hand flat through the air, making ripples over the odd rock formations and said, "Maybe because of the way the stones stick out of the ground, like the humps of Nessie's back? The local kids used to play a game to see who would be brave enough to run all the way into the courtyard and touch the front door. No one ever made it halfway."
I looked again, searching for her meaning. Perhaps in the shadows, from a certain perspective filled with childish innovation, it was possible. "Let's go up to the house," I said. "I want to see it."
"No," she said with a laugh. "That's mad, and anyway, we'll be late for work."
"No we won't. Come on, come with me. I bet a property like this is worth a fortune. Maybe the owner would sell it for a good price."
"It's haunted," she said.
Her tone was firm and flat and devoid of mischief. I looked sideways at her and said, "You don't really believe that."
"It's what I've always heard. I was never dumb enough to go in there and see for myself. I always stayed behind."
"Well I'm going," I said. "I don't believe in ghosts."
"Not at all?" she said.
"Not at all. I don't believe in demons, fairies, leprechauns, or angels. Nothing of the sort."
Betty took a hesitant step into the dark courtyard behind me and said, "Let's go, but we must be fast. I cannot be late today. I always wanted to, really. I just never had the courage."
Her voice had a nervous, excited quality to it and I turned toward her and said, "Watch out for the ghouls!"
"You really don't believe in them?"
"I believe in nothing that cannot be proven by science," I said. "I am an atheist. A humanist. A man of reason. I will believe in the supernatural only when it appears directly before me and makes itself known." The wind picked up as we wound through the courtyard, rattling the bare limbs of the trees all around us, stirring up the scattered leaves cluttered around the humps of the stone monster swimming through the ground on either side of us. In the wind, a thousand different sounds. The rattle of old aluminum and scrape of wood on stone, dirt shifting on the porch's landing, and high-pitched whistling as it cut between the narrow gaps in the hillside. I paused for a moment and listened, then said, "Well, that explains it."
Betty was too busy trying to stay on the stone path and she said, "Explains what?"
"The wind here sounds like people talking. If you were a fool you might imagine a child's voice surrounded by a hundred other whispers." I smiled and said, "It's all the work of overactive imaginations and superstition."
Cath Ran Too Ach Spet Whallllllll…The wind moaned. I stood in place and cocked my ear toward the sky, listening harder. There had been, in fact, something more than just the sound of leaves blowing.
I looked back for Betty, but the woman standing at my side was not her. It was an older foreign woman dressed in plain housekeepers clothing. She looked at me with a silent smile, the kind of bemused, diminutive look all servants practice in the presence of their superiors. My eyes widened and I said, "Hello! I didn't see you there. Are you working on this property?"
She did not respond, other than to extend her hand. I took it and shook, feeling her warm, strong grip and said, "My name is Bernard. I was passing by and wanted to get a better look at the house. Do you know if it's for sale?"
Cath Ran Too Ach Spet Whallllllll…the wind whispered again, speaking for the servant woman, who did nothing more than stare at me. Her head was cocked at a slight angle to me, studying me, trying to make sense of what I was saying. She still had not released my hand.
"Do you work here?" I said.
Still she did not respond. I took a step back from her, attempting to free my hand, but she held me tight and began to pull. Pulling me closer to the porch, pulling me closer to the entrance to the house. My God, I thought suddenly. She's trying to take me with her.
Terror and anger fueled my strength enough that I gave a ferocious pull that nearly yanked the woman into me. "I’m not going!" I said. "But you can come with me. Do you want to leave this place?"
We struggled like that, going back and forth as I dug in my heels on the jagged stone path and wrenched backwards, forcing the woman each step of the way. She never spoke. She never drew breath. She never did more that stare at me in tilted silence, smiling with flat, unmoving lips.
Finally, I gave a terrific pull and yanked my hand hard enough away to free myself and went sprawling down onto the courtyard, striking one of the piles of bricks. The servant woman looked down at me for a moment, then turned from me and headed back down the path and vanished into the house.
I shot up from the courtyard and ran as fast as I could, sliding and slipping on the dewy cobblestones of Lantern Lane. I arrived at the office twenty minutes later, breathless, pant legs soaked and streaked with mud. I took off my shoes by the front door to let them dry out and walked in wet socks toward my desk. My boss scowled at my disheveled shirt and hair and said, "What on earth happened to you?"
"I was attacked by a dog," I said.
"Did you get bit?"
"Nearly. Do you want me to go home and get changed?"
"No, that's all right," he said, patting me on the shoulder. He looked up at the clock and said, "Has anyone seen Betty?"
I spun around in my seat, looking for her. "You mean she didn't come in yet?"
"Not even a phone call," he said. "And I needed her in early today."
I turned back to my desk and immediately began paying careful attention to the things on my desk, moving them around shiftlessly as my mind clicked and whirred to try and make sense of it all. I was convinced Betty had run off when the wind began whispering. If not, that she'd turned tail at the sight of the servant woman. It hadn't even occurred to me that she wouldn't be sitting at her desk when I arrived.
"Let me know when she shows up," he said.
I told him I would without raising my head, only to hear his office door close and the front office door open at the same time. I felt a cool breeze blow across the back of my neck, chilling my damp hair, and heard something whisper, Cath Ran Too Ach Spet Whallllllll…
Flat, cheaply-made shoes shuffled across the office floor toward my desk. I turned in my seat to say Thank God, only to feel the words die before they reached my mouth. Betty's hand was extended toward me and she was walking with her head tilted sideways, her lips stretched across her face in a silent, flat grin.
I rarely have nightmares, and when I do, they're normally about getting in trouble for some horrific thing that I'm greatly relieved not to have done upon waking. As for a straight up scary dream, they don't happen. At least, not often.
Last night I had a good old fashioned ghost dream. I can only attribute it to residual thoughts floating around my head from subjecting myself to nothing but Evil Dead movies lately. Some of the symbolism was there. The haunted structure in the woods. The hand being controlled by something supernatural. As for everything else, I couldn't say. The Loch Ness monster comment was a direct quote from the woman in my dream and I could make no more sense of it during the dream than I can now. Maybe it was left over material from the Carnival of Cryptids? It was sitting in some dusty drawer of my subconscious, just waiting for the right time and place for my brain to say, "Ah ha! You can go there!"
I don't truck with the theory of dream symbolism or pay attention to them. I mock people who fear the supernatural. Much like the Bernard in the story, I refuse to believe in things that cannot be proven. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that at night, when I am not paying attention, my mind reminds me that perhaps I am not quite as smart or assured as I think.