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Today, some haunting fiction from the Specul8 archives:
By Aaron C. Goulson
Until that exact moment, Max Clayton had no idea that one could actually experience so much emotion within such a short time span. But right then, he had experienced more than he had known he was ever capable of, all in the brief time it had taken a man with fluorescent white teeth and a bad comb-over to say one simple word.
It had begun as sheer disbelief. Being his first time at auction and working within a minimal budget, he had entered into the bidding more so as a matter of general experience. Going in he possessed no real expectations that he could actually win the thing. Surely, he had thought, that in neighbourhood such as this one, even a house in such a state of disrepair would be bound to fetch far more than he could ever hope to afford - at least not without him having to resort to selling his internal organs on the black market just to cover the deposit.
Disbelief shortly gave way to elation. Max had been itching to break his way into the housing market, and landing a house on this quiet suburban street was definitely major coup. When the reality of his borrowing power had first been brought to his attention, he had resigned himself to the realisation that he would most likely end up owning a tiny shack built on a decommissioned toxic waste dump positioned right next to a fertiliser factory. This area’s noted lack of radioactive materials and noxious odours was well worth a sense of celebration.
Max’s elation, however, lasted only a fraction of a second before it finally gave way to sheer bloody-minded panic.
‘What the hell did I just do?’ he asked himself. He had probably spent all of fifteen minutes walking around the property before the auction had commenced. That time had been spent randomly knocking on walls in a thinly veiled attempt to make it look as though he actually knew something about structural integrity. In the bedroom he had even managed to accidently put his hand straight through the wall itself. Looking around to see if anyone else had noticed, he had walked quickly away and hoped the dust he was brushing off his clothes didn’t contain asbestos.
Now he owned the place – asbestos laden hole in the bedroom wall and all.
Correction. The bank owned the place, and he’d just willingly handed himself over to their clutches for a lifetime of indentured servitude.
At least they gave him a free pen when they pre-approved the loan.
It didn’t actually seem to be able to write properly, of course, but it was pretty to look at and it had the branch manager’s phone number embossed on the side. Max supposed he’d have to give that number a call now.
Around him the assembled crowd of bidders and curious neighbours began returning to their regular Saturday mornings, each one with decaf caramel lattes firmly in hand. Max, however, was far too preoccupied with the sensation of dread trying to beat its way out of his chest to really notice the congratulatory mumbles from those who passed by.
He was so distracted, in fact, that he barely even noticed when his shoulder was very nearly dislocated by a rough and decidedly vigorous hand shake. “Welcome to the street.” The giant man smiled as he tried to rip Max’s arm straight out of its’ socket. “I’m your neighbour on the left. It’ll be nice to have someone in the old place for once, it has been vacant for so long. Not surprised though, its got its history that place.”
“Uh. . . yeah?” Max asked, reclaiming his hand.
The neighbour on the left laughed, a deep and booming sound seemingly borrowed straight from a team of Canadian hardwood lumberjacks. “You’ll learn quick enough mate,” he said with a slap on the back hard enough to nearly take Max clean off his feet. “You’ll learn.”
Max smiled and laughed weakly, all the while thinking he was on the verge of passing out when another neighbour transplanted herself squarely into his field of view. Barely tall enough for the top of her grey head to reach his chest, the elderly woman was followed closely by an energetic ball of hair which Max assumed was supposed to be a dog of some description. “Uh. . . hi.” he said, as the hair ball started enthusiastically acquainting himself with Max’s left leg.
“Mister Puddles!” the old lady snapped, her tone reminding Max all too much of his third grade teacher – the one he really didn’t like. “Leave the man alone.”
Mister Puddles paused for a moment, long enough to give his owner a curious look, before returning to his adventures. The old lady, however, seemed unconcerned with her precious fluff-ball’s continued affection for Max’s ankle and turned her sharp edged gaze on him instead. “I’m Margery, my friends call me Marg.”
“Hi Marg. I’m Max Clayton,” Max said offering his hand, while still trying to shake her dog off his foot.
“I said that my friends call me that Mr Clayton, it wasn’t an invitation to you. I barely know you,” she said giving his hand a disdainful look, one that she had definitely stolen from his old teacher. “You can call me Mrs Wayde.”
“Ah. . . hello Mrs Wayde.”
“Are you planning to fix it up?” Mrs Wayde asked.
“Are you hard of hearing boy? I’m seventy-three years old and can still hear a pin drop at three hundred yards. Are you planning to fix it up?”
Between the shock of his newfound home ownership and being molested by Mrs Wayde’s little, lust-filled fluff ball, Max was still a little slow on the uptake. “Umm. . . I’m sorry, fix what?”
“Not deaf then,” she said. “Just stupid. The last thing we need in this neighbourhood is more stupid people. The house Mr Clayton, the one you just bought. Are you planning to fix it up?”
“I suppose so,” Max answered hesitantly.
Mrs Wayne grunted, before stooping down to recover her animal from Max’s foot. “Then keep the noise to a minimum and no power tools after six, or anytime on a Sunday. Don’t think I won’t put the council onto you if you do.” Spinning on her heel, Mrs Wayde, made her exit with surprising agility for a woman of her age.
Max let out an explosive breath, and turned to take in the wreck of a house he’d just bought himself. For the briefest of moments he could have sworn he’d seen a woman’s face looking out from one of the windows, but when he looked again it had gone.
The sound of scratching in the walls caused Max to curse under his breath. In the space of the last week alone he had managed to booby-trap virtually every crawl space, hollow and cupboard with over a dozen spring-loaded traps. There was more than enough rat poison scattered about the place to drop an invading Mongol army, and he had installed an intricate web of plug-in ultrasonic devices that the website had assured him ‘would deter even the most persistent of pests’. Unfortunately, however, his resident rodents obviously hadn’t visited the same webpage and seem possessed of a mystical, ninja-like ability to stealthily avoid every loaded trap and bait in the place.
Shaking his head in dismay, Max tried to ignore the scratching and returned his attention to the equally irritating task at hand. Plugging in the cost of the plumber’s latest invoice into his laptop, he hit the enter key and nearly had a stroke. Somehow he had managed to burn through well over fifty percent of his remaining budget and was probably only a quarter of the way through the renovations.
After the auction it had taken him nearly a week to reconcile himself to the thought of his newfound home ownership. Though, once the panic attacks had finally begun to subside, he had even begun viewing the decrepit, old wreck with a decidedly uncharacteristic outlook – one filled with blind optimism of all things.
Looking through lenses which had been heavily tinted by a misguided interest in television renovation shows, Max was confident he could manage to pull together a first class overhaul on the whole rotten mess. After all, if that clueless bunch on the telly could pull it off in twelve weeks and walk away with a pocket full of cash, surely he could manage it with no pressure or deadlines but those of his own design.
It didn’t matter that he had exactly no prior experience whatsoever in relation to trade work and couldn’t even tell a circular saw from a doorknob. He had a rugged sense of determination, a hardware store just around the corner and endless hours of reality TV tucked under his belt. What could possibly go wrong?
Aside from the ever-growing pile of invoices and an infestation of super-intelligent rodents, he still had to contend with a leaky roof, a broken hot water system, a cranky old neighbour who seemed to lodge a noise complaint every time he needed to swing a hammer and Mister Puddle’s continuing attraction to his left ankle.
And then… well, then there was this house’s other unforeseen problem.
Thankfully, things had been quiet on that particular front the last few nights.
Sighing heavily, Max turned his mind back to the task at hand and bid a final farewell to his plans for a giant 3D TV in the loungeroom. On the day that he had first moved into the place, he had sat himself down on an upended milk crate and pictured his first dream room. He wasn’t sure about the wall colour, but he was decidedly set on having recliner leather lounges and a television screen so big the radiation it provided meant the room could also double for a tanning salon.
Apparently though, having running water and a flushing toilet would necessitate having to put that dream on hold.
Perhaps it was a good thing he still had the milk crate
Max typed in the plumber’s account payment details and was about to hit send when the room’s temperature suddenly seemed to drop. ‘Here we go again,’ he thought as the light above his head began to flicker and the sensation of icy-cold fingers began clawing their way up his spine.
Turning around slowly, he briefly caught the familiar figure of the grey-clad woman from the corner of his eye before she disappeared entirely.
“Hello?” he asked.
There was no answer.
Again, nothing but silence as the flickering lights stopped.
Max swore under his breath, and content that the woman was done for the night turned back to the computer. “Why don’t you go and bother that John Edwards guy and leave me alone for once?” he muttered under his breath.
The light bulb above his head burst like a balloon, showering him with glass and plunging the room into darkness. When he’d first begun renovating the place, he had found this sort encounter frightening. A few months later, it was novel – a good talking point for dinner parties.
Now it was just downright annoying.
“Do I bloody well look like Jennifer Love-Hewitt to you?” Brushing the shards of glass from his hair, a small piece caught his finger. Lifting it to his lips, he tasted blood. “For the love of . . . What do you want?”
Max’s laptop flew off the table, smashing into the wall with a tremendous crash.
“That does it!” Max growled. “This place isn’t big enough for the both of us, so someone’s got to go. And seeing as I’m the one paying the mortgage you can be damn sure it won’t be me, love.”
A pungent curl of smoke hit the back of Max’s throat, causing him to choke as he attempted to suppress an involuntary gag.
“What is this, exactly?” he asked as he waved the smouldering brand about his head, trying desperately to avoid experiencing another waft of smoke.
“Sage,” Rachael answered matter-of-factly. When they had first been introduced, Max couldn’t help but think it was such a strangely normal name for the woman. For some reason he had expected someone who would have insisted on a moniker like Mistress Jasmine Moonpetal or the like. He’d gone to high school with two Rachaels and met countless others since then, none of them ended up as self-proclaimed paranormal investigators.
This Rachael however, who had turned up on his doorstep driving a fairly ordinary family station wagon with two empty booster seats strapped into the back, just dashed all his hopes for the overtly melodramatic. Really, if she wanted to build a name for herself in the business she could at least invest in an old ambulance and arrive with sirens blaring.
At least it would give old Mrs Wayde something else to complain about other than the sound of his power tools running on a Sunday morning.
“It helps cleanse the space,” she explained.
“It goes well with pork too,” Max said, earning him a sharp look in reply.
“If you’re such a sceptic Mr Clayton, why ask for my help to begin with?”
“Oh, I’m not a sceptic. I’ve been in this dump for six months now and have endured all kinds of craziness. I’ll take whatever help you can give me.”
“Good then,” Rachael nodded. “Let’s see if we can do something about your house guest then shall we?”
“Excellent. Let’s do that,” Max couldn’t help himself. “I think I’ve got a few sprigs of rosemary in kitchen, would that help? Perhaps a dash of paprika?”
“I charge extra for having to endure sarcasm Mr Croydon,” Rachel said. “I get enough of that from my kids as it-” Stopping mid sentence, Rachel held up her free hand. The LEDs on the little gizmo clutched in her other fist began lighting up and a sudden chill descended on the room.
“Hello? Is someone there?” Rachael asked.
The lights flickered and a half empty paint tin flew across the room, smashing into the wall and emptying its remaining contents right next to Max’s head. “Frigging hell!” he cursed.
“Are you alright Mr Clayton?” Rachael asked.
“No. That was the last tin they had in that tint, now I’ll have to wait two weeks while they order more in.”
“Tragic,” Rachael muttered. “Tell me Mr Clayton, do you know much about the history of your house?”
“It was built sometime in the sixties, I think. Is it important?”
“The fifties actually,” Rachael corrected. “I spent the afternoon speaking with your neighbour Marg, she’s a lovely old lady.”
Max nearly choked again. “Are we talking about the same woman?” he asked.
“Do you actually spend any time talking to your neighbours Mr Clayton?”
“Not if I can avoid it.”
Rachael gave him another sharp look. “Anyhow it would seem that Marg has lived in this street nearly all of her life, she was just a girl when this house was being built.”
“Hmm, fascinating,” Max said. “This helps me how?”
“Marg tells me that there were rumours that the owner’s wife was having an affair with the builder. A few weeks before the house was finished she disappeared, everyone at the time just assumed she had left her husband – he was a bit of a drunk and not a very nice man apparently. I am willing to bet that there was more to the story, however, and that your houseguest and the owner’s missing wife are one and the same.”
“Okay,” Max said. “So we know who she is, how do we get rid of her?”
“I think she’s trying to tell you something Mr Clayton, the first step will be to try and find out what that might be.”
As they stepped back into the main hallway, Rachael placed a hand on Max’s shoulder, gesturing for him to stop as her electo-gadgetry started going berserk. Standing no more than two metres away from them both was the faintly luminescent spectre of the grey-dressed woman.
“Hello there,” Rachael said in a soothing voice. “Are you Sondra? The owner’s wife?”
The spectre looked up, her eyes looked as though she had been crying.
“Knock once for yes, twice for no. Are you Sondra?”
A single, booming knock echoed through the air.
Rachael gave Max a knowing smile. “Are you trying to tell us something?” she asked.
“Were you murdered here?”
“By your husband?”
“Can you leave this place?”
“Is something holding you here?”
A strange thought crossed Max’s mind, and before Rachael could asked her next question he blurted out “Are you still buried here? Right where you stand?”
The woman in grey smiled, relief painting her ghostly features before she disappeared. Rachael’s gizmo stopped flashing and the lights returned to normal.
“Well done Mr Clayton,” Rachael said admiringly. “I think if you get this poor woman a proper burial, you’ll see an end to your troubles here.”
“And what?” Max asked. “Pull up the hallway floor? Fat chance of that happening. I just had those floorboards polished.”
Three weeks later Max eased himself into his brand new leather couch, and hit the power button on his remote control. The TV which flared into life was a little smaller than he would of liked, but it was still capable of being loud enough to annoy old Mrs Wayde next door. As the theme song for his favourite renovation show kicked in, Max smiled wickedly and turned the volume up as far as it could go.
After all the hoopla of the past few weeks, it was nice to finally be able to settle into a little normalcy. Despite his initial protests, police investigators had been called in to remove the remains hidden beneath his floorboards. They had done irreparable damage to his freshly polished boards of course, but Max took his compensation from the look on old Mrs Wayde’s face when the media trucks had begun parking on her front lawn.
The sight of the reporter from Channel Six getting abused on live television, whilst Mister Puddles accosted his immaculately tailored pant leg, was well worth the price of having the hallway redone.
Rachael had returned one last time; right after the police had finished their work. After another round of burning sage and a quick walk around the house, she announced that it seemed as though the woman’s spirit had finally moved on. Max couldn’t speak to that, but he certainly had not encountered anything unusual since then.
Humming along to the TV show’s theme song, Max leaned over to reclaim his drink when the room turned cold and the lights began to flicker.
“Oh, get stuffed!” he said as his television flew off the wall and smashed onto the floor.
Aaron C. Goulson is a brooding mutli-billionaire by day and a masked vigilante intent on delivering his own special brand of justice by night. He may also be slightly deluded. His main interests including collecting bellybutton fluff and talking to telemarketers about his pet goldfish. His greatest achievement to date is avoiding all forms of social media so that the shadow government cannot track his every move.