A gray shape darted past me to my right. I turned to the ragged bushes entangled with dried weeds. One of the stems shuddered and I heard a rustling. But the overgrowth was too thick for me to see what was moving around in there. Back home—my previous home—I would have guessed it was a lizard. But here, in my new home, it could have been a rabbit. A wild rabbit.
The box in my arms was getting heavy. I turned my head and body left onto the path leading to the house.
I gasped and my shoulders jerked. I almost dropped the box.
A woman was standing just in front of me. She was holding out a pie.
Her eyes went wide. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I exhaled. “You just startled me. I’m not scared…not yet.” I smirked.
She laughed and shifted the pie to one hand. She placed her other hand over her chest. “I’m Claudia, your new neighbor. Or you’re my new neighbor. We’re just down that way.” She pointed in the direction of her house. I couldn’t see anything, of course. There were trees and bushes bordering the property—my property—growing in front of and around a rusty iron fence.
I had meant to go and make myself meet some of my neighbors after I settled in. I’d seen this particular neighbor coming out of her house. But I still hesitated for a moment. I wasn’t in the habit of inviting strangers into my home.
I introduced myself, apologized for not shaking hands because mine were full, and that lead me straight to—
“Would you like to come inside for a bit?”
Claudia nodded and offered to help me with the box. But it wasn’t actually that heavy when I wasn’t in the middle of being startled by something.
“It’s only been a few years,” Claudia said, accepting a glass of lemonade and waving off my apologies for there being no ice. “But I was worried that they’d never be able to sell the place. Uh…you know the history?”
The previous and longtime owner of the beautiful old house that now officially belonged to me was a real old-timey dowager. The house was the least of the five residences that her husband had left her when he passed. She sold them all one by one, it was said, until only the one house remained. She didn’t want it to fall into the clutches of her ungrateful heirs, so she wrote it in her will that the house would be sold, at a fraction of its value. Other detailed stipulations in her will made it so that her heirs couldn’t even purchase the house either directly or through friends or agents.
That’s how someone like me became eligible and able to buy it. I’d been worried about angry heirs showing up at my doorstep. But the agent that I’d worked with knew the family somewhat, and according to her, no one had any interest in the modest house—well, it was modest to people of their means anyway. To me it was huge and extravagant.
Claudia nodded when I related the details I knew. She glanced over at the window in front of the kitchen sink. One long stem of a thorny bush outside scraped against the glass.
“I plan on hiring a landscaper and a gardener—and watch how they do things, so I can take care of some of it myself and save a little money,” I said, not wanting my new neighbor to think I was either careless or rich.
Claudia turned back to me and grinned. “I’m a gardener. Hire me.”
“Really? I actually haven’t started looking.”
She waved her hand again. “No pressure, but I am serious if you’re interested.” She took a sip of her lemonade and paused. “I tried working for her for a little while. For Madame—that’s what her staff called her. But I didn’t really fit in much. I’m a big talker, and her staff…”
I nodded. “The quiet types?”
“No. Quiet people are usually my kind of people. I get to talk. They get to be quiet. It works out.” Claudia smiled, sighed, and then shook her head. “I just felt like I wasn’t quite welcome.”
“Well, if you want me to make it feel like old times, I can tell you to get the hell off my property.”
Claudia’s smile faded and she blinked. And I suddenly realized my mistake.
“I’m kidding,” I said. “Sorry, I forgot for a minute that you don’t know me yet.” I made a fist and lightly bumped it against my temple. “I hope you’re willing to put up with sarcasm. It’s one of my few true skills in life.”
The smile returned to Claudia’s face, and upgraded to a beam. “Sarcastic people are usually my people too,” she said, and she shrugged. “They try to get their zingers in and I just talk over them.”
I pressed my lips together and bowed my head as dramatically as I could. “I see what you did there.”
I raised my head and we both started laughing.
We talked about the house a bit more. Claudia wondered if I knew that the dowager had died in the house, in her sleep. I knew. My real estate agent had hesitantly told me about it. But I wasn’t concerned as long as there weren’t any murders. I wasn’t bothered by peaceful deaths. I assumed that any house as old as that one would have experienced hundreds of intense moments.
Claudia relayed her experience with bringing a pie over when she first moved in. She never saw the dowager that day—or for any of the few months she was employed there. A servant answered the door and politely received the pie, begging pardon for “Madame’s ill health” being a reason why the dowager didn’t come to greet her new neighbor. Others soon clued Claudia in. The dowager kept to herself. Her servants were polite but tight-lipped, and anyway, there didn’t seem to be anything going on in that house except for a rich old woman living out the last of her days in peace.
The rest of the neighbors had decided to let her be. So did Claudia, despite being a self-professed busybody.
I told Claudia I’d once entertained the notion of turning the house into a bed and breakfast at some point—something that seemed like a foolish fantasy now that I had experienced the overwhelming process of moving in and planning just how to maintain the place. Plus, I would want to make sure the neighbors wouldn’t object. Especially since they’d gotten used to there being no activity on the property. But Claudia seemed excited when I mentioned it. She started asking me about myself so she could brainstorm a suitable name for the place, and from there we veered to other topics.
After living in a cramped studio for the past five years, while I built up the savings to buy a house and fix it up, I expected to feel exposed, to jump at every creak of a floorboard, especially at night. But the first couple of weeks in the house was a dream. A kind of dusty, unkempt dream. I was overwhelmed at the thought of cleaning such a huge place clean by myself. But as it turned out, with so much room, it was relatively easy to clean. I’d be fine as long as I didn’t accumulate more stuff. I also had friends and family arriving in rotating shifts, helping to move, assemble, and clear things. My new friend Claudia folded in with them quite nicely, and with me. Except I had to forbid her from bringing over any more of her delicious pies before I turned hyperglycemic.
Sometimes it was spooky when I was alone. Like the first time I saw the fog roll in at night from the second floor window. It was thin at first, atmospheric, and made drinking my tea more fun. But then the fog thickened, and I saw shapes disturb the fog. More rabbits, I hoped, or squirrels. Or even raccoons. I didn’t want raccoons, but better them than some unnatural creature hiding in the fog and peering up at me. I had watched too many horror movies featuring houses that looked like my house.
One night, I felt something moving under the covers, brushing up against my foot. My first thought, and my first panic, was that it was a mouse. I’m not particularly scared of mice—in a controlled environment. But as pests, felt in the middle of the night, it was a sweat-inducing terror. But then I thought it felt cold, whatever it was, and I started imagining bony fingers. At that point, I hoped it really was a mouse.
I braced myself, swept the covers off and jumped out of bed, jerking my legs and brushing imaginary things off my arms just in case. There was nothing on the bed. I hesitantly shook loose the sheet and the comforter, jerking again when a small dark shape dropped to the floor, only to examine the unmoving mass and find that it was nothing but a rolled up sock. It wasn’t one I’d worn recently, but with the move and with so many hands handling my stuff, I had been finding strange things in strange places.
“I think it might be haunted,” I said, and stopped myself from saying more. I needed to first gauge Claudia’s reaction.
We were sitting out in her back patio, throwing the ball around for her new puppy to go chase. One of her cats had just fallen asleep on my lap.
“Tell me what’s been going on,” she said.
I hesitated. I’d been so eager to tell her everything, every detail when I called that morning to ask if she was free for lunch. But now, in the afternoon sun, watching a puppy tumble around in the neatly trimmed grass of Claudia’s backyard…it sounded foolish. I gathered my thoughts, my words, and the more I did, the less foolish I felt.
“Bottom line,” I said. “Something is wrong, and I need help figuring it out.” I took a deep breath, then exhaled the excess before launching into it. “There’s definitely something moving around in the house. I can hear it sometimes. And whatever it is, it’s moving my stuff around too. It’s been happening since I moved in, but it was easy to dismiss at first, because there were logical explanations. I was exhausted, sleep-deprived, other people were handling my stuff.”
Claudia leaned forward. She put her elbows on the table and wrapped her hands around her glass of iced tea.
“At first, I was afraid that someone was in the house,” I said. “You know, living in the attic, or in a crawl space, coming out at night when I was asleep.” I felt a shudder pass over my shoulders and shook it off. “I heard a story about something like that.”
“I never worked inside the house,” Claudia said. “But I haven’t heard anything about secret passageways or hidden rooms.”
“I put a lock on my bedroom door, just in case, and checked that room as thoroughly as I could. I’ve checked the rest of the house too. I didn’t find anything.” I shook my head. “A few days ago, a friend of mine suggested coming over to check the place out. She’s always been sensitive to that kind of thing. Saw ghosts when she was a kid. Feels things when she goes places sometimes. She offered to sleep over. I told her it was fine as long as she didn’t bring any spirit boards, or try to do a séance.”
Claudia smiled. “I believe in ‘that kind of thing.’ Sounds like you don’t, but you do?”
“If afterlife spirits are real, they’re real whether I believe in them or not.” I shrugged. “And if they’re real, I’d rather not stir them up.”
“So…she felt something?”
“She said the place had a weird energy.”
“What does that mean?”
I shook my head. “Frustrated. That’s the emotion she was getting. And she said she dreamt of an old lady sitting in a chair facing the window that was now my bedroom window, tapping her fingernail on the windowsill.”
“Maybe not. I’d told her all about the previous owner. If Madame couldn’t get outside at least she could look outside. I can vouch for the view being amazing, even with the garden being all wild and unkempt right now.”
“Do you feel scared? Like you’re in danger?” Claudia locked gazes with me. “You know you could always come over any time. Spend the night if you need to.”
“That’s generous. I’ll definitely keep it in mind.”
We were both silent for a moment. But I hadn’t forgotten her questions.
“I do feel scared, but sometimes…I feel completely safe. What’s that about?”
Claudia pointed at me and from the shifting of her brows, I felt some teasing coming on. “Where in the house do you feel completely safe? Maybe you should be sleeping there.”
I sighed out a laugh and shook my head. “It’s not a particular place in the house. It’s…it seems to be random.”
“Maybe you’ve got multiple hauntings. A mean one. And a nice one.”
I raised my glass. “In that case, here’s hoping the nice one wins out in the end.”
Claudia raised her glass, and we drank to whatever was making me feel safe in my own home.
I woke up on the couch and for a minute, I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there.
My drowsy mind didn’t want to retrace my steps. It told me that I’d taken Claudia’s advice. I’d felt a moment of safety, and I’d decided to park myself where I was. And I’d fallen asleep. Case closed.
But I wasn’t in the living room. I was in the basement. Something was dripping. Dripping into liquid. I remembered now. I’d put a bucket down under a drip in one of the pipes. Until I could find the nearest shut-off valve. But that was days ago.
I hadn’t come down into the basement since. I rose from the couch. It wasn’t mine. It had been there when I moved in. I brushed myself off, but there wasn’t any dust.
I absently scratched at my elbow and felt a sharp pain. I couldn’t see anything in the light of the one dim bulb that was tasked with illuminating the whole basement. I went upstairs, to a hallway mirror, and turned my arm. There was an intense red welt along half the length of my upper arm. I frowned. It didn’t hurt much, even when I poked at it.
During dry weather, I sometimes woke in the middle of the night to find myself scratching, and sometimes I’d go too hard and break the skin. But I’d never had anything like this before.
“Looks like an allergy,” Claudia said. “Want something to put on it?”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t itch or hurt. It looks like it’s going away.”
She’d dropped by the check on me when she saw me pull up with groceries, and to pick up the few items she’d ask me to get.
“How long have you had it?” she asked.
“A few days.”
“Oh, that makes sense now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you were mad at me or something.” Claudia shrugged. “But I’m guessing you were irritated, or distracted. You looked distracted.”
I frowned. “When?”
“Yesterday. When you walked by in the morning. I called out to you. You looked over. You definitely looked, so you can’t say you didn’t hear me. And I waved to you. And you just turned away and kept walking.”
“I didn’t see you yesterday.”
“It’s okay. I forgive you for snubbing me. It was a just a ‘good morning’ wave. You didn’t un-invite me from your housewarming party or anything, right?”
I put down whatever item I’d been in the middle of putting away and plopped down in a chair at the kitchen table.
“Claudia, I swear I don’t remember seeing you yesterday. And I didn’t go for a walk in the morning. I woke up kind of late. I just showered and got to work. I remember your texts.” I pointed to the bags on the counter. “About the groceries. That’s all.”
Claudia bit her lip. I glanced away from the concern I saw in her eyes.
I was gazing out of the window at the yard. I could just see that there was a cobblestone pathway, under the weeds that hadn’t been cleared out yet. There was the stump of a tree so wide and with so many rings it must have been very, very old.
I blinked, and realized that I was sitting at my bedroom window.
I checked the time. It was early evening.
I called Claudia and didn’t wait for her to answer before I headed downstairs, out the front door, and down the path that led to her house.
“When’s the last time you saw me,” I said, hanging up as she opened the front door.
“Yesterday when you got me groceries.”
“I’m having blackouts, I think.”
I described my recent experiences with finding myself in places where I didn’t remember going. I’d never blacked out before. But what was happening to me sounded like what happened when a person blacked out.
“This explains it,” I said. “Why it seems like my place is haunted. Like there’s someone else in there, moving stuff around. It’s been me all along. Only I didn’t know it. And look.” I lifted the cuff of my sweat pants to show her another welt around my ankle. “This one hurts a little and it’s starting to swell up.”
Claudia told me to prop my leg on a chair. She got me an ice pack. “What about when you’ve heard things?”
“That could just be me getting used to the way the house normally sounds. When my fridge is cycling it sounds like an alien language sometimes. Have you ever heard of anyone suffering any similar allergies? Maybe there’s some kind of hallucinogen growing in the house. I had it checked for mold, but…”
I trailed off as I noticed that Claudia didn’t seem to be listening. And she wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes were shifting around.
“You do know something,” I said, sitting. “Good. That’s good. You can help me. Please, I need it. I can’t tell you how scary it is not being in control of myself.”
She finally looked at me. She wasn’t smiling. “Listen…there is something I know.” She shook her head and winced. “Not something I know. It’s a rumor that I didn’t tell you about. Something I hoped wasn’t true. I thought you might find out on your own. And if you did, I could take the coward’s way out and pretend I didn’t know until you told me.”
“What could be that bad?”
“It’s just a rumor, but it’s ugly. And it’s…out there.”
“Even if it’s a rumor, it’s still information. I need information right now.”
Claudia nodded. “Brace yourself.”
I took a breath and sat back.
And Claudia told me the rest of the dowager’s story.
She didn’t want to die. Not yet. She wanted to live long enough to see her first great-grandchild be born and grown old enough to know her.
When modern medicine failed her, and ancient medicine failed her, and spells and magic failed her, she turned to her last possible recourse.
She made a bargain and sold her soul to something dark and demonic. But instead of spending her time with family, she spent the last decade of her life trying to find some way to escape her bargain. And she did find a way. She found a way to pass down the bargain the way she would pass down assets. She found a way to link the bargain she’d made with the house she lived in. Whoever inherited the house, whoever became the new owner, their soul would be the soul that was owed. And the dowager’s soul would continue on to the afterlife.
That was the real reason that she didn’t want the house to be passed on to any of her heirs.
I stared at Claudia. “Where did you hear all this? I’ve never—“
“Remember how I love to talk?” Claudia pulled up a chair and sat across from me. “And remember how her staff was full of people who were really good at not talking? Well, I got one of them to talk once.”
I sighed. “They were putting you on.”
“What about your friend who felt something in the house?”
“What’s happening to me and what she felt could be unrelated. I could be sleepwalking. Maybe I have some rare form of it. Combined with narcolepsy? I don’t know, but I think that’s more likely than a demon coming to claim my soul. Anyway, aren’t they always trying to claim all of our souls?”
Claudia sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. “I thought you would take this seriously, just in case.”
“Yeah, but I’ve never actually seen anything, not directly. No ghosts. No demons. No…aliens.”
“Maybe you have, but you didn’t know it, because you didn’t know the whole story before. Now you do.”
“Say it’s not rumor. It’s all true. What could I do? Sell the house and let the bargain pass on to some other poor soul?”
“Let me see if I can track down the guy I talked to. Stay at my place tonight, so I can keep an eye on you.”
I shook my head. “If the rumors are true—if they’re not just rumors, then it doesn’t matter where I go. I’m still the owner of the house. It’ll find me anywhere.”
“Whatever is going on, something is wrong with the combination of you and that house. Separation is worth trying.”
“Okay, but what if…what if I’m dangerous? Last time, you saw me from far away and I just stared at you. What if the next time, I attack—not me as I am now—but the me that’s awake when I’m not here?”
A faint smile returned to Claudia’s face. “I could chain you to the banister, like how people do with their werewolf friends during the full moon.”
“Thank you for meeting with us,” I said to the man as we shook hands.
He was the one who’d told Claudia the story of the dowager that no one else seemed to know. The three of us met at a café in town.
“She hired me specifically because of my family’s history with witchcraft and alchemy,” he said. “And because some of those practices had been passed on to me.” He took a sip of his coffee and stared down into the cup. “But I don’t know what she’d heard that made her think I’d be suited to helping her escape a demonic bargain.” He looked up at us. “I’d been taught stuff about healing with herbs. I don’t know, maybe she thought there’d be some powers in my bloodline or something.”
“So you believe there was a bargain? Not just that she thought there was a bargain?”
He nodded. “She wasn’t just very old. She was a living ghost. People use that phrase ‘living on borrowed time.’ I’d never actually seen what that looks like. She made a bad bargain. She didn’t get ten years of extra life. She got ten years of lingering, just at the edge of existence.”
He told us all the things that the dowager tried. She looked into ways to banish the demonic thing back to the place from where she’d summoned it. She looked into creating a prison for it so complex that it would not be able to escape for eons, maybe even eternity. But every story about such labyrinthine traps ended with the entity that was trapped within escaping or being freed. And even if that didn’t happen, building a trap complex enough would take longer than ten human years.
The closer it came to her final year, the more desperate she became. And the servants—even those that were most loyal to her—began to wonder with fear if she would turn to finding some living vessel to contain the thing, or some way to shift the deal onto another soul. Maybe she would find someone who no one would miss. Or maybe she would use one of them.
“I know it was…a lot to take in,” Claudia said as she helped me limp up the porch steps. My foot had swollen up even more and I couldn’t put weight on it.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay with me tonight?”
“Whether I’m sleepwalking or I’m possessed by a demon who’s trying to reap my soul, I’m not going anywhere on this foot.”
“How can you be sure? Let me stay with you then. Let’s revert to eighth grade and have a sleepover. You have better junk food over here anyway.”
“I can’t make you st—“
I stopped as I turned to see my reflection in the hallway mirror.
I wasn’t smiling.
But my reflection was.
A smile stretched wide.
Eyes open so wide I could see the white all around the iris.
The head tilted down and started to turn away.
“Claudia,” I said. “Run.”
I remember seeing darkness this time.
And light returning slowly until I could see that I was in my bedroom.
But it looked different. The furniture. A heavy dresser. An ornate oval vanity mirror.
I turned around to find someone in the room with me. An old woman was sitting on a chair staring out of the window.
“It finally got you,” she said without turning away from the window. “You’d hope they were dumb. But they’re smarter than us. At least this one is.”
I glanced around the room. It felt real but…
“I’m in the trap.”
It was coming back to me, where I was when I’d been asleep, but not in my own body. “This…this is the maze trap that he told us about. The one you abandoned because it would take too long.”
“It would have taken too long to build a trap for that foul one. But it doesn’t take that long to build a trap for a human soul.”
She didn’t look at me as she spoke. She just kept staring out of the window, her tone even and quiet.
“It took possession of me, didn’t it?” I said. “But just when I was sleeping at first. Was it getting stronger?”
“Every time you took ownership of the house, it could take ownership of you,” she said.
“It did that you too. You built this trap. No…it tricked you into building this trap, for yourself.”
“And now we’re both here.”
I glanced around as if that would help. “How do we get out?”
“I don’t know. And I wouldn’t want to go out there if I were you. At least in here, we can be safe for a while.”
“That’s fine, then you stay here and just tell me how to get out. That thing is in my body and my friend is there. She’s in danger.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I don’t know how to exit the maze.”
“But you built the place.”
“I didn’t. The other one did. It possessed me, as you said.”
“But in here I can remember what it did when it was possessing.”
“Well, I don’t.”
I peered at her. “If it has your soul, why does it want mine? Why keep you in here?”
“My dear, I believe its intention is to collect the souls of everyone who owns that house. Quite clever actually. This place is like the freezer that suburbanites have in their garages. We’ll keep in here until it’s ready to pull us out and prepare us however it wants.”
“But the bargain was only for one soul.”
“You expect a demonic entity to stay true to the bargains it makes?”
I glared at her. “So you cheated. It’s cheating. Why am I being so honest? I’ll cheat my way out.”
“You can’t cheat your way out of this maze. It’s too complex for a human mind to figure out.”
“Every maze has walls. If you can punch through them, you can cheat your way through the maze.”
Without looking away from the window, the dowager waved a hand toward the wall. “Punch away. It won’t do you any good.”
I knew she was right. We weren’t in a physical maze. But I still believed my concept would work if only I could figure out where the walls were. Then something occurred to me. Another way to cheat.
“Do you have a contract?” I asked. If she had the contract, maybe we could tear it up. “How did you make the bargain? Did you sign your name in blood in some book?”
“Don’t be foolish.”
“So, no blood. No collection of your teardrops in a glass vial?”
“Not so much as my snot rag. Just my words. Just my promise. That’s all it took.” She pointed out the window.
I stood behind her and looked out. She was pointing to an oak tree.
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, I guess you’re not the one who had it chopped down then,” I said. “It’s not there anymore.”
For the first time, the old dowager turned away from the window. She glanced up at me, and there was terror in her eyes.
“I’m going to go check out that tree,” I said.
The dowager leapt up from the chair and lunged at me. She took me by surprise. Her strength took me by surprise. But we weren’t bodies in that place. We were souls. She was as strong as I was.
I tried to shove her away, but I felt myself pulling back. She looked so frail. Her arms were all one length, joint bones protruding like knobs. She swung me one way, then the other. It took me a second to realize that she was building up momentum. With a final swing, she flung me against the window. It shattered and I went through it.
I fell two stories.
We were souls, not bodies.
I was stunned, but not hurt.
“No!” she cried as she leaned out of the window above me. She’d forgotten too. And now she couldn’t stop me.
I got up as she disappeared from the window. I started running toward the oak tree.
It was just a stump now in the real world.
It had terrified the dowager to learn the tree had been cut down. And the only thing she’d expressed fear about in our conversation was the thought of leaving the maze.
That tree had to be my way out. I didn’t know what I would do once I reached it, but I ran to it with all the strength of my soul.
I ran so fast that when I got to the tree, I crashed right into it, hearing behind me the faint screams of the old dowager.
I found myself standing on the stump of the oak. It was glowing softly, but everything else was dark. I perceived faint outlines of shapes, like how a room looked when my eyes were just beginning to adjust after the lights were turned off.
There was another glow ahead of me, bright enough that its reflection showed the outlines of a house—my house.
I moved toward my house. I was still a soul without a body. I could tell I was afraid. But without a body, the fear didn’t feel like a gut-drop or a fast heartbeat or sweating. I just sensed disorienting flickers of light. Without eyes to see, I couldn’t perceive the physical world. I could only perceive two glowing lights. Claudia’s soul, beaming but jagged. And beside her a dark red fire. The demonic thing. I floated toward that fire, knowing I would become consumed in it. My soul lost for all eternity. But I couldn’t let Claudia die for me.
As I got closer, that dark red fire began to dim. I reached out and I could feel a cold heavy force within me—not within, but of me. I felt a terrible strain. That force was…merciless.
That dark red fire suddenly jolted up, leaving a shadow behind. That shadow…that was my body.
I turned to watch the red fire go. I had to chase it. I had to make sure it didn’t come back to hurt me or Claudia or anyone else. I had to extinguish it. I knew I could. With that force. It would destroy me. But I knew I could extinguish that fire before it did.
I tried to follow the fire. I saw it tracing my path, moving towards the oak. But I couldn’t. I was falling, not downward, but sideways. And I couldn’t stop it. I was falling into that shadow that was my body.
In the moment before I blinked and resumed seeing the world through physical eyes, I perceived the fire approach something at the glowing oak, something that didn’t glow, but just pulsed a weak and dying light. The fire consumed that light, and then it too vanished.
And the next thing I saw was the relief in my friend’s eyes, when I looked up at her, and she saw that it was me.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel