Chapter 4 – The alliance
She banged the door shot and sighed. Another week gone by with nothing in it for her but school, reading, sleeping and more school. The “village” was a bore, she knew hardly anyone in it and she could forget about diversion in her explorations as well, since the attic was guarded continually by Henry and his watchdog by the time she got home.
Friday, normally the most exciting day of the week, and she couldn’t wait till Monday so at least she had something to look forward to: homework.
Julian wasn’t much of a comfort, he was busy building a very close relationship to his Nintendo, leaving her with nothing but the piano. And that always grew too painful at a given point, even when playing her favourites.
She put her hand on the railing to go up to her room, when she heard voices. It sounded like two people arguing. One of them was obviously Henry, she would recognise his deep, resonating timbre anywhere, but the other was a quite unfamiliar, yet undeniably pleasant-sounding clear voice.
It was coming from her uncle’s office. Curiosity took her over as she crept closer, clinging to the wall, determined to hear more of the whispered conversation. Henry and his troublesome guest had left the door open just a crack. She could make out Henry’s face, and see most of his gestures, but the other person was hidden entirely from her sight.
Her uncle’s tone was suddenly surprisingly high, like a woman whining in desperation.
“Please, I beg you, she’s just a child, I promise you...”
“You seem unable of keeping promises.”
“I ensure you that from now on...”
“You ensured me that these children would be no trouble at all.”
“Yes, but, please have some...”
“Can’t you even control one little girl?”
Were they talking about her? She shivered. Regardless of the dissatisfaction in his words, his voice remained completely level and he didn’t raise it even once. He was so calm it was disturbing. Henry, on the other hand, doused himself in countless arguments, pleads and apologies, not to mention downright begging.
“I want what was stolen returned to me, do you understand?” Stolen? Did I steal something? What is going on...
“Yes, of course, sir, I’ll take care of it.”
“No, I will. I have little faith left in your abilities.”
“No, please, don’t! If only you would give me another chance, I swear I will not fail you again, have mercy, I’ll do whatever I can to...”
She could see a pale, bony finger being lifted, accompanied by a low hiss. Henry ceased his word flow and looked at her, stupefied and reddish. For a moment she hesitated like a deer caught in a headlight, then rushed in. She plunged forward and pushed the door open, stumbling into the middle of the office to find herself eye to eye with absolutely no one. The room was empty, apart from Henry, who continued to look at her as if one of them had just gone completely mad, either one.
“Where... Who...” She looked around again and after a quick glance at the dumbfounded, open-mouthed Henry, left the room without uttering another word.
I’m losing my mind. Either that, or there’s something really fishy going on in this house.
She retreated to her room and turned on her computer, at least she had that little excuse for a connection to the outside world, still shaking her head in confusion. Looking at the blinking screen before her, she started breathing regularly again.
She could watch some TV online, that would calm her down. She was glad she had it, since her uncle had a strange grudge against modern media and didn’t even own a set. This of course obliged Julian to come to her – or rather her computer – for entertainment... until Henry incited her eternal wrath by giving his “favourite” – and only, and estranged by own default – nephew his own TV!
She briskly tapped a key in her irritation. He had to be hiding something. Who was that man, what did he want, and what did she have to do with it all? It had to be her they were talking about. Or was it? What else could they have been discussing but “little girls” in this castle? What exactly did she do to upset whoever he was? How did he get out of a room with just one exit unseen and where did he go? And more importantly, how was he planning on “taking care of it”?
In a futile attempt at distraction, she tried to google some nearby cities that were actually worth their title, but geography had never really been her cup of tea to start with.
She’d be happy strolling the garden and the woods, which could put her mind at ease, had it not been freezing for a week solid. According to the weatherman it would still be freezing next week. And the week after that. It would freeze all bloody winter. It didn’t use to be like that where she grew up, where it was always nicer, always warmer. Welcome to your new home... She longed for spring.
There was an abrupt beeping. She was surprised at how long it took to sink in that it was her cell phone ringing.
Her mother used to call her that. In any case she had one friend here. She was so glad she dropped her books that day, otherwise she might still not have met anyone.
“Hey Ann, what’s up?”
“Look around you, what do you think? Not much, obviously.”
“Same here.” Unfortunately.
“Well, since we’re both bored, how about I come over? We could work on that English assignment together.”
“Yeah, the one on the English Renaissance... the one that’s due tomorrow.”
“Oh, dear, thanks for reminding me, must have completely slipped my mind...”
That I finished it a week ago, not to mention redid it twice. Pathetic.
“Well, guess you owe me... So is it on?”
“Then I’ll be right over.”
“Don’t you need directions or something?”
Ann laughed. She felt like she was missing something. “No need. Everyone around here knows where the castle is. It’s kind of hard to miss.”
“Oh, and uh, I was thinking. Since it’s Friday, I was wondering if, you’d be interested in doing something, you know, after the assignment, like maybe going out or something?”
She smiled. She knew Ann was a bit of a misfit too, and being a relatively new inhabitant herself, hadn’t managed to “infiltrate” into the tight-knit high school society either. That’s why they had initially closed a silent pact to join forces.
An alliance throughout high school, especially since they were planning on getting into the same college, and now another one against boredom. Ann must have been longing to get out as much as she was, though she always put up the ‘miss cool act’, not really fooling anyone with it. It was fine with her, as long as she could get away.
“Tell me something though, out where? Kicking it down at old Mrs. Hallows’ grocery shop? That’ll be fun.”
“No silly! Just because you have to go an extra mile or two, dozen, doesn’t mean there isn’t some place to go to. It’s Friday night, that means something, even here.”
“Yes, going to bed an hour later than usual because ‘Titanic’ is on, again.”
“We have parties too, you know.”
“You just need one hell of a tracking sense to find them.”
“I’ll take you somewhere that will blow your mind away.”
Fat chance. “Amaze me.”
“You’ll see, just let me take the lead.”
“Well, can’t hurt.”
“Jeez, such enthusiasm.”
“Jeez, such sarcasm.”
She hated parties, the crowds, the smoke, the filth, the intoxicated assholes that poured themselves full of booze or worse and covered everyone else in it too because they can’t hold on to their drinks anymore, the pushing, the yelling... She couldn’t wait. Anything is better than staying indoors in this nuthouse. She grimaced at her reflection in the mirror and turned away from it.
Half an hour later, the doorbell rang.
She opened the door. Ann stared at her, not giving any indication that she was planning on lifting her foot as if she was waiting for something. Eliza raised an eyebrow.
“I expected Lurge.” The girl said.
“Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. You might see an It or two, and definitely an over-age Morticia. Please, come in.”
“After that introduction?” Ann asked playfully, yet looked around with great interest. “I always wondered what it looked like from the inside.”
“Well, voila.” Eliza spread her arms, gesturing towards their surroundings.
Ann made a face.
“Yeah, I know, I didn’t pick the house.”
“Who is it?” A deep voice enquired, coming into the hall with another newspaper under his arm.
“A friend of mine from school, uncle, this is Ann.”
“You could have at least told me we were having guests over, young lady, this is very inappropriate!”
“Uhm, I didn’t think it would be a problem, we just have an assignment together.”
“Well, no use in arguing over spilled milk. Welcome, young lady, Ann, was it?” He stretched his flabby hand out to her. “How do you do?”
“Very well, sir, thank...”
“Eliza, just make sure not to make too much noise, okay?”
He looked at her severely and left.
“Okay.” Ann mouthed.
“Yeah, that was my uncle Henry, he took us in.”
“What a nice man.” Ann said insincerely.
“I think he’s in a bad mood or something, he’s usually better. Perhaps I should have warned him you were coming.”
“Why, so he could have hid the skeletons and got rid of the drugs or something.”
“Very funny. Let’s just go to my room, so we won’t be making too much noise.” She rolled her eyes. His furtive meeting must still go on his nerves. Was he afraid Ann might see or hear things? Or did he fear that she might tell her things?
They went upstairs.
“This is it.” She tidied her desk and hastily shoved the printed assignment in the nearest drawer while Ann looked around and whistled in admiration.
“Wow. My room looks like a broom cabinet compared to this.”
“But yours is probably a lot more cheerful. I did my best, but this entire house is just so... depressing.”
“If by depressing, you mean creepy, then yes.”
“Don’t get me started, I actually have to live here, at night. Have a seat.”
“Let’s get to it, then. The quicker we’re done, the faster we can leave.”
She soon discovered than Ann had the same attention span as your average goldfish. In hardly no time at all, her mind was full of something – or rather anything – other than renaissance poets.
She bounced through the room from one object to the next. Finally her eye was caught by the crimson rose.
“Nice rose.” Ann sprinted at it like a cat leaps at a mouse, crawling over the bed to reach the bedside table and plucked it right out of the vase. It made Eliza feel a pang, what is this feeling, it’s almost like jealousy. Ridiculous! What a ridiculous impulse to get jealous over a flower. She smiled her most benevolent smile to try and conceal it. Absurd!
“Thanks. It’s from the garden.”
“The garden?! In the middle of winter?”
Eliza put her pencil down, what the hell, she was done anyway. “Oh, yes, and what’s even more weird is that it’s been cut off weeks ago and it’s still fresh.”
“Hmm, how odd.”
A sigh of relief shook Eliza’s entire frame when the girl sprung to the next curiosity. Pensively she turned over the mysterious box from the attic.
Eliza raised her head to look past Ann at the window, listening to the howling outside.
“It’s storming again.” She said tonelessly.
“Ah, yes. That’s normal here, especially this time of year. I wouldn’t worry too much about if I were you, you’ll get used to it.”
“I wonder.” The streams of water bashing the window resembled too much the long, hard claws of some monster. Inadvertently she recalled the pale bony fingers of the stranger she’d seen that day and his long, pointed nails. Should she tell Ann about that? How could she ever explain the person’s disappearance? And what would she tell about him, she’d never even seen his face. She’ll just think I’m a total nutcase.
All of a sudden she noticed that Ann had been watching her carefully all this time.
“A stormy night in a site like this, some people would be afraid.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I live here.”
“It may look a little strange or even creepy, but it’s still just a normal house.”
“I don’t know...”
“What do you mean?”
“There are rumours.”
Eliza took the bait. “What kind of rumours?”
“Nothing substantial, just stories the villagers tell each other”, Ann bent over to Eliza and whispered, “about the castle.”
“Oh, come on.”
“I’m serious, they say some pretty scary stuff goes about here.”
“People talk, especially if they don’t have anything else to do. Particularly about things that they just don’t know anything about it. If my uncle was a bit more hospitable with the villagers there would be no mysteries and no rumours like that.”
“Still, this place has quite a history.”
“Uhuh. They say a count lived here, a long time ago.” Ann said in a low suggestive voice.
“Alright, I’ll play along; what happened?”
“He found out the countess cheated on him with their servant, who had been his childhood friend and whom he trusted like no other.”
“So what did he do?”
“He murdered his – or the servant’s – son, chopped him to bits, roasted him on a wood fire and fed him to his wife, whom he bricked into the wall along with her child’s remains.”
“I swear. And then he blamed it all on the servant and had him hanged, even though he kept yelling he was innocent, all the way down to the very end. They tortured him, of course, to make him confess, but he refused.”
“And he got away with it?”
“Why yes, no one dared stand up to him. In those days the aristocracy ruled absolutely, they were prosecutor, judge and jury all in one. You couldn’t oppose someone like that. However...” She left a small pause and looked Eliza deep in the eyes. “His wife could not find peace.”
“You mean his... dead wife?”
“Uhuh. Every night again she would appear before the count and confronted him with his deeds, showing herself to him all bloody and howling through the night, making as much racket as possible in the house till eventually all of the other servants fled and the count was left all alone. They say the guilt drove him mad. Every night he was kept awake, every day his wife would make her presence felt.”
“Moving the furniture around, making things disappear, making noises, writing things, you know, ghost stuff.”
“Then what happened?”
“Eventually the count couldn’t take it anymore and killed himself, you wanna know how?”
“He skinned himself to death!”
“Oh, come on, do you seriously believe that? How can anyone skin themselves to death?”
“They found him like that, in the morning, amidst peeled skin and drenched in blood. They could only recognize him by his seal ring.”
“Of course no one can tell if it wasn’t really his wife’s ghost that did it.”
“Sure, blame it on the ghost.”
“They even say you can hear them, at night, especially on nights like this, with the full moon and all. You can hear the cries of the burnt child out in the woods, the begging of the servant that was hung at the entrance gate to be picked clean by ravens” She came closer “and the count and countess, they haunt the castle walls at night. If you’re very quiet, than at midnight you can hear the countess wail.”
“I’ve never heard a woman wail here, and I’ve been up at night often enough.”
“Well, if you hear something crashing to the ground or see a shadow moving through the hallway, don’t go check!”
“What about the count? What noise does he make?”
“Oh, nothing in particular, some hysteric screams, it’s what he does that makes him so scary.”
“What does he do?”
Ann had been waiting for this encouragement. “He kills everyone that enters his castle, sooner or later. He’s very territorial.”
“I’m still alive aren’t I? I’ve never seen the count.”
“Previous owners have. A number of them have died mysteriously, including the man that owned it before your uncle bought it.”
“You don’t believe me? There’s a report on Mr. Defevre in the school library. I’ll show it to you some time. We could go there Monday, I’ll prove it to you.”
“Maybe. Don’t come whining if one night you wake up and see the bloody count peeling off his own skin right in front of you, if he doesn’t peel off yours next.”
“Nice... Admit it, you made that up!”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
“What are you saying?”
“All I’m saying is that if I were you, I’d check under the bed every night before I’d go to sleep.”
“Oh, come on! You’re just trying to scare me!”
“I wouldn’t be too confident.”
“Otherwise you would never have offered to come here.”
“I’m getting the hell out before midnight though.”
“We’re not twelve anymore. That kind of thing doesn’t work on me anymore, so cut it out!”
“Oh really? Who says it isn’t true? Haven’t you noticed anything strange since you got here?”
“Like what, ghosts?”
“Who knows. No seriously.”
She hesitated, should she tell her? It would make her feel better to confide in someone. “Well, maybe.”
“I’m not going to tell you. It’s silly. You’ll just think I’m nuts.”
“I won’t. You can tell me.”
“Well, I know there is no such thing as ghosts and all but... but sometimes I almost come to think that... this castle might be...”
“Yeah, stupid isn’t it.”
“I told you so!”
“It’s just that there are some things...”
“What kind of things?”
“Sometimes I hear things, probably just the wind, but...”
She paused and then spoke more agitated. “Sometimes when I’m up at night and I’m absolutely sure everyone else is asleep, I hear voices when there’s no one there.”
“In your head?”
“Haha. Or it’s like the piano just starts playing all by itself or I hear footsteps in the hall or on the stairs, or a door slams shut in an empty hall, or someone or something appears to be moving in the shadows... But that could all be imagination.”
“The power of suggestion in a gothic castle, huh.”
“There is something else. It’s an indisputable a fact that every time I open the curtains, someone shuts them behind me and I never get to see who did it and then there are these, cold draughts that crop up all of a sudden and seem to be blowing out of nowhere and even worse, sometimes it’s like I can feel a cold hand just...”
Ann burst out in laughter.
“None of it was true, was it?” Eliza said, sighing. That will go around on Monday. “Hey did you hear, the new girl is nuts! She thinks she can see ghosts. Say hi to Casper for me, freak!”
“Like I said: the power of suggestion. It’s probably that housekeeper of yours that closes the curtains and leaves windows open or something. Draughts are pretty normal in an old house like this.”
“Yeah, whatever. Just forget I said anything.” I wish. At least she’ll make new friends gossiping at my expense.
“Well, I heard isolation can do strange things to a person, why do you think they use it as a punishment?”
“Great, so I really am nuts.”
“No, silly. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone, I swear. I’m not like that.”
“Anyway, I have something to say that will cheer you up.”
“What, do the ghost busters really exist?”
“No, better. I know the perfect cure.”
“And what would that be?”
Ann hopped of the bed and made suggestive dance moves while making a full spin.
“Party, party and party like there’s no tomorrow.”
Eliza smiled softly. “Then let’s get to it!”
“Now you’re talking! Atta girl.”
“But how exactly do you plan on getting there? On foot.”
“I have a car, it’s parked right outside.”
“You can spend the night at my place, my mum doesn’t mind. All you have to do is pack your pyjama’s and a toothbrush.” She only had pyjama’s with hello kitty or snoopy on them because her mum used to think they were cute... Just great.
“Well, fine then. I’m just going to ask my uncle permission.”
Damn. “Yeah, don’t ask.”
“Does he have you wear a collar during the day and walk you on a leash to school or something.”
“Oh, don’t worry, it isn’t that catastrophic.”
Yet. But she’d never tried getting him to let her go out, especially at night. He wouldn’t even let her walk home from school by herself now the sun was setting sooner. But then again, Ann was with her. They had a car, it wasn’t like they would go on foot. What if he wouldn’t let her go? Escape? Climb out the window? She was getting too old for this...