It occurred to Thomas as he veered from the main road and drove slowly into the cul-de-sac, that he had made a big mistake. He’d bought the old house without inspecting it, planning to turn it into an investment property. But after months on the market, he began to realise that despite its luxurious size, nobody would be making an offer any time soon. Following a few disastrous weeks of stress-induced alcoholic binges, musings of childhood memories climbing the Jacaranda trees, and of missed days at work, of pouring over images of the house and its blueprints, he decided it was finally time to buy a plane ticket, fly interstate, and see the house once again for himself.
By the time he pulled up into the driveway, the moon hung smoky and yellow behind thin scudding clouds, offering no silvery light to lessen the oppressive darkness. In front of the house stood the two large Jacaranda trees, gently bending in the spring air with the floppiness of boneless limbs. As a child, people had told him the beauty of the Jacaranda trees protected the house, sheltering it from their constantly cyclone-swept town, yet he found that hard to believe. Trees had no hold over people, no matter how beautiful they were. A loud crack ricocheted around the cul-de-sac behind Thomas, like the sputtering of an old car. He looked up and stared at the shock of birds speckling the sky, wings flapping frantically.
Thomas got out of the car and stared up at the house. It had always stood in a composed way as if it had chosen solitude for itself; its occupants were something it could forego. The old roof sloped in the middle; the screen door hung precariously from its remaining hinge; the grass twisted around the letterbox like sea snakes slithering through a creek. The windows of the old house were oversized and divided like the compound eyes of a fly. Thomas stretched his arms over his head and sighed. He rarely took time off for himself anymore. He hoped coming back to the house, coming back to the place he had grown up, would provide some comfort, despite its desolate exterior. Lately, he started taking risks, purchasing things on a whim – like the old house. Though only in his early 30’s, he felt at least ten years older. And despite his professional success, he had never felt more alone. He spent his days wantonly, embracing his self-imposed solitude. If he could not pull himself out of it, he thought, he may as well go along with it and see where it led him. He glanced down at his watch. Seven PM. He’d look around quickly and go; it was likely Mary would still be at the pub.
Thomas sighed. He had never liked the house. Neither had his siblings. As children, they all had nightmares about the house; his brother complained about the cold daily, even in summer. His sister complained of neck pains. And Thomas woke up every morning with a sore throat as if someone had choked the life out of him. At first, his parents didn’t believe them. And yet over time they, too, started getting sick. Both his parents complained of intense, burning feelings shooting through their chests. Several doctors ruled out cardiovascular issues, and yet the pain remained.
The key took a little jiggling, but the front door swung opened easily enough. At once, a harsh, unpleasant odour hit Thomas with the force of a cricket bat. The pungent damp fruity stench filled his nostrils as he shuffled inside, his nose twitching at the mixture of sweet berries and lavender perfume old church women sold at the market. Coughing, he made his way inside and into the living area, leaving the door ajar to air the house out.
When inquiring about the property, the real estate agent informed Thomas that people didn’t seem to stay in the house very long. The neighbors couldn’t remember the last time anyone lived there for more than three months. As an adult, Thomas had learned the man who built the house had polished the floors himself, the living room parquet a pet project of his. Thomas looked around, inspecting the personal touches. The walls stood firm, and the window frames were strong, despite the age of the house. Old cobwebs laced the ceiling, settling comfortably on unused furniture. The new owner had a certain style. Thomas imagined a flat screen TV would look out of place, ugly. The floor had once been lined with a thick slab of carpet, but half of it had uncurled at the edges, exposing large areas of rotting wooden floorboards.
To the left was a small sitting area with his mother’s old, abandoned, piano sitting in the corner. She had said music in the house created a heart within a home. Thomas pushed the thought from his mind. He should have knocked down the house years ago. True, he’d spent the following three years after his parent’s death in a drunken stupor. Yet a part of him, a darker part of him, was happy they were gone. His mother, though possessing great beauty and musical skill, did nothing with her talent. She’d sit in the loungeroom and paint her nails all day, cornflower blue, like his eyes. His father, though a loyal worker, had no real ambition. After a few months of living in the house they’d begun to argue; his father quit his job, his mother stopped giving music lessons. They argued about money, about Thomas; several times they’d brandished knives, threatening to slit their throats.
Thomas had been at school the day they killed themselves. They’d abandoned him – their suicide pact evidence they had never loved him at all. They’d stabbed themselves, or each other, multiple times. He hadn’t attended their funeral. He and his siblings moved in with their aunt, uncle, and three cousins following their death. Thomas stared at the piano. He didn’t like to admit it after his parent’s death he became less of himself and more of a nebulous spectre. His own hands, once skilled at making music like his mother, became useless, as though all the bones from his fingers were removed. His teeth, once rich and strong, began to rot. And his heart, once filled with the excitement of life, began to melt, becoming nothing but a diaphanous mass not strong enough to hold anything else but bitterness and sorrow.
Thomas stepped around the carpet cautiously. He’d have to have it pulled up as soon as possible. He ventured down the hallway until he reached the kitchen. His stomach sank. The roof had slightly caved in on the right and was almost entirely covered in moss, peppered with cavernous holes that buckled under the weight of the rotting frame. Large cracks ran down the greying walls shaped like lightning bolts, with chunks of lichen and slime growing around the edges. Frowning, he continued to his sister’s room.
It seemed he’d left the house and ventured into a cave. Around him, the walls were made of rocks; the formations resembled meringues, dinosaur scales, velvet curtains, moss, broccoli, coral, bones, lace, icicles, mushrooms. Ripples of gold on high white expanses put him in mind of baroque cathedrals formed over millions of years, not by human hands but something spiritual, something holy. Body frozen, Thomas felt as though he was in the bowels of the Earth itself like the chamber could be part of something organic, something alive. Slowly, Thomas outstretched a hand and ran his fingers over the rocky surface below the light switch. The surface was powdered with reddish-grey lichen, saplings sprouting from the socket.
Hanging from the ceiling were long liana vines, their long ends splitting into five different branches, curled at the end, resembling fingers reaching to grab someone. The second finger was longer and curved, so it became a circle, with several wraps at the top. Thomas shuddered; it was clearly a hangman’s noose. What if I can’t afford to knock down this house? He thought. What if no one buys this house? What if the investment left him bankrupt? Thomas shook his head, yet the dejected thoughts lingered. While he knew no one in his family had tied the noose, and suspected vandals had come in while the house stood vacantly– or maybe it was the previous owners who had abandoned the house? – He couldn’t shake the feeling of uneasiness. His stomach did backflips within his rattled body. You can’t sell this house.
Withdrawing his hand, he rubbed his forehead, its nails digging lightly into the small creases. Stomach churning, he stepped backwards, stumbling back out into the hallway. To the right was a small alcove that led to the three bedrooms. The bottom step squeaked as Thomas applied pressure on the staircase with his foot; he let out a sigh of relief, surprised the old structure hadn’t swallowed him up. He looked to the right. The door of the smallest bedroom, his sister’s bedroom, slightly off colour from the rest of the house, loomed over him like a giant as he turned the brass handle. The door swung open with a creak. There was a flash of brown fur as several rats dove for cover. Thomas wrinkled his nose in disgust. He’d have to get pest control in as soon as possible.
The bedroom was empty save for a few water-logged cardboard boxes and the stale straw-like odour of decomposing rats. Pinching hisnose, Thomas glanced around; the room was larger than he’d remembered, though still retained the built-in wardrobe his father had installed. He could imagine the room stripped back and painted, with new carpets and furnishings, though knew it would take a lot of time and money, more than he was willing to spend. It’d probably be best to demolish the house and start again, he thought. He could replace it with two smaller houses and make more money. Thomas dry-swallowed and pressed his fingers to his temple. It was a mistake to come back here, he thought. Why return to a house you so despise? But why leave? Stay in the house. This is your house. Don’t leave us.
Grimacing, Thomas ran a tired hand through his hair and returned to the hallway. He hadn’t been sleeping well lately – his tiredness was getting to him. Passing the remaining bedrooms, he paused at the second one. His sister had demanded she have this room, despite the fact it was bigger, and he was older. Eventually, he conceded; his father had let him build a sheet fort in the attic for extra space. He stared at the doorway. It was crooked; the door leaned slightly to the left; the longer he stared at it, the dizzier he became. The room seemed hollow without his sister’s presence. She’d killed herself the day after her 18th birthday. No warning, no note. Just a broken neck and a small funeral.
Shaking his head, Thomas made his way to the curved staircase that led to the attic, taking the steps two at a time. As he reached the landing he paused, hand firm on his side. He’d become lazy of late; a sharp stitch dug into the right side of his waist.
The door was ajar. Peculiar sounds drifted out onto the landing, almost as though within the room was a raging wind howling with the urgency of a hungry child. The escaping air was thick and slightly muggy. He outstretched his foot and nudged open the door. For a moment, Thomas thought he’d somehow returned to the dining room, for it seemed he had stepped into another cave. Except this time, the stalactites were made of ice. The left side of the wall was hard and high, akin to imposing cliffs sculpted from rock by briny waves. The rocky walls were creviced, patterned with geometric shadows an off-shade of white that could make blank pages seem grey. Flickers of azure specs painted the walls so small one might almost miss it.
The room was warm when his brother was alive. He’d killed himself on his 15thbirthday, repeatedly stabbing his neck with an ice-pick. Now it was cold, the frigid air holding him in place, keeping him in the room, wicking away his body heat until he felt completely frozen. Gulping a lungful of frozen air, Thomas pushed his way through the oppressive cold; his breaths were ragged coughs. Heart thudding, Thomas stumbled from the room, sprinting down the stairs as fast as he could without falling, bursting through the front door and into the garden. Dropping to his haunches, he closed his eyes, thumbing his temples, feeling sick to his stomach as the warmth flooded his body. He had to be ill. There was no other explanation. He had to be seriously ill. But what kind of illness would cause such an abstract visage, would cause him to succumb to such realistic hallucinations?
Thomas sat cross-legged on the driveway, staring up at the house. His heard thundered so heavily inside him he thought it would burst from his chest and land on the concrete beside him. Maybe he had fallen asleep? He pinched his arm. Nothing happened. He dug his nails into his hand. Still nothing. Thomas looked over his shoulder, at the other houses in the cul-de-sac. It seemed fitting they were positioned in a dead-end street, for they were lifeless and devoid of colour, clinging to their plot of land, stubbornly refusing to die. The great husks of derelict buildings seemed to belong together – the remnants of shattered glass in rotting wooden window frames, weed-infested gardens, and untiled roofs stood together, united in their abandoned despair. Thomas supposed people could have occupied the houses, yet he couldn’t think of anyone who’d choose such an unwelcoming dwelling to live in. He’d never understood why his mother refused to leave her family house. She’d been adamant about moving the family in after her parents had committed suicide. She wanted to preserve their memory, she’d said. But who in their right mind would move into such a depressing place? The only person who’d be willing to buy the house now would have to be a company with plans to demolish the entire cul-de-sac altogether. He imagined a neat row of houses with high-security gates and cameras. Maybe one of them would have a swimming pool?
Thomas gritted his teeth, pushing away his ambitious thoughts. There was no way an actual cave could reside inside the house. He must have been hallucinating. He’d been thinking of his parents of late, dead and buried for several years. Perhaps his thoughts of them conjured up a surreal manifestation? Pursing his lips, he plucked up the courage to pick himself up from the ground. He looked up at the Jacaranda trees. The slender reddish-brown branches bent at odd angles, like broken, twisted limbs. The twigs, long, like outstretched fingers, were crooked, bending at odd zig-zagged angles. When he’d first arrived at the house the tree was in bloom, a spectacular lavender hue; now, the branches were empty. He’d get them cut down as soon as possible. Leaving them would blemish a new, neat neighbourhood.
Thomas tugged at his hair, stumbling backwards. Unease blossomed within him, yet he couldn’t move, couldn’t turn away from the house. His feet felt glued to the driveway. With each beat of his thudding heart, they grew more burdensome, as though they were set in the concrete. His mind urgently screamed at him, willing him to run, to get away from the house, but his body refused to move, as though it was stuck on a train track, waiting to be destroyed, waiting to become nothing more than fragments of blood and bone.
Panic seized him. He pressed his hand to his neck, coughing as his throat seemed to close, and his head filled with what felt like air. Without warning, his body moved of its own volition, each step dragging his body closer towards the house. The muscles in his legs burned as he told them to stop, to turn around, but they pushed on, pulling him closer to the front door. Pain sheeted through his body like a sharp-toothed creature eating him from the inside. Eyes wide, he screamed incredulously as his body, as though pulled by invisible hands, was dragged up the driveway and towards the house. He dug his fingers into the bottom of the doorframe, screaming as his nails were pulled backwards, ripped off, exposing bloodied pink skin. Clinging to dear life, he tried to hold on as hard as he could, clinging to the last vestiges of hope as his fingers broke, snapping backwards.
“No!” He cried, screaming. “Let me go! Someone! Help!”
He dug his broken, bloodied fingers into the carpet as hard as he could. He sunk his teeth into the carpet, kicking at the force that held him. Pain seared through him as his teeth separated from his gums and he was dragged up the stairs and towards his old bedroom.
“Please! Stop! Anyone!”
The bedroom doorframe was warped, twisted, as though someone had moulded it from clay. It now appeared to be an immense gaping mouth, with shards of wood sticking out like two rows of pointed teeth. An assortment of prehensile vines, roots, and branches spat out from the room, twisting around Thomas’s arms and legs like a vice, crushing his flesh and bones. A small segment of his ribcage broke from the rest of his chest cavity, the snapping sound ringing in his eyes as loud as an emergency alarm. Blood spiltover his lips as Thomas struggled against the bondage. Screaming, he stared at the vine as it slowly grew visceral, the slender stem replacing plant with flesh, filling with bones; the leaves at the end of the stem elongated until they became slim, spindly fingers, with ten cornflower blue flowers sprouting at the end; the flesh of the vine twisted like gnarled branches, wrapping around his throat.
I don’t want to do it, John. The light voice of his mother drifted in and out of the room. But I can’t do this anymore. The pain is too much….
His father’s voice whispered in his ear. I can’t do this either, Eleanor. This is too much to bear. The pills aren’t working. Nothing is working.
Around him, the darkness gathered like smoke, yet moonlight flickered through the window, the pool of yellow light speckling the room, like the flickering streetlamp outside. His family stood in the doorway. His parent’s chests were bloodied, stab wounds weeping like tears. His sister’s neck was bent at an impossible angle, her eyes wide and blank. Frozen blood congealed around a gaping hole in his brother’s neck.
Don’t leave us, his brother gasped, his voice throaty. Stay.
Thomas’s head felt like it was exploding. Short, ragged breaths escaped his mouth. Lungs aching, he blinked as swirly specs of light danced before his eyes then faded, as the room went black.
Stay with us forever….
Claire Fitzpatrick is an award-winning author of speculative fiction and non-fiction. She won the 2017 Rocky Wood Award for Non-Fiction and Criticism. She has been a panellist at Conflux and Continuum. Called ‘Australia’s body horror specialist’ by Peter Kirk, editor of Breach magazine, and ‘Australia’s queen of body horror’ by Gavin Chappel, editor of Schlock! magazine, she enjoys writing about the human body and the darker sides of humanity. Her debut anthology ‘Misanthropy’ will be published by IFWG Australia in 2019. She lives in Brisbane. Visit her at www.clairefitzpatrick.net