This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
So I felt better. But I still sure as hell wasn’t going to leave the room, not knowing how many intruders there might be or what weapons they had. I’d startled whoever was in my room, that didn’t guarantee they’d stay scared.
The bedroom doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t even have a socket for one. Thankfully I charge my mobile each night, keeping it by the bed for its alarm. If holding the lump of rock made me feel better picking up the phone was like a jolt of confidence. This was a lifeline, a connection to civilisation, to help. I’d only had to dial 999 twice before that in my life, once after witnessing a car accident and the second time when I spotted a fire in a hedge during a particularly dry summer. I remember those two calls as if they’d just happened, every detail, but this call… I hardly remember it at all. I know I spoke to the Police, know they said they were on their way. I remember the next bit… the operator trying to keep me calm. She asked about the room’s layout, suggested I try to block the door with the chest of draws. Just in case.
Even with the lump of rock in one hand, the phone to my ear with the other, the ten steps or so round the bed and towards the door were excruciating. I kept expecting the door to burst open. Someone, or something, to come bursting in. The adrenaline pumping round my body had me wired, jumpy.
The door wasn’t fully closed, maybe an inch or two from it. All the money in the world couldn’t have made me try to shut it. I moved to the right of the chest of draws, into the small space they left in the corner of the room, braced myself against the wall and gave the chest of draws an almighty shove. Even with the adrenaline pouring through my body I had trouble shifting it. It must have taken five, six heart stopping pushes before it even reached the edge of the door frame. I still expected the door to fly open at any time, and now I was making too much noise to hear if anyone was approaching. Another few shoves and it was most of the way across the door. It wouldn’t stop anyone getting in, but it would slow them a lot.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I broke down then, the fear, the adrenaline, the uncertainty and the feeling of being at least a little more safe overwhelmed me. I hunched down beside the blocked door, back to the wall with tears running down my face, trying not to sob, trying to hear if anyone was still in the house. The next few minutes are blurry. I remember talking to the police operator, or more her talking to me. Keeping me calm. Telling me the officers were on their way. Finally telling me they were there. I could tell, I could see the red and blue flashes through the window, even at the back of the house.
I didn’t move the unit blocking the door till they were inside, coming up the stairs. The Police get a lot of stick these days. From the press, from speeding drivers, from comedians. All rubbish. When you need them, when you’re scared for your life, when someone has made you feel terrified… then you know the value of those men and women. Then the sight of that dark blue uniform takes on its real meaning. Safety… help… support… security. I can’t put into words the relief I felt.
They quickly established that there were no signs of a break-in, no locks or windows had been forced. As far as I could tell nothing had been taken. A plant I kept on a table near the stairs had been knocked off, dirt scattered over the floor from it. Two footprints were clear in the dirt. Too small to be from me. And that was it, other than the open back door through which the Police had entered. Another police car turned up, those officers spent some time searching the small garden and field beyond with powerful torches but found nothing. The original two officers stayed longer searching inside the house, but still could find nothing. With the footprint they believed someone had been in the house, which was a relief. I’m not sure how I would have coped if they’d decided it was all a dream or all in my head.
They thought that either I’d left the back door unlocked or someone else had used a key. I was certain I’d checked the door before going to bed. Given the location of the house they agreed someone trying the back door on the off chance it was unlocked seemed unlikely. On the other hand I’d only been renting the house a few weeks, and I knew plenty of others had lived there before just from the variety of names on the piles of junk mail each day. The front was secure, well the porch door was. The porch had been built after the last tenants left. Only the landlord and I had keys. The back door though… that was old. Any number of people might have a key.
By the time the officers finished and left it was nearly five in the morning. I locked all the doors once they’d gone, leaving a key turned in the back door to stop it being unlocked from outside. The door opened inwards so I wedged a kitchen chair under the handle, angled to try and jam if the door was opened. I didn’t go back to sleep. How could I? I had every light in the place on and was still jumping at the slightest noise. I tried putting the telly on, but that was worse. I kept worrying I was missing a sound because it was on. In the end I sat trying to read a book, not getting very far, till it got light.
The next day was a Saturday so at least I didn’t have to work. I left the back door wedged, made triply certain the porch door was locked then jumped in the car. Forty minutes later I was back from the nearest DIY shop with a selection of bolts and chains for the doors. If I’d owned the house the locks would have been changed that day, but when renting it’s much harder to do that. So I did the next best thing. I added three bolts to the back door, solid affairs with steel bars as thick as my thumb. Then I added a solid chain.
I couldn’t do much with the porch door, it being a modern metal shielded security door. But then I didn’t need to. The inner front door, now just leading into the porch, was another matter. Another two bolts and a chain and that too felt much safer. Just in case someone broke the porch window and bypassed its hefty door.
Then I dug out an old web cam and attached it to my laptop. The web cam I positioned half behind some books on the kitchen table so it covered the back door. The laptop went on the floor under the table, hidden behind some boxes. I’d got some security software a few years before and never used it, now I would. If it caught movement it would record for five minutes. If anyone tried to get in I should get a good view of them.
Despite all the additional security the next night was difficult. I checked each of the doors at least ten times that evening, and another three or four times when I decided to go to bed. I checked every inch of the house to make sure no-one was hiding. Under the beds, in the wardrobes… even the kitchen cupboards. It sounds silly saying it, but at the time I just had to be sure. I left the lights on in the lounge, the landing and even the bedside light in my room. And I put a box behind my bedroom door with several saucepans balanced on top. No one was sneaking up on me at night again.
Despite all the precautions, maybe even partly because of them, I slept terribly that night. I kept waking with a start, heart pounding scared there was someone in the room again. Though I didn’t have that feeling, that certaintythat someone was there. And the dreams… endless dreams of being chased, of waking up to a house that felt darker and more foreboding than normal, feeling someone was there, watching, stalking. All the dreams you’d expect given the scare I’d had the night before. Other than the nightmares though my sleep was undisturbed. The makeshift saucepan alarm system behind the door was untouched, and the bolts were still firmly locked as was the back door. In the bright winter’s sunlight of that morning I felt rather silly seeing the kitchen chair that I’d once again wedged against the back door the previous night. Things look so much different with sunlight streaming in, even the cool sunlight of winter.
The next night was better. I felt more secure, only checked the locks a couple of times before turning in though I still did my search of the house. Not because I felt anyone would be hiding, just to deal with that niggling little thought in my mind that they might be. That night’s sleep wasn’t great, but nothing disturbed me and between bad dreams I actually slept quite well.
In fact I slept so well that I snoozed my alarm three times without waking properly. When the alarm went off yet again, and my tired brain took in what the time was, I was rushing round the house getting ready. Quick shower, two slices of bread, clean teeth, grab everything and out the door. Though not without checking the bolts on the back and that the porch was securely closed.
* * *
Being in the office worked wonders for me, both the mundane routine and the chance to tell my tale in the warm light of day. By the seventh or eighth telling it had lost most of its fear, I felt one step removed from it. That lasted during the drive home, in the dark of course. The joys of English winters. Halfway home it started to snow, soon turning into a thick blizzard. The journey took half hour longer than normal and when I got home the snow was already an inch or so thick, though it was easing off a bit at least. I parked, got out, crunched through the snow to the porch and unlocked its door. The porch has no light, but I could still see. A street lamp on the road shined its dirty amber light in the window. I closed the porch door, put my key in the old front door, turned it, pushed the door open… and froze.
The feeling was back. Someone was in the house, in the front room even, and they were watching me. The light from the street lamp doesn’t reach the front room, it’s on the wrong side. And from the front door part of the room is hidden by a wall, including the doorway into the kitchen.
I froze. Literally. My blood felt like ice in my veins, my guts were rock hard lumps of ice. The air I forced into my lungs seemed to burn them. Light seeping in from the porch let me see the first few feet into the room, the rest was pitch black. I’d meant to leave some lights on that morning, but in my rush to get out it had completely gone out of my head.
The light switch is opposite the door as you come in, on the wall that blocks sight of part of the room. Two steps and I could reach it. Just two steps. I couldn’t move. I could tell I was being watched, could feel the dark shape somewhere in the room watching me, waiting for me. I could have stood there all night. I know I stood there for a few minutes, not moving, frozen to the spot desperately straining to hear movement. Too scared to go further in, too scared to move back.
The reason I didn’t stand there all night was a car. Just an ordinary car travelling along the road. Hearing it seemed to break the spell on me. I took two quick steps, fumbled for the switch and clicked it on. Glorious light flooded the room, such a relief. A very short-lived relief. I heard someone open the back door, heard it slam behind them. I quickly moved farther into the living room, the bright light making me bolder. Empty. The kitchen too, from what I could see. Cautiously I moved through to the kitchen doorway, turned on the light and stared around the room. Empty too. Then I looked at the back door and my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. All three bolts were there, locked in place. As was the chain. The room seemed to sway around me as I stepped forward, tried the handle and found it was unlocked. I knew I’d heard the door open and close. And there was snow on the back door mat, already starting to melt in the warmth of the kitchen. But the bolts, the chain, were still in place. What was going on?
Feeling dizzy I pulled out a kitchen chair, sat down heavily. Found myself staring at the web cam. Still in place. Dizziness forgotten I crouched down and retrieved the laptop, put it on the table and pulled up the clips it had taken with the web cam. Each block of video had the first image as its thumbnail. As you’d expect there were plenty of me, mostly of my back as I entered the kitchen. The last was different. Very different. A smear of white. Hand shaking I selected that clip, started it playing.
The picture wasn’t great, the only light in the kitchen had come from the lounge, but it was good enough. The flash of white was a young girl in a nightie, maybe seven or eight years old. Long dark hair. She darted to the kitchen door, glanced back over her shoulder, then yanked the door open in a swirl of snow and rushed out pulling the door closed behind her. Then nothing happened for twenty or thirty seconds till the kitchen lights came on and I came into view, staring at the bolts.
I played the clip again, slower this time. It was hard to tell but at least one bolt and the chain were in place when she entered the kitchen. They were obscured by her body as she got close to the door, but as she opened it they were gone. Not undone, just gone. Then as she slammed it behind her they just seemed to reappear, all securely locked.
I sat there for a while trying to take it all in. I think I was in shock. For all that my mind had been populating the dark with demons and spectres each time I’d felt that presence I’d been sure deep down that it was a burglar or something similar. Maybe even a prankster. This was… well this was unbelievable.
Standing I went to the back door, flicked on the outside light. Snow covered the back garden as far as I could see, and in the snow was a single set of footprints. Small, just right for the girl I’d seen, and already being filled in by the falling snow.
I pulled my mobile out of my jacket, started to dial 999. Stopped partway through and cancelled the call. Just what was I going to say? That a ghost had been waiting in my living room, that I had proof from the web cam? Even if the image had been perfect it would be easy to fake with any modern computer, shot in the dim light as it was no one would believe it. Hell, I only believed it because I’d felt the presence, heard the back door, could see the fading footprints. If I was lucky they’d suggest I’d been working too hard, that I should see my doctor. If not it might be wasting police time or a visit to the nice hospital with the soft walls and special jackets.
I sat down, watched the video clip again but slowed it down. Froze it as the girl looked over her shoulder so the camera could catch her face. I hadn’t noticed before but she looked scared, terrified. I’ve got a niece, Lucy, about her age. This is where I should say the girl looked just like my niece, but she didn’t. Lucy has curly blond hair, is a different build. Doesn’t look anything like the girl. Even so the look of terror made me think of Lucy being that scared, made me want to reach out and hug her. Lucy. The girl. Both. I don’t know. I do know that’s the moment the fear left me, well most of it. I’d never seen a child look so terrified. My heart went out to her. I wanted to help.
My head was spinning by now, thoughts and ideas, images and feelings chasing themselves round and round. I felt I had to do something. So I got up, filled the kettle, made a cup of tea. Sounds strange I know, but what else was there to do? And the routine, the time worn ritual, did wonders to restore my nerves, calm my fears. Taking my tea I went into the front room, sank onto the sofa and thought. By the time I’d finished the tea I had a plan, well an idea anyway. But I couldn’t put it into action yet.
I made myself a quick dinner, read a little, passed the time. By ten o’clock I was in bed, just the bedside lamp left on. I had considered leaving the kitchen and lounge lights on, leaving the web cam set up, but I’d decided not to. I was sure the girl was real, I didn’t need any more proof. And leaving the lights on might interfere with my idea. Turning the bedside lamp off I lay down in the dark to wait. No longer terrified, though still a little scared. And more than a little excited. I knew it might be a long wait, but I had enough adrenaline pumping through my body to keep me awake all night if necessary. At least I thought so. Guess I was wrong.
* * *
I came awake quickly, was almost startled out of my dreams. Once again I could feel the presence, feel the fear, the terror. But now I started to understand. The fear wasn’t all mine, it was coming from that presence. Whoever or whatever was in the room, and I was just about certain it was the little girl, was scared almost out of their mind. I took a few moments to compose myself, then spoke softly.
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”
I could sense whatever was in the room seeming to tense, to freeze. For long moments I expected to hear the bedroom door slam open, hear footsteps fleeing down the stairs again. Then, finally…
“Who… who are you?” the voice was that of a girl, a very, very scared little girl.
“My name is John.” I replied softly, trying to push reassurance and warmth into my voice. “I live here.”
“But this is my house. I live here. Where are my mummy and daddy? Where are they?” I heard her stifle a sob.
“I don’t know. Really I don’t. But I’d like to help. Would it be OK if I sit up a little and turn on the light?”
Silence. She was still there, I could feel that. She must be thinking. I kept quiet, let her think.
“OK.” she said finally, reluctantly.
I reached out, turned on the light. Once again I was facing away from the door. Despite everything my heart was pounding as I slowly sat up and turned to face the door. I’m not sure what I expected to see. A ghostly shape? A translucent image of the little girl? A glowing one? Maybe something nastier, a half decomposed body or gaping wound? I’ve seen all those variants and more in films and on TV, I’m sure you have too.
Instead I saw what looked like a normal little girl. Feet on the floor, no halo, no glow, completely solid and without any sign of a wound. Standing in bare feet wearing a white nightie with a pattern of small pink teddies. I took a breath to steady myself and smiled at her. She still looked scared, but maybe a little less likely to run off immediately.
“What’s your name?” I asked, still keeping my voice soft.
She stared at me for a few moments before deciding to speak.
“Alice. Alice Brompton”
“Hello Alice.” I said. “My name is John.”
“I know that. You already told me.” she said, in the same tired tone that every child uses with an adult they think is being stupid. That was the moment I was sure I was dealing with a real little girl, regardless of the circumstances. I smiled back.
“I did didn’t I? I’m sorry. You’ve been giving me quite a scare you know.”
She frowned at that, screwing her face up. When Lucy does that I call it her serious face. After a few moments she looked up at me again.
“Really?” she asked tentatively. “I scared you?” she sounded surprised. Surprised and a little pleased. Every kid that age likes the idea of getting one over on an adult.
“Yes.” I smiled back. “The night before last you scared the life out of me.”
She giggled. Shifted her feet uncertainly, then made her way to the foot of the bed, sitting on the end. Looking serious again.
“This isn’t mummy and daddy’s bed. And it’s not their furniture. Is this really where you live?”
“Yes. Yes it is.” I answered. I wasn’t sure what to say next, so I decided to stay quiet and let her speak.
“I don’t understand. Where have they gone? Why have they left me? Where are they?” She was close to tears, ready to break down, but somehow holding it off. I wanted to move to her, hold her, tell her it was all right. I shifted slightly in bed and she froze, clearly not trusting me yet. I made myself sit still.
“When did you last see them?” I asked her. “Try to think.”
Again the serious face, but for longer this time. When she finally spoke it was in a quiet, uncertain voice.
“I… I’m not sure. I can’t remember very well. I know we were here though. At home. Mummy said goodnight to me downstairs, gave me a hug. Daddy picked me up and carried me to bed. Then he read me a story. It was about a princess in a tower. I was very sleepy when he finished reading, I must have fallen asleep. Then… later… there was a loud bang that woke me up, and I heard mummy screaming. I jumped out of bed and ran in here. There was a man standing near the window, holding something in his hand. And there was a horrible smell of smoke. Mummy was holding the phone screaming into it, Daddy was still asleep. I don’t know how the noise didn’t wake him up. Mummy turned and saw me, then she shouted at me to run, to run to the woods and hide. That the man was a bad man and wanted to hurt me. The man lifted his hand and pointed it at Mummy, then there was a horrible bang and a flash and mummy fell down on the bed. I was so scared. I ran… ran down the stairs, ran to the back door. I could hear the bad man start coming down the stairs. The key was in the back door, I opened the door and ran out into the garden towards the woods. Then there was another big bang and something hit me in the back of the head, knocking me over. It didn’t hurt though. I picked myself up and ran and ran until I got into the woods. The moon was bright so I could see a bit. I ran to my favourite tree and climbed up into the branches. I could see the house from the top, see the road. I saw the bad man run out of the house and get into a car, then drive away. I thought about climbing down and going back but I was scared the bad man would come back again. I remembered that mummy might be hurt and started to cry. Then a police car turned up, it had its lights flashing but didn’t have its siren on. I thought they always had their sirens on. This one didn’t though. And then there was another one, and another one. There were lots of policemen. There were so many people and so much noise that it scared me. I wanted to go back and see mummy but I was too scared to move. I think I fell asleep in the tree.
When I woke up again there were no police cars and the house was dark. I went back, the back door was unlocked, and I went upstairs. No one was there. I went and curled up in my bed and cried and cried. I think I must have fallen asleep again.
I can’t remember properly after that. I know I kept coming back, but the house was always empty or had strange people. They scared me and I ran, ran out through the garden and back to my favourite tree in the woods. Sometimes they called the Police and I saw the cars with the flashing lights again. They made me sad.” She stopped talking, stared straight at me with tears in her eyes. “You called the police!”
“I did. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you, I didn’t know who was in my house. I thought someone had broken into the house.”
“Like the bad man?” she asked, face crumpling in fear. I could have kicked myself.
“No. Not like him.” I said firmly. “I thought someone was trying to steal something, there aren’t many people like the bad man and the police always catch them.” A lie, obviously, but kinder than the truth.
“Do you think they caught mybad man?”
“Yes. I’m sure they did.” Another lie, but what would you have said?
“But where are mummy and daddy? I keep coming back here but they aren’t here. Why don’t they come looking for me.”
She was getting upset again. Hardly surprising. How many eight year olds can cope with thinking they’ve lost their parents, even just for a few minutes? Let alone everything else she’d been through.
“Maybe they can’t get here. Maybe they’re looking for you, calling for you, somewhere else.” I said. I have no idea where those words, that idea came from. They just seemed to pop into my head. Her eyes lit up.
“Do you think so? Really? But where?”
“Just try thinking of them. Listening for them. Reaching out for them.” Again, I have no idea where those words came from. She closed her eyes, squeezed them shut. Put her head on one side. Classic eight year old listening pose. After a few moments her eyes flew open and a huge smile lit up her face.
“Yes! I can hear them. I know where they are. Thank you, thank you!”. She launched herself across the bed and threw her arms around me, before I even had a chance to think. Real arms, a real girl. Not icy cold as you might have thought. A real, live… well… a real little girl. I could even feel her heart beating as she clung to my neck nearly choking me. After a few moments she pulled back a little, kissed me on the cheek.
“Thank you Uncle John!” she said. I smiled at that, I guess that all kids adopt the adults they like as Uncles or Aunts.
“It was my pleasure Alice.” I said.
“I want you to have this, my lucky necklace.” she said, lifting a small locket necklace on a silver chain from around her neck. I hadn’t noticed it before because it was under her nightdress. She placed it on my hand looking into my eyes.
“To remember me by.” she said with a smile. I got another kiss on the cheek followed by another hug that threatened to cut off my breathing not to mention the blood supply to my head.
There was a movement on the landing and two adults came into view. Alice yelped and leapt off the bed running through the doorway to them. They both crouched down hugging her. Both had hairstyles I hadn’t seen in years, not since the early eighties. As the three of them hugged I noticed that they seemed to be, well, not fading as such but growing more distant without moving. The woman had her head buried in Alice’s hair, but the man looked up, smiled at me and spoke in a distant sounding voice.
“Thank you.” he said. “Thank you so much for bringing our baby back to us.”
I just smiled in return, tears running down my face. Whatever was happening, wherever they were going, they seemed to grow more and more distant until they just disappeared. And I could feel their absence too. That prickly feeling of others being in the room stopped abruptly.
I lay in bed for a long time after that, crying sadly at times as I thought of Alice’s story, crying tears of happiness at others as I remembered the three of them holding each other. I didn’t even realise I still held Alice’s locket for some time. When I did I examined it, opened it to find a picture of Alice’s mother holding a baby, Alice I guessed, face beaming.
* * *
The next day I called in sick. Called the agent I’d rented the house through and demanded its history. They admitted that many people had reported a presence, a ghost in the house, and terminated their rentals. They didn’t know the history of the house much more than ten years before though, they’d only started renting it in ninety-nine.
So I went to the local library and did some digging. I’d only asked a few questions when the elderly assistant realised where I was talking about. She knew the history, remembered it well.
The house had been targeted by a killer, a self styled hit man but really just a thug with a gun. It was a safe house for a witness against a drug lord, but money had talked and it wasn’t so safe any more. The two adults must have been awake still when he broke in, the woman dialled 999 to report an intruder. Then the police heard her scream that a man had burst into their room and shot her husband, to please get there quick. They heard her shouting at her daughter, telling her to get away, before another shot was heard and the phone was cut off.
The old lady paused sadly, tears in her eyes. Then she went on to tell me that the police arrived and found both adults dead in bed. They searched the house and then the garden, where they found the little girl. Killed by a shot to the back of the head as she ran. The worst thing was it was all a mistake. The address was wrong. It wasn’t the safe house, that was farther down the road.
I explained I was living in the house and would like to know more, so she found me the papers from the time – all scanned and available on the computer. I read them all, learnt more.
It had all happened in November of 1983. The police had caught the hit-man only a few minutes down the road, where they were stopping all cars. He shot and injured one policeman, before being brought down by another. Reading between the lines he’d taken a beating before giving up. Broken nose, three broken fingers and several cracked ribs. I admit that made me glad. This was the man that had shot Alice, an eight year old girl, in the back of the head.
And it was Alice. There were plenty of pictures of her, and her family, in the papers. I recognised her and her parents immediately. I learnt a little more from my reading. The drug boss was found guilty of trafficking, murder and more and was given life in prison. The hit-man was tried and was also given life, which in his case turned out to be about eight months. Some of the other prisoners apparently took issue with his shooting a young girl. He was found hanged with a bed sheet with his hands tied behind his back. I can’t say that gave me any pleasure, but it did seem somehow just.
And I found that Alice and her parents were buried in the local church. I bought some flowers and visited their graves. Cried some more. I wondered about leaving the locket there, but it didn’t feel right. Alice wasn’t there, nor were her parents. I wasn’t sure where they’d gone but it was far away.
* * *
Well, that’s my story. Just as I wrote it down a few months after it all happened. Wrote it down and kept it secret. I stayed in the house. Ended up buying it. I never married or settled down, never found the right person. Ten years later and I’m still here. In all that time I’ve never seen Alice again, or felt any presence. I watched the video clip of her once more, watched her terrified face peer back before she fled out the back door. Knowing what she’d been through, how scared she was, it made me sick. I wiped it. Much better to remember her as she was that last night, remember her reunion with her parents.
I’ve thought about Alice lots over the years, tried to work out just why she kept appearing. I think she died so suddenly that she didn’t realise she was dead, and then she kept going back to the house to find her parents instead of moving on, finding them… well, wherever they are now. I don’t claim to know what comes after this life, but I am certain there’s something more.
And that brings me to why I’m finally sharing this story with someone, with you. Pretty soon I’ll be finding out what comes after this life. Young as I am, well as I still think I am, I won’t last more than another few weeks. Cancer. So many treatments these days, so many chances to fight it, but for some of us the treatments come too late. For me they have.
And I know how upset that makes you Lucy. I see it in your eyes as you look at your poor Uncle, struggling to find things to say to me, scared but not wanting to show it. I want you to know that it’s OK. This isn’t the end. I want you to have this story, and the locket I put in with it. Alice’s locket. I think she’d approve. When you feel sad, when you miss me, take out the locket, remember my story. And remember that we will meet again sometime, somewhere.
All my love,