The House at Hexworthy

by Gerri Brightwell

The place was supposed to be haunted. It was an old house all right, smack in the middle of some old and god-forsaken village called Hexworthy, but that didn't mean anything, and neither did the stories about it. People would tell the professor anything for a bit of attention, that's what I reckoned, and it was me ended up driving her from one end of the country to the other. Fair enough, I thought--that was what she paid me for--doing the driving because getting behind the wheel scared her shitless. I was the one who had to heave all her boxes out of the van and into places that stank of mould or cat piss or worse, all on account of an old biddy who swore she'd seen Roman soldiers marching through her bedroom, or some old fart who'd heard chanting from his basement. The professor took it all seriously, no matter what a load of crap it sounded to me, and off we'd go, up to Birmingham one day, down to Devon the next, dragging around her expensive equipment like this was real science.

What a life--every night the professor fussing over the cameras and sensors, peering into her laptop with her headphones on, drinking cheap coffee to stay awake. I'd leave her to it and take a good long kip in the van, but that night in Hexworthy I was about to head off when she said, in this sad voice, "Sometimes I wonder if it's all for nothing. How about you, Gavin? What do you think?" I wanted to tell her, Well of course it's all a load of bloody rubbish, but she was my boss so I said, "Just because nothing's turned up yet, that doesn't mean it won't ever, does it?" She must have known I only said it to keep her happy because she looked away and pretended she was busy, making sure all her fancy gizmos were switched on because it was getting dark.

Funny, as soon as the sun went down that place gave me the creeps. I didn't fancy being out in the van on my own so I said to the professor, "Tell you what, I'll sit it out with you tonight. Alright?" At first it was boring--I couldn't switch on a torch to read my mags, couldn't listen to my music or it'd mess up her readings. So we sat there and it got colder, and the curtains swayed, though the windows were shut tight. I swear the room closed in around us like a fist and my head started to ache, and my breath came out all funny. Soon all I could hear was a hissing in my ears like the wind, and I felt peculiar, like you do just before you realise you're sick. Next thing I know, something's hurtling down the chimney and out across the floor like a rush of bright water, it's spinning like a whirlpool, it's sucking the air out of my lungs and the thoughts out of my head, better than the best carnival ride I'd ever been on.

I don't remember waking up, only leaning against the window-sill because I was dizzy, and the sun warm on my face like it was the first time I'd ever felt it. I turned and something shifted inside me, settling itself. One of the professor's shoes was on the floor, but she was nowhere to be seen. I walked over and touched the space-bar on her laptop and some footage started to play. I saw right away what it was--me and her, all ghostly green thanks to the night-vision camera, me fidgeting, the curtains swaying, the lights rushing out from the fireplace, just like I remembered. But there was something else too--a shape rising up out of the swirl of lights, a man made of darkness, half-finished, stepping towards me, into me, like into a suit of clothes. When the screen went blank I saw my reflection, the torn look of the eyes staring back at me, and I said, "What the--?" but the words were only in my head, and no matter how much I talk to myself now they go round and round like there's no way out, and no wonder, when there's a hole inside of me that drags everything towards it.

BIO: Gerri Brightwell is a British writer living in Alaska with her husband and sons. She has two published novels: Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003) and The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008). Her writing has also appeared (or is forthcoming) in such publications as The Guardian (UK), Camera Obscura, Camas, Word Riot, and Bound-Off. She teaches in the M.F.A. programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.