When They Came No More

I have seen generations come and go. They have all had their own, individual stories. From afar I have waited and watched and loved them all. This story is hers.

She looked at the family surrounding her bed, all those faces and worried eyes, and drew a shallow, raspy breath.

I am going to tell you about a time and place of my youth”, she said. “The times are gone since long, but the place still exists.

If you drive along the winding roads of the Valasian side of the Swiss Furka Pass you will find, three kilometers below the mountain’s ridge, a hotel. It just sits there quietly, four storeys of grey brick walls lovingly supporting a crown-like silver roof, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive.

The tall windows of the Hotel Belvédère opened their green blinds for the first time in 1882, and when they did it was to the sight of sparkling ice and heavy sheets of snow as far as the eye could see. Placed right above the then majestic Rhône glacier, in those days the hotel was flooded by beautiful people wanting to experience the fabulous view from its balconies.

I had already heard many stories about it when as a young woman I was taken in as staff. It was the late fifties, but I remember the breath-taking drive through the mountains as if it was yesterday. Mr. Paul Schroder, the pleasant but quiet hotel cook, had picked me up at the train station in his red little car and then not spoken much throughout the winding drive.

When I close my eyes I can still dream vividly of that first spring evening when, after Mr. Schroder had parked the car, I stood there in front of the hotel doors with all my worldly belongings in a small suitcase and my mind filled with thrilled expectations. I was to work in the kitchen and as a waitress. It was my first real employment and I was far from home. Then Mr. Schroder opened the doors, and I was let into a brand new world.

I was given a small room to call my own and a short tour of the premises. I was then introduced to my new colleagues – a wonderful group of people who had all left everything behind to become the life-blood of the hotel. I fell in love with all of it – and with all of them – right away. With the silent cook, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, Mrs. Lisa Maur – the enigmatic head of staff and self-proclaimed psychic, and the many young people who, like me, had come there with high hopes and stars in their eyes.

The days, weeks and months flew by. Spring turned into early summer, and when the snow melted from the roads the visitors started to arrive. The work was hard, the mornings early and the evenings late, but I learned many things and grew into my role as a part of the hotel’s blood stream.

The visitors came in the hundreds during summer. They ate, drank, mingled and went for spiritual walks in the breath-taking surroundings. One of the most popular attractions was the ice-cave cut into the bottom of the glacier, far below the ancient, glistening ice. And when they were done for the day, they returned to the hotel to eat and drink some more and enjoy their evening on the balcony, in the bar or in their rustic private chambers.

When the guests had retreated for the night and there were no more late sandwiches or beers to be served, I used to walk out onto one of the balconies alone to enjoy the view and the night air myself. It was during one of those silent, solitary moments that Jean Mahler found me.

She was new at the hotel, had started working there only the week before. We had not exchanged more than a few polite words during that week, but I for my part had secretly admired her from a distance ever since she stepped out of Mr. Schroder’s car on the evening of her arrival. Now she suddenly stood right next to me at the railing, her short dark hair dancing in the mountain wind, and I had no idea what to say.

I remember how I laughed nervously and said something about one of the new guests, a tall gentleman who had insisted on being allowed to wash his own dishes earlier that day. She laughed as well, and told me a story of her own. It was as if her voice broke a spell, and I suddenly found myself talking freely to her in a way that I had talked to no one before in my life. Then we stood there, watching the deep mountain pass in silence, and the starlit night and the stillness around us made me feel like this was our own secret world where we were alone and free.

The night turned into day and I was deadly tired when my shift began again. I struggled through that day in a confused haze, and every time I passed Jean in the corridor we both smiled shyly. But I lived through that day, and the shyness did not last for long. The balcony became out nightly meeting place, our secret starlit world where we could talk about anything. I remember those nights fondly even now.

Nights and days turned into months, and with autumn the guests became fewer and fewer. When the snow came the hotel closed down for the winter, and most of the staff went away to work elsewhere for the off-season. Some of us stayed, however, to keep the hotel warm and clean and take care of the few special bookings that were still being made despite the roads being mostly closed off during winter.

That first winter Jean stayed as well, and during those isolated months we grew even closer to one another. When spring finally came, it would have taken a large amount of ignorance to avoid seeing that we had grown into much more than friends.

Summer returned, and with it the guests. I started feeling like the hotel really was my home, and I would even say that I was happy. More new faces arrived to replace colleagues who hadn’t returned after winter, and together with the rest of the old staff I and Jean taught them what they needed to know.

Seasons turned into years and the hotel saw many prominent guests come and go. I remember the spectacle when Pope John XXIII once came to call, and the fuss every time we were graced by a visit from a certain Mr. Sean Connery. In 1964 the excitement was at its highest when – perhaps prompted by that very frequenter – the hotel was featured in the new James Bond movie Goldfinger.

The year I was to turn thirty two, Mr. Schroder tragically passed away. I was appointed the new cook and head of kitchen, and life in the hotel slowly moved on. When winter came that year Jean told me that she would not be coming back the next spring. She was done with the hotel and wanted to do something else. She asked me to come away with her, to make a life together somewhere else. After many sleepless nights, however, I decided to stay. My new position and responsibilities simply were not things that I could easily cast aside.

Oh, how I have regretted that decision many times since.

Life at the hotel did not become bad without her, but it became lonely. The young people came and went, and although I still viewed the older members of the staff as my closest friends, I lacked someone to talk to the way I had been able to talk with Jean.

Then came a guest who changed all that; Patrick, your father and grandfather. I remember the day as clearly as yesterday. It had been snowing the night before, even though it was in the middle of summer. He arrived together with a bachelor party of maybe ten or thirteen other young men, and at first I was not in the least interested. Later that night, however, I heard him quoting Jane Austen during dinner and was irrevocably lost.

I found myself on the balcony after the end of my shift, talking literature with him well into the morning hours. The next night was not any different, and when the party was preparing to leave on the third afternoon he promised to write me. And he did.

Life was at once exciting again, with letters to wait for and replies to write. He remembered that I lacked easy access to new reading, and thus he started sending me books as well. I eagerly read them all and sent him my reviews and analyses in the returning mail.

Winter came and went, and when spring returned, so did he. He was alone this time, and carried a ring and a proposal. This time I was older and wiser and did not repeat my previous mistake. We were married by a visiting German priest at the very entrance of the ice-cave below the hotel, before the eyes and to the cheers of all my beloved colleagues.

And so I left the hotel finally, after many years of loving service. Not a year thereafter my daughter was born. Life went on, and sometimes I was happy and sometimes I was sad. I have loved Patrick dearly, and I have loved you, my children and grandchildren.

I do have one regret, however, and that is the loss of Jean Mahler. I used to write her a letter every Christmas eve for years – but never had the courage to actually send them. They all ended up in a cardboard box beneath my bed. After my husband passed away eight years ago, though, I finally mustered up my courage and actually sent a letter to Jean. The late reply came from her sister, telling me that my old friend had already been dead for six years.

I am old now, and the times have changed. I told you that the hotel still exists, and that is true. The famous Rhône glacier, however, has melted and receded since its glory days. Today the sides of the pass glow like a vast, creased sheet of soft emerald, and only in the far distance would you be able to divine anything even resembling a cover of snow.

When the famed ice-cave finally melted away as well, the guests stopped coming altogether. My beloved hotel was closed indefinitely three years ago, and now it just stands there as a silent monument of greater times, before mankind’s brand on the world was as fierce as it is today.”

She cleared her throat and in turn met all of their gazes. There were tears there, and worry and fear. They could not fathom a world without this old woman, who had been such an important and fundamental part of all their lives for as long as they could remember. She knew this, and wished that there was something that she could say to make the pain of loss less terrible for them – but she also knew that thus is not the way of grief.

And now my days, too, have finally come to an end”, she said instead. “Even though I know that all my beloved friends have long since gone before me, I want to picture them as still being there, busying around inside the boarded up hotel as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. Good bye, my loves”, she breathed. “I think I am going to sleep and dream of them now.”

And with this she finally closed her eyes for the very last time, leaving her children and grandchildren to the tears and fears and grief that are all inevitable parts of life.

She herself saw and heard nothing of this, however. Because when she opened her eyes again it was other eyes that looked down on her. Smiling eyes, the well known eyes of old friends. They were all there: the pleasant but quiet hotel cook Mr. Paul Schroder, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, the enigmatic and psychic head of staff Mrs. Lisa Maur and many, many others. Jean Mahler, her short dark hair just as unruly and her brown eyes just as bright as all those years ago, smiled wider than all the rest. “Welcome home”, she whispered.

And with that they were all gathered, finally; all the souls and faces and voices who once lived and loved here. Now they can live and love here again, irrespective of the workings of the world outside. I have called the final drop of my life-blood back.

I am the Hotel Belvédère, and I will always stand here as a silent monument of greater times, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. I have seen generations and eras come and go within my grey brick walls, and I have known and loved them all. I have closed my green shutters to the world, but behind them life goes on.

Please come and visit us. You are most warmly welcome.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-29

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

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The Missing Limb

When John put his mother’s ring on my finger we both knew it was not a promise of a future together. I harbored no illusions of that kind – I knew he only dared do it because we were both aware, deep down, that we were never going home. We were going to die out there in the cold trenches, together or separated, and did not have to worry about conventions, laws and consequences.

I wish I still had that ring.

The war had been going on for ages, or so it felt. When I was first sent to the front I was young and stupid with my head full of star-spangled dreams and lies. When I met John what felt like a lifetime later, we had both seen, felt and heard enough to have learned that this was not our war – that it was no-one’s. And still we fought in it; I because I was afraid of the alternative, John because he had nothing to go back to.

I wish I could say that we gave each other hope, that us being together made the terror we lived more bearable, but that would be a lie. We suffered and we wept and despaired, and when there was pain that pain was not to be dulled by anything except sleep or death or the poisons we drank to attain one or both of them.

But John sang to me when I was drowning in panic, and I told him stories from my childhood when he hurt too badly. And we grew to love each other in a way reserved for the mad, the desperate and the dying.

I have never loved anyone since like I loved him.

It had been raining heavily that night, and when dawn came the world was drenched in mud and blood. This was the morning of long dreaded advance, of finally pushing desperately forward. The secret solace from the night before seemed like a long ago dream, and not even the ring hidden by my left glove could fully convince me that I had not in fact imagined it all.

It did not matter, however, because everything was to end very soon. I just did not know it at the time.

We left the relative but treacherous safety of the dug trenches and moved forth. I tried to keep close to John in the stealthy turmoil, but repeatedly kept losing sight of him. The sun rose behind the clouds and suddenly there was fire and explosions everywhere. We had been sighted. Our numbers scattered without any real semblance of order, and despite my best attempts to keep calm and sharp I found myself lost and terrified. I panicked.

That is how John found me. He screamed through the clamour that our unit was falling back and regrouping, that we had been ordered to take shelter in the ruins of a nearby church. He grabbed my left hand and started running, leading me towards safety.

It was then that the ground around us detonated, and everything turned into panic, pain and blackness.

I awoke to blindness in a world of horror and agony. There was not a part of me that did not hurt, and I could not see at all. Half convinced that I was in fact dead I lay there on my back, listening to the moaning, hurting voices of my compatriots all around me. Part of my mind realized that it must have been a bombshell or a hidden mine – the rest of me did not think at all.

Until I felt John’s firm grip on my hand again, that is. The pain in my entire body was excruciating when he helped me to my feet, but his warmth was so relieving that I almost did not acknowledge it.

“I can’t see”, I said. “Please don’t let go.”

“I will never let go”, he replied.

And then he led me slowly, carefully through the nightmare that I could not see, but the sounds of which will haunt me to the end of days. People were dying everywhere around us, screaming for help or relief or for people long gone. If someone had told me at that time that we were in fact walking through the fires of Purgatory, I would have readily believed it. Sound becomes a merciless paintbrush when employed on the canvas of the unseeing.

At long last we must have left the battlefield behind us, as the voices of the dying slowly faded into the distance. I was growing weaker with every step, and the steady flow of warmth down the side of my torso told me that I was bleeding badly from the explosion. Without John’s hand I mine I would have been terrified of fainting, falling or getting lost, but he never let go. Instead he firmly and calmly guided me across the uneven landscape on the other side of my personal darkness, stopping when I needed to but never for too long.

Then, suddenly, I began hearing voices again – but not those of the dying. I recognized those voices, and the relief I felt at hearing them is not to be described in words. I realized that we must have found the church that John had talked about in those final moments before the world ended. Someone called my name, another called for assistance and now, finally, my legs would not carry me any longer. I collapsed there in the mud and felt consciousness drifting away, even as running steps approached along with voices shouting medical commands.

I did not die that day, but was later told that it had been very close. I remained unconscious for a very long time, floating in an endless blackness only occasionally interrupted by brief spells of blurry, partial wakefulness. The only thing that kept me sane and calm during those short, confused moments was John’s reassuring and safe grip on my hand as he kept faithful vigil beside my sickbed.

Then, finally, I awoke one day and the darkness was gone. I blinked in confusion, and everything was made of sharp, searing light. At least almost everything; however intensely I tried to open my left eye, it simply would not obey me. A silhouette was standing in front of me, and at first I thought that it was John. But then the man spoke, and I realized that he was a doctor.

He told me that I had been lucky, that the shrapnel had only punctuated one of my eyes and that they had thankfully been able to save the right one. He then told me about several surgical operations and a long, long time of insecurity as to whether I would have the strength to wake up again. He told me that us even having this very conversation was a miracle in its own right. It was a riddle to all how I had managed, bleeding, blind and dying, to find and trudge my way back to safety.

“It was John”, I said in a voice rough from disuse. “He led me by the hand the entire way.”

I tried to squeeze John’s hand in mine, but I could not move my fingers. I wanted so badly to look at him, to see that he was alright, but my left eye was blind and my neck hurt too much to move.

“John Curtis?”, the doctor said, and even though I could only see him diffusely the tone of his voice betrayed his concern.

“Yes”, I said and even managed a defiant smile. Then and there I did not care what he knew or thought about us. In that moment I could have bravely and foolishly made John all those promises we had been too afraid to make before, and more. I hoped that he could hear this in my voice – that they both could.

The doctor was silent for a long time, and when again he spoke his voice was grave and worried.

“You must be mistaken”, he said. “You came alone. I saw it myself.”

At this I laughed and shook my head, actions both of which sent pain shooting through my body once more. But I did not care, this was all too absurd. Still smiling broadly, I turned finally to my left to meet John’s gaze. But he was gone. I stared in confusion, knowing that he had been there, holding my hand, just a moment ago.

The doctor, mistaking my sudden silence for something else, hurried to my side and put his hand on my right shoulder. “I am sorry, son, I should have told you sooner. You must have lost it in the explosion, and when we found it the day after it was too late to do anything. But everything has healed beautifully, and with some training you should be able to–”

But I was not listening to him anymore. I had let my gaze wander downwards to where my left arm should have been, and was now staring in shocked disbelief at the bandaged stump that had now taken its place.

“But… But John, he was… Right now, I…” I realized that I was rambling, but my thoughts simply would not come together. He had been sitting there, right beside me, holding my left hand. And now they were both gone.

“I am terribly sorry, but John Curtis is dead”, the doctor interrupted me. “He was killed in the explosion that took your arm. In fact, that was how we found it. Even in death he was holding on to your left hand.”

***

They sent me home after that. I do not think that they would have reinstated me into service even if my body had been intact, since it must have been so painfully apparent that my mind was not. I do not know what happened to the ring, and have only presumed that someone must have stolen it. It was never returned to me, at the very least.

I went to John’s funeral and met his estranged parents and siblings. I told them that I was a friend, and saying those words hurt more than I had thought it would. I exchanged a few polite stories with the grieving family, but left soon after when it became painfully clear to me that we were not even talking about the same person.

This was all a long time ago now. I eventually learned to live with one arm and one eye, and nowadays I barely reflect upon the loss at all. The only reason, however, that I am able to live with a heart irrevocably split by sorrow, is that I know that the other half of it is never far away – just as despite all I still know that John Curtis saved my life on that cursed day.

Because every day and every night since then, however far I walk and wherever I may go, as soon as I close my eye I feel it; John’s strong fingers lacing together with those of my missing, left hand, as he walks beside me to the end of days.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-18

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

Always Keep it Locked

Now I am going to tell you about something that happened to me a couple of years back. I won’t tell you what to make of it, because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself. But here goes.

Back when I was a journalism student in Stockholm, finding a place to live was a real pain in the ass. I think I only ever knew one person who actually owned their own apartment. Most of my other friends and classmates rented their homes as sublets (or illegal sublets of sublets), or lived in the spare rooms of strangers as bizarrely overpaying lodgers.

Need I tell you that the rents were always ridiculously high? Well, they were. Absurdly so. Everyone were looking for a place to live, and all apartment adds on Facebook or in the papers were flooded with replies as soon as they came out. Getting first in line for any of them was, to say the least, entirely fucking impossible.

Therefore, when I found the add about a relatively cheap attic room for rent only ten minutes away from my school I didn’t think much of it. Someone else must have taken it already, was what I thought. But I still called, and was both surprised and incredibly happy when the old lady who answered said that I could move in the very next day.

Said and done. I packed my stuff in my car and drove the two hundred kilometers or so to Saltsjö-Boo, which is located in Nacka – a suburb of Stockholm. Everything felt new and a little bit crazy. I was to leave my old life behind (for a time at least), and do something entirely new, all on my own.

It was August, and although I arrived late it was still light out. The old lady lived in a big, red two storey house down by the water of an inlet called Skurusundet. The neighboring houses were just as big, and I could only imagine what buying a home here must cost.

The old lady – I’ll leave out her surname, but her first name was Harriet – greeted me on the porch when I stepped out of the car. She was a frail figure in her late eighties, and I remember catching myself wondering how she was able to manage that big house on her own. She had told me on the phone that her husband had passed away five years back, and that it was only this summer that she had cleaned out his old stuff from the attic room that I was now to rent.

She showed me where to park and then walked ahead of me to the back of the house, where a seemingly rather new built wooden staircase led up to a separate entrance on the attic level of the building. I kind of wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to climb up there to show me the room, that I could manage on my own. But she seemed so stubborn about making it up there that I kept my mouth shut and walked a couple of steps behind her as she slowly struggled upwards.

She unlocked the door and let me into a quite large room that took up at least half of the attic area. It was neatly fitted with a bed, a table, a portable kitchenette and some empty bookshelves. There were no windows, but I didn’t mind. Finding a place like this for a price like that in this part of town more than enough compensated for that.

Apart from the entrance, three doors led away from the room. One of them led to a small, simple bathroom with toilet and shower. She told me that this had been put in only four weeks ago, in order for tenants to live up here. The second door led to a big, cluttered storage space, that she unlocked briefly just to show me what it was. I’m guessing that this was where she had tucked away all her late husband’s belongings. She told me that I could put stuff in there if I needed to, but that she didn’t recommend it since the storage room lacked proper insulation.

After she had showed me all this – a process that didn’t take very long – we stopped in front of the third door.

“This door leads down to the rest of the house”, she said. “Always keep it locked. If you need to talk to me, you go out around the house and use the front door. And remember to knock first.”

I told her that of course I would respect this, and promised her that I wouldn’t come barging down the attic stairs and disturb her privacy. To be honest, if she had asked me to always leave my shoes outside and never to bring friends over I would have been fine with that as well. As long as I had somewhere to live in this city I’d be prepared to cope with just about anything. At least that’s how I felt at the time.

We signed a contract and she gave me the keys. She was really sweet actually, and told me about stores, bus connections and things to see nearby. Before she left me to mind my own business, however, she stopped one last time in the doorway and turned back to face me. “Keep it locked”, she said flatly. Then she closed the door behind her and started struggling her way back down the stairs outside.

I remember staring at the closed door in confusion, wondering what the hell that was – and why Harriet herself hadn’t used the interior stairs to get back down to the house. Then I just shrugged it off and went down to the car to start carrying all my stuff inside.

I settled in quite nicely. My courses started and the initial couple of months went by in a flurry of seminars, new acquaintances and study visits to the editorial staffs of different newspapers. I was rarely at home except for when I was sleeping or studying for tests.

I saw very little of Harriet, except for the occasional chance encounter in the garden. She kept mostly to herself, and since I had no windows I had no idea how often she even left the house. The only reason that I even knew she was living there in the house below me was two weird habits of hers that I discovered rather early on.

Every time she got home, namely, she knocked on her own front door before unlocking it. The first few times she did it, I always thought that she was having visitors over. It was only when I came home early one day and caught her after grocery shopping that I realized that she was doing it herself. I didn’t ask her about it. It was too odd, and I was afraid that it would embarrass her if she knew that I’d seen her. But after that day I started thinking that maybe she wasn’t as clear in the head as I had initially thought.

That was Harriet’s first strange habit. I told my friends about it and they thought it was hilarious. Every time we were studying at my place we always silenced and laughed when we heard her come knocking downstairs.

Her second habit, however, was one that quickly started irritating me more and more. The old lady turned out to be a real night owl, who didn’t go to bed until well after midnight. This in itself wouldn’t have bothered me the slightest, were it not for the way I was involuntarily made aware of her sleep routines. Because before Harriet went to bed, she always checked the attic door to see that it was really locked. Every single night.

I could lie in bed sleeping, and then suddenly jump in terror at the sudden squeak as old door handle was slowly pressed down a couple of times. Or, on nights when I was awake late studying for an exam, I could hear the soft creaking of the interior attic steps as she slowly made her way upstairs. Then the door handle would invariably be pressed down two or three times, before the creaking steps retreated downstairs again. And I repeat: this happened every fucking night.

Not only did the old woman apparently not trust me to keep to her rules, which was frustrating in itself, but she also had to scare me half out of my senses every night, at that? But as I said before, I was happy just to have a place to live, and didn’t want to antagonize the old, paranoid woman. So I settled for telling my friends and just having a laugh about it instead. On days when I seemed more tired than usual in school, they always teased me about it being because my weird landlady had kept me awake that night.

For some reason it actually never crossed my mind to be afraid of her, no matter her crazy demeanor. I just thought of her as an old person who was extremely particular about her privacy, and never fell for my classmates’ attempts to frighten me with stupid stories of her one night standing above my bed with a knife in her hand.

Until one particular night in late December, that is. I had been living in the attic room for almost four months, and had made myself quite well at home there. School was about to end for the holidays the following week, and my entire class were studying like crazy for the end-of-year exams. It had been snowing like crazy for the last couple of days, and I stayed inside with my reading to the extent that I could.

Anyways, there I was, sitting at my small table in the middle of the night, preparing for tomorrow’s test, when I could suddenly hear the first creak at the bottom of the staircase. I tried to ignore it like I always did, and continued reading. The steps drew closer, like always, and then stopped outside the door. The door handle was slowly being pressed down with its, by now, familiar creak, and then everything went silent again.

I stopped reading and glanced behind me when the sound of the handle being let up again never came. When I turned around I realized that the door handle still pointed downwards; it was still being pressed down. I just stared at it for several seconds. Was it broken? Or was the old woman still standing outside the door, holding it down?

After a while I began feeling creeped out at not knowing, and at thinking that maybe she was standing on the stairs, staring at the other side of the door.

“It is locked, Harriet”, I said loud enough for her to hear me.

Another couple of seconds passed, and I had almost convinced myself that the handle actually was broken, when it suddenly slowly started rising again. Then I heard the slow, creaking steps descending the stairs, before everything became quiet once more. I realized that I had been holding my breath, and that my heart was racing. I remember thinking “what the fuck is wrong with her?” I mean, I already knew that she was odd, but what was this about now suddenly?

I didn’t manage to get back to studying that night, and when I flunked the test the following day I laughingly blamed Harriet’s strange nightly visit. It became that day’s most-told story, and I didn’t think about how creepy the experience had actually been until I got home again that evening.

I went to bed, but the thought of the night before wouldn’t leave my head. In the end I had to get out of bed again and place a chair below the door handle before I could relax enough to actually go to sleep.

I awoke some time around midnight. It was pitch black in the room – of course, since I didn’t have any windows – and I wasn’t sure what it was that had woken me up. Then I heard the sound again, and was wide awake in an instant. It was the door-handle, the one I had propped up with a leaning chair earlier that night. It was creaking at even intervals, as if someone was struggling to press it down despite the resistance. I stared into the darkness, not daring to make a sound. The intervals quickly became shorter and shorter, until the door handle was drumming intensely against the back of the chair.

I almost panicked there in the dark. Then the chair suddenly fell over with a loud crash, and I screamed. The door handle was pressed down with a decisive creak, and by the sound of it was not let back up for several seconds. Then, slowly, it creaked back into place, and the steps outside retreated down the stairs again. By that time I was almost mad with fear, and just sat there in the dark, huddling with the blankets against the corner of my bed and listening for the slightest hint of a sound. I didn’t sleep at all for the rest of the night, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that.

I called in sick the next day. I just had to sleep. Or, what I actually wanted was to call my mum and tell her to come and take me home. But there were just a couple of days left in school for the semester, and I felt I had to finish. I had to pull thorough somehow.

After sleeping for a couple of hours, I decided to go down and talk to Harriet about the whole thing. Tell her that she had to stop doing this. I thought that if she got mad at me, I would just move out. I’d live on someone’s couch for a while until I found something else. I could put up with much, but this had even crossed my line.

I thought about using the interior stairs, but decided against it. I would be the bigger person here, and just because she disrespected my integrity didn’t mean I would stoop to doing the same to her. So I used my own front door, walked around the house and up to hers. The tracks in the snow outside were almost invisible, and I understood that she had not been out for a while. Maybe something had happened? Maybe she was ill, and this was why she had needed so desperately to get a hold of me last night?

I don’t know if I even considered this as a real possibility, or if I was just grasping for manageable explanations, but these were the thoughts that went through my head as I plodded through the snow and up to her door.

I knocked, waited and knocked again, but got no reply. I picked up my phone and tried calling. I could hear the signals from inside the house, but she didn’t pick up. I knew she had to be in there, but either she didn’t want to talk to me, or she was too sick to do so. And I realized that I had to find out.

If the old woman was so ill that she hadn’t been out for days, I had to find out and help her. I tried the door-handle, but the door was locked. I understood what I must do. Sure, if all was well with her she might get angry with me for taking liberties with her rules, but so be it. It was still better than risking it being the other way around, and doing nothing.

I walked back through the snow and back up to my attic room. As I approached the door leading to downstairs I could not help but feeling like I was about to do something very wrong. But the thought of the old woman lying helpless down in the house drove me on. The key was still in the lock where it had been when I first got here, and I reached out to turn it. Before I could, however, my phone rang and the sudden noise made me jump.

I picked the phone up and looked at it, expecting Harriet’s number to be on the display. But it wasn’t – it was a number I’d never seen before. Hesitantly I turned away from the door and answered.

It was a woman on the other end. It was not Harriet however, but a younger one. And what she told me… Well, let’s say it made me start packing my bags as soon as the call was ended.

She told me that she was Harriet’s daughter, and that she was sorry that she hadn’t called earlier, but the last couple of days had been a real mess. There had been so many relatives to call and things to fix, but now she just wanted to tell me that I could of course continue renting the attic room until the contract ended, even though things had sadly taken this turn.

At first I didn’t understand anything of what she was saying, and after a while I had to interrupt her and ask her to clarify. And it was then that she apologized again, and said that she had just assumed that her sister had called me already to tell me that Harriet had died in the hospital three days ago.

I went cold all over, and to be honest I don’t remember much of the call after that. Only that I monotonously thanked her for the kindness of letting me stay, said my condolences and then hung up. While doing so, I had slowly, slowly backed away from the door that I had been seconds away from unlocking. It was like in a movie. I just shook my head, said “fuck this”, and then started packing.

The rough half hour it took me to get everything into the car and scrape the snow and ice off its windows was thirty minutes of panicked terror. I even remember leaving some of my final things behind, for the simple reason that I could not bring myself to walk into that house one more time to get them. And then I drove away.

I didn’t drive all the way home to Gävle, of course. By the time I got onto the road I had calmed down enough to think somewhat rationally again, and instead drove to one of my friends who lived at the school’s boarding house. I don’t know how coherent I was when I got there, but she kindly let me stay at her place until end of term the week after.

I went home over the holidays, and when they were over I managed to get a room at the boarding house myself, as someone else had recently moved out. The room was small as hell and expensive as shit, but I didn’t mind. As long as I didn’t have to go back to that place I was happy.

I finished my studies and moved back to my home town, where I now work as a reporter for the local newspaper. But even now, several years later, I don’t know what to think. Perhaps I dreamed those things, or maybe I was just completely stressed out about the upcoming exams. I honestly don’t know. I just felt that I had to write it all down to maybe get it off my chest.

But I do know one thing: I’ve never really been able to shake the feeling that there was something living in that house together with Harriet, and that when she told me to “always keep it locket”, it was not in a paranoid attempt to protect her own integrity – it was to protect me.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-11

This story was written in response to a writing prompt,

Secrets, Blood Pacts and a House Full of Dead People  

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: I, II, III, IV, V.


“The Enjoyment Club. What do you know about them?”

“Is that what this is about? Some glorified ghost story?”

“Don’t you go there, Devin Murdock. You know just as well as I do that there’s more to them than that. Or have I overestimated you?”

“Chill, Nessa, I just–”

“Vahri.”

“Well, okay, Vahri. I was just hoping you’d be here to see me, not to ask about some stupid deathtrap knowledge I’d rather not have in the first place.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint you then.”

“Jeez, you’re different. What happen to us, Ness… Vahri?”

“You being a fucking idiot, that’s what happened. I didn’t even fucking know what sacromancy was when they came to interrogate me about you. But I’ve understood a couple of things since then, and I’ve gotta give it to you straight: you’re not sane. Can’t be. Nobody in their right mind would want anything to do with that sick stuff. I wouldn’t even be here right now if you weren’t the only one I’m able to think of that’d know anything useful about the Club. And that’s not a compliment.”

“Wow, that was quite the telling off. But okay Vahri, or whatever you call yourself nowadays. What makes you think I’d be willing to tell you anything about that shit? It’s not like we’re close anymore, and last I checked I don’t owe you anything.”

“Sure, that’s true. But you know what’s true as well? I’ll tell you. You don’t want people to know you’re here. I apparently know you’re here, and I have a mouth. Do the equation.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

“I could kill you, you know. Or do something about this mouth problem of yours. It wouldn’t be difficult.”

“I guess it wouldn’t. But I also guess you’d not be very keen on tasting the wrath of my pet djinn afterwards. I’m under the impression you’ve got quite enough on your hands already, what with the coven inquisition having put a price on your head and all that. Am I wrong?”

A moment of silence. “Okay, you win. I guess it can’t hurt. Well, not me, at least. If you want to know about the Club, I’ll tell you about the Club. But don’t come running back to me when you get your fingers burned, okay?”

“Drop the drama and just tell me already.”

“Sure, I will. But on one condition.”

“And what is that?”

“You have to do something for me in return.”

“Dev, if this is some kind of–”

“Hell, nothing like that. Shit, Vahri, is that what you think of me? No, I want you to help me with two things. They’re kind of related but not in an obvious way. First, I want you to do something about a ghost problem I have…”

 

Vahri sighs as she ascends the creaking stairs leading up to the second floor. Is this what things have come to? Her doing ghost busting favors for her psycho ex-boyfriend in return for information about stupid ghost stories turned reality overnight?

She has already tried asking Neferthali about The Club, but her vampire godmother either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell. “It’s just stories and myths, child. Terrible stories, but stories nevertheless. Stay clear of them and they can’t hurt you. If someone is after that djinn boy, just make sure not to get involved”, was all she had to say before trying to convince Vahri to lock herself inside a secret panic flat together with her. Just stories my ass.

Suffice to say, Vahri did not accept the bunker invitation. Instead here she is, on the second floor of the haunted villa where Devin has decided to hole up for some reason. He hasn’t told her yet what the other service required of her is going to be, but this first task in itself already feels like a handful.

She wipes dust from an old standing mirror with her hand. “Anybody here? Ghosts?” She speaks right at her own reflection, hoping for some kind of reaction. When nothing happens and she still only sees herself in the old pane of silvered glass she turns away and continues down the hall.

Grains of dust hover in the air, glittering in the shafts of sunlight falling through the cracks in the boarded up windows. The floorboards creak under her weight and everything carries a faint smell of dried up mold.

She opens a door to her right and stops dead on the threshold. She’s found one of the bedrooms. A four-poster bed occupies the center of the room, and on top of the covers lies a dead woman. She must have been dead for a long time, judging by the putrid smell that makes breathing almost unbearable in here.

“Devin, have you killed someone up here?”, Vahri yells down the stairs. But before she’s gotten an answer from below, the corpse on the bed starts rising up into a sitting position. Vahri watches the old woman slowly, slowly straightening up, until the worn pink night-gown slides off her bony shoulders to reveal more wrinkled skin than Vahri is prepared to take in.

“Fuck this”, she says and slams the door shut. She then hurries down the stairs, almost knocking Devin over on her way down.

“What’s going on?”, he says as he grabs her by the shoulders.

She frees herself, not wanting him to see how shaken she is. “There’s a dead woman upstairs”, she says. “At first I thought she was one of your unfortunate acquaintances, but then she moved so I figure she’s rather one of your unfortunate ghosts.

He stares at her and swallows hard. “There’s a… dead woman upstairs?”

“No, it’s a paper duck. Didn’t I just tell you? This house has big problems, I can feel it just by breathing the air in here. Do you really want to stay here?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, as I see it.”

“Well, then I recommend you get an exorcist.”

“I tried that already, but he wouldn’t come.”

“Who wouldn’t come?”

“Carlos Batista. He got me this house and–”

“Carlos is a wussy nowadays, ever since he met Cornelia. I can see why he wouldn’t wanna get involved with someone like you. I’m surprised he even helped you with the house. No, I mean a real exorcist. Or a priest. I know one we could call.”

“And who might that be?”, he says. She can tell he’s starting to crank up; he’s doing that thing with his eyebrows that he always does when something is irritating him.

“Relax, Dev. Let’s go into the kitchen again. The spirits seemed to be quieter in there.” She walks before him through the doorway as she continues talking. “There’s this freelance priest from New Orleans called Seth Pasco or something like that. Found her on Craig’s List a couple of years ago when I needed to get rid of a curse some stupid bitch cast on me for sleeping with her ex. I think I still have her number.”

“The ex?”

“No, the exorcist of course. Please tell me you’re just faking stupidity now.”

She sits down at the table and starts looking through her contacts. He remains standing, hovering in the doorway like yet another restless ghost. “And why is it I have never heard of this miracle priest?”

“Honey, please. Just accept that you don’t know everything. Besides, she’s pretty young. Ah, here she is!”, Vahri says triumphantly as she finds the right number in her loaded contact list. “It’s Seth Pascal, actually.

“Pascal? Like the philosopher?”

“Stop trying to collect intellectual points, Devin. I’m calling her, and then you’re telling me what you know about the Club, okay?”

“But there’s this other thing I need your help with too, remember?”

She sighs. “I help you get in contact with Seth, and then you tell me what I need to know. Then I’ll come back and help you with your mystery quest, I promise.”

“A promise is not good enough.”

“What do you want then?”

“An oath. A real one, with blood.”

“Dev, don’t be child–”

“It’s either that, or the whole deal is off. You choose.”

Another sigh, deeper this time. “Okay, sure, fine. We’ll do it your way. Let’s not waste any more time.” She retrieves a small knife from her pocket and draws a sharp, red line across the palm of her right hand. Small drops of blood begin to emerge as soon as her body starts realizing it has been cut.

He stares at her in disbelief for several heartbeats, before catching himself and stepping up to the table where she’s sitting. “That was… I mean, I didn’t necessarily mean we had to–”

“It’s dripping on your floor, Devin. Get to it already.” She hands him the knife while catching stray drops of blood with her free hand.

Devin grabs the knife and repeats her gesture. His movements are trained, as if he’s done this a million times before. She definitely does not doubt this is actually the case. He extends his injured hand towards her, and she takes it in hers.

“Now swear”, he says in such a cold and matter-of-fact way as to make her almost shiver. Was he always this… dark?

She looks into his deep, black eyes and suddenly wonders for the first time what she is really getting herself into. A blood pact with someone like him could very well warrant harsh punishment if somebody found out. Very harsh punishment indeed. He’s a sacromancer, which means he meddles with black magic. That’s what he was exiled for all those years ago, and back when it happened it was only her own youth, ignorance and innocence that saved her from being suspected of the same crime. But that was a long time ago, and she is neither ignorant nor innocent anymore. Especially not after this.

His grip is firm and she can feel warm blood pulsing between their palms. The morbid intimacy of the moment is strengthened by the intense hold of his dark gaze. She could not break neither eye contact nor grip even if she had wanted to. But she is determined to go through with this, if that is what it takes.

“I, Vahri, swear –“

“True names here”, he says sternly.

She catches herself, a little embarrassed for not knowing this already. Hastily she corrects herself. “Ehm. I, Vanessa Heike Riley, swear to uphold my part of the bargain and thus to the best of my ability assist Devin Murdock in his mystery quest, after he tells me all he knows about the Enjoyment Club.”

Devin nods solemnly, still not breaking eye contact. “And I, Devin Benjamin Murdock, in return swear to tell Vanessa Heike Riley all I know about the Enjoyment Club. And to take her out on a date once all this is done and over with.”

He flashes her a crooked smile, and before she has time to protest or react she can feel him sealing the blood pact. The air starts shimmering with static and the restless creaking and moaning from the house’s old residents grows entirely silent for a moment. Vahri feels the blood between their palms burning like acid. It is burning its way back through the wound in her hand and straight up through her veins. For a heartbeat her entire cardiovascular system is burning with arcane fire, and still she cannot break eye contact with him. She stares helplessly into his dark eyes as the pact etches itself into her very being, her very soul.

It is all over in the blink of an eye, but when the intense, searing pain is suddenly gone she still finds herself sitting there, gasping for air, grasping his hand and staring into his eyes. He smiles, and she hastily catches herself. She lets go of his hand and wipes the blood off her hand and onto her black jeans.

’Nothing like this’ my ass”, she snarls and pushes past him, out into the hallway.

He takes up position in the doorway behind her again, leaning against the door frame in a casual way that she deems has to have been rehearsed beforehand. “Come on, Nessa. Don’t be like that. I’m just having some fun. You should try that too, some time.”

“I didn’t swear to go with you on any fucking date”, she snaps. “I’m here for information, nothing else.”

He sighs. “Alright, then. I’m sorry for that. If you won’t go out with me later I guess the penalty of breaking the pact is on me. No harm done to you, right?”

“Right”, she says, arms crossed. “So before you pull any more of your immature pranks, I guess I’d better call this Pascal girl and get things moving. And then comes the part where you tell me what you know.” She turns her back on him and walks into the living room, already dialing Seth Pascal’s number.

As she listens to the dialing tones she can hear Devin teasingly mutter behind her.

“You might still change your mind before this is over, though”, he says. But she chooses to ignore him.

***

He is sitting on the porch, smoking a tellingly asymmetrical cigarette, when she joins him again. He seems to be trying hard not to question her about the phone call right away. He waits until she is seated on the stairs next to him before eagerly turning to her.

“So?”, he says.

She takes the cigarette from his hand without being offered, and draws a deep breath from its sweet fumes. “She’ll come”, she says without looking at him. Instead she lets her eyes sweep the garden in front of the house. It must have once been beautiful, but tear and neglect has rather turned it into something that could have been commissioned for October 31:th.

“She will?”, he says when she does not elaborate. “When? And how will this be done?”

Vahri flicks away the cigarette and rises from the cold step. “She said she would catch the first plane here from New Orleans. And I gave her your number, so you two can work out the details. Now it’s your turn. Come.”

She walks down the remaining steps and onto the crusty grass. She doesn’t wait for him, but starts walking through the garden. Old dried leaves rustle beneath her feet as she passes in between overgrown bushes and apple trees gone wild. She can hear quick steps from behind as he hurries to catch up with her.

“Wait, how do you even have my number?”, he says.

“The dead girl in the living room told me”, she says. “Anyways, this is where you tell me what you know. So shoot.”

There’s a large fountain hidden amidst the tall cypress trees in the garden and it smells of decades of mold. It is filled with brown rain water and old rotten leaves. She sits down on the rock frame encircling it and pats on the mossy stone next to her. “Sit.”

He does as he is told and throws a fascinated glance around the place where they have ended up. She gets the feeling that he has not been in this part of the garden before. Maybe he hasn’t even left the house at all since coming here.

“Well”, he says hesitantly. “I don’t know how much you know already, but–”

“Pretend I know nothing”, she interrupts and tries to seem like this is not uncomfortably close to the truth.

“Okay then”, he says after a moment of silence. “The Club is nasty business and I actually wish I never heard about them. But a promise it a promise, so here goes.”

***

And he starts talking. Starts telling her about an organization so old and so ruthless that it has slowly rotted from the inside. He tells her about mad men and women with endless resources and one goal in life and one goal only: to attain pleasure at the expense of others, and often at the expense of people like her and him; creatures above and beyond the ordinary. Supernatural creatures.

He tells her about mages, vampires, werewolves and changelings falling victim to these madmen’s singular tastes, to their novel sexual urges and their sadistic needs for knowledge and domination. He gives her horrific accounts of wolf-bloods being cooked and eaten alive, of vampire kindred being locked up and used as toys, of magicians being tortured and mutilated for fun and later murdered, cremated and turned into powder subsequently used as expensive cocktail components.

***

The day is warm but Vahri can’t help shivering as she sits there, listening to Dev’s morbid horror story that alas is not a story at all but a report of true and terrible events. By the time he is finished she feels sick, and the putrid stench from the murky water behind her suddenly summons entirely different images to her mind than it did before he began talking.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Fuck”, she says quietly and he only nods. They sit there in silence for a while, Devin seeming almost as pale and nauseous as she is feeling, even though he has been the one telling the story.

He clears his throat. “So… What’s your business with the Club?”

She suddenly has a desperate urge to say ‘nothing’ and actually mean it. She wants nothing to do with this lot, Neferthali was right. But she can’t say that, because it is not true. She has business with these people. She has provoked them through their lackeys, and they have seen her. They know what she is, which makes her a target just as much as that djinn guy, Chino, is. She has to act before they do. Has to find out more and learn how she can avoid them, hide from them or fight them off.

“That’s none of your business”, she says instead. This, at least, is entirely true. She starts to rise to walk away from him.

“Well”, he say, and now that sly tone is back in his voice like it was never gone in the first place. “It is my business insofar as your keeping of that pact of ours is. I’m starting to get used to having dead people around, but I don’t think you’ll be of much help to me if you are dead. Or a trophy on someone’s parlor wall.”

She stops and turns around to face him. She had almost forgotten about that part of the deal. Suddenly she doesn’t feel especially confident about their pact at all anymore. He is a sacromancer after all. What will he have me do? She swallows hard and tries to keep the insecurity out of her voice. “And what is that shit really about then, Dev?”

He smiles, must have seen the nervous look on her face after all. “I have recently lost someone dear to me”, he says. “Someone really important. I’m in town to find and claim his… well, his heritage. Books, alchemical potions, enchanted artifacts, you know the drill. And I have to do it before my, well, let’s call him my brother, does.”

“And you need my help with this estate distribution because…?”

“Well, this dearly departed person lived a rather reclusive life. Hidden away, if you will. And I don’t exactly know where the estate to be distributed has been… ensconced quite yet.”

“So you need me to help you find it, is that it? It’s a geocaching quest?” She is not in the least excited by the prospect of going with Devin Murdock on a treasure hunt that could potentially take several days. But she also knows the potential consequences of breaking a blood pact. She has read about them, and they are not pretty.

“Yep”, he says.

She shakes her head and starts walking away again, but immediately turns back to face him. “And who is this important person who has passed away, really?”

He gives her a tantalizing flash of teeth. “Do you remember Teneo?”, he says and waits for her reaction.

She blinks. Once. Twice. She knows who Teneo is – or was. And suddenly she also understands who this brother of Devin’s must be. The one who now seems to be their rival to the loot. Fuck.

“I fucking hate you”, she says, turns and walks away through the garden.

***

Devin Murdock remains seated at the fountain, laughing silently to himself as he watches her go. He had forgotten how much he used to enjoy her company back then, their constant battles and their passionate fights that more often than not ended in passionate other things. And now she is back in his life. It is not something he has planned for, but now that she has found him he is going to make the most of it. And it is going to be fun, oh yes.

Maybe being back in Los Angeles isn’t going to be just struggle and drab after all, he thinks.

And then his phone rings. Unknown number.

Usually he would never answer such a call, but today is not an ordinary day.

He hopes for a priest and answers.

 Chris Smedbakken, 2017-10-22 


You can find the next part here.

 

 

 

The Game Is On

This is the fifth part in an ongoing series circling around the character Vanessa Riley. It might work on its own, but I recommend you also read the previous parts to get the full story: I, II, III, IV.


There was never a time in his life when Devin Murdock did not feel haunted – be it by his past, the law or his own restless thoughts. But this is something different, and he knows it. Can feel it with every fiber of his damned being. If there ever was a haunted house, this is definitely it. And he just so happens to have the ill fortune of living here. If he’d been religiously inclined he would call it Karma. Now he just ascribes it to a cursed conspiracy between his own astronomically bad luck and the pettiness of the universe. And what a grand fucking conspiracy, at that.

One signal, two signals, three sign–

“Carlito’s Clean House, how may I be of–”

“Dude, it’s me, Dev. You have to send someone, this it getting fucking unbearable.”

A second of silence. “Look, we’ve talked about this. You can’t keep calling me here. Seriously. You’ll get me in trouble. I already hit you up with a place to stay, didn’t I? Despite you being a wanted fugitive and all that.”

“Pfh. They can’t possibly be looking for me anymore. That shit was long ago. And besides, this ‘place’ you got for me is already occupied. By fucking dead people. So if you–”

“Not looking for you anymore, huh? Then tell me why the fuck you’re hiding. Nah, ain’t no fooling me. If those coven people, or whatever you call them, found out you’re back in town they’d have your head. And that’s the truth, plain and pretty. I want nothing to do with that, or them. Or you, for that matter. I helped you once already, and if that house is not to your liking, well, you can find a nice shrubbery to sleep under for all I’m concerned. I’m getting married, Dev. I’m not risking anything more for you.”

“Carlos, don’t do this. You’re the only half decent exorcist – hell, the only half decent person – I know around here anymore. I need you, man. You can’t leave me like this, these ghosts won’t let me sleep, and–”

“Dev, let me put this simply for you. I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck. Make peace with the dead, or don’t. I tried to warn you back then when you started fucking around with that dark stuff, but you didn’t listen. You knew what the penalty was, and now you’ve gotta live with it. You, not I. Sabes?”

“Carlos, listen. I’m back in town for a reason. Someone I knew, let’s call him an old mentor of mine, died and left some stuff behind. Powerful stuff. If I can only figure out where he hid it, I’ll be able to do… Well, close to anything. I’ll make it all up to you, and more. But to find it I must be able to think and plan, and those damned specters won’t let me do that. I’m going mad here. If you could just–”

A deep sigh. “You never learn, do you? Good bye, Dev. Don’t call me on this number again. Or rather, don’t bother calling at all. I’m blocking you.”

“Please, Carlos, I–” But the line is already dead.

And he’s standing, phone in hand, alone in a much too empty and extraordinarily haunted house at the outskirts of a city that doesn’t want him. The planks and boards all around him are already resuming their ominous creaking and the stale air is once again drawing breath for all the disembodied whispers that are to come.

Carlos has made his point, Dev can expect no more help from him. And now the radio’s going on in the next room, maddening static echoing between the silent and hungry walls.

Deeevin”, a barely audible voice slithers through the cracked speakers.

“Fuck this”, Devin says and leaves the house.

***

The problem with being a sacromancer of at least some renown is that pretty much everyone in the know either hates you for being “evil”, or wants to hurt you for their own gain. This rule makes no exception for Devin Murdock. He’s been on the run for almost a decade now, and the sweet taste of the vagabond life is beginning to turn sour. This alone would probably not have been enough to lure him back to the city from where he was once exiled, were it not for the extra persuading factor of the news that recently reached him.

Teneo is dead. The game is on.”

This short message had reached him in the middle of the night seven days ago. He had been busy getting drunk together with a priestess of Eir in an impressively pimped out hotel room, and initially he had just tried to ignore the vibrating phone. As soon as he had read the message, however, he had already been cold sober and on his way out the door. The blessings of heathen goddesses be damned, this was not an opportunity he was going to miss out on. The next morning had caught him already on a westbound plane, nervously tapping his fingers on the armrests of his seat.

Teneo had been Devin’s mentor before the latter was banished from L.A for practicing taboo. Now he is apparently dead – whether by more or less natural causes, Devin doesn’t yet know. What he does know, however, is that the person who brought him the tidings, though once a brother in learning, is now his mortal enemy and rival. Their mutual mentor has left unimaginable scholarly resources behind, and whoever finds them first will be the new king of the hill, as it were.

Devin can only speak for himself, but if he should come out the victor, the first thing he’ll do is to neutralize the competition. He doesn’t harbor any illusions whatsoever that his rival is not thinking the exact same thing.

***

He’s sitting on the porch, face in hands, when the red Ferrari pulls up outside the iron gates. He doesn’t notice it at once because cars often pass by on the road on the other side of the tall garden walls, but when the sound of the loud engine just won’t fade into the distance his curiosity finally forces him to look up.

The gates are closed of course – his paranoia wouldn’t have it any other way – but the rusty bars are far enough apart to allow him a clear view of the short driveway on the other side. Just as he lays eyes on the red streamline monster its driver’s door opens and a woman steps out. There’s something eerily familiar about her, and in Devin’s world that is not a good thing. To him, familiar equals danger in this city.

He rises slowly from the porch, unsure of whether to take refuge inside the house or to remain where he is. In the end, he ends up doing neither of those things. He starts cautiously walking along the overgrown stone slab path toward the gates, all the while fighting to keep his breathing and heartbeat in check. He’s not entirely sure why he’s approaching the woman by the car, but he is. Too late does he realize that this in itself is a bad sign, and too late does he remember to try to read her to learn her intentions. He is almost at the end of the path when he makes his attempt, and the instant mental resistance that as good as hits him across the face in response is all he needs to realize that this is really, really bad.

He freezes, just yards away from the woman in black watching him from the other side of the gate and a pair of mirror tinted sunglasses. Now that he is closer the feeling of familiarity has grown even stronger. Something, a memory perhaps, keeps itching at the back of his mind. He knows this woman.

“Hello, Devin”, she says and removes her sunglasses with a gesture worthy of Hollywood.

And the penny finally drops. “Vanessa Riley.” He can’t stop staring. She was just a girl, and now…

“It’s Vahri now, hun. Please never use that name again. Forget it if you can. Or else I’ll help you with that.”

He closes his mouth. Hopes vainly it did not hang open for long. Vahri. He nods. “So you finally awoke, did you? I knew It was just a matter of time, didn’t I tell you that?” He flashes her one of his rehearsed, sly smiles in a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation.

“Dev, darling, that trick might have worked when I was seventeen. But I’m not seventeen anymore, am I? And I have learned a thing or two since then, so please spare me the condescending pickup lines and open this gate and let me in. I need to talk to you.”

And for the second time in just a couple of minutes he finds himself doing exactly what she tells him to. “How did you know I was back?”, he asks as the ancient gates creak open. “How did you find me?”

“Oh, that was easy”, she answers as she walks past him towards the house. “I just wished upon a djinn.”

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-07-04

River Ghost

This is an old text i wrote back in 2008. I still like the concept of the story, and I’m happy to see that my grammar wasn’t completely off even back then. But if I were to rewrite it today, I would make a lot of changes. I’d definitely make it shorter, and less pompous. I’d love to hear your opinion – is the story worth rewriting?


There are and always will be soul collectors in this world.

A long time ago, in the years when your great-grandmother was young, there lived in a small village near the great forest a young man with his mind full of dreams. In the year of this story’s place taking, the summer was as warm, green and beautiful as a summer could ever be dreamt to be, and the village enjoyed itself accordingly. Festivities were being held almost once a week at the dancing place in the middle of the forest, where the swirling river met the lake.

The joyful mood inspired this specific young man – a violin player – to propose to the object of his lifelong affection. The girl accepted gladly, and for many weeks they met and danced together at the gatherings in the forest.

Tradition had it that a couple may not undertake the wandering to these gatherings together until they were wedded, and thus this young man walked alone or together with his friends to the festivities each week, to meet his future bride at the scene of the dancing. The young two were very happy and everyone looked forward to the upcoming wedding.

But fate wanted it otherwise. One evening, when the air was even more pleasantly warm than usual and the birds sang clearer than ever in the trees, the young man happened to walk on his own to the gathering. He was late and all his friends had gone before him. When he got to the part of the road where the forest trail crossed a whirling stream by means of a wooden bridge, he suddenly though he heard singing from the water.

Confused, he leaned against the rail to gaze down into the foamy depths, and was amazed to find the most beautiful creature he ever saw gazing back at him. Large black eyes framed by flowing hair the color of water, she had the body of a fragile water lily but radiated with an inner strength that seemed to contain the ferocity of the ocean itself. The river ghost rose from her flowing containment and placed herself upon a rock in the stream, where from she sang to him.

His friends came back to look for him when dark crept up from the hills and the shadows cast by the trees began to fade into the surrounding gloom. Lanterns were carried along the path, and they were greatly relieved to find him uninjured on the wooden bridge crossing the stream. He hastily lowered his violin, strings still reverberating from previously played notes, and looked to the ground, a strange sort of shame suddenly making him want to flee.

They did not notice this, however, and laughingly scorned him for his lazy nature and heartily prodded him along back to the dancing. He followed without a word, and when he cast one last, longing glimpse over his shoulder upon stepping off the wooden bridge, the gentle river ghost of a woman was gone.

He left his heart in the stream that night, however.

His friends noticed that something was amiss with their companion – or maybe “amiss” is not the right word for it; he seemed suddenly more colorful, more joyful and more keen to practice his music whenever there was time for it. And none of these changes would have been interpreted as negative, had they been described to an outsider. But his closest ones wondered.

He had never been one to show his emotions very openly, and even the promise of a coming wedding between himself and the girl he had coveted for as long as he could remember had not sent him flying high like this. They settled, though, for the conclusion that this sudden joyousness was due to a delayed insight about what was to come.

The young man himself did not tell anyone about his nightly encounter – or encounters maybe is a better word, since this was not the last time he met with the watery phantom by the river stream. In fact, he tended to walk alone to the dancing quite frequently after that first evening, and it was not rare for him to be absent from these gatherings altogether thenceforth.

His bride-to-be was a little worried at this, but his friends calmed her by saying that he had much to think about and tend to before the wedding. And although they themselves did not fully believe this explanation, she left it at that and continued with her own eager preparations as tradition saw suitable and without further inquiry.

And so the nights, weeks and months went by quietly in the little village. When the people heard soft violin tunes coming from the forest, they simply took it as the highly fitting and not at all unusual wanderings and contemplations of a young man soon to give up his naïve life in boyish freedom for something new and much bigger. In reality, he was not playing for himself at all.

The river ghost was faithful to him and waited for him in silence on the rock in the water whenever he chose to show up – but always in moonlight. It was as if her voice would not carry in the cruel heat of the daylight sun, and since she appeared to be half siren, half serenade, she could not take form where her singing would not be heard. Every time he came, he played his violin and she sang with it.

No thought of his did go to the poor girl who awaited their forthcoming wedding with anticipation, as all his mind was on the music he and the water made together. The others stopped expecting him at the dances after a while, but this did not bother him at all. He came up with new tunes – they heard it – and he slept with a new kind of peace at night. But always after returning from the forest stream.

One thing troubled his mind though, namely the nature of the watery romance. Their music was beautiful, but he realized pretty soon that she could not leave the water and come to him. He tried once, twice, even thrice to wade out into the river to her – but as soon as the ripples from his movements reached the hem of her whirling silver gown, she would fade from his grasping fingers as soon as a bubble bursts on a foamy surface. This was his only sorrow during this brief time of otherwise unbroken ignorant bliss.

The wedding was nigh. On the evening of fate he wore the attire of ceremony his father had worn before him, but walking towards the ground of feast – the same as where the dances had been held all summer – he discovered the rings had been forgotten and was forced to turn back. The congregation moved along as he ran as fast as he could back to the village.

Seeing his bride dressed up in her ceremonial dress had caused him to wake from his delusions of a watery romance. Knowing that the life he would have with this girl would be possible in all the ways his brief river crush had not been, he had decided to go forth with the proceedings. This insight had reached him only the night before.

The rings in hand he did not know why he also brought his violin on a whim, but legend has it that evil fate was in the air that evening, intervening. Or maybe it was the work of forces beyond understanding.

In any case the village was understandably empty and quiet when he ran back towards the forest trail, noises being heard only from far away in the woods where the preparations were hurriedly being finished. He reached the trail and had to slow down a bit, lest he trip on any of the roots and twigs scattered everywhere on the path and get dirt all over his fine clothes.

Had he kept on running, he might have missed and passed by the little man sitting on a stub right before the bend in the road that would take him to the bridge over the stream, but he did not. And as he did not miss him, and as he, in spite of everything else, was a polite and mannerly young man, he stopped, surprised, and asked the man if he needed any help.

The young man might have still made it to the ceremony, had he been of a more suspicious nature – but he was not. And thus he did not up and run when he got an evil grin for an answer, or even when the man made his offer. He said he knew about the affection the young man held for the siren of the woods, and about the dilemma they suffered. He had the solution. He had the spell.

Should the boy accept he would, at a small cost, be able to be together with his singing shade for all time, hearing her sing and play to her every night henceforth. Time would never separate them and neither would daylight, since he would be given the ears to hear her and the eyes to see her even when day was upon the world like a ravenous fever.

Should he reject, he would be free to continue on his way and proceed with the imminent ceremony, never laying his mind upon the matter again. But he had to remember this was a one time offer. It would never be made again.

For all he knew a full year passed between them as he stood there, unable to think coherently. Then he reached forth his hand and offered it to the stranger, who smilingly accepted it in not quite a shake but a firm, long hold. Music started somewhere further down the path – the dancing had begun. But if he, somewhere in his distraught mind, still cared about that, or about the young woman who laughingly spun around in her last dance of freedom in the glade beyond the stream right then, he did not know it himself.

For at that moment, all his thoughts were fixed on the river ghost that he had all but forgotten about only minutes before. And the world spun deliriously around him as he apprehended the wonder of the situation. He would have her, he would be with her, he would play for her and hear her sing. He would never have to forget about her again. Ever.

The stranger was gone. Had he even been there? Who had? Why was he standing in the middle of the road with his violin and bow uncased?

There was music down the path, somewhere in the deep forest. Why? But it was merry, and seemed to accompany in major the beautiful minor key melody that flowed towards him from the stream further on. It was a woman’s singing. Or the ghost of a woman.

He walked down the path like a man in a dream, and did not notice he had brought the violin to his shoulder until the smooth surface of the ebony chin rest touched his skin. And he didn’t know there was such music in his mind until his fingers picked it out in harmony with the heavenly song in his ears. And then he reached the stream.

She was all the wonder he knew she would be, and somehow he could see that more clearly tonight. She was more than a specter now, more substantial. Where the moonlight touched her it did not shine through, but rather illuminated her. He lowered his pace and approached her slowly. And this is where all the love stories would have you listen to endless descriptions of the light in their eyes, the smell of the air, the sound of the night around them.

This one will not.

She beckoned him forward and he started to descend the slope down to the whirling water – all the while playing his salute to her in fast, almost madly swirling notes. He reached the span of the small bridge and got ready to enter the cold water. But one more step, and he began to feel a resistance. Moving got harder with each inch he closed in on her, and he ended up sinking down on an old stump standing beside him. Walking had gotten too hard.

He felt dizzy and blamed it on the heat of the past day, but he never ceased playing. And she kept singing, even though her voice had taken on a worried shade.

Then his arms began to feel heavy. He let them drop, and the music stopped. He let the violin rest on his knee, and thought he needed to sleep for a minute or two. Just for a short while. But then he saw the expression on her face, a look of pure terror he had not thought a phantom could express.

She reached out for him with an all too solid hand, and when he held out his own hand he gasped in surprise and horror, for now he understood why he could see her. He also understood why he could not move anymore, and what the strange man – he remembered him now – had meant with ‘a small price’.

His hand and arm was draped in vines and so, he saw when he with difficulty turned his head, was the rest of him. Of his legs there was nothing left but a strangely sculpted extension of the stump he was sitting on, and he could feel the cold creeping up his torso where this woody infection was spreading. He tried to scream; out came an inarticulate grunt. He wanted to thrash and turn, but his whole body was turning into wood.

He turned his gaze back to her, and saw that her face had settled into an expression of solemn sorrow. He saw now that she could not leave the rock in the stream any more than he could move from the wooden stub. They were both specters now. And she started singing again – a sad, dark song of drowning slowly.

She reached for him, and he reached for her. But they both knew that they would never touch, never reach quite far enough. He stopped breathing – there was no need to anymore.

His arm stiffened that way, and he never moved again. But in his mind he lifted his violin to his shoulder and played for her again, and she sang. And they have been silently playing and singing ever since.

What happened to the wedding party is not for this story to tell – maybe its tale was never told – but when the guests and villagers came walking back the path hours later, they never found him. They didn’t even notice the wooden statue until days later, and no one associated it with the lost boy. Except maybe his now lonely bride-to-be, who was found on several occasions afterwards sitting by the stream, leaned towards that strange statue, seemingly listening to some inaudible music. But she could never explain it, and as the years passed she forgot and moved on.

But if you happen to pass by that stream near the village in the forest – it may well have turned into a full scale city by now, for all I know – pause for a moment and listen. It might be that you hear faint tunes from the whirling water, and you’ll know that it is their song. He will never lift his violin from his knee again in human sight, but he will forever play to her all the same. And she will sing to him, invisible in daylight, from her rock in the middle of the stream.

Lost boy and River Ghost, together and still not, forever.

And the strange man added one more soul to his collection.

A Late Night Distraction

I like writing prompts, as you might have guessed by now. Here is another text inspired by one, and you can find the prompt here.


The night was late and silent. Outside her window the large city was going to sleep and inside her office she was alone. A security guard had passed her door half an hour ago, but since then nothing had broken her solitude. Good. She didn’t like being interrupted in her work, and she had plenty of it. Running a country this size was not a full time job; it was a life. She hadn’t gotten to where she was by wasting her precious time on such petty trivialities as sleep and other useless things.

The clock struck midnight. She looked up. She didn’t have that kind of clock in her office.

”You had me killed.” The voice came from the chair in the corner, now draped in shadow. A tiny glow pierced the gloom and revealed the end of a cigarette.

She remained seated, her eyes struggling against the darkness until she could make out the face of the man staring back at her from across the room. ”Oh, it’s you”, she said and turned her attention back to the screen. She didn’t like being interrupted in her work.

Quiet laughter, not really amused but almost. ”So I’m not the only one? There are others? Jesus, you’re cold.” He rose and walked over to her end of the office. Leaned against the window and continued smoking his cigarette.

A distinct scent of old tobacco smoke started spreading in the room. It had not been easy to get that same scent out of the walls when first she had taken over this office, and now she would have to do it all over again. She sighed. ”What do you want?”

”Sharp words from a vice president towards her superior, don’t you think?”

She almost lost her temper, and abandoned her work to stare at him. ”I would think that, yes, if I hadn’t been promoted and you hadn’t been dead. Now go back to resting in peace or whatever it is that you people do, and let me do my job.”

”Wow. I had expected at least some little show of remorse from you. But I’ll tell you what I want. I want retaliation or an apology, or at least an explanation. I won’t leave until I get one of them.”

She resumed typing on her keyboard, ignoring him. ”Then I’m afraid you’ll have to make yourself comfortable, because you’re not getting any of them from me.”

”I suspected as much”, he said and returned to the chair in the corner. ”That’s why I deliberately chose tonight for my visit.”

”Is that so?” She only listened with half an ear now. She didn’t have any time to spare for ranting, vengeful ghosts. She had to work on her next promotional speech.

”Yes it is.” He blew out some smoke and put one leg over the other. Leaned back. ”That’s quite some campaign you’re running there. Water proof, even. Your opponent won’t stand a sorry chance.”

She met his eyes, surprised and somewhat disarmed. ”Thank you. I guess. That actually means something, coming from you. I know I won’t be losing to him.”

The ghost nodded, a vicious smile playing at the corners of his moth. ”And he knows that too. That’s why I’m not your only visitor tonight.”

She frowned, opening her mouth to ask him what he meant. But then the door to her office burst open and all that escaped her lips was a scream in fear before everything became pain and chaos.

And he did just as she had asked him to and made himself comfortable, as he revelled in the violence that played out before him. She stopped screaming eventually, and the killer left the office as soundlessly as just another phantom.

”Retaliation it is, then”, the ghost of her predecessor laughed quietly from his chair. Then he drifted back into the shadows and the late night became silent once more.

And all that remained was blood and a fading scent of old tobacco smoke.