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
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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.

The Painting: A Ghost Story

This is an older text, written back in 2011 as part of a Halloween theme for the English class I was teaching. I wanted it to contain the most common ghost story-tropes in order to give the students inspiration and tools for their own stories. Feel free to leave a comment.


It was a dark and stormy night. A man was walking slowly through his equally dark house, admiring through the gloom his collection of old and fantastical things. He was old himself, and had been interested in antiquities his whole life – and because of this his collection had grown large.

An old grandfather clock struck midnight. He had acquired it from decedent estate sale ten years ago. From the same place came the crystal chandelier in the ceiling and the oaken chair in the corner. He stopped in front of his newest acquisition, a large painting depicting a house by the sea. It had been auctioned out for almost no money at all at a local sale that very same day, and he had bought it without hesitation. Now that he stood regarding it more closely, though, he could not help feeling icy shivers running down his spine.

He had bought it because the house in the painting looked a lot like his own house, down to the old willow tree that grew outside his bedroom window. The sea in the panting, of course, did not match reality. There actually was a lake some distance from his house, but no sea. He had thought the similarities to be amusing when he had first seen the painting in broad daylight. However, now that he stood looking at it in the middle of the night in the light of the full moon, he did not feel amused at all.

The similarities to his own house now made him feel uneasy, and he wondered suddenly if there really had been a candle burning in the painted window earlier that day. A sudden pang of superstitious horror struck him, and he hurriedly took the painting off the wall and hid it deep in a closet. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t like the way the branches of the painted tree reached for the little house by the sea.

Several weeks passed, and he forgot about the painting. He added even more artifacts to his collection and grew even older. It was not until autumn had closed around his house and robbed the willow outside his window of all its leaves, that he even thought about the painting again.

It happened late one night, when he was just about to go to sleep. The roof of his house was creaking in the wind and the tree branches were scratching against his window. A sudden noise caught his attention, and he realized that the photograph on the wall opposite from his bed had fallen to the floor, seemingly without explanation. As he inspected the damage done, he concluded that the frame was totally broken. He would not be able to put the photography back up without first replacing the broken frame.

Sighing, he picked up the glass and splinters and carried them into the next room to throw them away. It was when he passed the closet that he suddenly came to think of the painting he had hidden there. Much time had passed, and he could not remember what had gotten him so worked up, giving him such goose bumps. So he took the painting out of the closet and looked at it again.

Nothing had changed in the panting, of course. It was probably just his imagination that made him think that the tree in the picture had had leaves when he last looked at it, and the sea had probably always been full of billowing waves. Looking at it now he felt silly for ever having hidden it away in the first place. And he certainly needed to replace the broken photograph with something. So he did.

Pleased to have accomplished something at this late hour, he lay down in his antique bed and looked at the painting now hanging on the wall across the room from him. It certainly was a work of skill, with its masterfully executed details. It was almost as if he could see the flame in the portrait house’s window flickering. His imagination again, of course. And soon he drifted away into the land of sleep.

It must have been the roaring of the waves that awakened him. It was still pitch black outside. He lay still in the darkness for a while without opening his eyes, trying to go back to sleep – but sleep wouldn’t come. If the sea would just go quiet… Then he opened his eyes in horrible realization. Dread started to creep over him as he came to his senses and suddenly remembered that there was no sea – apart from that in the panting.

Now wide awake, he stared at the portrait on the opposite wall and gasped. The candle in the painted window was now clearly flickering in the wind that was obviously tearing at the spiny branches of the oil-color willow tree. And the sound that had woken him up really did come from the painted waves throwing themselves against the rocks by the beach.

But none of these things was what made his breath catch in his throat and his limbs go numb. No, what made his blood freeze in his veins and his hair stand on end, was the sickening sight of the corpse-like creature that came crawling out of the sea, dripping of sea weed and death even as he watched helplessly.

He tried to scream, but like in a nightmare where you can do nothing but watch, not a single sound escaped his parted lips. A smell like that of putrid flesh spread in his room as the hellish wraith drew closer to the frame of the painting, and when it was almost past the tree a black liquid, like rotten tar, began oozing out of the picture, down the wall and towards his bed.

The last thing he saw was the demon’s eyes, staring ravenously at him as it closed in and pressed its decomposing face to the inside of the portrait and began tearing away at it with talons dripping with something red.

They found him the next day, hanging from the old willow tree outside his bedroom window. Rumor had it that he had finally gone mad from living all by himself in that old cottage, his only company thousands and thousands of dollar’s worth of remnants from other people’s lives. Some of his collection was claimed by distant relatives, but some of the belongings were too grisly even for his greedy kin.

For example they found an old painting hanging on his bedroom wall, opposite from his bed. In an eerie way it seemed to depict the late old man’s house, willow tree and all. But this was not what made the relatives instantly send it away to be sold cheaply at an auction. No, what made them turn away in disgust and try their best to forget about it was another distasteful similarity.

Because from one of the branches of the painted willow tree, a body was hanging. So masterfully painted was it that the startled relatives later could have sworn that they had seen it swinging back and forth in the autumn wind…

All Lost In the Mail

Another story in response to a writing prompt. This one turned out a little longer than the previous ones – I just couldn’t help it, sorry 😉 Feel free to leave comments!


Sometimes when I passed by the old Foursquare on my daily delivery round I allowed myself to fantasize about how it would look with a fresh layer of white paint and some refurbishment. It must have been beautiful once, with its huge garden and inviting dormer windows. I used to wonder who once lived there, if children had at one point run laughing down the slight slope in the lawn and what boring office positions those children held now. Of course I also wondered what had once caused the old building to be so thoughtlessly abandoned. There was no one to ask, however, since the house had stood empty for as long as anyone could remember.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one day I found in my delivery bag a bundle of envelopes, cards and parcels clearly to be delivered to this very address. I thought about returning it to the post office for redirection at once, but then I thought better of it. I reckoned I should at least try to make the delivery before dismissing it, as was the policy. To be honest I was also secretly excited about finally having an excuse for taking a closer look at the mysterious building.

It was autumn, and the leaves rustled under my feet as I made my way up the garden path towards the structure. The grass, trees and bushes had not seen proper care for a very long time, and  the season’s added effects didn’t do them any favors. I considered making a beat around the house to sate my curiosity, but decided against it. For some reason I felt as if the dark windows were silently watching me, and I felt the excitement from only minutes earlier drain from my body with every step I took. I wanted to be done here, I realized, and looked forward to returning the letters to the office and continuing on my round. To houses more inhabited, friendly and alive.

The porch creaked as I stepped on it. The sound sent shivers down my spine and I stopped and listened. Nothing. One of the dusty lite panels in the front door was broken and the wind made the worn linen door curtain ripple on the inside. I knocked, first cautiously but then decidedly. I would be accused of neither cowardice nor negligence.

”Come in”, a faint voice said, and my heart almost stopped. I considered running, but duty and curiosity got the better of me and instead I opened the door.

Inside, the house was silent and calm. Dust drifted through the air like particles of memory, and the homely but dated furnishing spoke of love and dedication long past. A grey layer covered everything, as if this place had been frozen in time decades ago.

”Anybody home?”

”Here.” That faint voice again, cracked and hollow as that of a phantom – or a very old person not accustomed to using it.

I wound my way through the house and found myself in a small bedroom. The pattern on the wallpapers matched the dried flowers on the windowsill, and everywhere I looked there were old photographs in ornate frames. On the bed lay a woman, her hair white as snow and the shape of her slight body barely showing from under the heavy covers.

I looked down at the bundle in my hand and read the faded address on the topmost envelope. ”Mrs. Lapwing?”, I chanced.

She looked tiredly at me and nodded. ”Yes”, she rasped. ”Are you from the police?”

I shook my head. ”I’m from the post office. I have some letters for you. Where can I put them?”

She smiled faintly, but it was a sad smile. And that’s when I realized she was not looking at me at all. ”Mr. Postman, I’m sorry but I will not be able to read your letters. I’m blind, you see.”

”Oh”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”

”How could you?” She reached out towards me. ”Maybe you could read the letters to me? That would be wonderful, dear.”

”There are many letters”, I said while quickly thumbing through them. ”Maybe Mr. Lapwing can read them to you? There are letters for him here as well.”

Her hand dropped, and the smile disappeared. ”My husband has been gone for many years, Mr. Postman. He ran away with another woman thirty years ago.”

The silence lasted for several seconds, but for me it felt like far longer than that. ”I’ll read them to you”, I said and sat down in the chair next to her bed. What else could I do?

”Thank you, dear”, she whispered and seemed to relax.

I opened the first envelope and reacted to the old letter stamp. This letter should have been delivered several decades ago. A quick investigation of the rest of the bundle revealed that this was the case with all of them. I cleared my throat.

”These letters are old”, I told her. ”I don’t know why they haven’t been delivered already. This first one was sent back in 1951, and it is from your sister, Ruth.”

”My sister died in the war”, she said blankly.

I skimmed through the letter, the handwriting was not all that easy to read but I managed. ”Well, no. She writes here that she is – was – well and that she’s living together with a kindly man, a fisherman, in Sweden. This is the first letter she has dared to write, and she would like to know if you are alive and well. She wants to come visit you.”

She shook her head slowly. ”Are you sure? Are you sure it is from Ruth?”

”It says so here. And she asks if you remember the kittens, says that she has gotten herself a new one just like the ones you had as children.”

Mrs. Lapwing’s unseeing eyes filled with tears. ”I didn’t know”, she whispered. ”All these years, and I didn’t know.”

”There are more letters from her here”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”She writes that her children are starting school, and that they are moving into a bigger house. She thinks about you often and would love to hear from you.”

The old woman said nothing, so I opened more letters. ”In this one her daughter is getting married. She wants you to be there, but she is afraid that she’s writing these letters to a person long gone. The last letter is not that old, actually… Five years. Well, I guess that’s pretty old as well under these circumstances.”

”Read it”, she mouthed between the tears.

”Here she… Oh.” I paused. ”She is in the hospital. Cancer. The doctors have given her a month, and she’s writing mainly to force herself to accept it. She thinks that you are dead, and she’s glad that she will soon be able to meet you again. This is the last letter from her. I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Lapwing was silent for a long time, her milky eyes staring blindly in front of her. ”What’s in the rest of the letters?”, she said finally.

I didn’t want to do this anymore, but I couldn’t leave her like this. ”There’s one from someone called Becca…”

”My daughter. I haven’t heard from her in twenty years or more.” There was wounded disappointment in her voice.

”It’s from fifteen years ago. To the day, actually. She writes that she has tried calling so many times now that she thinks it’s on you to contact her, if you want to speak. She wants you to know that she and Felicia are happy together, and that no matter what you think about that, she hopes that you will be happy to know that you will soon become a grandmother.”

”A… grandmother? She is having a baby? Together with that woman?”

”I would seem so. There is a phone number here too, if you want to call her.”

”She hasn’t called”, Mr. Lapwing muttered. ”That’s all a lie. I haven’t received any calls for several years.”

I bit my lip. ”That might be due to the… reminders of unpaid phone bills I have here…” I browsed through them. They were old as well, and the final one should have been delivered almost twenty years ago. I felt sick when I realized what this meant. ”The phone company cancelled your number in 1981, you had not payed your bills.”

”But I didn’t get any bills!”, she protested weakly. And she was right. She hadn’t gotten them.

”I’m sorry”, I said. ”There must have been a terrible mix up in the delivery. With all these letters. Of course you will be compensated for –”

”Just read the rest of them, will you Mr. Postman.” She looked defeated, and I guess that’s exactly what she was.

”This one is a letter for Mr. Lapwing. Sent in the early seventies.”

”Around the time when he ran away and left me, then.”

”Well… maybe. Yes, that seems right. The letter is from someone named Susan Green, and it’s very short. She writes that she can’t meet him at the station after all. That she has decided to stay with her family and that it’s over between them.”

”So he didn’t run away with her?”

”No, it doesn’t seem so. But he still sent you divorce papers, they’re here in the next letter.”

”I won’t sign them.”

”No, you don’t have to. Here’s a parcel from the police here as well. They got no answer at the door and couldn’t reach you on the phone. It’s from 1985. Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry to say it, but your husband is dead.”

”This whole time? Dead?”

”I’m afraid so.” I lowered my head, but then remember that she couldn’t see me.

”There’s only one letter left. Do you want me to open it? It’s from last year.” She nodded, and I tore open the envelope. ”It’s from Becca.” This instantly caught her attention. ”She writes that everything is great and that she’s starting a new job. There’s a photograph in here, too. It’s of two women and two children. The kids seem to be in their early teens. They are all smiling. One of the women has long, brown hair and –”

”That’s my Becca. Oh my God, that’s my little Becky…”

”There’s the same phone number at the bottom of the page. You could call her.”

She reached for the photograph and I gave it to her. She caressed the glossy surface with her pale fingertips and tears again started falling from her eyes. I knew she couldn’t see the picture at all. ”My little Becky…”

I had no letters left. I rose hesitantly. ”Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry but I have to go. I hate to leave you like this, but I have many other houses to visit. And I’m terribly sorry these letters haven’t reached you until now, I understand how horrible this must feel…”

She just continued stroking the picture, and I slowly backed away. ”I will make some calls”, I said. ”I will tell the phone company to come here and fix your phone. And maybe someone from the social services too. To, you know, come check that everything is okay with you. Help you out with things around here.”

I paused at the door, but got no response. ”Of course I will report this terrible misconduct to the post office, too. Things like this shouldn’t happen. Ever.”
I hated myself when I turned my back on her and left the house the same way as I had come, my delivery bag much lighter but my heart significantly heavier.

I borrowed a phone in the next house over and made the calls I had promised to make, and some more I came to think of as I did so. Mrs. Lapwing had suffered terribly at the hands of the system. It was almost as if the entire establishment had gone out of its way to conspire against her. But now, finally, everything would be put right. I had seen to that.

I completed my round in less than an hour, and decided to double back on my route back to the office. I wanted to make sure that someone had heeded my reports and gone to check on the poor Mrs. Lapwing. And quite correctly, when I approached the old house I could see several police cars on the driveway and by the street in front of it. There was also an ambulance, and I was instantly worried.

I ran up to one of the officers. He had just finished a phone call and put the phone back in his pocket. ”Excuse me”, I said. ”But I was the one who called earlier. About Mrs. Lapwing. How is she?”

The officer looked me up and down and frowned. ”So you’re the one who called? Good, I know some people who would like a serious word with you. We got the impression that the woman was alive.”

My worry and guilt peaked. ”Oh my god, isn’t she? I was only gone for a hour, and –”

”What are you talking about?”, the officer said. ”It’s good that she was found finally, but we don’t appreciate being lied to. This woman has been dead for several years. If you would please come with me here…”

I followed. And as I did so, I again let my eyes wander towards the old house. The dark windows watched unblinkingly and in silence as the covered stretcher was carried out into the autumn air, leaving the house again to its quiet calm, memories of laughter and sorrow and long forgotten secrets.