The house looked as if someone had picked it straight out of a horror movie, Chloe thought. The rusty gate, the lopsided wooden steps that led up to the porch that surrounded the house, the lattice blinds, all of them shut tight. The grass in the yard was overgrown. Leaves from the tall trees on both sides of the lot covered the narrow path from the gate to the house. In the rapidly approaching dusk the Victorian style building looked more like a small castle, hidden away at the end of the lane.
It was called Dire Oaks. It suited the house at least.
All in all, it wasn’t exactly inviting. But, Chloe reminded herself, this was just a temporary solution and she would find a new apartment soon. Her mother had pulled some strings, as she’d put it, and had arranged for Chloe to stay here while she was in between apartments. Well, so far Chloe had had no luck finding a new place anywhere even near Trixie’s school district but she wasn’t giving up just yet. For now, Trixie was staying with Dan and Chloe would just have to get up a few hours earlier to make the drive into the city every morning to get to work.
How her mother had arranged this place was beyond her. Apparently, no one wanted to buy this house, so it stood empty these past few years. But Penelope Decker had worked her magic and had convinced whoever owned this place now to let Chloe stay here for free. At least for a little while.
The gate creaked horribly when she pushed it open, heaving her suitcase past it. Gravel crunched underneath her feet as she approached the house, the usual sound of city traffic entirely absent out here. The next neighbor was half a mile down the road. Private, but lonely.
The wind had blown some leaves onto the wooden porch and against the front door. It looked like no one had set foot into the house in years. Only the hand-painted sign next to the door that read Welcome in faint white letters had a certain personal touch. The porch was sheltered by a slanted roof, wooden pillars covered in weather-worn white paint flanking the stairs on either side. Chloe climbed the few steps that creaked under her weight and with a sigh she dropped her suitcase. To the left stood a rickety Hollywood swing that Chloe decidedly didn’t trust to hold her weight. It moved slightly in the breeze, back and forth, back and forth. She imagined the previous owners, a couple maybe, sitting out here on the porch, watching the sun set behind the trees. The thought made her smile. Maybe this place wasn’t so bad after all.
She rummaged through her pockets for the key. It turned easily in the lock and Chloe pushed the door inward. A dark hall welcomed her.
“Please, let there be electricity. That’s all I’m asking,” Chloe muttered and flipped the switch next to the door. The lamp on the ceiling flickered at first but then it bathed the hall in a soft orange glow. It was dusty, that much was clear. The rug on the floor had seen better days as well but it did make the place more homey and Chloe was glad for it. She pushed the door closed behind her, setting the suitcase down next to the staircase that wound its way up on her left, and began exploring.
The tiny bathroom right next to the front door wasn’t much. A shower, a toilet and a washing machine. The guest bathroom probably. Chloe closed the door again and ventured out through the archway that opened up into the living room straight ahead. It was spacious and the decor looked way more expensive than anything Chloe had ever owned. There was a fireplace, the mantle lined with old picture frames, and a huge L-shaped couch that someone had covered with a plastic sheet to save it from all the dust. What caught Chloe’s gaze, though, was the chandelier. It hung in the middle of the living room and was shaped like a tree, branches curling upwards, each tip holding a tiny light. It was extravagant, not something that would ever look quite right in a tiny apartment, but here it fit. On the right, the living area was directly connected to the dining area that in turn led into the kitchen. As she went she switched on the lights and opened some of the blinds along the way, letting in the last rays of the setting sun. They revealed even more dust and Chloe vowed to clean the place tomorrow after work. Tonight she was just too tired. She’d rather just have a shower, make up a bed and make the most of her night before getting up at the crack of dawn to drive back into the city.
The wooden staircase in the hall led up to a narrow hallway. It stretched from one end of the house to the other, a window on each side. Two doors on the left and two doors on the right. The first on the left stood open and Chloe dragged her suitcase into the huge bedroom. It was sparsely furnished but all she really needed was the king-sized bed underneath the windows that offered a picturesque view of the backyard.
The first door on the right turned out to be the master bathroom, which, like most of the house, desperately needed a thorough cleaning. Next on the right was a second bedroom, smaller than the first but in its own way very cozy. She closed the door with an ominous creak from the protesting hinges and wandered all the way to the end of the hallway, turning the handle of the last room on the left. Or tried to turn. It wouldn’t budge. At first, she thought maybe it was just stuck but it seemed to be locked. With a shrug she gave it up. Maybe the key was around here somewhere. If not, she could always try to pick it or just not go in at all. After all, this wasn’t her house.
Turning back towards her chosen bedroom, she couldn’t help an involuntary shiver. It felt like she’d just stepped outside, the air suddenly so cold she could see the fog of her breath. She rubbed her arms against the sudden cold and checked whether the window behind her wasn’t shut all the way but found it closed.
“Faulty air conditioning,” she mumbled. “Great.”
Back in the bedroom she upended her suitcase on the bench at the foot of the bed and rummaged through her clothes until she found a comfy pair of sweatpants and a sweater, her toiletries and a towel. The shower in the bathroom was easy to figure out and she made quick work of washing her hair and massaging her sore back muscles under the hot water. Emerging from the shower in a cloud of steam, she hurried to slip into the sweats to ward off the chill, then wiped at the mirror to take a look at her tangled hair.
She looked bone tired. It wasn’t exactly a novelty lately. Losing the apartment, no matter how shitty it had been, had taken its toll on her. She needed sleep. Leaning closer, she inspected the dark circles underneath her eyes that seemed awfully prominent in the bright light of the bathroom. Grimacing, she leaned back again—and almost screamed. Someone stood behind her. She whirled around, her heart hammering in her chest.
There was no one there. Not in the mirror nor in the room. But she could have sworn … she knew she’d seen movement near the window. She shivered and pressed her hand to her chest until her heart resumed a somewhat normal pace. Quickly, she gathered her clothes and hurried back into the bedroom.
“You’re being paranoid. That’s all,” Chloe argued with her stubbornly panicked mind. “It’s your own fault for declaring it a horror movie house first thing.”
She just needed sleep. Her stomach disagreed, though, so dinner first it was.
From the front pocket of her suitcase she produced a box of Kraft Dinner. Not exactly the greatest of meals but she’d picked up the few ingredients she needed at a gas station on the way here and it was quick and easy. The stove top had to be wiped down first. The tap sputtered for a minute before it decided to spew forth icy water.
As she stirred the pasta she hummed a non-distinct melody that was suddenly interrupted by her phone ringing and vibrating in the back pocket of her jeans. She put the wooden spoon aside for a moment and fished for the ringing phone. The caller ID showed a grinning picture of Trixie.
“Monkey,” she greeted as she answered the call. “Shouldn’t you be in bed already? It’s a school night.”
“I was in bed. But I couldn’t sleep, so Daddy said I could call you to say goodnight.”
Chloe hummed. “I’m sorry, you couldn’t fall asleep. Do you want to tell me a little bit about your day before you go back to bed?”
“Nothing much happened. I wanna know about the house. Is it big? Does it have a garden?”
Chloe shook her head in fond exasperation. Talking about the house was most likely the only reason her daughter called. “It is quite big for our standards, babe. And yes, there’s a garden but no one has mowed the lawn in a long time.”
“When can I come visit?”
“Not during the week, Trixie. You have school. But I’ll pick you up on Friday and you can spend the weekend with me. How does that sound?”
“Okay,” Trixie said with excitement. “I’ll bring my soccer ball on Friday, then. We can play soccer in the garden.”
“Looking forward to it,” Chloe said. “Now get back to bed, you little weasel. I have to go, I’m making dinner. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay, Mommy. Goodnight.”
She hung up and quickly checked on the pasta. It had started to stick to the bottom of the pan, so she hastily gave it a final good stir before turning down the heat.
A quick search of the cabinets produced a bowl and she poured the entire contents of the pan into it. Three servings according to the box. On her way to the living room, the bowl in both hands, she froze when her eyes fell on the rocking chair in the corner of the kitchen. It slowly swayed back and forth. Chloe just stared. She hadn’t even come near the chair. And yet, it moved as if someone had just sat in it.
“What the hell?” Maybe one of the windows wasn’t quite shut? It could have been a breeze. She glanced towards the windows and back to the chair. It had stopped moving. Chloe blinked rapidly, then shook her head and made for the couch. Sleep deprivation sure did some funny things to your mind.
Pulling off the plastic covering the couch and suppressing the five or ten oncoming sneezes, she got comfortable and dug in. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until now. Half the bowl was empty before she slowed down a little.
She let her eyes wander around the room, over the bookshelves and the record player. The light from the chandelier wasn’t very bright but all the more cozy. Perhaps, if there was any firewood in the shed she’d spied in the backyard, she could unearth her latent girl scout skills and try her luck at getting a fire going in the fireplace. Not that it was cold in LA in November but on rainy days nothing could beat a fire.
The picture frames on the mantel were mostly empty, only one held a picture of a family. Putting the bowl down on the coffee table, she got up to take a closer look. It showed a family with three kids ranging from Trixie’s age to teenagers. It looked to be from the 70s maybe, judging by the fashion. Had they lived here once?
The hairs in the back of her neck suddenly stood on end, her paranoia acting up again. She felt someone watching her, eyes fixed on the back of her head. Gritting her teeth, she suppressed a shiver and turned around. She was alone. Entirely alone. No one stood behind her.
“Dammit, snap out of it. This is getting ridiculous.”
Frustrated, she grabbed the bowl and disposed of it in the sink, not bothering to do the dishes. She stomped up the stairs, flicking off all the lights on her way, and closed the door to the bedroom firmly behind her. For the next ten minutes she struggled with putting fresh sheets on the bed but it was all the more satisfying to finally slip underneath the covers. Staring at the ceiling in the dark, she took a fortifying breath.
“Now … there’s no one here. There’s no need to worry. Just sleep.”
The fact that her firearm was right next to her on the nightstand betrayed her determinedly calm facade.
Someone was walking down the hallway.
Chloe’s eyes snapped open, fixed on the door handle. Slowly, and as quietly as she could, she sat up and reached for her gun. The footsteps were slow, reminiscent of a saunter. She’d been right: someone was in the house. Shit—maybe that someone had even watched her shower earlier. She glanced at the phone on her nightstand. Should she call the police?
Before she could decide, the steps passed her door and then slowly descended the stairs. Chloe slipped out of bed, gun in both hands, finger carefully placed next to the trigger. Whoever it was, she didn’t plan on shooting them. Best case scenario, she could just convince them that there was nothing to steal and to leave the house before she called the cops.
Her door squealed horribly as she nudged it open. A breeze met her from the window at the end of the hall. It definitely hadn’t been open before. Checking left and right and all the while keeping an eye on the stairs, she moved into the hallway.
The door to her room slammed shut behind her. Chloe jumped forward, her finger trembling near the trigger of her gun. Her heart sat in her throat, beating away like a drum. Then frustration bubbled up and overrode the fear. “You’re not playing that game with me,” she spat and turned the door handle. It wouldn’t budge. She slammed her palm against the wood and even threw her shoulder into the unforgiving door but it was no use.
Then she heard the footsteps again. Coming up the stairs. And they were fast.
Chloe didn’t hesitate. She ran down the hallway, somehow not daring to look behind her. The second bedroom door stood open and she slipped inside and hastily slammed it shut, pressing her full body weight against it. The footsteps had slowed again but they were right on the other side of the door when they stopped. Chloe held her breath, her own heartbeat the loudest thing in the room. Her fingers were sweaty on her gun. She didn’t think she would hit any sort of target right now.
A giggle sounded in the hallway. A child laughing? At first, Chloe could tell it came from the other side of the door. Then the sound shifted. The laughter reverberated eerily, coming from everywhere at once. The blinds on the windows inside the room rattled. A shadow emerged from the curtains and Chloe had no time to make out what it was before it came at her, screeching like a banshee. Chloe turned and desperately tried to open the door, flight and run the only two thoughts taking shape in her mind. The door wouldn’t move and, although breathless, Chloe yelled, terror overtaking her. She’d dropped her gun, one foot stemmed against the door frame as she pulled on the handle with both hands. The laughter still sounded from every direction, louder and gleeful in a way that made Chloe want to throw up. The blinds rattled. Her yells grew louder.
From one moment to the next everything went quiet.
All she could do was stand there, her forehead pressed against the door, eyes closed. She could feel someone behind her. Swore she could feel someone’s breath on the back of her neck. But there was no warmth. Instead whoever—whatever was behind her was cold as ice.
“Please,” Chloe breathed. “Please don’t.”
She heard an exhale and then, as quickly as it had come, the cold disappeared. It remained eerily quiet. Nothing from behind her. Nothing from the hallway. Chloe couldn’t move. She counted to twenty, and then added another ten for good measure, before she tried the handle again. It turned easily and the relief that filled her clashed with the adrenaline, making her dizzy.
She took one more moment to breathe. Then she ran.
In her room, she grabbed her bag and all the clothes that were still in it, her keys and phone off the nightstand, and she was downstairs before she knew it. The front door fell closed behind her, unlocked, but she didn’t care. Hurrying down the gravel path in nothing but her pajamas, stumbling in the pitch black of the night, she made it to the gate and to her car. Not once did she look back at the house. She had an awful feeling that she’d see a silhouette in one of the upstairs windows.
She shouldn’t be driving. Not in this state. Not while her heart still hadn’t calmed down. Not while she was freaking out with no idea what had just happened. Chloe couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this terrified. But terrified by whom? By what? Was the house haunted? Like, actually truly haunted? Had she been running from a ghost?
“No, dammit! Shit—” Chloe slammed on the breaks and pulled over. She had no idea where she was even going. Not back to the house, that was for sure. A motel it was, then. She just had to get there in one piece. Shit, she’d even left her gun behind in her terror. What had she been thinking? “You can do this.”
On the drive further into the city Chloe told herself it had to have been some practical joke. A couple of guys had broken in and played a prank on her. Nothing more. And she had let herself get freaked out. Her sleep-deprivation probably didn’t do her any favors, either. This was ridiculous. But she wasn’t about to go back to Dire Oaks tonight. She had almost reached the motel she’d seen on her drive to the house anyway. She’d go back to the house tomorrow after work and hopefully the rest of her stuff would still be there. Especially her firearm. She had no idea how she would explain losing that one.
The vacancy sign above the parking lot flickered like a strobe. Chloe parked her cruiser right underneath. After convincing the scrawny guy at the front desk that she had not stolen the car and that there was a good reason why she was driving around in her pajamas, he handed her a key and Chloe wasted no more time, barricading herself in the seedy room. The bed was awfully narrow and the mattress lumpy but Chloe forced her eyes closed. She had to sleep or she would keel over at work tomorrow. At least the fact that she was on desk duty meant that she could drink coffee after coffee while filling out papers mindlessly.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” she mumbled into her pillow.
But the thought of someone’s icy breath in her neck almost convinced her of the opposite.