Cosima Niehaus shivered as she stepped inside the dimly lit pub, rivulets of water dripping off her crimson rain slicker and pooling at her feet in a small puddle. London's infamous bad weather hadn't disappointed in the slightest since she landed at Heathrow. Groaning, Cosima felt, and most likely resembled, a drowned rat. Wonderful. She pulled back her soggy hood and wrinkled her nose at the bittersweet stench of hops and barley that mingled with the body heat of the bar's patrons and hung thickly in the air. Cosima had half a mind to turn right around and get drenched again when she noticed her best friend stomping toward her through the crowd, the heavy footfalls of her black boots thudding against the hardwood floors loudly enough to be heard over the din of ongoing conversations.
"Cos, you made it!" Sarah shouted, grabbing Cosima's elbow and pulling her toward a wooden table in a corner of the pub. Its black surface was uneven and sticky, and Cosima wondered if it had been wiped down recently. Or, like, ever.
She bit back a grimace as she shook off her coat, hung it on a nearby rack, and gingerly lowered herself on a rickety chair that she was sure would collapse at any given moment. Sarah straddled her own seat on the opposite side and gave her a toothy, lopsided grin.
"Hope you don't mind I started without you," Sarah said, lifting a pint of some kind of dark stout and chugging down the remnants. She slammed the glass down on the table with a satisfied smack of her lips and motioned for the server.
"'Nother round, if you please," she ordered in a booming voice. "And one for my friend here, who finally came to her senses, dumped her crazy blonde bitch of a fiancée, and abandoned their shithole of a flat in 'merica."
Random choruses of "here, here" sprung from some of the neighboring customers and Cosima stifled another groan.
"Sarah, I haven't dumped anyone or abandoned anything," Cosima explained through gritted teeth. "This is all just," she removed her glasses and wiped the frames with the hem of her sweater, "a break or whatever."
"A break," Sarah repeated. "You caught that no-good ho cheating on you in your own damn bed. You tellin' me you might go back to that?"
Ignoring the painful twist inside her chest at the memory of her naked fiancée tangled between the legs of a stranger, Cosima settled her glasses back on the bridge of her nose and shrugged wearily.
"You've gotta be shittin' me," Sarah scoffed. "Please tell me you got rid of the ring at least."
"Yes, of course I did!"
Cosima felt oddly proud of herself for not squirming in her seat and for keeping her eyes trained on Sarah even though they were tempted to dart toward her coat pocket. Thankfully, the server returned and set down two fresh pints in front them, and Cosima immediately took a sip of the coffee-like beer so she could hide her lie. The truth was, Cosima had no interest in talking about her ex or the shitstorm of drama she just upped and left behind the second Sarah had asked for a favor. But she knew that Sarah, who already was lifting a skeptical eyebrow, wouldn't let her off the hook that easily.
"I don't know what's gonna happen, okay?" Cosima finally said, placing her glass down a little too forcefully and causing some of the frothy head to spill over the top and splash onto her hand. "That's why I'm here, isn't it? To figure shit out and save your ass in the process." She wiped her hand on a cloth napkin and gave her friend a pointed look. "Like always."
"All right, all right." Sarah rolled her eyes and waved her off. "No need to be a twat about it." She dug into the pocket of her black jeans and pulled out a tarnished key that was rusting along the edges. "I've already texted you the address."
Cosima picked up the key and absentmindedly ran the pad of her thumb along its jagged teeth, leaving small indentations in her skin. "I still can't believe your grandmother left you an entire cottage."
"You an' me both." Sarah lifted her drink to her lips. "Tried to hand it over to S, but she wants nothing to do with the place." She shrugged. "The sooner I can fix it up and sell it, the better."
"I'll do what I can out there." Cosima tucked the key into her pocket.
Hazel-brown eyes turning serious, Sarah hesitated slightly before adding, "Listen, Cos, I'll be back in a couple of months but… take all the time you need out there, 'kay? And if you have any sorta trouble, give S a call."
"She still in Dublin?"
"Yeah. Said she'd check in on you in a week or so."
Cosima nodded gratefully, already looking forward to isolating herself in the Irish countryside. It would be quiet. Peaceful. Just the escape she needed. And she was pretty sure she couldn't possibly need any help while out there.
Less than 24 hours later, Cosima gripped the peeling leather steering wheel of the cramped, subcompact, manual transmission deathtrap she had rented to drive out into the middle of buttfuck nowhere. Her teeth chattered and her toes were uncomfortably numb, an added nuisance courtesy of driving on the wrong side of the uneven, pockmarked dirt road and the car's shitty heating system. She had been driving for more than three hours since landing in Dublin, trying to follow directions scribbled by Sarah in such haste that Cosima wondered if she was even reading English.
It was, without a doubt, beautiful scenery; the kind of landscape Cosima would normally cherish with awe and wonderment. But she had passed so many hills and trees and sheep and muck that she was convinced she had become trapped driving in circles in bucolic hell.
The sun was beginning to set and she was about to give up entirely when she reached the edge of a bog with a name that had far too many letters and syllables for Cosima to even attempt pronouncing, rounded yet another bend and finally saw Sarah's inheritance in the distance. Or at least she hoped it was the right cottage. With one hand still on the wheel, Cosima fished inside her coat pocket and pulled out a creased polaroid that Sarah had given to her before they parted.
Squinting at it, she exhaled sharply in relief when the photograph matched the small structure she was approaching. The discolored image in the floppy white frame didn't do the place justice in the slightest. Against the backdrop of the burnt crimson sunset and surrounding pasture, the house was quite lovely, albeit a little run down. Twisted vines of dark green ivy wound up the gray cobblestone façade, leaves tangling over the faded slope of the thatched roof.
Cosima brought the tiny car to a stop with a high-pitched squeal outside of a wrought iron gate that may have once been black many moons ago, but now was covered in splotches of reddish-brown rust. She stepped out of the car, stretched out her arms above her head with an appreciative groan, and breathed in the cold twilight air sweetened by vegetation and earth, with just a touch of bitter sulfur from the nearby bog. Resting her hands on her hips, she looked to her left. Right. Then slowly turned in a small circle. There was nothing but grass and trees as far as she could see. No other houses. No other people. No noise save for the rustling of leaves.
The jarring stillness contrasted sharply to the constant commotion of San Francisco and unease began to weave its way between Cosima's ribs when she realized that she would actually be completely alone for the first time in… well… as long as she could remember. But she took a deep breath and forced herself to ignore it. This was what she wanted. To be alone.
So it was quiet.
Quickly retrieving her luggage from the backseat of the car, Cosima unlatched the rusted gate, and swung it open with a cringe-inducing creak. She rolled her suitcase up the uneven stone path, the wheels snagging in holes and weed-filled cracks along the way, until she stepped up to a battered oak door. Struggling with the lock for a few moments, she made a note to pick up some WD-40 when she went to town for groceries in the morning before finally pushing the door open with a firm shove of her shoulder.
Inside, the air was musty and a bit stale and-a tickle formed in her sinuses and she let out a loud sneeze-dusty too. It reminded Cosima of the basement of the old bookshop in San Francisco where she had met…
She shook her head vigorously, banishing that particular memory out of her mind and adding cleaning supplies and air freshener to her mental checklist. She shut the front door behind her and flipped on a light switch to her right, thankful when a light hanging from the exposed wooden ceiling beams came to life.
To Cosima's surprise, the home was fairly well-kept despite obvious disuse. To her right was a cozy living room with a tan upholstered sofa and matching recliner next to a stone fireplace blackened around the hearth. An antique clock made of glass and bronze sat atop the mantle, its hands frozen at 11:17. A small kitchenette was situated to her left. The heels of her boots clacked softly on the hardwood floor as she walked past a compact square table positioned between the two rooms, her fingers lightly skimming the sheen of dust on the surface. She went through a doorway behind the table and into a small bedroom with a full-sized bed and little else besides an armoire and a nightstand. That room led to a bathroom that had just enough space, but not by much, to accommodate a toilet, a sink, and a clawfoot tub.
The place would more than meet her needs, Cosima thought. Nodding to herself, she made her way back to the living room and, miraculously, managed to start a fire. The meager flames cast a soft glow around the room as she began rummaging through the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen. She eventually found an old copper kettle and some tea bags that didn't look too sketchy (or at least she hoped).
In no time, steam whistled through the air and Cosima snuggled into the couch's lumpy cushions, a hot mug cradled between her palms, eyelids already drooping behind her dark frames from lingering jetlag. She sipped at her tea for a few minutes before setting it down on an end table and laying her head back. She needed to rest her eyes a bit before she unpacked. To get her second wind. That was all. Just a few minutes wouldn't… hurt…
The smell hit Cosima first, long before she even registered the chimes attempting to rouse her from slumber. It was floral, subtly so, but Cosima couldn't place the scent as she slowly opened her eyes. Night had fallen and shrouded the cottage in blue shadow, the moonlit windows doing little to soften the darkness. Despite the disorientation of waking in an unfamiliar place, she pulled herself up into a sitting position and blindly fished for her cellphone. When she found it and swiped the screen, its bright glare nearly blinded her and Cosima quickly snapped her eyes shut before cracking them open into slits to read the time behind the protection of her eyelashes.
She had been asleep for more than three hours. She turned on her flashlight app and directed its beam toward the tinkling sounds emanating from the mantle clock above the fireplace. Brow furrowing in confusion, Cosima stood and walked toward it. With each step, the aroma in the room thickened until it was damn near overpowering. Cosima wondered if Sarah's grandmother had some type of potpourri hiding somewhere. She vowed to find it in the morning and chuck it into the bog.
When she reached the clock, she lifted it up and gently turned it over in her hands it to see if she could put an end to the chimes. But there was nothing. No switch. No battery panel she could pry off. The clock continued with the melody. And although she didn't recognize it, something about the plaintive notes tugged at her heart, a twinge of sadness nestling inside her chest.
Before she could ponder it further, a cold shiver ran down her spine and the chimes suddenly stopped. The subsequent silence was nearly deafening. Shaking her head, she placed the clock back on the mantle and, still groggy, decided to go to bed. In a few quick strides, she was in the bedroom. She tossed her phone on the nightstand and flopped onto the mattress, kicking off her boots and not caring about getting ready for bed. Cosima buried herself underneath the duvet, shivering one more time, and tried to block out the fragrance that seemed to follow her into the room and settle around her.
The perfume (or whatever) was gone when Cosima woke up late the next morning, and she proceeded to get ready for the day in all her bleary-eyed glory. She explored the cottage, taking note of all the books, old cards, and knickknacks strewn about. In a nightstand drawer, she found an old Polaroid camera, or "vintage," as the hipsters might say in order to justify paying an exorbitant amount for one. She pointed it at the armoire and pressed the shutter, pleasantly surprised when the flash went off and a slip of film slid out the front. Pinching the edge delicately, she watched as the picture slowly morphed from white to gray. When Cosima could make out the wardrobe's outline in the image, she smiled to herself and placed the photo and the camera back inside the drawer, paying no mind to the streaks of white that remained next to the furniture in the image.
She moved on to unpacking her things, taking special care with the small black velvet box she had carried across the Atlantic with her. She didn't open it. Couldn't bear to. Lest she thought about the finger it used to adorn, and who that finger belonged to. So she quietly hid it under her clothes in the armoire.
Cosima showered, dressed, and ate a shitty granola bar that her well-meaning, but annoying friend Alison insisted that she bring ("Seriously, Cosima, what are you going to eat for breakfast? All they have is bangers and mash! And you do know what's in black pudding, don't you?")
As she passed by the living room, goose bumps prickled up her arms as her eyes landed on the antique clock, its hands still firmly pointed at XI and a little past III. Releasing a forceful exhale-she had probably dreamt the whole thing, right-she sprinted out the door, hopped back into her rental car, and drove to Finuge, the nearest village.
She took her time in acquainting herself, stopping for lunch at a local pub owned by a mildly smarmy barkeep who could barely hide his scowl of disapproval when she asked about vegetarian options on the menu. Still, his cook managed to whip something up for. After her oh so delicious lunch of boiled potatoes, cabbage, and carrots, she picked up groceries and other assorted items she needed (like clock repair tools, you know, just in case) and returned to the cottage.
Then she got busy.
She fixed the creaky gate hinge, lubricated the front door lock, cleaned, and cleaned some more, wiping away layers upon layers of dirt and dust and grime. Although she hesitated slightly when she reached the fireplace, she nevertheless picked up the clock and polished it as best she could. She didn't think about the previous night. She didn't think about home. She just lost herself in the mundane as the day flew by in a flash.
Before long, Cosima had prepared and eaten dinner, made herself yet another cup of tea, and was tucked into bed a little past 10, exhaustion creeping into her bones. And right as she was beginning to drift to sleep…
The clock chimed.
Cosima's eyes snapped open and she shot up in the bed, heart thundering in her ribcage.
"What the fuck!?" She exclaimed harshly.
She glanced at the time on her phone.
She jumped out of bed and walked to the living room, where the floral scent invaded her nostrils as soon as she crossed the threshold. Although a cold pit began forming in her stomach, she paid it no mind as she turned on the light and shook the clock, its gears and springs rattling in her hands even as the haunting melody continued to play. She found the tools she bought earlier that day and brought the clock to the dining table. To Cosima's relief, the chiming stopped when she opened the back panel, but the perfume of flowers continued to envelop her as she tinkered inside. She was no expert, but for the life of her, she couldn't figure it out. It was nothing more than a broken clock. Even when she replaced some gears, oiled them, and wound the clock, it still didn't work.
Sighing, Cosima rubbed her eyes underneath her glasses and decided to give up. She'd figure it out in the morning. She picked up the clock and turned to the fireplace and froze, nearly dropping the timepiece to the floor.
Standing by the fireplace was a… was a….
She had no idea. Whatever it was, it shimmered. Shadow and light. And it was gliding toward her. Heart leapfrogging firmly into her throat, Cosima closed her eyes, every single muscle seizing in fear.
And then she felt it.
A cool mist blanketed her and a deep sadness seeped into her bones, weakening her knees and making her entire body ache. It was overwhelming. Worse even than the pain she had felt when she had walked in on who she thought was the love her life with her head between another woman's thighs. And when Cosima thought she could take it no longer, the feeling vanished.
Cosima's eyes blinked open and she frowned, confusion compounding her breathless fear.
She was alone again.
Whatever she had seen was gone.
If it had even been there at all.
"What the hell is going on here?" Her voice shook. She was covered in a fine sheen of sweat even though she was shivering. It couldn't have been what she thought she might have seen. Those didn't exist. And the last time she had thought she had seen one, it had been a practical joke, courtesy of Sarah's younger step-brother, Felix, and some well-placed flashlights and mirrors.
There was a perfectly logical explanation for what was happening: her mind was playing tricks on her. That had to be it. Or all the stress from the implosion of her engagement was causing her to straight up go mental. Although she knew it was unfair, she cursed her ex for it because why the hell not. She cursed her for so many things over the past few weeks. Why not add insanity to the list of the wounds she had inflicted on her?
Placing the clock back on the mantle, Cosima hurried back to the bedroom and locked the door. She slid back in bed and promptly pulled the covers over her head and squeezed her eyes shut. She cleared her mind. Eventually, her heartrate evened out. But sleep eluded her the rest of the night, with ethereal glimmers floating along the edge of her dreams.
The next day, Cosima vowed to ignore the clock. If it wanted to freakishly chime at the same time each night, then it could chime away.
And chime it did.
And the next.
And the one after that.
It. Just. Wouldn't Stop.
She had half a mind to grab it and chuck it out into the yard. No doubt she would feel inordinately pleased if it crashed and splintered across the ground. But something stopped her. Something she couldn't quite place. An unnamable feeling. The smell of flowers that grew more and more potent with each passing night. An icy caress. A strange glister of white. Whatever it was, it kept her tethered there when other (saner) people might have fled.
By the end of the week, though, Cosima decided that she couldn't keep the strange occurrences to herself any longer and that Sarah needed to cut her trip short and come back to her inheritance.
"Bitch," Cosima cursed under her breath.
Her call to Sarah went straight to voicemail. Again. She had been trying to reach her elusive friend for the past three days, calling at every hour imaginable, leaving a dozen or more messages. And still nothing.
When a polite, robotic voice informed her that the mailbox she was trying to reach was currently full, Cosima nearly flung her phone clear across the room with a frustrated growl. Instead, she forcefully disconnected the call with a swipe of her thumb and let it clatter onto the dining table. She sunk onto its bench and pinched the bridge of her nose underneath her glasses. She was exhausted. She hadn't had a good night's sleep since she arrived, not with that damned clock and that damned perfume.
"Why me?" She groaned out softly, banging her forehead on the hardwood. Once. Twice. Just as she was about to go for a third, she felt the surface of the table vibrate against her skin as her phone buzzed from an incoming call. Cosima shot up, snatched the phone, and brought it to her ear without bothering to check the caller ID.
"Hello?" She answered somewhat desperately. "Sarah?"
"Wrong miscreant," came the familiar British drawl of Sarah's foster brother. "Try again."
"Felix," Cosima breathed out, not able to hide the disappointment in her tone.
"Now, don't get too excited to hear from me," Felix deadpanned.
Cosima shook her head. "Sorry, I'm just… sorry. How are you doing? How's Toronto?"
"Oh I'm just peachy keen out here. Met a boy from the coroner's office. Don't ask. We're going on our first date tomorrow night." Felix's voice lilted with excitement. "And you? Sarah told me you're looking after our dear Nan's cottage. Are you bored out of your skull yet or what?"
"Yeah, about that... have you talked to Sarah recently? I've been trying to get a hold of her and…"
"Her phone's off or she's not returning your calls?"
"Yeah," Cosima huffed out in irritation.
"And this surprises you because…?"
"It doesn't." Cosima wearily rested her chin in the palm of her free hand. "I just really need to talk to her."
"Well maybe I can help, darling," Felix enthusiastically offered and Cosima grimaced.
"I dunno," she said, recalling the last time she made the mistake of confiding in Felix about her apparent close encounter with the supernatural. She had become the butt of a practical joke that haunted her throughout high school.
"C'mon spill it, geek monkey. Tell Felix all your woes."
Cosima sighed. "Fine. Have you, like, ever actually been here?"
"To the house that time forgot? Yeah, we used to go there as kids."
"And…" Cosima rolled her neck, "did anything… weird… ever happen while you were here?"
"Apart from having to help our Nan file the corns on her feet? No, not really."
Cosima could feel Felix's suspicion over the phone. "What aren't you telling me?"
"It's nothing. It's-"
"Cosima," Felix said in his most stern, I'm-not-taking-any-shit-from-you voice.
"Okay, okay!" She looked up at the ceiling, unable to believe she was really going to say, "I think… I might not be… you know… alone here."
"What? Like you have a squatter?"
"No, not like that."
"I think…" She hesitated.
"Cosima, you're driving me crazy! What!?"
"I think this place might be haunted."
Silence fell over the line. Five seconds ticked away. Then 10. Finally, loud peals of laughter filled the void and Cosima somehow resisted the urge to hang up right then and there.
"So," Felix said between guffaws, "you're telling me that you, Ms. Hard Science PhD, think there's a ghost in the cottage."
"Look, I know it sounds crazy but… something definitely isn't right here." Cosima paused, a realization springing to mind. "You," she said, waving an accusing finger in the air as if Felix could see it. "You set this up, didn't you? You and Sarah!"
"What!?" Felix asked incredulously. "How could I possibly? I'm practically on the other side of the world!"
"Goddammit, Felix, this isn't funny!" She wished she could somehow reach out over the wireless signal and throttle him. "I don't need this kind of bullshit right now!"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up there, Cos," Felix placated, instantly sobering up. "I know I was an arse for what I did in high school. But I swear to you I haven't done anything to that cottage. And neither did Sarah."
He sounded so sincere and Cosima bit back a groan. If it really wasn't Felix and Sarah, then...
"So you've got a ghost," Felix summed up.
"It's either that or I've gone off the deep end."
"Felix," Cosima growled in warning
"Fine, fine, let me think," Felix said, breathing out an exaggerated sigh into the phone. "I can't do much about your mental health from here. But! I have a friend in the UK right now actually who might be able to help with your other problem."
"You… you do?" She perked up, cautiously so. "Who?"
"A ghost hunter."
Cosima thought she heard wrong. "A… a what?"
"A Ghost. Hunter," Felix repeated slowly. "I'll tell her to give you a call."
She didn't answer immediately. She was too busy smacking the heel of her hand to her forehead, unable to believe how the situation was going from somewhat crazy to ridiculously insane with two simple words. Ghost. Hunter.
"Y-you're joking. Right?"
"I'm dead serious."
"No, Felix." Cosima shook her head vehemently. "Absolutely not."
"Because…" She slowly got to her feet and walked to the living room, all the while eying the clock that had been tormenting her all week. "Because I just need to get in touch with Sarah. That's all."
"And if we can't reach her, then what?"
"Then I'll get a hotel, book an early flight back home, and mail Sarah the key." Even as she said it, she knew she wouldn't. Couldn't.
"Oh, come on, Cosima," Felix breathed out his exasperation. "You're supposed to be there to, like, find yourself or some shit. Don't tell me you're going to give up after a week?"
"I'm not giving up!" She stopped in her tracks, head hanging low, and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Whatever you say, darling," Felix said. "But can't you just give her a chance? I'm sure she could be there by tonight even. Just let her try to help you. And if she can't, then by all means, abandon the place."
Cosima stared at the clock, eyes tracing its burnished curves and edges, its Roman numeral face seemingly mocking and challenging her. "All right," she acquiesced. "One night. And if she's a freakin' crackpot, you best believe I'll be throwing her out on her ass."
She swore Felix practically squealed on the other end before uttering the famous last words: "You won't regret this."
Cosima stopped pacing between the living room, dining room, and kitchen to check her cell phone for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening. It was a quarter to 8. The so-called "ghost hunter" would be there in 15 minutes.
Groaning and shaking her head, Cosima wondered yet again what she had been thinking when she agreed to meet Felix's friend. Who in their right mind would choose "ghost hunting" as a profession? Really, who? Probably some whack-job with questionable personal hygiene, Cosima thought just as a loud knock thudded on the door and startled her.
The ghost hunter was early.
Hiding a grimace behind what she hoped was a welcoming smile, Cosima strode to the door and pulled it open. Air immediately squeezed out of her lungs, stomach dipping down to her knees, as she drank in the sight of the visitor on the other side.