The Haunting of Ashburn House

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CHAPTER ONE: Flight

Huge raindrops hit Adrienne’s exposed arms and face as her mother carried her out of the porch’s shelter and down the groaning wooden steps. Her ears were full of pounding feet and gasping breaths, and her mother’s arms held so tightly it hurt.

She turned to see her mother’s face. Pat’s eyes were huge. Tracks of mascara ran down her blanched cheeks, and she flinched when lightning cracked across the sky, blindingly white behind the house’s silhouette.

Ashburn rose huge and twisted above them. Its white paint was flaking off to expose grime-streaked grey wood underneath, and the black windows seemed like dead eyes watching over the lawn. The sun had not long set, and traces of deep, angry reds and pinks tinged the undersides of the storm clouds. Wild animals screamed in the woods around them, and insects flicked out of the long grass as Adrienne’s mother ran through it, carrying her to the car parked off the side of the dirt driveway.

She fell into the passenger seat, and the door slammed shut. Her mother didn’t buckle her in, and that frightened Adrienne. Her mother had never forgotten to buckle her in before. She twisted to glimpse the house through her window and caught sight of the front door gliding open.

Her mother jumped into the driver’s seat, the ignition roared, and the bald tyres screamed against the dirt as they struggled to find purchase. As the house grew smaller in the rear-view mirror, Adrienne thought she saw a figure appear in the open doorway. The silhouette was incredibly tall and dressed in a long black gown. Adrienne and the woman watched each other through the mirror until the car rocked around a corner, taking the turn far too quickly, and the house was hidden from sight by a thick copse of trees.

Adrienne’s mother didn’t speak but sucked in thin, panicked breaths as the tears continued to bleed mascara down her cheeks and mix with the drops of blood sprayed across her neck.

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CHAPTER TWO: A Stranger’s Gift

Seventeen Years Later

Every time Wolfgang wailed, the taxi driver grinned and chuckled as if it was the funniest thing he’d heard all day. Adrienne tried to match his smile, but her heart wasn’t in it. Wolfgang was normally an even-tempered and silent cat; he had to truly hate the drive to protest so often. He was even ignoring the treats she’d poked through the cat carrier’s bars, and he never rejected treats.

“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered when he mewled for what felt like the hundredth time. “Not long now.”

The massive grey tabby turned his sea-green eyes towards her and projected abject misery in the way only cats are capable of.

“Got family in the area?” The taxi driver, a young, cheerful man who was a little too forceful with the accelerator, had tried to start a conversation several times during the drive, but Adrienne was terrible at small talk even on her best days, and that morning was shaping up to be a long way from her best.

“No—I mean—apparently, I used to, I think?” It was an awful way to answer his question, but Adrienne wasn’t prepared to explain that she’d been bequeathed a house by a relative her mother had claimed didn’t exist.

He seemed ready to follow up with a second question, but then Wolfgang wailed again, and the driver settled for chuckling and shaking his head. She was grateful; the previous week had been so hectic she felt as though she hadn’t had a second to herself, and a cacophony of anxious thoughts cluttered her mind.

Ms Edith Ashburn has bequeathed you her property…

Adrienne had never expected to receive any inheritance. She’d daydreamed about it, of course—light fantasies of discovering her father was secretly a king or that she had accidentally befriended a lonely millionaire—but those dreams had become increasingly rare as she’d grown up and loan repayments, medical bills, and debt had become her reality.

What made the bequeathing even more unexpected was how adamantly her mother had insisted they had no surviving relatives. According to the harried solicitor, Edith Ashburn was Adrienne’s mother’s grandmother’s sister’s daughter. She thought that made Edith her great-aunt, but she felt as if she would need to see a flowchart to be certain.

The taxi driver took a corner too fast, and Adrienne had to grab the cat carrier to stop it from being jolted against the door. Wolfgang wailed, Adrienne mumbled an apology she knew wouldn’t be accepted, and the taxi driver grinned and chuckled.

“Here’s the village, looks like,” he said, and Adrienne glanced up from the carrier to see a patchy collection of buildings spread out below them.

Ipson was a tiny country town. According to online sources, its population was somewhere between eight and nine hundred. It struck her as unexpectedly pretty—large green trees lined the streets, and the properties were relatively clean and well tended. A small school stood beside the town hall two blocks away from the main street, which was full of small shops. Even from that distance, Adrienne could see a shining bronze church steeple. Houses spread outwards from the city centre, patchily shifting from suburban near the core to hobby farms at the outskirts.

They dipped into the valley. For a few minutes, the road ran alongside a river—a brilliantly blue twisting watercourse with willows clustered about its shore—and then they were entering the town proper.

With one hand pressed to the cat carrier’s roof to stabilise Wolfgang against the worst of the car’s jolts, Adrienne peered through the windows to catch glimpses of the settlement that was going to be her home. Snapshots of village life raced past her: a greengrocer stacking avocados, two elderly women having a cup of tea outside a café, and a florist’s shop so packed with flowers that they spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk. Then the taxi screeched to a halt at a pedestrian crossing, and Wolfgang mewled as Adrienne scrambled to keep him on the seat.

“He’s quite the chatterbox, isn’t he?” The taxi driver laughed.

“Wolf doesn’t like cars. Too many trips to the vet.” Adrienne’s attention had been pulled to a group of four well-dressed ladies gathered outside what looked like a second-hand bookstore-slash-coffee shop. They were in their early twenties—about Adrienne’s age—and chatting animatedly. A tiny voice in the back of her mind suggested they could be friend potential. There would only be a certain number of ladies her age in this tiny town, and she might be looking at the majority of them.

The tallest lady turned towards the car and raised her eyebrows. Her lips, painted deep red to contrast with her blonde, shoulder-length hair, stretched into a mischievous smile as she tilted her head towards her companions and spoke. They laughed, their manicured hands rising to cover pearly teeth and their eyes shining with secretive delight.

The taxi screeched forward before Adrienne had time to turn completely red. They were talking about me. Why? They couldn’t know who I am, surely?

That might be a very real possibility. She sunk back into her seat. The town was likely too small to have a dedicated taxi service, so the clearly marked car would signal a new arrival like a beacon.

That led into a series of questions that Adrienne had no answers for. How well did this town know Edith Ashburn? Was she a regular at the café, perhaps, or a key part of the social committee or the owner of a popular business? How many in this town know she died? Have they watched her empty house and wondered who would move in? Has the town been watching for the taxi that would bring Edith’s replacement?

The idea that they were waiting for her made a band of anxiety tighten over her chest. She clutched the cat carrier a little closer, and Wolfgang, apparently feeling as uncomfortable as his owner, hissed.

They zoomed past more shops, and now that Adrienne was looking at the residents rather than the buildings, she was painfully aware of how much attention she was drawing. Heads turned towards the car as it neared, and flashes of understanding lit up faces. Adrienne could picture them turning towards each other as the car passed and whispering, This’ll be her. She’ll be in Edith’s house.

“How—uh—” Her mouth was dry, and she had to lick her lips before she could speak clearly. “How far is it now?”

The taxi driver tapped the satnav on his dashboard. “Looks like we’re headed to the other side of town. Pretty place this, eh?”

“It sure is.” The quaint shops, tidy houses, and large green trees were certainly attractive, but they also worked to increase the sensation that she was an invader asking to be let inside a pristine bubble. She didn’t know the town’s quirks, hadn’t shared in any of its memories or experienced its history. She wasn’t welcome there.

Knock it off. She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to dodge the feeling of dozens of eyes fixing on the bright-yellow car. You’ve got a home, and that’s a darn sight better than where you stood a fortnight ago. The only thing you have any right to feel is gratitude.

The car screeched around a curve, and suddenly, they were on the other side of town and leaving suburbia behind them. Bushes and trees crowded more thickly along the road’s edges, and the stream reappeared to their left. Adrienne took a slow breath. The squeezing anxiety had lifted once she was out of the townspeople’s eyesight, but a surreal sensation had replaced it. The houses were thinning and giving way to empty fields.

Adrienne leaned forward and squinted to see the satnav. “Um, sorry, but… did we pass the house by accident?”

“Not according to this thing.” The driver jabbed the screen. “Says to keep going.”

“Oh.” Adrienne sat back. She’d assumed she’d been bequeathed one of the small suburban properties, but at the moment, they were leaving even the farmhouses behind.

The taxi slowed then turned into a patch of bushes. Adrienne, thinking the car had gone off the road, clutched Wolfgang closer then exhaled as she realised her driver had found a narrow, well-disguised dirt driveway.

“Jeez,” the driver grumbled. He’d leaned over the wheel and was squinting to make out the path. Adrienne didn’t blame him; it was badly overgrown. For the first time since picking her up outside her friend’s apartment, the taxi had slowed to below twenty kilometres.

A sign loomed on her left-hand side, and Adrienne pressed herself to the window to read it. The wood looked at least fifty years old, and its post tilted dangerously. The paint had peeled until it was almost illegible, but the phrase was familiar enough to piece together: PRIVATE PROPERTY.

Another sign came up on their right-hand side, this one nailed to a tree with a huge, rusted metal spike: STAY OUT. And a third had almost fallen off its post: TRESPASSING IS FORBIDDEN.

“Looks like this was the town’s social hub,” the driver said, grinning so broadly that he almost distracted Adrienne from a fourth sign: TURN BACK NOW.

She managed a laugh, but it sounded hollow. Wolfgang began crying again, but unlike his previous mewls, this was a drawn-out wail. Adrienne bent to check on him. His ears were flat against his head, and his fur, already fluffy, had bristled out to fill the carrier. “Hang on a few more minutes,” she pleaded. “We’re nearly there.”

The dirt driveway was leading them uphill, and the winding road created an uneasy, heavy coldness in the pit of her stomach. It took her a minute to realise why: the trees in the town had all been green and healthy and spreading, but the plants bordering the driveway were growing increasingly wild and dark as they drove. The bark had deepened from a pleasant tan to a cold grey, leaves faded from emerald to dark khaki, and thick shrubs were swapped for thin, spindly, sickly things that struggled to survive amongst the weeds. It was as though the town had sapped all of the goodness out of the driveway and given it everything bad or sick in return.

They topped a ridge, and the taxi crawled around a bend. The woods finally parted, and Adrienne gasped as Ashburn House loomed ahead of them.

In her mind’s eye, she saw lightning crackle across the sky, tracing the building’s silhouette. Her mother’s breaths, thin and desperate, echoed in her ears, and the heavy raindrops stung as they hit her arms.

Then she blinked, and she was back in the taxi, staring up at the leaning three-story wooden house.

“Bit of a fixer-upper, huh?” The taxi driver turned to grin at her, but this time, Adrienne couldn’t even manage a smile in response.

I thought it was a dream. It felt so surreal, so bizarre… and yet, this is the same house…

The driver pulled to a stop and cut the engine. “I’ll get your luggage, okay?”

“Huh? Oh, right, sorry—”

Adrienne carefully eased the cat carrier and its precious contents out of the car. She carried Wolfgang away from the driveway and set him on a patch of grass under a tree. The huge tabby grumbled deep in his throat but kept still.

The driver had already dumped her two travel cases out of the boot by the time Adrienne returned to him, and he was dusting his hands. When he told her the fare, Adrienne almost choked. It was higher than she’d expected, and it hurt to pass over the majority of the bills left in her wallet.

This is a fresh start, she reminded herself as the driver gave her a wave and slid back into his seat. Good things rarely come without a cost.

The car did a three-point turn then accelerated towards the driveway, leaving Adrienne standing alone in the patchy yard. As the screeching wheels and rumbling engine faded, nature’s subtle symphony moved in to take its place. Birds chattered amongst the trees, and insects hissed and hummed in the long grass. Adrienne stared up at the dilapidated house, her mouth dry and pulse racing, as the memory of that night replayed in her mind like a stain she couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard she scrubbed.


CHAPTER THREE: Inheritance

Adrienne couldn’t guess how long she spent staring at the house, frozen as though in a trance, before Wolfgang’s angry yowl shook her out of her stupor.

The dream—no, memory, she corrected herself—shocked her. She must have been young; she became too heavy for her mother to carry at around six years old.

What were we doing here?

She opened her bag to search for the key the solicitor had sent. At the same time, her mind struggled to reconcile the memory with reality. Her mother had told her they had no living relatives. When she’d received the solicitor’s letter, Adrienne had assumed her mother hadn’t known about their great-aunt Edith. Clearly, she had not only known about her but also had met her.

Why was she crying?

That was one of the most unnerving parts of the memory. Her mother had been a stoic, calm woman with little patience for emotions. Adrienne couldn’t even remember seeing her cry after her husband, Adrienne’s father, passed away.

She found herself staring at the jumble of pens, lip balm, notepads, and receipts in her bag, and it took her a minute to remember why she’d opened it. The key, that’s right. She found the heavy metal tool in an envelope hidden under a pack of tissues and pulled it out.

Was that really blood sprayed over her chin?

Adrienne looked back at the house as prickles ran over her arms. It had only been six or seven drops, but she was struggling to find any reasonable explanation for the red liquid.

What exactly happened in this house?

Despite the large patch of empty ground surrounding it, the house had been built tall rather than wide. One side had a half-octagonal extension, creating bay windows on all three levels. The roof was sharply peaked and tiled with dark slate. A porch extended from one side of the bay window to the end of the building, with the front door set deep in the shadows.

Wolfgang cried again, and the noise pushed Adrienne into action. She puffed as she hefted the carrier and staggered up the porch’s steps with it. The wooden boards groaned under her weight, and small trails of dust fell from the overhang as the boards flexed. Judging by the sun’s low position, they only had a couple of hours until nightfall, and she wanted to settle him as early as she could.

As much as she wanted to know what had transpired between Edith and her mother all of those years ago, she had to accept that she would likely never know. Her only memory centred on the last moments of the encounter when her mother had raced her out of the house and down the front steps. Both of the other present parties were deceased. Unless Edith Ashburn had kept a diary, the mystery would be lost to the corrosive effects of time.

It might have been an argument. Adrienne lowered Wolfgang to the porch and tore open the envelope containing her key. It wasn’t like Mum to hold a grudge, so she must have really hated Edith to tell me we had no relatives.

The key slid into its hole below the doorhandle. The metal, stiff and rusted, screeched as she turned it, then a second later a quiet click told her the door was unlocked.

Perhaps Edith felt bad about what happened, whatever it was. She must have cared at least a little to leave her house to me.

She pressed her fingers to the wood and pushed. The door swept inwards, its hinges grinding as it stirred up small eddies of dust in the failing sunlight. Adrienne squinted to see into the hallway. Although the house had plentiful windows, they were all dimmed by decades of built-up dirt and grease, and the hallway was shrouded in thick, lingering shadows.

Adrienne cleared her throat, tucked the key into her pocket, picked up Wolfgang’s carrier, and stepped over the threshold.

The air felt different inside Ashburn. It was heavier and drier and permeated with a musty odour that Adrienne struggled to identify. Habitation, her mind whispered. This is a house that hasn’t seen a new soul in half a century. The walls are saturated with her; the floorboards are worn down from her feet; the very air continues to carry her presence after her death.

Adrienne tilted forward to peer inside Wolfgang’s carrier and grinned at him. “That’s not morbid at all, huh?”

Her laughter bounced along the hallway, climbed the steep stairwell at its end, and echoed through the upper rooms. The farther it travelled, the hollower the sound became, and she quickly closed her mouth. For a second, the building was returned to its natural state of silence, then Wolfgang released a low, rumbling growl.

A small, discoloured light switch was set into the wall next to the door, and Adrienne flipped it. She hadn’t expected it to do anything, but a light hanging from the hallway’s ceiling buzzed into life. It gave off a muted yellow glow, scarcely better than the anaemic light streaming through the windows, but Adrienne smiled at the sight of it. Ashburn had electricity after all; she’d been worried after seeing how remote the building was.

The hallway was narrow and travelled the length of the house. A threadbare carpet ran down its centre, and an odd collection of side tables, lamps, and umbrella holders as well as a tall grandfather clock clustered along the sides. Discoloured wallpaper dotted with tiny grey flourishes and red roses clung to the walls.

Adrienne drew the door closed behind her. Its whine was raw and loud in her ears, and she made a mental note to find out if Edith had owned any oil.

She moved forward slowly, absorbing details of her new home as she did. The furniture looked antique but well used. The carpet was a rich wine colour but had tan patches where the fabric had been rubbed off its base. Every surface looked slightly grimy, but there was surprisingly little dust; Adrienne suspected Edith had wiped the surfaces regularly but never washed them.

The first door was to her right, and she nudged it open. Inside was a spacious, tastefully decorated sitting room. Thanks to the large bay windows set into its front, the room was lighter than the hallway, and despite the fireplace, coffee table, and set of clean chairs with plush seats, it gave the impression of being infrequently used.

She left the door open but moved on. The nearest entrance to her left led into the kitchen and dinner table. At the room’s back were an oven, an aged stove, benches, and sink. The wall next to it had two identical display units filled with china plates and glasses, all with a matching pink-and-red-rose design. When she moved into the room, she saw that two pale lines had been rubbed into the wooden floor at the table’s head, corresponding to where the chair would have been scraped each night as its occupant sat down and rose.

She wanted to explore further, but Wolfgang’s weight was making her arms ache. She needed a room with a few nooks that an anxious cat could hide in but no exits that he could escape through. She returned to the hallway and tried the next door to the right, opposite the stairwell.

The door opened into a lounge room. Unlike the corner space, though, this was very clearly used. Both the chair and couch’s cushions were indented, and ash still filled the fireplace’s base. A bookcase overloaded with old volumes ran up one wall, and an eclectic mix of shelves and cupboards—along with a piano—sat against the rest of the walls.

This’ll do for Wolf. She nudged the door closed behind them, lowered him to the round wine-red rug in the centre of the floor, and unlocked the carrier’s door. He turned his baleful green eyes on her but refused to leave the safety of the cage.

“Sorry, buddy.” She sighed and offered her hand for him to smell before scratching behind his ears. He gave a languid blink in response to the attention but refused to tilt his head the way he normally did. “I know you don’t like this, but trust me, it beats being homeless.”

A low, discontented grumble answered her.

Adrienne gave her cat a tight-lipped smile then rose and went to collect their cases. As little as Wolfgang realised it, she hadn’t been joking. The last four years of Pat’s life had been a stream of specialist appointments, stints in hospital, and experimental treatments for the autoimmune disease that had ultimately claimed her. When her mother’s health deteriorated too far for her to be alone during the day, Adrienne had left her job to stay with her and picked up whatever freelance writing work she could find online. She was proud to say they’d managed okay right up until the final hospital stay.

Pat had always tried her hardest to give Adrienne a stable home. She’d worked two jobs when she’d been healthy enough, but the appointments and treatments hadn’t been without cost. By the time she passed, her house had been mortgaged twice and their savings had been converted into debts.

The weeks following the funeral had been a whirlwind of stress and financial problems digging through the grief. Pat’s house, car, and furniture were sold to pay her outstanding debts. Adrienne had temporarily moved into a friend’s apartment, but it was clear it couldn’t be a permanent solution; the two-room space was far too small for four people, an irritable cat, and the friend’s aggressive dog.

Adrienne had spent her free time looking for a new place to live, but the search had been demoralising. Her freelance work would only support a cheap apartment, and none of the places she’d viewed were welcoming towards cats.

The friend had suggested she give Wolfgang away. She might as well have asked Adrienne to cut off her own arm; she loved her fluffy monster too much to surrender him to a stranger. The letter telling her she’d inherited Ashburn had been, in Adrienne’s opinion, a bona fide miracle.

Adrienne picked both cases off the grass and carried them back to Ashburn. The sun was close to the treetops, and its red glow spread across the horizon. Long shadows followed her back into the musty hallway, and the angry bird chatter swelled as the fowl prepared to nest.

She’d tried to keep her absence brief, but by the time she backed through the lounge room doors and turned towards the cat carrier, Wolfgang had already disappeared. She shut the door so that he couldn’t escape and peered into the shadows that gathered around the room’s corners as she opened the heavier of the cases.

“Hey, buddy,” she called as she set out his litter box, poured a bag of chalky wood pulp into it, and laid his bowls beside the door. “Are you hungry? Hmm?”

She rattled the food tin, but the grey beast remained scarce. Adrienne sighed, poured the food into one of the bowls, then picked up the second to fill with water. As she let herself out of the lounge room, the light caught across scratches in the opposite wall’s paper. Adrienne frowned at them. They almost look like words.

She took a step closer and inhaled. Someone had carved through the wallpaper to expose the wood underneath. They were hard to see at an angle, but the words became clear when looked at head-on:

NO MIRRORS

Adrienne glanced along the hallway reflexively. It was cluttered with furniture but didn’t include any mirrors. She hadn’t found it unusual before, but the words felt disquieting, almost menacing. She shook her head and crossed to the kitchen.

The sink was a huge, old-fashioned installation, and the handle screamed when she turned it. Pipes rattled above her head, and Adrienne gazed at the ceiling and imagined she could see the wooden boards shudder. Icy-cold water spewed out of the tap, ricocheted off the bowl, and sprayed over her.

Adrienne shrieked a series of very unladylike phrases as she fought to turn the tap off. Then, drenched and grumbling, she carried the water back to the lounge room.

“You’d better be grateful for this,” she said as she placed the bowl next to Wolfgang’s food.

The room was silent, but she thought she saw a flicker of motion behind the piano. She knelt and leaned forward to see behind it. Wolfgang huddled in the gap between the piano and bookcase, and his huge green eyes fixed on her.

“You okay down there, buddy? Not too dusty for you?”

He gave her a single reproachful blink then returned to staring at the opposite wall.

The sun was dipping behind the trees, and the cooling air collaborated with her wet shirt and jeans to make Adrienne shiver, so she opened the second case and sifted through the few possessions she’d brought to Ashburn.

Packing had been depressing. Most of what she’d owned had been given away when she moved into her friend’s apartment, and even less was practical to fit inside a taxi and cart across the state. One of the cases had been dedicated to Wolfgang’s needs; the second held Adrienne’s world—three changes of clothes, a towel, toiletries, the book she was reading, clean sheets, and her laptop. Her throat tightened as she stared at them. Her entire twenty-two years of life had boiled down to these items.

“It’s a fresh start,” she said to Wolfgang and tried to smile. “And I don’t need much, anyway. Just you for company, somewhere for us to stay, and enough money that we won’t starve. And look, thanks to Great-Aunt Edith, we now have all three. We’ll be fine.”

The great grey cat blinked at her, and suddenly, Adrienne wished he would come out of hiding so that she could hug him.

“We’ll be fine,” she repeated, her voice sounding small and lonely in her own ears as she pulled the towel out and dabbed at her wet clothes.


CHAPTER FOUR: What Lives in the Night

Adrienne changed into fresh clothes and laid the wet shirt and jeans over the back of the fireside chair to dry. Wolfgang watched her go back and forth but refused to move from his cubbyhole even when she put his food bowl directly in front of it.

Despite the dry clothes, Adrienne found herself shivering and looked towards the blackened grate. She’d never lived in a house with a fireplace, but she’d been enamoured with the idea. A stack of dry wood sat in the bracket, a bucket of kindling sat nearby, and a folded newspaper and matchbox rested on the mantel.

Why not? She took the newspaper and checked the date. It was nearly three months old, which meant Edith would have bought it shortly before her death. Adrienne took a few of the pages, scrunched them into loose balls, placed them in the sooty grate, and set some of the kindling on top.

Once the newspaper caught, the flame easily spread to the twigs, and soon she was feeding it some of the larger logs. By the time the fire was large enough to be stable, she’d stopped shivering and was pleased to see that the flames lit the room better than the single light in the ceiling.

She gazed about the space, admiring how the golden glow reflected off the polished wooden chairs and bookshelves. The fire created long, dancing shadows that grew up the walls and tangled on the ceiling, and the crackles helped drown out the noise of the groaning trees and chattering birds outside the window.

A grandfather clock somewhere deep in the house chimed. She counted five long, metallic clangs and made a face. She hadn’t realised how late it had grown. She’d skipped lunch, and when she paid attention to her body, she realised she was starving.

Her initial plan had been to spend her remaining money on groceries shortly after arriving at Ashburn, but that had been foiled thanks to the house’s unexpectedly remote location. Looks like we’ll be scavenging tonight.

She wasn’t keen to explore the house with the sun so close to setting, but the longer she delayed, the worse it would become, so she left the lounge room, closed the door behind her, and crossed to the kitchen.

The room looked shockingly different when the sun was too low to come through the window. Even with the light on, the shadows built up in layers around the table, stove, and bench. She stopped at the head of the table, where long marks had been scraped into the wooden floor, and squinted at the wooden tabletop. There were scratches dug into the dark wood just above where a dinner plate might have sat.

Surely not…

Adrienne leaned closer and inhaled. As in the hallway, words had been cut into the shiny wooden top—possibly with a kitchen knife—and faced the head of the table so that whoever sat there couldn’t fail to read them.

IS IT FRIDAY

LIGHT THE CANDLE

She chewed the inside of her cheek and tilted her head to one side. Little bits of dirt had become embedded in the scratches’ indents, telling her the marks had been there for months if not years.

How bizarre. Was Edith all right? She must have been very old when she passed away. Maybe she had some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and it made her do strange things.

Adrienne turned away from the table, but she couldn’t scrub the image from her mind: Edith, well into her nineties by that point, wandering through Ashburn’s narrow hallways in a confused daze, a steak knife clutched in one hand, cutting disturbed messages into the walls and tables…

No, don’t think like that. She probably had someone staying with her. Or a friendly neighbour, at the very least, to keep an eye on her. Adrienne frowned and turned towards the fridge. I hope.

She opened the fridge door and gagged. The shelves were full of cardboard boxes, but their contents had long since rotted. She could still identify shrivelled carrots and a strangely dried-out cauliflower, but the other vegetables had turned into brown sludge. A bottle of rancid milk sat between a rectangle of mould-coated cheese and a punnet of what had once been strawberries. The only edible items she could see were three unlabelled jam jars. And jam on its own does not a dinner make.

Adrienne wrinkled her nose and closed the door before the rotting odours could spread too far. The house has been empty for nearly three months; of course the fresh food would have perished.

She looked for a pantry and found it nestled in the room’s corner. The doors creaked as they opened, and Adrienne felt her heart sink at the meagre range inside. While the fridge had been full of fresh produce, Edith clearly hadn’t been a fan of long-life goods. She saw flour, baking powder, teabags, sugar, and salt on one shelf, a half-used bag of pasta—no sauce—on the second, and two tins of sardines on the third.

Okay. Could be worse. Adrienne sucked on her teeth, took one of the sardine tins, and began opening drawers as she looked for cutlery. It’s not a feast, but at least we won’t starve. We’ll just have to figure out how to get to town tomorrow.

She opened the drawer below the china and inhaled at the sight of heavy and clearly expensive silver. This set must be a family heirloom. She kept it in good condition; it’s not even tarnished.

The china plates displayed above the cutlery caught her eye, but she didn’t take any down. It felt wrong to put something as mundane as tinned fish on the expensive rose-design dishes. She took a fork and closed the drawer.

An electric kettle sat on the bench beside the fridge, and behind it was an old-fashioned metal whistling kettle. She reached for the electric appliance first then hesitated, shrugged, and took up the metal pot instead. She made sure there weren’t any spiders inside—just dust, she was relieved to see—then washed it out, half filled it with water, and fetched one of the teabags from the pantry.

Once again, Adrienne experienced reluctance to use any of the fine china in the display cabinets, but she couldn’t find any other mugs, so eventually, she opened the glass doors and took one of the teacups. It felt incredibly fragile, and she held it carefully as she carried it, the kettle, the fish, and the fork back to the lounge room.

The fire had grown in her absence, and that wasn’t the only change. Wolfgang’s food bowl was empty, and the huge grey tabby sat on the rug in front of the fire, his paws tucked neatly under his body. He turned and blinked at Adrienne when she entered then returned to gazing at the flames.

“Should’ve known,” she said, grinning, and set the precious teacup onto the small round table beside the chair. “I was starting to worry I’d traumatised you by carting you all the way up here, but you’ve already made yourself at home, huh?”

One ear twitched in her direction, but otherwise, she might as well have not existed.

A metal rod ran across the space above the fire. Adrienne found a pair of thick, blackened gloves sitting next to the wood and used one to hang her kettle on the rod so that the flames licked around its base. She then sat back in the wooden chair, took up her tin of sardines, and peeled back the lid.

It was one of the most surreal experiences of her life. She sat in a stranger’s chair—one that had likely been inhabited by the same person every evening for fifty years before Adrienne came along—and used a silver fork that was heavy and ornate enough to belong in Buckingham Palace to eat a tin of budget fish.

A soft, fluffy paw landed on her knee, and Adrienne looked down to meet Wolfgang’s round green eyes. All indifference had melted away, and his expression was a perfect blend of plaintive and adoring.

“Oh, come on!” she cried in mock indignation. “You already ate!”

His mouth opened in a silent meow, and his fluffy tail twitched.

“You’ll get fat.” She pulled out a piece of the fish. “No, sorry, that’s wrong. You’ll get fatter.”

He scarfed down the morsel she offered him then licked around his mouth as he waited for more. She sighed and gave a fond smile as she shared the remainder of her fish with him. By the time they’d emptied the tin and Wolfgang settled down to lick the oil off its sides, the kettle was whistling.

She dropped the teabag into her cup, donned the gloves again, and pulled the steaming kettle off the fire. She poured the water with excruciating care, half-afraid that the heat alone would be enough to shatter the delicate floral beaker, and sighed in relief as she placed the pot on the mantel without any disasters.

For a minute, she considered getting the second tin of fish from the pantry—half of her dinner had ended up in the huge grey beast who had now returned to ignoring her—but she decided against it. She didn’t know how long it would take her to get to town, or how she would get to town for that matter, and felt it would be wiser to ration out the food until she had a system worked out.

It took—what, twenty minutes to drive from the town’s centre to here? That was at a slow speed, though. So maybe allow one or two hours to walk to town. Then the same amount of time to walk back. Uphill. While carrying shopping bags. She wrinkled her nose and blew steam off the top of the teacup. Looks like I might meet my New Year’s resolution to get fit after all.

Edith Ashburn must have had a way to get to the shops. There hadn’t been any vehicles parked at the front of the property, but she could explore around the back the following morning when the sun rose.

If Edith had owned a car, there was a good chance it had been given to someone else on her death or sold if she hadn’t owned it outright. If that was the case, Adrienne would have to figure out a solution for herself. She could buy a bike, but good bikes were expensive, and she had less than twenty dollars in her purse and nothing in her bank account. That would improve a little when her freelance-article-writing accounts were paid, but two clients were overdue on their bills and hadn’t replied to her emails in more than a week.

Wolfgang finished with the tin. He flopped onto his side and stretched so that his belly was facing the flames, and she thought she caught a faint rumble of contentment.

It must be nice to be a cat. No bills to pay. No difficult clients. No having to figure out how to say, “Send me my damn money!” in a pleasant way because if you’re rude they won’t hire you again and you can’t afford to lose any work.

She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. The fire’s heat felt amazing on her legs, and she took a second to realign her priorities. She had a house. It was old and smelt funny and was a long way from town, but holy heck, she had her own house. As long as the Wi-Fi worked well enough that she was able to submit her freelance articles on time, she could end up being very happy there. She thought she could grow fond of the town, too, and maybe even make some friends.

“And if no one wants to be my friend, I’ll just get another cat,” she said to Wolfgang. His front paws were making slow paddling motions and he kneaded the air. “I’ll get a dozen cats and give them all cutesy names like Muffin or Flopsy and become the crazy cat lady who lives on the hill. How do you like the sound of that?”

There was no response, not that she’d expected one, but at least the grey beast looked content. Adrienne smiled and chewed at the corner of her thumb as she watched the last minutes of daylight fade. Without having to pay rent, her freelance work should be more than enough to support her. She would just have to get through the first few lean weeks as jobs were processed and accounts fell due, then she could start rebuilding her savings to give Wolfgang and her some security.

A growl startled her. Wolfgang no longer lay on his side but had rolled onto his front and half risen. His ears flattened, and the fur on his tail, already fluffy, puffed out.

“Wolf?” Adrienne placed her cup on the side table and leaned forward. The cat’s eyes were saucer round and their pupils so large that almost none of the green irises remained visible. He faced the window closest to the fireplace, and his whiskers quivered as he exhaled a quiet hiss.

She kept still, not breathing, and listened as hard as she could. The fire’s crackles were a steady song to her left. The floors above her emitted faint groans as the wind caused the wood to shift. And outside was perfectly silent.

That gave her pause. The birds had created a cacophony barely half an hour before. And even if they’d all fallen asleep, she would have expected some of the insects to maintain their song.

Wolfgang transformed into a streak of grey as he turned and flew into the nook between the bookcase and the piano. Chills climbed Adrienne’s arms as she watched her cat disappear. It wasn’t like Wolfgang to take flight from a threat.

It’s a new house. He’s going to be skittish for a few days. She rose and took a step towards the window. Outside was nearly pitch black, and all she could see was her own pale face and the fire’s glow reflected to her in the glass.

A pipe farther in the building rattled then fell still. The beams and supports above her head groaned more insistently as the wind buffeted them.

He probably saw a shadow and panicked. She moved nearer to the window, leaning so close to the smudged glass that she could feel its chill washing onto her cheek.

Outside was deathly quiet. She could make out the moon’s glow, blurred and muted by the thin clouds that hung across it, and the trees’ silhouettes against the sky. Scores of faintly glowing pinpricks were visible between the clouds, suggesting the heavens would be awash with stars on a clear night.

Her heart’s thundering beats fought to be heard over the fire. She tried to block both noises out as she listened for a birdcall, a cricket, an owl—any proof that the world outside hadn’t been muted. Even the trees seemed to be lying still despite the house’s groaning against the wind.

She skipped her eyes across the yard, trying to pick out shapes in the near darkness. The window’s light illuminated a rectangle of the long, weedy grass that stretched ahead of her but nothing else. She couldn’t detect any motion, but she was also acutely aware that a person standing just outside of the block of illumination would be invisible. It was a sickening thought.

Cut it out. You’re frightening yourself over nothing. Wolf got jittery, and now outside is quiet—that’s all. The window is probably really well soundproofed or something—

All at once, as though an invisible cue had been given, the woods burst into life. Birds screamed and took flight, hundreds pouring out of the boughs and shooting skyward in a frenzy of whirring wings. Shrill insects began to buzz. Deep in the woods, some animal—a fox, she thought—shrieked. And behind her, Wolfgang began to yowl, the noise starting as a low rumble and growing in volume, pitch, and terror to become one of the worst sounds she’d ever heard.

Adrienne clamped her hands over her ears and dropped to her knees. Something terrible was happening, and although she couldn’t see the cause, she could feel it growing closer, threatening to swallow and obliterate her very existence.

    

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