The House Next Door
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I live next to a haunted house.
I began to suspect something was wrong with the gothic building when its family fled in the middle of the night, the children screaming, the mother crying. They never came back to pack up their furniture.
No family stays long. Animals avoid the place. Once, I thought I saw a woman’s silhouette pacing through the upstairs room… but that seems impossible; no one was living there at the time.
A new occupant, Anna, has just moved in. I paid her a visit to warn her about the building. I didn’t expect us to become friends, but we did. And now that Marwick House is waking up, she’s asked me to stay with her.
I never intended to become involved with the building or its vengeful, dead inhabitant. But now I have to save Anna… before it’s too late for the both of us.
Release date: March 15, 2017
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 282
Reader says this book is...: dark (1) emotionally riveting (1) haunting (1) rich setting(s) (1) satisfying ending (1) scary (1) supernatural elements (1) suspenseful (1) tense (1) terrific writing (1) unexpected twists (1) unputdownable (1)
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The House Next Door
I live next to a haunted house. It doesn’t bother me too much. Most of the time, the Marwick residence is quiet—dormant—and nothing more than a two-story stack of old, lichen-coated stones, sash windows, and dying vines behind my fence.
The house is charming in its own way. It would have looked magnificent when it was new, before the porch’s paint began to peel and the shingles fell askew. Still, even washing the cobweb-framed windows and reviving the long-dead garden would go a long way towards restoring its former dignity.
Most of my neighbours try to avoid the house. They don’t look at it. They don’t talk about it. Some actually cross the street when they need to pass it. I don’t have that option. Only a thin picket fence divides my yard from Marwick’s. I stare at its back twice a week when I hang out my laundry, and its front every morning when I water my garden.
I wouldn’t say I’ve grown attached to it. But a fascination has slowly built over the four years I’ve lived beside the house. It’s like an odd character at a formal dinner: I spend the first half of the night trying to avoid them, but by the end of the evening, I start to wonder if they might be the most interesting person there.
I don’t know who built it or why, but the house looks nothing like the suburban homes surrounding it… and maybe that’s a good thing.
I’ve known it’s haunted for a while. My suspicions grew gradually, and before the twelfth of November, it was just little hints. My big tomcat likes to roam the neighbourhood and beg cuddles and treats off our neighbours. He’ll dig up the garden of anyone who isn’t friendly to him. He owns the entire street, but he never steps foot on the Marwick property.
Marwick’s garden won’t thrive, no matter how many new plants are dug in and watered dutifully. I’ve seen several families try. Their young shrubs and flowers wither and turn black after a few weeks. But two feet away, mine are flourishing.
I’ve seen three birds fly into its windows, apparently bent on self-destruction. I hear a bang, look up, and see a little ball of feathers tumble down the side of the house. It’s heartbreaking. I can’t explain why the birds choose to speed into the Marwick house when its windows are so dark and uninviting, but never fly into mine.
All of those things together grew into a steady wariness of the property. Or perhaps the wariness existed the day I moved in beside it, and that was what made me notice all of the small, strange occurrences. Either way, I didn’t trust it. And following the evening of November twelfth, I knew I had good reason not to.
* * *
A woman’s strangled scream woke me. I opened my eyes and rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling, as my brain tried to come to terms with what had disturbed it.
The night was unpleasantly warm. I’d left my window open to invite in a non-existent breeze, and sweat stuck my pyjamas to my limbs. I pressed my thumbs into the corners of my eyes to wipe away the gunk that had collected there, then I rolled over to fall asleep again.
I blinked at the light pouring through my bedroom window. Someone was awake in the Marwick property. Maybe they’d stepped on one of their children’s toys, or perhaps the mother had discovered the toilet seat left up one too many times. That could explain the scream.
But it didn’t explain the gunshot.
I sat up, the crack echoing in my ears, and shuddered despite the heat. I hadn’t just heard the gun fire, I’d seen the flash of white burst through the second-floor window. I wondered if they needed someone called. The police… an ambulance… it wouldn’t be my first time phoning the emergency helpline over the Marwick property. They always took so long to respond, though. Far longer than for any other house in our street.
My toes dug into my bedroom carpet as I slid out of bed. I crossed the room, drawn almost against my will, to watch the neighbouring house. Lights were turning on throughout the property. A woman wailed, her voice so high and strained that I couldn’t understand the words. She was begging for something. I reached for my phone.
Another gunshot came from the room near the back of the house. I didn’t know the family well, but they had three children, and I was fairly sure that the room belonged to their youngest son. Real, visceral fear woke me. I dialled the emergency helpline and held the phone up to my ear. I heard static in response.
More lights turned on, illuminating the house like a Christmas tree. A man ran past a window, his form a silhouette behind the curtains. He was carrying a child in one arm and a gun in the other. A woman followed closely. I could hear her words then. “Leave it… leave it, John. You can’t hit it.”
A child’s cries rang through the stillness. The voice rose into a deafening shriek that drowned out the mother’s. I followed the family’s movements through the windows. They were going downstairs.
I redialled the emergency helpline as I mimicked the Marwick family’s movements and descended my own stairs. Again, static. Had my phone broken? I was sure I’d remembered to pay the bill—
The Marwick’s front door burst open. I stopped in my kitchen and bent across the bench to press my face against the window. I counted the shapes illuminated by the blocks of light escaping through the windows. Two large figures, three small. The whole family was there. Some of my fear eased, and I lowered the phone.
“In the car.” The father put down the child in his arms and turned back to the house. He held his rifle close to his chest, using it as a shield more than a weapon. I could see the whites of his eyes flashing as he scanned his house.
As the mother pushed her children into the backseat, the youngest continued to wail. She didn’t buckle them in. “John, come on.”
He backed to the driver’s side and reached behind himself to open the door, not taking his gaze off the house for even a moment. I watched him slink inside and heard the engine turn over. Tyres screamed on the driveway as the car pulled out then rocketed down the street, its trajectory so erratic that I was sure he was still watching the building over his shoulder.
Finally, the night fell quiet again. I leaned back from the kitchen window and dropped the phone to the bench. I wondered how many other neighbours had been woken by the screams and gunshots. Had any called the police? Were they pressed to their windows, like I was, watching with the same fascination drivers develop when passing a car accident?
If they were, none of them turned their lights on. The street remained dark and quiet. I waited in the kitchen for another few minutes then turned and climbed the stairs.
That was the last time I ever saw that family. I can’t even remember their last name—to me, they were just “the Marwick family.” That was the house’s name, and it had been for as long as I’d lived in the street. They didn’t return in the morning, as I’d expected, to collect their clothes. No one came for the furniture. No one even turned out the lights. They stayed on for two full weeks until someone cancelled the contract and power to the house was cut. I hung blackout curtains over my windows for those two weeks and suffocated in the stifling heat of my improvised hotbox. On a few of those hot nights, I lay awake staring at my ceiling, completely naked and still overheated, and actually considered crossing over to the Marwick building, walking through the front door, which I knew had been left unlocked, and turning off the lights myself.
I never did. I was too afraid of what lived inside.
* * *
Following the night of November twelfth, the Marwick house stayed empty for eight months. It was the longest I’d ever seen it vacant. The building was peaceful during that time, like a giant who had fallen asleep on a hill and was gradually being coated in moss, until no one could tell it apart from the surrounding boulders. Some mornings, when I hung out my washing or watered the plants, I wouldn’t even stare at the building’s façade.
I asked around to see if any of my other neighbours knew why the last family had left. No one could tell me any more than what I’d seen with my own eyes; Faye Richmond, who lived on the house’s other side, even seemed surprised when I told her the building was empty. Eventually, I stopped thinking about it, and the memory began to seem less dramatic and less exciting as time wore away at it.
I’d passed the For Sale sign so often that it looked unnatural when Sold was eventually plastered over it. It was like an old friend growing a moustache; there was nothing wrong with it, but the change was still uncomfortable.
Barely four days after the sign changed to Sold, it was taken down, and that same afternoon, a small rental truck pulled into the driveway.
I’m a curious person. I don’t feel ashamed to admit it. Curiosity does a lot of good; from what I gathered, no one else tried to call the emergency helpline on the night the previous family fled. Curiosity has led me to find abandoned kittens in drains and to notice when Mr. Parker didn’t leave for work one Wednesday morning. He’d had a stroke in the night. Curiosity saved him from lying on his kitchen floor until he starved. So I don’t feel embarrassed to say I was curious about the new family.
I’d already watered my plants that morning, but even though it was overcast, I decided the day was warm enough to warrant a second dose. I sidled along the fence, watering can pouring liquid onto the still-wet ground, and peeked at my new neighbour. She surprised me. I’d been expecting a family—the building was big enough to house at least three children and maybe grandparents, as well—but she seemed to be alone. She was young and small, and her mousy brown-blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail.
She’s awfully small to be living in the Marwick house. My watering can was empty, but I kept miming the tipping motion. And to be living there alone, too.
I don’t know why it unsettled me as much as it did. Maybe it was because I wouldn’t have felt safe living there alone, and she seemed so much more vulnerable than I was. Maybe it was the feeling that she would need an ally, but so clearly didn’t have one. She unloaded the truck herself. It didn’t contain much.
One of my cats, Dusty, had wandered out to see what I was doing. I scratched under her chin. “Whatcha think, Dust? Should I pay her a visit?”
Dusty gave my wrist a love bite then frisked into the bushes, probably to hunt for lizards or insects she could eat. I looked back at the Marwick house. The lights were coming on again for the first time in eight months.
I’d never actually seen inside, except to peek through the windows. Was the Marwick’s interior just as grim as the outside? I scanned the chipped grey stone front, its lichen and vines the only plants that seemed to survive, then set my watering can down.
Like I said, I’m a curious person. Sometimes that’s a good thing.
I hurriedly prepared a batch of muffins. Cooking is my hobby, and I always have some kind of baked goods lying around the place, but I felt like a new neighbour deserved something fresh. Muffins were by far the fastest and easiest gift to cook. Combine sugar, flour, eggs, and milk, then mix through whatever sweet things are available. For that batch, it was bananas, so ripe they were threatening to spoil. Fifteen minutes in the oven, and the muffins were ready.
Those fifteen minutes were some of the longest I’ve ever sat through. I wiped down my bench twice, fiddled with the kitchen’s curtains to give me a better view of the Marwick house, and fished a basket and tea towel out of the cupboards. Then I bent low and stared at the rising batter as though I could make the muffins cook faster through sheer force of will.
As soon as they looked close enough to done, I pulled them out and threw them into the basket, earning a couple of burnt fingers for my impatience. I met Bell in the hallway. She carried a live lizard in her jaws but dashed towards the living room before I could stop her. There was no time to chase her. I resigned myself to having a lizard living in my home.
Our street has generous gardens for a suburban area. It takes me fifteen paces to reach my front gate, then another twelve to follow the footpath to the Marwick’s, and a further fifteen to her front porch. The porch had been painted white at one point, but the grey wood showed through clearly. Fissures ran up the grains, and the boards groaned, making me feel as if it were about to collapse out from under me.
The front door stood open, but I stopped on the mat and knocked. I caught a quick glance of dark wood, long red curtains, and a twisting staircase before my new neighbour appeared in the doorway to block my view, looking shocked and frazzled. Her hair was coming out of its ponytail, and her T-shirt had slipped askew. My first impression was of large, round eyes, like a deer shocked by the apparition of some predator. She stared at me, her mouth open a fraction, then said, “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“No. You shouldn’t have. I mean, you didn’t have any reason to.” I’d never been good at meeting people. Has there ever been such a bad combination as chronic curiosity and social awkwardness? I thrust the basket out ahead of myself, hoping an offering of food would soften my abrupt greeting. “Muffins. For you. I’m your neighbour.”
“Oh. Oh!” The wariness broke into a smile. I couldn’t be sure if it was my imagination running away or not, but she actually looked relieved. “Wow, thank you. Um, I’m Anna. Did you want to come in?”
“Yes. Josephine. Jo. That’s me. Yes.” Stop talking. You sound like an idiot.
Anna laughed and stepped back. “All right, but I have to warn you, this place is still a mess. It came furnished, but everything’s covered in dust. You would have thought the old owners would pay for a cleaner or something, huh?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t tell her about the terror I’d seen on the old owners’ faces. “Are you living here alone?”
She hesitated. “At the moment, yes.”
We passed through the foyer. It really was like something out of a mansion. A runner matching the blood-red carpet curled up the length of the staircase leading to the second floor. The windows were all framed with heavy matching red curtains. There wasn’t much furniture, but what existed was understated but classical.
“Through here… I think.” Anna turned a corner. “Oh, good, it is the kitchen. I’m still getting used to this place.”
I laughed, but I couldn’t stop staring at the house’s interior. What I’d seen of the previous family had made me think they were fairly normal. The children had worn T-shirts, ridden bikes, and screamed with laughter. The mother had smoked, and the father had worked some kind of construction job. But the house looked nothing like a normal suburban family home. It dripped with importance, every part of it stately, reserved, and aged. Anna turned to face me in the kitchen’s entryway, and it struck me that she looked dwarfed by the house. Like a tiny morsel lying on its tongue, waiting to be swallowed.
Maybe I was just hungry.
“I brought muffins.” I was repeating myself, but I didn’t know what else to say. “Banana.”
“They smell really good. I forgot to have breakfast this morning. Can I get you some, uh… tea? I think I have tea.” She began opening cupboards and drawers. “Oh, looks like they left coffee, too. That was considerate.”
Eight-month-old coffee would be well past stale. “Tea’s good. Here, I can help.”
I put the basket on the centre of the wooden table and helped Anna sort through her drawers. I washed two cups and plates while she boiled the kettle then chose one of the herbal teas she’d found in a drawer.
It felt strangely wrong to be using the whitegoods and tea left by the previous owners, almost like trespassing, as if they would be scandalised to know what was happening in their home.
They left it here, I reminded myself as I threw out the teabag. They didn’t want it anymore.
If I had to guess, Anna felt the same. She flitted around the kitchen, seemingly reluctant to touch most of the things in the cupboard.
“It will feel more like home once you’ve been living here a while,” I said.
She gave me a quick smile and dusted her hands on her jeans as she took a seat at the table. “Yeah, I guess it will. It’s just surreal. It all happened so fast.”
“What made you move?” I passed her a muffin, which she took gratefully and cut into cubes.
“Oh, just life being unpredictable. There were some problems with my old house. I couldn’t stay there any longer.”
There are some problems with this house, too. I didn’t have much experience welcoming neighbours, but I was pretty sure telling them their house was haunted was the sort of thing people weren’t supposed to do.
But at the same time, it seemed unfair not to tell her about something so major. I struggled to find a middle ground. “This place has been empty for a while.”
“Has it?” She looked around the kitchen, taking in the dark-wood cabinets and granite benches. “It was a bargain. Surprising no one else wanted it.”
“Yeah.” I watched her closely. She didn’t look surprised. I had a suspicion she knew why the Marwick property had been untenanted for so long, and we were just dancing around the subject. I pushed a little harder. “This place has a bit of a reputation.”
She shot me a glance. Her eyes were bright blue; I hadn’t noticed before. Then I realised she hadn’t made eye contact before. Her voice dropped very low. “The real estate agent hinted at that. She said some families have had trouble living here. Some… unexplained stuff.”
“Ghosts.” It felt good to say the word and not get stared at like I was crazy. “Do you… believe in ghosts?”
She ran a hand over her mouth then blew out a breath and laughed. “That’s a heavy question, huh? I’ve never seen one. But I’m open-minded. I think there’s more to this world than we can see.” She sent another very quick peek towards me. “What about you?”
I shrugged. “I never gave it much thought until moving here.” But yes, I believe in them now.
We didn’t speak for a moment. Anna stared at her teacup, her muffin only half eaten, then said, “How much do you know about this house? Is it really bad?”
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