A Horror Story
Stella was cooking in her kitchen, when Robbie, her eight-year-old son, came running to her from the garden.
“There’s something nasty livin’ in the shed,” he told her, looking breathless and scared.
Stella smiled indulgently and put down her chopping knife. Robbie had always suffered from an overactive imagination. The two of them went out to the shed – a small weatherboarded lean-to with a squeaky door that stood in the rear corner of the garden. Stella's husband Jack had built it after having drained an old stagnant pond and concreted it over. Stella and Robbie both had a good poke around among the bags of multipurpose compost, the cans of old paint, and the pile of cobwebbed folding chairs.
“It was here,” Robbie insisted.
“Well, it’s gone now,” said Stella.
Later, at supper, Robbie kept on about the thing that had scared him in the shed. “What did it look like?” his father asked finally.
Robbie frowned. “It’s quite small, like a boy. I thought he wanted to play at first. But he looked and smelled so bad. I was frightened.”
“There’s no boy living in our shed,” declared Jack, and he turned back to his potatoes.
“Yes there is,” insisted Robbie.
Father and son stared at each other for a while, then Jack smiled and put down his knife and fork. “In that case I’ll go and check up on him. Maybe he’d like to come in and have something to eat.”
Robbie turned pale. “No daddy, don’t go out there. He’s not like a normal boy at all.”
Jack looked knowingly at Stella. “I won’t be long,” he said as he stepped through the French windows and into the dark garden.
Perhaps it was the silence that reigned in the house that made the five or six minutes of his absence seem more like fifteen. The boy waited tensely for his father’s return, his eyes never moving from the French windows, even though there was nothing to see in the darkness beyond.
Eventually, they discerned Jack’s figure looming out of the night. But it was a different Jack that returned. His eyes had changed. The humour had left them. A tick had begun in the left one. Stella saw how his hand shook as he closed the glass door.
“What happened?” pleaded Robbie. “Did you see him?”
Jack didn’t meet their gaze. “I – I’m going to bed. Don’t feel so good.”
“But darling, you haven’t finished your supper.”
Jack shambled from the room without another word.
The next morning, Jack did not get out of bed. He refused to tell Stella what had happened, or what he had seen, in the shed. She did not pester him about it, but took him some breakfast, and then busied herself getting Robbie off to school. Jack’s condition did not improve during the day. He lapsed into a virtual vegetative state, only moving from his bed to eat or go to the toilet. Stella moved the TV into the bedroom, but Jack showed little interest in the screen. His eyes would slide restlessly around the room, glancing fearfully into every shadowy corner.
The doctor visited. Jack, it appeared, was suffering from nervous stress. He needed to take an extended break from work. An appointment was booked with a specialist. The company healthplan would take care of the expenses. His boss was very understanding. Jack had been overdoing it lately on the Lacuna Steel project. These were tough clients, and it was a punishing schedule. And Jack, as we know, is such a perfectionist. Stella nodded and smiled. How relieved she felt to know that the blame for Jack’s condition could be laid at the door of something called Lacuna Steel.
The days followed each other. The stormy weather kept her from the garden, with its great drifts of Autumn leaves. The constant movement of the dark trees reminded her of Jack’s haunted eyes. The specialist visited on Saturday morning. He said Jack needed to come into the hospital for some tests. Could he come today? Stella noticed the look of relief on Jack’s face as she packed his overnight bag. That afternoon, after delivering Jack to the hospital, she ventured for the first time that week into the garden. The latest storm had blown itself out. The garden was a mess. Tentatively, she picked up a rake, half hidden in the long grass, and began sweeping up the leaves. Behind her, Robbie was playing with a ball, bouncing it rhythmically against the shed. Bang… Bang… Bang…
The sound disturbed her, breaking the beautiful stillness of the autumn afternoon. After a week of howling winds, she wanted to enjoy a period of tranquility and birdsong. She tugged at the leaves caught in the wet grass.
Bang… Bang… Bang...
Why did he not get bored of that repetitive action? She wanted to tell him to stop, but for some reason she hesitated. The natural thing would have been to turn round and confront him, but she did not do that either. Instead, she quietly put down the rake and walked indoors, closing the glass door on the dreadful sound of that banging, and shutting the curtain.
Lying in her bed late that night, Stella tried and failed to fall asleep. After a week of storms, the night beyond her window was restful and full of stars. Moonlight lay in soft pools in the hollows of her bedspread. Yet she could not compose herself. She wondered why she had not turned round this afternoon in the garden, as she had meant to do, and told Robbie to stop making such a racket. Was it an uneasiness that perhaps it hadn’t been Robbie who was making the noise, but something else? Ridiculous! Jack’s breakdown had obviously unhinged her, and made her start to think all sorts of things. But Jack’s illness had been diagnosed as a simple case of Lacuna Steel. Of course it had been Robbie this afternoon in the garden. The fact that she saw him ten minutes later playing quietly in his room proved nothing. The boy was always roaming from garden to bedroom, bedroom to garden – lost in his own little world.
Bang… Bang… Bang…
Stella jumped at the return of that sound, coming so suddenly out of the peaceful night. She got out of bed, heart pounding, and walked over to the window. Despite the moonlight, the corner of the garden where the shed was located was barely discernible in the shadows cast by the big trees. Yet she knew that the sound emanated from there. Something down there was making a sound like the one she had heard this afternoon – but it couldn’t be Robbie this time.
She put on her dressing gown and slippers, switched the corridor light on, and walked to the head of the stairs. She looked into Robbie’s room. The boy’s head, facing away from her, could just be seen on the pillow. She gripped the bannister rail and began to descend the staircase. In the dining room, she pushed open the French windows, and was confronted again with the awful noise. There had to be some simple explanation. Perhaps an animal had got stuck inside the shed. But she knew no animal was capable of that rhythmic tattoo.
Standing at the edge of the patio, scarcely daring to venture further, she tried to call out, “Who is it?” but her voice, thin at the best of times, failed her completely. Then, as abruptly as it had started, the banging ceased. Silence returned. Relieved, she prepared to turn back to the house, but in the act of turning, something caught the edge of her vision that made her insides ice over. She completed the turn and began walking as slowly as she could back across the patio, trying to cast out of her mind the sight of the small, dark figure limping up the garden towards her.
As she walked, conscious of that thing behind her, she began to know the smell and feel of real fear: a sour reek that trickled through her insides like the sweat that was rising from her skin, soaking the teeshirt beneath her gown. Once she was in the house, she closed and locked the French windows, then closed the curtain to obscure the view of the garden. Opening the curtain again a fraction, she peeped out. The garden was empty. Then had she imagined the thing? Slowly her breath returned in soft whimpering sobs, and she allowed her hot forehead to cool itself against the glass door.
Making her way back up the stairs, Stella smiled at how her own irrational fears had almost turned her into a basket case to rival Jack. In the clear light of day, everything would be explicable, she was sure. There had been no 'thing' in the garden. Just shadows and shifting piles of leaves.
From downstairs came the noise of smashing glass. The French windows. She stood paralysed in mid-step, hand gripping the bannister rail. Into her numbed consciousness crept the sound of slow, uneven footsteps on the downstairs parquet. Light-heavy, light-heavy: the gait of someone with a limp. The sound grew in volume, as the footsteps reached the hallway below where she stood.
Stella mounted the remaining steps in one bound. She ran along the corridor and into her bedroom. Only there did she remember Robbie. Her heart screamed at her to run back and get him. But the fear of what lay out there drowned out everything, even her deepest maternal instincts. Listening breathlessly at the door, she heard the horrid unsteadiness of its progress up the stairs; the creak on the landing, and another which she knew to be the third stair from the top. Then she heard nothing for a while, and that was when she began to cry. “Go away. Please go away,” she sobbed. There was a little slide and a stumble in the corridor. A shadow appeared in the crack of light under her door. She knew the thing was there. It could probably see the door vibrating with her sobs. Slowly, quietly she tiptoed to her bed, then slipped beneath the covers so that nothing of herself was visible. She curled up into a tight fetal position, wishing at that moment that she could be swallowed up by the moonlight, or be carried away by the wind.
She heard the squeak of the door handle as it turned, and then muffled footsteps on the carpet approaching the bed. She squeezed her eyes shut, and tensed every muscle in her body. She tried to press herself more deeply into the mattress, knowing the futility of trying to hide when the involuntary shaking of her body had already given her presence away.
“Mummy, mummy.” It was Robbie’s voice, close to her, just by her head. “I had a nightmare mummy. Let me in, I want to get in with you.”
Stella almost cried in relief. It was Robbie, Robbie all along. It had been Robbie in the garden. Robbie on the stairs! She was about to throw back the covers and welcome her son, when she remembered something: on her way downstairs, she had seen Robbie in his bed.
“Let me in, let me in!” cried the boy. “I’m frightened, mummy. I think there’s something nasty in this house.”
Stella’s fear-hardened heart was melted by this plea, which could have been spoken by no one other than her son. “Come to me,” she said. “Come to mummy.”
Still too petrified to come out from the safe cocoon of her bedclothes, she opened the cover just a few inches so that her boy could climb in. He slithered in beside her and put his thin arms around her. Dark as it was, she couldn’t make him out, but she could feel his cool damp little body pressing itself against her for warmth and comfort.
The boy had a strange odour. It reminded her of a stagnant pond, and Stella wondered where he had been playing today. And the dim light beneath the bedclothes was deceiving, for his eyes were a pearly white, lacking irises and pupils, and his big grinning mouth was full of nothing but black and broken teeth. She pushed this distorting vision from her mind, and pressed him closer to her. “It’s okay my dearest,” she said. “Whatever that nasty thing is, it can’t get to us in here.”