This story is by Allie April Knox and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Crawford Manor is said to be haunted by Ophelia Browning, a young college student who entered the grounds some twenty years ago and was never seen again. Teenagers, of course, enjoy stealing up to the door and saying hello to her ghost, much to the chagrin of the local authorities. And Melanie Deveraux would never shy away from breaking a few rules if it meant she could have a little fun.
So where else would she be but standing before the double doors of Crawford Manor, excitement battling the chilly November air?
Melanie tucks her bangs behind her ears, reaches out a hand pale enough to be a ghost’s, and turns the silver door handles. They open with ease, not a squeak or a scrape to be heard over the whistle of the wind despite having been years since their last use.
However, there is something like an echo, the faint cadence of a whisper, as Melanie crosses the threshold of the old home, and goosebumps break out across her skin as anticipation and delight burn like wildfire in her blood.
Maybe Ophelia’s trying to warn me away, she muses. She shakes her head, a smile coming to her lips. Nice try. I’m going to have some fun.
For now, she ignores the grand staircase leading to the second story and beyond, choosing instead to work her way through the ground floor, exploring the kitchen, dining room, and ballroom, before coming across a study that once belonged to the master of the house.
In contrast to the rest of the dusty but otherwise organized house, this room is a right disaster, books in toppled stacks next to the floor-to-ceiling shelves, papers strewn across the hardwood floor. The drawers of the desk have been upturned, contents flung about the room.
The desk’s surface is devoid of the mess, though. Its only occupant is an hourglass bearing fractures from having been dropped once or twice.
Melanie is about to move closer, wanting to inspect the ornate piece, when something else catches her attention.
It’s a person—no, wait. A statue.
And it’s beautiful.
The stone woman is perfectly preserved, with not a speck of dust on her, and she’s detailed so precisely that Melanie feels as if she’s alive, almost. Frozen in this place, this time. Awaiting the breath of life.
She traces the curve of the woman’s shoulder, following it to her chin, trailing over her heart-shaped face, stopping at her eyes. Eyes that are gray, and empty, and—
Melanie can’t help the shiver rattling up her spine, and she steps back into the desk, bumping the hourglass. She feels it wobble, barely turns in time to catch it, stopping the topple that would end in sand and glass. It thrums under her fingers, surprisingly warm against her cold skin.
And there’s something curious about it: the sand is tumbling, even though she never turned the hourglass on its head.
Her brow furrows as she blinks and stares.
“This can’t possibly be happening,” she mutters. “I mean, it defies the laws of, well, everything.”
She rubs her eyes, dry from the dusty air, and tries again. Nope, it’s still there. Still tumbling, toppling, falling…
She shakes her head again and steps away. Only, she’s too fast as she goes, and she crashes into the statue. Her mind must be playing tricks on her, though, because the stone feels far too soft to be granite. But she knows that’s not possible, and when she looks again, it’s the same as before.
She flings an alarmed look at it and leaves the room, closing the door as gently as possible behind her. With one last look, she walks away, perfectly content to leave the strange room with its magic hourglass and shapeshifting statue.
Besides, there are at least two more floors to explore.
So she does just that, from one room to the next, from bathroom to bedroom to balcony, until Melanie is sure she’s covered just about the entire house, except maybe the basement, all the while scrubbing at her eyes because there’s something in them, and coughing because there’s an aching dryness in the back of her throat, and stopping to massage her feet because—
It abruptly occurs to her that there’s another set of footsteps echoing in her own. She pauses, then slowly turns, heart bumping up a notch at the sight of a statue like the one in the study, standing where she most certainly had not passed it three seconds before.
The statue is caught midstep, mid-breath.
“How…?” she wonders aloud, voice full of a question she’s not sure how to ask, unsure of the answer she’d get if she did.
In that same breath, she realizes, despite the layers and layers of dust spread across the house, draped like blankets over the chairs and sofas, tables and bookshelves, not a single speck rests on the statue.
It reminds her of a phrase her mother once used, and she can’t help but breathe the words into the cooling air.
“A rolling stone—”
—gathers no moss, another voice finishes, and Melanie’s heart stops.
The statue—no, the woman—steps towards her, just once, surprisingly light despite the perceived weight of stone. Melanie can only watch as she does so, too stunned to do much else, still processing what this could mean.
Her dark eyes widen and she blurts, “You’re Ophelia Browning?!”
Yes. Her voice is lilting and melancholic.
“What… what are you?” Melanie asks. “What happened to you?”
Ophelia looks her up and down, taking in her ripped leggings and scuffed Converse, far different from the stone sundress and ballet flats she’s sporting. Finally, she answers, lips forming shapes and emitting sounds Melanie would never have thought possible.
I am a young woman who did not leave well enough alone that which she did not understand. I made a mistake I can’t ever take back. Not unlike you, my friend.
She tilts her head, the movement crackling in the otherwise silent air.
Can you feel it?
“Feel what?” Melanie asks slowly, a sense of foreboding creeping over her, and then abruptly coughs at the rising tickle in her throat.
Ophelia smiles sadly, sorrow evident in her blue eyes.
I tried for so many years to stop this, to break this curse that dooms all it falls upon.
“What curse? Ophelia, what do you mean?”
The curse of Medusa. Have you ever heard of it?
She steps closer, a sudden sharpness to her movements, and Melanie shuffles back, fighting the overwhelming urge to run.
The woman unjustly punished for an assault she could do nothing to stop, merely because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person? Stripped of her identity and condemned as a monster for all eternity?
Melanie could reach out and touch her now, if she wanted. Ophelia’s warm breath fans across her face.
Have you ever heard that story?
And do you remember how Medusa killed her victims?
Melanie wipes at her face, finding bits of grit and dust on her fingers when they scrape her skin.
You made eye contact with the monster.
Melanie shies away from Ophelia’s eyes, opting instead to follow the constellation of freckles across her sunkissed nose. “I didn’t mean—”
I know, but you did. And because of that, the sand is now running out. In fact, it nearly has.
Melanie can only stare at her, horrified at the words coming out of Ophelia’s pale pink lips.
Once it does, I will walk free of this prison—
She stumbles backward, knowing how this sentence will end long before it’s finished.
And you will have to take my place.
Melanie trips in her haste to escape, the sound echoing through the house, alerting anything else—if there is anything else—to her presence.
She can hear Ophelia behind her, trailing after her with an almost resigned air, as Melanie dashes down the stairs. She stumbles over the last step and falls, finding it harder to stand than before, sights set on the silver door handles she had grasped only hours before.
She is mere inches from the heavy doors, reaching out with dying hands, when the stone—stone she hasn’t felt until now—when it kills her, without so much as a pleading scream or a dying breath.
Ophelia comes up behind her, avoiding her eyes with an expertise that only comes from having failed at it once before, and says, “It may take years, but you will learn to navigate this place as I did. Perhaps you will be the one to fix it all, to end the line of stone maidens extending back to the gorgon herself. I wish you the best of luck in that.”
And Ophelia Browning, despite her hatred of the curse, walks away from the house with her long-lost body of flesh and blood, leaving Melanie Deveraux to be the next Medusa of Crawford Manor.