This story is by Hanli de Jager and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The dark house had occupied its lonely spot on top of the hill for as long as 14-year old Cheynne could remember, the dense surrounding trees hiding its facade like sentinels in dark mottled uniforms. Some days it seemed as if the house disappeared completely among its guardians, and on others, it appeared as prominent and foreboding as a demon emerging from the ninth circle of hell.
Like every summer, Cheynne was visiting her grandfather, who had a cottage at the edge of the lake at the bottom of the hill. From her bedroom window, she had an unobstructed view of the mysterious structure, but questions about it only elicited dire warnings from her grandfather. Cheynne’s fascination with the dark monolith had evolved into an obsession since she recently saw a single photograph in an obscure corner of the library showing the mansion during its former life as a restful retreat for those with nervous dispositions and depressive tendencies. The image revealed a magnificent gothic structure with ominous gargoyles furtively prowling its ramparts, the lush grounds filled with serene-looking people staring contentedly into the distance, smiles illuminating their features. Quite the paradoxical absurdity. But it was their intense, imploring eyes that mesmerized Cheynne. Something was not quite right, something that belied the apparent serenity. She couldn’t put her finger on it, making her even more determined to uncover the shadowy secrets of the house, which was abandoned decades ago when several patients disappeared inexplicably, and rumors of strange occurrences refused to abate. More recently, a variety of intrepid explorers failed to return from several daring expeditions into the menacing abode. Cheynne had tried to heed the warnings, tried to ignore her growing sense of infatuation with the structure, but felt compelled to unearth what lurked in the heart of the house. Something called to her. Therefore, tonight she had scrounged up all her courage and snuck out to investigate the strange hilltop enigma.
Trees swayed in the wind… branches whispered in hushed tones… ominous darkness… moonlight weaved in an out of shredded clouds… The gargoyles directed their maniacal grins at Cheynne, pinning her with their stony stares. She shivered and slowly ascended the broken steps, splashing the beam of her flashlight over her surroundings. Years of service to unknown humans and various other creatures were reflected in each groove of the weathered wood. She hesitated, ready to run but forged ahead instead.
She had decided to approach the house from a small side entrance, sensing the door would be easier to breach than the formidable studded main doors. Each footstep on the sagging porch creaked its own story, ancient tales of when the house was young. Floating streaks of mist obscured Cheynne’s vision of the door. She pressed her hand against it. The rough, tattered wood was cold beneath her touch. The wood almost felt alive, undulating beneath her fingers. She snatched her hand away. Did she have a right to intrude on this mysterious existence that belonged to centuries ago? Before she could overthink her actions, Cheynne pushed at the door. The rusty hinges proclaimed their screeching annoyance. She entered the house amid flurries of mist swirling into the cavernous belly of the house, and at that exact moment, the flashlight sputtered and died. “Just great,” she thought, shaking it. With a sigh, she dropped it in her bag and stood a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the gloom.
She could faintly make out the shadowy shapes of mysterious objects around her, sinister in their anonymity. To her left, a stairway coiled into the darkness above, the banister supporting dilapidated railings, leaning against each other like wounded soldiers. To her right, a passage stretched into black eternity, like a giant poisonous snake slithering into a dark hole. The house was suddenly awash with moonlight as the dark clouds outside continued their journey, and the grimy windows lazily opened their lunar eyes. Their bleak glance lasted only for a moment before their eyelids dropped again in a deep slumber.
Cheynne was still contemplating her next move when the door behind her crashed closed. The silence shattered into a million pieces and was scattered into every corner and space around her. When the buzzing in her head subsided, and her heart rate returned to a semblance of normal, the scraps of silence quietly reassembled into a whole that enveloped her and rooted her to the spot. Slowly the inevitable message reached her brain. Trapped! Silently she berated herself for coming here. She should’ve listened to the warnings…
Her obsessive curiosity had led her to this house, which seemed intent on holding her hostage. Watching it from her window, she had always felt that this house and the surrounding woods were somehow alive, a living being. Nothing remained the same, the trees and boulders on the hill were constantly changing and shifting. A specific tree would be in a particular place the one day and gone the next. Only the mansion stayed firmly rooted to the same spot, the only constant in a transient, sinister place.
Cheynne tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Slowly, she turned and stared into the black throat of the passage stretching into infinity. She thought she heard faint whispers drifting toward her like transparent tendrils of consciousness. Then, she heard distant childlike laughter emanating from the darkness like tinkling splinters of luminosity.
“Hello…? Who’s there?”
The laughter sounded again, closer this time, and only for a moment. Cheynne glimpsed the hem of a frilly white dress before it vanished back into the dense shadows.
“Wait!” she yelled, and entered the darkness in pursuit…
The passage forged a sinuous path through the obsidian bowels of the house, the only light provided by the intermittent moonlight’s staccato rhythm penetrating the windows, matching cantering cadence of Cheynne’s heart. She glimpsed the white dress and even a swaying lock of blonde hair and picked up her pace. Cheynne rounded a corner and became aware of a faint glow at the edge of her vision, the type of perception that disappears when looking directly at it. The indistinct smudge congealed into a closed door; its borders defined by thin strips of light oozing through the cracks. Cheynne tested the door, which swung back noiselessly, spilling subdued light into the passage. Tentatively, she peeked into the room beyond, which was cavernous and filled with lit candles of all sizes that occupied every available surface. Molten wax leaked down the sides of the candles and dripped onto the floor, creating greasy stalactites reaching for the twisted stalagmites straining to escape from the floor like spirits from the underworld.
Cheynne spotted another door on the far side of the room and crept through the fiery minefield, careful not to ignite. As she approached the door, it opened of its own volition, and what she saw was perplexing, to say the least. How can this be inside a house of all things? Is she imagining things? Somehow, it didn’t matter. A green meadow opened before her, littered with scores of wildflowers in a million colors. Across the field, several people faced away from her, looking through a wall seemingly made of glass that stretched as far as the eye could see and reaching into the heavens above. In the middle of the field stood a little blonde girl wearing a white frilly dress, beckoning for her to follow. Cheynne was poised at the threshold, hesitant to enter this bizarre, beautiful world. The girl motioned again, and Cheynne took the first few steps. Instantly, the door behind her slammed shut. The skies darkened ominously, and the lush field and flowers wilted to a barren, scorched landscape of dead trees and hot sand. The girl disappeared, and Cheynne now saw that the people at the wall were banging their fists against its surface, screaming something she couldn’t make out. Almost in a trance, she approached the wall. Several people turned to face her, and she froze in shock and fear. These were the people in the photograph of the house, as well as some of those who had disappeared. But how was this possible? What was happening? Without a word, she peered through the wall of glass, and what she saw froze her heart – a perfect mirror image of the old photograph. But this time she was in it, sitting in a wheelchair staring out at nothing. What the hell?
Overcoming her initial shock, Cheynne banged on the glass, ignoring the pain, screaming, ‘Hey! Hello! Somebody help!’
But her screams were ignored. She tried again.
‘Help! Look this way, I’m here! I’m here!’
On the other side of the glass, a doctor in a white overcoat turned, looked in her direction, and walked to where she stood. Relief flooded her but was short-lived. His malevolent smirk revealed sharp yellow teeth, and with his dead black eyes boring into hers, he growled,
‘No, you’re not…’