| 15min read |
[I have edited a few lines/wording of the lovely contributions made by my Bookstagram friends, only to improve clarity and flow when connecting them. My writing is in this brown, and the sections by my co-writers are all colour-coded! ]
(Context): I posted an idea that we could write a short story in the comments of one of my posts – and it worked out quite well! It sort of became a bit longer than a short story, but you’re welcome to just read as much of it as you’d like! Thank you to those who participated, I had great fun doing this!)
Here is some mood music I compiled, which you can listen to whilst reading if you like!
Wind whistled through the gnarled boughs of stooping trees, their branches creaking under the weight of darkness. Shadows flickered, warping and slinking behind tree trunks to evade the icy blue moonlight that clawed its way through a veil of dense cloud. My breath curled and dispersed in front of me, lacing the air with exposed fear as I walked steadily towards the chilling sight at the end of the pathway.
Never had the derelict mansion looked so imposing. These ruins of what had once been a 19th century gothic building looked like something out of a novel. Its central turret loomed above even the tallest trees, a crooked spire impaling the surrounding fog, as if threatening to plummet from its height to the thicket of gorsebush below.
A spine of this gorse prickled my leg through the thin layer of my tights, prompting me to flinch. I heard myself gasp in shock, the sound cutting through the thick silence. The air temperature around me was bitterly cold, and I could’ve sworn it had rapidly dropped in the few seconds since I’d arrived.
Reprimanding myself mentally for being so pathetic, I shrugged off the notion. As my heartrate slowed, I glanced downwards to where I had felt the sharp thorn against my calf. My stomach lurched.
There was no gorse bush beside the path. It was soft grass, coated in an icy lustre that formed a circle around my feet.
The glow from the icy grass surrounding me grew brighter with each slow breath. Soon, it became too bright for my eyes to withstand. As I closed them, I felt a rush of cool air blow pass me. When I opened my eyes, I could see that beyond the evaporating wisp of my breath in the air, the mansion that stood before me was now covered in a thick sheet of white.
Frost now coated the crooked roof tiles; ice gripped the once-ornate plaster detailing of the outside walls, and snowflakes dusted the broken metal tips of the turrets.
The mist surrounding the layer of white began to move, dispersing into a chill, eerie fog. Through the gloom, I could see the warm glow of a single lantern lit within the central turret. This area had been abandoned ever since the fire that burned the magnificent mansion to a shell, and the upstairs floors were so damaged that there was no way anyone could be up there. Yet, there was the light. Despite the warning in my gut, my feet began to move towards it, a strange unheard melody lulling their every step. Before I knew it, I was at the front door. But as I reached for the handle, a second gust of cool air rushed past me, throwing the door open and revealing an empty, crumbling ruin. Above me, the light in the spire winked out.
All of a sudden, the lulling feeling stopped. An eerie chill crawled up my spine. I turned to flee – but behind me a crumbling, ivy-covered wall had appeared where there was no wall before, trapping me in the ruins.
“Let me go!” I wanted to scream… but I didn’t. I knew that would be the most foolish thing to do. And I had done enough stupid things tonight. I looked at the newly-formed wall, then gingerly reached out to touch it. The feeling of rough stone against my near-numb fingertips confirmed that it was real, and tears began to prickle at the backs of my eyelids. I couldn’t stop the tears running down my cheeks. Before long, I began to notice that where each tear had fallen on the mossy ground, a new ivy branch was sprouting and linking itself to the wall.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. My tears fell effortlessly and the ivy wall grew and grew before my eyes. Considering how foolish it was to just stand there and witness my impending gloom, I wiped away my tears, took a deep breath and turned away from the wall. There was only one way out, and that was through the ruin. It took time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but finally I could make out a dim outline of a crumbling stairway ahead of me. Remembering a torchlight that I had kept in my small backpack, which was slung on my shoulders, I took it out and started moving towards the stairway.
Uneasily, I noted the decay of the structure: from its uneven stairwell, to its bruised wooden siding, to its tottering spires— it looked as if the elements themselves had conspired to destroy this eerie place. I wondered if those same forces of the universe now considered *me* something to be destroyed. My heart seemed to flicker in the base of my throat when I grasped the iron handle of a large door at the top of the staircase. This must have been the entrance to all visitors, once. It occurred to me that I was no visitor now, but an intruder – and unfortunately it seemed the house was well aware of that. The door swung open to reveal a gaping maw of a foyer. It was probably once glamorous, impressive— a receiving room for the upper echelons of high society.
I took a step forward. Squinting in the harsh beam of my torch, I frowned as I realised that all the paintings on the walls were hung the wrong way around. I wondered what might be on them. I closed the door behind me, then I was sure I felt someone’s breath on my neck. I turned around swiftly in fear, only to discover that no one was standing there.
Convinced I wasn’t alone, and fearing that what was left of the ruin would collapse at any moment, my feet moved before I was even aware I’d chosen to run. Through the cobweb-coated doorway, across the splintered floorboards and up another rickety staircase, my trembling legs carried me as my heartbeat thundered in my ears. My whole body jolted as a wooden plank snapped beneath my right foot, and I would’ve tumbled to the pit of debris below, had it not been for a chunk of yellowed cornice that I managed to grab as I lurched to the right. In doing so, my torch slipped from my other hand and tumbled through the new hole to the mass of shadows below.
Upon impact, I heard the distinct crack of a bulb smashing, just as the light fizzled out. Pushing away from the cornice to stand upright, I stepped across to a lump of concrete, illuminated in the moonlight. In a vain attempt at self-reassurance, I decided it would be a safer vantage point than on the wooden planks – though in reality I knew it didn’t make much difference. The jumbled mess of materials reached a dead end before me, and I was trapped on my little island of crumbling stone with only the shadows to see by; flecks of a blue glow just visible in the negative space around them.
Glancing around me, I desperately tried to discern shapes amidst the darkness. Once my eyes had adjusted a little better, I clocked a lopsided window-space on the other side of the gaping hole. This was my only feasible escape, and I was not going to try and jump the gap only to go back the way I had just been. After a leap that was quick but far from graceful, I was at the edge of the building (if it could even be considered as such; it was more of a ‘falling’ than a ‘building’).
Judging the distance from the window to the ground, I reckoned it would be manageable if I could somehow jump from halfway down the wall. With shaking fingers, I unzipped my oilcloth coat and draped its hood over a section of broken stone on the window ledge. Thank goodness I chose an ankle-length trench coat, I thought to myself with a hint of smugness.
Tugging on the coat to confirm it was secure, I swung my lace-up boots over the edge, and lowered myself until I was sat on a surprisingly smooth edge of coving. Ironically, I was grateful that it was too dark in this instance, as I was spared having to see the ground spinning beneath me. Taking a deep breath, I prepared myself for the descent: slide down the coat, stretch to full height from the bottom of it; then land with bent knees on the ground.
I gripped both sides of the coat’s main body, and exhaled. But before I had the chance to jump, something pushed me from behind.
Screaming, I careened over the edge, limbs flailing as I struggled to maintain contact with the slippery material of my coat. With my right hand gripping the fabric, I was able to hold on, but the momentum of the fall caused me to move back towards the wall and slam into the uneven surface. Scraping my forearm against some jagged stone and grazing my leg against a loose nail jutting out of the first-floor window below, I yelped in pain, left arm struggling to grasp the fabric as I slid to a halt. Dangling precariously from the tails of my best coat, I took another deep breath, and let go.
It wasn’t a successful landing. The force of the impact was worse than I had anticipated, and my knees juddered uncomfortably as my boots slammed down into the not-so-soft ground. A searing pain shot through my right ankle, and it gave way beneath me. I cursed under my breath, frustrated at having not only lost an expensive garment, but also at failing to carry out my plan as I had envisaged.
To compensate for the foot that was twisted at a disturbing angle, I hopped on my left leg towards the pathway. The mysterious wall had disappeared, and I realised it must have been a figment of my imagination. I had been prickled by a gorsebush, the light was a reflection of a streetlight from the adjacent road, and the drop in temperature was due to the increasing amount of time since the sun had set. As for what had happened on the ledge, it was my own paranoia and haste that had made me panic, and jump too soon. Shaking my head at my foolishness, I limped back down the path, shivering without an outside layer to protect me from the icy chill.
Despite telling myself I was imagining it, the temperature did seem to be dropping at an alarming rate, and I began to fear whether I’d make it home before dying of hypothermia. My foot was so numb that I could actually walk on it. The bitter wind against my face had rendered my cheeks still, to the point where my teeth no longer chattered. In fact – it was so cold, I could no longer tell that it was cold.
I walked a little further, before realising that for quite some time, my ribcage hadn’t been moving. As I examined the air in front of me, there was no wisp of exhaled droplets dispersing through it. Despite trying to take a breath, I found that I didn’t need to. I felt lighter than air, walking on a carpet of snow outside my beautiful mansion.
Up ahead, I could see a silhouette coming into view. It emerged from the shadows, revealing itself to be a boy of perhaps sixteen or seventeen. He jogged at a fast pace, passing me without a glance as he neared the ruin. Turning back to follow him, I watched as he slowed to a halt, before scratching the back of his head with one hand. Footsteps sounded behind me – soon, three adults dressed in fluorescent green clothing had caught up with the youth. One of them muttered something too quiet for me to hear, and the young man replied, “I heard a shriek, and came as fast as I could. But I guess I was too late.”
Had I been able to feel my heart pounding, it would have shuddered in my chest. Beyond the four standing in front of me, I could see the shape of a body, sprawled on the grass and coated in a thick layer of frost. Hurrying over to the people, I went to speak, but my larynx refused to move. Panic rising in my throat – (or at least it would have been if I could feel anything) – I tapped the young man on the shoulder. He spun round, looking directly at me with a grimace. “Damn mosquitoes!” he muttered, waving a hand at the air in front of my face. I ducked to the side, but his fingertips grazed the space taken up by my nose – though I didn’t feel it.
If tears had been able to form in my eyes, I would have been crying from sheer panic. To my alarm, I watched as icicles began to sprout from my hands, like the vines that had grown from my tears earlier that night. The ice stretched and slithered, winding its way down to the grass and around the man’s feet, meeting on the other side to form a perfect… circle.
I attempted to gasp, though I knew it was futile. Focusing on the ruin, I remembered my imagined idea of what it might have looked like once. Grand, gleaming and symmetrical, like a castle for a fairytale princess. Suddenly, I found that I could blink again. In doing so, my eyes refocused, and I realised that the ruin was no longer a derelict mess. Instead, it was truly a building, adorned with intricate carvings and majestic spires, pointing perfectly towards the luminescent sky. The feeling of lightness built up inside me, and I watched in wonder as my boots lifted themselves off the ground, floating higher and higher until I was level with the ledge where my burgundy coat was left flapping in the wind. I reached for it but missed, the hood slipping through my fingers. It was no matter; I could retrieve it later.
Entering the room I had been in just moments before, I remembered the backwards frames cowering in the darkness like schoolchildren in detention. But here, I was greeted with a glorious gallery of portraits, all strikingly realistic as they peered out from within their golden frames, despite the darkness surrounding them. Spotting a lantern and a box of matches on the table beside me, I lit the candle and held it up to the first painting. It was of a woman dressed in Victorian fashion, her hair tied neatly into an elaborate updo. The label read “Elizabeth, surname unknown, 16th March 1876”. Rather careless to not know the surname of your subject, I thought.
I was about to approach the second painting, when I heard footsteps on the stairwell. Worried that I would face punishment for breaking and entering, I blew the candle out, relishing the sensation of air in my lungs as the warmth of the restored ruin brought my senses back.
“No one up here – must’ve been suicide, unless the murderer fled back down the stairwell. Don’t see why anyone would risk climbing up to there though – that hole in the floorboards is a major structural weak point.”
While the young man was distracted, examining the perfectly polished floorboards at the area where I had made a great hole in the ruin with my boot, I took my chance to escape. Tiptoeing silently behind him, I tried to creep past unseen. I marvelled at the rich mahogany banister and the green damask wallpaper, and at the transformation of the place. I beamed at the beauty surrounding me, forgetting to be cautious as I lost my balance on the top step.
Flailing to catch myself, I felt a wave of cold against my left hand, and whirled round in time to see my hand brushing past the young man’s shoulder. I chastised myself for being so careless – surely I was in for it now. They’d ask how the ruin was suddenly restored, and I’d have to tell them… what would I tell them? I twisted my ankle but renovated the mansion? Before I had time to contemplate this further, my eyes widened at the sight of the young man teetering in the middle of the corridor, behind me. It looked rather odd as he fought to regain balance for no apparent reason. Perhaps he was acting out what might have happened to the person who fell…
To my disbelief, he disappeared from view, and I could’ve sworn that I heard a shriek and three yelps. I then heard a faint voice, exclaiming “Oh, not another one. What an idiot for going up there! So unnecessary too – we already know how it happens.”
I knew I had to stop lying to myself. It was fun to pretend for a little while, but I could no longer deceive my own mind.
To check my theory, I returned to the gallery, trying to ignore the pangs of guilt pooling in my chest. After relighting the lantern, I held it up to the portraits on the other side of the room. Opposite Victorian Elizabeth, a shiny new painting hung in a pristine golden frame. It wasn’t facing the wall now, though I wished it could have been. Staring back at me were two familiar eyes, an unmistakable nose and a mouth that would have been trembling, had it been my reflection in a mirror. Below the painting, etched in black lettering, was my name, and today’s date.
As I accepted the truth of my fate, the pink paint coating the plaster began to peel away. One by one, the portraits turned to face the wall, and the floorboards ruptured and split. In the corridor, the mahogany darkened and the hole I’d kicked in the floorboards emerged, larger than it was before. Escaping the damage, I half-ran, half-floated down the stairs and into the brisk reality of the outside. My eyes fell on the contorted body of the young man, stretched out on the grass with a circle of frost surrounding him. It was now that I saw the true detail of the dreadful scene.
Gasping internally, for once again I couldn’t feel anything, I wondered how I could have missed it before. With my head in the innocent dreamworld of what once was and what could be, I had failed to notice the array of bodies laid out on the ground, all evenly spaced around the ruin.
As I came to terms with the events that had passed, I made my way towards the body beside the poor young man’s. Just above it, my burgundy oilcoth trench coat swung in the wind, hanged by its neck from the window ledge like a monk’s habit in prayer, blessing or cursing the body on the ground. My body.
My body… I allowed myself to float back to it, and become one with it again, where I belonged. And as I slept, I dreamed of my beautiful mansion on a blanket of lush green grass, its gleaming spire pointing up towards a vivid blue sky. It would be so breathtaking, no one would notice the frost creeping across the ground. They wouldn’t see it connecting the remnants of its victims, to form a perfect circle.