The House that Comes Alive at Night
“There is a thing about houses. You feel it as soon as you walk in – especially if it’s an old place. But any house that’s been lived in will do. The thing is, so much can happen in a home. We’re at our most honest there. That’s when we allow the real us to come out – with fights and declarations of love, with laughter and with tears. All those emotions, all those dreams piling up inside a house with every day that passes – have you ever wondered where they go?”
“I’m actually trying to figure out where this conversation is going…”
“No, wait - be serious for once. Listen: all those raw, uninhibited emotions, they have to go somewhere. They seep into the furniture. They hide in corners. They crawl into mirrors. You’re aware of them, this watchful presence at the back of your mind. But at night – that’s when they really start to manifest, crawling out of cupboards, rising up from the floorboards, dancing in the empty hallways. Those noises that wake you from your dreams, what do you think they are? In fact, who do you think gives you the dreams in the first place?”
No answer. The question was either too confusing, or it was hard to see a purpose in it.
“As for your own house…”
Ah, there it was.
“That old manor you’ve just bought, the one with centuries of owners – all those people who’ve loved and hated behind its walls, their births and weddings and deaths – don’t you think they’ve affected the place? Don’t you think it’s ready to burst with all those memories? I could say it has stopped being a mere house. It comes alive at night.”
Meghan’s voice sunk in a low whisper, as it always did whenever she was trying to be dramatic. Lizbeth usually humoured her. One had to accommodate one’s youngest cousin – wasn’t that how things worked?
This time, it was different.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Megs,” she snapped. “There is nothing wrong with the house. It’s just an old building, that’s all.”
Who was she trying to convince, though? Was she really annoyed that Meghan’s eccentricities were going too far? Or did she sense it, too? The tension that greeted her when she got home; the whispers when the lights were switched off, the patter of feet in the night.
“My house isn’t haunted,” she declared firmly.
“All houses are haunted. Unless you’re the first owner and get the chance to make the first memories – you’re living with the ghosts of the past.”
“That house is mine,” Lizbeth insisted. “Nothing and no one can deny me this.”
She had so many plans for that place. It was to be her new beginning, her life finally set on the right track. She wanted to open a bookshop on the ground floor – maybe even a tea-shop, too. They could use the yard as a terrace in summer.
“No one can take it from me.”
When she got home that evening, she cursed Meghan and her bizarre ideas. As soon as she opened the door, she was aware of the waiting silence, the movement in the attic, the shadows forming in the far corners. Upstairs, on the landing, the last sunrays entered through the high window. Specks of dust danced in the air. But was it really dust, or was it the image of a long-dead child executing a clumsy pirouette? Was the silence that greeted Lizbeth the astonishment of past owners, not used to finding her, a stranger, in their domain?
“You can’t have it anymore,” she said, holding her head high in a defiance she rarely showed. “You’ve had your day. Now it’s my turn. The place is mine, now.”
The shadows shifted and multiplied, foggy silhouettes trailing her up the stairs and into her room, creeping under the door she had shut to keep them out.
What was it her mother had said? The house had changed hands six times in the past two years alone. They all left, without any explanation. Well, she was not going to leave. She was not going to be scared off by cheap parlour tricks.
That night, Lizbeth slept badly. She watched the bedroom curtains shudder in some non-existent wind. The light of the street lamps in front of her house turned the branches of the old chestnut outside into long menacing claws, reaching out to her. And, as she lay there half-frozen, she could feel it – the house coming alive.
There were distant chords in the hallway, not a melody, but a strange, monotonous string of notes. The song of the house, Lizbeth realised. The story of all those people coming and going, their footsteps leaving behind endless echoes that would never be stopped, not while the walls remained standing. They skipped and danced outside Lizbeth’s room. She wondered what she would see, if she opened the door.
In her own room, shadows danced around her bed. They twisted in a dizzying circle and, although she was in the centre, they took no notice of her. She had no place there – she, who presumed she had the right to leave her imprint among the many lives that had touched the house. That cold indifference was worse than any outward hostility.
The clock struck twelve. The walls shook. The branches of the chestnut tree scratched at the window, an ancient beast demanding to be let in. The shadows all swooped down towards the bed, covering Lizbeth with their cloying softness, muffling her with their foggy tendrils. Vaguely, she wondered if that was how she was going to die. Killed by her own possession, who wanted nothing to do with her.
She did not know how long it lasted, that wild dance that had her paralysed. She was not the same when it was over. The shadows had taken a part of her. Was that supposed to happen? Maybe that was how she would be allowed to keep the house – by sacrificing a part of herself to its past occupants.
It did not get better the following nights. Lizbeth tried everything to keep the shadows at bay. She stayed up all night reading or she took sleeping pills before it was fully dark. She kept the lights on. She blasted music at full volume. It did not matter. At twelve o’clock she found herself lying in the dark, helpless, while the shadows took another part of her.
After a week, she was pale and shaky, as if fighting some terrible illness. The real world was distant and muffled, a veil always between her and the people she interacted with. She was detached – the only true thing happened at night at the house. The rest was just a dream of a former life.
“It’s happening,” Meghan noticed during their weekend coffee date. “The house is taking hold of you. You should move – before it’s too late. Before you can’t go back anymore.”
Lizbeth feared it was already too late. She was disintegrating bit by bit, night by night, becoming part of a history that had never been hers, joining the procession of ghosts haunting the manor.
“That place is mine,” she repeated mechanically. “I won’t give it up.”
Meghan shook her head sadly.
“It’s not yours. Houses like that belong to no one. You can belong to them, if they let you. But you do not want that to happen. Trust me.”
How do you know such things, Meghan? Lizbeth was tempted to ask. But she never had before. Meghan was the quirky one of the family, frequenting all sorts of paranormal communities. Someone must have told her about that house.
“If there are ghosts there,” Lizbeth said, “maybe they’ll let me stay. Maybe we can reach an agreement.”
Meghan’s face was impassive.
“Tell me something. If a burglar enters your house, do you welcome them into your home? Do you reach an agreement with them and tell them sure, take what you need and come again any time?”
Lizbeth looked away. She hated Meghan then. Why should she be made to feel guilty for something that should have been her right?
“That’s different. The house is mine.”
Meghan’s eyes were sad. It was the kind of show of sympathy that always irritated Lizbeth.
“The house won’t see it that way. That place belongs to the past – to the dead who left their imprint there, with memories so strong they are one with the building’s foundations. What do you have to offer?”
“My own memories,” Lizbeth was quick to answer. “I am young. I have so many experiences waiting for me. I could add to the choir of voices that now haunts the corridor.”
But she knew it would not be that easy. The large families of the past, the wars and turmoil they went through – her own sheltered life would never compare to what was already there. Meghan was right. In the end, she had nothing to give.
“It doesn’t matter. The house is mine. Somehow, I’ll win it over. You’ll see.”
She walked out of the café, trying not to think of the sorrow in her cousin’s face – trying to ignore how certain Meghan seemed that she would never see Lizbeth again.
Months passed. Lizbeth did not abandon the house. She seldom left it now. She cut off almost all contact with Meghan and saw her mother once every few weeks. She spent her days exploring the empty house, surrounded by shadows now so much a part of her she was sure she would miss them, if they went away. She knew most of them by name.
There was little Rowena, who had died of a fever when she was seven. Lizbeth had seen her that first evening, after Meghan’s warning. Then there was Old Bart, one of the gardeners. He had looked after the place long after the owners were gone. Lizbeth’s favourite, though, was Lady Una. She was not as bold as the rest of the spectres and kept her distance. But Lizbeth could sense she had been fiery in life, and the flame still burned, keeping the house awake.
Seasons changed. One day, Lizbeth glanced out the window and noticed the empty stretch of garden surrounding the manor covered in snow. She had not been out in months. She wondered briefly how come no one tried to look for her. Then she decided it didn’t matter. After all, the house was hers, now. She turned from the window and caught Lady Una’s eye. She grinned.
Winter turned to spring when Lizbeth heard the key unlocking her front door. She stiffened. Instead of confronting her intruder, she withdrew in a dark corner, beyond a curtain, where the light could not reach.
She recognised the first person who stepped in as Mary, the real-estate agent who had sold her the place. She had no idea about the young man accompanying her. He had to be from out of town. He stood in the entrance hallway, turning on the spot, his eyes wide and bright.
“How much did you say this place was? I must have misheard you. It can’t be that cheap. It’s in a fantastic condition.”
Mary pursed her lips. In her hidden corner, Lizbeth smirked. Mary was too honest for her job.
“I won’t lie to you, Mr. Larson. I sold this house only a year ago. The owner vanished several months later. Her cousin claimed this place had something to do with it. That it took her away.”
Larson perked up.
“So it has its own ghost story! I like that. A little history is always good. Makes life more interesting.”
He noticed the rustle of curtains and frowned slightly. But then his face cleared and he chuckled amused at how jumpy he was. Mary led him further into the house. A few of the shadows trailed after them, unseen for now.
Old Bart was scowling, always sullen when his domain was invaded. Lizbeth touched his shoulder briefly.
“Don’t worry. He won’t drive us away. I’ll see to it. This is our home now, isn’t it?”
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