NO SIGN OF GHOSTS
There is a bitter/beautiful landscape, where miasma falls like silk and smothers silhouettes of trees with roots that split and crack the earth. It is a bid to escape one suffocation only to encounter another.
Inside the landscape there is a prison. Far from prying eyes, a colossal mansion with all the grandeur and crumbling decadence of a Victorian castle - like Sleeping Beauty’s residence, this fortress is surrounded by an impenetrable web of dense and tangled greenery, with added invisible tendrils of a thousand protective spells. To keep people out? Far from it; they were specifically designed to keep something in.
This is Jessica.
Jessica is As Usual. She has a long neck and wide doe eyes, hair that has been dragged into a ponytail and left there to gradually fall out as it is attacked by weak winds and straying hands. If Jessica was in a horror movie, there is something so pretty-but-average about her that would push you unquestionably to the conclusion that this girl is going to bite it. She would wind up a poor, barely-named appetiser to a bloody plot.
She has never strayed this far into the landscape. Still in her school uniform (in a blast of horror-movie irony), with her satchel swung over one shoulder, she approached the start of the mist and weaving maze with all the ignorant trepidation of a teenager who has just tackled an hour with a math teacher with bad breath and can therefore handle anything. Now she stands appraising the place.
But the tree roots seem almost to reach out to her.
They talk about this place at her school. They habitually whisper, the way you would lower your voice to mention a recently convicted serial killer, or the word ‘rape’, because the word in itself scares you and you don’t want other people to know what you’re talking about. ‘The Whiteout Place’.
Jessica isn’t here because of a dare. No-one dared anyone to come near this place; Jessica is here because of a burning curiosity, and because of Margo Belle. Margo was Jessica’s boyfriend’s sister. She’s been missing for eight weeks, and the last time anyone heard from her was when she was riding her bike home from school in the woods half a mile from the Whiteout land.
There is no wind here. No noise, no birdsong, no crickets, no gentle rustling of grass on grass. Just the aching silence of a dead stretch of land. Jessica doesn’t know about the spells that keep the land dead; the charms and intricate curses that freeze the maze of plants in a perpetual state of imitated life, when if they were let alone the land, which had buried so many secrets and bones and secrets, would let them rot into dust.
She shouts for Margo.
Margo doesn’t answer.
Jessica drops her satchel, knowing that no-one would be coming close enough to the mansion to steal it anytime soon, and takes a step toward the twisted maze of unnaturally still forest.
“I wouldn’t go in there, if I were you.”
This is Sam. Sam was once Samantha, and is now an almost-nineteen girl in a school uniform and stolen leather jacket, leaning against one of the not-quite-dead trees with an apple in one hand. Her boots are caked with mud. She has been there for a long time, not just standing by this tree, but in various places around the area, kept young by the fallout of the powerful spells holding the plants together.
Her eyes are lifeless and blue… and they worry Jessica, who has never seen anyone look so young whilst looking so old. She approaches Sam, who almost goes to take a wary step back beyond the tree.
“I’m looking for my friend.” Jessica says, pulling the folded school-picture of Margo that everyone keeps with them out of her blazer pocket. The girl’s uniform isn’t one she recognises… and is that a lion printed on her shirt pocket? “Her name’s Margo. She went missing around here about eight weeks ago. Have you seen her?”
Sam doesn’t look at the picture. “Yeah, I told her not to go in too.” she shrugs.
“You saw her?! Did she go in?” Jessica demands, taking another step closer. “Look, she was a friend of mine and I really need to find her.”
“She went in. And like everyone else, she didn’t come out. Do yourself a favour. Go home.”
Of course she doesn’t. They never do. She turns away from Sam and heads slowly into the wilderness, picture gripped in her hand like it’s some kind of weapon against the dark shadows. Sam watches her go.
Originally, Sam would have tried a little harder to stop the girl going in. Once there had been a time when she would have dragged the stupid idiot kicking and screaming back to her house, with the threat that if she returned she’d be scalped and strung up like a wind chime.
Then the tormenting howls broke the night air and she found herself curled up amongst the towering roots of an oak tree, wishing that she had the courage to break through the maze she watched so many vanish into and let him see her. Old friends reunited in the brief seconds before he ripped her apart. Maybe he’d even hesitate before the madness shook through him and the voices in his head convinced him that she was an illusion, mocking him, laughing at him because he was alone in the world and the Samantha he once knew was in heaven with all his old friends.
The people who had locked him in there, the Ministry agents who cast the thousands of spells to make sure he never got out, convinced him that he had killed her. And, going mad in his solitude and starvation, he had believed them. The one time she had tried to approach him, he’d almost killed her.
And now she drifts around the mansion, not daring to go any closer than the first line of thickly planted trees, pretending that she’s some kind of guardian. She’s not a guardian. If they don’t stray in, he doesn’t eat, and although him dying would spare the world a monster, she can’t bring herself to put too much effort into pushing them away anymore. Better their screams shredding the night air than his.
Jessica is back.
“Look, can’t you help me?” she pleads, gesturing to the wilderness. “I need to find Margo and… well, you look like you know your way through here.”
Sam stares at her. “You won’t find her. There’s something in that house… something you couldn’t imagine in your darkest nightmares.” she said, with a tone like honey to someone who’s just eaten themselves sick. An explanation that they think they want, only to realise as they hear it that they don‘t want to know after all. “I heard her scream. And I heard it eat. She’s not there anymore. And if you do find your way through, I’ll just be saying the same thing to one of your friends in a few months’ time.”
“How can you let people in there?” Jessica breathes. “Why didn’t you tell her, so that she turned back?”
Sam looks away and shrugs. “My conscience had been winning for a while. It hadn’t eaten in months. But the cries at night… they were torturing me. So I just… turned my back and let her pass.”
Jessica doesn’t understand. All she sees is a crumbling manor falling apart at the seams and surrounded by darkness, a darkness that has taken her friend. She hadn’t seen the years pass by and ravage the landscape; she didn’t know that long before she was born there had been a family in this home, a family with a young son - only five when a horrific accident turned him into a savage monster.
She doesn’t know that Sam had once played with the boy by the pond out back. Had once gone to school with him. Graduated. Spent most of her summers at the house she now ghosts around.
“I can’t.” Sam says. She is a coward, and she knows it. She knows that every month, every year that she delays going to the house, another shred of sanity leaves the monster trapped inside. And the likeliness of him recognising her sinks even further. “He’d just kill me too.”
Jessica heard the ‘he’. “What is it?” she asks, sitting on one of the higher tree roots a few feet from Sam and gazing up at the top of the mansion. “I’ve been told ghost stories about this house my entire life. Sometimes I can hear…” she trails off.
Sam raises an eyebrow. No muggles can hear his wails, that’s what the spells are for. “It’s just a monster.”
“How do you know Margo didn’t escape it? How do you know she isn’t hiding somewhere, praying for someone to rescue her?” Jessica demands, stamping a foot childishly. “I wont go home until I know what happened to her, and if you wont help me then I’ll just go in alone.”
She gets up and runs into the maze, ignoring how her blazer tears on a thorn. Sam hasn’t moved. How do you know she isn’t hiding somewhere, praying for someone to rescue her? Well she certainly wasn’t, but what about…? He wasn’t. He was beyond praying; she doubted he was even partially human anymore. Being locked in a cavernous mansion with only his guilt for company, he had succumbed to the comfort of his animal side a long time ago. The Ministry had seen to that.
They thought he would die within a year. The spells kept him in, and although he would have survived if he had remained human (or as human as he could be), they knew that madness would take him. They didn’t realise that their spells and labyrinth didn’t keep all the muggles away… sometimes they got in.
Margo had caused a strain on the old magic holding the place together. So many people had come close and had to be turned away to remember something important they had to do elsewhere, it was a wonder the field of spells hadn’t collapsed altogether. For the first time in decades, Sam has aged. In the eight weeks since Margo’s disappearance she has gone from eighteen to gone nineteen, and when Jessica vanishes more people will be snooping around and eventually the Ministry will send someone to take care of him.
And then what will Sam do?
Will she fade into the landscape with all the remnant magic? Never knowing if he would have remembered her, never seeing him again, no matter what form it was.
She pulls the leather jacket closer around her, though there is no wind.
Then she turns and disappears onto the path she has been wishing she has the courage to tread for years.
Jessica is staring at the mansion doors. There are signs all over them; KEEP AWAY, STAY OUT, TRESSPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED… She is baffled. The thick wood has been shattered into splinters, with only a few planks hanging rotten from the rusting hinges, giving her a view of the entrance hall beyond. Like the rest of the place, it was once a grand hall, but is now decaying and forgotten.
And something has been scratching at the walls.
She swallows. She wants to shout Margo. But the silence is everywhere and she feels that if she breaks it… something bad will happen. Instead, she looks down at the creased photograph in her hand. Margo’s dimpled smile looks back, half hidden behind unruly blonde curls that always got in the way. Margo was beautiful. And Jessica had held Max as he sobbed and cried and sobbed some more about his missing sister, who after eight weeks is already becoming a forgotten tragedy.
It isn’t fair.
Jessica shoves the picture into her blazer pocket and jogs up the steps and past the broken doors. She stopped believing in monsters when she was ten years old, and if some crazy schoolgirl in a biker’s jacket thinks she’s going to scare her away, then she clearly doesn’t know Jessica Blackburn.
Blackburns don’t run. They-
There’s something behind the door.
Sam arrives at the servants entrance to the kitchen in time to hear Jessica’s high-pitched shriek. Every muscle of her body is trembling with a cataclysmic potion of heart-stopping terror and adrenaline - she hasn’t been in this house in so many years, and even though every surface is covered with a thick layer of dust (clearly he doesn’t stray into the kitchens very often) she recognises everything.
The kitchen table, where his family cook made them a breakfast of eggs at gone noon. The cook… she’d been one of the first to go. Sam had been in the bed they always saved for her, pretending she couldn’t hear Mrs Bellefonte scream and scream and scream and then gurgle and fall silent. Pretending she didn’t hear him stalk past her room, pause, and force himself to return to his own sleeping quarters.
Knowing that he could be anywhere, she pushes the kitchen door open and runs. He’ll find her eventually, sooner rather than later because he remembers how people smell and she’s been outside for so long. He always knew she was there. Maybe he thinks she’s a figment of his cruel imagination, maybe he’ll recognise her. Maybe he’ll just see her as another meal and rip her apart without ever knowing that she’s been there with him, alone, since they locked him away.
Where’s that stupid girl?
She’s curled up in the entrance hall, arms wrapped around her legs and eyes clamped shut, tears rolling through the blood on her face. Her blood? No, there’s a blonde head a few feet away; it looks like it has fallen from the balcony overhead. So he hasn’t found her after all. She’s been scared by what looks like the detached head of her unfortunate friend.
Eight weeks… he doesn’t usually leave anything. Sam frowns, almost confused. She had once seen him clean out a stable of fifteen horses in three days, and not leave a scrap of flesh behind for the Aurors.
Maybe he’s sick.
“Go home.” she says, nudging Jessica with her boot. “Run. Now.”
Jessica doesn’t need telling twice, although she looks back once at Sam, too afraid to stop and tell her to get out or perhaps ask why she’s staying to die after a lifetime of cowardice. Sam wouldn’t have an answer anyway. She’s not sure herself.
She’s still standing with her back to the rest of the house, and something is behind her. She can feel the hot breath on the back of her neck; it curls around and reaches her nose and she wants to gag on the stench of old blood and rotting flesh.
She closes her eyes and pivots. His breath shifts the hairs away from her face; he hasn’t eaten her yet, which has to be a good thing… then again, he hadn’t killed Jessica straight away either. Maybe he’s playing with her.
Sam opens her eyes.
Even with his spine hunched and twisted, he towers over her. The thick black hair that covers his entire body is matted with old blood, his sharp teeth are deformed into a snarl and his eyes are soulless… but they are inarguably focused on her which almost hints that he recognised her. She can’t move. She’s too afraid. Even if he realises that he’s standing before Samantha, the girl he grew up with and fell in love with at Hogwarts only to lose her during their final year when an accident on his part hospitalised the teenage daughter of the Minister for Magic, she has just let his lunch get away.
Struck by a sudden wave of terror, Sam steps back. “Remus?” she whimpers, tears welling up in her eyes.
Somewhere far behind her, Jessica has reached the last few trees and is now safe behind the wards. She’s forgotten her bag. All she can do is scream, run and stagger until she finds someone who will call the police. Then the Ministry will get involved. And Remus Lupin will be taken care of properly.
And for a second, she thinks he’s going to twist his bones back into the beautifully scarred form with the smiling gray-blue eyes that she had grown up with. But he’s not reaching to help her up.
For so long she wasted away, feet from the inner wards, praying for the courage to step past them.
Remus growls and lunges and it all goes black.