“Grimlocke” by Lela Ball
The rain outside is almost deafening to the three occupants of the beat-up rental car, pelting the windshield with sheet after sheet of drizzling downpour. Charlie’s phone is useless to him as he tries to click it on out of habit, so he sighs and glances over at his fellow backseat companion. Her long dark hair is pulled back out of her face, her thin fingers reaching to adjust a set of thick-framed glasses on her nose. Charlie had tried a couple times to make small talk with her throughout the four-hour ride, which is now why she wears a set of blue headphones over her ears. In the end, he could not be blamed for the failed endeavor; outside of a few required classes, the two strangers only have one connecting thread.
Katie’s voice shakes Charlie from his social regrets, and he watches as she receives no response from their driver. Leaning forward and tapping her on the shoulder, Katie repeats herself.
The auburn-haired woman driving nods her head at her friend’s request for attention. In the rearview mirror, Charlie sees that her brown eyes never move from the road, never widen. Her focus remains on what lies ahead.
“We’re almost there, I promise.” Her lips spread into a smile. “Thank you guys for coming with me. It would have been boring by myself.”
“No problem, Heather. Always happy to help.” Charlie’s reassurance comes as they turn onto a gravel road almost completely hidden by trees. It was hard to refuse their sole mutual friend when she had asked them if they would mind accompanying her on the long trip to her family’s old estate; Heather had always had a way with words like that. It never came across as begging, Charlie noted at the time, just…persuasive.
His seatbelt restrains him as the car comes to a sudden halt. They have arrived.
Heather is the first out of the car, and the moment she opens her door, the scent of damp pine needles and gravel fills the car, expelling the greasy food smell that had lingered since their lunch stop. Charlie, never particularly one for the outdoors but always one for new experiences, practically throws his door open as he steps out and stretches. Disturbed by their presence, a murder of crows takes to the sky, screeching and cawing as they streak across the sky as blurs of black against thick, grey clouds. As the young man watches them go by, his eyes lower onto the colossus standing before them.
The old Grimlocke Manor stands at two stories tall, decorated with Corinthian columns and planters for flowers. Unfortunately, anything that might have been planted is long decayed, replaced instead by a winding, thorny vine; Charlie cannot tell exactly what kind it is, but he knows that it has to be some kind of ivy. The wooden exterior that comprises the building’s walls show signs of chipping and cracks caused by harsh weather and no human touch. As the three begin to grow closer to the residence, the young man glances up at a stray lock of brown hair dangling in his vision, but as he goes to put it back in place, his eyes catch another sight that bothers him an ounce more.
Movement. In one of the upstairs windows.
“I thought you said we were going to be the only ones here?” Heather turns back to face him as she had been leading their expedition onward to the front door.
“We are. No one’s lived here for decades. That’s…the whole reason we’re here,” she smirks, crossing her arms over her chest. “Why?”
“I…think there’s somebody upstairs.” He goes to point to the window, but whatever it was has drawn the curtain back behind the glass and moved on. Katie sighs and shakes her head, putting her hands over her ears and scowling at him.
“Don’t even joke like that. This place is horror movie-esque as it is.” They continue toward the front door, but Charlie can’t help but steal one last look at the window.
“Maybe I was just seeing things.” Reaching this conclusion does not make him feel any better, but he determines now to drive the strange image from his mind. “But…for a moment…it really looked like-“
Heather’s key turning in the rotted wooden door’s lock disrupts him from his meditations, and Charlie and Katie both cough as a wave of dust rushes out of the house as though driven by the wind. Their mutual friend laughs at her friends’ reaction as she turns to face them, beginning to pull her hair back into a ponytail as she talks.
“I have some cleaning up to do; if you’d like to join me inside, you’re more than welcome to.”
“Wasn’t that the whole point?” Katie wonders, waving a few remaining dust particles away from her face. “I’ll help you out. It’ll take you forever to clean this place by yourself.” At this, Heather beams a bright smile.
“What about you, Charlie?” Though his friend is known for her persuasion, as he glances behind her into the shrouded interior of the manor, Charlie shakes his head.
“I-I think I’ll stay out here.” Katie opens her mouth to argue, knowing that it will take them even longer if he just stays outside. However, the auburn-haired descendant of the manor’s owners does not miss a beat.
“That’s actually a great idea! While you’re waiting, could you do me a favor and walk along that fence over there? My parents’ lawyer wants me to check for any damages, so you’d be doing me a huge favor.” As she says this, Heather points to the woods’ edge at an ancient rod iron fence that extends from the gravel road off into the overgrown grounds of the property. “I promise it’s not as long as it looks. Once you’re done, you can come sit outside until we’re ready to go.” Hesitantly, Charlie nods.
Somehow, this is worse than having to go in the decrepit crumbling building.
Katie follows Heather past the threshold of the manor, waving slightly at Charlie as she closes the door behind them. The parlor they step into is small, suffocating, and decorated with a wooden baseboard that awkwardly meshes into a velvet wallpaper, peeling at the edges like petals from a wilting flower. Her footsteps on the ground leave visible dust prints on the tiled flooring, but as they step into the main room, Heather’s friend begins to see the manor’s charms. It has a high-vaulted ceiling that seems to expand infinitely upward, and Katie notices a strangely shaped window resembling a skylight in the roof. Noticing her friend’s confused expression at the architecture, Heather chuckles.
“It’s an old house, what can I say?” The auburn-haired woman’s boots click much more loudly on the floor than Katie’s sneakers. “They made some strange choices back then.” Several feet above their heads is the floor to the second story, and at a certain angle Katie is able to see the similarly-colored walls over the bannister. Decorating each wall is an ornate portrait or painting; a rising sunrise here, an old man with his wife there, faces, faces, faces splayed all over the walls.
“Interior design’s one thing.” Katie keeps to herself. “This is just bizarre.” In her reverie, Heather’s friend realizes that her host has left her standing alone with the unblinking eyes of the manor’s portraits. “Heather?!”
Charlie kicks his foot a few times to detach the overgrown weed from around his ankle. Even though he has already walked for several minutes, the young man still sees no signs of the corner of the fence that will lead him behind the house, so he trudges on while silently wishing he had taken Heather up on her offer. So far, there have been no signs of extreme damage; the only concern Heather’s family might have is that every iron rod has become coated in rust. This does not surprise Charlie, of course; if it rains here as much as it is pouring right now, then it is a miracle that there is not more weather-related damage. As the sun begins to set behind the trees, the ever-darkening forest to his right becomes more ominous by the second, so he tries not to look into the obscured spaces between the trees.
He knows that nothing is out there, but…he can’t help but feel that he’s being watched.
For a moment, he stops to glance at the window from earlier, but he has gone too far from the house to have a clear view of it now. Although he silenced his thoughts on the matter earlier, he cannot shake the feeling that there really was something there; however, the fact that Heather and Katie have not called for him yet and nothing seems to be happening within the house comforts him to a degree. Charlie turns back to continue his trek, and, as he walks around a particularly tall and outspread bush, he smiles when he spots the longed-for fence corner. However, as he reaches it and looks up, he realizes why he has been avoiding eye contact with the darkness.
A figure lurks nearby, hidden halfway behind a thick sycamore tree at the edge of the woods.
His heart skips a beat, and his lungs forget to fill. A short gasp escapes his lips, though little more noise is to be heard. At first, he cannot make out much about the figure from this distance other than that they are looking right at him and that they are completely still.
The two are locked in a standoff; for what purpose is irrelevant.
After several minutes of suffering from a painfully-tightened throat, Charlie works up the courage to speak to whoever is watching him only because they have made no moves toward him yet.
“I-…I see you out there. Who are you?” His words sound more cowardly than he would like, his voice cracking and his question unsure. The figure says nothing but begins slowly walking forward after a minute of anxiety-inducing verbal silence. Thunder cracks openly somewhere in the distance, lighting the evening sky with a bright bluish-white flash of illumination. It is in these seconds, these few terrifying moments of fight-or-flight, that Charlie gets a clear view of the specter moving towards him.
And it this glimpse that causes him to become both petrified and confused.
Lightning crashes somewhere further away, but in the startling moment that Charlie blinks as nature unleashes its anger upon the earth, the grisly visage of his friend disappears.
The young man glances around. She was right there; he knows she was. Now more afraid of not seeing what might be lurking in the shadows, Charlie looks skittishly between the breaks in the trees.
“On second thought, maybe the manor wasn’t such a bad idea!” he panics, running back in the direction he came with reckless abandon and little care for any weakened weeds that dare to trip him up.
“Heather! You scared me to death! Don’t leave me like that,” Katie scolds as she spots her auburn-haired friend walking up the hallway to her right. On her shoulder, she now carries a duffle bag whose contents clack against each other as she moves. “Hm…something plastic. Probably brooms and dusters.”
“Sorry!” The young woman scratches the back of her head and smiles. “I had to go get some cleaning supplies from the closet. I’m going to go upstairs and get to work; if you’d like to, it would be a big help to me if you could dust off these paintings.” Heather hands Katie a towel from her bag before beginning to climb up the stairs.
“We’re really cleaning this whole house?” Katie asks sarcastically, half-joking and half-exhausted by the prospect.
“Oh, don’t worry! It won’t take that long.” Heather’s voice already sounds echoey and distant, as though she has climbed more than just a few stairs. When her friend turns to try to spot her over the bannister, she sees nothing but a family portrait of a man, a woman, and two children. No Heather.
Sighing, Katie turns to the first portrait, that of a young girl with auburn hair similar to the recently-departed Heather, and begins to wipe it down.
For several minutes, the dark-haired woman floats from portrait to painting, painting to portrait, quickly developing an efficient pattern that cleanses each within seconds. Nothing but the dying rain outside keeps her company in her steady, silent work; her towel is quickly covered with dust and grime, but seeing as Heather did not give her another and also did not show her where the kitchen was to rinse it out, she has no choice but to continue.
That is, until she mistakenly knocks the side of a portrait of a young lady to the side, revealing a hole in the wall with something stashed inside. Katie hesitates at first; was there really a space behind the painting? Glancing up at the lady portrayed in the painting as if to ask for permission or forgiveness, Heather’s friend pulls it to the side once more and looks into the space. Hidden in the missing paneling’s place is a leather-bound book with a rose and skull etched into the cover, and Katie picks it up with hesitant hands, fearing that it will fall apart if not handled with the utmost delicacy.
Suddenly, the front door swings open, and her head snaps to the side to see Charlie, drenched from the now-absent downpour, sprinting into the house.
“What’s-“ Before she can get even halfway through her sentence, the young man clamps a wet hand over her mouth and asks her quietly,
“Did Heather leave the house?”
Confused and annoyed by his boldness, she shakes her head no.
“Are you sure?” He asks, his body shaking visibly and slightly shaking her as he speaks. She pries his hand off her mouth, though realizes it will be best for his sake to keep her voice down.
“I’m sure. She disappeared for, like, a second to go get cleaning supplies down the hall, but she never left the house. She would have been drenched if she had gone out for even a minute, and she was completely dry when she came back,” Katie retorts.
“I saw her outside.”
“What? No you didn’t.”
“I did. I swear on my life I did. She was outside by the far fence just a minute or two ago.”
“Well, she’s upstairs right now. I don’t think she’s as fast as you’re giving her credit for.”
Glancing down at her hands, Charlie looks between the book and Katie for a moment.
“What’s that?” His question is more certain than his accusation moments before, so the young woman decides it will be best to switch topics.
“I found it behind the painting.” At this, she holds the spine in one hand and peels back the front cover with the other.
Both stare in shock at its contents.
Though it was clearly filled with pages before, all but one have since been torn out for purposes that the two decide they do not want to know.
They make this decision silently and separately upon viewing the one page that is left.
Scrawled in black ink and large lettering, the simple note reads:
IT’S FREE. GET OUT.
Just as the two glance up at each other, both of their faces white as sheets, the front door slams shut, locked from the outside by a turn of the lock.
“A lock that only one of us has the key to.” Katie realizes.
On the other side of the manor door stands something akin to Heather Grimlocke, but also vastly different. This being has been alive for centuries, suppressed beneath the very floorboards that Heather’s former friends now stand on. It has no true shape, but the continued existence of humankind makes that irrelevant.
It can be anything it wants to be.
And now, it wants to be free.
A shimmer of darkness to its right catches the creature’s eye, and it turns to face the figure quickly rushing toward it. This figure also has no discernible features, though it once did.
And once more, it will.
In the blink of an eye and the single ringing shot of a gun, “Heather” shoots the figure once and watches callously as it falls to the ground; it had not even gotten close enough to fight back. Laying the weapon calmly on the front step of the manor, Heather’s imitator slowly approaches the fallen, glancing down at it with cold, empty eyes.
Lying at the demon’s feet is the real Heather Grimlocke, eyes wide open from the shock of the bullet lodged between her eyes. Blood slowly begins to pool on the ground around her head, and it is this that brings a disturbed smile to the creature’s face.
“An applaudable effort, I suppose. Your ancestors did a better job,” are the sharp words it utters as it steps imitations of the recently-deceased’s own boots into her pooling blood. “But thank you for the key out. You’re much kinder than they were.”
The screaming of Heather’s two friends still trapped in Grimlocke Manor remind the ancient demon of their presence, and it sighs before snapping its fingers.
Suddenly, a blast of fire strikes and engulfs the ancient residence, immediately emitting a flesh-searing blast of heat that turns screaming to silence. As the shape-shifting creature stalks away from the quickly deteriorating Grimlocke Manor, listening to the crackling of the blaze combined with the cawing of the crows in the woods, it realizes what it has truly been searching for for centuries.
Biographical Note: Lela Ball is currently a senior at Judson College with a major in English and a minor in Music. Her favorite genre is fantasy, but she enjoys incorporating a variety of different styles into her works. After graduation, she wants to pursue an MFA so that she can work on her original novels while also teaching students how to write creatively at an undergraduate level. Outside of her education, Lela enjoys singing, hiking, and ice–skating.