It all started with the sibilant, unintelligible whispering and the movement of shadows within shadows. For Dennis Parkes, it was a sign of his worsening mental health. That is, until the day it spoke clearly and told him what it wanted.
When amateur ghost hunters Jake Maxfield and Elton Hoggarth discovered the stone with the letters G and J engraved into it, they suspected they might have made a significant find, but because of the worsening weather, they are forced to abandon their amateur dig. They send their photos to a university contact, who confirms that they have indeed discovered something important.
Can this bridge be behind Dennis’s situation? And does it explain the strange darkness that has settled over Ottmor Wood and the surrounding area? Or is something more sinister at work? And are Dennis’s motley group of friends enough to beat back the darkness and save their hometown — and the world?
It was one of those rare mornings when Dennis Parkes woke at peace. Cautiously, he lifted his head, waiting for the quick, shadowy movements seen from the corner of his eye, the sibilant whispering filling the stale air of the small bedroom. There was nothing. Just still, silent darkness.
He thought of waking his wife, Swan, to share his sense of relief and happiness, but she had never heard the voices or seen the shadows move. If he woke her, she would be angry at being disturbed more than an hour before the alarm was due. It would ruin his mood. It would ruin the stillness. He eased his head back onto the pillow and lay awake, enjoying the silence, the peace.
Slowly, dawn lit up the window through the thin curtains, and birdsong twittered and whistled through the trees of nearby Ottmor Wood. If only all mornings could be like this, he would not need the medication, the therapy. It might even make his life with Swan less combative.
* * *
Wyatt Road lay quiet and sleepy on the outskirts of Anbal, a small village on the Wirral Peninsula. The commuter traffic, from Liverpool to the north and Chester to the south, bypassed Anbal on the M53 motorway. What little diverted through the narrow main street of the village itself passed the end of Wyatt Road without any thought of turning in. Wyatt Road was a dead-end. If you didn’t live there and were not visiting, your only destination would be the turning circle just before the wooden stile leading to Ottmor Wood.
It was the quiet, more than anything, that had drawn Swanhild Parkes to number 20 when it came up for sale. A narrow mid-terraced house, it stood more or less equidistant between the end of the road and the wood. Built in the early 1930s, it had more-recent additions of a concrete driveway at the front, newly installed plumbing and electrics, and a narrow, but long, well-groomed garden at the back. That was eleven years ago, when she had persuaded Dennis that this should be their first family home. Now, standing at the kitchen sink, staring at the overgrown lawn, the legs of upturned plastic chairs like skeletal limbs reaching up from the long grass, she felt nothing but despair.
“It’s not my fault I got made redundant,” shouted Dennis from somewhere behind her. She had almost forgotten they were mid-argument. The same argument they had had almost weekly for the last three years.
“No,” she said, agreeing. “But it is your fault that the grass hasn’t been cut for weeks.”
“You know it hurts my back.”
“We can’t afford to get someone in anymore,” she said, striving to be both truthful and understanding. “Since you can’t do it, I’ll have to do it at the weekend.”
“I’ll worry if you do that. I don’t want you to do that.”
His voice almost whined. She hated it when he whined.
“Yes, well, there’s not much choice, is there?” She turned from the sink to face her husband. “Now, I have to get to work.”
“I’ll move the car,” said Dennis. “May as well go to the shop while I’m out.”
He turned and began burrowing through the accumulated clutter under the stairs for his shoes.
Swan wanted to be even more truthful. She wanted to tell her husband that he was a morbidly obese, out-of-work man in his early forties, and that it was no wonder his back and joints hurt, given the weight they were carrying. But she knew the redundancy had hurt him badly, destroyed his confidence, shoved him into depression, and that the weight gain was almost completely due to emotional eating since then. He was not currently fit for work, mentally or physically. She wanted to tell him these things, but she knew it would just deepen his depression and worsen an already terrible self-image. He needed to know she supported him, still loved him, despite all that had happened.
Dennis had found his shoes and, with some difficulty, put them on. Breathing heavily, he led the way out of the front door. Swan shrugged on her one and only coat and followed.
* * *
Dennis reversed his old Peugeot 405 out of the narrow driveway and waited, the engine idling. He felt comfortable in the car, able to relax, away from whispered voices, away from Swan. Alone. It had been bought for the long drive to his last place of work, and he held on to it stubbornly after the redundancy. Big and impractical it might be, given how little driving he now did, but it was his. And it was the only thing that connected him to his old life. His purposeful, employed life. When he hadn’t felt quite so worthless. When he didn’t spend days in introspection and deepening depression. When he felt confident his wife loved him.
Swan’s Vauxhall Corsa reversed out, and the bright pink of the bodywork pulled a slight smile out of his frown. Even she agreed she bought it more for the colour than the car itself.
They waved to each other as she drove off, and Dennis waited until he saw her safely negotiate the junction at the end of the road before he put the Peugeot into gear and headed for the shops.
Just get the essentials and back home.
But did he really want to be home? There was nothing there but an empty house, another long day of watching the clock ticking slowly by, the flash of movement from the corner of his eye—and the voices.
He wanted to tell Swan, he really did. But how do you tell your wife that you hear voices in the home you share? She already thought him fat and useless, blamed him for his depression and for failing to get another job. To admit to hearing voices and seeing things would finally convince her he was completely insane. She would probably leave. He couldn’t risk that.
Only two other people knew about the voices and the shadows: his local general practitioner, Dr. Banks, and his one and only friend, Travis Newman. The only two people he had told differed in their reactions.
“It’s not that unusual,” Dr. Banks had said. “Particularly in someone suffering from clinical depression, like yourself.”
“But what do the voices mean?” said Dennis. “Why are they mostly unintelligible? Shouldn’t they be sending me messages from God or something?”
Dr. Banks smiled. “The mind is a complex thing,” he said. “It can push bad and unpleasant thoughts aside if it doesn’t want to deal with them. It separates them, and they become a different part of you.”
“You mean like another person in my head?”
“Not quite, but another aspect of you, certainly.” Dr. Banks removed his narrow-framed glasses and held them in his right hand, twisting them back and forth as he spoke. “These are things you don’t want to have to cope with just now, so they’re pushed into the background. And mostly, that’s where they stay. But every now and then they push back, and that’s where the voices are coming from.”
“So it’s all in my mind,” said Dennis. “Does this mean I’m psychotic or something?”
Dr. Banks shook his head. “No. It’s not any kind of psychosis. It’s dissociation. Like I said, it’s quite common among those suffering from depression.”
Travis, on the other hand, saw things slightly differently.
“So, you hear voices. Are they always in your head, or sometimes from outside?”
They had been sitting in their local Sainsburys cafe, meeting up during Travis’s lunch break from his nearby office job, and before Dennis went shopping. Talking with Travis boosted Dennis’s self-confidence enough to make it round the aisles without panicking.
“Sometimes in my head, sometimes not,” said Dennis, keeping his voice low. He was sure some of the old people at neighbouring tables were listening.
“I don’t reckon it’s anything to do with depression,” said Travis, casually dismissing what Dennis had told him about the doctor’s opinion. “I think it’s a lot simpler than all that stuff.”
“Oh yes?” said Dennis, doubtfully. As a general rule, he sided with doctors over laymen, but he always had time for Travis’s thoughts on matters, however outrageous they might turn out to be. “And so what do you think it is?”
“Simple.” Travis leaned closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Your house is haunted.”
* * *
Dennis managed to delay returning to the house for just over an hour, driving around, listening to the inane presenters on the equally inane radio shows. But he could not put if off forever. There were things he should be doing in the house.
He knew that Swan was right when she accused him of not doing enough. But most times, including today, the low moods and aching joints were just too much to handle, and certainly too much to allow for easy housework. Nevertheless, in an attempt to make Swan happy when she came home from work, he was determined to try.
I need to start pushing myself, he thought. It’s only fair to Swan. She’s out earning the money. I have to do something here in the house so she knows I’m trying to help.
If fear of the voices was a factor, it was one he kept deliberately in the background. Maybe, for once, if he didn’t think about them, they might not be there. The quiet morning might extend into a quiet day.
Everything looked fine as he stopped in the driveway and climbed out of the car, something that was becoming increasingly difficult and painful as time went by. Even as he entered the house itself, the atmosphere was peaceful, totally lacking in the low susurration of voices he dreaded. At times like this, he could almost believe he imagined it all.
What definitely wasn’t his imagination, however, was the musty, unclean smell. The smell of unwashed clothes and dusty furniture. Of carpets that hadn’t been vacuumed. A smell that reminded him of old people, living on their own with no family to help. Old people who did not wash, could not clean, and wore the same clothes they had worn for the last who-knew-how-many days. It was not a smell that should exist in a house occupied by a couple in their forties. It was a smell that said no one cleaned. And that no one was him.
“Okay,” he said, hanging up his fleece under the stairs. “First job of the day decided. Get rid of the smell.”
He was an hour into it, wiping down the kitchen worktops and almost ready to vacuum the front room carpet when the first whispers slithered into the still, musty air.
He froze, a bottle of cleaning spray raised in one hand, the other grasping a wet paper towel, mid-wipe. The usual, sensible list ran quickly through his mind: plumbing; someone walking by outside; a nearby radio; the wind, even though there was none that day. He considered them all and discarded them. Neither was it coming from within his head. It was a voice, and the source was somewhere in the house.
He was long past the point of running from this thing. Frightened, yes, but not enough to run. As scary as they were, they had never hurt him. The voices in the house were always soft, on the edge of hearing, and always unintelligible. The movements were quick but nonthreatening, and never anywhere but in his peripheral vision. If he had to give a name to his feelings when that first voice hissed by, it would be disappointment. Disappointment that a day that had started whisper-free had become like every other day.
The voice continued, a diatribe of unknown words, and Dennis wondered briefly where this particular one was coming from. The corner of some room? Behind a half-open door? The attic? Beneath the suspended flooring? From where he stood, it came from the hallway, and he glanced quickly around the kitchen door to see, with some relief, what he had expected. Nothing.
But the voice continued. Just the one. That, at least, was something to be grateful for.
He had restarted cleaning, choosing to ignore the interruption, when he heard the first intelligible thing ever to come from the voices in the house. It froze his heart.
There could be no mistaking the sound of his wife’s name, dropped into the middle of the usual nonsense.
He stood still. He listened. It came again.
The voice stopped, suddenly and completely. No echo or reverberation of sound. Just his wife’s name one more time, and then silence.
He put down the cleaning spray and the paper towel and hurried out into the hall. Nothing. He stepped into the front room. It was quiet and empty. Struggling up the stairs gave out no other clues. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he wanted some explanation for hearing his wife’s name. He felt the same as he had the very first time he’d heard the voices. Frightened, confused, and sick.
He was still upstairs in the bedroom when the voice began again, from downstairs. It repeated one word, over and over.
“Swanhild. Swanhild. Swanhild.”
Other voices joined it, a rising mass of eerie sibilance, all repeating his wife’s name, none of them in unison.
Moving as quickly as he could, almost in tears from a sense of helplessness, a feeling that he was somehow failing his wife, he went back down into the hallway. The hissing, serpent-like voices surrounded him. It was no longer a case of where they came from. They came from everywhere, even from inside his own head. Repeated and repeated, battering him unceasingly, until the name became an almost unrecognisable collection of sounds. He pressed his hands to his ears. His mouth opened, wanting to shout, to tell them all to go away, but no sound emerged. Tears squeezed from tightly shut eyes.
Perhaps I really am insane.
The voices stopped with just as much suddenness as the one voice had earlier.
The silence had a sound of its own. A background hum of nothingness.
He opened his eyes. There was movement in the corners, shadows shifting and darting. It seemed somehow more frantic than usual. And then, not on the periphery, but directly in front of him, an intense Stygian blackness bled outward from the wall. It coalesced, grew, all but blocking the kitchen door from his sight. It radiated emptiness. A hole in the air before him.
Eyes snapped open in its depths. Veined, hungry, lustful eyes, blazing with an internal fire, shocking in their contrast with the void they floated in.
Terror gripped Dennis’s heart, and he ran, puffing and panting, from the house.