“Told you to bring a map.”

“We don’t need a map.”

“We’re lost.”

“We are not lost! Just pull it up on Google.”

“Are we nearly there yet?”

“Google? We’re in the middle of nowhere! What Wi-Fi am I supposed to use?”

“Use your gees.”

“What?”

“You know, three gees.”

“3G, is that what you meant? Who uses 3G anymore?”

“Well, whatever the next biggest G is.”

“That would be four, dad.”

“Use that then.”

“Should have bought a map.”

Arty shot a wounded look at his wife, her chin perched in her hand. Whilst her gaze may have been focused on the rainy, picturesque village outside, her attention was actually directed entirely on his disappointing navigation skills. “It’s not that far now,” Arty grumbled.

“How do you know?” Eve asked, turning to frown at him.

“Because we’re not lost!”

“Haven’t we been down this street already?” Zach asked, peering out his window.

“It’s not a street,” his sister murmured. “This village is too small to have streets.”

“What is it then?”

“A lane.”

“Whatever it is,” their mum said, raising her voice to avoid the inevitable argument, “Zach is right. We have been down here before.”

Gripping the wheel, and feeling his knuckles crack, Arty pulled over. “Fine!” he barked, “I have no bloody clue where we are! Happy?”

“’Course I’m not happy!” Eve yapped back. “I’ve been stuck in this car for six hours!”

“Told you this trip was a bad idea,” Rebecca quipped.

“Be quiet,” Arty and Eve snapped back in unison.

“There’s a strange man at the window,” Zach announced.

“What strange man at the – argh!”

A grotesque, warped visage was millimetres away from the driver’s window. A splayed grin revealed a set of mangled, almost grey teeth. Arty felt his heart beating against his chest, and Eve’s hand suddenly grip his arm. However, after a moment, he realised the sight wasn’t a hideous monster, but simply an old man. His fingers trembling, and his breath unsteady, Arty wound down the window.

“’Ello there!” the stranger said, rain dribbling down his cheeks. “Is there a problem?”

On closer inspection, Arty realised there was something off-putting about the man. His eyes seemed far too big for his head. They bulged out of their sockets, and stared at the family with a sinister intensity, though the smile never wavered. The pupils bounced from Arty, to Eve, then Rebecca, and finally Zach, before starting the loop again with dizzying speed.

“We seem to be lost,” Arty admitted.

“No map?” the old man asked.

“Lost it,” he said, beating his wife to the punch. He felt her slump back in her seat with disappointment.

“Lost the map, and your way, eh?” the elderly stranger barked out a laugh. “Maybe I can help. Where are you heading?”

“A cottage called ‘Harrow’s End’,” Eve said, checking a slip of paper. “It’s supposed to be near Bleaksbury village?”

The man’s eyes positively somersaulted in their sockets. “Good news!” he exclaimed. “I can help you fine folks! You’ll be wanting to keep driving down this lane, for about quarter of a mile, then you’ll catch sight of Widow Langley’s rhododendrons on the left – prize-winning, they are – to the left of those you’ll see – though you’ll have to be eagle-eyed – a little winding road set back from the bushes. Follow that road – even a rusty old tin like this –” He gave the roof of the car a violent thud, “– should be able to make it through. Keep following the road, and you’ll be at the cottage before supper time.” He fired each of the family a gruesome smile. “Got that?”

“Yep,” Arty murmured.

 “Good! If you need anything else, give me a holler,” the man said. “The name’s Chief Constable Dumblewick.”

“Nice to meet you,” Arty said awkwardly. “I’m Arthur Cascade, this is my wife, Eve, and our kids, Rebecca and Zach.”

The eyes rolled towards the children. “Another Arthur, eh?!” the chief constable cooed. “We’ve got three in the village so far, so you’ll fit right in!”

“Aren’t you too old to be a policeman?” Zach suddenly pointed out.

“Don’t be rude!” Eve said, secretly glad that someone said it aloud.

Dumblewick cackled loudly. “Yes, I suppose at seventy-seven, I am a little old to be in work,” he said. “But there aren’t many young folk left here in Bleaksbury. It seems that, as soon as they arrive, they can’t wait to leave again!” The eyes again made their bouncing journey through the car. “Well, you drive safely now!”

He gave the roof another whack, then continued to hobble down the lane. The family watched him disappear into the rain.

“What a creep,” Rebecca declared.

“What did I tell you about being rude?!” Eve snapped.

“She’s not wrong though,” Arty murmured.

“Oh, he’s an absolute freak,” his wife agreed under her breath, “but still . . .”

*

As the rain finally cleared, the Cascade family pulled up outside the Harrow’s End cottage. In spite of its name, the little house was nice, beautiful in fact. Miles better than the photos Eve and Arty had fallen in love with.

They had driven down a rough road, flanked on both sides by trees. Having grown up in the city, Arty and Eve recognised them as the ‘Nice-and-Big’ variety. More of these trees surrounded the cottage, nestling it inside a teardrop-shaped grove. The family clambered free of their car and stood in awe of their new holiday home. Well, Eve and Arty stood in awe. The children stood impatiently, wondering what the big deal was.

The big deal in question was the house. A squat, rustic looking building that sloped slightly towards the left. Mismatched windows watched the family, whilst the faded blue door stood patiently. The thatched roof sat atop like a bad wig, and ivy crawled up the walls. The whole thing seemed to have been peeled straight out of a romantic novel, and neither Arty or Eve could wait to get inside.

“Ow!” Arty yelped, forgetting to duck as he went through the low doorframe. Zach sniggered and dropped his rucksack at the foot of the winding stairs.

“It’s brilliant!” Eve announced, making her way through the living room. In fact, she had made her way through both the living room and the kitchen before she’d even finished that sentence.

“It’s tiny,” Rebecca said sourly.

“It’s cosy,” Arty corrected his daughter, rubbing the top of his head.

Zach gave the interior his usual, patented stare of disapproval. Wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling; a tartan sofa slouched in front of a yawning fireplace, and above it was hung a vintage hunting rifle. The stairs were narrow, and the steps were each a different size, which would prove to be all sorts of fun, he was sure. Draped across the floor was something Zach was sure had, at some point, been a bear skin. Now it was a lumpy mass of matted brown fur with googly eyes and a gaping mouth of one tooth and a sandpaper-coloured tongue. One feature of the living room suddenly struck him like a sledgehammer. His tiny mouth fell open and his eyes began to brim with tears of terror. “Where’s the TV?!” he wailed, looking up at his father.

“I don’t think there is one,” Arty admitted, trying to stifle his own panic at the revelation.

To Eve, however, it was everything she had hoped it would be. Originally, visiting a quiet country cottage had been an ambition she and Arty had shared in the early days of their relationship. But then the kids had come along and performed the role of crushing their parent’s dreams. Now, as they rocketed into middle age, they were determined to rekindle the sparks of youth, even if they had to drag their teenage brats along with them.

“You reckon that’s real?” Arty asked, stepping up and inspecting the rifle.

“They wouldn’t keep a real gun in the house, would they?” Eve asked, her eyes darting from the weapon to the excited gleam in her son’s eyes.

“Can we go out and shoot something, dad? Can we?!”

Arty glanced at his wife, already certain of what he was going to see. “Maybe that’s not a good idea,” he murmured.

“Worst holiday ever,” Zach declared, thumping up the odd stairs.

“Did you guys know this place has a basement?” Rebecca asked, stomping out of the kitchen and throwing herself onto the sofa.

“It’s called a cellar,” her dad said.

“Christ,” Eve said. “One kid wants to shoot stuff, the other calls it a basement; we’ve raised Americans!”

“That wasn’t us,” Arty assured her. “Television raised them that way.” He suddenly registered what his daughter had said. “A cellar? Where?”

“Probably below us,” Rebecca answered, lifting her mobile up, in the vain hopes of procuring signal.

“I meant, where’s the door?”

“In the kitchen.”

Arty and Eve shared a glance. There had been no plans for a cellar in the listing. Together, they made their investigation.

There was indeed a door. It was hard to miss. It was hard to miss anything in a space so small. It was a thin, paper-white door that sat opposite the stove. Neither of them doubted that it led down to a cellar.

“Wonder why they didn’t mention it,” Eve said.

Silently, Arty rested a hand on the knob. He gave it a twist. The door didn’t budge. He gave the handle a rattle, but to no avail. “Obviously they don’t want us going in there,” he said, visibly disappointed.

“What do you think’s down there?” she murmured.

They both thought the same thing; as soon as the kids were gone, the door was coming open. But the pair also thought this addendum: Are you kidding? If we break the lock, we lose our deposit. No mystery is worth that.

“Come on,” Eve said. “It was a long drive, and your promised to cook.”

Arty nodded, stepped away from the mystery door, then frowned. “I did?”

*

“This has been nice,” Eve said, nestling closer to Arty.

“It’s only been two days,” he responded.

“Yeah, but it has been nice, hasn’t it?”

“Well . . .”

It was hard to argue that here, in this moment, was a high-point. Just the two of them, in the middle of the day, and in bed together. No children in the house, and no paper-thin walls with eager neighbours on the other side ready to listen in on the action. Neither of them had been that loud since their honeymoon.

The rest of the holiday, however, had been questionable. The oven seemed to operate solely on its own whims; when tempted with half a dozen lit matches, and even a couple of blazing twigs, it had refused to catch on. But, twenty minutes later, when the family had decided to make a sharing-size bag of Doritos their dinner, they had walked into the cramped kitchen to find the machine smouldering away quite contently.

Being robbed of the safety of television and Wi-Fi had also proven a strain on the family. To while away the hours before they could escape to bed, they had ventured into the realms of Monopoly. Seeing their son act with such maniacal glee as the banker had made the pair fear for both his future, and that of society in general.

The days weren’t much better. Unable to immediately secrete themselves in the bedroom, Arty and Eve had joined their children in making a cursory investigation of the village. What they had discovered was a veritable stew of creepiness. The words of the Chief Constable drifted through Arty’s mind as they walked down the eerily clean lanes. There really weren’t any young people to be seen. No one seemed below retirement age, and they watched the Cascade family go by as if they were a novelty found only in a zoo. The four of them instinctively drew in closer. They all saw the same thing; there was a hunger in the aged eyes, a greed for a youth they had long ago lost.

Being amongst the villagers sent a sinister shiver through the parents. They had come on this holiday to avoid thinking about their impending old age. Now they were being confronted by it everywhere they went. Standing in doorways, peering out of windows, watching from the bus stop. It looked as if their arrival had coaxed out every pensioner that lived in Bleaksbury.

That one excursion had been enough for Arty and Eve. That morning, after breakfast, they had given Zach and Rebecca a handful of cash, directions to the nearest spot that had civilisation under fifty-five, and instructions not to be back until they’d either run out of money, sunlight, or both.

Perhaps, they thought as they lay swaddled in the sheets, this holiday is salvageable. The sound of bickering children below stamped that idea into the dirt. Eve shot a horrified glare at her husband as they heard the front door bang open. “The bastards are early!” she hissed.

“The Hell are we going to do with them?” Arty barked, leaping out of the bed and yanking his underwear on.

“They can’t have spent all the money already, surely?” Eve asked, looping her arms through her bra.

They discovered the answer after a few minutes. They climbed down the stairs, looking immaculate and unquestionably innocent. “You’re back early,” Eve said cheerfully.

“I thought you’d go to the pictures,” Arty added.

“We were going to,” Rebecca said, waving her phone around in the hopes of tricking the Wi-Fi into suddenly appearing.

“The only film they had on was Pulp Fiction.” Zach added.

“You didn’t watch that, did you?!” Eve asked, horrified.

“We gave up after the first half-hour.”

“What? That film’s a classic!” Arty exclaimed.

“We were going to have another look around the village,” Rebecca said, collapsing onto the sofa. “But something really weird happened”

“Something weird?” Eve said, sharing a glance with her husband, wondering what terror their children had unleashed on the unfortunate locals.

“You remember that old policeman from the other day?”

“Dumbcock?” Arty said.

“Dumblewick,” Eve snapped.

“Yeah, him,” Zach said. “He introduced us to these two old people.”

“That narrows it down to every single person in this village,” Arty mumbled.

“No, they were really old. And I mean really,” Rebecca said. “They were in wheelchairs, drooling, and they smelt.”

“All old people smell,” Eve said. “It’s what happens.”

“What’s so weird about that? Dimpleprick probably just wanted to be polite.”

“Dumblewick, and that’s what we thought,” Zach said, “but he started . . . asking us questions.”

Another glance was shared, as well as some rather loud alarm bells. “What kind of questions?” their mother asked.

“Health questions,” Rebecca said.

“Yeah, asked if we had any allergies, or asthma.”

“The old woman asked me if I had any problems with my teeth,” Rebecca added. “She actually asked to see them at one point.”

Arty frowned. “That’s . . . not too bad,” he said. “They were just being considerate . . . I think.”

“Anyway, we told them that Zach had haemorrhoids, and that I suffered from IBS.”

“What?! You don’t suffer from either of those! Why’d you say that?”

“Because!”

“Oh, yes, I forgot about that reason!” Eve snapped back.

“Doesn’t matter,” Rebecca said. “We’re not going back into town on our own. If you want to have sex, you’ll have to do it when we’ve gone to bed.”

“But quietly,” Zach said, giving his parents a stare that was older than his years. Eve looked mournfully towards Arty. It was good while it lasted, she thought. Even if it was just one afternoon. Arty’s thoughts were simpler: Ah, he thought, fuck it.

Their son gave them another look, this one with a maniacal grin. “Monopoly?”

*

Her body was very much against the idea, but Eve still opened her eyes. At first everything was blurry, obscured by the remaining fog of sleep. She rubbed some life into her eyes, but nothing much improved. Everything was worse in the country, she thought. No healthy doses of light pollution spilling through the blinds. No, she was completely blind. But she wasn’t deaf.

Something was outside, shuffling through the grass. Was that the door? Was that the rattle of a window? Her heart froze in her chest as the sounds of lumbering got louder. She planted an elbow in Arty’s face, waking him with a start.

“Ack!” he coughed, spluttering into consciousness. “Wh . . . whass gon on?” he murmured, struggling to sit up. “What happened to the lights?”

“Shut up!” Eve hissed.

“Charming. What’d you wake me for?”

“There’s someone downstairs!”

“Wha’?”

She hit him again, silencing him. She gasped as she heard another set of footsteps. This time the sound was unmistakable, someone was trying the front door. “I’d best go and check,” Arty said. He didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked.

“For them to go away,” he admitted.

The pair sat in the dark, listening to the phantoms outside probe and test below. Eventually, as the first tendrils of dawn began to creep through the curtains, the sounds receded. That was when Arty found a new well of courage. He slid out of the bed, stuffed his feet into his shoes, then slowly stalked downstairs. Eve followed at a healthy distance.

The front door was still closed, and bolted. Arty was glad he had brought the anxiety of living in a city with him. He twitched the curtains aside and peered out.

“Anything?” Eve asked.

Even with dawn creeping up, it was still too murky to make anything out. He could see the vague shape of the car, and he got the sense of the looming trees further away, but other than that . . . it was too quiet.

He suddenly jolted upright; Eve grabbed hold of him. Both of them snapped round to face the kitchen. “What was that?” she hissed. There it was again, the same indistinct shuffling sound. Slowly, the pair looked down.

“Is that . . .?”

“I think . . . it’s the cellar,” Eve murmured.

Slowly, glad that the other was there, the couple made their way to the kitchen. They both walked as softly as they could, barely even wanting to breath, lest they make their presence known. They stood in front of the small, plain door. As silent as he could be, Arty leant closer. What he heard made his skin crawl and sweat burst along his back. There was a dull creak from the other side, not dissimilar to the sound of someone mounting the first step of an old staircase. Wishing he wasn’t, Arty gripped the handle. There was another creak. Then another. Then a third.

With his free hand Arty took a hold of his wife. Then yet another, louder creak. How many steps could a cellar staircase have? Arty found out. The next step was the loudest, and there was no doubt in his mind that it was the last. The drumming of his heart in his head was paralyzing, and the taste of his saliva burned the back of his throat. He continued to hold the handle, his grip tightening until the wood began to bite into his palm. He kept listening, trying to make out the sound of whatever stood on the other side of the door. What was it doing? Was it holding the handle on its side? Sweat was dripping from the end of his nose.

How long had they been standing there? How much longer would –

“What are you doing?”

The pair screamed and shot away from the door. Eve felt as if she was going to vomit, and Arty did a little, but he swallowed as he saw his daughter standing in the living room. Clutching his chest, hoping his heart didn’t gallop its way through his ribcage, he leant against the kitchen counter. “What are you doing?!” Eve almost yelled.

“I heard something downstairs,” Rebecca said, clutching her phone. “I thought it was burglars or something.”

“And you came downstairs?!”

She gave them a belligerent shrug. “The only interesting thing to happen here,” she said.

And, like that, the tension was gone and the pair felt like idiots. “I’ll make us a cup of tea,” Eve murmured, wiping the sweat from her face. “It . . . it was nothing,” she added. “Cottages like this are supposed to creak. It’s nothing.”

Arty nodded, still afraid that if he spoke, he’d lose either his stomach or his heart. His eyes remained rooted on that door. Yes, old cottages creaked. But not like that. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

*

“What are you doing?”

Arty looked away from the cellar door. Zach was standing watching, a little concerned look on his face.

“Nothing,” his dad said, trying to sound innocent, though what he was guilty of, he wasn’t sure.

“Where’s mum?”

“Having a nap.”

Zach nodded. “Rebecca said you were trying to break into the cellar this morning.”

“We weren’t trying to break in!” Arty said. “We were trying to stop someone from breaking in!”

“From the cellar?”

“Y-yes,” his dad said, realising how that sounded.

“Erm . . . aren’t they probably still in there then?”

That was what Arty feared. But he’d been sat there for hours and hadn’t heard a thing. Had he been dreaming it? No, Eve had heard it as well. “Want me to open the door?” Zach asked.

Arty’s head snapped round. There was a criminal glint in his young son’s eye. “How would you do that?”

“I found the key,” Zach said, holding up the article in question.

His dad was up in a shot and snatched the key away. “Hey! That’s mine!”

He paused for a moment, the key hovering in front of the lock. What if there was something on the other side? Silently biding their time, waiting for this specific moment. He began to lower the key.

“Are you opening it, or not?” Zach snapped.

The reprimand stinging like a whip, Arty stuck the key in the lock and gave it a twist. For a moment it stuck, age taking its toll. But, knowing that his son would judge him forever if he didn’t do it, Arty forced the key round. He gave a sigh of relief as he heard the lock slide back. A sudden stab of anxiety made him pause. Again, what if –?

Zach instantly pulled the door open. The only thing to jump out and assault them was a blast of fetid air. “What’s happening?” Rebecca had suddenly appeared, affronted that she might have missed out on some excitement.

“We’re investigating the cellar,” Zach said, beaming.

This wasn’t turning out the way Arty had imagined. Even less so when the pair bounded ahead of him and positively skipped down the rickety, bleached stairs. Hesitantly, remembering all too well the haunting creaks that had approached earlier on, Arty followed. Rebecca was using her phone to illuminate, but her dad soon found a dangling piece of string which, with a brief tug, caused a single bulb to flicker into life.

“Woah,” Zach said, his excitement palpable.

“Did you guys break in?” Eve had appeared at the top of the stairs, her hair dishevelled, a dressing gown wrapped around her, but a look of eager anticipation in her eyes.

“You should come down here,” Arty said, his eyes widening as he took in the sight. He could barely raise his voice above a whisper. It was like no cellar he had ever seen. It was more like a cave with a house built on top. The room was circular in shape, the walls slightly curved. Four wooden columns kept the ceiling from collapsing. The ground was nothing more than compacted dirt, and each step sent up a cloud of dust. He didn’t fail to notice several sets of footprints. So, he thought grimly, there was someone here.

“What the Hell is that?” Eve gasped, joining Arty.

That had been the next point of business.

He didn’t know what it was, except that it seemed to be some kind of boulder that jutted from the ground. Rebecca and Zach stood in front of it, their excitement dampened by the strangeness of what they saw. Whilst the rest of the room was awash with dust and grime, the stone was immaculate. It was a dark reddish hue, with a polished shine, almost like flint. Zach took a minute step closer, a warped reflection appearing on the rock. There was something else to it, something beyond mere words. It seemed to radiate an energy that could almost be felt. Something that beckoned them nearer.

“Don’t get too close,” Arty said, taking his own step forward. His foot landed in something wet. Dreading what he would see, he slowly looked down. A circle had been made around the stone, one that the children had stepped right over. He was glad of that. The circle was made out of blood. At least, he was sure that it was blood. “Go back upstairs,” he said, his voice cracking slightly.

For once in a long, long time, they didn’t need to be told a second time. Their eyes still glued to the alien monolith, they retreated. Arty was glad they managed to avoid the bloody ring. Eve hurried them up the stairs. She then turned back to her husband.

“What the Hell is going on?” she breathed.

Arty took a few steps forward, swerving around the boulder, his twisted reflection following him. The cave wasn’t completely circular. Standing where he had been, the stone had concealed a thin slit in the wall, one that widened into a path. “That explained how they got out,” he said to himself. He almost went to follow it. But, looking back at that crimson circle, Arty returned to his wife.

“I’m going to see the police.”

*

Chief Constable Dumblewick was grinning as Arty walked anxiously into the station. The old man’s eyes bulged, making him look like a stunned trout. “If it isn’t the young and vibrant Mr Cascade!” he boomed, his yellowing teeth glinting in the artificial light.

“Hello,” Arty said, slightly breathless. He had almost run all the way. Even now he shifted anxiously on the balls of his feet. “I need to report –”

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Dumblewick interrupted. “Arthur!” he roared.

A man slowly stumbled into view, somehow even older than Dumblewick. He wore a pair of monstrous-sized lenses, and his lower lip looked like it was doing its best to swallow his nose. The policeman had to help guide him forward, one hand on his elbow to stop him tripping over his own feet. However, when those magnified, watery eyes fell on Arty, they lit up with an eager animation. “This is Arthur Winding,” the Chief Constable announced, goggling eyes bouncing from Arthur to Arthur.

“Erm . . . hello,” Arty said, feeling as if he was off the beaten track of usual conversation.

The ancient man turned to Dumblewick and began nodding vigorously, or as vigorously as a man with arthritis in his neck could nod. “I thought so,” the policeman said, his unearthly grin lengthening.

“Look, I need to report a crime!” Arty exclaimed, his patience snapping like a rubber band.

“A crime?” The concept seemed entirely foreign to the officer of the law.

“Someone broke into the cottage last night.”

A dark look danced briefly across Dumblewick’s face. “No one would do that here,” he said.

“I heard them! Both me and the wife heard them,” Arty insisted. “One of them was even in the cellar!”

The smile froze, becoming the grimace of a corpse. “The cellar,” he repeated.

“That’s right! We heard them climbing up the stairs!”

“A’m’ls,” the other Arthur grumbled almost incoherently.

“What?!”

“That’s right!” Dumblewick declared. “Animals!”

“Animals don’t form a circle of blood on the floor!” Arty said hotly. And, like that, he knew he’d stepped into the beartrap.

The policeman narrowed his eyes. “You went into the cellar?”

“That’s – that’s right,” Arty said, his face beginning to grow hot. “I – I had to make sure everything was safe. For my family.”

“I see,” Dumblewick said, his eyes glazing over. “I’ll send a man over shortly.” Feeling that things had taken a different, unexplainable turn, Arty backed out of the station. As he passed by the window, he noticed Dumblewick pick up the telephone and begin to gabble away. His eyes followed Arty out of sight.

With a growing sense of dread, he walked down the silent streets. He flinched as a door to the right opened. An old woman stepped out and watched him pass. At the next house a couple stood in their doorway, staring him down. Arty began to pick up his pace. More and more pensioners were coming out of their houses, silent and watchful. What the Hell was going on? At every door and at every window there was a wrinkled face, and not a single one looked happy.

By the time he reached the cottage he was sprinting, dripping with sweat, and had a bitch of a stitch. He barrelled through the front door, slamming it behind him and drawing the bolt across. Eve and the kids looked at him, alarmed at his dishevelled appearance. Before leaving he had locked the cellar door, he was glad to see Eve had pushed the kitchen table against it for extra protection.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“It’s . . . it’s . . . I have no fucking clue,” Arty admitted. “All I know is that we’re leaving. Now!”

“Yes!” Rebecca exclaimed.

“Aww,” Zach moaned. “Things were just getting interesting.”

“Pack your bags!”

She didn’t even need to be told, she was already bolting up the stairs, whilst Zach begrudgingly trudged after her. Eve shared a wordless glance with her husband, then hurried to pack her own things. Arty took a moment to calm his thundering heart, waited for the pain in his side to ease, then called up the stairs to see how the others were doing.

“Err . . . dad?” Rebecca’s voice returned, sounding distant and trembling with fear. “You should come and see this.”

Arty took the stairs three at the time, the stitch flaring for round two as he charged into his daughter’s room. She, Zach, and Eve were stood at the window, staring with their expressions agog. Knowing what he was going to see, Arty joined them.

Yep, he thought. Right on the money. A line of villagers had formed in the opening to the drive. Even if the family had gotten to the car, they’d have to run the pensioners over to escape. It wasn’t a bad idea, actually.

“What do they want?” Eve asked, watching as more pensioners hobbled up the lane to join the growing blockade.

“How should I know?”

“Well, what did you say to Dumblewick?”

“I just . . . mentioned the cellar . . .”

“It must the stone!” Zach said. “It must be, you know, part of the occult!”

As if simply speaking the name had summoned him, the Chief Constable gently pushed his way through the elderly row. Even from this distance Arty could see how much his eyes were goggling. He also held a megaphone, which he raised to his lips. “Arthur?” he said, his enhanced voice bouncing off the trees.

Trembling slightly, Arty opened the window. “Hello,” he called back, trying to sound polite and not a little bit terrified. “We’re fine now, thank you. We don’t need any assistance.”

“You went into the cellar,” Dumblewick went on, ignoring Arty. “You weren’t supposed to do that.”

“Yes, sorry.”

“I mean, it was locked and everything.”

“My son found the key,” Arty said. Zach shot him a wounded look.

“You’re probably wondering what the Stone is all about,” the policeman said, putting stress on the capital letter.

“I’m fine not knowing,” Eve said, poking her head out the window.

“It’s been under Harrow’s End for many years now,” he went on regardless. “Nothing more than a novelty for decades, it even became something of a tourist attraction. But we have discovered that it has supernatural qualities.”

“Really?” Arty said. “I thought it looked that sort of stone.”

“The owner of the cottage was a woman named Irene Salisbury,” Dumblewick continued, determined to get through the entire story. “She lived there with her only son, Hugo. All her life Irene wanted to leave Bleaksbury, but due to health problems, even a simple excursion down the road was sometimes impossible. Hugo, her son, never wanted to leave. Bleaksbury was, to him, the entire world. Everyone knew that, didn’t they?” The other villagers nodded. “We want you to remember that,” he added. “Then, one day, Irene passed away, as we mortals are prone to do. Not one week later, however, her son, Hugo, left Bleaksbury!”

There was a pause. Arty glanced at Eve. Both felt as if something significant should have landed in the silence. “And?” Eve said.

“Well,” Dumblewick blustered. “Irene was the one who wanted to leave the village, not Hugo! Isn’t it obvious what happened?”

“Hugo stayed home in order to tend to his sick mother?” Arty suggested.

“No! Irene took over Hugo’s body when she died!” Dumblewick rolled his eyes, as if this should have been obvious from the start. “With a younger, healthier body, she was finally able to fulfil her wish!”

“And . . . you know this how?”

“Everyone knows it! And she’s not the only one!” There was a ripple that ran through the villagers. Arty felt a shiver down his spine as he noticed the line had grown, now disappearing round to either side of the cottage. If he went to the back bedroom, he knew he’d find they’d formed a ring around them. Thinking back to the passage in the cellar, he was relieved he’d locked the door. Even more relieved that Eve had pushed the table in front of it as well.

“Ever wonder why there are no young people in this little village?” Dumblewick asked.

“I’m beginning to work out why,” Arty yelled back. Eve had gone a sickly pale colour. She thought back to the cottage’s online advert: ‘Stay in this quaint, one-of-a-kind abode, and have yourself a life-changing experience!’ It was a bit on the nose, now she looked back on it with hindsight.

“We take the youngsters to this cottage and, with the stone’s power, the oldest of our residents take on new bodies!” The policeman was grinning from ear-to-ear now. Arty was also beginning to realise that this speech was sounding a little too rehearsed. “And, with their new lives, they bid Bleaksbury farewell!”

“Dad!” Rebecca slapped his arm and pointed out the window. He followed her finger and saw two more pensioners being wheeled down the track, their forms jolting and wobbling as their chairs went over the uneven surface.

“There is no pain,” Dumblewick explained. “It will all be over soon.” He lowered the megaphone and stepped back, joining the circle. Then, with haunting unison, the villagers began chanting. Their haggard, cracking voices were only muffled when Eve slammed the window shut.

This was daft, Arty thought. No, not daft. Absolutely insane!

“Magic stones?!” Eve exclaimed. “Who do they think they are?”

“I don’t think I want to be old,” Zach said quietly.

“We’re getting out of here, now!”

Arty grabbed Rebecca’s bag, shoved Zach’s into his arms, then thundered down the stairs. The kids were right behind him, and Eve followed, hers and Arty’s luggage trailing on the floor. She glanced out the window. “The car’s clear,” she said, “but they’re blocking the road! How do we move them, Arty?”

He answered by snatching the hunting rifle off of the wall. Fear was replaced by excitement on Zach’s face.

“Does it work?” Rebecca asked.

“I don’t know,” Arty admitted. “But, hopefully, neither do they.” He took his bag and slung it over his shoulder. He then glanced towards the kitchen and the cellar door. He wondered if there was anything eldritch and unnatural going on down there. Was their chanting awakening some sort of magic? To be frank, he thought, I’m not that keen to find out. He turned back to his family.

“Ready?” he asked.

They all nodded back. It took him a moment but, finally, he gathered the strength to slide the bolt back. He was grateful that the door didn’t get burst open by a youth-hungry pensioner. Instead, he slowly eased it open. He poked the rifle out first, making sure that the villagers could all see it. He stepped out. Dusk had begun to fall, but some of the more industrious old people had brought torches. The chanting was louder out here, and it grated against Arty’s ears. If there was one thing an elderly throat wasn’t designed to do, it was chant threateningly.

Dumblewick’s eyes fell on the old rifle. He stepped out of the circle, flashing his teeth in what, under different circumstances, might be called a smile. “Let’s not do anything rash now,” he said.

“Get out of our way then,” Eve demanded.

“We said we weren’t going to hurt you,” he said.

“No, you didn’t,” Rebecca said, the master of finding loopholes in her parents’ orders. “You just said there wasn’t any pain.”

“Would you like there to be some?”

Arty raised the rifle. “Stay the Hell away from my family,” he growled.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dumblewick said with a shrug. “The transference is almost complete.”

“Yeah?” Arty said, an evil glint in his eye. “How’s this for a transference?” It would have been a good line. It would have been right at home in any corny action movie from the eighties. It would have if, when he pulled the trigger, the gun had not proven to have been fake. “Shit!”

The Chief Constable grinned, his teeth flashing in the torchlight. Arty glowered at the man, then at the useless lump of metal in his hands. “Ah, fuck it,” he decided. He then swung the rifle round and smashed the butt straight into Dumblewick’s unexpecting face. “Get in the car!” Arty yelled, the screams of pain from the policeman almost drowning him out.

The trio were already yanking the doors open, and so, throwing the gun onto the whimpering Dumblewick, Arty hastily followed suit. The quartet slammed their doors shut, immediately locked them, then sat gasping for breath. The villagers hadn’t moved. They just kept chanting, their eyes not leaving the Cascade family.

“Let’s get out of here!” Eve said.

Arty patted his pockets. Then he patted his breast pocket. A sick cannonball of dread landed in his gullet. “The . . . the keys!” He whined. “I don’t have the – oh, wait, don’t worry, I’ve found them.”

In no moment at all he had the keys in the ignition and the engine roaring into life. The villagers continued to maintain the circle, their lips flapping, and their feet squared. But Eve could see something in their eyes, a minor ember of fear. The fear was well-founded. Without a pause for thought, Arty pressed his foot against the accelerator and the car jolted forward. Two of the pensioners were able to stumble aside in time; but one old lady was plucked off her feet and onto the hood of the car. She stared at the family; her eyes wide in terror, a rivulet of drool dangling from the corner of her mouth, and her hands planted on the windscreen. She released a dreadful cry as the car sped up, swerving along the rough drive. Arty suddenly stopped. This was enough to throw the thin-bodied woman off the car and into the closest tree. She lay in a boneless heap on the ground. “Now can we go?” Rebecca asked.

Her dad nodded, pressing his foot on the pedal. The car tore ahead. Eve stared in the windscreen mirror, watching the crowd grow distant. No one made a move to follow the vehicle.

The car emerged from the lane, back onto the village road. His knuckles were white until they had put the border of Bleaksbury village behind them. When the sign wishing them farewell was passed, the family gave a victorious cheer. “Thank Christ!” Eve murmured.

“Next time,” Rebecca said, switching her phone on, “let’s go abroad for our holiday.”

Only Zach was quiet. He was staring out the window, a curious smile on his cherry-red lips. Arty watched him in the mirror, and he could sense Eve doing the same.

“Bye-bye, Bleaksbury,” their son murmured under his breath.

Silently, the husband and wife glanced at one another.

The car drove on. 

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