But her expectations were false.
Looking up, she saw the axe buried handle-deep in the wall, but she was below it. A weight was atop her, which moved.
“Ah,” Jimmy breathed.
Connie sighed as he fell off her, feeling his touch. He’d done this action many times, almost last night but it was different. She took a deep breath but her face twisted – the air was stale and full of death.
They were behind the upset ruins of the dining table.
“Let’s go, quickly!” she shouted over the wind that was battering the remnants of the wrecked dining room. Jimmy took her hand and pulled her away from the splintered remnants of the table.
“Fools!” the witch cackled from the doorway. “You have sinned and you will repent! Repent like all the- oh?”
“Shove it, lady,” Jimmy cursed as he pushed her against the wall. He held her there for a second. Matthew lumbered in the doorway. Jimmy turned away from the witch and gave the ogre a hearty thump, almost rugby-tackling him. The surprise of the move floored Matthew, and Jimmy and Connie ran past them both into the hallway.
The hallway was as ruinous as the rest of the house. Connie ran to the door but the latch was jammed magically shut.
“It won’t open!” she shouted over the din of the wind as Jimmy ran forward, shouldering the door. It was no good. It wouldn’t budge. A cackle made them turn back toward the dining room.
“You think you can escape! None of the others did!” the witch laughed, twitching her fingers. She seemed to levitate and pick herself up.
“What others are you talking about?” Connie asked. “I don’t understand!”
“You sluts never do. Ungrateful, unclean sluts, all of you,” Mrs. Chaldean raved. She jabbed a finger toward Connie, and advanced forward.
Jimmy stood forward, arms out to protect her. “Hey! Hey! Just throw us out if it’s such a problem, you wicked bitch!”
“This only ends one way, boy,” Mrs. Chaldean said, shouting over the wind. It ripped at her cardigan, revealing tattered black fabric underneath. “It’s over now, for you. Not for me. I’ll keep living.”
“Why?” Jimmy said.
Mrs. Chaldean gave a sideways glance to the door to the reception room. It was open, flapping and banging against the frame. The wood was splintering and the painted panels were scuffed and broken.
Jimmy’s head followed hers. What he saw compelled him to step forward. Flickering lights, like candles, with a bright green strobing light that conveyed a sort of energy through the darkness came from the portal.
“What the hell?!” he began to say before the darkness and silence clapped around him and Connie once more.
Connie was the first to stir in the darkened room. Her head felt light and dizzy. The drowsiness had been peculiar. She tried to raise a hand to the warm dampness on her forehead but found herself restrained.
“Jimmy?” she coughed. The air was laden with motes of dust. Her nose twisted.
He roused, feeling a bruise on his head. He shook his head, thinking this would dispel the dizziness but the sensation persisted. “What’s going on?”
Connie didn’t have time to answer. The door above opened with a squeal, and the light from the hallway descended… downward. The light came on, but the uplighters had been replaced with eerie globes of light that hung in metallic fixtures. A figure emerged from the light of the hallway and descended a series of wooden steps that led down into the hollowed-out floor of the front room. The wallpaper terminated at the ordinary floor level and continued as brown wood for a couple of feet. The figure turned on the soft dirt of the excavated floor.
Jimmy and Connie gasped. It was Mrs. Chaldean, but this time she had changed out of her ripped cardigan and into a tattered black shawl. Her face looked drawn and grey.
“Don’t turn me into a frog, please!” Jimmy called theatrically, his voice sarcastic. The witch snapped.
“That would be the least painful way I could punish you, you degenerate,” she hissed, reaching to a table against the wall. On it was a series of gunmetal and pewter mills, surrounded by a grey dust. She took a vial of the dust and snorted it. Her hair stood on end, as if conducting electricity.
“The hell is that?”
“Oh this?” she called. “Your future. What I do to those that waste the moment of creation on pleasure. It extends my own life.”
“Listen, dear,” the witch said frankly. “I’m going to chop you up and grind up your bones. Look,” she gestured to the bubbling cauldron atop the mashed-up gas flame. “Bone-dust is the key to cheating time’s aging, and your idiot beau nearly tipped it on his pie! Matthew!” she called. “Matthew! Get down here!”
Clumping came from above. Mrs. Chaldean moved to a workbench under the bay window and wound what looked like a pencil-sharpener. The throaty sound it emitted belied that it was not graphite being sharpened by the device. Connie took another stale breath.
Blocking the light in the doorway, was the figure of the ogre. A strange, but familiar scent followed it.
Connie took a deep breath. She reached out, toward Jimmy, but found her arms tied against her body.
Matthew lumbered drunkenly down the stairs and touched the soft excavated ground. “Same as usual, mother?”
“Oh?” the witch said, turning away from the cast-iron range set up in the middle of the room. “Yes, untie them and do what… what you usually do.”
Matthew glimpsed at Jimmy and Connie and then back to the other side of the room. Connie followed his glance to a couple of shiny reflections that hung just under the bay window. The metal was dulled and tinged with crimson flecks. She took an involuntary breath and looked at Jimmy. His face was steely, like the knives, and his brow furrowed.
Matthew lumbered over and knelt in front of Connie. His sweaty, stale stench was almost overpowering.
Connie looked to Jimmy, who motioned with his head to the witch, who faced the range. She felt clammy, stubby fingers wrap around her body, pressing against her trembling flesh. Fast-paced breathing made her chest heave. It pressed against the body of the ogre – there really was no other word – that stood over her, fumbling at the back of her, its face touching her cheek, the moist heat drawing an involuntary reaction.
“Did ‘em up nice and tight I did,” Matthew belched. Connie felt the rope loosen and fell against the brickwork. She breathed hard, thinking of whether she could make it to the door. Connie watched the performance repeat with Jimmy and then one hand grabbed him and another her, pulling them both upright.
Matthew turned to face his mother. “All ready for you moth-”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Jimmy pounced, pushing the great lump forward. The move was unexpected and he tripped on the uneven floor, grunting. He looked like he was going to fall forward but caught his balance. It wasn’t enough. The combined force of Jimmy and Connie surged, giving one last push which sent Matthew careening into his mother at the range, which toppled over with a crash. There was screaming, banshee-like howling that filled the cavernous space of the gutted front room.
“Matthew!” the witch screamed as the stove toppled beneath her. “No!”
Smoke rose from the pit in which the stove had stood, and the ominous sound of pressurised gas filled the room. A flare of orange filled the gloomy space with flickering light. A column of flame reached to the ceiling, charring the grimy paintwork.
“Matthew!” she screamed again, unable to move. Matthew flopped off her and scrabbled to pick up the range. She screamed. “No, get me – look, they’re getting away!”
Jimmy and Connie ran for the stairs up to the landing and vaulted, the coils of greasy rope falling away. Jimmy made it up first, and hoisted Connie. She reached for the door to the front room and pulled it shut with a bang. The key was still in the lock, the metal ring jangling. She gave the metal a firm turn. It clicked. She smiled.
“Come on, let’s go!” Jimmy barked through the smoke.
“Wait!” Connie called. “Get our stuff and get the hell out of here!”
Jimmy did so, running up the stairs. Connie stayed downstairs and paced away from the door to the front room. Smoke was beginning to seep through, the sounds and scents of cooking flesh of the witch and her ogre son permeating the wood, which quickly began to buckle with the intensity of the heat. The varnish was beginning to perish with the fire on the other side.
As Jimmy had rushed upstairs there had been steady thumps on the door from the other side but as he returned downstairs the thuds had almost ceased. The thuds hit Connie in the chest like heartbeats. Her hand approached the darkened metal of the handle but she pulled it away as Jimmy returned.
He threw Connie’s bag to her, and she quickly put it on.
“Come on, let’s-” he began, but was cut off. The door to the front room appeared to dissolve into a pile of ash before their very eyes, revealing the spectral horror within – pulsating green orbs of energy darted out of the darkness between the orange flames. The torn gas pipe acted like a red-hot volcano, spewing fire and heat into the heart of the room. Climbing up the stairs was the burning form of the witch herself, cackling insanely. Her digits reached for Jimmy as he turned to flee, catching his backpack. He felt the drag on his back.
“Hey!” he cried. Connie stopped and looked. She froze.
The young man struggled for a moment. He looked over his shoulder to see the melting, dripping form of the witch’s face distend in the heat. She was screaming, almost in ecstasy as her skin fell away from her dimpled skull.
“One’ll do, Matthew!” she called. Below there was a moaning, gurning sound just under the popping of the fire. “One’ll do my love!”
“Not this one!” the young man heaved, rolling his shoulders and giving a final push forward. The bag, still in the witch’s hands, fell backward, pushing her down into the conflagration, which blew into a fireball with one last thunderous yell.
Now the rest of the landing was alight and Connie ushered Jimmy out with a frantic wave. They ran onto the lawn, seeing the daylight for the first time through their own eyes, not the distorted lenses of the house’s windows, turning at the foot of the drive to see the building swallow itself up – implode – in a column of smoke and fire, tinkling and crashing glass and masonry until there was nothing left but a pile of black, immovable ash.
The path back to the railway station was clear, the daylight shining through the clouds, pushing them away to show sky. The underpass, before thick with the stench of despair, was now breezy and light. The breeze felt almost warm, encouraging.
The gates to the platforms were open, and the man from the previous evening stood there.
“Hello, where might you be going to today?”
“Don’t you remember us?” Connie asked wryly. “We were here last night?”
The man blinked. “Funny business, last night. Can’t remember where I was entirely!”
Jimmy laughed. “Next train then?”
Jimmy looked at Connie and they smiled, embracing hands. “Home will be fine, mate.”
“Right this way!” the man on the gate laughed back. “Follow me.”
Taking one last glance at Medford, they did so, seeing the column of wispy smoke from a distance face to nothingness against the bright, welcoming and comforting sky. Sirens approached distantly, but Jimmy and Connie settled into their seats. The night at Holman Hall would live with them forever, but not today would be their only respite.