‘The Witch’s House’ stood on the corner where a narrow side street met the main road that ran alongside the river. The two sides that faced out onto the roads had steeply roofed gables over their upper windows, at the apex of which were set elaborately carved dragon heads. It was these that had gained the house its nickname. Its sinister reputation was enhanced by the general air of gloom and neglect that hung about it. The narrow front garden was hedged about with overgrown laurels that cut out most of the light and gave a dull greenish tinge to the small amount that penetrated the tangled mass of leaves and branches. The area between the boundary hedge and the house was rank with weeds, many of which stood waist high. The walls were covered in dense swathes of ivy, with dark, glossy green leaves that rattled together and tapped on the windowpanes in the slightest of breezes.
The people of the village, when not worried with more pressing personal concerns, referred to the house’s owner as Black Annie if they were elderly or Annie Black if they were middle aged. The younger inhabitants ignored her in the main, but some deliberately went out of their way to make her life as miserable as they could. They called her The Mad Cat Lady, on account of the number of those animals that were always lurking about the place.
Vincent disliked the house intensely, he had hated walking past it ever since he was a small boy, even crossing the road to avoid walking through the long shadow it cast in the late afternoon sun. It was the grimy windows, with no curtains or blinds to give them a friendly splash of colour that stared out onto the world like sightless eyes, which gave him the creeps. When he was much younger, he had imagined that the upper rooms were infested with goblins. In his mind’s eye he could see their long, crooked fingers gripping the windowsills and pointing at him, their malicious little red eyes, their bony noses and sharp, pointed teeth. In his head, he could hear them laughing and sniggering at him. Some images, he found, stayed with you forever.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” his mother had exploded one day, exasperated by his timidity as they walked passed the house on their way into town. “You spend far too much time with your head in books reading those stupid fairy stories. Why can’t you spend your time playing computer games and watching telly like a normal kid?”
Vincent was standing on the tow path across from the house feeling vaguely nauseous. From the corner of his eye, he could see the front page of today’s local paper caught under a bush. The stark headline, One year on tragic Chloe still missing, seemed to him to be an accusation. He remembered the recurring nightmare that had plagued him since last Halloween, vague, uneasy impressions of blood red light, cupboard doors, blue spirals … the glitter of steel. He took a deep breath and snapped out of his gloomy reverie as a chill wind blew upstream, ruffling the surface of the river and shattering the reflections of the streetlamps into a thousand points of light that shifted and danced with the movement of the water. A solitary gull flew downstream; it called mournfully and was answered by the honking of a gaggle of geese that were grazing on the far riverbank. He shivered as the memory of his first visit to The Witch’s House, when he had accidentally kicked his ball into the garden, threatened to surface. He pushed it, ruthlessly, to the back of his mind and wondered, gloomily, which was worse, visiting The Witch’s House again, or spending his evening ‘Trick or Treating’ with Taylor?
Taylor was a bully. Taylor, when he bothered to attend school, was always in the head teacher’s office for some misdemeanour or other. Taylor appeared to hate the world and anything or anybody that represented authority. Nobody really liked Taylor.
“He attracts trouble like a turd attracts flies, you’d do well to avoid him,” was Vincent’s mother’s comment, but Taylor had still managed to ‘persuade’ Vincent to come out with him that evening. Vincent was convinced that the bruises on his arm would fade in a day or two.
Taylor adjusted his Freddy Krueger mask, pulled his hat down to a jaunty angle and checked the talons on his gloves. He looked over at Vincent and rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“God Vincent, what do you look like? A few tatty bandages and a bit of red food colouring … pathetic! A zombie hamster would be scarier that you!”
“Do we have to go over … there?” Vincent’s voice had sunk to a frightened whisper as he pointed across the street with a trembling finger.
“You are such a fuckin’ cry baby,” replied Taylor. “I bet you’re the sort of kid who watches Dr Who through his fingers or from behind the sofa. You know the plan; we go over there, scare the crap out of the old bag and have a laugh. Now. Don’t. Spoil. Things!” He punched Vincent hard on the arm to emphasise each word.
The boys crossed the road and pushed open the rusted iron gate, its hinges squealed in protest and sagged causing one corner to drag along the ground. As they made their way up the weed choked garden path Vincent had the distinct impression that the plants were opening up before them, then springing back as they passed, to form an impenetrable, tangled barrier that would block their exit. As they entered the garden the boys had become aware of the cats. Cats of every conceivable size and colour that lurked in the darkness of the undergrowth. Cats sitting on the windowsills washing themselves in the thin light of the streetlamps. Cats staring up at them with cold green eyes as they passed. A particularly large, black tom cat with ice blue eyes was sitting in the shadows at the back of the porch. As Vincent and Taylor stepped up to the front door it arched its back and stretched, putting out its claws. It yawned extravagantly and Vincent could not tear his gaze from the red, gaping maw full of needle-sharp teeth which seemed to expand and fill his vision. For a moment he felt as if he was being sucked down a red tunnel until the cat shut its jaws with a snap. He shivered.
The front door was an old fashioned, heavy wooden one with four inset panels, its dark brown varnish was discoloured, cracked, and peeling and there was no visible bell push or knocker.
“What a dump!” muttered Taylor as he hammered on it with the flat of his hand. It swung open, silently, at the first blow to reveal a dingy rubbish strewn hallway. The black cat stepped inside with a proprietorial air and sauntered down the hall before it disappeared into the gloom at the end, Taylor pushed Vincent in after it. As he stumbled through the doorway a single thread of spider’s silk draped across his face and hands. He whimpered and tried to shy away; Taylor punched his arm again.
“Shut up you wimp!” he muttered.
They stood in the hallway letting their eyes adjust to the gloom. The atmosphere in the house was heavy and oppressive, despite the October chill outside. Both boys wrinkled their noses as the smell hit them, a mixture of dust and decay overlaid by a cloying, sickly, sweetness.
“Smells like something’s died in here,” choked Taylor, fanning his hand in front of his face in the vain effort to drive the stench away. “That or the old bag does really evil farts!” he laughed.
Another bubble of memory tried to surface and nudged at the back of Vincent’s mind. He gagged.
To their right, a grand staircase ascended to the upper floor, it was uncarpeted, and the plain wooden treads were stained with dark splashes and smears, some of which glistened as if they were still wet.
“The old bat’s really gone to town on the Halloween décor,” muttered Taylor. “This could be quite a laugh. Let’s go further in and see what else she’s got.”
“No,” replied Vincent, “I don’t want to. Let’s go to the library, it’ll still be open.”
“What and get thrown out by those boring old tossers again,” sneered Taylor. Vincent squealed as Taylor grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back.
Further along the hallway, a thin red line of light appeared to be coming from underneath a door set into the side of the staircase; Taylor tried it as Vincent cringed behind him. Something was trying to force itself into Vincent’s conscious mind, something that he did not want to face.
“It’s locked,” Taylor sounded almost disappointed. And then he noticed a small hole, like a red, unblinking, eye set in the middle of the door. He stooped down and looked through it.
“That’s more like it,” he gave a low whistle of admiration. “Come and have a look at this.” He grabbed Vincent’s neck and forced his head down towards the spy hole. Vincent wanted desperately to close his eyes and block out the sight, but he could not stop himself from looking. He gave a shrill scream and collapsed, ending up squatting on the floor with his back to the door, his arms wrapped around his knees. He rocked back and forth, white-faced and trembling.
The small cupboard that he had looked into was bathed in red light. Sitting in the middle of the floor, on top of heap of bones, severed limbs and unidentified gobbets of flesh was a grotesque figure from his worst nightmare. Its naked body was covered with clumps of coarse black hair and was caked in filth and what looked like it might be old, crusted, blood. Its scalp was hairless and skinless – blood trickled down its face and mixed with the slobber that dripped from its thin-lipped mouth which was fixed in a rictus grin of madness.
“It’s Raw Head and Bloody Bones,” he moaned. “He eats disobedient children.” He choked on the end of the sentence and Taylor gave a bellow of derisive laughter.
“Oh, you fuckin’ baby, that’s just a fairy story. It’s just a hologram or a waxwork … very impressive though I’ll give her that.”
“But it moved,” moaned Vincent, almost in tears. “It turned its head and looked straight at me.”
“Duh!” replied Taylor sarcastically, “animatronics!”
As they moved further down the hallway dozens of cats began to appear and follow them. Taylor opened the door at the end of the hall, and they found that they had reached the kitchen. By now the disgusting smell was almost unbearable and Vincent felt sick, he was having difficulties suppressing the memories that kept threatening to surface.
“Hello boys, you’ve arrived just in time to eat. Don’t stand on ceremony … come on in.”
In the middle of the kitchen stood an old woman, bent almost double with age, her arthritic hands were curled like claws, a tangle of thinning grey hair hung in limp, greasy strands from her scalp. Her face was lined and creased like a piece of ancient leather. Behind her a single shaft of moonlight struggled through the filthy window and created a pool of pale light on the floor.
Another wave of memory clawed at Vincent’s mind, he gave a great sob and turned to flee, but found his way blocked by the cats. They surrounded the two boys, they crammed themselves into the doorway, they sat lashing their tails, extending, and retracting their claws in slow, rhythmic pulses.
The old woman shuffled backwards to give the boys more room and as she stepped into the shaft of moonlight her form appeared to shimmer and change. She stood tall and straight, her hair hung down to her waist in a lustrous wave, black as a raven’s wing. The skin of her, now smooth young, face had a bluish tinge – ‘A trick of the light?’ wondered Taylor. Dark blue spiral tattoos crawled across her forehead and cheeks seeming to twist and move as if they had a life of their own. When she crooked her finger, to beckon them closer, her long steel fingernails glittered wickedly.
“How … how did she do that?” stammered Taylor, a note of fear creeping into his voice. “Special effects?”
And then the memories that he had been trying to suppress all evening came crashing in on Vincent. He remembered his first visit to the house four years ago as a frightened eight-year-old, wanting his ball back. He remembered the first moment of revelation, the first moment of recognition and he felt again the fierce, sweet rush of worship.
“You’re Black Annis,” he said, his voice had sunk to little more than an awed whisper. Annis smiled as she heard her proper name spoken aloud. “And now … now … you’re going to kill and eat us,” continued Vincent, almost matter of factually.
Annis ran the nail of her right forefinger gently down Vincent’s left cheek and hooked it under his chin, tilting his head back until he was looking her in the eye. Vincent gave a small shudder of delight. From out of the corner of his eye he could see Taylor looking desperately for a way of escape.
“Oh no Vincent,” Annis’ voice was as sweet as honey and as deadly as a blade. “I’m not going to kill you. You believe in us, and it’s your belief that keeps us strong here.” She turned sharply towards Taylor, her hair flaring around her face like a dark shadow and her face flickering between young woman and old crone in a queasy cycle. “Now as for Taylor!” she spat out his name and gave a hiss which was echoed by the cats. Turning back to Vincent, she patted his cheek tenderly and her voice resumed its soft crooning quality. “Now, my good little Judas goat, you run along and enjoy the rest of your evening … until the next time.”
Vincent turned to go, mechanically, aware only of a great need to please his goddess, and found, as he knew he would, that the cats that had surrounded him had parted to give him a clear exit path. Taylor moaned as something warm trickled down his leg and soaked the crotch of his trousers.
“You’re not going to leave me here?” he gulped as Vincent reached the kitchen door. Vincent turned back and stared at him coldly.
“Oh, grow up Taylor, you fuckin’ baby. It’s only a fairy story!”
He left the house, walking confidently between the rows of green lamp like eyes, the claws, and the teeth, safe in the knowledge that he was chosen, valued, and protected. As he stepped through the front door, Vincent took a deep breath of cold, fresh air. He was already forgetting the events of the evening and would continue to forget them until his goddess called him again.
As Vincent shut the front door behind him, he heard … or thought he heard a thin, bubbling scream that ended in a choking sob, coming from the kitchen. In his imagination he could already see tomorrow’s headline ‘Another unexplained disappearance,’ he smiled to himself as he walked off into the darkness heading for the warmth and bright lights of the library.