House Of Whispers Haunting new serial
Part One: Are the dark dreams plaguing Judith simply a result of her frustrations… or do they have a meaning?
The tall spire and whitewashed timber frame gave the house the appearance of a New England church, and its eccentric shape distinguished it from all the other houses in the small town of Palmerstone: a perfect pentagon.
The house stood on short struts beneath its porch, wide steps leading to a carved wood door. The wriggle space below the porch was overgrown with weeds and, here and there, pieces of rusted farm machinery peeped out.
The red tiled roof spread out like five wedges of a giant cake, the slender spire on top pointing to the grey Massachusetts sky like a bony finger. A tall weeping willow brushed the roof with its gentle touch, while a huge oak stood guard to the left, its massive trunk reaching as high as the spire. There was a weather vane atop the spire that turned lazily this way and that, as if it couldn’t quite decide which way the breeze was blowing.
Three worn steps led up to the verandah that ran the circumference of the five sides. The south face formed the front porch. Its door, inlaid with amber stained glass, bid a warm welcome in spite of the heavy oak carving. To the left sat five wicker chairs arranged around a round table, and to the right a porch swing creaked gently, as if rocking an unseen sleeper.
The house was surrounded on four sides by overgrown grass lawn and a tall whitewashed picket fence, against which once-loved but now forgotten shrubs and rose bushes languished. The fifth side faced onto a broken stone pathway that led to a barn, its wood panels weathered silver-grey with age. Beyond was the weed-strangled wasteland of long-abandoned farmland, and beyond that a large and darkly brooding forest.
A shabby summerhouse stood at the boundary between lawn and land, its wooden panels crumbled with time and the elements.
Suddenly the paint on the panels started to blister and turn black. In stark contrast, bright orange flames climbed its walls, bursting free from the roof and straining to reach the sky. A woman’s face appeared at the window, contorted with fear as she screamed…
Judith woke abruptly, swallowing the scream in her throat so as not to wake Andrew. She was hot and her hair stuck to her forehead. Slowly, as if unsure they would work, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and gingerly stood upright.
As she walked to the kitchen of her tiny New York City apartment she had a strange sensation of impending doom. In the gloom of the night – made more alien by the green glow of a neon sign across the street shining through the window – she tried to hold on to the images in her dream, sensing it was important she remember.
Moving around on autopilot she poured a glass of water, mulling over the dream that woke her in a state of abject terror. She’d been having the same dream a lot lately.
It started off innocently enough – the house was the same every time. She felt at home in it, as if she belonged there, even though she knew for certain she’d never seen the house before – but then the tone would shift, the brooding darkness rumbled in like thunderclouds…
Then the fire would start… and that woman’s face at the window…
Yet there was someone else in her dream – the darkly sinister figure of a man, and the more she struggled to see his face, the more shrouded he became.
Judith hunched over the breakfast bar, her long black hair hanging forward,
“People don’t SIT ALONE in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT if nothing’s wrong”
obscuring the drained expression in her brown eyes. She leaned on her elbows, holding her glass up in both hands as if in a gesture of reverent offering.
She didn’t hear Andrew come into the kitchen as he shuffled past her to the fridge. He took out a carton of milk, leaned against the fridge and took a long swig from the carton. Boyishly rubbing the sleep from his eyes he asked, “What’s up… can’t sleep?” Judith stared past him. Andrew bent towards her and waved his free hand in front of her face.
“Hello? Ground Control to Major Tom…” He perched on the stool next to her. “What’s wrong, Jude?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she answered,
staring vacantly into her glass.
Andrew brushed her hair from her shoulder.
“Come on,” he said. “People don’t sit alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night if nothing’s wrong. We promised no secrets, remember?”
Judith looked at him. His curly, sandy-blond hair was flattened on one side where he had been sleeping and his blue eyes were clouded with the remnants of the kind of deep, untroubled sleep that was now a distant memory for her.
She decided now wasn’t the time. Their live-in relationship was too new to burden him and besides, she wasn’t even sure herself.
She slapped her thighs with fake optimism as she rose from the stool.
“Really, it’s nothing. Just a bad dream, that’s all.” She poked a finger at him in mock anger. “And how many times have I told you not to drink from the carton? It’s unhygienic.”
The next day, Judith had almost forgotten about her tangled dreams as she sat in the kitchen again – this time light and airy in the crisply bright sunshine of early October – watching Andrew rush around getting ready for his day in the newspaper office.
Judith had the luxury of working from home… well, she told herself it was a luxury. Truth be told, she’d been made redundant from her post on the same publication Andrew worked on.
It was where they met. They were both writers, but where Andrew was happy digging up dirt on celebrities, she felt she had more to say… or she would if she could get over this writers’ block.
After the whirlwind that was Andrew left for work, Judith sat in her kitchen enjoying the quiet. After a fast-burning romance, he had moved into her tiny apartment six months ago and she loved him dearly, but there were times when she longed for solitude, to wallow in silence, to just sit and think.
Andrew never sat still for a second, always too busy to think – why stop to smell roses when there could be an entire botanic garden around the next corner? Of course he was a New Yorker born and bred, marinated in the hectic pace of city life. Judith came from the tiny town of Palmerstone, a stone’s throw from Salem, Massachusetts – yes, the place of the famous witch-hunts. She got so tired of fielding that one whenever she met someone new.
Unlike Andrew’s huge, sprawling family, she had only one relative left – the woman she called Nanny who had brought her up after her parents died in a car crash when she was a toddler. She had loved her grandparents dearly and was always especially close to her grandmother.
Judith had never asked about her parents. Might now be the time? Perhaps Nanny could shed light on these weird dreams?
Snapping out of her reverie, she glanced at the kitchen clock – dammit, how did it get to almost eleven? She must have been daydreaming for two hours! Quickly she put together fresh coffee and a chicken salad sandwich and took it to what she optimistically called her office, which in reality was the broom closet next to the bathroom. It had just enough room for a tiny table and folding chair and if she left the door open, she could sit at the desk with her keyboard plugged into her tablet.
No wonder she had difficulty getting creative in this cramped little corner – how she longed for more space!
She opened the files on the tablet’s screen and started to rummage through old notes. There had to be something here she could use to form the basis of her first bestselling novel. She sighed, wishing for a life more exciting, a life that would yield the bones of a story worthy of the inviting shelves of a high-end bookstore.
Judith woke sobbing. Smoke from the flames still clutched at her throat, sweat drenched her trembling body. Visions of the fire and the stench of burning flesh still filled her senses. Far away she heard a familiar voice… “Jude? You OK?” The voice grew closer as her mind cleared. She felt a gentle touch on her arm and withdrew, still afraid.
“Come on, wake up, Jude…You’re dreaming again.”
Andrew was half sitting, the muscles of his left arm standing out as they supported the weight of his body. He leaned forward, stretching his other arm towards her to smooth the sweat-dampened hair that clung to her face.
“Geez, Jude, that’s three nights running,” he said. “Are you all right? Can I get you anything?”
His eyes brimmed with sleep and concern as he kneaded the back of her neck, gently pulling her towards him.
She felt safe in his arms and the fear and confusion of the nightmare began to drift away. That’s all it was, she told herself firmly. A nightmare, that’ s all.
Calmer now, she pushed gently away from him.
“It was just a bad dream. I’m fine now.” She knew she sounded unconvincing. Andrew sat cross-legged on the bed. “They’re getting worse,” he said. “They say constant nightmares are a sign of a troubled mind. Jude…” He frowned anxiously. “We… you and me… we’re all right, aren’t we?
Judith sat up and touched her hand to his face. “Oh, Andy, of course we’re all right. These nightmares, they’re…” What were they? Judith couldn’t even begin to explain them.
Andrew took her hand and rose from the bed. “Why don’t we get a drink?” he said. “Then tell me all about it.”
Silently Judith followed him into the kitchen. The sudden glare as he snapped on the fluorescent light brought her back to reality. She perched on one of the high stools, hugged her arms around herself, and watched as he moved about the kitchen making hot milk spiked with honey and herbs.
His red robe looked incongruously cheerful against the pristine white of the kitchen as she brooded over what she was going to say. In this harsh light her nightmares seemed even darker and more sinister, and yet also so much more unreal. The sound of teaspoons clinking against china mugs was brassy in the stillness of the early hours. Judith suddenly found herself reluctant to talk about her dreams. “So, tell me all about it.” Andrew turned carefully, a bright blue mug in each hand. He placed one in front of her and sat facing her. Putting down his mug, he leaned on both elbows and smiled encouragingly.
“I don’t know where to start.” She shrugged, suddenly feeling foolish.
Reaching forward Andrew covered her hand with his, warm and reassuring. “Start at the beginning, Jude,” he said. She sipped her drink, felt the hot liquid in her throat, its honeyed taste lingering in her mouth. How could she explain that this house she kept dreaming of seemed to be calling to her, reaching out to her? How could she tell him she felt an overwhelming need to find it and discover what it wanted from her?
Hesitantly, she started to speak… T he next evening, Andrew laid a hot dish of pasta bake on the edge of the same breakfast bar that, in the light of day, showed no signs of Judith’s midnight confessions.
He nudged the dish past crockery and cutlery, wincing as the heat seeped through to his tea towel-wrapped hand.
“Hot, hot, hot!” he said, pressing his other hand to Judith’s shoulder so she wouldn’t come up against the dish. “We really need a bigger place,” he added.
“Well – until one of us wins a Pulitzer, it’ll just have to do,” she retorted churlishly.
“Hey, I didn’t mean…” Andrew frowned. He disentangled his hand from the tea towel and took Judith’s hand. “It’s no wonder you’re stressed out with these nightmares,” he said gently. “Have you thought of making them useful… use them in a story plot?”
“Andy – I can’t even think straight after them, can I?” “I know, but the next day you could – ” “Not if I can’t get past this writer’s block,” she interrupted.
“It’ll pass, Jude. In the meantime I’m still earning a regular pay check.” He paused in the process of dishing out steaming spoonfuls and shot her a sideways glance. “I know, I know – it’s not a big enough pay check, but soon…”
She looked far from convinced. Undeterred, he picked up an overloaded forkful of pasta still connected to the plate with strings of gooey melted cheese, as if reluctant to be parted from the rest.
“Careful – it’s hot,” he warned, but proceeded to wolf it down anyway. Before he’d even swallowed, his fork dived in for another foray into the cheesy mounds, but then he paused, fork hovering inches from his mouth.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said, Jude…”
“Forget it. They’re just silly dreams.” She waved dismissively.
“Hmmm. You didn’t seem to think that way last night.”
“It’s amazing how different things look in the light of day,” she said, busying herself with pouring wine into two glasses.
How could she EXPLAIN that this house SEEMED to be CALLING to her?
“But they’re getting worse and maybe if you could find this house, they’ll stop.” Judith shrugged. “So I go on some wild goose chase all over America to find a house I’ve only ever seen in my dreams? Really?”
“It does give a whole new meaning to the term ‘dream house’,” Andrew said, but when she frowned he quickly added, “But I’ve been thinking… you should research, see if you can find this house.”
“Oh, Andy, you know I don’t have the time for that.”
Andrew had almost finished his meal. She had not yet even picked up her fork.
“Why not? Researching might spark ideas, break that writers’ block. There’s no reason these dreams shouldn’t come up with the plot for a novel, is there?” Judith simply raised one eyebrow cynically. “Come on, what harm can it do…?” he urged.
She sighed and started to pick at her mac-and-cheese while Andrew scraped his plate clean then took it to the sink.
“I know!” he announced, already pleased with himself before he’d even expressed his idea. “A change of scenery will melt away the stress – and get your creative juices flowing.”
“So where do you suggest? We aren’t exactly rolling in spare cash for a vacation, are we?” “You could visit with Nanny.” “What? Go back to Palmerstone?” “Why not? It’s so close to Salem and if that spooky ol’ place doesn’t inspire a decent story, I don’t know what will!”
“Going back to Salem and its ghosts is hardly going to stop the nightmares.”
“Don’t be daft, Jude – there’s no such thing as ghosts. But you said you were always happy when you were with Nanny, so staying with her for a while will do you a world of good.” “I don’t know, Andy…” Judith loved Nanny dearly, but she wasn’t so sure about Salem; she couldn’t get out of that area quickly enough when she had graduated.
“Why don’t you call Nanny and see what she says?”
“I suppose…” Judith twirled her fork listlessly in the rapidly cooling pasta.
“You haven’t seen her in… how long has it been?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I know she’ll be happy to hear from you – so call her tonight,” he went on as he ran hot water into the sink.
“Coffee?” he asked, not noticing she hadn’t swallowed a single bite of her meal.
That feeling of impending doom with which Judith so often woke these days now lay in the pit of her stomach like a moss-slick stone. It was midnight and she sat staring unseeingly out of the bedroom window, her face bathed in the eerie glow of green neon. Andrew’s soft snores formed an instrumental backdrop to the noisy chaos roiling around in her mind…
Earlier that evening she had indeed called Nanny, who had agreed with Andrew’s suggestion that she spend some time “back home” as she called it.
Judith had never hidden anything from Nanny, and before she knew it, she had told her about the nightmares that had recently started and were getting more frequent. “Oh, deary me…” Nanny had said. “It’s just stress, I suppose,” Judith replied. “After losing my job. That’s why Andy thinks I could do with a break.” “Yes, yes… of course…” She had suddenly noticed how Nanny seemed fretful, distracted, using the kind of tone that usually meant there was something awkward that needed to be addressed, but she was skirting the issue.
“Is something wrong?” Judith had asked, puzzled.
“Well…” Nanny had sighed heavily on the other end of the phone. When she spoke again, it was with the kind of determination you need to do something you really do not want to do. “I’m glad you called, dear…” She had paused to steel herself, but then everything tumbled out all at once.
“Oh, Judy. There’s so much I have to tell you… things I should have told you a long time ago. I’m so sorry, Judy – truly, I am. I thought I was protecting you, you see… but now…”
Judith’s stomach had done somersaults at the sound of her grandmother’s nervous tone. “Nanny, what’s wrong?” “I can’t say over the phone, dear. Andrew is right – you need to come on over and visit. Then I can tell you everything – all the family secrets.”
“Family secrets? Nanny, stop being so dramatic! What secrets could our family possibly have?”
“Oh, every family has its skeletons in the closet…”
“And most of them should probably stay there,” Judith had replied jokingly, trying to ignore the persistent little voice tugging at her subconscious.
However, the next thing her grandmother said had left Judith reeling.
She’d sat there, staring out into space for several minutes after Nanny had blurted, “Oh Judy, I’m not your grandmother… your mother wasn’t my daughter.”
“Oh, Judy. There are THINGS I should have TOLD YOU a long time AGO…”