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Short Story Contest 2020-21

Your’s Hauntingly

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I remember both vividly; the night I saw the ghost of Annette and the night I heard about her death. They happened in that same order.

One of them was on a December night, exactly a week before Christmas.

The comfort of the heat from the fireplace on one side of my body and the cold, seeping in from the outside, on the other didn’t make me feel better. I stood up slowly from the chair.  The room seemed to be shrinking and I wanted to get out. And I did just that.

It was getting dark and cold on the outside. The fog had started to cover the village of St. Louis.

“Don’t forget your jacket, Joe. It’s freezing outside.” I heard the voice of Margaret, our housemaid since I was a toddler, as I was about to step out. As I turned around I saw her coming with my jacket in one hand and a rosary on the other, as always. I closed the door behind me and I felt glad that I obeyed her.

I stepped out into the courtyard. The silence of the night was broken only by the chirping sound of crickets. The light from the lamps of our garden couldn’t penetrate the thick fog. They seemed like blue orbs hanging midair with a faded aura around them.

I started walking through the gravel path.

Nyxspires Mansion, my ancestral home, stands on top of a hill surrounded by tea gardens sloping downwards. In between those plush green shrubs, birches and alders and beefwood managed to grow ten feet tall. The tea gardens end before the valley of the hill, bordered by a white-painted wooden fence surrounding the hill. After that, we have short grass growing till the banks of the river flowing between the hills.   The road through which I walked was the only way in and out, at least to the outsiders. It has a few twists and turns but it manages to betray the gravity of the slope. It has Gulmohar trees growing on either side the whole way down and its branches have formed an arch. On an autumn morning, it feels like you are walking down an aisle, with spokes of sunlight entering through the gaps of orange-red flowers.

It leads to the western end of the hill and terminates briefly on a wooden bridge with steel railings. The infamous River Mosses flows under those strong yet weathered and warped teak beams. The gravel roads continue beyond the bridge, through the valley of the next hill, and into the streets six miles away.

I kept looking at my feet, for the light from my phone only managed to illuminate a couple of feet ahead of me. A considerable amount of mud and tiny pieces of grass had managed to get accumulated in my shoes. For some reason, this, or the tiny blotches of mud on the end of my joggers didn’t bother me.

After traveling a considerable distance, I heard the burbling of water flowing and, hitting on the boulders along the way. Cold sweats had started forming on my forehead and, I was planning to wait on the bridge as no one uses it after dark.

The bridge has four lampposts on all edges. But the fog was even thicker at the trough of the hills. I had to depend on the tiny beam of light emitting from my phone to reach the bridge. I put my phone inside my jacket pocket and stood there listening to the sound of water, the only evidence to prove the existence of a river flowing beneath.

I retracted my hands as fast as I had placed them on the railings. I had forgotten how cold it is, the droplets of water sticking to the metallic surface. But the chilling cold shooting up through the veins of my hand, almost making it numb didn’t feel bad. Maybe it’s a December thing.  It made me remember all the Christmas I had spent here on Nyxspires Mansion. Not all the things that had happened. But the joy I had felt at heart.

I suddenly felt light. Like something heavy was lifted from my chest.

I liked it and I wanted it to continue for a few seconds. I knew that eventually I would look at my phone, open the news portal link sent to my old college Whatsapp group, and read through the report about the death of a 25-year-old girl, found hanging from the altar of an abandoned church.

She’d been missing for four days and what had been found was three days old. But the report was very vague.

I closed my eyes and I remembered her smile. The most beautiful and the most original smile I have seen in my entire life. She was gorgeous, yes. But it wasn’t just the dark wavy hair tied into a ponytail, the brown eyes, or the heart-shaped face. There was something inexplicably magical about this girl. Her smiling at me always made me feel like standing on a meadow on a summer morning, with the dews melting at my feet and the rays of the sun striking on my face. I guess that was the last good thing that had happened to me.

When I met Annette during the orientation day of my first year of college, I instantly realized how undeserving I was of this girl. My life was such a mess and, with all my heart, I wished it would improve over time. I wasn’t very surprised when it hadn’t. Born are some; to the endless night, I used to think.

But Annette was still there. Very much alive.

She would be on her way into the Art history building and that was where we crossed paths every Monday for four years. For a brief moment, she would look at me and raise her hand, gesturing a hello. Then we would go on our separate ways. We never became friends beyond that. But I loved seeing her there every Monday. I didn’t realize how much I’d loved it until I completed college and my Mondays became dull and lifeless.

It took me not many fortnights to realize that she wasn’t a mere hallway crush. I had never really talked to this person or know her at all to be in love with her either. But I guess, if good things are a rare occurrence in your life you try to hold on to those memories.

After college, I never tried to contact Annette or even look her up. I guess I never wanted her to get to know me while I am at my worst. But she was there, in the back of my mind.

Hundreds of my earliest mornings, I dreamt I was back in college, on the way to my psychology building on a Monday morning. And at the end of the lane, she will be there, waiting for me. I would feel light and hope filling my heart. My eyes would well up with happiness. I had never completed that dream though. I’ve tried to hold on to it a bit longer. But the lane never seemed to end.

The worst feeling in the world was waking up into the sad reality after that mesmerizing dream.

In the summer after my graduation, I got a job abroad. I left Nyxspires Mansion and it’s been four years since. All through those four years, I had resisted the urge to come back.

Maybe it’s because everyone kept telling me that Nyxspires Mansion is cursed and it brings no happiness to anyone who lives here. Yes, Nyxspires Mansion had been the scene of numerous deaths, eerie and mysterious. The gothic Victorian architecture didn’t help it’s reputation. Numerous stories are popular in the village about the ghosts that walk on our grounds. They were told and repeated by hundreds of villagers thousands of times. Some of them have drastically improved in recent years, I have heard. Thanks to the neo-noir cinemas and books.

Every building that stood the test of time has its share of mysteries and ghosts associated with it. Nyxspires Mansion is no different. But that doesn’t essentially mean they are true.

I wasn’t scared of ghosts. Unlike the servants who leave the property before dusk. Only Margaret stays.

And I never blame Nyxspires Mansion for what had happened to me. Endless nights is what it is. Yet, all my happy memories have Nyxspires Mansion closely associated with it. That was the reason why I had come back for the Christmas holidays.

As my thoughts started to wander, the sweet smell of lilacs made me come back to my senses.

“It’s been so long, Joe. I thought you would never come back”

I turned around, startled.

Rachel, the only friend I had in my childhood, was happy to see me back.

“Hey Rach…” I couldn’t hide my happiness in seeing her after all those years. She hasn’t changed a bit. The same old muddy brown hair and blue watery eyes and the kind face. Every time I hear Ave Maria playing, I think of Rachel. She is the kind of person, you instantly like.

After catching up for all the years apart, she asked me

“Why’d you call me this time of the night? What happened?”

I don’t know how but she always knew if something was bothering me.

I showed her the phone with the news portal open.

“So she is Annette….I am sorry Joe. This must be hard for you” Rachel said after going through the barely two-full paragraph news report with Annette’s picture in one half and a stock image of a girl hanging on the other half, between the two paragraphs.

I’ve told Rachel about Annette a lot, every semester break when I come home. But never showed her a picture.

“I don’t know. Sad, of course. But I don’t know why? I can barely call her my friend. I am not sure if she ever remembered me after college. Then why am I feeling miserable?”

Rachel looked at me for a second before answering. I know she wanted to hold me tight in a hug and tell me it’s going to be alright. But she knew I hated it when people say that. It’s the cruelest lie.

So she just said

“Because now you think for sure that she could never love you back”

She was right.

I could never get Annette to love me back as I love her.  A part of me still hopes I could. I guess that had made it even worse. In an ideal situation, I could’ve easily let go. But something was holding me back.

“I guess I should be going,” I said. The cold was becoming unbearable. “You coming?”

“No. See you in the morning, Joe. And believe me, you will feel better in the morning.”

Rachel never comes to Nyxspires Mansion after dark. I don’t think she is scared of ghosts. She just doesn’t like the house after dark. But she will be the one waking me up in the morning. She always does when I am in Nyxspires Mansion.

The walk back wasn’t easy as the icy cold wind blowing downhill had an unusual force to it.

Before I reached the front door, I smelled the garlic. Margaret always hung garlic across the top frame of the door. I had always wanted to tell her that it works only for Vampires and we don’t have any, not that I have heard of. But I choose to keep my mouth shut and let her do whatever makes her feel safe.

I returned to my room and sat on the same chair from which I had left. The person sitting on the opposite chair, across the small wooden table, looked up.

“What took you so long?” Annette asked me.

“I was just catching up with an old friend. Did Margaret scare you?”

“Nah. But I think she could sense something is wrong. She even left a few garlic near the door. Didn’t you tell her that won’t work?”

“Nope” I just smiled.

I loved having Annette here.

She has changed a bit in the last few years. The ponytail disappeared and now it’s short, barely touching the shoulders. Like a tomboy.

For a brief moment, I had forgotten the fact that she had died. It felt like we were on a date.

I felt bad not telling Rachel the whole thing.

But now, we, Annette and I (I love saying that) have some work to do.

“Where were we?” I asked Annette, taking my notepad from the table. For once, I felt truly like a therapist.

“I was telling you the things I remember and then you got the news, making it official. I thought you were supposed to switch off your phone while with patients”. Then she brought her hands together, crossed the fingers, and pointed both the index fingers to her chin, moving them back and forth as she continued, smiling mischievously

“If I am guessing right, some part of you never believed what I said and hoped it was a big prank”

I knew she wished the same, as much as I did.

“But dude, how cool is it that you could see ghosts. I couldn’t believe it when I heard.”

“Who told you that?” I wondered for the first time since I saw her next to my bed the night before.

“A girl named Rachel. Told me she knows you, that you had helped her find out what had happened to her and that you will help me. I think she adores you. And she seems super nice. How did she die?”

Anand Jose

ANAND JOSE is currently working as an Engineer in Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, after graduating from College Of Engineering Trivandrum in Mechanical Engineering. He loves the Murder Mystery genre and considers himself the biggest fan of Agatha Christie. He wishes to create stories and characters that can blow peoples mind and make them wish for another page once they complete the book.

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