The shapes in the darkness leapt forward as Gabriel switched off his phone.
They were just in his head; his visual cortex reeling from the change in illumination and trying to make sense of the incoming data. There wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
Nevertheless, the hair stood up on the back of his neck and gooseflesh swept his shoulders as inky clouds flowed from the corners of the room, aware of him and the sudden freedom they had been granted by the extinguishing of the light.
There was a creak somewhere in the house.
Gabriel shuffled backwards in his sleeping bag until his shoulders were against the wall. Any sounds he heard would have a rational explanation. Rats in the walls or pigeons in the attic.
The creak came again. Was someone trying to sneak up on him? He wouldn’t have put it past some people to play a trick to prove a point, although this invalidated their position. There were no such things as ghosts and if gullible fools felt it necessary to fake one, then it just proved that deep down they knew they were wrong and he was right.
Gabriel clung to his non-belief as strongly as to his phone as his eyes stared into the darkness of the room. There was nothing here and he had his own point to prove.
The creak was right outside the door.
Perhaps someone else had decided to spend the night here. Someone homeless? A psychopath? That was something to be afraid of. He rooted around inside his rucksack for the hammer.
Gabriel was beginning to regret making the bet. At the time he’d thought it was easy money.
He’d been in the Barleycorn with Shamus and Helena. After a couple of pints their talk had turned to the supernatural.
When they’d met, Shamus and Gabriel got along instantly thanks to their shared enthusiasm for science. But since he’d met Helena, Shamus had started developing an interest in that paranormal nonsense. It didn’t take much to work out that this was because he was obsessed with her. Helena kept a pack of tarot cards wrapped in a silk scarf beside her bed, and more than once Gabriel had turned up at the student flat to find her and Shamus sitting cross legged around the coffee table as she gave him another reading.
Although they debated the subject fiercely, Gabriel never criticized Helena’s beliefs as harshly as Shamus’s. He knew why. He liked her as well and fancied his chances with her far more than Shamus’s. He wasn’t mooning around her agreeing with everything she said and reinforcing her delusions. He was challenging them. She’d appreciate that in the long run.
“I’m not saying that ghosts are the spirits of the dead.” Shamus leaned forward and took a gulp of his pint. “But that they’re more than just imagination. Who knows? Maybe violent events leave some kind of scar where they occurred. And maybe people with psychic abilities pick up on that somehow?”
“There’s no proof that psychic abilities exist,” said Gabriel, glancing at Helena where she sat back on the old leather sofa beside Shamus, her half closed eyes regarding him over the rim of her pint of real ale. He was certain she found his attack on Shamus’s wishy-washy position attractive. Even though it contradicted hers — because it contradicted hers. “You’re taking as read something that doesn’t exist as part of your hypothesis about something else that doesn’t exist. That’s bad science. You’re trying to prop up paranormal crap with pseudoscience to give it a veneer of respectability.”
“Reincarnation!” Helena blurted, “What about that?”
Gabriel was lost for words but smiled when he saw Shamus looking annoyed. Helena had a habit of leaping in with non-sequiturs that only weakened the non-skeptical position. It was as if she was doing it deliberately. Gabriel drained his pint and stood up. He’d leave that one hanging there.
“Anyone want another?”
By the time he returned from the bar Shamus and Helena were huddled together, peering at a folded flyer in Helena’s hand. Shamus was leaning a little too close to her for Gabriel’s liking.
Gabriel put the drinks down on the table and reached over to snatch the flyer from them.
“What’s all this then?”
“Oi!” Shamus frowned. Helena giggled.
“Ghost Hunters Society? Don’t tell me they’re getting funding from the Student Union!”
“Why not?” said Shamus, “It’s just as valid as Student Radio or Rugby Society!”
That was clever. Gabriel hated Student Radio and loathed rugby but had never objected to their actual existence. He had to hand it to Shamus.
“Not the same thing at all!” Gabriel gestured with the flyer while marshaling his thoughts. He was a little more drunk than planned. “They’re leisure activities! I don’t like them but can’t argue with their existence. Whereas this…”
“OK, Christian Students then,” Shamus said.
Damn it. Another good one. To counter it, Gabriel began reading out the contents of the flyer in a silly voice, Helena started giggling and even Shamus cracked a smile after a minute.
“I mean, come on! The Most Haunted House in the South of England! Who buys into this crap?”
Gabriel put the hammer away and pulled the sleeping bag around him. It was unlikely that there was anyone else in the house. It was isolated on the outskirts of the village. The only way here was by car.
Gabriel checked his phone. It was 1am–five hours since Helena and Shamus had dropped him off. He wondered what they were up to and hoped it wasn’t anything intimate.
He switched off the phone; the battery was getting low and he wanted to be able to text Shamus in the morning to prove his point. He was convinced that the Haunted House reputation had arisen solely from the fact that the house was isolated and had been empty for years.
There was nothing to be afraid of. He lay down and closed his eyes. Quite apart from anything else the whole thing was illogical. The only reason people believed in ghosts was because they were desperate not to die. Not to stop existing at the end of their lives.
So if anything actually seeing a ghost should be reassuring.
His ears strained into the silent dark. A chilling draft caressed the back of his neck like dead fingers.
The previous afternoon Gabriel had discussed the fear of death with Shamus while waiting for Helena to turn up with her car.
“What’s the point of being scared?” Gabriel said. “You stop. Afterwards there’s nothing to feel and no you to feel it. You’re not afraid of the years before you were born are you? It’s exactly the same thing. I’m not keen on the suffering that might come before dying, but in that instance dying would be a relief.”
“But by your own argument there would be no you to be relieved!”
“Yes.” Gabriel smiled. “And that’s exactly my main point. There is no you to suffer.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Shamus, “I like being me. I don’t want to be nothing. Isn’t it possible that your essence survives the annihilation of the body? Some science we don’t understand yet?”
“Wishful thinking.” Gabriel shouldered his rucksack as he heard Helena pull up outside. “There’s no proof whatsoever we survive dying. It’s a contradiction in terms. Dying means ceasing to be. If you could survive that it wouldn’t be dying would it?”
Gabriel opened his eyes to darkness. The smell of damp was stronger. Against the odds he’d fallen asleep. He remembered lying there, chilled by the draft through the floorboards. It was only now, emerging back into full wakefulness that he realized he’d dropped off.
There had been no dreams. That was unusual. Instead there was a void in his consciousness; like that time he’d had a general anesthetic.
He’d been afraid then. He’d never admitted that to anyone. He recalled the terror as the cold liquid had flowed into his veins and he’d slipped under. That last thought as the hospital gurney had risen up through his body and turned him to mist.
What if I don’t wake up?
It was instinct. The human brain was an intricate machine, finely tuned by millennia of evolution to survive at all costs. The fear of death was deep rooted.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t rise above it. That was what being civilized was about–the enlightenment of the scientific method. Fear was an outdated instinct, a vestige of the animal past.
The draft through the floorboards was stronger now. Gabriel twisted in the sleeping bag but no matter what position he tried the bitter air was making his exposed skin icy.
He was reluctant to open his eyes. He reached for his phone and switched it on. He pulled the sleeping bag up over his head and squinted at the screen.
That time in the middle of the night when the human body temperature dropped to its lowest level.
Apart from death.
Gabriel did not like these thoughts. He was determined to pull the sleeping bag from his head and sit up. There was no decent phone signal here but he could still play Angry Birds for half an hour.
10% of battery remaining
That couldn’t be right. When he’d gone to sleep it had been at around 40%.
He tapped the message to dismiss it only for another to appear.
5% of battery remaining
That was impossible. His eyes flicked to the battery indicator at the top right hand corner of the screen.
4% … 3% … 2%…
The screen went dark. He blinked, trying to remain calm. It wasn’t the end of the world. He could walk down to the village in the morning and use a phone box. He reached out of the sleeping bag to place the phone on the floor.
It was freezing out there. Far better to seal himself in the sleeping bag, no matter how stuffy it might be.
But having let go of the phone Gabriel couldn’t pull his hand back inside. There was a band of deeper cold fastened around his wrist.
Like a skeletal hand with bones of frozen carbon dioxide.
Gabriel couldn’t breathe. The skin of his wrist tingled and went numb. His panicking animal brain had no time for scientific analysis. It dragged him upright, eyes straining into the blackness.
Afterimages of the phone’s screen danced before him, preternaturally bright against the darkness of the room. But behind them–
There was a shape squatting on top of the sleeping bag, a distillation of the darkness around him.
Gabriel began to shudder, but whether from the cold or fear he couldn’t have said, the two feelings had merged into one inescapable truth from which it was impossible to struggle free.
This had to be an illusion, a hallucination. This pathetic fear was something he could conquer if he tried hard enough. He forced himself to speak.
“There’s nothing!” he hissed. The breath bloomed in front of his face and through that he could see detail in the dark form in front of him. Eye sockets, a mouth.
Isn’t that what you’ve always been most afraid of? Oblivion?
It released Gabriel’s wrist from its grip and reached out towards his chest.
Fear and intellect are what make you human. Of the two fear is the more powerful. Fear is what kept your ancestors alive. Fear is the real ghost in your machine.
Gabriel flattened himself against the wall. This couldn’t be happening.
Fear requires your respect and acknowledgment as payment.
The shape reached through Gabriel’s chest.
No payment? No protection.
Nothing to feel and no him to feel it? Gabriel knew that this time he wouldn’t wake up again and at that moment would have given anything to carry on living.
The shape stopped his heart.
Chris Limb is a writer and designer living in Brighton, UK. Chris reviews books and audiobooks for the British Fantasy Society and has blogged on a regular basis since mid-2009.
Chris’ finished novels Comeback and Ghostdance are currently being submitted to agents and publishers.
Chris also writes short stories, a number of which have been published over the past couple of years — most recently in the Suspended in Dusk anthology from Books of the Dead press, in Daily Science Fiction, in Common Oddities Speculative Fiction Sideshow and in the Beachfront Starter Home, Good Bones anthology from Crossroad Press. Find him at chrislimb.com.
Image by Tom Rydquist