Dead of Winter ~ First Place
The house was old and cold. I was there at my mother’s request; Granny refused to leave her home at Christmas, so we were going to visit her instead. Because my college term had finished, I was the advance guard. It was my job to clean and shop and make everything ready for the family to descend.
Granny wasn’t one for conversation. I got “You like your sleep, don’t you?” in the mornings, “this soup is too hot,” at lunchtime, and “I’m off to bed now. Do try not to disturb me, and leave the liquor cabinet alone. I’ll know if you’ve been near it,” in the evenings.
I don’t think she liked me very much, even though she barely knew me. Maybe that was why. I tried my best, putting on a smile for her and acquiescing to her wishes, strange as they might be. Leaving the liquor cabinet alone was no problem; I had no liking for the sharp taste of alcohol. But some of her other orders troubled me more, like the prohibition on my using the back stairs.
They were the servants’ stairs in the days when the house had employed a full staff. Now that it was just Granny and the three-days-a-week cleaner, no one used them and I wagered they were filled with dust, cobwebs and insects. I didn’t understand why she was so vehemently opposed to their use. But she was insistent. I shrugged and agreed that they would remain locked.
It was only as I was preparing rooms for my family to stay in that my dilemma arose. The house was large, with almost twenty guest rooms. Plenty of room for everyone. The main stairs were great for accessing the rooms to the front of the house, but it was quite a trek to reach those rooms toward the rear. The back stairs, on the other hand, would cut my journeys back and forth with bedding and towels by half, if not more.
I had keys to every room strung on a metal ring big enough to be a bracelet. That was another thing: if I were to avoid the back stairs, why had she given me keys that opened the doors at the top and bottom? It was too much for me. I flinched as the key grated in the lock, but I turned it all the way, opening the door at the top of the back stairs.
Feeling around for a light switch, I became caught in sticky webs and heard the tiny rips as I pulled them free of the wall. I found the cool plastic and flipped the switch up. A bare bulb flickered on and off several times before deciding to stay lit. A narrow stairwell was revealed by the sudden flood of light, and it was just as I had expected: filthy.
Perhaps it was a better idea to leave these stairs alone, I thought as my shoes crunched on something lying on the bare wooden boards. Maybe the wood was rotten. It seemed stable enough as I took my first step downwards. I remembered the trips along the endless corridors to the main stairs and then back again, and thought, to hell with it. I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use these stairs. Ma and Da and all the uncles and aunts are arriving tomorrow, and I still have a whole load of work to do before this place is ready. Why should I make it any more difficult for myself? To hell with it.
I walked down the stairs, taking them slowly in case the wood wasn’t as solid as it looked.
Granny never need know. She would be out at her friend’s coffee morning until at least four o’ clock.
When I reached the bottom my shadow blocked most of the light, and I had to feel for the keyhole. It wasn’t difficult to find, however, and I soon stepped out into the corridor next to the kitchen. Perfect. It would make my life a whole lot easier. I went to fill the vases with flowers brought from the market especially.
As I was half way back up the stairs, loaded down with the tray full of vases, the bulb above my head went out with a ping.
“Oh, great,” I said, stopping dead. It was annoying, but not that much of a problem; I could see the open doorway at the top shining brightly. Continuing on, I paused at the top when I thought I heard a sound. It was a rustling, like someone crumpling a paper bag. I froze. Had Granny come back early? There was nothing else to hear, so I carried on into the corridor, nudging the door closed behind me. Gently putting the tray down, I ran along to the main stairs and down them two at a time, looking around. There was no sign of Granny, or anyone else. God knew what that strange sound was then. Probably just the house creaking. It did that a lot, although I had thought I was getting used to it. I returned to the rooms to continue my preparations.
When I found myself outside the back stairs door, arms full of cleaning products, I paused. I’d forgotten the light had died.
To hell with it again.
I started off down the stairs, trusting my judgment as to where the next step was. The amount of light streaming past me grew less and less as I progressed, one crunching step at a time. When I was just over half way down, the door at the top swung closed with a creak straight out of a Halloween haunted house. Utter darkness prevailed, and I stopped, straddled between two stairs. I was nearer the bottom than the top, so I took another step downward, finding the stair easily enough despite my darkness-induced vertigo.
And then I heard that sound again. A crinkle, a rustle. Behind me.
“Hello?” I said, feeling silly, but unable to stay silent. “Is there anyone there?”
Nothing. I swallowed, and took another step downward.
“It’s not fair.”
The voice had come from above, and was small and faint. A child’s; a girl’s.
I dropped my armful of plastic bottles, and they clattered down the stairs with a huge noise in the otherwise quiet house. As the last one rolled to a halt, I grabbed at the walls to stop myself falling forward.
“I had so much I wanted to do.”
“Who’s that?” I asked, immediately ashamed that I sounded high-pitched and scared. I tried again. “Is that you, Amy?”
Amy was the cleaner’s daughter who sometimes came along with her mother during the school vacation.
“My name is Eleanor.”
“What are you doing in here?” I didn’t know an Eleanor. “Does Mrs. Henderson know you’re here?”
“It’s not fair,” Eleanor said again.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be here. Let’s go down to the kitchen, and I’ll drive you home.” I took another step down, my clammy hands sticking to the cold plaster of the walls.
“I am home.”
“No, I don’t think so. Mrs. Henderson lives here on her own. Are you lost?”
“Lost? Oh, yes. I’ve lost everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“There was so much I wanted to do. I had plans.”
She had lost me; I had no idea what she was talking about. “Come downstairs,” I said, “and we’ll sort it out.”
“I can’t. And you shouldn’t take that next step. You’ll fall.”
I stopped, foot hovering out over the next stair. After a fraction of a second, I pulled it back to the stair I stood on, safe enough.
“There’s a bottle on the next step.”
“How can you see that?”
“I just can. You’ll have to believe me.”
“Did Mrs. Henderson hire you to help me out?” I found that hard to believe, but not impossible: she no doubt thought I wasn’t doing a good enough job of preparing things.
“Then who are you?”
“I’m Madam’s daughter, Miss Eleanor.”
“Mrs. Henderson’s daughters are Katherine and Denise. Denise is my mother. I don’t know an Eleanor.”
But suddenly I did. We didn’t call her that, of course. Anything other than Mother, Granny, or Mrs. Henderson was frowned upon. My mind whirled as I was slowly sucked into this girl’s story.
“What are you doing here?”
“You don’t understand. I don’t do anything any more. I’m just waiting.”
“She who pushed me.”
“I’m afraid you’ve lost me. Why don’t we go somewhere where I can see what’s happening, and you can tell me all about it.” I was entirely fed up with standing in the chill dark, talking to someone who wasn’t making the least bit of sense.
“I have to wait here.”
“I don’t know. Maybe because this is where I died.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Was she mad? Or was I talking to a ghost?
“Where you died?” I repeated, more than a hint of disbelief in my tone.
“That’s right. She pushed me down the stairs, but everyone thought I’d slipped and fallen.”
“Who pushed you?”
“Charlotte. She was a tweenie here.”
“A tweenie? What’s that?”
I could feel her scowl. It came through in her voice. “A between-stairs maid. Not a scrubber, but not a ladies’ maid either. In between.”
“When was this supposed to have happened?” I asked.
“April 17th, 1934. Charlotte just had her ninth birthday. Mine was two weeks away. We were almost exactly the same age, you see.”
It made sense. Granny’s birthday, strictly forbidden though it was to mention it, was the thirtieth of April. Whoever—whatever—this Eleanor was, she’d done her research.
“We even looked alike. Mother thought it was nice that there was someone the same age for me to play with. But Charlotte wasn’t my friend. She was a nasty girl. And she pushed me down the stairs and took my place. Of course no one would have believed she’d done it, even if I had been able to tell them.”
“What do you mean, she took your place?”
“I was to return to school that afternoon, and she put on my uniform, took my trunk, and left in my place. I don’t think Mother ever noticed.” She sighed, and I felt bad for her. “And I stayed here.”
“What about when people found you? Didn’t they know you weren’t Charlotte?”
“Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. No one said anything.”
“So you’re a ghost?” I felt silly speaking the word, but that seemed to be exactly what this Eleanor was saying.
“Yes. I must be. I know I’m dead, but I’m still here.”
We stood in silence until I couldn’t bear it any more. I didn’t know what to believe, but Eleanor was so terribly sad, and it tore at my soul. “Please, let’s get out of this darkness; come and have some coffee with me.”
“I’d love to, but I can’t. I have to stay here. But I’ll move those bottles out of your way, so you may leave.”
A shiver brushed up against me, rubbing against my bare skin like an ice-cat, and I heard the sound of plastic scraping on wood. It was immense in the silence and my heart pounded in my chest.
“There you are,” she whispered up close to my ear, and I almost leapt forward into the blackness. “It’s safe now.”
I somehow knew I could trust her, so I stepped down, my eyes wide but unseeing. My foot found the stair clear of any obstructions. Had there ever been anything there in the first place?
“Thank you,” I said, and took another step onward. Hands outstretched, I stopped when my fingertips brushed the door, and shuffled forward until I had traversed all the steps. I grabbed the handle, but paused.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.
“If you see Charlotte, you could tell her I’m waiting here for her.”
I nodded. I think ‘Charlotte’ already knew that. That must be why she’d banned anyone from using these stairs. “I will,” I said, and turned the door handle. Light burst into the space and I blinked at the sudden brightness. Turning around, I could see only stairs heading up into the darkness. At the bottom, bottles of plastic cleaning fluid had been pushed to the sides of the stairway. I picked them up, and looked one more time into the darkness. Perhaps I had imagined it.
“Goodbye, Kate,” Eleanor said, and I saw a small, pale hand held out, its arm vanishing into the gloom.
I left the door open.
“Is everything ready for tomorrow?” Granny asked me that night at dinner. “The rooms? The provisions? Is everything clean? When are they arriving?”
“Everything’s fine. People are turning up after lunch, and we’re ready for them.”
“Are you sure?”
There. It was out.
She froze, her fork half way to her mouth. It felt like hours until she blinked, and put her fork down on the plate with a clink.
I forced myself to swallow my mouthful of food, and waited.
“You’ve opened the back stairs.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, instead watching the wine swirl as she picked up her glass.
“Yes,” I said. “She’s still there, waiting for you.”
Her thin hand shook and she put her glass back down. One drop of scarlet fell to stain the pristine tablecloth.
Her chair scraped back as she stood up. Shooting a dire look at me, she turned and left.
I pushed my plate away; I’d lost my appetite.
Christmas was a strange affair. Granny avoided me whenever possible, and yet managed to keep a close eye on me at the same time. Everyone else was bright and jolly, and we had fun. I was left to stay on at the house again after the festivities to clear up. I didn’t mind; there was more to clear up in that house than just crumbs and streamers. In the end, though, I didn’t have to do anything.
I found Granny—Charlotte—on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I was leaving later that day and I suppose I wanted to say goodbye to Eleanor. But as I opened the back stairs door by the kitchen, Granny spilled out into the corridor at my feet. She was cold, lifeless.
“Eleanor?” I called, looking up at the stairs. There was no reply.
The light bulb half way up the stairwell flickered on and off in rapid succession. The stairs were old, dirty and empty.
“Goodbye Eleanor,” I said. “Rest easy, now. Try to forgive her, please?”
The light died one final time and the house creaked peacefully around me.
Leila is an eternal student who would pretty much always rather be writing. She has published horror and fantasy stories in magazines including The Eternal Night, Bloodlust UK, Between Kisses, Here & Now, Alien Skin, and her work has appeared in various anthologies, with yet others winning contests. For more details, see her website. E-mail: leila[at]darksites.com.