The chaos on the dark streets made Francesca curious. She peeked through the smudgy window in her room from the first floor. Both the young and old hurried along the rocky path carrying bundles of clothes and yelling at each other to walk faster.
“Come on, move man.”
“We have to leave before midnight.”
“Why did we have to wait till the last minute?”
Wiping the glass with the hem of her dress, Francesca waved at them. Getting no response, she poked her head out and hollered. “Hello!”
No one bothered to even glance except for a seven-year-old boy. He paused to wave at her.
“Where are you going?” Francesca asked.
“Away! The area is cursed.” He replied as his mother dragged him with her. She glared at Francesca.
Francesca ran to her parents’ room. They were arguing when she skidded to a halt and blurted. “They are leaving.”
Mary gave Steve a look. He sighed and gestured for Francesca to sit beside him on the bed. “Fannie, don’t bother about it. Papa will keep you safe.”
Mary snorted. “You should have inquired before purchasing the house.”
Francesca looked confused. “What is it, papa? I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. But I intend to find out. Area 153 was supposed to be the safest in the district. But people began complaining about mysterious sounds and sightings around the ruined bungalow.” Steve looked grim.
“Eight people have disappeared without a trace, Steve. There is no other explanation.” Mary went to the window and looked at the abandoned land around the house. She could hear the rumble of voices that moved away with each passing second.
Steve ruffled Francesca’s hair and smiled at her. She noticed how his eyes remained serious. She turned to her mother. “Mama, do you think ghosts killed the people?”
“I don’t know what to think. We invested a lot of money to purchase this house. We cannot even afford to vacate. We barely have any money left.” Francesca did not miss the hard note in her mother’s voice. She suppressed a sigh. It was always the same. Mary was never happy with anything Steve did. She always found something or the other to complain.
“What are we going to do, papa?” The best thing was to ignore her mother’s rants. Francesca knew from experience.
“Not we, Fannie. You will stay at home with mama. I will go and see what the ruckus is all about.” Steve told her with determination. Being an investigative journalist, he had a flair for digging up the truth from unlikely places.
“But, I want to come with you.” Francesca pouted. She was seventeen; old enough to help her father unravel a mystery.
Both Steve and Mary spoke at the same time. Francesca sighed loud enough for her mother to glower. Why did they have to agree about this one issue?
Francesca knew better than to argue. She would have to find a way to help her father. “I am going to my room.” She dragged her feet towards the door.
“Fannie, you will sleep in this room. I don’t want you slipping out behind my back. Steve is used to danger. You are not.” Mary ordered. Her expression left no room for argument.
Well, she’d have to devise another plan. “Are you leaving now?” She asked as Steve donned his jacket. Checking the automatic, he stuffed it into the coat pocket along with a powerful flashlight.
He nodded. “I’ll be back soon.” He hugged Franscesca and Mary.
“Be careful, Steve. We haven’t unpacked your camera yet.” Concern tinged Mary’s voice. She knew she couldn’t stop him from going.
With one last wave, Steve left. A minute later, they heard the front door close with a soft bang. Mary turned to Francesca. “You stay exactly where you are, Fannie. I’m going to lock the doors and windows.”
Francesca stuck out her tongue at her mother’s back. She went to the closet and searched for a box marked fragile. Finding it, she placed it on the floor and dug out her father’s camera wrapped in multiple layers of paper.
By the time Mary came back, Francesca was lying on the bed, the blanket pulled up to her chin. Looking at her suspiciously, Mary climbed beside her.
“Fannie, I mean it. Please, don’t go out alone.” Her fear was evident in her voice.
Francesca nodded and mumbled a good night. She would have to go and help her father.
“Papa!” Francesca’s whisper echoed in the eerie night. She tugged the shawl closer and walked through the gates that led to the infamous bungalow. She had to wait for two hours before Mary was finally asleep after fretting about Steve.
Getting no response, she crept forward scanning the place using her tiny flashlight. It was larger than she thought. The extensive gardens had overgrown creepers and stupendous shrubs. Ivy covered half the right side of the house. A foul smell hung heavily in the air.
Wrinkling her nose, Francesca thought it came from the wild bushes. She ran to the house and halted at the porch steps. The house loomed, threatening to swallow her. She took a few pictures using the camera.
“Papa!” She called. There was no response. As she debated her next move, Francesca heard a faint scraping sound.
Gulping her fear, she took a tentative step forward. The broad oak door was half open. She flashed the beam inside the house. Francesca noted broken furniture and specks of dust dancing in the air. A wide staircase led to the first floor that extended into right and left wing corridors.
Francesca heard the sound again. She entered the house and stood in the middle of the hall. The floor was dirty with mud streaks and feathers. Before she could wonder about the feathers, two green eyes peered at her from behind a tall flowerpot.
Without warning, the cat jumped right in front of Francesca making her take a step back. Her legs hit a toppled chair. She lost her balance.
“Oww!” She yelped and glared at the brown cat streaked with dirt. It walked away without a sound.
Cursing the cat, Francesca dusted her dress and looked around.
“Fannie.” She heard a hoarse whisper.
It was tough to guess the caller, but only her family and friends called her Fannie. They moved in recently. She made no friends in Area 153. Deciding it must be her father, Francesca walked towards the staircase. She trod carefully, away from the broken glass. The floorboards creaked under her delicate weight.
“Papa, where are you?” She squinted into the dark. Francesca had no idea which wing to explore.
“Fannie, save me.” It was Steve’s voice. She ran to her right and raced up a set of stairs. The cry came from above. Her movements disturbed the layers of dust. She sneezed and held a hand to her nose clicking the button of the camera with the other. The stairs led her to the second floor, which was small and dark. The flashlight began to flicker.
“Papa! I am here.” Francesca called out. She noticed two rooms with the doors locked. Maybe Steve was in one of those. She turned a knob. The door opened. Francesca flashed the dying beam into the room. It was empty except for the cobwebs that weaved in intricate patterns throughout the ceiling.
With a frown, she tried the other door. It was locked. There must be a way to open the door without using keys. Francesca used her hairpin to turn the lock. Steve taught her to pick locks when she was ten. Mary hadn’t approved, but Steve did not bother. He felt she should be capable of extracting herself from tricky situations. It included learning how to defend herself from unwanted attention as well.
At the sound of the click, she swung the door open. The room too was empty. Francesca knew she was missing something. The room was neat, a contrast to the rest of the house. She heard her father call for her but found him nowhere. Lightning flashed through the window blinding her. A deep rumble of thunder followed.
Francesca was surprised at the sudden change in the weather. Despite being a new moon night, the sky was cloudless when she stepped out of her house. Clouds must have rolled in fast for the storm to brew so quickly. Lightning flashed again. Francesca saw a ship’s helm hanging on the wall opposite her. Her flashlight gave away. She tucked it into the pocket of her dress. She tried to take pictures, but the button got stuck. The thunder rattled the windows.
Squaring her shoulders, Francesca tried to turn the wheel. She had no idea what prompted her to try it. If she walked away, maybe things would have ended otherwise.
As she turned the wheel, the wall at the far end of the room parted to reveal a dark passage. Gasping, Francesca tiptoed across the floor to reach the secret passage.
Her heart raced at the prospect of stepping into a path that was likely to be filled with spiders and rats. Lightning flashed continuously. Francesca spied a shiny object two feet ahead of her. It was Steve’s automatic. Her breath caught. Steve was in danger. She had to save him.
“Fannie!” Mary looked murderous.
Francesca turned with a hand to her throat. “Mama.”
Her mother was supposed to be asleep in the house.
“You will never change, will you? I told you repeatedly not to come here alone, but you had to come following your father.” She caught Francesca’s wrist in a wise like grip and dragged her away.
Francesca dug in her heels. “Mama, I found papa’s gun. He is in trouble. We have to save him.” She showed the automatic in her hand.
Mary’s hand trembled as she reached for it. “Fannie, go home. I’ll find Steve.
“No, mama. I will stay with you.” Francesca was adamant. She would never leave her parents alone in a rumoured haunted house.
With a shake of her head, Mary held Francesca’s hand and went into the passage. She knew it was madness, but she was worried. Steve never let go of his gun before. It alarmed her more than she cared to admit. The house gave her chills. A feeling of dread seeped into her bones and refused to let her breathe. Francesca looked unaffected by the evil vibes swirling around them.
A few steps downwards took them to a dungeon. Francesca tripped on the last step. Rubbing her toe, she saw that it was her father’s flashlight. Mary gasped.
“It’s not working, just like me. Even the camera button got stuck. Mama, what is happening?” Francesca murmured. The dungeon made her wary.
“Fannie! Mary! Help me!” It was Steve. The agony in his voice made them cringe. Frantically they searched for a place where Steve could be. Mary found a left turn and pulled Francesca with her.
They stared in disbelief. They stood on the threshold of a clearing with a rock in the centre. On it sat a furry monster baring his yellow fangs at them. His eyes glowed red while his grey hair touched the floor. He had a crimson robe with emeralds studded into the collar.
“Welcome, my dears. I’ve been waiting for you.” The voice belonged to Steve.
“Papa!” Francesca couldn’t think. She spied a lifeless body lying at the far end of the place.
“Yes, Fannie. I am your papa. A little different, but still your papa. Come to me, darling.” He extended his arms. Mary held on to Francesca. They had to get out of there.
“You killed my papa.” Francesca wailed.
“No, Mary. You cannot escape.” He said reading her thoughts.
Mary fired the gun at him. The sound echoed in the dungeon. Rocks shook and threatened to roll over. The bullets did not pierce through his thick skin. Mary flinched. She shielded Francesca who shut her ears, from the view.
“Your weapons are useless.” He roared with laughter.
Tears spilt from Mary’s eyes. She had to save her daughter. “What do you want?”
He rubbed his hands with a smirk. “You and you.” He pointed at them both.
Mary took a step back and tried to run with Francesca. Rocks crashed onto the floor blocking their path. She sobbed.
“I warned you.” He bellowed.
“Let her go. Take me.” Mary pleaded.
He shook his head. “I need both of you. I’ve waited for more than a century to accumulate a million souls in exchange for my release from the devil. I need to capture your tonight. When the townsfolk left, I was sad that I had to wait. But Steve walked in and now you both.”
“Why tonight?” It was Francesca. She peeked at him from the corner of her eyes.
“It is a new moon night. I will be free at last.” His excitement was evident in his voice.
“Please, let us go. Papa would never harm us.” Francesca implored.
His laughter resonated in the dungeon. “I snatched his soul, but not for replacing mine. I do not have a soul. Time’s up.”
“No!” Mary shrieked as a burst of a light hit from the monster’s hand hit her. She pushed Francesca behind her.
Francesca stared helplessly as the light fluttered and shimmered. Mary slumped to the ground. Her eyes lids fluttered. She tried to raise her hand to touch Francesca one last time, but the effort was too much for her.
Francesca cried holding Mary’s lifeless body. The man’s features changed. His arms bulged. The sheer size of him made Francesca tremble. Still, she would not give up without a fight. She flung the empty gun and rocks at him in desperation. Nothing happened.
“Poor, Fannie. I have the power of almost a million souls. Nothing can harm me. Be satisfied that you will be the last person I kill.” He flexed his palm. Francesca felt her body wither. Her head drooped as he squeezed and sucked her soul from her body. Francesca’s body lay beside her mother’s.
A thunderbolt struck the roof. The monster bawled as the bricks from the roof collapsed on him. The building shook violently. Earth cracked beneath his feet. The gap widened until he fell through, right into the hot flames that licked at his skin.
His body was burnt into ashes releasing the souls trapped inside, only to be seized by the devil himself.
The dirty brown cat looked disinterested as the house crumbled to the ground. With a yawn, it went back to sleep, safe from the raging storm under a thick bush. By the cat’s side lay a shiny object.
A few years later, the townsfolk were back. The news of the collapsed building reached them. A committee investigated the place and declared it safe. A new family consisting of a middle-aged couple and three children resided at Francesca’s house. No have any idea what happened to them.
One day, the youngest of the children found a camera in the cellar. Upon examining, the camera had a reel of film loaded. The family was stunned to find the pictures of Francesca in the crumbled house with a brown cat beside her. It was the same stray cat they family occasionally fed.