The Echo of Strangers
by R Thomas Allwin and Richard Wright
When the presence woke her on her first night in the new house, she rolled over and went back to sleep. While it was disturbing having somebody in the room watching her, she was bone tired and dirty, and could not have sustained a panic if the room was on fire.
The second night was a different beast, and she came awake with a horrified gasp. The bedroom was country-dark, and although she felt ridiculously comfortable in her new home she was not yet familiar with its patterns and edges. Curled in a foetal snug beneath the heavy duvet, she stared at what she hoped was the hard line of a set of drawers against the wall and not some lusty intruder looking to set about her. The two bedroom cottage was a mile closer to the mountains than the nearest town, surrounded by sharp and lonely pines. It was the sort of isolation she had craved for most of her urban existence, but none of her fantasies had prepared her for the absolute crush of the night.
Dreams fell away, and common sense stepped into the breach. There was no watching presence. She was alone in the house. The unfamiliarity of the place was playing tricks on her. If she had the courage of her convictions she would climb from her bed and seek out the light switch, but she wasn’t certain she could find it without a fumbling search along the wall. That might spur the watcher who wasn’t there into attacking.
It was quite the dilemma, but she dozed off again before the decision had to be made.
Sharp daylight banished her worst anxieties, but left the niggles intact. Sipping coffee by the kitchen window, looking out past the pines to the foothills and mountains beyond, she tried to put her finger on the problem. The house was lovely, everything she had dreamed of back in the Big Smoke. Even the furnishings abandoned by the previous tenants suited her to a tee, with many pieces a match for what she had left behind. When she had decided to move…
She bounced off that train of thought. Nothing good would come of replaying the circumstances of her leaving the city.
Sunlight sparkled off the water in the sink, glinting yellow. Everything was perfect now. Could that be the problem? Too much perfect? Her subconscious was a devious foe, perfectly capable of laying traps to undermine her new serenity. She was alone, for the first time that she could remember. Of course her mind was trying to fill in the brand new blanks.
When she was putting her jacket on in the hallway she noticed that one of the pictures there was squint, and adjusted it in passing with bruised fingers. At the door, she stopped and turned. There was something about the picture, a harmless black and white photo of a forest by the sea, that called out to her in a discordant voice. No matter how she squinted, she could not find a problem hidden amidst its the sharp black angles. Dismissing it as another trick of the mind, she set out on her morning walk up the track through the trees.
Distance did not help. The discordant voice sang her along as she trudged through the crisp cold, past sepia mounds of dirt and leaves.
When she returned, a layer of sweat freezing on her skin, she was greeted by an umber smell that permeated the house like the ghost of old smoke. She could make no sense of it, nor could she find a source. For reasons she could not explain, she returned over and over again to the now straightened picture in the hallway. Nothing was wrong. The picture was fine.
Nothing was wrong.
That night she woke to the sound of a claw hammer repeatedly hitting a child in the face, while a man bled to death on the floor. It was horrible, and peculiarly specific.
It was also gone before she fully crossed the threshold from dreams to wakefulness, and she could not tell which side of the line she had stood when she heard it.
The watching presence was back though, and this time she forced herself up. Instinct took her straight to the light switch with none of the anticipated fumbling, as though its location had long ago been hard wired into her hand. Lit up, the room was empty. Just the furniture, the empty spaces on her dresser, and her own reflection in the window. She looked like a lonely ghost. Was it possible to haunt yourself?
Determined to lay her fears to rest, she searched the house. After checking that the front and back doors were locked, she swept through the living room and kitchen, looking behind and under things. When she was satisfied she creeped back up the narrow stairs and checked the bathroom.
On the way back to her midnight sheets she paused at the closed door to the second bedroom. After a moment’s consideration, she moved on. There was nobody in that room. She was certain of it.
Sleep proved no less elusive for her comprehensive search of the building. The echo of strangers refused to fade.
As she cleansed in front of the bathroom mirror, she realised how tired she looked without make up on. Was that a recent thing? Her skin was grey, and the teal shadows beneath her eyes were so deep they could have been painted on. The stress of the move, maybe. Stress had always been her downfall. She reached for her moisturizer, and picked up after-shave instead. For a moment she stared at the bottle in her hand, then dropped it in the litter and went to work on her face.
As she was finishing she heard the screams of the telephone, which was trapped in the hallway because that was the only place there was a jack. Despite the many complaints she had made, nobody had arranged to set one up in the living room. Of course they hadn’t. She had only been there three days, and she was alone.
Scurrying down the stairs, keeping an absent-minded eye out for the bright yellow plastic of discarded toys underfoot, she reached it on the seventh ring. The photo on the wall, black trees on grey, watched her as she answered. If it had been a sane thing to do she would have given it the finger.
There was a pause, and a snuffle. Somebody was crying. “He-hello? I…” The woman sounded tired. “Can I speak to Jim please?”
“I don’t know who that is. Do you have the right number?”
The woman reeled off the right address, then hesitated. “Is that… are you…”
“I’m sorry, I’ve only been here a couple of days. There was a family here before me I think. Is that who you’re looking for?”
“Yes! Yes! My husband… ex-husband, and our son. With a woman, his twisted… do you have…”
“I’m sorry. They didn’t leave a forwarding address. I took over the lease from…” Who? It didn’t matter. “Forget about them. They’re gone.” She didn’t know what prompted such bluntness, save that she was irritated by the caller and wanted rid of her. “If they get in touch I’ll let them know you called, okay Karen?”
“How do you -“
“Thanks now, bye.” She hung up, then crouched down and pulled the lead from the wall. When she stood, the photo was grinning at her. She gave it the finger, and to hell with what anybody thought. If she could find her hammer she would have given it the sharp end of that too.
Although she slept through the night from start to finish, she woke to an oily aroma of smoke and chargrilled meat. It couldn’t have been coming from the spare bedroom, because there was nothing in there and never had been.
On her way to the kitchen she took down the photograph on the wall so that she could examine it while the kettle boiled. When she turned it over, she found an ink sketch on the back. Trees. Mountains. A funnel of smoke. Two figures, depicted with heavy, simple scratches. They lacked detail, but she knew they were looking at her.
Something tickled the back of her neck, and she shuddered. When she held the drawing up to the window, she confirmed that it was the same view. When she lowered the picture she thought she saw, for a fraction of a second, two distant shapes on the rise, watching her.
She stood on the path, staring at the damp, charred circle of discarded clothes. Amidst the debris there was bright daffodil plastic melted into new forms. Somehow she had walked past this cold, bold statement without seeing it. Or she had seen it and forgotten.
Her head was buzzing again. There were bones in the heap, with crispy bits of meat and tendon burned to their smooth surfaces. Some of the bones were long. Some were very small.
She could not see them, but she knew they were there.
When she got back to the house she pulled out her folder of important papers, and looked for the rental agreement. What she found instead were mortgage deeds, showing her name and one other. They had been signed eight months ago.
Somebody had scrawled through the other name in heavy back pen, which she was certain matched the drawing of the figures and the fire. There was a smear of red on one edge of the paper.
A phantom ache fired in her shoulder, a muscle memory citing the repetitive crash and bash of repetitive swinging.
If she wanted to examine her hammer, and the detritus of its work, then she would have to go upstairs to the guest bedroom. There was little point to that. She knew both what she would find up there, and what would be notable by its absence.
When she plugged the phone back in, it was ringing. She didn’t answer. Instead she sat against the wall, staring up at the space where his photography had hung, and waited for them to come for her again.
R Thomas Allwin describes himself as a fledgling artist and illustrator, who found this project through a mutual (and very splendid) friend. As yet, he has no website to link to –
as soon as he does, I’ll post it here, but until he does he can be contacted via his Facebook page.
This week’s entry is a last minute substitute for the story I intended to post, which just wasn’t working out as I wanted it to. I chose this image because it’s such a clear and lovely visual, and threw the story at it this afternoon. As it’s put up or shut up time, I’m posting this with little real sense of whether I’ve done what I wanted, though I desperately want to do this picture some sort of service. Let me know what you think, and if you enjoy the story and think it should be read then please share it. Nobody else will ever see it otherwise.
This story, and the whole of The 52, is yours for free. Please enjoy it on that basis. If you want to support my writing and the publishers who’ve supported me over the years, then consider buying a book. My latest novel is The Flesh Market, and is an excellent place to start. If short stories are your thing, and you enjoyed sinking to a horrible conclusion by the end of ‘The Echo Of Strangers’, then you might also like my story ‘The Devil’s Children’ in Storyteller – A Found Book.