Note: the names used in this story have been changed to protect the living, the dead and me.
My grandfather was a collector of the macabre. When I used to visit as a child, he had this ornate painting that hung on the wall above the fireplace. At Christmas, when the fire roared, the flames danced shadows on its surface, mesmerising me. I’d follow the intricate patterns that twisted and turned, the dark purple paint on top of the beige canvas, getting lost in the design. I had no idea what it was supposed to represent. It was only after my grandfather committed suicide and I helped my Dad clear out his house that I found out it was a back tattoo inked on a human canvas, stretched onto a wooden frame.
His suicide note was hand delivered Christmas eve. We found it late at night. We had no idea how long it had been lying there.
The things I found were as fascinating as they were shocking. We found bone carvings of the human form all around the house, like sentinels placed to watch over and guard the living. Dad didn’t want any of it kept, he visibly shuddered as he threw them in the refuse sacks. The shelves in his bedroom had books by Aleister Crowley and several other authors I had never heard of, all dog-eared from years of use. I asked my dad if grandad practised magic. Magic’s not real, it’s just a bunch of silly words.
The place smelled musty, like an old manor house shut for winter. A sweet smell, something reminiscent of frankincense broke through. A wrought iron bedframe sat in the middle of the bedroom. Candleholders clasped all four corners, dribbles of wax clung to the metal. The mattress sunk in the middle, a ghost of its single occupant. I’d never met my grandmother, she’d died many years before I was born. Dad never spoke of her. He rarely mentioned grandad and he barely talked to him when we visited. It was like Christmas here was a ritual that had to be completed, no matter how unpleasant it made him feel.
The bedframe whined as we pulled it against the hardwood floor. We gave up momentarily while we removed the mattress, to allow us more purchase. It’s an unnerving feeling when you hear a grown adult scream, especially from someone you look to as a peer. It’s uncanny. Seeing unbridled fear in the eyes of your father, the horror that contorts their face and the colour that drains from their skin, it sends dread scuttling down your mouth to give birth in your stomach. In that moment I remember thinking his skin resembled that of the painting that hung above the fire.
The Egyptians perfected mummification. They did it to preserve the body, to ensure its immortality. If the body was mistreated, they thought it may rise again. The utmost of care was placed to ensure the process was followed. Ritual and magic were used, partly to protect the living, and partly to protect the dead. What we saw was not wrapped in bandages, but in pieces of leather. Around thirty buckles pulled the material tight over the body-shaped object. It wasn’t hard to imagine what was underneath. Small wicker urns were lined up like little soldiers next to the body.
When my father stopped screaming, the room fell silent, except for the high-pitched ring that echoed, my ears stunned from the prolonged screech. Hello grandma?
Dad’s legs buckled and he fell.
“Are you okay?” I said, kneeling next to him.
His lips were blue, his eyes rolled up into his skull. Visions of my first aid training in scouts shot to the forefront of my mind as I contorted him into the recovery position.
A clammy sweat grew on my brow, my hands began to shake.
“I’m going to call for help,” I said, taking out my phone, beginning to dial.
A whisper broke from my father’s lips.
I got closer.
“Sorry, dad, I can’t hear you.”
“No,” he said again, turning to face me.
“You may have hit your head.”
“I’ll be fine. Please don’t phone anyone.”
I sat on the floor, hugging my legs, staring at the profile of the body under the bed. Dad roused and pushed himself to his feet.
“Be careful,” I said.
“What are we going to do?”
“We need to think about this,” he said, his words jarred and chaotic.
“I think you have a concussion, you need to go to the hospital.”
“No, no, no!” he replied.
The fear that once occupied his face was now replaced by a sincere panic I’d only seen once before. He was an MP (member of parliament). We were having dinner as a family. The TV hummed quietly in the corner. Mother was eating, her spoon parked itself in the air in front of her mouth, and her eyes fixated on the screen. She picked up the remote and turned up the volume. I didn’t need to see the TV to know what was going on, the audio was enough.
Local politician Anton Claus was spotted in an intimate embrace with Mary Armstrong of the Conservative party today after a vote on…
Mum left soon after that. Dad’s life was turned upside down and he was forced to resign. In the intervening years, he’d used the connections he had with the people he trusted to start a consultancy firm and was now on the way back to the top. He saw this body under the bed as an affair that could bring his world spiralling back down.
“I can’t let anyone find this, it’ll ruin me,” he said.
His usually immaculate hair hung unkempt over his face. The pinstripe suit he wore felt so out of place with the arcane decor.
“You should go, let me deal with it.”
“I can stay,” I offered.
“No, it’s best you go. Pretend you never came here. Like this never happened.”
A sense of nostalgia gripped me. I realised this was a milestone in my life. Nothing would ever be the same again. A crime was about to be committed and I was complicit. This was going to stain my soul as much as his. I wondered what he was going to do with the body. I shuddered. I imagined him unbuckling the leather belts that hid unseen horrors. I wondered how I’d react to discovering my mother’s body and deciding to get rid of it. A corpse. A petrified husk of a person. A macabre keepsake of the living.
In the kitchen I touched the table, feeling the grain under my fingertips. It took me back to my childhood. Grandad used to sit in his chair in the living room and I’d sit in here while I ate my breakfast. Dad didn’t stay in the house much. I’d watch him tend the garden from the kitchen window. Even in snow and frost he’d be out there weeding. Grandad wasn’t one for gardening. The yard would grow over and once or twice a year, dad would push back the invading forces of mother nature. It was futile in the end. Looking outside now, it was as if the garden hadn’t seen a loving hand at all.
The downstairs grew cold, the sun now disappearing beyond the horizon. I turned up the thermostat, not hearing the expected click. I sighed. From above I heard my father’s footsteps. It appeared he was pacing.
Portraits hung from the walls of the hallway that led to the front room. Paintings of women and men I had never met. One caught my eye. A Rubenesque woman with grey hair, wearing a white robe and bare feet. There was something familiar about her features. I wondered if she was my grandmother. A bang reverberated through the ceiling, instinctively I looked up. What the hell was dad doing? When my gaze returned, the painting had moved. The frame slanted to one side. I straightened it.
“Dad?” I shouted up the stairs, “everything okay?”
He didn’t reply. Instead I heard indistinct mumblings.
I returned to the hallway. A large panelled door stood proud and strong, blocking my way to the basement. When I was a child I’d sneak down there and look through all the old boxes, they were damp to the touch, the items inside slowly rotting and forgotten. The door was locked. A large iron bolt held it shut from the outside. It didn’t budge in my hand as I tried to force it open. On closer inspection, intriguing occult symbols were finely etched into the hard wood surface. A circle with a cross was emblazed above the lock. In the corners where the hinges were, pentacles had been etched. I knew very little of magic, but I knew what a pentacle was, I’d seen them in plenty of films. Some people believe them to be a symbol of evil, but it isn’t, it’s a symbol of protection. Were they protecting what was inside, or the occupant of the house?
Loud bumps and thuds continued from above. Then another of my father’s screams. I raced up the stairs to grandad’s bedroom.
“What the fuck…” I said to myself.
Dad was crawling around the room. All the little wicker urns lay open, their contents strewn on the floor. There were around six putrefied pieces of flesh, I assume organs, a faint reminder of their supple living counterparts. The buckles were undone, revealing the brown leathery flesh of the mummified body beneath. It was hard to tell if it was male or female.
“Five… six… seven… eight,” dad muttered to himself as he continued to scuttle.
“Dad, what’s wrong?”
“Quiet!” he said, flicking his head up to look at me. His eyes vacant, his skin slick with sweat, “shit. I’ve lost count. Why can’t you just fuck off like I asked. Can’t you do anything right? One… two.”
I was very concerned. I retreated downstairs, into the kitchen and called my mother.
“Mum? Yeah I’m fine,” I don’t know why I said that, I certainly wasn’t.
She started talking, telling me about her week, about how Mrs Chambers had been stealing her garden gnomes.
“Mum, it’s about dad. I’m at grandad’s.”
She went silent.
“Are you still there?” I asked.
“I am,” she replied, the urgency from her voice had evaporated.
“What in the hell was grandad doing here? We found a body under his God damn bed! Should I call the police? Dad has gone fucking crazy.”
“Listen to me son, your grandmother said to me, if I die before my time, find my diary.”
“I… I…” she stuttered from panic.
“What’s going on, mum?”
“Look, when she disappeared, I tried. But your dad never let me in the house.”
“Did you report what she told you?”
There was another moment of silence.
“It was a different time back then. I did what your father told me. He had powerful friends. I didn’t dare disobey him.”
I felt I was being watched.
“Son? I’m sorry. Speak to me.”
I inched around anxiously.
Dad stood at the threshold of the kitchen. His suit was nowhere to be seen. He was naked except for his underwear. A large inverted pentacle was painted in red on his chest. Red markings were smeared on his face.
“Who are you on the phone to?”
“Nobody,” I said.
“Give me that!” he shouted, storming towards me.
“Who is this? I said, who is this?!”
He withdrew the phone from his ear and checked the display. His smile grew. A cackle broke out.
“Hello Elisa, long time no speak my little angel.
“Yes, he’s with me. I’m taking good care of him.”
He finished, throwing my phone to the floor.
He glared at me. The grin had grown wider. He bared his teeth, sending his tongue out of his mouth and licked his chin.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, his voice clicking with every word, as if trying to contain his excitement.
Suddenly his attention was diverted. His smile fell. He cocked his head upwards as if listening.
“Yes, yes daddy, I’m coming!” he said, no longer interested in me. He pushed past and ran upstairs.
I rushed into the living room, slamming shut the door that led to the stairs to the bedroom. I pushed the sofa in front and used a chest of drawers to hold it in place. I needed to find that diary.
The front room was bare. A small card table sat in one corner and a two-piece suite in the other. A small shelf holding some books hung from the wall above. I scanned the spines, there were cooking books, a dictionary and a few volumes of an encyclopaedia. Thuds rang out from above, like Morse Code, dash-dash-dot-dot.
I heard my name called out. It was quiet and soothing, as if to lead me into temptation. A hypnotising siren song.
It sounded as if it came from all around, as well as originating from within my skull. I couldn’t resist. I glided out of the front room, past the basement door and into the living room. The pale outline of a man stood in front of the sofa that blocked the route to the upper floor.
Shaun, come with me… the voice said.
The glimmering outline gestured to follow. A large clang from behind broke my trance. The figure was gone. In the hallway the painting of the woman lay broken on the floor.
“SHAUN GET UP HERE!” I heard from above, muffled by the ceiling.
The door to the basement was ajar.
“SHAUN, YOU’RE PISSING ME OFF!” came again from the floor above, followed by thumping footsteps.
My rational mind told me to leave, to get in the car and go. I tried the handle to the front door, it opened easily. I let out a huge sigh of relief.
Shaun, you can’t leave. the voice wafted in on the breeze. The door slammed shut. Through the mosaic window I spotted a man.
“Who are you!” I demanded.
Go upstairs Shaun, your daddy needs you.
I’m not claustrophobic by any stretch of the imagination. But it felt as if the walls were closing in. That my mind was collapsing in on itself. The voices, the visions, they couldn’t be real. There’s no such thing as ghosts. It was a nightmare realised. I had to treat it as such.
The only way was down. More than likely this was going to be some sort of trap. Someone working with my father to lead me down here. But why? What did I do to deserve this? Maybe my dad didn’t get to where he was today from the sweat of his own brow. Maybe grandad helped him and now it was time to call in the favour.
A warming light welcomed me to descend the stairs. The brick walls bled condensation. My breath froze in the frigid air, sending plumes of vapour towards the light. My body began to warm as I took the stairs one at a time. It was a cosy hug telling me this was the right thing to do, like my mother when I was young and I grazed my knee. So comforting, so relaxing.
The cellar felt smaller than I remembered. The boxes had gone and been replaced by racks that held tools – saws, knives and other utensils you do not expect to see in a DIY workplace. Hooks hung from the ceiling, sharp and foreboding. But that was not what scared me. In the middle of the basement were two beds. One was empty. The other had the withered skeletal remains of a body wearing a white robe. On a squat nightstand next to it was a small book.
I approached cautiously and reached out.
The leather-bound tomb sagged in my hand, as if it had been used many times before. I opened it. A nausea lurched up from my stomach. I flicked through the pages – the book was blank – except for the last page.
Shaun – go upstairs, your daddy’s waiting.
It was a trap.
I stared at the body next to me. It was so emaciated, it must have been dead for years. I was in no rush to go back upstairs, I knew what awaited me. Was this my grandmother?
It was almost incomprehensible at first. I leaned in, swearing I could hear something.
Shit they were still alive!
Someone was waiting. They were behind me, I could feel it. I didn’t turn around. Instead, I looked into the shrivelled eyes of the shrivelled body that looked up at me and begged.
The knock on the head was not painful, I passed out before the pain could be registered.
My head throbbed when I woke. I was no longer in that house. I was back in mine. I shot upright in bed, confused how I got there. It’s okay, everything is fine, it’s usual to feel like this after the trauma you’ve been through.
It took weeks for me to feel myself again, so much inner conflict. It’s hard to accept at first, but over time you have to. You need to be strong. Nowadays they’d call it PTSD. But it’s not that. They don’t understand. It’s not dissociative identity disorder either, although it does present itself like that, especially if the donor puts up a struggle. My genes are strong, I know that, but I’m stronger. I’ve waited a long time for this. I feel so alive! So energized, so virile. I want to shout it from the rooftops. I want you to know how clever I am.
Family is the most important thing in life. It’s important to have a family. They are the ones that will look out for you and care for you in your old age. You live on through your offspring. My son gave me his ultimate sacrifice, his own flesh and blood and he has no idea what he’s done.
The door to the bedroom opened.
“How are you feeling, son,” Anton said.
“How’s your head?”
“It’s fine dad.”
“Great. Do you remember what happened?”
“Nothing at all,” I lied, suppressing my smile.
He didn’t appear happy at all, he was hiding things from me, things I knew, but I wasn’t going to tell him. He did everything I asked of him. It would be rude to break the illusion.