Tuesday, 8 March 2016
'Perfume' | A Short Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
The perfume haunted me. It fluttered through the air, teasing me, leading me towards an obscured end. I ran down hallways bathed in red tapestries, my night gown shuddering in the cold. Moonlight showed me the way as I searched for the perfume's source. Around blind corners, through doorways of solid oak, into rooms once filled with laughter and terrible deeds. With each step the scent grew stronger. Roses. A sting of ginger and citrus. Never quite putting my finger on the familiarity of it all.
And then I entered a chamber. An old room which differed from the rest. One solitary candle sat by a large four poster bed. The light cascaded out, revealing a room dark and brooding. The floor was cold, the wood warped slightly, my bare feet losing what little heat they once held. A huge fireplace lay opposite the bed, unlit, devoid of life. And above it, a large portrait dominated the room. In the painting a woman sat, wearing a dark green dress of many decades past. Her hair was pulled tightly in a bun, her pale skin like languid pearl, and her eyes cold and cruel with dispassion.
Those eyes seemed to watch, following me as I wandered around the bed until I stood at its foot. A once rich, now faded crimson blanket covered the mattress, and as the candlelight struggled against an unseen draft, it became clear that someone lay in the bed.
I could not see the face of this person, the body was covered from head to foot by the red blanket, shrouded by it. The sight of that cloth outline struck fear into my heart – I dared not remove the blanket, uncertain that my nerves could endure the shock. Again, I was stung by the familiarity of it all, a memory hiding in the shadows just out of sight, refusing to reveal itself. The pungent rose perfume was stronger than it had been before, as I could feel the spiteful gaze of the portrait behind me, watching proceedings. Then I noticed another scent. Something which had festered in that room for years, obscured by the sweetness of the perfume; a foul underbelly.
As I stared at the outline of head and body beneath the blanket, the stench grew. With each breath I was treated to a mixture of roses and something humid; murky; like soil after a downpour. There was something rotten in that room with me. The rancid smell became so thick that I could taste it. The hidden memory threatened to break loose from its chains. I had to flee. Run. Be away from that room, that house, out into the open where I could breathe again.
I walked quickly to the door where I had entered. It was locked. I twisted at the metal handle, its spherical body covered in dark brown paint. The locked mechanism entombed in oak echoed out into distant recesses which taunted me and resisted; I was a prisoner confined to a solitary room, to a place where the sweet air of flowers was mixed with that of death.
I pounded on the door. Shouted. Screamed. But my pleas went unanswered. They simply faded into that lonely house, my family home which I had not visited since I was seven. A place which hid dark recollections, and wounds which ran deep, covered thinly by the proceeding decades. At last I gave in. I stopped my protests, rested my forehead on the cold wooden surface of the locked door, and tried to compose myself.
Then I heard a sound.
One at first, followed by three others. It was a clicking, creaking noise. I turned around slowly to see what was there, but the room was as it had been. The body in the bed lay still, the blanket forming a perfect impression of it. The bedside candle flickered but remained, and as it did so shadows danced around the room. They created the illusion of movement, and for a moment I stared at the portrait, the woman's eyes peering out at me from above the darkened fireplace, and it was as if a flicker of recognition fell across the face.
I shuddered, believing that it was merely a trick of the light, but still, the face looked on. Then I heard the creaking sound again. A series of quick clicks, like an aching door which had not been opened for an age, slowly moving in the night. But I could not see the source. My heart raced as I looked around, and for the first time I noticed that in the dim light there lay an old wooden wardrobe on the other side of the room.
The creaking sounded once more; a frightful unease began to take over as each click sounded; it both puzzled and repulsed me. I turned to the door and twisted the handle as hard as I could, but the reality had not changed. I was locked in that room with a body rotting under the sheets, and a clicking noise coming from inside a wardrobe. A noise which felt organic, alive somehow, differing itself from the shifting contractions of the wooden floor and beams of the old house. It at once sounded natural, and yet felt unnatural.
Another creaking, clicking, and I knew that I had to look at the wardrobe across the room. I was terrified by what I might find, but the anticipation of waiting, just waiting until something threatening emerged from its wooden tomb, was too much to bear. I wanted this torturous night to be over, to return to my adult life. Something had compelled me to visit my ancestral home, but I was sure that if I ever felt the cool breeze of the outside world again, I would curse that place and never return.
Obscured memories flickered in front of my eyes once more. The familiarity of the perfume stinging my senses. The room... A dreadful window into my past. I would not be tortured like this, played with; I had to know what was inside that wardrobe.
I stepped forward, moving around and then to the foot of the bed. I was certain that the portrait stared on menacingly, but I dared not catch its eye, and so my gaze remained fixed on the wardrobe as I neared. The clicking, creaking noise sounded intermittently. With each step I listened intently, sometimes being greeted by that horrid sound, other times being welcomed by the silence, an equally unappealing night time noise.
As I reached my hand out to the wardrobe door, my blood ran cold. The door moved, if ever so slightly. But it did move. I could see an inch of the darkness inside, a small slither of black air, and I felt as though a watchful eye was glaring at me from within it.
A creak replied to my proximity, this time louder than before. But it took on a new characteristic, like knuckles being clicked; bone and ligament snapping in place, limbs which had not moved for an age breaking free of time's relentless hold. I reached my hand out slowly and pulled the door open with force. For a moment, I thought I saw two eyes in the dark of the wardrobe peering at me, but as the light from the room's solitary candle reached that dark place, I saw nothing. No clothes, no belongings, no creeping eyes, just the emptiness of a life now vacant.
I sighed with relief, but when I turned to the room I froze to the spot. Something was different. Something had changed. It wasn't the portrait on the wall. The bitter face of the woman in the painting stared onward. It wasn't the fireplace either, remaining as it did unlit, its mouth bathed in night. It wasn't the door on the other side of the room, my only avenue for escape, standing still closed, no doubt locked by some unseen jailor.
No, none of these things had changed. But what had frightened me, tore at any composure I still had within me, was the figure lying under the covers in the bed. That dead, silent corpse which filled the air with perfume and macabre aura.
It was gone.
The red blanket had been pulled aside revealing white silk sheets, and the only evidence that someone had been lying there was an impression in the mattress, an outline of a now missing body.
I gasped as the creaking sounded once more, this time from the bed, but there was no sight of the body. The room was unoccupied, and yet the air did not feel absent of company. Something was there. I looked around, and it was then that I entertained a thought. One which otherwise would have been preposterous to me. Perhaps it was an invisible spectre which had been lying under the red blanket. An apparition with the body of a person, but transparent to the naked eye.
The noise drew closer.
This time from the foot of the bed. Whatever it was, it was slowly walking towards me, the warped floorboards shifting under its weight the only sign that I wasn't alone.
If only I could see the cadaverous thing before it placed its rotten hands on me. At that thought I leapt to the bed, and as the spectre stepped forward, I pulled the sheets off the mattress, throwing them into the air like a net. They fluttered with movement, bringing with them that sweet, rancid perfume with it. And then they came to rest, but not on the floor, instead they covered the walking corpse, showing me its outline. A shrouded dress of white sheets, resting over something hideous beneath.
Perhaps I should have allowed the thing to walk unseen. For the sight of a long draped sheet stepping towards me almost stopped my heart. Creak. Creak. Each invisible footfall brought with it pangs of dread the likes of which I had never experienced before. And then came the rustling, as something else moved underneath the sheets. A prodding motion, as what I could only assume were two hands outstretched beneath their shroud reaching out towards me.
I stumbled backwards. I cried out, and as I did so the room dimmed. My retreat had led me into the wardrobe. The arms of the shrouded figure were now almost upon me, and my only recourse was to pull the wooden door of the wardrobe towards me, to shelter me from that thing.
My new found sanctuary shook violently as the shrouded spectre heaved and pulled at the door. I held on with all my might, my fingers poking out into the room, grasping onto that piece of wood, the only barrier between me and that rotten apparition.
Memories began to flood back, the dark wardrobe a trigger to painful events I had managed to bury deep within me; of a little girl locked in dark places. Cellars, attics, wardrobes... A girl put upon. Beaten. Mocked. Emotionally tortured by her one and only carer. My body convulsed and shivered as the reality of my early childhood filtered through.
The attack ceased, silence became my world. And then I heard two whispered words.
The words were more breath than voice, and in them I recognised the speaker. My grandmother. That horrid woman who had abused her duty.
“I was only a child!” I screamed at the top of my voice. “How could you?”
Still, I held on tightly to the door, sure that the spirit of my grandmother stood in front of it. This was confirmed to me, when I felt a warm, sticky breath on my fingers. A mouth, seen or unseen, must have hovered over them for a moment, exhaling foul air. Then something wet licked the length of my fingers. A rotten tongue from beyond. But I dared not open the door. There was little I could do. I held onto it tightly, while the ghost of my twisted grandmother licked at my exposed flesh.
Then nothing. Again silence. No breath. No shaking of the doors. Nothing.
Teeth dripping with saliva then bit hard down onto my fingers. I screamed in agony as they delved deep through skin and then crunching into bone. And under my screams of pain I heard a sly smirk, a laugh of delight.
History had repeated itself as more memories flooded through the torture. She had done awful things in the past. Malevolent, twisted things. Locking me in the darkness, beating, prodding, and more. The pain of memory mixed with the pain of the moment as those dreaded teeth ground deeper.
I screamed in rage and pushed the wardrobe door, knocking the shrouded figure to the ground. My fingers gushed blood, but they were free, as was I. Leaping onto the bed, I charged for the locked door once more. I yelled and cried and fought as the door remained tightly closed. It would not budge. I pounded and railed against my imprisonment. Then two hands reached from behind, wrapping sheet covered fingers around my neck.
We struggled, the grip around my throat tightening, choking the breath from me. And in a moment's rage, a moment of pure survival, I reached for the solitary candle which sat by the bed and cast it to the feet of my grandmother, catching the shroud of sheets. The room burned. The bed. The painting. The wardrobe... And my last memory was looking beside me, to see my grandmother's corpse burning on the floor.
I was found standing in the garden of my family home, dazed, watching it collapse in on itself, consumed by flames. And in the years since I have wondered about that spectre in the room, the corpse in the bed. I had returned to my childhood home to oversee my grandmother's things after she was done with this mortal world. But it appears she was not quite done with me. After that night, at long last, I was certainly done with her.