Folds of grass mounds dipped and rose as we climbed the cliffs. At their peak an old cottage stood, the time of its construction long forgotten. We drove, and had been driving, for hours. It was all I knew how to do. Our house foreclosed, my dreams - our dreams - repossessed along with them. I sat in the driver’s seat, my wife alongside me, and our two children in the back. It was good that they couldn’t see my expression. How could I face them? How could I explain that our lives had just been cut loose, taken out by a nameless tide swathed in empty bank accounts and red letters typed harshly demanding final payment. I had failed.
Lauren knew. She hadn’t spoken since we started driving. The men had come; we put the last of our things in the small caravan, which now toed behind us, filled with the echoes of our previous lives. Our home had been lost, and the old rickety caravan, which had been my Aunt’s, was now our only hope of shelter. Thank God it had not been taken from us as well.
‘What will we do now?’
Lauren’s words still rang in my ears, a wife unsure, swirling through my mind for the duration of the drive. The kids had laughed and giggled, excited by the adventure. But their sweet ignorance was more painful to me than any bailiff. The children were happy, but for how long? We were now miles from the city, climbing up the incline to Haggard’s Peak, away from our neighbours, our friends, our church group, the school - their world was undone, and yet they did not know it.
When we found ourselves in the car driving along the motorway with caravan in toe, I just wanted to go somewhere safe; somewhere comforting. The kids would be on their summer holidays just a few days later, and so I didn’t see the point in staying in that bleak city for one more day. I needed to think things through, far away from any reminder of the bad decisions I had made.
As the night drew in and a small dusting of rain pattered on the roof of our car, one place spoke to me through the darkened, red-tainted sky. A place which reached out from my childhood like a comforting embrace — Haggard’s Peak. The name didn’t sound appealing, but I had spent several summers there when I was a boy, playing on the beaches and exploring the hills; and felt the air of the sea would be as good a tonic as any to the poisoned grip of the city. I wanted to relive that feeling of freedom, when hope was boundless and the realities of life were nothing more than a darkened cloud hovering in the distance.
The car struggled in several places, the ascent steeper than I remembered, but as we rose up above the rocks and thrashing sea below, my daughter Beth let out an excited ‘wow’ as the moon broke through the clouds above to provide a brief glimpse of the landscape. The sea warped and undulated below as the rain made countless impressions on its surface. Hills and cliffs dotted the land into what could be seen of the horizon, and as we reached the top of Haggard’s Peak, the old cottage at the summit brooded, frozen in white and grey stone, a small red wooden door locked against the encroaching moonlight, and its solitary chimney reaching up to a sky which threw nothing but rain down in reply. The years hadn’t changed it, and if anything it appeared even more resolute against the elements than I remembered. No one had lived there when I was a boy, but how glad I was to see that it had survived the years a little less battered than myself.
‘Why here, Joe?’
I turned to my wife to answer: ‘It’s away from everything.’ I looked out at the sea and to the cottage which now partially shielded us from the wind. ‘My aunt used to take me here in the summer.’ I feigned a smile of reassurance. ‘The Kid’s will love it.’
Lauren was concerned about the place. She worried about the cliffs, but as we parked on a small patch of grass where others before us had visited, I assured her that the kids would be quite safe as long as we kept an eye on them. The summit rolled with thick, long, dark green grass, as we sat in the car far away from the precipice to the rear of the cottage, which dropped down to the violent seas hundreds of feet below. Yes, we'd be quite safe, the cottage was now at least a five or ten minute walk from us and the cliffs further than that.
We set a table in the caravan as night finally fell and treated the kids to a midnight snack before putting them to bed. Beth complained about not being tired, as any seven year old would, but our youngest, Ross, was all but asleep when we tucked him into his bed. As the wind crept up and shook the caravan gently, I told both of them they’d be safe and that we would be going home in a few days. It’s a terrible thing when a parent lies to their children, hoping that somehow their words will come true.
I lay next to my wife in the small room next door, listening to each creak and rattle, the wind seeping out from the night. Perhaps Lauren was awake, running the same bleak thoughts of homelessness through her head, searching feverishly for an answer, but I did not know as I could not bear to face her. I just stayed in the darkness hoping that in the morning a way forward would be clearer to me.
I focussed on the sound of rolling waves in the distance, but then noticed something peculiar. Light sounding at first, yet becoming more pronounced as it neared. A shuffling through the long grass outside. I dismissed it as a bird simply rustling through the undergrowth. I lay there until finally sleep came, to the pleasant backdrop of wind and rain and sea.
In the morning I woke, numb to the world with a momentary loss of memory, not registering the house being repossessed or the drive towards Haggard’s Peak. Soon the comfort of a fogged mind passed, and the reality of my situation, of my family’s, filtered through. I struggled to rise, feeling no clearer about what to do next. Lauren seemed brighter, but as the children dressed to go outside and explore their surroundings with us, I saw a glimpse in her eyes; a look which told me she was hurting, putting on a brave face for our children, something I was not sure I could do.
After breakfast we went outside to stretch our legs and to let the children explore the imposing scenery. In the summer morning the sea breeze momentarily blew away my anxiety, and while looking out across the bay below, the tide receding to reveal patches of sand and stone, ground out from the ancient coast by eons of tidal movement, the beauty of the place spoke of hope.
It was sad to me that there were no other caravans on the hilltop, as the long luscious grass provided more than enough space for a large number, indeed the cliff tops followed the coastline for miles, something which I was sure would provide the kids with plenty to do, under a watchful eye of course. I remembered when I was younger, Haggard's Peak dotted with caravans and all the kids, strangers to each other, thrown together into fleeting friendships for the summer. Those long warm glorious days when life was simple.
After taking in the now misted view of the sea, it wasn’t long until Beth and Ross turned their attentions to the old cottage, that remnant of a past life which stemmed back much farther than my own.
‘Can we go inside?’ Beth asked hopefully, curling a strand of her blond hair in her fingers.
‘No, the cottage hasn’t been open for a long time as far as I know.’ As those words slipped out of my mouth I felt apprehensive about the statement. There was no doubt that the cottage was looked after. The small garden which sat in front was mowed, with several flowers and shrubs clearly planted along the inside of the black and rusted iron fence which surrounded the building at chest height.
When I was there as a child we used to play in the grounds, until my Aunt told us off for not respecting the absent owners. Thinking back it was taken care of even then. I assumed that it was a listed building, as it was clearly several hundred years old, and the pristine nature of its impressive rear gardens spoke of care and nurture when there seemed to be no other indication that someone lived inside. Yet the building itself, set against the backdrop of where ocean met sky, seemed rigid and imposing, far more so than its size should otherwise have reasonably mustered.
The children giggled as I unlatched the iron garden gate which squealed as we pushed it aside. Lauren protested against us going in, but I had experienced adventure and long innocent summer days on Haggard’s Peak, and wanted my family to experience the same carefree sentiment. ‘No one lives here. It’s fine.’
We wandered into the garden, the slabbed path which cut through the lawn leading to the front door and around the back. It was then that I noticed that Ross had refused to follow. He stood by the garden gate looking at the windows which were blackened by a vacant inside. I took him by the hand and told him everything was fine, but he wouldn’t budge.
‘Someone’s watching you, daddy’ he said, before cowering behind his mum’s legs.
Lauren looked at me sternly: ‘why must you always push things?’, she said before walking Ross back to the caravan.
Why must I always push things indeed.
Something had certainly perturbed my son. He'd only just turned four and I could understand how the place might have spooked him; but as I walked towards the cottage front door, I felt a caution wash over me. The door was dark red, the paint peeled and bubbled revealing a greyish wood underneath. There was no handle or, stranger still, any sign of a keyhole. The door seemed in every way an exit rather than an entrance.
I realised then that I was alone; that my daughter Beth was nowhere to be seen. Knowing that the cliffs were nearby, I panicked. I shouted her name, but received no reply. Looking to the caravan across the hilltop I hoped that she had wandered to it. My eye was then drawn to the garden path which, after meeting the doorway, moved off to the side and then rear of the house. I rushed down the path quickly, surprised by the length of the cottage. I felt hemmed in by the large hedgerow which marked its boundary, running alongside me as tall as the house.
After passing through an arch of vines, I found myself in the garden which ran long and terminated just a few feet from the cliff edge. It was surrounded by a pristine hedgerow, the sides tall, keeping the place from prying eyes, yet at the foot of the garden it gave way allowing for an unimpeded view of the rolling seas and cracked rocks far below. A wooden bench sat down there, facing the waters, offering itself up to me.
In the centre of a sprawling lawn there stood a small orchard of a few apple trees, and in the middle an old wicker seat surrounded by vine arches, similar to the ones I had passed through before. And on the seat was Beth, looking up at the rear of the cottage. I called her name, the only reply a swishing of waves and swooshing of sea air. I called again, and finally she broke from her stillness and looked at me. The colour had drained from her face, and she looked dazed.
‘Someone lives here, Daddy’ she said, her eyelids falling slightly as she did so.
‘I’m beginning to think that myself. Let’s go back to the caravan, okay?’
I could tell that Beth had something on her mind, the same look she gave me when she had stolen a toy from a neighbour’s garden the previous summer, and experienced true guilt for the first time.
‘She’s watching us.’
I looked around, and it was then that I noticed the strange construction of the cottage. From the front it appeared like any other, bar for the unusual door without a keyhole; but from the rear it became utterly unique. The roof arched up slightly to reveal a solitary window, a large spherical porthole held together by a metal frame which met in the centre to create a huge cross. The glass appeared substantially thicker than a normal window, warping slightly and twisting rays of light to create a dull, murky and blurred impression. From the front I would have sworn that the house only had one level, but that strange window allowed the world to glimpse a half-floor or attic which was not immediately apparent. What unsettled me more than anything else, more than the strange construction, was that the there were no other windows, and that the entire rear of the ground floor was encased in a wall of grey brick and mortar.
I couldn’t be sure that someone hadn’t been looking at us, and while I saw no evidence for it, I did feel unwelcome in that pristine garden; so much so that I had to look away from the window and reassure Beth that no one was nearby - even though I didn’t believe it.
We walked out of the garden together, and as we did so the light warped and moved through the thickened window. The sound of gulls broke the silence, carried by the winds across the shore.
That evening we had a family dinner, followed by a board game to entertain the children. There were moments when I forgot about our situation, no longer suffocated by our financial plight. When the children went to bed, however, the reality of being homeless and its affect on my marriage were brought to the fore once more. Lauren was unhappy, and she had every right to be.
‘How long are we going to stay here?’
‘It’s a holiday, Lauren,’ I said pointedly ‘I don’t know, maybe a week or two.’
‘I can take the time, my boss doesn’t mind, but you need to find a job as soon as you can!’ she said, half whispered half shouted.
‘Look, I know this is my fault, but I... We all need some time. All I want is to stay here on the peak for a few days and to figure out a way forward.’ I smiled and leaned across the table touching my wife's hand. 'Maybe we could all do with a bit of relaxation?'
‘We don’t have time to relax. We need a home!’ Lauren turned away from me, no doubt hiding her tears.
‘Don’t you think I know that? All I’m asking is for a few days to get my head around what’s happened.’ I wrapped my arms around her. ‘I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll make this right.’
There was a pause, and in that moment I could sense a gulf between us, one which was growing by the day, and if we weren't careful, we'd soon all fall in.
Lauren turned to me, wiping her cheeks: ‘I know you will honey. I know you will.’
I felt a weight lift from my shoulders as we went to our tiny room and climbed into bed. If she had wanted to, Lauren could have left me, but she was so committed to our family. As I drifted to sleep, our bodies close to one another, I knew how lucky I was. I fell asleep listening to the grass flutter in the breeze below the caravan.
It was that same breeze which woke me. But now it filtered through the caravan and under the door into our room, the salt in the air stinging my nostrils. A low hum droned outside accompanied by a subtle whistling as the wind filtered through the nooks and crannies of our belongings inside.
At first the sea air made me feel alive, enraptured by the clean breath it provided, but then the unease of the situation swept over me - the door to the outside was clearly open. I woke Lauren, putting my fingers to my lips intimating that she should remain quiet.
‘I think someone is in the caravan,’ I said, trying to appear in control of the situation, but in my depths fear festered. Slowly, I opened our bedroom door and stepped into the cold darkness. My eyes watered, the stench of salt and sea far more potent than I had ever experienced before. A low audible creak sounded as the door to Haggard’s Peak moved in the breeze. Looking around I saw no one nearby, and then closed the door sure that the old lock must have given way during a rough wind. Then, another creak joined the chorus and a profound terror gripped me at the sight of the source - the door to Beth’s room. Forgetting quiet steps and eschewing any element of surprise, I ran towards the noise only to be greeted by an empty, utterly empty, bed.
I cried out ‘Beth!’ as I checked on our son to find him sleeping soundly. Lauren appeared from the room and let out an aching gasp at the realisation that our daughter was not in the caravan.
‘Everything is going to be okay,’ I said, trying to still the anxiety coursing through my body. ‘Stay here with Ross and lock the door. Don’t let anyone in unless it’s me or Beth, okay?’
Lauren nodded as I jumped out of the caravan half dressed with a coat wrapped around me. The cool morning air put its fingers gently through my hair, the smell of salt and sea with it. Yet there was something else in the air that day. A faint scent of rotten fish. I looked around, the sun was low in the sky, but Haggard's Peak was fully lit, and in the slow breeze it appeared almost still, like the holding of a breath.
'Beth!', I screamed, as only a parent searching for a missing child can. No reply. A sick, turning sensation gripped my stomach as the waves in the distance filtered through the panic. The cliffs, they were far enough away for children being watched, but a child on her own could wander to them in ten minutes. How long had Beth been gone!?
I ran across the grass of Haggard's Peak, shouting, yelling, crying out; my voice breaking in waves of fear. I couldn't see her. There was no sign. Then the old white cottage fell into view, its two front windows like eyes, glaring at me across the grass peak. As I approached, a strange thought entered my mind the house was laughing at me.
Entering the garden as fast as I could, I gasped for air as I ran along the side of the house, under the arch of vines and then to the rear. I felt the adrenaline shooting through my veins, my heart racing, and finally as I reached the sprawling lawn at the back, I let out an audible gasp of relief.
Beth was there. She was standing in the middle of the grass, facing the house. Facing that strange old circular window with thick warped glass.
'Beth, what are you doing!?' I shouted, grabbing hold and hugging her as if I hadn't seen her in a decade.
'Hi, Daddy,' she said. And her tone seemed unusual, distant as if her thoughts were focussed on other things.
I turned and looked at the warped window, the sight of it providing a creeping sense of unease, the same I had felt the day before. 'Beth, why did you leave the caravan? Anything could have happened to you!'
'I don't know. I don't really remember,' she looked at me with a puzzled expression. 'Who is that person in the window, Daddy?'
I froze to the spot. The sea air washed over me, and I replied in a cold sweat. A stillness then settled all around. There were no squawking gulls above or on the cliffs, no waves crashing against the rocks below, there was nothing. Just the beating of my heart. I turned around slowly, and looked at the house. Beth was right. Someone was standing behind the window, looking down at us. The figure was grey in colour, but it was impossible to tell whether it was a woman or man, as the thick glass twisted and contorted the image like a funhouse mirror.
But there it stood. Watching us. Looking down. Someone was in that cottage after all. I suddenly realised that I was trespassing, and so picked Beth up gently. She put her arms around my neck in a warm embrace. I walked towards the side of the house, and as I passed underneath the window I raised one arm to wave, acknowledging that we shouldn't have been there. But the figure stood still, stone-like, and gave no response.
By the time we exited the front garden, Lauren had dressed Ross and was walking him around the peak looking for Beth. When she saw us, she cried out and ran to her daughter, taking her out of my arms and walking straight back to the caravan with both our children. I turned and looked at the cottage. I scowled, and it scowled back.
Lauren didn't say much to me when I returned to the caravan, she was more concerned with Beth, as she should have been. When she finally did talk to me we agreed that something needed to be done about the lock on the caravan door, just in case Beth should go sleepwalking again.
We went for a picnic that day, trying to put the unwanted excitement of the early morning behind us. I thought it best if we explored a little, and so we walked along Haggard's Peak until we found a nice grassy groove which was sheltered partially from the breeze by two large grey rocks.
For a while we laughed and joked, until Beth asked: 'when are we going home?'
Lauren looked at me, hurt flickering across her face like a wave quickly broken. 'I'm not sure, darling,' she said.
I knew then was as good a time as any to broach the subject: 'Kids, we're going to find a new home, somewhere exciting!' I tried to put the most positive spin on the situation I could, but that's a difficult task when your home has been repossessed.
'Will we live near my friends?' Beth asked.
'We're not sure yet,' I replied.
'Can we live in the white cottage,' she said.
That request brought forward a fragment of the panic I had felt when Beth was lost: 'no. We need to find our own home. Someone already lives there.'
'No one lives in the house, Daddy. We can move in whenever we want.' Beth bit into a chicken sandwich spilling some mayonnaise on her chin.
'You know fine well someone lives there, Beth. Remember, the person at the window this morning?'
'They don't live there, Daddy,' she said, taking another bite.
I began to grow uneasy. 'What do you mean they don't live there?'
'She's just waiting for someone to take the house.'
'And how do you know all of this, sweetheart?' Lauren asked.
Beth took a drink of her raspberry diluting juice and nonchalantly said: 'She whispered it to me, when we were in the garden.'
Haggard's Peak had been a place I loved as a kid. I remembered the old cottage, but it didn't seem ominous to me then. As an adult, that had changed. I wondered if I'd been just as oblivious to the eeriness of the place when I was my daughter's age. I snapped out of my contemplation and tried to explain to Beth that she couldn't have heard the woman at the window – if it was indeed a woman – from where she was standing.
'She whispered it to me, Daddy. Her voice sounds like waves.'
I changed the topic of conversation, sure that she must have dreamt the entire episode, but in my gut I felt that something was wrong with the peak, and for the first time I started to doubt whether it had been the right place to go during our troubles.
We went home; to the caravan, the only home we had. After another round of board games, we put the children to bed. I double checked the lock on the front door, and then placed two suitcases in front of it, making it almost impossible for our 9 year old daughter to sleepwalk into the outside world.
Lauren snuggled up to me and passed out quickly. It had been a long day, and the worry of nearly losing our daughter had taken its toll. But I could not sleep so easily. I listened in the darkness to the sounds outside, sounds which had comforted me as a child: waves breaking on the cliffs, wind rustling through the grass underneath the caravan, and the occasional call from a bird or two. I thought about those birds, how when the wind gets up, they take to the sky, wings outstretched, letting the ferocity of the world carry them upward. And there they glide, hoping to weather the storm. I fell asleep thinking of those birds; hoping, dreaming.
When I woke it was early morning, a roar of wind was in its element, bringing with it a heavy downpour of rain which sounded like hail as it battered against the caravan's roof. I could see through the net curtains to the outside peak, the sun hadn't yet fully risen, but the sky was a dark blue hinting that soon it would be light. I reckoned the clouds would do their best to keep daylight to a minimum. The wind howled, and the rain seemed angry somehow, we were in for a storm.
Once awake, my worried mind, filled with finances and dwindling bank accounts, wouldn't allow me to return to sleep, so I stood up out of bed, left our room as Lauren slept soundly, and wandered into the kitchenette and living area.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I turned the light on. The suitcases were still tight against the door, which itself was locked to the outside world. Good thing too, as the weather was horrendous.
I poured myself a glass of water and sat for a moment, the caravan moving as each gust of wind caught it, sending a shiver through its bones. But for me, that shudder took me back again to my childhood, to those summers's on Haggard's Peak. Even if the weather turned, there was something undeniably cosy about sitting inside a caravan, thin walls of wood and mental the only barrier between you and the elements. It was safety, and that was exactly what I yearned for most; safety from the world.
A gull flew outside, no doubt hovering in the wind. Its shriek filled the air above, travelling downward through the storm, through the rain, and then through the caravan's outer shell, with the muffled remnants reaching me. In the low light of early morning the sound took on a more sinister form. It contorted once more, and then I realised it sounded more like a shriek than a caw. The gull's call sounded painful; it sounded like it was away, separated from something dear. From safety, from its family.
The noise shrieked again, the air outside muffling it, shaping it. When it finally reached me I was amazed how human it sounded. Like a child crying out.
A shiver ran through me, and the storm lulled momentarily outside. And in that moment the gull squealed again, the shriek clearer now, unimpeded with less rain and wind to contend with.
It sounded human alright. It sounded very human.
I rushed to my feet and opened Ross's bedroom door. He lay there sound asleep. Then, I went to the next door and opened it. I was blasted with a cold, salt filled air as the storm reaffirmed itself outside. But it was more than that. The air had invaded our caravan. Not through the front door as it had done the previous day, not through an opened window, no; the outside world had crashed through our sacred little barrier, through a large hole in the floor.
What I thought was a bird or the sea breeze ruffling the long blades of grass beneath us the previous two nights, was something else. It had indeed been moving, been touching and prodding below the caravan. It had broken through the floor, and it had taken Beth.
My mind was frantic. I cried out to my wife that our daughter had been taken, as I pulled the suitcases from the front door, unlocked it, and ran out into the darkened sky of a storm strewn early morning.
Lauren shouted behind me, but I didn't respond. The wind threw rain at me, my dressing gown fluttering in the wind, soaked in the madness. A mixture of sweat, panic and rain. I gasped as each wave of air and rain blew against me, putting my head to the side just to catch a breath.
I knew where I was heading. There was no doubt in my mind where Beth was. I struggled against the gale and as I did so the old white cottage grew more menacing. The red door a bloodied beacon in the now unnaturally darkened morning.
When I reached the house I ran to the side, once more under the arch of vines and then to the garden at the back. I ran down the lawn, I searched the small orchard, I made it to the very foot of the garden, to find the old wooden bench, complete with a name plate. But Beth was nowhere to be found. I stared down at the rocks below, as a ferocious waves crashed and smashed against the cliff face. My stomach turned at the thought of my daughter among them.
As I ran back up the lawn to continue my search, a chill went through my bones. I didn't feel like I was being watched, I knew I was being spied upon. I looked up and through the warped glass window at the rear of the house I saw that strange figure again. Tall and twisted by the glass, grey and lifeless.
Then another figure joined it from the darkness, a child. Smaller, more fragile. The rain thrashed down once more, and the realisation hit me: Beth had been taken into the house. That strange place with only one door, one exit.
I ran as fast as I could to the front. Just then the wind calmed slightly. The rain still fell, but it was less harsh, less angered. In that moment I looked into the darkness, a darkness which leapt out from inside the cottage – the door was lying open.
Turning to look behind me, in the distance I could see the caravan, the last piece of my home. How I wished to take my family away from that place. Away from the cliffs, away from the peak, away from the old house which now called me inward.
I stepped forward, and I was inside. My eyes took a moment to adjust. The hall was antiquated, the brown floral wallpaper reminding me of my grandmother's house. On the walls were pictures, some older than others. Old metal frames. Colourless photographs, and the subjects all wearing clothes from another era. My best guess was that they spanned the 1800s and 1900s.
I opened my mouth to shout my daughter's name, but I changed my mind at the last moment. The house felt still, and yet there was something in that stillness. Something which made my insides ache for the outside world.
The walls were lit with old lamps, they glowed dim, and while they were electric bulbs, they looked decades old, surrounded by glass which would have looked more at home around a Victorian gaslight.
Stepping forward I expected to hear a creak. But there was none. Another footstep. Still no noise from the wood beneath my feet. It was as if the house were resolute against my presence. The hall continued on, lined as it was by dim lights and old photographs. But it was upstairs, to the half-floor at the back of that strangely constructed house where I had to go. Where my daughter was being kept.
Finally I found the staircase. It rose up to the next level, narrow, awkward. And as I ascended it my shoulders touched the sides of the walls. It was as if the staircase narrowed with each step.
At the top there was a solitary door. And I knew what was behind it. The room with the warped glass window. The room where my child had been taken. It loomed large and brooding, and had Beth not been on the other side, I would have ran for my life. Away from that house, that snapshot of the past.
I pushed the door but it did not creak open. The house lay silent. I felt as though even my breathing did not make a sound there, and the storm outside could not penetrate the walls of the old cottage.
When the door lay open, I saw that the room was an attic of some description. But I did not take the time to look around, Beth stood alone at the window, and so I rushed to her.
'Daddy!' she screamed with delight.
I picked her up in my arms in front of that warped glass window and hugged and kissed her.
'Daddy, Daddy!' she cried again, burying her head into my shoulders. 'There was a man here. I was out playing and he brought me here.'
'It's okay, honey, we're going to get out of here,' I said reassuringly.
I lifted her up and caught a glimpse of the glass window. The glass was strange as it did not warp the outside world as it had done from the outside. Indeed the garden below seemed vibrant and clear. I could see the small orchard. I could see the pristine lawn. I could see the bench at the end of the garden. And I could see Beth sitting on it.
'Daddy, Daddy... I've waited so long...' the thing in my arms said. And as it did so, a strange, deep, gravelled tone broke through its words.
I looked down and saw that the dress was not Beth's, it was old, once pink, the ruffles torn and ragged. The hair which sat next to my face as it latched on tightly to me, was grey and white.
'I'm so happy you're here. This house needs a family...' the voice said, now sounding older and as haggard as the peak.
The child in my arms pulled back its head and showed me its features. It stared straight into my eyes with warped, wrinkled skin, warts and grey dust. I stumbled back trying to prise it away from me. It clawed at my face as I pulled it from my neck. Finally the old child fell to the ground as I staggered and tripped over a broken wooden rocking horse.
My head smashed against the wooden, silent floor. I lay there dazed for a moment, coughing as I inhaled a thick sheet of dust on the ground, old skin and dead things long lingered which burned in my throat and lungs. I turned my head and looked as the old child scampered to the corner of the room where it was darkest and hid behind a wooden wardrobe. But it wasn't a wardrobe. It was something else.
The first creak I ever heard in that house was when the figure the old child was hiding behind stepped forward. But it wasn't the house, it was bone and age which shuddered. It had a wooden walking stick in hand, and whatever clothes it had once worn had all but rotted away, with a few pieces of rag scarcely covering the grey crumbling skin and bones which hobbled towards me.
An old bandage was wrapped around its eyes, and when it opened its mouth to speak I heard only a groan. What was left of its tongue wriggled between its broken teeth, and it was clear to me that at, some point, the tongue had been severed.
I staggered to my feet as blood ran down my face. I must have cut my head open in the fall and it left me feeling sick and woozy. The crumbling figure moved towards me steadily, as the old child peeked out from behind. And on its withered face I saw what looked like a smile.
I ran for the door, and as I did so the old child screamed in its low gravely voice 'stop him!' The old rotten corpse with the walking stick turned and moved, but it was too slow. I had reached the door.
The old child scampered towards me on hands and feet, and it was then that I first noticed its stoop. Regardless, it moved quickly, and as I reached the doorway it slammed the door in front of me.
'You're going nowhere, Daddy,' it said.
The blinded figure moved close behind me, and a thought entered my mind: you'll never leave here. That was enough to push me through the madness. I tried to yank the old child aside, and when I did it lurched forward, opened its mouth, and bit down onto my knee cap. I felt the crunch of cartilage. Fluid and blood seeped out through the holes mixing with the my attacker's putrid saliva. I screamed in agony, and as the old child and the blinded figure lay their hands upon me, I managed to pull the door open, knocking the larger of the two to the floor before I lost my balance and fell down the narrow staircase.
I tumbled, down and down I went. It's a miracle I didn't break my neck as I lay on the crumpled floor, jammed between the two walls. I heard a muffled voice from the room above 'Daddy, Daddy, are you okay?' the gravelled voice said. But it wasn't me it was talking to, it was the blinded figure.
With an almighty effort I pulled myself through into the hallway, the pain in my knee agonising. As I made it to my feet I heard a scream. But this was different. I knew it. It was my wife, Lauren. And it came from inside the house.
I followed the yell and in a moment I was in a bedroom on the ground floor. Lauren stood there holding Ross, our son, covering his eyes from the grisly scene. The room was the same as the rest of the house, aged yet not decaying. Creak-less. Soundless. As if time was not welcome there. The walls were adorned by photographs, and in the centre of the room lay a bed, which held in its embrace the rotting corpse of a woman, the only remaining hint at her gender the dress she was wearing.
Lauren had seen the door to the cottage lying open and had come in to search for Beth. I told my wife that Beth was safe in the garden, and that she should go to her and take her to the caravan.
I left moments after. But not before I took with me a holiday memento of my visit to the old white cottage on Haggard's Peak. The corpse in the bed held with brittle skeletal fingers a book, what looked like a journal. I don't know what possessed me, but I took it, and hoped that it would make sense of the place.
We returned to the caravan. Beth told us what had happened. She had woken up with another little girl 'but not a little girl' in her room, who took her through the hole in the floor. But that was all she remembered. She didn't scream, and it was as if she hadn't wanted to either. After patching up my knee, we drove down the hill, still panicked, desperate to leave that place behind. As we passed the cottage we saw that the door was once again firmly shut, and that was at least something.
I had wanted to find a piece of my childhood there on that peak, something which would make me feel safe, like the summers of old when the world didn't seem so cruel; but instead we'd all been put in jeopardy. I returned to the real world, the world of bank statements and repossession, not looking back to that place, never looking back at all.
When we returned to civilisation I had my knee looked at by a doctor. I said I'd fallen, and he seemed to believe me. The wound didn't look like teeth marks, not any I'd ever seen. Just several puncture wounds which, after an x-ray, we'd have to wait and see whether they required surgery or not. They did not. But I did walk with a slight limp for quite some time afterwards.
As for the journal. I read it over and over, but it was the ramblings of someone caught in a spiral of dementia or madness. All I could gauge from it was that the woman in the bed had been trapped in that house for decades, as I nearly had. She was to play mother to something hideous there. The Daddy in the attic room, he was enticed there well before even that. And in a moment of spiteful rage, the old child had cut out his tongue and clawed out his eyes when he wouldn't play with it. I know now that I was close to being a replacement, and God only knows if my family would have been trapped there as well.
I only visited that place once more, a few weeks later, as Haggard's Peak haunted my thoughts. In the night I poured petrol over the red door. I splashed it over the walls and roof hoping that something would catch. Then I lit it.
I don't know why, but I was compelled to walk to the back garden and to sit on the old bench at its foot and look out at the sea, occasionally turning to watch the fire. The flames climbed higher and then fizzled out without leaving a mark. Somehow I knew that it would be hopeless, that house had been there long before I was ever born, and for a long time more it would remain.
That was when I read the plaque on the bench. The one I had seen when searching for Beth. It read: 'To Mummy and Daddy. I'll find you one day.' I hate to think what brought that creature into this world, and I hope, if I'm lucky, to never cross paths with it, or its creed, ever again.