I didn't write a story for Halloween this year, so here's a Christmas ghost story in lieu.

The House

Not believing in ghosts, I strode into the house boldly. Or perhaps my boldness was bravado, a disguise for secret belief.

In every movie I’d ever seen the front door of a spooky house opened into a large room. But this one’s opened into a corridor. The floor was covered in dust. I could see no evidence of disturbance.

One by one, I checked the rooms. They were all dark due to their boarded-up windows. Thick dust was everywhere. There was no furniture.

The second room had a fireplace. A gas heater had been installed in the firebox. The key on its side was thoroughly rusted.

In the fifth room I found a dead cat. It seemed its body had not had time to rot, but it was covered in dust too.

The building was mostly one-storey, but a room at the back had a staircase to a single upper room, as I had seen from outside.

The stairs were covered in dust like all the other surfaces, but seemed in good condition. The door at the top was locked. I had a set of skeleton keys with me. I had to clean the lock of dust before I could try them. I think it was the fifth or sixth key that worked. The door was jammed, but I was able to force it open.

The thickness of the dust inside was beyond what I’d seen below, or could have imagined. A couch stood against one wall, a chest of drawers against another, and black and white photographs hung in frames on the walls.

I went over to these, testing the floor at each step. When I cleaned them I found them to be photographs of meetings of the Nellerton Bird Fanciers’ Club, from successive years in the 1970s.

I had been meaning to spend the night in the place, to prove it was safe. But the dust forced me to change my plans: I couldn’t imagine what it might do to my lungs. I’d breathed in too much of the stuff as it was, just looking through the place.

By now it was getting late. I’d searched through all the rooms, so I figured it was time to go and make my report to Billy Weams outside.

Billy had been terrified of the place his whole life, although it was his house. He’d been inside once, when his parents bought it with the intention of moving in. He was just five then. He told me he remembered going through the rooms with them, and how empty they all were.

Back at the flat where they had been living they had talked excitedly of the coming move. Billy’s mother had always lived in a flat. Owning her own house was her dream. His father had said he’d go over there the next day to give the place a good airing out and take the boards down.

He never came back. Billy’s mother got more and more worried. As evening fell she left Billy with her neighbor and caught a taxi out to the house.

The driver told the police that she'd seemed afraid. Her husband’s car was in the drive. He’d left the keys in the ignition. She asked the driver to wait for her, and took a torch she had brought and went inside.

After fifteen minutes she came out. Tension was in every line of her. She took her place in the back seat, and at first could not speak. Then she asked the driver to take her to the police.

Billy never saw his father again, nor did anyone else. His mother never remarried. She had been willing neither to sell the house nor to move in there. They had lived with her brother. She had worked, and he had continued paying the mortgage after she died. After he started working Billy made the final payments himself.

But he had never gone back there. And when we drove out together he had been unable to go inside. But I was going to be able to show him that I had, and nothing had happened to me.

I went out the way I came in, and expected to find him still standing before the front steps. But he had gone. I went all around the house looking for him, but he wasn’t anywhere about.

I wondered if he’d got up the courage to go inside after all. But no, I thought: I would have heard him moving around. I went back to the door and looked inside. The tracks in the dust weren’t clear enough to read. I couldn’t bring myself to cross the threshold. I called his name again.

Billy’s car was in the drive, but I’d left mine in the street. Twilight was falling. I went to my car, got inside and locked the doors. Then I buried my face in my hands.

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