A short story I dusted off for our Marauding purposes! It still needs some work, but here goes . . .

The Reflective Castle

By M.G. Knight

            It was here. It was here.

He wasn’t sure how he knew; there was no mental connection, no epiphany. There was only a strange tugging sensation in his navel, as though an invisible hook was pulling him forward.

Answers. Answers he needed.

Darkness was falling, and the Mason House loomed like a huge, hunched monster in the coming night. And yet it was not nearly as terrifying as what waited for him at home, the Big Ugly Truth that he had been submerged in for days, the air of hatred and rage and blame that was all directed at him.

His fault. All his fault.

He gripped the blue ribbon in his hand tighter, winding it around his palm. It had become wrinkled and dirty the past three days.

He looked around nervously, waiting for an adult to pop his head out of a house down the street and shout at him to get home, or—worse yet—call his mom and dad.

No one poked their noses out.

The invisible hook on his navel tugged impatiently. The mansion was huge and foreboding with its dark windows that seemed to stare at Caleb penetratingly. A crow croaked at him from the caved-in roof. Anything could be behind those shattered and cracked panes, watching, waiting.

“I’m not afraid of ghosts,” Caleb muttered, rubbing his nose with a grimy hand, making the blue ribbon even more dingy.

But if it wasn’t ghosts what was it? What was he so afraid of behind the fortress’s masonry stones?

“The truth,” he whispered. The Big Ugly Truth. The front door creaked open.

 

*          *          *

The door closed as soon as he entered.

“Caleb.” The woman’s stern voice matched her thin, wrinkled face and impossibly tight bun. “Sit.” Her tone made it clear there would be no disobeying.

Caleb jumped. He was in . . . a kitchen. The woman before him studied him impatiently, but he did not know her.

Don’t talk to strangers. He knew that now more than ever. “I’m sorry,” he said, backing towards the door. This had been a mistake. Big Mistake Number Two. His mom would never forgive him if she heard he’d gone in the Mason House. “I didn’t know anyone was in here. And—uh…”

“No excuses. I’ve been waiting over five minutes. You will sit and you will eat or I will make you. And afterward I fully expect this room to be sparkling.”

Sparkling? Caleb surveyed the dingy, cobweb-infested chamber. Paint was peeling off the cupboards. The stove was rusted and the checkered tablecloth covering the lopsided table in the corner was moth-eaten. It looked as though it hadn’t been touched in years.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am—Miss,” he corrected quickly. “I’m really not hungry, and I should go home.”

“I said you will eat,” came the venomous reply. The woman wiped her bony hands across her apron, which was dotted with pink hearts.

Caleb was trying hard not to trip over his feet as he backed toward the exit, kicking up dust from the dirty floor. “I’m sorry Miss, but I can’t—”

Before he could finish, a chair collided painfully with the back of his knees, forcing him into its seat as it shot toward the table in the corner. He yelled, frightened. Cold chains slithered from its legs around his wrists and ankles.

Hot fear welled in his throat.

“Much better,” said the lady, shuffling forward in her blue dress. She sat several empty bowls onto the checkerboard-covered table. “You will eat every last morsel or I promise you’ll wish for something this good tomorrow.”

Caleb stared at the old woman in disbelief, his heart beating so quickly it ached. Tomorrow?

No. He would not be here tomorrow. This was not real. “Ghosts, Caleb,” he muttered to himself. He blinked, hard, but when he opened his eyes the body in front of him seemed as real and tangible as any person’s back home. If this woman existed—even if only in an abandoned house—did that mean…?

Banging pots and pans as she prepared a meal that stunk of raw sewage, the old witch began to hum. Something about her terrified him beyond recognition. It wasn’t her unorthodox demeanor or the strange situation he found himself in. It was that she was smiling—and he knew as surely as the chains biting into his wrists that she wanted to hurt him. And that she’d enjoy doing it.

Big Mistake Number Two. Had this been what she had felt? The fear, the hot, slithering fear that crept along his back and up his arms?

The tugging sensation in his navel was now a persistent twinge. He had to hurry. Perhaps if he just ate quickly, just listened to her…

A bowl and platter slammed into the table in front of him.

Caleb peered into the bowl. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe—

He screamed. Fist-sized spiders crawled around its edges, their many legs a flurry of movement as they crawled on top of one another and onto the table. On the dish next to them was a plate of wriggling maggots.

“What’s wrong, boy?” asked the woman. She had begun to age in front of his eyes, her face thinning until it became mere bone and muscle. “Why, of course.” She reached out a clawed hand and mashed the spiders with a pestle, creating a sticky mess that oozed brown and black blood. “Just the way you like it.” Her eye sockets expanded, turning into depthless holes. Caleb screamed so loudly his throat seared. “Eat. Or I will eat you.” Caleb looked back into the bowl and gagged. What had just been gooey spider was now a mixture of skin, blood, and hair. There was a crushed fingernail on top.

She wanted him to eat a person.

“I can’t eat that!” Caleb cried, feeling vomit in his throat.

The decayed woman stooped in front of him, her jaw detaching as bits of her tongue fell out into his lap. “Eat!” she screeched in a barely-comprehensible voice.

“I can’t!”

She grabbed his face, pulling his head closer as her unhinged jaw widened. She was going to eat him. He was only ten. He would never see his parents again. He should have stayed home. He should have dealt with Big Mistake Number One. He should have ignored it all, dealt with the hatred. He should have…

“I can’t!” Caleb screamed, straining his neck with all his might. “I won’t!”

Diiing. Diiing. Diiing. A booming bell resonated through the room, causing the corpse before Caleb to shriek.

Diing. Diing. Diing.

Something wrapped around his chest, and he was being pulled—chair and all—out of the entranceway, away from the screaming cadaver, and down a narrow, carpeted hallway.

Smack.

The chair splintered and cracked, freeing Caleb’s extremities and sending him rolling. Shaking, body aching, he got to his feet. In front of him was a big, metal door. But he didn’t want to go inside. He didn’t want to stay here anymore. He wanted to go home.

Ignoring the yanking sensation in his stomach, Caleb turned to find an exit, his head moving back and forth. He didn’t know where to go or what to do. He didn’t know anything. As he lifted one sneaker to begin his trek back down the long hall, there was a horrendous wail and the corpse rounded the corner. Its sockets turned toward him, and it began to run.

Without stopping to think Caleb reached behind him for the metal knob, jerking the door open just in time. It closed with a final satisfied click just as brown fingers began to grope inside.

“Shh. Don’t make a sound. He’ll hear us.”

Caleb froze. This chamber was as dark as space without stars, and it took Caleb’s eyes a minute to adjust to the gloom. Two small, filthy boys sat next to him, hiding in the prickly undergrowth surrounding them. They looked just as scared as he felt.

“Who will hear us?” Caleb asked. His heart was still beating painfully against his ribs.

“The guard, of course,” answered the smaller of the two. Even in the darkness Caleb could make out his freckles. “But he can’t keep us from it. We deserve to make it through.”

“Through what?” Caleb inquired, peeking through the bushes. He couldn’t see anything except trees—trees, inside a house—until finally the flickering of a fire caught his eye. Beyond the trunks and brambles, there was a sloping hill with an open stone doorway.

“The door, dummy. We’ve been here forever. Just because they got stuck doesn’t mean we should be, too. Are you new?”

“New?” Caleb asked, ducking down to join them. “I just got here, if that’s what you mean. Is this the caved-in part? What’s with all the trees and grass?”

“Trees and grass? What are you talking about, it’s all glass.”

“I see stone,” said the tinier one.

“Okay,” said the bigger one before Caleb could question them further; he carefully rearranged the Pokémon cap on his head, flipping its bill backwards. Although his body made him look to be about five years younger than Caleb, the determination in his eyes—not to mention the dancing, wild fear—made him seem much older. “It changes every time, so be ready for anything. New guy, stay close and take care of yourself. Let’s go.”

Quick as field mice, the two crawled out from the undergrowth toward the stone archway, their eyes darting left and right. Reluctantly, Caleb followed.

At first it seemed as though they would make it—the corridor was five steps in front of them—but then there was a long huff of warm air that caused Caleb’s sandy hair to fall into his eyes, and then came a terrible, ear-splitting howl. The earth in front of the passageway trembled, and one car-sized, black hand clawed its way out of the soft ground.

The two boys darted for cover, but Caleb stood, his legs immobile, as the hand was followed by a forearm as long as a tree and finally an egg-shaped head. Out of the ground rose the hugest, ugliest being Caleb had ever seen. His eyes were white marbles in the otherwise charred frame, and bits of skin and flesh dangled from random orifices like decorative tassels. He stared around as though waking from slumber, his head barely discernable it was so high in the night.

“I know you are there, small ones. You are not permitted to pass.” The voice that emanated from the giant was like a roll of thunder across a darkened prairie, deep and unnerving; it pushed Caleb backward. “Defying me will bring only pain.”

“But we deserve to pass! We’re sick of your stories and morals!” called the boy with the Pokémon hat. His voice sounded much higher than it had a second ago, and after speaking he quickly shrank back into the shadows.

The giant let out a roar that caused the hair on Caleb’s arms to stand on end; shaking so hard he thought he would trip, he clambered toward the safety of the trees. “Only agony lurks around this corner until you are ready,” came the voice.

“But we’ve been here for ages!” cried the younger, his voice quivering with emotion.

“Then for ages you have avoided exploring every room in this castle,” was the harsh reply.

“But we haven’t! We’ve been to every one!” The two boys looked at each other, both crying pitifully.

“And at what cost? How many times have you forsaken each other in the process?” The enormous creature lifted his head and sucked deeply through his nose; Caleb felt his body rise from the ground. “But you have brought me someone,” said the giant. One huge hand had swooped down and began searching their hiding spot, uprooting trees as though they were weeds.

The smaller boy screeched, diving away as the hand brushed his head. The older one had already disappeared.

The hand stopped, hovering ominously over the sniveling boy. He was shaking so hard that Caleb could see it from where he hid in the trees, wailing as if he was about to die. Caleb looked around; he could make out a white, terrified face under a Pokémon hat nearby.

“Run, you guys!” came the boy’s voice, weak from fright. The giant hand raised, as if preparing to swat a fly. The boy beneath it hunched.

“Stop!” He couldn’t stand this. He would not be the reason for Big Mistake Number Three. Caleb yelled, running on legs that felt like rubber.

He leapt forward and pushed the child out of the way just as the hand arched downward, firmly wrapping itself around his torso.

Caleb’s eyes bulged as he opened his mouth in a silent scream, too terrified to let out so much as a squeak. As he was brought slowly higher, he was able to distinguish the open-mouthed, awed face of the youth he had pushed out of harm’s way before it became a white pinprick and finally faded out of existence.

And then something miraculous happened.

From far below came two yells; the hand bringing Caleb ever higher paused. He thought for sure he heard a deep chuckle before—with a fluttering sensation—he descended sickeningly fast, still held in its grasp, as the hand shot toward the treetops. As he got closer to the ground, Caleb saw the two boys in front of his captor’s humongous, burnt foot; a red and white Pokémon hat bounced up and down as its owner stabbed one large toe with a stick and his friend hurled rocks at the monster’s impressive ankles. They were fighting for him.

“You dare to dispute me?” came the creature’s threatening growl; it shook the trees, causing them to vibrate like the strings of a guitar.

“Yeah! We do!” shouted the younger, chucking another rock as high as he could. “He saved me!”

“He might be stupid, but give him back!” cried the older, sinking a tree limb deeper into the singed toe. “He’s new! He doesn’t know any better.”

The creature laughed as he set Caleb gently aside and lowered himself to his hands and knees, bringing his face close. The three boys froze. Caleb swayed, relieved to be back on the ground.

“Why, it seems as though I was wrong!” boomed the giant. His terrifying, charred face broke into a smile. “You are now ready to pass.”

And—with a loud sucking sound as though they were in a vacuum—he disappeared.

There was a full minute of silence, and then—

“YES!” Both boys jumped for joy, pumping their fists into the air. “We can pass, we can pass,” they sang, hugging one another.

“You!” said the older of the two, grabbing Caleb in a one-armed hug. “We’ve been here for almost a decade, and you saved us.”

“Wh-what?” Caleb stammered, unsure what to say. More ghosts? And if so, could they tell him where to find her?

“You have to visit every room to get into this one, and they’re horrible. But if you die in one of the rooms you have to start all over,” said the younger as though this explained everything.

“So, naturally, we started leaving each other behind when things got rough so we could move on.” The Pokémon cap moved back and forth as the boy shook his head. “It was stupid and selfish. No wonder we couldn’t pass. I’m Edgar, by the way,” he added, and extended a small hand. “Thank you.”

“My name’s Ben. Thank you!” shouted Ben, lunging forward to grapple Caleb around his waist.

“Caleb. But I don’t understand,” Caleb said, awkwardly patting Ben’s back. “What do you mean you have to visit every room?”

Edgar and Ben exchanged nervous glances. “How long did you say you’ve been here?” asked Edgar.

“I just got here today,” Caleb explained. “I thought this place was abandoned, but, well…” He paused. “I’ve heard stories, and I was hoping… But I didn’t know it would be like this. And my parents have to be furious right now; I didn’t tell them I left.”

Ben sucked in a gasp of air. “You—you came here voluntarily? Like walked in the front door?”

Edgar’s eyes were as large as tennis balls. “Why?”

Caleb shifted uncomfortably. Because of Big Mistake Number One, he wanted to tell them. Instead, he said, “I wanted to find out the truth and find s-someone.” He faltered on the last word. “This place is haunted; I thought I could go here.”

As though on cue both boys’ eyes slid to the stone archway.

“The truth…” Ben murmured, his eyes glistening. The Big Ugly Truth. They didn’t seem to have heard the last part at all.

Edgar smiled and put an arm around each of them. “The truth, my friends, is through that hall. What do you say, champs?”

Caleb didn’t exactly like being called a “champ” by someone who looked like he was eight, and he really wanted to ask more questions. But nodded anyway. Gulping, the three held hands and walked to the entranceway, which seemed to grow bigger as they approached.

Standing directly in front of the archway, they took a huge breath. “On three?” asked Edgar. Caleb and Ben nodded grimly.

“One—” said Edgar.

“Two—” said Ben.

“Three,” said Caleb, and they stepped forward.

 

*          *          *

 

Bright, dazzling sunlight warmed his face; he thought he heard the sound of running water.

“Where are we?” he whispered. It looked as though he was in a courtyard. A small stream babbled next to him, leading his eyes to the cobblestoned pathway at his feet. At the trail’s end was a magnificent door frame. Although it was located in the middle of the courtyard, blue sky peeked from its center.

It was only then he realized he was alone. “Ben? Edgar?” Caleb turned in a circle, but they were nowhere to be found.

“They can’t come here. They’ve already left through their own doors.”

He turned on instinct, disbelieving. The voice’s owner was a small, brown-skinned girl. He hadn’t known the mansion’s other inhabitants, but her—she was as dear to him as the sun to a seedling.

“Marie?”

Smiling, she placed her tiny hand in his. “It’s time for me to go through the door now. I’ve been waiting; I wanted to see you before I went.” She grinned up at him toothily, her brown eyes sparkling with the life he had loved, had lived to protect, just three days ago. Three days that felt like one hundred years. Although her body was still that of a child’s, she was different; a precocious demeanor had replaced what had once been his naive six-year-old sister.

“Marie, where are we?”

“Hm. I’m not really sure. I call it The House Sinister because lots of its rooms are pretty scary, but maybe the Reflective Castle would be better. After all, it makes you a better person. All those silly old regrets. You have to pass through the gate better than when you died.” She smiled thoughtfully.

“Marie… Am I..?”

“Dead? As a doornail? Nope!”

“Then why did I see all that stuff?”

“Caleb,” Marie said, putting her small hands on her hips, her your-such-a-dummy look plastered all over her face. “You can’t expect to walk into the Mason House and not see something.” Marie’s voice took on a gentler tone as she walked daintily to the spring and dipped her hand into its clear recesses. “But I knew you would come. We’d always heard ghost stories. I knew you’d come to find me. So I waited.”

“Marie, I—” His eyes filled with tears, his voice catching. What could he possibly say? Nothing could erase it. Not time. Not ghosts. Not the stupid Mason House.

The Big Ugly Truth.

“Silly big brother,” Marie interrupted. “You think I waited for an apology? God, you’re stupid.”

“I—what?”

“I waited because I know how stupid you are.” She stomped one tiny foot onto the pebbled walkway. “Don’t you dare blame yourself. You’ve never left my side, not for an instant. Not for the entire time I was alive. It was super annoying.”

“But—”

“He came up behind me when you were buying us ice cream. I was too hot and went to some shade, and…” For the first time a flicker of pain crossed her face. “It’s not your fault. And I’m telling Mom and Dad they’re stupid, too, for being so angry at you. They’re going to have a pretty big rant coming their way when they dream tonight.”

For the first time in three days, Caleb felt something akin to hope. “It wasn’t because of me?” he said, his voice wobbling.

“Nope. And don’t you forget it.”

“Did he—?” Caleb stopped, unsure how to continue.

“It doesn’t matter, big brother. Karma is real, and he’ll get his. But me, I’m going to a really fun place. And no more school!”

Caleb snorted, choking on tears he hadn’t realized were cascading down his face.  “Soooo,” Marie continued, the familiar mischievous glint Caleb knew entering her eye. “Think fast!” She splashed a handful of water from the stream into his face; Caleb spluttered.

“You little creep!”

A minute later they were wading after each other in the stream, sending waves of water crashing against each other as they fought, both laughing so hard they could barely breathe.

When they could swim no longer they crawled back to the cobblestoned pathway, lying spread-eagled and dripping wet under the sun.

They were quiet for a while, soaking in each other’s presence.

“So that’s…?” Caleb said when he finally had the courage. He nodded toward the door.

Marie giggled. “Yep.”

“But where does it go?”

His sister scratched her chin. “I don’t know. But considering it makes you all better inside before it opens, it has to be somewhere good, doesn’t it?” She smiled and reached for his hand. “It’s time for me to find out,” she whispered, and kissed him on the cheek like she used to when she was a toddler.

He gulped. He didn’t want her to leave. Caleb heard her little feet padding away from him and turned to watch her go. “Marie?” he said, trying hard not to cry again.

“Yeah, big brother?”

“I love you.”

Marie smiled as she looked over her shoulder, the blue sky silhouetting her slight frame. “I know, butthead. I love you, too. And that’s the Big Ugly Truth.”

And she was gone.

All was quiet in the courtyard; nothing stirred save the portal, which vanished into thin air. Other things followed; the river dried up and the stone faded away; ivy covered the remaining walls, and the glimmering pathway became overrun with growth.

Caleb sat amongst the ruins as the sun filtered its way through the trees and dilapidated roof of the Mason House, all alone among the crumbling walls, his heart aching.

When he crawled through the window that night, his parents hadn’t even realized he was gone. He told them he had seen Marie and that she would be giving them a talking-to, all the while ignoring the way they glanced at each other as if he had lost it, and he overheard them conversing about therapists before bed, they’re voices full of grief. But when Caleb woke up the next day a change had overcome them; for the first time since that awful day they looked at their son—and they smiled.

Although Caleb returned to the Reflective Castle’s courtyard, he never saw Marie again. On some nights, however, he could still hear a child’s giggle…and the murmur of a softly flowing spring.

 

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