William shifted uneasily in the bed. It was no use. He couldn’t sleep. Every time he was just about to drop off, he was woken by a creaking in the great house. It seemed to be coming from all around him, loud and all-pervasive. The sound filled his ears and jolted him from the edge of much-needed sleep.
Clearly, it wasn’t going to happen. He sat up in bed, then fumbled for the matches he had left next to the huge oak bed. He couldn’t find them. The dark was making him jumpy. With a sigh of relief, he found the box and lit the candle that was next to his bed. The oppressive darkness was replaced by flickering shadows. William wasn’t sure if this was an improvement or not.
His arm was stiff. Had he been lying on it funny? It seemed to have seized up. He bent his elbow slowly, felt it creak like the old wood of this ancient house.
Why was he here? What was he trying to prove? Oak Tree Manor had been Aunt Edith’s, but he could barely remember her. He had a vague memory of seeing her at some birthday party, maybe his, maybe someone else’s, who knows? It had been a big family gathering, he was sure of that. There was just the vaguest memory of what she was like, no more than an outline really, small and withered with gray hair and sharp green eyes. He thought she had passed long ago. Oh well, he couldn’t remember her, but he had clearly made an impression. He had forgotten she even existed until a letter dropped through the door, saying he had inherited her fancy large estate, Oak Tree Manor, and half a million pounds. He had no idea Aunt Edith was so rich.
Gearing himself up for getting out of bed, he cursed the lack of central heating once again. Edith might have been rich, but she hadn’t spent any money on utilities. William had wasted hours on the phone to various companies, wondering if they would ever be able to come out and connect the old manor up. It was a large house in the middle of nowhere and everyone he spoke to seemed to say it would take at least a month to get electricity flowing. Why would it take that long? He couldn’t understand. So he was stuck with no light and roaming patches of freezing cold that seemed to seep into his bones.
William braced himself and got out of bed. The floorboards creaked in protest. The floor was freezing, of course. He swore under his breath and shuffled out of the bedroom, taking the candle with him. Where was he going? He didn’t know. Maybe down to the library to read for a bit. That would set his mind at ease. He moved quietly through the empty manor. It felt too big for one person, too empty and echoing.
His hand was completely frozen up. William dismissed it as the cold of the house. His other hand held the candle tight. He felt like he had travelled back in time a hundred years. The darkness shifted and shimmered around him, as if moving of its own volition. The shadows held secrets. It wasn’t right, an old country house like this with only one man in it. It felt like an emptiness waiting to be filled. William was sure he could feel a strange presence around him. It was probably just his mind making something out of nothing, he thought.
The corridor seemed to stretch forever. He didn’t remember it being this long. It stretched into the darkness, into shadow, ongoing and vanishing in the distance. Bollocks. William was lost. He had probably gone too far, missing the turning for the stairs. He was starting to have second thoughts about the whole enterprise. The plan had been to quit his job and live on his inheritance in Oak Tree Manor, maybe write a novel or two. The only problem was, he hadn’t reckoned with the house being so antiquated.
Now both his feet were frozen completely solid. He could barely move his toes. They seemed to creak as loudly as the house. He frowned and walked on.
Aunt Edith hadn’t been confirmed dead, apparently. Her body had never been found. She had simply gone missing several years ago and never been found. That’s why Oak Tree Manor was in such bad repair. It had lain empty and hungry for years until she was assumed dead and the will was cracked open. The whole affair was odd. Still, William had tried to put that out of his mind and focus on his unexpected good fortune. It lingered in his mind that she was here, in the house, watching him. He couldn’t shake the feeling off.
The corridor continued, seemingly to nowhere. William stopped. There was a howling around the windows, the wind whistling around the corners and eaves of the mansion.
He had definitely missed the staircase. He turned back and headed back down the corridor. Each step was accompanied by a clump, clump, clump. He seemed to be moving slower. Weird. It must have been really cold in the house. Still, the movement usually warmed him up. His joints creaked the more he moved. He must have overdone when he was unpacking of all his stuff. Maybe shifted too many boxes. His arms were heavy, his back was stiff. Each step was more painful.
William stopped after a minute or so. He had followed the walls with the flickering candle. The staircase should have been on his right. This corridor seemed to stretch into an infinite vanishing point. There were no doors, no windows even on his right side. Nothing all the way down. He checked the left side of the corridor, but it was the same. He couldn’t see where he had come from. Where was his bedroom even? Why did the corridor seemingly go on forever? What was going on? Nothing about this seemed right.
Maybe he should turn back. Which way had he started from? All he wanted was the staircase. It was nowhere in sight. Nor was his bedroom. Where was he going? What was going on? Shadows flickered around the room, seemingly forming terrible shapes and mocking faces. Just a trick of the light, William told himself, just a trick of the light. That’s all. The candle flame skidded and jumped around as if blown by some unseen wind. Stay calm, just stay calm, he told himself over and over. His heart raced.
He would go back the way he started. That would be a good idea. Retrace his steps. He must have missed the staircase. A shadow jumped, formed a mouth with sharp teeth. No illusion, it seemed so real. Just a trick, he told himself, just a trick.
William took a step. It was slow and painful. His leg creaked as he heaved it forwards. Then he tried to take another. He couldn’t move his foot. It was frozen to the floor. It was trapped by something unseen.
He crouched down, bringing the candle with him. His leg was half covered in a brown smear, which he could barely make out in the shifting yellow light. There was a rough quality to it. William reached out a hand, seeing the same brown smear over his fingers and palm, spreading like a mould. As he looked, it grew more, heading down the hand and arm. He tapped his leg. It felt cold and solid, not like flesh any more in the slightest. It felt like wood.
The shadows flickered around him, making strange shapes. He was sure he could a mouth filled with sharp teeth, just in the corner of his eye.
As William watched, the brown stain spread further up his leg, up his body, spreading at a rapid pace, faster than he could see. The candle fell out of his hand as it seized up. It was extinguished as it hit the floor. William was plunged into darkness. The last thing he saw was a smiling mouth in the shadows. He didn’t know what was going on. Was he sinking? He could feel the rot spread up his legs, down his arms, over his stomach, turning everything in its path to solid wood, infecting everything it touched with rapid force. He couldn’t move. There was a huge creaking sound in the manor all around him, like the belly of a huge beast rumbling hungrily. His breath came short now. He couldn’t move at all. His arms were seized up completely, his legs were stuck in place, his back was contorting into strange shapes, his head was forced backwards and his mouth stretched open. A scream tried to escape his mouth. He needed to scream. Nothing came out. The wood invaded his mouth and turned his last breath to sawdust.
In the darkness, Oak Tree Manor claimed it’s latest prize.