STONEHEARTH

By C.R. Armstrong

The bus was empty save for the driver. I made my way to the very back, inner child revelling in being able to spread out across the most coveted seats. At school the cool kids always crammed into the back row of seats, scorning anyone else who tried to join them. I was never cool enough.

The bus was unusually clean, the seats and floor missing the familiar stains of gum and scuff marks from thousands of shoes. The fluorescent lighting was almost neon blue, making the white soles on my sneakers glow with an eerie luminescence. Red tail lights bled through the tinted windows, refracted by the rain to create a dappled glow that mingled with the neon interior. I slid into the back row feeling like I was in some kind of silent club.

I leaned back against the too clean seat closing my eyes and breathed in the new car smell. The sound of the bus engine and surrounding traffic mingled with the lashing rain and washed over me, the concoction of sounds familiar and soothing.

I meditated on the sounds of traffic and nightlife sliding by outside. The bus vibrated with life, bumping against the back of my head in a familiar rhythm as it jolted and lurched, carrying me out of the city.

My mind skipped over the night, filing away memories and puzzling over moments. Paul had dragged me along to a haunted house tour insisting that it would be a night to remember. He’d been right about that too, just not in the way I had imagined. I didn’t believe in ghosts, not really, although I have to admit the idea somewhat creeped me out. 

The bus jolted over a bump and my eyes snapped open reflexively. The light outside the bus had died away with the traffic, looking out the windows showed only the black mirror of the pristine interior. ‘Break glass in case of emergency’ reflected in the dark surface. My gaze followed the imaginary line of the reflection, tracing it to its source. A small plastic red hammer stuck high above the window on the opposite wall.

It was cold, I could feel a draught from somewhere breathing down on me. Shuffling around in my seat I tried to find the warmest position inside my thin leather jacket. The neon blue lights of the bus flickered slightly as another gust of chilled air ticked the hairs on the back of my neck. I scooted across the seats and pressed my forehead against the cold glass, squinting out into the night. Rain slid against the window in diagonal streaks as my breath fogged the glass. Outside the world was pitch black. 

A crack of lightning forked across the night as I tried to distinguish anything in darkness. It slashed across the sky, lighting up the stark silhouettes of dead trees and the charred remains of landscape. I was in unfamiliar ground and suddenly became very aware of the fact that I was alone on the bus, wondering if the driver was actually taking me home, or somewhere else. He could drive the bus anywhere in the darkness and no one would notice. Shaking the irrational fears of my overactive imagination away I settled back into my seat. The phantom sensation of a hand on my throat was still lingering and a faint smile crept to the corners of my lips as I let myself drift back through time. 

Although the house was originally built by someone else, its most notable owners were the Putnams. Professor Putnam and his wife Elia moved here in 1866 when they were married. No one has spent more than one night in the house since their deaths.”

The floorboards creaked as we entered the room and cold prickled down my spine. I rubbed my hands up and down my arms in an attempt to warm up. They were unlikely to turn the heating on for a ghost tour after all, the cold added to the spooky ambience thing they had going. 

Their deaths have been steeped in mystery for over a hundred years,” the guide continued. Though it is believed that there was some sort of treachery involved that led to the deaths of both Elia and Professor Putnam.”

Paul huddled close behind me and I leaned into his body heat. His hands roamed down mischievously towards the waistband of my skirt and I pulled them back up, wrapping them around me in a hug. He rested his chin on my shoulder as the guide continued to talk about the death of the Putnams and how they had cursed the house to a sleepless eternity. I tried to listen to what she was saying but Paul’s breath, hot on my neck and across the shell of my ear, was proving quite the distraction. 

A year after their marriage they were hit with tragedy. Elia experienced a miscarriage and almost died, then her doctor told them she would be unable to have any more children.”

My heart clenched slightly imagining the devastation that would cause, but I was pulled from the thought by Paul’s hand sneaking under my shirt and up over my stomach. James and Amanda asleep at home faded from my mind.

The tightness choked in my throat again as the bus jolted to a stop. The clammy feeling around my throat refused to budge and I shifted my scarf, swallowing uncomfortably. 

This is the master bedroom where it is rumoured Elia found her husband on the night she died.”

We followed the guide into the cold dark room. On the mantelpiece above the empty fireplace sat a large cracked mirror. A candle flickered in front of it, doubled by the glass and sending long shadows dancing across the room.

According to legend, Elia entered the room to find her husband in bed with another woman, some say it was Elia’s best friend although the identity of the other woman remains a mystery. Elia flew into a rage and attacked them both, striking the woman across the head with the poker from the fireplace.” The guide drew our attention to the metal poker and fire keeping brush and pans that were haphazardly arranged in front of the cold hearth. Enraged by the killing of his lover, Professor Putnam strangled Elia to death in the very bed they had shared throughout the years of their marriage. Despite the two corpses in his bedroom the Professor was released and never charged with the murder he committed.”

A shiver made its way down my spine and I felt Paul pulling closer to me in the cold room. The guide moved onto the next room, leading the group with her. I went to follow but Paul pulled me back, spinning me around for a kiss. I pushed him back.

Really? Two women died in this room!”

Oh come on,” he whispered back, those stories aren’t real, they just make them up to sell tickets.”

Still, it’s pretty creepy.” I allowed myself to shiver slightly in order to prove my point.

Nah this ones pretty tame actually, you just need someone to warm you up.”

Oh and I suppose you’re just the man for the job?”

I can think of a few ways.”

I rolled my eyes at him and allowed him to pull me closer, enjoying the warmth of his arms wrapped around me in the cold house. 

You know…” he said, low voice close to my ear, It’s been a while since we were in a bedroom together.”

I chuckled, There is no way in hell you’re getting me on that thing, it’s filthy!”

Beggars can’t be choosers.” His hands crept lower.

Who said anything about begging?”

His eyes glinted mischievously in the candle light.

I seem to remember…” I cut him off with a kiss feeling my cheeks grow warm and hoping he couldn’t see me blushing as I pulled back.

Yeah yeah, shuddup and get on with it.” I glanced towards the door the group had gone through. We won’t have much time.”

Paul didn’t waste a second, crowding closer and pushing me until my back was pressed against the wall.

I watched the rain slide down the darkened glass as the bus lurched along the road. I could still feel the pressure of something squeezing against my neck. I’d originally attributed it to the phantom memory of Paul’s long fingers, but as the sensation refused to disappear and only grew more intense, doubt began to creep into my mind. The more I thought about it, I had felt like I was trying to swallow around a wad of paper since we left the bedroom several hours ago.

Harder.” I gasped out.

Paul’s hand squeezed tighter in response. Dust rained down, shaken loose by the slight tremors we were sending through the wall with each thrust. The candle on the mantelpiece shook from our movements. 

A sudden movement from the front of the bus broke me out of my reverie. I must have been engrossed in my thoughts for quite some time as I had neither noticed the bus stopping or another woman getting on. There was something off about her, she seemed to be glowing slightly in the blue luminescence of the bus. A cold draught made me shiver as she turned towards me. I froze as ice flooded through my veins. She moved towards me, through the bus as if it were nothing more than fog. Her face was battered and bruised but still recognisable, hauntingly familiar. The same face from the front of the crumpled up flyer in my breast pocket. 

Paul rested his forehead against mine, as we both panted. Sweat slicked skin stuck stray hairs to my neck and forehead. I let my legs fall awkwardly back to the floor, slowly coming down from the high. A draught in the room blew the candle out suddenly and I felt the prickle of cold return. I smoothed my skirt down, and cast Paul a quick glance as he zipped up his jeans. The floorboards creaked loudly as we left the room, following the sounds of the tour group towards the other side of the house.

I shrank back into the corner as the spectral figure approached. For the first time I wished I’d sat somewhere other than the back of the bus. Elia Putnam was pallid and clammy, cold radiated from her in invisible waves. My breath began to cloud the air in small puffs as she drew closer. Her neck was bruised in a familiar pattern, deep purple and yellow splotches where the professor’s fingers had dug in.

“… the spirit of Elia Putnam will bring down retribution on them.” The guide was saying as we sidled into the back of the room, rejoining the group. There were many accident reports linked to the house, although no one ever noticed the connection until one of them survived.”

The other members of the group were in raptures, some shifted uneasily. I sent Paul a ‘what the fuck?’ look, wondering what we missed, and who the dead ghost was supposedly bringing down retribution on.

Cathleen O’Dowd in 1987 was almost killed in a car accident the same night she visited this house. In the report she said the ghost of Elia appeared in the car and yanked the steering wheel, making her lose control of the vehicle. Of course no one believed her for over a decade until it happened again. The second time, Juliet Owens reported the tram she had been riding home crashed after a spirit appeared and shrieked at her and the driver. The man reportedly suffered a heart attack while driving and Mrs Owens was lucky to escape with her life.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd of listeners. The guide was revelling in the tale, drawing everyone in with every word. Something brushed against my arm and my heart jumped into my throat, pounding hard as Paul pulled his hand away smirking. I hit him softly, glaring unimpressed before returning my attention to the story.

In the 1990’s a man called John Buchanan published an article on The Vengeful Ghost of Stonehearth Manor linking the deaths of fifteen people to this very house, all of them taking place in various vehicle accidents.

The air caught in my lungs as my throat fully closed off. A tightness that I had previously attributed to Paul’s fingers now felt like a cold clammy hand crushing my larynx. I clawed at my throat as Elia advanced, her face morphing into a nightmare inducing mask. The desperation for breath sent panic washing through my body. The edges of my vision darkened and my head fogged up like it was stuffed with cotton wool. I felt like I’d just gotten off a particularly fast spinning fairground ride, the kind where kids get off looking green at the gills and stagger a few meters before puking all over the side of the path, or themselves. 

My own fingers made bruises against my neck as I tried to free myself from her grip. The nightmarish figure leaned over me with a glint of satisfaction twisting her features into a wicked smile. It was all true. The words of the guide swam into my mind.

All the victims of the house had something in common.” Bated breath and a quiet so tense you could have heard the spirits moving in the house drew out the dramatic pause. They had all been unfaithful to their partners.” An actual chill went down my spine and goosebumps bloomed along my arms and legs as the words struck me, the group murmured, a few people chuckled breaking the tension and the guide smiled clapping her hands together cheerfully. Of course, you have nothing to worry about now, there hasn’t been a reported incident in almost a decade, the ghost of Elia Putnam has gone quiet. Personally I think she’s had her fill of tormenting the living, although you never know what could piss off a ghost enough to come back and haunt you. After all, Professor Putnam only lasted two days in the house alone before he was found skewered on a broken banister at the bottom of the stairs.”

My body shook as the lack of oxygen set in and I pushed it up in a last effort. Elia’s form was tangible and inescapable as I tried to push past her. I stumbled on the steps down from the back of the bus and my ribs caught over the back of an empty seat. The jarring shock broke the seal and air flooded into my lungs. I heard my own gasping breaths and coughing as if from far away. I have to get off this bus. I scrambled towards the driver’s seat, the cold following me as I went, I gasped through lungs that felt as if someone was clamping them shut.

“Stop the bus!”

The bus lurched as I reached the front and I grabbed onto a handrail to stop myself from falling to the floor looking up at the driver to repeat my plea.

The words stuck in my throat. The driver’s seat was empty. I stared in horror as the bus barrelled along the road in the darkness, headlights barely lighting the long foggy expanse. I turned back towards the empty bus. Elia Putnam was approaching at a leisurely pace, as if she had all the time in the world to torment me. I looked back at the driver’s seat trying to think of any way out, buttons around the console glowed red and yellow. The bus lurched again. I don’t know how to stop it. I glanced around frantically for a way out. ‘Emergency exit door release’ caught my eye, I slammed my palm against the button. Nothing happened. I tried again, frantically mashing the button but the door remained firmly shut. I looked at the drivers console, finally seeing the ‘open door button’. I pressed it. The doors still didn’t open.

The bus lurched and swayed along the rough road. Elia laughed and it sounded like sandpaper on a saw. Her face was twisted into a triumphant leer as she slowly drew nearer. She seemed to be enjoying my frantic efforts to escape, like a cat toying with its prey letting it try to escape before it pounced once more. 

Break glass in case of emergency. The words flashed through my mind. I reached up, my hand closed around the small red hammer.

The glass of the door cracked loudly. I hit it again, a spider web of fractures splintered across the surface. Once more and the glass was a sheet of pebbled pieces, nothing but friction holding it together.

I pulled back and kicked the glass pane as hard as I could, hearing a shriek of rage as the small pieces rained down around me and wind whipped in through the gaping hole. I jumped just in time as Elia lunged in fury, her clammy hands brushing, tugging at my hair as I launched myself from the moving bus.

The ground hit me hard and I tumbled, breath knocked out of me as my back slammed into the ground. I rolled down a slight slope into the ditch on the roadside. The bus careered away into the fog. As the taillights disappeared into the night an eerie shriek of rage and despair split the silence.

I picked myself up, head spinning slightly as I brushed off the dirt and grass that clung to me. The road was empty. Darkness enveloped everything around me as I took in my surroundings. A few meters away a bus stop loomed out of the thick fog, I hobbled towards it trying to read where I was. Shivering I breathed in the night. The light from my phone illuminated the reflective metal, casting light across the familiar road name. It was my stop. Silence echoed around me, then a car engine spluttered to life and I was cast in the blinding headlights.

I squinted into the orange glow wondering what new horrors awaited me. The image of my broken body soaring into the air, bones cracking, spearing through my organs from the impact, flicked through my mind but I was too tired to run, or even move out of the way. The horn beeped loudly and I flinched.

“Hurry up and get in the damn car. It’s fucking freezing!”

I  got in the car. My left hand thrust deep in my pocket slipping the ring back onto my finger as I leaned across and quickly pecked my husband on the cheek. He pulled out onto the road as I leaned back in my seat. Guilt twisted in my guts as I glanced across at my husband and thought of Paul. Elia’s gaunt face flickered across the rear-view mirror. 

What have I done.

THE END

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