If you follow the road south of a small rural town called Renford, you will find another, less busy track which is almost hidden completely behind overgrown foliage. Most people drive on by, oblivious to its existence, but if you follow it you will come upon two large houses relatively near to each other. One of them is in an agreeable state; yes, it still has its issues such as the weather-stripped paint and gnarled wood porch in desperate need of a varnish, but compared to the other it is palatial.
The other house is near a wreck in comparison, but not by choice. I always had plans in my mind as to how I wanted to finish it, how I wanted to restore it to its original prime, but now it sits there festering and abandoned. It pains me to think of it sat there alone in the woodland, but there is nothing between heaven or hell which could drag me back there.
I can still remember the first day I saw the advert for it. It needed some love put into it back then, and that was twelve years ago. I had always dreamed of finding a place which had fallen into disrepair and breathing new life into it, especially if the price was right. It was the polar opposite of the busy city I lived in, and I did not think a quiet life was too much to ask for.
I rang the phone number listed as soon as I returned from work. The house was part of a deceased estate. They had no living relatives and they had left no will requesting what be done with it. The mortgage company had seized the property and simply wanted it gone to reclaim their owed money. They snapped my hand off almost as much as I snapped at theirs.
I packed up my life in the city, cramming it all into the bed of a pick-up truck, and set out on the five hour drive to Renford. The journey could only be described as sheer joy. The noise and light of the city fell away, opening up to vast expanses of trees and fields as far as I could see. I passed through small towns and villages, stopping to take in the slower pace of life whenever I needed a rest. I felt myself glow with contentment, as if my soul had been refreshed.
It was late when I made the turning down that secluded lane. The truck bounced and rattled as the road became little more than two tyre-churned tracks amongst the lengths of grass, and I clenched my teeth as my skull rattled.
I saw the other house first. It passed to my right, and I could not help but be a nosy neighbour. Unfortunately, there was nothing to warn me of the terror that was to come, simply a single upstairs light on in what I assumed was the bedroom. I carried on another one hundred metres and stopped outside of my new home.
I was used to night time in the city, not the full and foreboding rural darkness. Because of this, I grabbed only what I had to that first night and resolved to bring the rest in the next day. I can still remember how I led there that first night, unable to sleep due to the lack of any noise. There were no cars, no planes or trains, simply myself and the night.
Over the next few days I quickly became accustomed to the quiet, finding myself enjoying my isolation from the outside world more and more. When I eventually returned to work several days later, I found myself yearning to return to my little slice of paradise each day. Noise irritated me, and I developed a deep-seated hate of the heaving rumble of constant traffic.
The weekends were wonderful. I ensured that I had a full enough refrigerator and freezer to last the weekend, so that I could enjoy my solitude as much as I could. I took long rambling walks in the woods, listened to music, and watched the world go by from my porch.
In the evenings, as twilight closed in, I would sit on the porch with a couple of beers and watch the darkness roll in. I sat there in the dark for as long as I could, enjoying the starlight above, but every night I noticed the light come on in the upstairs bedroom of the other house. I looked several times, but could never make anyone out, at least not directly. There were times when I swear I could see someone at the window out of the peripheral of my vision, a large and brutish shape, but when I looked towards it, it was gone.
I resolved to meet my neighbour as soon as I got the chance. On the weekends I would knock, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, but I never received an answer. It was a few days after I attempted to contact them that the damned music began.
The music was beautiful, it truly was. When I sat on the porch at night, the light would come on as usual, but now it was accompanied by the sound of a mournful piano. When I first heard it, I thought it was a recording as it was so perfect, but every night the music was subtlety different. Occasionally it was punctured by a frantic and passionate staccato, other times it flowed like silk. It went on for hours at a time, and always stopped when I retired to my bedroom.
I had decided to sleep in one Saturday when I heard a knock at the door. At first I thought it was my imagination, but then it went again. I always picked up my post from the office in town, so I knew it couldn’t be that. I threw on some clothes and dashed downstairs.
I opened the door to find a frail old woman stood on my doorstep. There was something about her that set me on edge, but I could not put my finger on it. She leaned on a gnarled stick for support, her hair scraped back into a greasy grey bun, but it was her smile that tingled my spine. It was large and unnatural, her eyes holding the same maniacal flair.
‘You like the music, do you?’
I was still trying to figure out why an old woman was stood on my doorstep. ‘Music?’
She pointed back to the house just up the road. ‘The music. I’ve seen you sitting out here at night. You like it?’
My brain put the pieces together and I came to the realisation that I was speaking to my neighbour. ‘That’s you? It’s wonderful. Incredible, even.’ I wiped my hand on my clothes and extended it towards her. ‘I’m sorry, where are my manners, I’m Nathan.’
The old lady took my hand in an oddly strong grip, her ice cold fingers wrapping around mine. ‘Agnes,’ she replied. ‘Perhaps you’ll want to come listen sometime?’
The thought of seeing such a performance overrode any discomfort that the old lady gave me. I nodded. ‘Very much so.’
‘How about tonight?’
I shrugged. It was not as if I had anything else on. ‘I’d like that.’
Her odd grin returned. ‘Come around at eight.’ She turned and started down the steps of my porch, then turned and looked at me one last time. ‘Make sure you’re on time.’
I spent the rest of the day thinking about tonight’s performance. The see such beauty flowing first hand set my heart fluttering, and I kept myself as busy as possible to ensure that eight came as quick as possible.
I knocked the door at exactly eight. I waited in the dark for a moment until a light came on and the door groaned open. Agnes was stood holding the door, although the odd smile and fire her eyes held earlier had dissipated. Her hand shook on the door handle, and the smile she attempted to give me was a weary one. The smell of various oils and lavender wafted out to greet me, although there was a burnt undertone lingering in the air.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked. ‘If tonight’s not good-‘
‘No, no, come in, come in,’ she replied, waving me in and towards the staircase. ‘Go on up. I’ll be there in a moment. I dare say I’m a little slower than you.’
I followed her instruction and ascended the staircase, the old boards creaking underneath my feet no matter how softly I trod. The light was now on in one of the rooms, the room which I saw illuminated every night. I stepped in and looked around.
In the centre of the room was an old grand piano, the original black paint chipped in places and showing the raw wood beneath. The rest of the room was populated by numerous tables, each holding troves of crystals and geodes; they were sprawled out in indistinct but definite patterns, and some were even hung from the light fittings, sending odd angles of light bouncing through the room. Two leather armchairs sat snugly together.
Agnes struggled into the room and shut the door. Her tired eyes seemed to regain an element of power, and a faint smile toyed with her lips.
‘This is impressive,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this before.’
All she did was give a feeble nod before hobbling towards the piano and taking a seat at the stool. She motioned to the armchairs. ‘Take a seat.’
I followed her words and sank deep into the old creaking chair. She turned to look at me, the angles of light seeming to change her facial features as they bounced around the room.
‘The way I play can be…unorthodox,’ she said. ‘It requires deep concentration, almost like falling into a trance. You like the music you can hear from your house, yes?’
‘Can you imagine it sounding even more wonderful? The tones deeper, the playing so elegant that the fingers whisper across the keys. An experience for the soul. Can you imagine it?’
It was a struggle to imagine something even more divine than what I had already heard. ‘I can’t, but I would love to hear it.’
Agnes took a deep breath, her form appearing to warp slightly. ‘You can hear it. I can show you how. But, you need to open your mind, your soul, even.’
I leaned forward in the chair, the leather groaning beneath me. ‘Show me.’
The odd grin returned to the old woman’s face. ‘Then you’ll need to come with me, far beyond this mortal shell.’ She noticed my raised eyebrow and laughed. ‘I said you’d need an open mind.’
‘But how? That’s impossible.’
‘Astral projection,’ Agnes replied. ‘Detaching our souls from their anchors and letting them soar far, far away.’
Something raised the hairs on the back of my neck, my heart rate increasing. Normally I wouldn’t subscribe to such nonsense thinking, but the authority in her voice almost made me believe her. ‘Is it safe? Can we come back?’
‘Of course,’ she said with a wide grin. ‘I go and come back every night, what makes you think it would be different this time?’
‘Great, then we’ll being.’
Agnes turned her back to me and lowered her head. ‘Follow my voice,’ she said, her tone suddenly low and deep. ‘Keep your breathing steady and shut your eyes.’
I closed my eyes and listened to her voice. The steady rhythm of my breathing quickly matched her own wheezing pace. She whispered words well below my hearing range; all I could make out was the guttural mumbling, nothing distinct in the words themselves.
Something changed within me. It was a subtle, a minor flicker somewhere in my mind, but I felt myself suddenly lighter. A bleak terror filled me at the thought of actually leaving my physical body behind. I forced my eyes open, my weight coming back to me. I broke the rhythmic breathing, my lungs clamouring for lost breath.
I looked around to see Agnes still slumped with her head forward, mumbling and churning unknown words in her mouth. The crystals which were hung from the ceiling danced slightly, the erratic light forming strange but wonderful images before my eyes, but it was not enough to chase away the dread which flowed through me.
My fight or flight response kicked in, and it chose flight. I sprang from the chair and made my way to the door, before descending the old stairs, checking over my shoulder for something every few steps. I dashed out into the dark night and back towards my house. I took one last glance at the now normal light in what I thought was the bedroom window, and ducked into the safety of my own house.
Several days passed and I did not see Agnes, nor did she come see me. In hindsight I thought that perhaps I had overreacted, maybe I had bought too deeply into her words and my brain had played tricks with me. Either way, I felt awkward about the whole thing, and hoped to see her to apologise, however whenever I knocked there was no answer.
The nightly music returned, but it was not the same as before. It was no longer the wonderful workings of a musical genius, but sounded like someone hammering the keys with inelegant fingers. It was awful, and its incessant nightly noise soon began to dampen my enjoyment of my evenings on my porch.
I came home from work one evening to find a note pushed under my door. I picked it up and read it. It was from Agnes.
I’m sorry if there was any misunderstanding the other night. I finished my playing and you were gone. I am frightfully sorry if I offended you in anyway, or made you feel uncomfortable, but thank you for giving an old lonely woman the company for an evening. My door is always open for you, my dear, please don’t be a stranger.
The letter tugged at my heartstrings. Perhaps I had overreacted the other night? My memories of what occurred that night now seemed vague, almost as if looking through a haze. I resolved to set the issue straight once I had eaten and cleaned up.
My knock at her door was answered relatively quickly. Agnes opened the door, looking tired once more. ‘Oh, my dear,’ she said. ‘I was hoping you would pop by after reading my note.’
‘I must apologise for the other night,’ I said. I dredged a lie from my thoughts. ‘I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to disturb your wonderful playing.’
Agnes gave a lacking smile. ‘Oh, you are sweet. Perhaps I could play for you again some night, when you’re feeling up to it?’
‘I was hoping to hear it tonight, if you are free, of course.’
‘That’s music to my ears,’ Agnes said, a spark returning to her old eyes. She nodded towards the stairs. ‘Guests first.’
I climbed the stairs once more. Instead of looking forward to the performance this time, all I could think of was the cacophony I had been subjected to for the last few nights. I made an agreement with myself that I would humour her this time, and stay to the bitter end.
The room was how I remembered it, and soon I was settled down in the old leather chair, with Agnes seated at the piano. She closed her eyes once more, and I followed suit; if it could make the music any more bearable than I thought it would be at least worth a try.
Once again my breathing fell into rhythm with the old woman’s. Her odd guttural chanting came back, and I could hear the crystals around the light fittings clink gently against one another as they danced once more.
That subtle loss of weight came sooner than I expected. My heart raced once more, but this time I resolved to hold myself to the experience. It was unnerving at first, and I can only describe the feeling as if you were ascending, even though I knew it was impossible.
It was in this moment that I realised that I could hear nothing. The more I listened to the silence, the odder it became. I could no longer hear the clink of crystals, the guttural words, or even my own heavy breaths. My senses tensed, ears pining for the sound of …something.
I heard it. It was distant, but I recognised it. The sweet tinkle of piano keys. I smiled to myself as I heard it. Even from such a distance, I realised that this playing was nothing like I had heard for the last few nights. It was serene, a glistening dance across the ivories. I had to see the old woman play it, or I would not believe it. I opened my eyes.
They did not open.
A moment of panic jarred me. I could not even sense the air entering and leaving my lungs, but I knew somewhere I gasped for breath. I moved my hands in front of my eyes, and realised I could see them. A moment of relief set in. I was not blind, but wherever I was was so gloomy that I could barely see my hands in front of me.
I reached a hand out, finding it resting on what I could only imagine was some textured wallpaper. I stepped towards it, and could see it now. I followed the wall and eventually it led me to a door. I fumbled with the handle for a moment, before it creaked open before me.
It was lighter here, though not much. An old lamp, covered in cobwebs, sat in the corner of the room, casting a muted light across what looked to be an old pub. It was untouched, with empty stools lining the bar, and tables and chairs pristine in condition. I stepped inside and heard the music become louder.
‘Agnes?’ I called. There was no response. ‘Anyone?’ Silence. I walked across the bar and looked out of the windows. The darkness returned outside of the panes, although I could swear there was a constant swarm of movement just beyond my perception. Something moved behind me.
I turned around to see a line of people queuing across the bar, towards a door on the other side. They were inanimate, and dressed in old-fashioned clothing. All of them were caught as if frozen in time; some were trapped in mid-conversation, others swigged from a drink, and others checked tickets which they held.
‘Hello?’ I said, but was answered with only more silence. The piano grew louder now, as if it was just beyond the doors which they queued towards. I followed the line, and on closer inspection the door held a number of posters.
Agnes Deyton – live for tonight only!
I pressed a hand to the door and twisted the handle. To my surprise it opened. I was expecting someone to stop me, or for the door to be locked, but instead the door opened up into a large dance hall. Rows of seats were set out in preparation for the event, but it was not that which gathered my attention.
I could see her, hunched over the piano. The glorious, soaring notes which she played became dampened, the melancholic sound which I first heard when I moved into my house returning. I crept closer, not wanting to disturb her playing, going further into the hall.
I passed rows of empty seats, following the empty walkway towards the stage. I looked back, as if expecting the crowd to have followed me, but they were still frozen where they stood. As I went to take a seat in the front row, I noticed something. Agnes was crying. Her frame was hunched forward, not from concentration, but as if a large mass was crushing down upon her.
A round of applause startled me. I looked around to see the seats now filled; the queue from outside now sat in their seats, each of their faces glued to Agnes. Their faces held no emotion, simply offering blank stares towards the stage. I looked towards Agnes as the music swelled once more.
This time, I could see something else. Agnes was still hunched over the piano, tears rolling through the cracks in her face, but I could see the weight which fell on her. It was large, standing over her, but it was hard to make out in the dim light. It was mostly shadow, but most definitely not that of a man.
Its height was so much that it had to crouch, its legs bent at odd angles, and arms of brutish size holding Agnes tight within its grasp. A bolt of black terror ran down my spine as I realised that this thing was not a creature which had seen the light of day.
My mind whirled with fear. All I could think of was to run, but as I stood I saw its form move, its head turning slowly towards me. It was now that I could make out a feature. It was the same unnatural smile which had held Agnes’ face the first time she knocked at my door. From that bleak smile came the strange and twisted words which Agnes had muttered, but now they were terrifyingly loud.
I ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I sprinted past the rows of inanimate people, and out into the bar. I glanced back, the sight that greeted me threatening to turn my legs to jelly beneath me.
All of the occupants of the theatre were turned in their seats, their hollow stares locked onto me, although that was the least of my worries. The large creature had descended from the stage and was making its way through the central aisle towards me, its black mass blocking out any view I had of Agnes.
There was only one way I could go. I dashed towards the entrance to the pub, rattling the door handle but finding it locked. My heart thundered in my chest. I wrenched a chair from the floor and did the only thing my panicking mind could think of. I threw it firmly towards the window.
The glass shattered, with it coming screams of anguish. I didn’t dare look back towards the hall as I threw myself out of it.
I was falling. I had expected to land painfully on the ground outside, expecting glass to be buried in my hands and knees, but that was not the case. The wind whistled past me as I fell, carrying the howls of the mad and the pained.
I fell for what felt like a lifetime. My mind raced and my heart threatened to break through my ribcage. I was falling somewhere, but where I did not know.
I came to a sudden halt. A solid weight connected with me. I thrashed around in the darkness momentarily, trying to find a way to get further from that beast, but something connected. I opened my eyes, light bursting in to greet them. I was back in the room with Agnes.
The crystals banged loudly against each other as they whirled around violently. The shards of light which danced across the room now painted terrifying and indescribable images. I launched myself out of the chair and towards Agnes.
‘Agnes?’ I cried out, shaking her firmly. ‘Agnes?’
She continued playing, her fingers hammering the keys with unnatural force. She did not weep here; instead her lips were wrenched into that insane smile. Her eyes rolled towards me, but her mouth simply continued to spout the strange words I had heard in the hall.
There was nothing else I could do. I bolted down the stairs, hearing banging and bellowing from the room as I ran. I made the short distance to my car quicker than I ever thought possible and started the engine.
My headlights illuminated the road ahead. Whatever was going on in that room, it was not good. Blasts of multicoloured light beamed out into the night, brighter than the moon which was high in the sky. A dark shadow appeared at the window, its dark and baleful glare almost freezing me in fear.
I slammed my foot on the accelerator and flew down the track. The truck bounced and groaned in protest, but there was no way my foot would respond. I drove the rest of the night; I didn’t know where, and frankly I didn’t care.
It’s been twelve years since I’ve seen my house. I still wake up with regular night terrors, and I can only find sleep with the light on. Everything I once owned was in that house, but now I can only imagine that it’s all left to rot. Sometimes I still think about Agnes, about what must have happened to her to lead such a harrowing existence, but there is no help for a soul like that.
All I can hope is that the road has overgrown to the point of invisibility, and that she, and whatever that thing was, is sealed away for as long as her body continues to live.