Submitted Date 09/05/2023

In the late autumn stillness of the darkening dusk, Chris stood by the water's edge silently lost in thought. The only sound was the rhythmic susurration of the waves reaching for him and he shivered as a cool south-westerly wind, laden with salty moisture, sent a chill down his spine. On the coastline opposite, the home by the sea stood defiant in the face of the elements like a silent sentinel watching - waiting for his return. Charcoal clouds scudded across the sky, breaking up in deference to the moon, casting a suffused glow upon the house, and creating a dance of shadows across its lichen-smothered bricks. His mind inevitably went back thirteen years - as it so often did - to the last time he was there and the last time he ever saw his best friend. He scoffed internally at how ignorant he and his friends all were, blissfully unaware that would be the last day they would ever hang out as a complete group again…

"You lost the bet, Chris, so you have to do the dare," " demanded Kyle to a chorus of assent from the others.

"I know, I'll do it, Kyle, I'm just working out when's the best time".

"You're stalling is what you're doing. You're chicken, I reckon, frightened to even go up to the door, is what I think," and started prancing around making chicken noises. The rest of the gang started laughing – some joining in with his comical dance.

Chris ignored Kyle's stupid antics; he wasn't bothered by his bravado, and he knew it was just for fun, but he could feel Mandy's eyes boring into him, and he actually did care what she thought of him. The only girl in the gang, there was an unspoken agreement that she was out of bounds as far as romance was concerned, and being Josh's younger sister, no one doubted that he would enforce the rule should anyone break it; but Chris had nurtured a secret crush on Mandy for nearly a year now, and judging by the way she sometimes looked at him, he hoped she felt the same.

Chris forced a fake laugh at the chicken antics. "Fine, you weirdo, I'll do it now," he said, and they cheered in unison.
The home by the sea had always been intriguing to them. They have been local kids, but they had no idea if anyone lived there and thought it might be abandoned. Josh, being a year older than the rest of them played up to the role of being the sensible one and insisted it only seemed empty sometimes because it was probably a holiday let. Still, they'd never actually seen any signs of life, except that the lawn was sometimes mowed and the shrubbery pruned. Kyle, however, insisted it was a haunted house, and the owners had abandoned it in terror. He was always making up stories about it – his favourite being that it had once been the home of a serial killer, and the last owners, haunted and terrorised by the ghosts of his victims, eventually fled, abandoning the house and all their belongings, never to return. Chris was pretty sure there was a simple explanation, but at the same time, always felt spooked by the place.

"Why do you think the gates are always locked with the massive chain and padlock?" asked Kieran.

"To keep dickheads like us out," replied Chris.

"Or to keep the horrors within inside," said Kyle in an exaggerated spooky voice to the amusement of the rest.

Scaling the Gothic iron gates, Chris dropped to the ground, gave one quick glance at the silent, expectant faces of the rest of the group safely on the outside, and began making his way to the door.

"Just knock on the door then leg it back, Chris," called Kyle. Chris stopped and spun around. "Knocking on the door wasn't the dare, Kyle; if you want to play knock-a-door-run, you can join me."

"It's your dare 'chicken-feed', not mine!" laughed Kyle.

Chris turned and marched up the stone path, hoping the crunch of his feet conveyed a sense of confidence and bravery he didn't really feel. On reaching the house, he froze. A sense of foreboding forbidding him to get any closer. "Go on Chris, look inside," called Kyle, breaking his reverie. 'This is stupid', he told himself, 'There's nothing to be scared of', and he stepped onto the veranda, going straight to one of the large bay windows of the double-fronted house. Pressing his face right up against the window he tried to see through the gap between the heavy drapes. His eyes adjusted to the dusty suffused light and he saw nothing but an ordinary dining room, furniture in place, just coated in a thin layer of dust. He was just about to turn and leave when he sensed movement out of the corner of his eye. Pulling his head away sharply, his heart raced in warning…something didn't feel quite right, but he didn't move. Nothing happened, and slowly, he took another look. Nothing. Then suddenly there was a sense of movement again, as if people were moving around. He stared intently, but all he could make out were shadows. It was just a trick of the light, he began to think, then suddenly it was there, right in front of him, a face in the window. He leapt back with a scream, stumbled, climbed to his feet again and ran back like a spooked deer.

Everyone was in stitches. "Oh my god, what was that?" squealed Kyle between fits of laughter."That was the girliest scream I've ever heard" added Kieran.

"Hey!" said Mandy, pretending to be insulted."Sorry Mands" managed Kieran between bursts of laughter. In the end, Chris laughed about it more than any of them, but secretly suspected it was more because of the adrenaline and relief it was over than anything else.

Later, when Chris tried to explain what he saw, he struggled to describe the face. "It was more like the shadow of a man than an actual man."
"You lucky sod. You've seen a ghost," declared Kyle with confidence.
"Do you think you might have just imagined it?" asked Mandy.
"Well maybe, but it seemed pretty damn real at the time" answered Chris, wanting to agree with her, but also not wanting to diminish his experience.
"Nah, it was a real person. They just looked like a shadow because they were silhouetted. It was just a trick of the light. They probably heard you outside and were just looking to see what the noise was," explained Josh.
"Oh my god – Josh! You're such a killjoy," said Kyle to the amusement of everyone else. "You know, there's only one way to know for sure," he continued. "My Dad's got one of them new-fangled digital cameras. I'm going back there with the camera and get the first picture of a real-life ghost."
"How can a ghost be real life if they're dead" said Josh, and they all groaned.

That was the last time anyone ever saw Kyle. His distraught, grief-stricken parents listed him as missing and he was never found. None of the kids ever had the courage to tell anyone that Kyle had planned to go back there, and weren't even sure if he did. Eventually, Chris reasoned that the home by the sea clearly had nothing to do with Kyle's going missing, but deep in his psyche, the house was irrationally linked to him going missing.

Kyle's disappearance changed everything for Chris. He struggled to get over the loss of his best friend, becoming demotivated and melancholy. He would regularly truant from school and his grades dropped to the point that he ultimately flunked his GCSEs. In the shock of Kyle's loss, instead of leaning on each other for support, the gang never hung around together in the same way again, and when Josh and Mandy's parents moved to Leeds, nothing was ever the same again. Finding himself a job as a builder's labourer in the city as soon as he left school, Chris left that small, tragic dead-end of a coastal town behind him, but with his new-found independence, Chris lost control of his behaviour, fell in with the wrong crowd, and before he knew it found himself funding a drug habit with petty crime. He became quite the expert thief, but everything came to an abrupt end when he was caught and sent down for break and entry, and aggravated burglary.

Thirteen years later, he was finally clean and free, but had no intention of going straight; instead, he was back to face his ghosts, which started with the home by the sea. Of course, he now knew the true history of the house: Kyle hadn't been entirely wrong. It had been built as a prestigious family home by a wealthy businessman called Edmund Watt, but within a year the whole family just disappeared, leaving the house and all their belongings abandoned. Relatives of the Watt family inherited the home and had rented it out several times over the decades, only for the tenants to disappear before long, too, so it would stand empty, passing from one generation of the Watt family to the next, but rarely occupied for long. Two urban myths competed among the locals: some said the house was cursed; others claimed it was the Watt family that was cursed. Eventually, the house was left abandoned and unused, furnishings, personal effects, and all, but the Watt family maintained the house via a property maintenance agency, like some kind of weird mausoleum. Now Chris was back. He planned to rob the house and be gone before anyone knew he had even been in town. he would be like a ghost, and he wouldn't be surprised if no one noticed the house had even been robbed until long after the event.
He'd reconnoitred the house earlier. There were a few archaic security cameras, which were easily dealt with and the ground floor doors and windows were thoroughly boarded up, but otherwise, the security was woefully inadequate. He couldn't believe the place hadn't been stripped bare and vandalised years ago.

Stealing through the dark of night, Chris made his way to the house. All the ground-floor windows and doors were thoroughly boarded up, but that wouldn't pose too much of a problem. They hadn't, however, bothered with the first floor, and the house would be easy enough to scale. Creeping up the blind side, shinning up the wall, he made it to a decent-sized ledge to the right of a sash window. Holding tightly with his right hand, he reached for his small hammer; the window smashed into large pieces which he was able to pull out easily - there was no point trying to lift the sash. Climbing through the window, stepping to the floor, checking to the left and the right, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the gloom while reaching for his torch and shining it around the room. He saw a sort of drawing room, with a sofa and chairs, a sideboard and a drinks cabinet with family photos in frames dotted about the room, the shadows dancing around the room as he swung his torch around. Something didn't feel quite right and a familiar sense of foreboding gripped him, forbidding him to continue. An icy shiver crept down his spine. Blind panic threatening to set in, his own voice rang in his head to the rhythm of his pounding heart 'Help me, someone, let me out of here', then out of the dark he suddenly heard "Welcome to the home by the sea." He knew that voice - a boy's voice - a voice he hadn't heard for thirteen years. How could it be Kyle? He tried to flee but immediately hit his shin on a coffee table, dropping his torch; rolling and flickering it created grotesque dancing shadows before going out altogether. The moon was now shining right into the room, though, and he saw the nebulous shadows merging into shapes, coming out of the woodwork, through an open door, pushing from above and below, creeping towards him, surrounding him, shadows with no substance in the shape of men. Round and down and sideways they came, seemingly adrift without direction, but ever closer, closer, closer, then as one they sighed and moaned the refrain, "Help us, someone, let us out of here! Living here so long undisturbed, dreaming of the time we were free, so many years ago, before the time we first heard 'welcome to the home by the sea'." They began to press in on him, as if the air pressure were taking their shape, pushing him backwards to the sofa, forcing him into it, their refrain continued, "Sit down, sit down, as we relive our lives in what we tell you." He tried to rise, get away, but the pressure was too great. As the shadows crowded and pressed in on him, he felt his breath being squeezed from his body. The voices rose to a cacophony, all of them retelling their lives, countless images flooding his mind – images of sorrow, pictures of delight – things that go to make up a life: endless days of summer, longer nights of gloom, waiting for the morning light. suffocated by the weight of the shadows, the voices and images momentarily faded –and hearing just one voice, now, so young, but so full of pain, he was bombarded by images of kyle's short life before he also cried, 'Help me, someone, let me out of here'. Then the other voices began to rise in volume again, joining in his refrain, "sit down, sit down, sit down, as we relive our lives in what we tell you. Sit down, sit down, for you won't get away, no, with us you will stay for the rest of your days, as we relieve our lives in what we tell you". The voices became a deafening chorus as Chris felt himself thinning, dissolving until he was no more than a shadow himself, and suddenly he was one of the voices joining in the throng: "Welcome to the home by the sea".


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