The flame dances in the wind, like a liquid wisp, suspended in blue over the ground, swaying vertiginously, back and forth, beckoning me to follow it. I paw at the window lightly, convinced now that the flame is real, and not some off-shot reflection on the pane.
The light casts meandering shadows among the grass of the garden. Without scorching the blades, the flame hovers in a circular motion, as if it has a will of its own. Stopping in place, doubling in size, then shrinking once more, and shooting off up to the top of the garden and dissipating into the blackness of the night.
As the light fades, the house begins to squeal once more. Perhaps this momentary distraction had deafened my ears to the sound. The squeal is of a pitch so high it is barely perceptible. The sound of my own breathing will drown it out for half a second. The mesmeric flame is the only thing that seems to completely silence the squeal.
I lie awake at night, trying to focus on something –anything- to nullify that sound, but it never abates. The longer I lie in bed, the more pronounced the squeal becomes. In the dark and quiet hours of the night, the squeal is all I hear. The noise becomes louder and clearer throughout the night, with nothing to occupy my eyes or ears, the squeal becomes more pronounced, like a thousand wailing screams of despair.
I had looked all over the house for the source of the disturbance. At first I thought it must have been something electrical –the fridge or the freezer- I unplugged them both, but the wailing continued. We didn’t own a television or even a phone, the reception around here was non-existent, and the landline we’d once had drowned your ears in static every time you picked up the receiver. I went around the house unplugging all of the appliances, but to no avail. Eventually, I shut down all of the electrics at the switch, but still the squealing continued.
I considered that it might be the taps. Some loose tap, letting a trickle of pressurised water escape, and wailing in protest. I wouldn’t normally touch the stop tap -that was Harry’s job- he’s much better at mechanical stuff than me, but the noise had become unbearable. After finding the stop tap, I wrenched it shut, but the wailing continued unabated.
I’d try to endure it, I’m sure Harry will be able to find it when he comes back from the rigs on Friday. With the strange wisp extinguished, I turn away from the window and return to the living room with my cup of tea and my book. I didn’t usually drink caffeine this late, but these nights had become mostly sleepless anyway. For a second, I eagerly anticipated Harry’s return. Maybe he’d come back and fix the wailing noise. Maybe we’d stay up all night –not because we couldn’t sleep- but because we wanted to. We could drink wine and talk like we used to.
I sigh wearily. It’s unlikely. Every time he comes back from the rigs, he looks more haggard than the last time. His hair is thinner and greyer, and his eyes seem to twitch, red and restless. It used to be that I couldn’t wait for Harry to return. Seeing that old banged up white Vauxhall Astra pull up outside the house made my heart do backflips. I’d race down the garden path and leap into his tight embrace, and we’d kiss for what felt like hours.
Now, I dread the sound of the engine roaring up the road, and the sound of the car door opening. Walking tentatively down the garden path like a prisoner on death row, I’d fake happiness at his arrival. The last time I jumped into his arms, he dropped the box of chocolates he was carrying. He flew into such a rage and began stamping the box into the pavement, screaming this and that.
Well, I guess six months on an oil rig can really put a fire in a man’s belly.
I shake my head as the wailing sound seems to increase an octave. I flip my book open and begin reading, desperate to bury my thoughts and escape into a world of literature.
I wake up, still in the spot on the sofa where I’d fallen asleep the previous night. The sun is creeping in the sky, and I wearily rise to my feet, brushing the thin layer of dust off my skin that seemed to have gathered overnight. I don’t know when I last dusted the house. Perhaps I should air the house out before Harry gets back on Friday. At least that’s one less thing for him to get angry about. He likes a clean house, but living alone for so long makes me lose interest in its overall appearance.
I don’t know how long I’d slept for, or how far I’d gotten through my book. I didn’t feel like I’d slept well –in some ways- I felt more fatigued than I had the night before.
I look around for my book, but cannot see it anywhere. It must have fallen down the side of the sofa. I make my way through to the kitchen and put the kettle on. As I open the lid to fill it up at the sink, I notice that my book is sitting atop the stove, the pages frayed and dog-eared.
I don’t remember doing that. Maybe I got up in the night to make another cup of tea and left it here. My memory gets hazy sometimes. Harry used to say that I talked in my sleep quite a lot, and once or twice, I’d gotten out of bed and starting putting clothes on, as if I was about to go out somewhere. He said that once, I’d climbed out bed, struck up a match and lit a candle, before climbing into bed with it. Luckily, Harry was there to blow it out before I burned the house down.
I turn on the tap and fill the kettle, set it back on the base and flip the switch. The rumbling of the kettle as it begins to boil helps to drown out the incessant wailing sound for a while. Perhaps that’s why I was using it so much.
I look out of the window into the garden to the place I’d seen the flames last night. The garden had fallen to neglect over the years. The beautiful chrysanthemum’s we’d planted a few years ago had withered and died, but then again, nothing survived long in that garden. Even the grass seemed to wilt and die in patches. We’d made it look nice a few years ago for a while, but it didn’t last for long. The houses in this area were all very cheap considering their size. For Harry and I, as a young married couple, it was a bargain. We didn’t even mind the power station nearby, sitting on the edge of town like a monstrous metal behemoth. Perhaps that was the source of the wailing, but why did it only seem to affect our house?
I drink my tea, eat a light breakfast of toast and poached eggs, and shower. I’d taken some time off work from the library to get the house ready for Harry’s return, but today I would return –not for work- but to search the town records, in the hope of finding something that links my house to the wailing noise and the strange lights outside. Perhaps there’s an underground pipe or electrical cable causing the strange disturbances. At the very least, it would be a few hours away from that incessant noise.
The library is a great Victorian stone building, a striking feature of the town dating back to a time before the power station towered over everything. A marble sundial sits outside, the shadow from the power station keeping it in almost permanent shade; a monument to a time when the sun truly shone upon Everfield. I ascend the stone steps, push the door open and head to the reception desk, which –as expected- is unattended. My colleague Jenny seemed to do very little actual work, owing to the fact that she was always preoccupied with some other arbitrary task. She rarely spoke to me anyway, and when she did, it was always superficial small talk. It doesn’t matter much anyway; I already know where the town records are kept.
Searching through the old records is an interesting, if somewhat depressing task. I find old aerial photographs of Everfield from 1943, before the power plant was installed. The town looked so rural, peaceful and serene. Looking back at pictures from before Harry and I bought the house, I can see that the garden had been twice the size, even boasting a tennis court. Strange, our garden had always sloped slightly, with a sharp incline at the far end upon which very little seemed to grow, and that which did only grew to a restricted size. The garden must have been far flatter back then.
Looking at the photos from 1958 and beyond, after the hasty building of the power station, it can be seen from the photographs that the grass around the countryside is noticeably less green –even in black and white- and the trees seem to boast fewer leaves, and warped, skeletal frames. Most prominently, I notice that an embankment has sprung up that runs directly from the power plant, along through the countryside, and straight through my garden.
I begin to leaf through old newspaper headlines for further information.
“Local fury at power station plans in Everfield.” – 11th April 1957.
“Fire at the Windscale Nuclear Power station still rages on.” – 11th October 1957
“Windscale Nuclear incident contaminates milk in Everfield.” – 13th October 1957
“Dangerous levels of Cadmium and Mercury found in Albert Lake.” – 6th November 1959
“Strange hum affects residents of Everfield.” – 9th February 1961
“Everfield hum uncovered: Mysterious hum caused by defective power station equipment.” – 15th March 1961
“Man stabs wife in her sleep in Everfield.” – 13th May 1963
“Everfield power station under investigation for leaking nuclear secrets to Soviet spies.” – 19th August 1968
“Teenagers caught swimming in Albert Lake suffer from Cadmium poisoning.” – 18th July 1969
“Everfield childhood Leukaemia rates ten times the national average.” – 12th December 1974
“Four dead in Everfield family murder, killer found clawing at the ground in the garden” – 18th April 1979
The final headline catches my eye. The image that accompanies it is truly haunting; grainy and out of focus, it shows police officers at the scene arresting the culprit. Despite the poor quality of the photograph, the patchiness of his hair, and the claw marks suggest he has clawed at his scalp repeatedly. His jaw is askew, and there is a wildness in his eyes that claws into my soul. But the most haunting thing about the picture is that the house in the background is mine.
I sit at home with a cup of green tea. Waiting by the window, I sip loudly; slurping in the way my mother always told me was un-ladylike. Each slurp drowns out the wailing for a moment. Any moment now, the flaming wisp should appear. As I near the bottom of my cup, the wailing begins to fade away to nothing.
For a moment, the house is silent and the night is black. I look out to the garden, and a small blue spark erupts from the ground, quickly growing into a small blue flame, which grows to the size of a fist, hovering over the ground. I watch in wonderment at the wisp, staring at its intangible structure as it sways and twirls among the blades of grass.
I rush through to the kitchen and out of the back door. I see the wisp before me, and with great trepidation, proceed towards it. As I approach, the wisp moves away from me slowly, turning in the semi-circle, and hovering up to the top of the garden.
Standing still, I watch as the flame dances and wobbles over a patch of earth at the top of the embankment. I rush towards the flame, and at once it dissipates before I can get close enough to it. I look down at the spot where it vanished. The earth seems softer here. I bend down and pat the soil gently, but there is no heat or smell of smoke, and the grass is uncharred as always. The squeal rises back into my hearing range, right on cue.
I awaken in the early hours of the morning. I look out of the window at the darkness outside, and wonder what time it must be. The squeal is gone and the house is entirely silent. A cautious optimism rises in my stomach, and my face breaks into a smile. I climb out of bed and peer out of the window at the empty spot where Harry’s White Vauxhall Astra would be later today.
I make my way down the stairs, and open the door to the kitchen. Sitting there at the table is a man, his teeth churning violently. He looks up at me, as if he has been expecting me.
“It’s about time you woke up,” he squeaks, “Would you like some tea?”
His hair hangs in limp, grey strands in patches across his head. The rest of his hair had been torn out at the scalp, with patches of congealed blood and thick fingernail scratches adorning his head. His eyes are wild and twitchy, with dried mud coating his fingers.
The man’s appearance, though haunting, does not faze me as much as fill me with a morbid curiosity. I move over to the table, as he pours a pot of tea into a cup and slides it across the table in my direction. I sit at the table and look at him. I can see it in his eyes that he does not want to hurt me. He has answers for me about the wisp and the wailing.
“Do you know why they call it Everfield?” He asks.
I shake my head, gripping my cup of tea.
“Because this whole area was once filled with luscious evergreen trees”
I nod, sipping my tea, “What are you doing in my house?” I ask the man.
He smiles at me briefly, before his mouth begins to churn once more.
“I could ask you the same question.” He says.
I set down my cup of tea.
“I’ve been trying to reach you for days, but you never answer me.” He says mournfully, “not that any of it matters now.”
I shake my head softly.
“Everfield has never been the same since they built that monstrosity.” He says, “It took my youngest before she could even walk. Poor thing. Cancer. Cadmium. Carcinogens. Not that any of it matters now.” He mutters.
The man begins to scratch the side of his head once more.
“You’re the man from the paper, you killed your family.” I state.
He begins to scratch at his scalp furiously, grinding his teeth audibly, “It was the squealing!” He cries, “It was the incessant squealing!” His hands twitch violently, lashing out; he knocks his cup of tea over. “Sorry sorry,” he says, “I’ll clean it up, I’ll make it better.”
He searches around frantically for something to mop up the spillage.
“It’s okay,” I say, raising my palms.
“Just tea.” He murmurs, “None of it matters now anyway.”
A moment of silence passes.
“Listen.” He fixes me a stare, “You have to wake up, you have to start listening to the squeal, listen to what it’s telling you,” his eyes twitch, “you have to follow the candle.”
Suddenly, the roar of an engine approaches from down the street.
“My husband is home.” I say.
Fear and anticipation mingles together as I rise to my feet to answer the door. As I make my way to the front door, I can see the white Vauxhall Astra pulling into the drive. I open the door as Harry climbs out of the car, and begins walking towards the house. His hair is totally grey, and his face looks leathery and tough. He looks up at me and our eyes meet. His face breaks into a grimace, his teeth bared like a snarling animal, and he rushes towards me.
I yelp in shock as he grabs me tightly by the throat and forces me backwards into the house. I stumble back as his hands grip my neck even tighter.
“Who is that man in the kitchen?” he roars, “I work away on the rigs for six months and then come home to this?”
Harry pushes me through into the kitchen, gripping a kitchen knife from the counter; he holds it up to my cheek.
“I’ll cut your face open you fucking bitch.”
I awaken with a start. Sitting up in my bed, my breathing is heavy and laboured, and my entire body is wet with sweat. I regulate my breathing as the nightmare of the previous night begins to melt away. As my breathing returns to normal, the ever-familiar squealing invades my ears once more. It seems louder than usual.
As I swing my legs out of the bed, a clattering sound echoes throughout the room as something falls from the bed. I look down to see a large kitchen knife, the blade smattered with congealed blood.
Harry should be home any moment. I’m standing in the garden as the night falls. The squeal grows louder every hour as I stand here waiting in the spot where the wisp has appeared every night. The wind whistles in the trees, but it does nothing to drown out the wailing. I look up at the full moon, its milky beams bearing down on me oppressively. The pitch of the squeal rises, the intensity is too strong, and I press my palms into my ears, a futile attempt to block it out. I squeeze my eyes closed. Maybe when Harry gets home this will all end. Maybe he’ll chase it all away.
The squeal fades away into silence. I release my palms from my ears, and cautiously open my eyes. Before me stands the wisp. I race towards it, desperate to catch it, but it evades my every step, racing up to the top of the garden, to that same spot upon the embankment.
I rush up the embankment to the top of the garden. As I approach, the wisp explodes outwardly, casting magenta flames onto the soil. The flames burn for less than a second, before dying out entirely. The light of the moon casts its rays upon the patch of loose soil where the wisp exploded, and I kneel down and begin to cautiously uncover the soil.
The earth is loose, and comes away easily. I begin to tear at the ground frantically, digging deeper into the earth. About six inches down, I find a small mound; too soft to be a rock, but too hard to be vegetation. As I clear the soil away, I look into the small hole I’ve dug to find a grimacing face, snarling teeth, and sunken eyes.
I rush back down the garden and through the back door. Racing through the kitchen to the stairs, gripping the knife I’d found earlier. My heart is thumping and sweat begins to leak from my temple, rolling down the side of my face. I clutch the knife with one hand, and nervously tug at my hair with the other.
I hear the sound of a car roaring up the road.
I tug at my hair with renewed vigour, a clump of hair coming loose from my scalp entirely. I cautiously make my way to the front door, peeking through the window, still clutching the knife tightly, as the wailing gets louder.
A white Vauxhall Astra pulls into the drive, and a man exits the car, making his way up the drive hastily. I reach down to the bottom of the door and slide the deadbolt closed. Rushing away from the door, I flee back through the house, crouching down in the kitchen.
Three heavy knocks at the door make me shiver in fear.
I tug at my hair, scratching at my scalp frantically, as the wail rises once more.
Three more knocks at the door cause me to flee through the kitchen and out of the back door, racing back up to the hole in the garden.
I hear a crash from the house, as the door is broken down. I look down at Harry’s twisted face, as a maggot squirms its way out of his mouth and onto his cheek.
I run to the top of the embankment, drop to my knees and begin digging into the ground with the kitchen knife. The wailing is louder than ever. The source must be under this mound.
I look right as two shadowy figures make their way across the garden towards me. Moving briskly, I grip the knife with both hands, rising to my feet.
“You’ll never take me.” I whisper.
The figures approach closer, their figures illuminated in the moonlight.
“It’s the wailing!” I cry out, “That incessant wailing. That’s what did it. It wasn’t me.”
I drop the knife and fall to the ground in a heap, as the two figures close in on me.
“She’d taken some time off work” Jenny spoke, trembling slightly. “Her husband was coming back from the rigs, and she wanted to get the house ready for his arrival.”
I nod at her sympathetically.
“She never came back into work, I would have called her, but she doesn’t own a phone, they never work around her area, not even the landlines.”
“When did you last see her?” I ask.
She sips from her cup nervously.
“She came into the library two days ago looking tired. There were huge dark bags under her eyes, and her hair had begun to grey. When I spoke to her, she just walked right past me. She spent the next hour leafing through old newspaper reports and aerial photos of Everfield, then left without saying a word.” Her eyes become glassy, and she snaps them shut.
“Thank you for your time Jennifer,” I say softly, “We will call you if we need any more information.”
After a few moments, I return to the suspect’s cell door. Flicking open the hatch, I look inside. She is cowering in the corner, scratching at her scalp and tugging at her hair, grinding her teeth wildly. I’d tried to question her, but most of the things she said were unintelligible nonsense. Candles and cadmium, wails and wisps.
We’d had a call about a white Vauxhall Astra that had been sunk in Albert Lake. It took us days to get the thing back out. They never fully detoxified the lake, and I’ll be damned if I’m going in there. When we exhumed the body of her husband, we found extremely high levels of Lead and Cadmium in his blood, built up over years of welding on the rigs. We’re still trying to piece everything together, but it seems that the chemicals in his system were interacting with the electrical earthing system buried in their back garden, causing him to act violently. There were signs of a strugle, and from what we can tell, she grabbed a kitchen knife and turned it on him, then buried him in the back garden. She’s been reliving the past few days ever since.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but this is just one single event in a tapestry of horrors, that have plagued the town of Everfield for years. Perhaps it’s the unusual electrical activity that causes the residents of that house to lose their grip on reality, maybe it’s that nuclear behemoth up the road, spewing it’s toxins into the surrounding environment. Or perhaps it’s something more arcane. The only thing I know for certain is that the market value of that house is about to be chopped in half once again; an attractive investment for another young married couple.
She looks up at me, her lips cracked and bleeding.
“Follow the candle.” She whispers, “Don’t follow the candle.”
She looks down at her hands, spreading her fingers out and bending them backwards.
“None of it matters now anyway.”
©JC Axe 2015