Coal Shed Ghosts
Everyone envied the Miller’s. Their secluded Victorian home stood like a tranquil oasis in the cluttered neighbourhood of Westbury. At the bottom of the garden, shrouded by overgrown rhododendrons, stood an old, stone outbuilding. It was once used to keep tackle for horses but now served mainly as Jack’s coal shed. Sometimes, Jack stored other items there, like old paint cans or broken kettles. Things that he didn’t want messing up his meticulously organized garage.
Other things could end up locked away in the shed too. Once, it was the turn of Katherine’s dog.
” Stupid animal, peeing on the couch. The only bloody decent wedding present we got.”
” I know, Jack, but he’s just a puppy. ”
” You’re too soft on him. He needs to be taught a lesson.”
” Okay, but please don’t hurt him, Jack. Please.”
Jack grabbed the little King Charles by the collar and roughly pulled him along the path to the shed. Katherine stayed inside, her hands pressed hard to her ears, as the dog wailed and cried in fright. With a sharp kick, Jack sent Rex flying like an old boot into the corner of the building. Jack turned his back, stepped out into the fading autumn light and slammed the door shut with the force of a prison warden
He lifted up an old terracotta pot and sent a bunch of slugs slithering away from their sudden exposure. Jack’s sharp eyes quickly spotted the rusting key, exactly where he had hidden it all those years ago. He fished it out of the slime and was surprised to find that it still worked.
Jack tried to ignore Rex’s wailing, but its’ intensity began to claw at his brain. He felt as if he was being pulled into a time tunnel, a whirling maelstrom of memories. He could only watch, transfixed, as ghosts from the past began to creep from the shadows, threatening to engulf him. They brought with them tales of another dusky night, another locked door and sobbing echoes of Miriam.
Jack shook his head, then blinked rapidly to clear his foggy mind. Nobody knows. Pull yourself together. Slowly, with heavy and determined footsteps, he made his way back to the house. He found Katherine in the living room, cleaning the couch, rubbing it until her fingers bled. Neither spoke, each lost in their own monstrous universe.
The silence was broken almost an hour later as the old grandfather clock chimed nine times.
“I’m off now.”
” What do you mean, Jack?”
” What do you think I mean?”
” I don’t know.”
” Off to get your dog, Katherine.”
Katherine had to think quickly. She felt afraid of Jack and was terrified of what she might find at the end of the garden. But she needed to do this, for Rex.
“Can I come, please?”
” Suit yourself.”
Torchlight in hand, Jack wound his way down the rough, pebble pathway with Katherine trailing in his footsteps. When he unlocked the shed door, he found Rex huddled in a corner, shivering but silent, waiting for his master. Satisfied that the dog had learned his lesson, Jack pulled at his collar and dragged Rex outside, his tail between his legs.
” Here, take him.”
Katherine dropped to the level of the little King Charles and let him lick the tears from her face. She ruffled his soft ears playfully and whispered ” I love you, sweetie.” in his ears.
Several weeks later, autumn was starting to give way to winter. The fallen leaves lay strewn like washed-out confetti on the ground and the first frosts had silenced the foliage. At the end of the garden, Jack’s coal shed stood bleak and stony-faced in the dark, winter night. He had paid it a visit earlier, but he could still hear whimpering and this made him feel more irritated than usual. He was always so good at timing these things. Bloody Hell, will she ever stop? She’s worse than the dog.
Katherine had barely noticed the quivering light of his first visit. Her eyes had been focused on dim movements in the rafters, dancing shapes of translucent dust. Soon she could feel their warm, foggy arms creeping from the dank walls and embracing her. Wrapped in her ghostly comfort blanket, Katherine’s sobbing began to ease. Slowly, ever so slowly, her body and mind started to find each other and her senses harmonized. She knew where she was now, but why?
The familiar sensation of dust and soot in her nostrils. An acrid smell of turpentine and gloss paint. A shivering coldness that seeped into her bones. But there was something new, something different, this time. Her parched throat told her that she had been imprisoned for many hours, yet her mouth was moist. The bittersweet taste of blood and the throbbing pain in her jaw jolted Katherine’s memory.
Like reels of film, the scenes played out in front of her. The row about Rex, Jack wanting to lock him away. Her standing there protectively, shielding the frightened animal from this monster. Jack grabbing her, pushing her, yanking her along the pathway. The punch in the face, the shove into the shed. The shock of the cold, hard filthy floor smacking her falling body. The scuttling mice, terrifying in their abundance.
How long had it been? Time had lost all meaning inside these prison walls. Seconds, minutes, hours, what did it matter? All she wanted now was something to cling to, something to end the nightmare. Katherine regretted her earlier outburst and knew that it was her own fault. She should have taken Rex out for a walk as soon as he started barking. And how stupid was she to dare to cross Jack? She just never learned. That was the problem.
Meanwhile, as the clock chimed ten, Jack rose slowly from his cosy armchair beside the old, open fireplace. The warmth of the flickering fire had made him drowsy, but he always heeded the clock. Wake up! There’s work to do. He grabbed the torch and key from the mantlepiece, almost knocking over the coal bucket in his haste. Rex, who had been asleep on the mat, ran for cover behind the couch.
This time, Katherine noticed the footsteps and the blinking, searching light. She heard the door unlock, exposing her to scrutiny. Katherine turned her wet, sooty and obedient eyes towards her husband as he grunted his commands.
” You know this is for your own good?
” Good girl, then. Better get yourself sorted, you look like crap.”
Jack helped her off the floor and guided her out of the shed. Katherine was grateful for his big, strong body to support her petite frame as they meandered along the pathway home. Back in their large, country kitchen, Jack filled a glass of ice water from the fridge and handed it to his wife. Katherine gulped it in large, spilling mouthfuls while Jack looked on, expressionless. She gave him a sideways smile of thanks. The action sent a dart of pain along her jawline, but she knew that her response mattered.
Together, they climbed the wide, oak staircase that led to their bedroom. The ghosts of Jack’s ancestors stared solemnly from their gilt-edged frames along the wall. At the top of the staircase, jarring and alone, hung a newer silver-framed portrait. As usual, Katherine averted her eyes from the picture of Jack’s first wife. She didn’t want the ghost of Miriam tugging at her mind right now.
In the bedroom, Katherine undressed, carefully pulling the tight neck of her jumper over her bruised jaw. Jack had already turned on the shower and she stepped gratefully under the healing beams of water. The lemon scent of cleansing soap wafted into the bedroom. Jack pulled down the red quilted eiderdown and stretched himself out on the bed, like a modern-day Caligula. Let the Games begin.
Katherine wrapped herself in the thick MM appliqued towel, its’ fuschia pink colour matching that of her face. The soft caress of the towel reminded her of something, but the memory was untouchable, like fog on the ocean.
” Bed’s ready. See all the things I do for you, Katherine? ”
It hurt to speak, but she knew that she had to reply, even if it was just a mumble. Still wrapped in the towel, she lowered herself meekly onto the bed. Eyes closed, vulnerable as a new-born kitten, she succumbed.
Even the ghosts couldn’t save her now.
The photograph is my own, shot in Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny.
This short story is based on a writing prompt from Creative Cafe on Medium;
“We sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives.”
— Stephen King, The Shining
Other short stories: The Hunting Ground.