Jake screwed up his eyes as he stepped into the gloomy hallway. When he was satisfied that there was nobody home he gestured for Rebecca to follow. She carefully closed the door behind her and crept to his side.
“The cleaners found the safe behind a painting in the study,” said Jake. He thumbed in the direction of an open door to the left. “It’s a Chatwood so shouldn’t offer too much of a problem.”
Rebecca nodded. “Okay. How long?” she asked.
“Twenty minutes, give or take, to crack it. Five to empty it.” Jake said, unrolling his tool belt onto the floor and removing a pair of lockpicks from it. He placed the tools behind each ear before selecting a third from the roll.
“You do what you need to,” he said “and make sure you’re back here by” he glanced at his watch, “ten thirty-five.” Rebecca checked her own watch. She gave him one last nod before leaving him to his work.
At the top of the stairs was a small landing with three doors, all closed. She gently opened the one on her right and looked inside. A bathroom. That was no use. The next door, immediately ahead of her opened into a large bedroom.
“Promising,” she whispered to herself. She stood in the doorway, surveying the room. A double bed filled much of the space. On the far side of the bed was a bay window with a small wooden chair in the alcove. The curtains were drawn. Good. Across from the foot of the bed was a large wardrobe.
A selection of board games, some which she’d never heard of before, were stacked on top of the wardrobe. But it was what sat on top of them that caught Rebecca’s eye. A tattered old shoebox, branded with the name of a store which had long since closed down.
Using the chair from under the window, she climbed up to reach for the shoebox. Long black shadows climbed the wardrobe doors making it seem far taller and more imposing than it actually was. A wave of nausea swept through Rebecca as she glanced back into the room. As a child, she had fallen from a stool and broken her arm leaving her with a fear of heights ever since. Not great heights – she had been fine when she went up the Empire State Building. It was drops of only a few feet which unnerved her.
Grasping the chair-back firmly with one hand, she stretched up with the other, nudging the shoebox closer to the edge of the games until she was able to take hold of it. It wasn’t very heavy. She gave it a gentle shake. The soft rustle within sounded like what she was looking for.
Rebecca threw the box onto the bed so she could use both hands to climb down. Once she was satisfied she was safely back on solid ground, she sat on the edge of the bed and opened the lid.
“Yes!” she said, grinning, and tipped the box’s contents onto the bed. She glanced over her shoulder to double check that the curtains were shut. They were, so she flicked on the bedside lamp, flooding the room with a warm yellow glow. Working quickly Rebecca started to sift through the pile of photographs, placing them back in the box as she went.
Most of the photos were of a young woman with dark hair who Rebecca recognised as Portia Lawrence, the former owner of this house. After discarding several of the pictures, one caught her eye. She held up a Polaroid to examine it closely. It looked old and faded, but also appeared to be a recent picture. Portia seemed no younger here than her photo in the newspaper and it appeared to have been taken in this same room. Portia was on the edge of the bed, exactly where Rebecca now sat. The flash had cast a tall shadow on the wall behind her and she seemed to be staring intently at someone or something just out of the shot. “What happened to you, Portia?” Rebecca whispered.
She checked her watch. Jake was probably finishing up his work by now so she pocketed the photo, switched the lamp off and carefully scooped the remaining photographs back into the box. Once the shoebox and chair were carefully returned to their homes she left the room.
“They’ll never even know anyone was here,” she thought as she pulled the door shut. She checked she had closed the bathroom door and turned to the stairs when she noticed that the door to the third room was slightly ajar. From where she stood the gap revealed nothing but a dark void. She tilted her head to peer through. Rebecca could just make out a shadow, even blacker than the room’s murk, on the wall. There was someone in there but it was too dark to see who. Thinking it was Jake, come to look for more loot, she slipped her hand through the gap, flicked the light on and pushed the door open.
But it was just an empty bedroom, smaller than the first one. After looking around the room she turned the light back off and pulled the door shut. “Huh. That’s weird,” Rebecca whispered.
“What’s weird?” came a voice from behind her. Rebecca spun around in surprise to see Jake holding a finger to his lips. He was trying not to laugh.
“Jesus, Jake!” Rebecca gasped! “You scared the hell out of me!” Her heart was pounding and the back of her neck prickled with goosebumps. She thumped him on the arm as he tried to stop giggling.
“Ow! Sorry!” He rubbed where she had hit him.
“Did you get anything good?”
“Money, jewellery, the usual stuff. Safe was pretty straightforward.” He slipped his thumbs under his backpack straps. “You?”
Rebecca patted her pocket. “Yeah. Not what I’d normally grab but there was something about this one. I felt… compelled to take it.”
Jake shook his head and smirked. “I don’t know what it is with you and your old photographs” he muttered.
“It just feels like I’m keeping a little bit of them alive, you know? Remembering them. I mean, who else is gonna do it?” Rebecca said.
“That’s the point!” Jake snapped back at her. “No family, no ties, no will, nobody to notice if something goes ‘walkies’ before they auction this place off.” He turned to leave. Rebecca poked her tongue out at him behind his back.
“What got you so spooked anyway?”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“We’ve done dozens of these. Never seen you jump like that before,” he said.
“And you’ve never snuck up on me like that before, you idiot,” Rebecca replied. As they descended the stairs she cast one last glance over her shoulder at the landing. She could have sworn she’d closed it, but the door to the room with the shadow was slightly ajar again.
When they got home Jake threw his backpack down on the table and began emptying its contents out. Rebecca fetched her photo album and leafed through it to find a suitable spot for her new addition.
“Let’s see it then,” he said, “this precious memory of yours.” She put the photo down on the table and slid it towards him. Jake snatched it up and held it in front of his face. “Wow. How old is this? Looks ancient, like seventies or eighties” he said scrutinising the picture.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Rebecca said, “But Portia looks just like when she went missing, so I think it’s just been taken recently but on some kind of vintage camera.”
“But why is it so faded though?” Jake squinted. “You can hardly see her?”
“Let me see!” Rebecca reached out to take the photo but Jake pulled it away from her. Then, seeing the look on her face – that look she made when she really wasn’t in the mood for his mucking around – he handed it to her.
She scratched her head, puzzled. “I’m sure it looked better than that when I took it.”
“Well if you will nab photos in the pitch black you can’t expect…”
“I turned on a lamp. I swear it didn’t look…”
“You did WHAT?” Jake didn’t wait for an answer. “Christ Becca!” He slammed his hand down in frustration. “You could have been seen from the street, you stupid…”
“I., I’m sorry Jake,” she interrupted, bowing her head and reaching out to touch his shoulder. “I couldn’t see properly and…” Jake slapped her hand away, sending the photo sailing across the room. Rebecca snapped her head back up at him, eyes blazing with anger.
Jake was instantly ashamed at his reaction. “I didn’t mean…”
“Just… just don’t, okay?” Rebecca said, rubbing her hand it where he had struck it. She picked up her book, collected the photo from the floor and stormed off into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Jake came through an hour later. Rebecca had fallen asleep with the curtains open. Moonlight filled the bedroom. As he drew the curtains Jake noticed a tall man standing in the middle of the street. Or that’s what he imagined as the form was too shrouded in darkness to see the face. He didn’t appear to be walking, rather just standing there and looking up at Jake. Rebecca moaned, in the clutches of some bad dream. Jake turned to her and then back to the sliver of blackness between the drapes. The figure was gone.
He undressed and climbed into the bed beside Rebecca, mumbling a half-hearted apology to her, but she wasn’t listening. Jake kissed her on the shoulder and turned away from her. “Night Becca,” he said as he turned off the light. She didn’t reply.
Jake woke in the middle of the night – the urge to pee was too great to wait until morning. He didn’t bother putting the light on and did what he needed to in the dark. When he came back into the bedroom a terrible sight made him freeze where stood. At the other side of the bed, a long, tall shadow, blacker than the gloom, was projected up on the wall. The silhouette looked just like the man from the street. Jake’s eyes darted around the room to find the intruder creating the shadow.
He couldn’t see anyone apart from his sleeping girlfriend, whom the shadow appeared to be reaching out towards. It may have been a trick of the minimal light, but Rebecca herself looked transparent. Jake thought he could see the pattern of her pillowcase through her head. Thinking his bleary eyes were fooling him, he rubbed the sleepy film from them. The shadow was still there, and Rebecca was still fading to nothing. “Like that photograph,” Jake thought to himself and shuddered.
The thing didn’t appear to be cognizant of Jake’s presence but at the same time, he could sense that its intentions were not good and he knew that if he were to approach it, he would be harmed. It reminded him of the time he’d broken into an old substation to get his football back and, even from feet away, he could feel the deadly power of the transformers vibrating deep inside his head and chest. Keeping his eyes on the shade, Jake slowly bent down and clicked the bedside lamp switch.
When the room lit up there was no sign of the apparition. Jake’s heart was beating so hard he could hear it. He also realised that he’d been holding his breath, and let out a deep gush of air from his nostrils. He sat on the edge of the bed and glanced back over his shoulder to the partially open curtains. On Rebecca’s bedside table sat the large stuffed polar bear toy he had won for her at the fair. Jake suddenly felt very foolish. That must be what had cast the shadow.
Once his pulse and breathing had returned to normal he turned his lamp back off and climbed into bed. It was cold, like on a winter’s night when he’d forgotten to turn on the electric blanket. Shivering, he put his arm around Rebecca, relieved to find that she was both warm and solid.
In the morning Jake woke with his back to Rebecca to the sound of his smartphone’s alarm. Sunlight streamed into the room through the chink in the curtains. He rubbed his eyes and cancelled the alarm. “Hey, Becca? Shut the curtains will you?” There was no reply. “I had the weirdest dream. I don’t remember much, but…” He rolled over to find that she was already up.
“Bex?” He called but there was no reply. He got out of bed, pulled on some boxer shorts and stumbled through into the lounge. It looked exactly as it had when he’d come to bed. There were no dirty breakfast dishes and no Rebecca. Jake winced as he remembered how nasty he’d been to her last night. “I’ll give her an hour or so to cool down, and then go look for her.”
After finishing his coffee Jake brushed his teeth. When he bent down to spit the minty foam in the sink he noticed the toilet was still full of urine from last night’s visit. Memories of the dream came flooding back: The man in the street, the unwholesome shadow on the wall, the low hum which seemed to invade his very core, and Rebecca’s lack of substance.
“Maybe I’d better look for her now,” he thought, grabbing his keys.
Jake was uncomfortable being in a police station. He felt like every pair of eyes were on him, and that they knew what he’d done. But Sgt O’Callaghan had been very kind. She took him through to a pleasantly decorated room, sat him on a comfortable sofa and made him a cup of tea, which eased his nerves somewhat.
When O’Callaghan asked him what they’d fought about on that night he just made something up, saying it was to do with work and money, and she seemed to buy that.
Once the missing person form was signed and completed she said: “There’s just one last thing I need from you, sir.” Jake nodded. “A recent photograph of Rebecca. That will really help us to look for her.”
Jake reached into his pocket. “I found this on her bedside cabinet. I’d never seen it before but it looks pretty recent. She was going through her photo album the night before she…“ he paused as he recalled her slumbering, translucent frame “the night before she disappeared.” He dropped a Polaroid photograph onto the table which Sgt O’Callaghan took and scrutinised for a moment. “I’m not sure I can use this, Mr Horton,” she said, laying it face down on the table.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?” He picked up the picture and flipped it over. He studied the image and raised a hand to his mouth. It appeared to be considerably more faded than he remembered. Rebecca was so blanched that she was barely visible. But what Jake could see quite clearly, and which made his chest tighten, was the shadow of a tall man looming over her.
This story was written especially for a Christmas ghost story event at The Briton’s Protection pub in Manchester. It was performed last night (5th December 2018) exactly as presented above except for one small change to make the language more suitable for all ages.
I was nervous reading out the story to an audience of largely strangers but it seemed to go down well – which was a massive encouragement! A good night was had by all and it looks like it might become a semi-regular thing!
I took a long while to choose the title, eventually settling on the word Evanescence. It describes perfectly that feeling when someone or something is no longer in your life and you begin to forget what they looked like – just like a faded photograph.
In partnership with World Geekly News, this story is now available as an audio drama – which you can listen to here: