Portraits is the first short story by a guest author! Michael Parkes is a Canadian university student and author. He has written two books so far: Cheryl, a novel, and Gnomes and Knights, a short story collection. Both of his books are available on Kindle, including Kindle Unlimited, and as both paperback and hardcover on Amazon. Both books can also be purchased paperback through Barnes & Noble. Be sure to visit his webpage at the bottom of his story, and enjoy!
Bleakness. Blackness. The old manor looming above him looked absolutely horrifying. As the hail rained down on him, he felt deep dread; a tightening around his heart, a heaviness in his stomach, and a dryness in his throat. Pure terror. Just looking at the once pristine grey stone stained black by the elements was enough to make the drifter feel queasy, let alone the stories about this place. Every fiber of his being was screaming at him to turn back to the point he found it nearly impossible to convince his legs to move forward. The nearly pitch-black forest and absolute silence that permeated the area - save for the howl of the wind and the pounding of hail - did not at all help the situation. It was abundantly clear the animals and even the insects shied away from this place. The wind howled harshly once again, cutting right through his coats and freezing his skin beneath.
Turn back God damn it! Turn back now!
Of course, turning back meant probably dying. He was nearly twenty kilometers from the nearest town and he was fairly certain all this hail was due to a hurricane. With no other choice, he moved forward, his own legs working against him as he forced them to go towards that terrible place. His eyes darted from broken window to broken window, expecting to see a headless apparition or cackling specter at any moment. In a way, the absence of anything in the windows made him even more terrified. He was certain they would ambush him, and the sight of their incorporeal form, coupled with the foul energy that clung to the manor as if it were ever a part of it, would surely stop his heart. The last thing he would ever see would be some horrible phantom or wailing banshee, and it would bind his soul to this place so he too would remain here among them. Forever.
A thundering lightning strike close enough to light up everything around him and shake the ground sent him running inside so quickly that the fear of the unknown was immediately replaced with the fear of imminent death. Panting and wide-eyed, he looked from the decrepit foyer into a ruined living room as he clutched his thumping heart. The dusty and lopsided portrait of a long-dead family glowered at him from above a ruined mantelpiece. Debris was strewn all over, a dirty and ragged couch was overturned as if thrown, and there were stains on the floor. At least the walls kept the wind out and the sagging roof stopped the hail.
What were those rumors again? What happened here? God forbid this place not have layers and layers of horror and tragedy about it. “It was probably the work of the Devil” is all I remember. Damn it, what did they say about this place?
He was lost in his uncomforting thoughts as he stumbled right into the cracked banister of the grand staircase, catching himself awkwardly as it groaned under his weight. Snapping back to reality, he took in his surroundings in a state of confused terror. The mansion was even bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, and there were so many doorways leading off into darkness that it was difficult to count them all. The whole place felt like madness and terror were embedded in the walls and floors, and he was really beginning to question if it would be safer to just brave the hurricane outside.
The sound of a door slamming sent him whirling around, only to see a door had fallen from its frame and crashed to the ground. A slightly more distant strike of lightning offered some light, only to reveal dust and debris swirling lazily around where it landed as he breathed a sigh of relief. He continued on, entering a doorway at random. In the sudden surge of adrenaline from the door falling, he remembered his flashlight and flicked it on as he entered what appeared to be a dining room. A long, scratched table that would’ve once been beautiful was now covered in dust and cobwebs, hidden beneath a filthy and threadbare tablecloth. The candelabras held candles burnt down to their nubs, and the thought of something or someone actually using them regularly sent chills down his spine that radiated throughout his body.
Nothing belongs here. Not the living, not the dead. Certainly not me. What were those rumors?
Strangely, this room’s doors were all intact save for the one he entered through, but he had difficulty forcing them open. All of them were locked or jammed, and he wasn’t about to break them down if it meant alerting any specters of his presence. If he hadn’t seen them yet, he assumed they hadn’t seen him either, and clinging to that irrational belief was the only thing saving him from running screaming into the hurricane. He turned to leave, and made his way across the room back into the entryway. His flashlight offered some semblance of sanity in this place of madness, and its light gave him renewed courage to find somewhere to sleep in this horrific place. Somewhere upstairs, he thought he heard the groan of the floorboards, possibly near the stairs, and ducked into an alcove that may have once held a statue. He turned off his flashlight, and was plunged into almost complete darkness. He stood completely still, too terrified to even breathe, and waited. Nothing. He peeked his head out, and still nothing. He breathed a sigh of relief, flicked on his flashlight, and illuminated a room full of the spectral dead.
No, wait, not specters, just dusty curtains. But why did the night sky beyond them look different? He moved slowly from the alcove, still spooked, and pushed back one of the thick dusty curtains to see a dark purple night sky. The stars shone dully, though they were green instead of yellow or white, and there were three moons instead of one. There was no hail, no hurricane, though the forest was still there, now made up of sickly yellow pine trees instead of sturdy oaks. Not believing what he was seeing, the drifter bolted to the door, only for it to be boarded up. No amount of frantic yanking on the handle did anything, it simply would not budge.
What the hell is going on? I just came in through this door.
A loud smash somewhere upstairs sent him scurrying into another one of the many doorways, this time into what looked like a gallery. Whirling around and panicking, with another smash upstairs to punctuate his terror, all he could see were walls of portraits and an old fireplace, though tall windows on one side of the room at least made it easy to see. The people within them all wore sad expressions, though they were all dressed differently; some wore modern clothes, some wore Victorian dresses, and others wore tailcoats. The drifter calmed down slightly, taking in the room around him. The oil paintings were beautiful, all painted in exquisite detail and great precision. The fireplace was blackened, but looked serviceable, with some brittle logs in a disordered pile nearby. He suddenly felt rather sleepy, and thought of sleeping in this room. The door he entered through was still there, and he turned the latch to lock it, which made him feel safe. The mansion must have been quite old, because there was even a wooden plank to bar the door, so he put that down too. No other way in or out of the room, so he was definitely safe now. His heart beat slowed, he took deep breaths, and then he went to the window.
Outside, there was hail with silent lightning strikes far in the distance. The oak trees were tall, with no sickly pines in sight, and the night sky was completely black. Just like when he had come in. His mind must have been playing tricks on him. The room was fairly large, though empty, so he started a fire in the fireplace, which somehow didn’t have any hail in it, though he just assumed it had wire mesh to prevent things from getting in. He undid the backpack that held his meager possessions, rolled out his sleeping bag, and settled onto the floor of the gallery. The paintings, now better illuminated by the fire, all still seemed to be staring at him with unimaginable sadness in their eyes, though he supposed all old paintings always had the subject looking dreadfully melancholic for some reason. He probably just felt watched because of the massive fright he’d given himself scurrying around the mansion. He drifted off to sleep, no sounds to disturb him, no specters to haunt him, and safe from the storm.
Banging. Loud banging. The door he had locked and barred splintered loudly yet held fast. He sat up at a comfortable pace. He was clearly dreaming. He felt no fear, no sense of urgency. He was fine. Somehow, he could feel he had to enter a room behind one of the portraits. He got up in a trance-like state, his body not his own, as he walked over to a portrait whose frame nearly touched the floor. They whispered to him, though he didn’t register what they said, he simply went with it. Must be a lucid dream.
“Don’t open the door…” the whispers said, a cacophony of voices, all overlapping and blearing together, becoming a chaotic echo.
He went to the portrait, this time its eyes and mouth were definitely moving; the woman in the portrait was crying and her mouth was moving, but he paid no mind. He grabbed the edge of the frame and pulled, opening it like a door to reveal a small archway behind the painting. The banging became louder, the door broke inward, the whispers became shouts, but it was all irrelevant. He just had to walk through the archway, it was only a dream after all.
“THE ARCHWAY IS …” but the voice cut off as he entered the deep blackness in the arch, just as the door gave way and shot forcefully off its hinges to slam loudly into the opposite wall. Whatever was trying to get in, if there was even anything there, didn’t enter the room. The portraits were still, and the archway wasn’t there. The portrait over it was back in its place, and it was as if the drifter had never been in the room. But he had, and the portraits were all weeping. Silently, without whispers, without sound, but what were once sad faces were now frozen in various states of weeping, as if they had been painted mid-sob.
The drifter woke up well-rested. The door wasn’t barred anymore, but he was having such a vivid dream he must’ve opened it while sleep walking or lucid dreaming. Whatever he had experienced. It was still dark in the gallery, and outside was still nighttime, though it seemed those three moons, green stars and sickly yellow pines were back. He must still be in the dream. At least the fire was still going. He moved to go towards the window, looking around for his sleeping bag, but he couldn’t move. He tried to jerk himself forward, but his body wouldn’t budge. Looking down, he didn’t see a body at all. Terror gripped him, but he didn’t know how, because he couldn’t feel his body, it was like he didn’t have one. Panicking, yet unable to scream, terrified, yet unable to cry, he felt all hope slipping away. Why couldn’t he move?
Sometime later, he wasn’t sure how long, a scruffy looking man ran into the gallery, barring the door, somehow intact again, behind himself. Panting and panicked, the newcomer looked out of one of the windows, which morphed into a nice view of the oak forest and starless sky, before reverting to a dark purple sky filled with green stars and three moons when he turned away. The drifter, resigned to his fate, looked at the man with sadness. The newcomer actually made eye contact with the drifter, though he didn’t seem to see him; all he did was mutter something about how all the portraits look so realistic, yet so sad.