A supernatural-thriller that blends horror, myth and fairytale…
Seventeen-year-old Sephone’s life changed forever the day that her father died. Now she has moved to her mother’s childhood home deep in the Welsh valleys. She hates it; her strange uncle Gabe, the house, and the hideous tree that stands outside. It couldn’t get much worse. Until her friends take her to that place.
For years she has had nightmares about that building, though she has never been there. She learns of the history of missing women, and reels when she discovers that her uncle was once suspected of the murder of his girlfriend, who disappeared twenty years ago.
One night her worst suspicions are confirmed when she finds an old sack containing human bones in his barn. Certain that GABE is now a murderer she wrestles between the need to confront and expose him, and the drive to question herself and bury her thoughts and feelings as well as the need to protect her mother. Her nightmares escalate, becoming otherworldly. As she spirals downwards she is haunted by terrifying visions of a woman soaked in blood and hears the voice of a sinister presence calling her name.
When GABE stays for Christmas, SEPHONE’S thoughts become more chaotic. One night, when her friend BETH disappears after a party and her uncle comes home covered in blood, she finds herself pulled once again to the other world that she knows so well; the locked room in the mansion house which she now knows was once an asylum for women.
Someone is watching her. Something strange is happening.
It could get worse. It just has…
Chapter Prologue - Chapter 4
Once upon a time there was just me. Or so I thought. But then the screaming started, thin and distant at first, travelling across the ether like the whispers of ghosts on the breeze. Eventually the screams got louder and closer until I started to wonder if they were made by someone else or if they might in fact, belong to me.
He must have heard. He always hears.
Now I hear him. His footsteps. The scrape of his blade. His breath, stale and moist at the back of my neck. I feel my blood slipping through his fingers, sweet and thick like honey, and the dull heavy tug on my bones as he pulls me down.
There was a time when he was not here. Or so I am led to believe. When I was that girl. But that girl is not here anymore. Now there is just this girl.
I won’t bore you with the details to begin with. All you really need to know is this. My name is Sephone. Not Stephanie or Persephone. Just Sephone. Just Seph.
I’m seventeen years old. My father is dead. I’m standing at the top of the hill that looks down upon the farmhouse in the distance where I now live. From up here the view stretches across the valley, trees and fields and houses, and of course, the endless grey sky.
I’m getting closer to the edge, watching my toes peer over into the nothingness, hearing the loose stones falling, smashing onto the rocks below and wondering what it would be like to join them.
I’m chasing the light through the trees but it keeps escaping. The low autumn sun is being swallowed up by the hills and their thick tapestry of pines. It is peeking through the tree-tops now, only to disappear as we wind our way through the country lanes. In and out. Up and down.
There it is. But as soon as it appears it’s gone again and I’m left following. Waiting.
There are voices being thrown around the car but I’m not really listening. They are blurred. Dull and far away. Disconnected. Maybe that’s my name I can hear and the voices of my new friends, their bodies pressed against mine. The hills and trees pressing down on all of us.
It’s back. But it’s about to be eaten by the hill that hovers over us and the dense forest that seems to be growing and growing. I’m not sure what’s around the corner but it’s getting darker and it’s going to get swallowed. And so am I.
It’s going to disappear.
Going… going… gone.
‘Earth to Sephone?’
The car feels cramped and smells strange. A sickly concoction of our warm lunch-time bakery products, perfumes, and the new car air-freshener. The lanes are so narrow and the constant twists and turns that belong to them keep throwing us around from side to side, making my stomach turn and the nauseous feeling rise further and further up into my throat.
‘Mate, I can’t believe you’ve finally got it,’ says Evan, leaning forward to try the handle on the glove-compartment.
‘Tell me about it.’ Alex beams and throws him a satisfied glance. He hasn’t stop smiling since he walked into the sixth form room today. He checks his perfectly-groomed dark hair in the mirror, the good habits that he learnt from all those driving lessons already beginning to slip. I can’t help but feel a little envy at his good fortune, a new car of his own and the freedom that comes along with it.
Evan continues to inspect the car interior from the passenger seat next to him. Every now and again I see him turn slightly to catch sight of me in the back, crammed between Lowri and Beth. Something in my stomach jumps a little, excitedly, but I squash it back down, tuck it away where it belongs. Down in the dark where there is nothing to sustain it. Down where it can’t breathe or grow.
‘So, where are we off? Lunch hour’s nearly over and I’ve got art straight after,’ Beth pipes up, straight to the point as ever. Alex takes a sharp left and it’s as if that action itself has answered the question.
‘We haven’t got time for messing around up here,’ Lowri says.
‘Come on guys, just a little look. Seph hasn’t been up ’ere yet and now she’s a local, she has to at some point.’ He’s not budging.
‘It’s okay, honestly. Don’t worry about me, I’ll go another time. Whatever everyone else wants to do is fine.’ I mean it. I don’t like these lanes. They make me feel like there’s no air. Like everything is closing in on me.
‘Too late, we’re there now,’ says Alex, almost apologetically.
Beth reaches down into her bag to grab her camera, which tells me that something has piqued her interest. Normal circumstances require her iPhone. When the big black camera with lenses and numerous attachments comes out, that’s a different story.
Now I am intrigued as well. I’ve not been here before.
Since we moved here a few months ago, I haven’t ventured much further than the village, the town, and of course the hills and tracks behind the house.
Sick. Pit of my stomach.
Don’t think about the hill.
‘Seph, what’s up?’ Beth is one of those girls that doesn’t seem to miss a trick.
‘Umm… nothing. I just feel a bit sick.’
‘No chucking up in the new car!’ The most serious voice I’ve ever heard from Alex.
‘It’s probably your driving! Nearly there.’ Beth smiles reassuringly and holds the hair back from my face. Lowri winds down the window, her long dark-blonde hair catching the wind and brushing gently over me. A light breeze travels in, taking away some of the stale warm air that has been swimming around us; it helps a little.
The road narrows, creeping further and further inwards as the tarmac starts to disappear and gravel and small mounds of earth take its place. Branches and leaves rub tendril-like against the side of the car, feeling their way over us.
We bounce gently along until the canopy of trees, which folds across our heads, starts to pull back and we emerge into an open space.
The blood pumps in my ears so loudly it overtakes everything. Except for the fear. The fear that grips my throat as I pull at my neck to try to release its hold.
It is there in front of me.
I see it.
This can’t be real.
I stand here most days. Looking out. Thinking about it but never do it. It sounds as if it should be wild and dramatic but it’s surprising how easy it is to have such a thought. It sounds as if I am ripped apart by torment and pain like in the books and the films. But that’s not how it is. Above me the sky is grey and lifeless. That’s how it’s been for weeks and that’s how it is.
For what seems like the hundredth time, I peel my hair from my cheeks where the wind and misty rain that belongs to these hills keep placing it. Below me I see the rocks and wonder if the fall will be enough.
As I picture my body at the bottom, crumpled, bloody and still, my mother’s face enters my mind. Not in a complete sense. Not really her face at all I suppose, more her presence. It grows in my awareness until I see her cradling my broken body and screaming in agony. Then I step away from the edge and turn around.
I breathe in deeply, let the air out slowly through my wind-chilled nostrils and pull my hood over my head in a futile attempt at some respite from the cold. Then calmly I move back down the hill, the gradient forcing me to lock my knees so that I don’t stumble, and fall back into autopilot, trying to block out the guilt pangs that snap at my feet.
I make my way through the wet grass, over and around the small mounds and tumps that pepper the hillside, and down to the country lane at the bottom. I trudge along the road – clothes wet and sticking to me. Turn the corner – hair wet and sticking to me. And make it to the crossroads – the grey, wet and sticking to me – where my new home waits for me in the distance, and stop.
The house looks down at me from an elevated but gentle slope. Dotted around its field are trees, standing black and still like ominous sentinels. In the summer I imagine they will be full and green. Alive with colour and sound and movement. They must have been like that when we got here. Were they? To me they have always been lifeless. Black. Tinged with something uncomfortable I can’t seem to place. A few dark leaves cling to their branches. Summer has died early this year.
Biggest of all is the specimen that occupies the bottom of the field where the farmhouse road and the country lane meet at the crossroads. It stands there to the left, reaching out with its black hungry claws. Bloody thing. Seventeen-years-old but I feel like a five-year-old when, time and again, I cross over to avoid its clutch.
Strangest of all is the way one of the large branches twists and grows backwards, making it seem as if it’s pointing to the forest beyond the house. Yet something draws me and I always find the time to turn and snatch a glimpse.
The road up to the house is more of a dirt track, and as usual the rain and our beat-up four-by-four have turned it into a tyre-marked system of grooves and crevices that is hard to negotiate in a pair of Converse. Add a few rain-filled potholes and it becomes an exercise in orienteering. Up I go.
Once I’m finally at the top – tired, irritable, ankles not snapped – I take the key from my pocket and place it in the lock, opening the door and letting the smell of mould, firewood and old-building-that-I-would-like-to-raise-to-the-ground escape from inside. Letters are scattered on the floor; all of them addressed to my mother: Catrin Griffiths, Pandy Farm, Old Bedlwyn Road, Newhill. It still catches in my throat, her name on its own, no Anthony Griffiths, this address.
I stand the letters up in front of the picture frame on the side-table, the one that contains the photo of the two of them holding me when I was a baby. My mother’s dark brown hair, long and thick just like mine, hitting her shoulders and cascading down her back. Her brown eyes, smiling. My father with his arm around her waist, looking down at me and laughing. I cover it over with the envelopes. Gone.
My mother’s presence creeps in again as I look down at my brown slimy shoes, so I bend down reluctantly, pick at the laces and free my feet of them, leaving them at the door. My socks are not much better, so they go too.
My cold wet feet step onto the freezing flagstones of the living-room, leaving damp footprints on the grey stone.
I pad gingerly through to the kitchen and then to the ramshackle excuse of an extension that houses the bathroom. In it there is an old steel freestanding bath, also freezing.
I run hot water into the bath without even touching the cold-water tap. Experience over the last few months has taught me to blast the hot water to warm up the room and the cold steel of the bath.
As the cold air and the hot water mix, the steam that’s produced provides a welcome veil that covers the dated and decaying surroundings. Add a couple of splashes of bubble bath and it’s almost relaxing. Almost.
Reluctant to feel the grip of any more iciness, I wait until all of this is done before finally peeling off my wet dirty clothes, leaving them in a neat yet depressing pile on the floor.
Something has changed.
Sinking into the scented welcoming warmth of the bath I feel something release in me. I pull my knees up to my chest and sit there for a few minutes not knowing what this is but feeling it anyway.
As I lean back I brace myself for the sting of the cold metal against the skin on my shoulders and turn to run some hot water down the slope of the bath to warm it up, maybe soften the blow. It doesn’t help that much, but still I sink down into the water, lie back and stare into the mist that envelops me.
As much as I hate this bathroom, it’s the only place where I’ve been able to find some degree of respite.
Now this seems to be changing as well.
The events of the day surge to the front of my mind.
The greyness that followed me in has turned black. Dark black clouds, which invite rumbles, loud claps and flashing light. I wait for a few moments, the way that you do when you sense a storm approaching.
There it is.
Great bolts of electricity stabbing at me. Forks of bright white lightning piercing my head, stretching out into my chest and arms and legs.
I’m taken to the hilltop where I want to end it all. And I know why.
It was different this time.
I try not to think about the car ride I took with the others at lunchtime. I try so hard. Because it’s one thing to feel you’re losing your life and another to think you’re losing your mind.
I can hardly look at my mother at the dinner table. She sits, watching me pick at my food, moving it from one place to another then occasionally putting some into my mouth.
‘Please eat something, love,’ she says. ‘What’s up?’
‘Nothing,’ I lie. ‘Just tired.’
‘I know it’s hard and you must be missing everyone but it’s only a train ride away, Seph.’
If only that were true. It’s another world. A closed-off world. A world that ended when he did.
Not wanting to get into it with her I start moving the food to my mouth, forkful after forkful, so that I don’t have to answer the questions, don’t have to hear her voice, don’t have to feel the guilt that swells in me with every concerned look, question and remark.
When I’m done I tell her how tired I am, kiss her on top of her head and say I’m getting an early night. I don’t know why I’m so keen to go up to that room but I need to be alone.
Upstairs my bed is cold. I lie here wishing back the greyness because the rumblings, the energy, the fierceness that it’s been masking, has been eating away at me, like a rat on a corpse.
I go back over it again. All of it.
Is it real? Can’t be…
Beth walking up to me in the school corridor. Lowri and Evan following behind. Alex waving a bunch of car keys at me and grinning so wide he’s in danger of splitting his face. Agreeing to go with them. Driving through the lanes. Roads I’m not familiar with yet. Pulling up in front of that ruin of a building.
It is real.
I can feel myself there.
It is large and sprawling. Blackened stone and iron railings and punctured glass. There are trees and vines growing in and around it, forcing their way through glassless windows and reaching up through ceilings that no longer exist other than rotting joists that desperately but unsuccessfully cling to life.
There are piles of rubbish dotted around the carcasses of campfires. Mainly beer bottles and cans. Evidence of activity of some kind.
Graffiti marks some of the remaining walls; most of it old, tracing the feelings, thoughts and exploits of its visitors over the years.
My mind is torn in a thousand ways as I look at the building before me.
I’ve never seen it before – like this. I’ve never been here before – like this. The confusion mixes in my brain and sends its message to my belly as I stand before this building, this place that I know so well. This place that has haunted me since I was ten years old.
If I could change anything about my life I would not be here. I would be at home – my real home – back in Cardiff with my parents. Both of them. Living in our house. Sleeping in my bed. Going to my school. Living my life.
I would do the things that I did every day before. Like sit in my mother’s bookshop after school and look out of the window at the mixture of people who walk around the Victorian arcade where the shop is, huddled in the corner. Like I used to do. Before everything changed.
I wouldn’t complain now. I would appreciate it all. The quirkiness of the shops and the people who own and frequent them. I’d enjoy the way that they make you feel, transported from all the big shiny stores and malls with their throbbing crowds to a calmer, atmospheric tunnel of treasures. Twists and turns that I am familiar with. Those glass ceilings and mirrors that stretch to infinity. As a kid, I never quite got it. How could it look like you could step straight into something when it wasn’t even there?
I would love it just a bit more now. The wrought iron of the banisters, the shops signs, the lanterns that hang from the walls and ceilings and the vines of black metal that grow from them. Even on the days when I’d rather be sat in front of the TV or messing about with friends. I’d do anything to be able to go back there.
I’d spend more time at the shop. I’d run my hands over the dark wood shelves and sit in the red reading chair. I’d watch my mother. Shelving. Cataloguing. Pressing her nose against the fresh, new print of a book.
I would sit in Bellini’s next door. The smallest restaurant I’ve ever known. Three tables, a serving counter and a tiny kitchen where Tony would stand cooking. I would go there more often and he’d chat to me over the counter as he worked.
I’d sit there with Mina and Stu and we would slurp our spaghetti and talk over each other, desperately trying to get the most important information into our conversation. ‘How stressful are these exams?’‘Guess what so-and-so did?’‘You can’t fancy him, he’s an idiot!’
That would be the easy part. That would be the part that might just be possible. The part that still exists, hanging there half-living, half-dead, somewhere in the distance. But there would be so much more, and that’s the thing that hurts. Twists in my guts. I wish I could cut it out like a tumour but I can’t. The impossible thing.
If I could change anything I would take away the cancer that ate my nan, and the broken heart that took my grandfather. If I could change anything, I would bring him back. My dad. More than anything.
I’d listen to him when he told me some boring piece of information. I’d look up when he came in through the door. I’d notice what was written on his face. I’d ask.
If I could change anything, my name would be Sarah or Katie or Emily, not Sephone. If I could change anything, I would not be me.