Come out, come out, wherever you are…
Copyright 2016 Justin Cawthorne
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Come out, come out, wherever you are…
by Justin Cawthorne
“I have a tale to tell, gentlemen, if you have a care to listen.”
Our room, by that late hour, had filled with smoke and thick shadow, but I was seated close enough to Martin to see his face with a degree of clarity—and, therefore, to see the fear that crossed it as he uttered his invitation.
He had been quiet for much of the evening, taking his place with little presence as we exchanged our various tales of terror. As the night wore on, however, and our stories conspired to drain whatever comfort lingered within the room, I had observed him with increasing interest. The hours had seen him shrink further and further into his chair, retreating as though oppressed by a great and unwelcome realisation. I had, at any moment, expected him to announce that he was taking his leave of us. Instead, when he did finally speak, his offer seemed in direct contrast to his appreciation of the evening’s passage. My surprise at this turn only heightened my interest in whatever story he intended to craft for us.
It was, of course, questionable whether his nerves would permit him to deliver his tale with any measure of success; but our company was not the sort to spurn anyone’s story, especially when his first words were: “This is a true story.”
And, so, we sat in silence as Martin began.
“This event occurred when I was young—seven years old to be exact. I have never before considered this to be a … ghost story, but the nature of the tales we have shared tonight has forced me to call into question the judgement of my memories. I will, therefore, offer my story, and you gentlemen, in return, may offer your verdict.
“As you have already heard, I was a child at this time. My mother was in the habit of taking myself and my elder brother to my grandfather’s house. This took place with a sufficient degree of regularity to force a sense of resignation into a young child.
“My grandmother, you see, had passed on a few years prior. My mother, being the honest woman she was, had elected herself to a duty of care for our grandfather after his wife’s passing. I believe—now, more than I did then—that this was indeed driven by duty more so than love. I do not even believe she felt much for the man beyond the responsibility to look after someone who was, after all, her own blood.
“For my part, I remember him as a peculiar sort. There were times when I feared him, and other times when, even at my age, I was able to observe the sorrow that he carried with him. He appeared to me as the shadow of a man, eaten away by the grief that grew within him from his wife’s passing.
“It was only later in life that I learned the manner in which things are not always as they seem. Back then, all I knew was that my grandmother had taken a fall down the stairs; a fall that had claimed her life.
“Those days in my grandfather’s house were interminably dull. My mother would clean the house, take care of the laundry and take on whatever sundry tasks needed attention. All the while my grandfather merely sat in his chair and watched. There were some days when it seemed he did not say a single word. There was precious little to occupy me and my brother and, on the day in question, the heavens were falling which disbarred us from our usual avenue of escape into the garden and beyond.
“After some time, we entered into a game of hide and seek. In happier days both our grandparents had been known to join in. I recall, distantly, memories of the house being filled with our cries of ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are’. But there were yet undiscovered corners to be found and my grandfather’s house provided a fertile playground for the two fearless boys that we were. We played a number of rounds before taking ourselves upstairs.
“Now, at this point, it is incumbent upon me to explain that the upper level of the house was intended to be off-limits to us. Typically, we abided by that dictate, and had never thought to question it. However, confined as we were in the house, we developed a substantial desire to explore fresh territory. Further motivation was delivered by our own mother’s unambiguous declaration that our presence was proving an aggravation. Our grandfather, for his efforts, had fallen sound asleep in his chair.”
On hearing that line, one of the less courteous members of our group took the opportunity to announce: “I fear I, also, may succumb to sleep if this story doesn’t find its direction soon. Some of us may find domestic chores a topic of great distress, but this is surely no grounding for a worthy tale.”
Martin appeared unconcerned. It was my belief that the storytelling itself was the true value for him, and whether any of us were listening or not was immaterial.
“A timely comment,” he replied. “The point of my story—and the reason for me sharing it tonight—will become clear momentarily. If I may continue …?”
“Please do,” I said at once, before any further objections could be voiced.
Martin looked at me sharply, as if only just made aware of my presence. Then he nodded and resumed his tale.
“Now, the upstairs may have been far from sizeable—there were but two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a storage cupboard to be found in the hallway—but it did carry the benefit of the unfamiliar. There was a rich bounty of fresh places to hide, and my brother made it quickly known that he wished to be the first to capitalize. He ran and hid, as I stood out in the hallway, closed my eyes, and counted quietly to ten. At the count of ten I declared that the hunt was on with the traditional cry of: ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are’.
“I will confess that my brother was, in the majority of cases, the winner in our games. He possessed a preternatural ability to conceal himself. I was anticipating a lengthy hunt and was, therefore, surprised to be claiming victory after little more than a few moments.
“You see, as I began my hunt I had become aware of a heavy sound of breathing; as if from someone who had recently run a great distance. I followed the sound to its source—underneath the bed in the master bedroom—where I found it to be coming from my brother. My brother appeared distraught at being discovered so easily, but I was determined not to let that spoil my victory.
“‘Found you!’ I declared joyfully.
“He withdrew at once from his hiding place and stood up—still breathless—then ignored me as he looked around the room with eyes wilder than befitted such a keen player as my brother. Any alarm I might have experienced at this behaviour was diminished by my relief at being spared the usual outpouring of irritation at his being discovered. Being of a curious nature I did, however, ask him what was wrong.
“‘Nothing,’ he replied with some distraction, and then repeated it to himself. ‘Nothing. I bashed my head, that was all.’
“You may, as I did, judge this to be an unconvincing response. The more fitting response to hitting your head, in my youthful opinion, was to clutch your head and say something like ‘Ow!’ But my brother was stubborn, and continued to insist that this was indeed the case—and who was I to question my elder brother?
“Then, with an atypical intensity, he looked to me and reminded me that it was my turn to hide. I had no hesitation: I had already selected my place—a cupboard in the second bedroom. I barely waited for him to close his eyes and start counting. I climbed into the cupboard as quietly as I could manage, pulled the door to, and pressed myself into the deepest corner. Even at the time I questioned myself as to why I took that last step: once my brother opened the door the game would be up, pushing myself against the wall wouldn’t save me from discovery. Nevertheless, the moment I entered that cupboard I felt a compulsion to conceal myself as deeply as I could manage.
“I waited in the darkness. Then I heard my brother’s footsteps coming for me.
“I tell you that they were my brother’s footsteps because they could not have been anyone else’s. But I will also tell you that it was not the familiar tread of my brother’s feet that I heard approaching. There was a weight and import to the sound that my brother’s step lacked. I suggested to myself that we were in an old house, and perhaps things that were once familiar would sound different here. I see from the doubt in your faces that you are as convinced by this theory as I was.
“And so it was that those footsteps began to fill me with a deep foreboding. As I heard them enter the room a fully irrational fear seized me. My breath locked inside my chest. It was all I could do to avoid gasping in such a way as had betrayed my brother earlier. I reminded myself that we were playing a game, but there was a powerful thought I found myself unable to escape from: if my brother discovered me then it would surely mean my death.
“Again, I see the absurdity of the situation reflected in your faces. Every thought and doubt passing through your minds was shared by me at that time and in the years since. How could a simple childhood game fill one with such terror? Could it be that the passage of time has enhanced the perfectly ordinary emotions that I experienced on that day? You may draw your own conclusions in short order, but I will tell you this: I have given these events great consideration of late and my conclusion is that they transpired in exactly the way that I am relating them to you now.
“So, let us return to the game. The footsteps that were not my brother’s had entered the room. I pressed myself further against the wall of that cupboard—I would have forced my way through the very bricks and into the next room had I possessed the strength. Consumed by fear though I was, I was also gripped by the imperative of absolute silence. I resisted any urge to panic. I resisted calling to my brother for reassurance. As I clutched for my sanity, I heard our familiar refrain reaching out to me: ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are …’
“The words might have been the same but it was not my brother’s voice that beckoned me.”
At this revelation there was a stir of chatter in the room which prompted a brief diversion from the tale. I listened to Martin contend with the various theories that his audience then put forth, despatching each of them with ease: ‘No, my grandfather was still asleep’; ‘No, my brother’s voice had not yet broken.’ The manner in which our speakers typically deflected such theories was one of delight—there was a keen satisfaction to be drawn from baffling our tidy group with a well-constructed narrative puzzle. Martin, by contrast, conveyed himself with an air of resignation. I felt he desired nothing more than for one of our theories to be plausible; such an outcome would allow him to dismiss the facts of his story.
But it was not to be so.
“I shall continue,” he eventually declared. “As we left my story, I was cowering in the cupboard. Those footsteps were drawing in. A voice, which I attest to this day did not belong to my brother, was calling to me: ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’ There was malice in that voice. My brother may have been as capable of cruelty as any elder child was, but only in the pursuit of amusement. There was true evil in those words; an evil that I knew my brother did not possess. And yet, I kept insisting to myself, it could only be my brother outside.
“‘Come out, come out, wherever you are…’ I heard the voice say again.
‘The cupboard in which I was confined began to feel terrifically small. In my desperation to master our game I realised I had only succeeded in imprisoning myself. There were no avenues of escape. If I moved, I would be heard. If I opened the door, I would surely be seen. I was condemned to wait, my terror serving as my only companion. The fear of what approached me from beyond that door became all-consuming.
“Even to a young child the sense of approaching death is far from unfamiliar. So I tell you, as I hid in that cupboard, I was absolutely convinced that I was about to die. I believed, clearly and absolutely, that my life depended on that door remaining closed and guarding my concealment.
“Almost at the door now, I heard my summons: ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are… ’ Even as I repeat those words to you now, they fill me with a dread that cannot be equalled. The voice that was not my brother’s drew so close I could now hear its breathing over my own. I waited there in the darkness, listening as the footsteps came for me. I prepared myself to flee the moment that the door opened, forcing upon myself a belief that my paralysed muscles could propel me to safety.
“The voice seemed to be right outside the door, but the footsteps still approached. Louder. Closer. My pursuer knew where I was hiding and was coming for me! I envisaged the door opening, a hand reaching in to grasp me, dragging me away to whatever awful fate awaited me.
“I quaked, breathless, awaiting the inevitable. So wrapped in terror that I could no longer move. Even my brain had ceased all function. Any plan of escape had vanished from my mind.
“Then, with a terrible burst of light, and a screaming of old hinges, the door opened. I was blinded and beside myself with fear. I had been discovered by death itself. I caught but a single glimpse of my captor, framed by the light, a fearsome shadow standing before me, then all turned to darkness.”
An uncharitable member of our group quipped: “Scared of your own shadow, I’ll wager, eh?” I observed, not without satisfaction, that the man was alone in his mirth. With no rejoinder he quickly fell to silence. The rest of our audience remained quite enthralled by his story. Martin gave no consideration to the interruption and continued directly with his tale.
“Now, the canny among you may note that, clearly, I did not perish on that day. Indeed, I was perfectly safe. I awoke to find both my brother and my mother staring down at me. Behind them stood my grandfather with a look of terrible concern on his face. It transpired that I had screamed, quite loudly, at the moment that my brother had opened the cupboard door.
“But, there is one thing I need to tell you: it was not my brother I saw opening that door.”
There was a delighted shuffling of feet and exchange of nervous glances at this revelation.
“No, as my eyes apparently deceived me, it was my grandfather who opened the door and discovered me. To be more clear: it was someone, or something, with the image of my grandfather as he might have appeared five or ten years previously. In my youthful innocence, and defying all lingering sense of fear, I even asked my grandfather why he had joined in our game.
“It was my brother who answered: ‘Now I’m certain you’ve lost your marbles,’ he said. ‘Grandfather was asleep until you woke him up with your screaming.’
“I was prepared to defend myself until I caught sight of my grandfather’s face. Where my mother’s was filled with concern, and my brother’s was clearly delighting in the prospect of my insanity, my grandfather’s was a different picture altogether. I saw puzzlement, as might be expected, but that wasn’t what compelled me to silence. His face was a mask betraying equal parts fear and anger. I felt as though he might have reached across and throttled me had I been left alone with him. I could not imagine what I had done to anger him so, but I had at least enough wisdom to avoid any attempt at repeating the effort.
“I allowed my brother to help me to my feet and avoided any protest over his suggestion that the darkness in the cupboard had momentarily deluded me. Years later I asked about his own experience while hiding under the bed: he, too, described an irrational, but shapeless, fear that had gripped him. However, he confessed to nothing on that day. As we made our way out of the room, my grandfather made little effort to help. He merely stood in the background, watching me closely.”
Martin paused in his narration at that moment, causing some among our audience to believe he had reached his conclusion. There was an array of nods, a few shrugs. A ‘not bad’ was voiced by one listener and invoked a general sense of agreement. Then Martin began speaking again and our attention immediately returned to him.
“There are two further incidents you should be aware of. I believe these postscripts will clearly account for why I have presented this as a ghost story and not merely the symptom of a young boy’s irrational fear.
“As I said, we made our way from the upstairs room. My brother helped me initially, until I proudly brushed him off and insisted that I was fully capable of walking. It appeared that something wished to make me a liar, however. For, as we reached the top of the stairs I stumbled. I only describe it as a stumble because that’s the way it must have appeared to an observer.
“But what actually happened is that something pushed me.
“You’ll observe that I did not say ‘someone pushed me’. I confess my first suspicion was towards my brother. But he stood a short distance away, conversing with my mother, and could not conceivably have reached far enough to push me. My mother was, of course, beyond suspicion.
“Again I saw my grandfather’s face. He stood looking at me with the same expression of mute abhorrence that he had worn since I emerged from the cupboard. Ultimately, from his position there was no way he could have pushed me, and he was far from a nimble man.
“Nonetheless, I was pushed. I had felt a firm pressure on my back, as if from a hand, which had delivered sufficient force to send me a short way down the stairs. Clearly, however, that hand did not belong to anyone in my company.”
“Ha! The feverish imaginings of a frightened young child,” said our least engaged audience member, rising to his feet. “I shall hear no more of this.”
“Then you will miss my conclusion and a chance at understanding the cause for these strange happenings,” Martin said.
The man was not swayed. “But I should not miss the time I have already wasted attending to your tales,” he said. “Good night to you all.”
We waited until he had left the room and then, as one, nodded for Martin to conclude his tale.
“My brother and I grew older, and it wasn’t many years before my mother handed the care of our grandfather down to us. As you might expect, we did not relish this duty. My grandfather remained a sullen, haunted man, but he caused us no trouble, so we maintained the responsibility without protest. We even made a competition of it eventually—the loser, inevitably, being the one required to visit our grandfather.
“In those years, my grandfather had taken to sleeping downstairs. It was accepted that he was of an age where stairs posed an unreasonable challenge. I, however, had not forgotten the terror that I experienced in that cupboard and believed, if matters came to it, that I too would make any excuse necessary to avoid sleeping upstairs.
“On the final day of my tale I arrived at my grandfather’s house to find a terrible sight awaiting me: his body lay, broken, at the foot of those stairs. He was unquestionably dead. The final report, in its wisdom, concluded merely that he had fallen down the stairs and had suffered a fatality in that process.
“What no report could adequately convey was the state in which I found him. The man was as white as a sheet. His face … well, let me say that I have never again witnessed such fear etched upon another person’s face. It spoke of an all-consuming terror that I myself had experienced once before, also in that house.
“Of further note was my grandfather’s position at the foot of those stairs. I acknowledge the dictates of gravity, but it appeared as though he must have fallen backwards from the upper level, as if he were facing something at the top of the stairs. His hands and, to an extent, his arms remained clasped over his face, as if to shield his eyes from some terrible sight.
“The coroner additionally reported bruising in the area of my grandfather’s chest, presuming it to have been incurred during the course of the fall. I never had opportunity to observe this bruising, but I retain a suspicion that it would have corresponded roughly to the size and shape of a person’s hand.
“Initially fearing that a potential assailant could still be in the house, and being of a spirited age, I took myself up the stairs to face off any villain that might be trying to conceal himself.
“I stopped upon reaching the top step. I had put the memories of my experience in those upper rooms somewhat behind me, only for them to resurface at that moment. But it was nothing more than memories that returned: any feelings of terror were entirely absent. I went from room to room, challenging that irrational fear to return—even stepping inside the infamous cupboard—but there was nothing. No assailant. No fear. Those rooms were empty. It felt as though something had been lifted from that place. It felt, indeed, as if this particular chapter had reached its conclusion.
“And so, for my final note, I will share a detail missing from the official report into my grandfather’s death, but one that nonetheless occupied the private discussions of my surviving family members. Those who had occasion to review the report were struck by one particular aspect: the manner of my grandfather’s passing matched, in all respects, the manner in which his wife had also departed this earth.
“In the end, once the old man had gone, even those chatterings also ceased. There was a common view that the dead had finally been allowed to rest in peace, and that we should do our part to leave it so.”
After that, Martin, satisfied with his performance, prepared to take his leave. I cannot recall any other occasion upon which he related a tale of terror to us, but I am glad to confess that I have never forgotten the one time he did.
He stood up, bowed his head and, before opening the door, said to us: “Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure and a catharsis to share this tale to you. I have given the details as I know them. I now leave you to draw your conclusions as you see fit. The dead await us all, in the end.”
And with that, he was gone.
— THE END —
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â€œI have a tale to tell, gentlemen, if you have a care to listen.â€ So begins the dark tale of terror that our narrator unearths from his childhood memories. A tale of tragedy ... or something more sinister? Read on to discover the truth, and the manner in which an innocent game of hide and seek turns into a terrifying voyage across the shadowed chasm between life and death ...