The house was fantastic.
They arrived at the property just a few hours after leaving home but with the unpleasant feeling of fatigue and grime that only an international flight can cause. The cool breeze wafting off the Lago di Bracciano hinted at a little slice of paradise.
The rough-hewn exterior was overrun by flora – a soft halo of azalea, gardenia and sweet-smelling freesia spread from each window ledge and balcony. The ageing wooden shutters gave the place an old-world charm. Worn stone steps, and an arched front door with stained glass panels, completed the picture.
Inside, the flagstone hallway offered a cool, calm respite from the summer heat, and the interior of the house opened up in splendour. The high ceilings and panelled walls of the entrance hall gave way to comfortable living quarters. A traditional brick fireplace and rustic kitchen complete with home-grown thyme and rosemary, lovingly plucked and left to dry, filling the room with an intoxicating aroma.
It felt like the perfect place for time with friends. Charming, rustic and just stone’s throw from Rome – a place to relax after a day of unashamed sightseeing.
Maybe a ‘stone’s throw’ was an exaggeration… It would take thirty minutes to get into the city, far too long for a small, unrelenting child. Luckily, the budget had stretched to bringing along the au pair – an Italian herself. Maria, had recommended the small town of Anguillara Sabazia as the perfect place to stay, promising to keep the child entertained during the day.
“It’s weird to be the first ones to bring a child along to one of these – don’t you think?” Jasmine said, poking her head around the doorway of the small ensuite bathroom.
Stephen looked up at her from the bed quizzically. The group had disbanded as soon as the initial awe of the property had subsided, agreeing to meet back downstairs for drinks in the courtyard as soon as the compulsory ‘freshening up’ was complete.
“Would you have preferred to leave him at home?” he asked.
“No… but, would it be much different to leaving him here during the day with Maria?” she asked.
“Yes. He’ll have a great time exploring the town with Maria – and we won’t have to feel hideously guilty when we get back to England,” he said.
Stephen put out his arm and pulled her down to join him on the bed, kissing the top of her head gently. Through the open window, they could hear the sounds of Maria showing the child the courtyard out back, reeling off the names of the local flowers, and butterflies and other creepy crawlies. Everything was new to him here, and his delight was palpable. Jasmine sighed, allowing herself to relax into Stephen’s arms.
Another sound rose up from the floors below, the unmistakable tinkling of ice on glass.
“We should go down,” she said, standing up and making a move toward the bedroom door. “They’ll think we are up to no good if we stay up here much longer.”
She paused halfway across the room, as if suddenly aware of her surroundings for the first time.
“Where does this door go?” she asked.
She couldn’t recall noticing the door on their way into the room. The smooth, dark wood looked the same as all the others, but something about it felt different. She held out her hand and gave an involuntary shiver as the handle stopped still in her hand. Locked.
“That’s weird, I wonder what’s inside…” she mused.
“It’s probably where the owner hides while he lets the house out,” Stephen joked. “Along with a jar filled with the faces of his previous guests.” He had crept up behind her and pulled her arms behind her back, making her jump.
“Very funny,” she said, wriggling out of his grasp and swinging round to bat him away, trying not to laugh. “But please, for the love of God, don’t say things like that too loudly. He’ll never sleep if he hears you. And I am not staying up with him while we’re here!” she said.
Downstairs, Kate and Dylan sat in the courtyard. Hunched over a sightseeing guide to Rome while Maria and the child explored the back reaches of the garden, poking around in the flower beds and peeking under stones and broken terracotta pots.
Dylan looked up as they walked out into the garden, smiling, he stood up and gestured towards the kitchen.
“Beer?” he asked.
All was quiet as the sun rose over the lake the next morning.
Jasmine sat outside, under the trees overlooking the lake clasping a cup of strong coffee and trying to remember what things had been like before the child had come along.
It had been so easy…
A difficult night had followed what was, initially, a very pleasant evening. He’d woken up, screaming bloody murder, in the small hours, and had refused to go back to his own bed. It wasn’t unusual for him to wake up crying after a bad dream occasionally, but this was something else. He was hysterical, almost entirely inconsolable.
Through panicked sobs, he’d choked out a few, barely legible words about a lady that had come to take him away. A nightmare, of course, albeit a bad one. He wasn’t used to travelling, and the excitement, and exhaustion of the previous day must have caught up with him.
Jasmine had sat with the boy all night, until, hours later, he finally calmed down and let sleep take hold. He lay on his side, taking up the thin space in between Stephen and Jasmine, his face pressed into the space between the pillows.
Jasmine had tried to sleep, at first, to shake off the feeling of unease that had crept in to join her exhaustion, but the room was hot and cramped, almost suffocating, and she sought solace by the lake in the early hours. The morning sun rose to wash away the ill feelings that the night had brought on.
Surprisingly, the child didn’t seem too phased by the events of the night before. As they left him behind with Maria that morning and headed out to follow Kate’s carefully planned day of sightseeing, he smiled up at his mother, full of excitement for the day ahead – Maria was taking him for gelato after lunch and had promised to show him fish that lived in the lake.
“Be good today little man,” Jasmine warned him. “If Maria tells you to take a nap you listen, ok?”
She kissed the top of his dark head.
“Promise, Mama,” he said with a smile. “I can take a nap. It’s safe now.”
“It’s always safe,” Jasmine soothed. Not wanting another discussion about the night before. Feeling terrible, but desperate once again to extricate herself from the house, and from the company of her son.
The child looked unsure, he put his head to one side and stared at her.
“It’s at night when they come,” he said, stoically. “When I’m alone, and not with anyone.”
Jasmine looked into the child’s eye when he said this. Unsure of what to say or do – he didn’t seem frightened now, but there was a seriousness in his voice that she found unnerving. The house felt heavy again, the air in the room close and oppressive, Jasmine forced a smile, and turned, half running, to leave via the front door.
It felt so good to be out of that house.
People often joke that the English enjoy a good queue – but you’d have been hard pushed to find a single person happier to queue than Jasmine on that fateful summer morning.
The journey into Rome had been uneventful. Once arrived, the four friends had made their way to the gateway of the Vatican, directed most efficiently, by eagle-eyed Kate and her trusty tourist map.
As they waited in line for the Sistine Chapel – which was to be the first stop on their Kate-led walking tour of Europe’s holiest city – Jasmine felt content. Not just content, but happy, thrilled even. The sun was shining, and the day stretched luxuriously out before them – it would be hours before they had to return to the little house on the lake.
Once inside, Jasmine was mesmerised. The group were completely surrounded by tourists, a small part of a huge, heaving mass of bodies. In any other circumstance, it would have felt suffocating, but a glimpse of the ornately decorated frescoes was all it took for the crowd to completely fade away. She felt alone, and at peace, as she took in every minute detail.
The was something unworldly about building – the entire story of the creation of man laid out in technicolour, magnificent figures representing the entire spectrum of human emotion, the complex architecture of the vaulted ceiling itself.
The group moved slowly, taking in scenes from the creation story, Adam and Eve’s temptation, fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a wrathful God’s punishment on mankind with devastating floods, Noah’s discovery of winemaking and subsequent fall from grace.
Jasmine walked mechanically through the main vault, to gaze, in awe at the masterpiece located over the high altar, representing the apocalypse of St John, and judgement of all souls left on Earth. Her eyes wandered, to pause upon the bottom right corner, to gaze upon the face of Minos, deep within the group of the damned.
Minos, the judge of the dead in the underworld. Whose mortal body had once sent the souls of young boys and girls into the labyrinth, to be eaten by the Minotaur.
She heard sound a close by and the spell was broken.
“Careful, they say if you look into his eyes you see the devil,” it whispered.
It was Stephen, stood beside her, arms folded, contemplating the artwork. He turned to her slowly and smiled, raising an eyebrow at the all-too-serious look on her face.
“Shall we finish up here and go and find Arturo?” he asked.
Arturo was an old friend.
They had met at university, all living together quite comfortably before finding their own routes in life. Arturo was semi-nomadic, he liked to hop around, Asia, the Middle East, Europe – the world was his playground and her never stayed in one place long enough to call it home. He was currently shacked up in Rome.
The bar where they had agreed to meet was… interesting. Freni e Frizione – that’s Brakes and Clutch in English – was a bar in an old garage, serving organic vegetarian food and trendy cocktails, and had become a favourite haunt of the now ‘flexitarian’ Arturo.
The group sat outside to await their old friend, who soon came onto the scene, dressed entirely in white linen, and riding an electric scooter, his characteristic facial hair, which once he had enjoyed cutting into all manner of styles, had been left to grow wild, and fluttered slightly in the breeze.
Arturo pulled to a stop, hopping lightly off his trusty steed, and making his way around the group, giving each friend a customary one-armed hug, his mouth half-open in an excited, lop-sided grin.
“So, what’s going on guys? It’s so good to see you all,” he beamed, taking an empty chair, and conjuring a waitress with a flick of his wrist.
The afternoon passed in a blur – cocktails, shots, and heavy Italian cigarettes; it wasn’t long before they found themselves pulling up outside the little house on the lake once again.
It was late, and the house was quiet, Maria sat on her own in the kitchen, anxiously awaiting their return.
The au pair had volunteered to put the child to bed for the duration of their stay. Jasmine had refused the offer at first, having always enjoyed the ritual of putting her son to bed, but the night before still hung heavy in her mind, and she had been all too willing to give up her duties for the evening.
Of course, the night’s bedtime routine had not gone as planned. The child had grown anxious and restless as the evening had worn on, he had asked for Jasmine, over and over again, and was inconsolable when he found out that his mother would not be home to put him to bed.
“He kept speaking about a lady,” Maria told Jasmine. “A lady that would come once he was in bed – he was terrified.”
The poor girl was obviously distressed. She was used to looking after the child – but his behaviour over the last two nights had been very unusual. Jasmine relieved the au pair of her duties and proceeded to check on her son.
He lay on his side, curled tightly into a ball, having finally given up and fallen asleep – but he looked anything but peaceful. His pillow was damp from tears, and a serious frown was pasted across his small, pale face.
A sudden rush of guilt overcame Jasmine, and she dropped to her knees beside the bed, laying a hand on his soft cheek. The boy didn’t wake, or even flinch beneath her touch, but remained fast asleep.
Jasmine composed herself, not wanting to leave, but reluctant to risk putting the boy through any more distress. She stood up, and then paused, as her eye caught sight of something glinting in the corner of the room.
A key, similar to a house key, lying abandoned on the wooden floorboards. She picked it up, feeling the weight of the object, and the cold sting of the metal against her hands.
It didn’t take long for her to remember the locked door.
A sudden intense curiosity filled her veins, the need to look inside was almost primal, an energy pulling her out of the bedroom. She reached out for the door, and slowly put the key inside, turning it with a satisfying click. The door relented swinging open onto the landing.
It was the smell that first hit Jasmine. Dust and mould, like a house left empty and unloved, and something else, rotten and sulphurous, which stung the back of the palate. She held her breath and looked inside – there wasn’t much to see. It was a small cupboard, a thin layer of dust and cobwebs coated the floor and patches of damp and mould crept up the yellowed walls, other than that there was but a single occupant, covered in an ageing dust sheet.
Jasmine pulled aside the cloth to reveal a renaissance style portrait. She felt bile rise in her throat, unsure if it was the picture itself, or the smell in the cupboard, she fought back the urge to vomit. The face of a lady stared back at her, but it was all wrong, like someone had mutilated the Mona Lisa.
There was no beauty in the eyes of the fair lady, no magic, no secret smile. Hollow sunken eyes like bottomless pits, puckered cheeks, sagging jowls, a hideous sneer played across her lips. The entire thing was tinged an unnatural shade of green, like nuclear slime. The painting was alien, ungodly, ill-feeling and bad thoughts, it was malice, despair, discomfort, abandonment, fear.
Jasmine stumbled backwards, throwing the hideous image back into the cupboard, and turning at once to flee the scene, and put as much distance as possible between herself and that godforsaken portrait.
The sound of Jasmine’s frantic footfall was enough to bring the rest of the group running in from the garden, half-burnt cigarettes still in hand, and puzzled, panicked looks across their faces. Jasmine stood, bent double in the kitchen doorway, retching and gasping for breath, attempting to vocalise the horrors she had witnessed on the first floor.
Time for confusion, or questions, was cut short by the sound of a door slamming, accompanied shortly thereafter by an ear-splitting scream.
“Paulie,” Jasmine choked.
She struggled to her feet and lunged back toward the staircase, all fear of the ghastly green lady expunged by dreaded anticipation of what would await her at the top of the stairs.
A blanket lay abandoned on the floor, spilling out of the bedroom and onto the dust-strewn landing. Pushing the door aside, Jasmine saw, with dismay that the little bed lay empty, a small imprint all that remained on the tiny child-sized mattress.
The cupboard was closed. The door was locked tight. And the key was nowhere to be seen.