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Ghost of a Rose

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Winter night mists had come and settled over our village, and as I sat in her room, her notebook clasped in my own cold hands, I could imagine the sound she had made, the soft scratching of one of the biros she used on her notebook. She never typed her work first – she said it impeded the flow. Her sweep of ink over pages drifted into her dreams – the soft sway of blue into a tinted wonderland, where roses grew from rooftops, and the sky was the ground beneath her feet. Pages and pages rolled together – her pen had once flown across them, filled with inspirations. She’d been so determined, so determined to portray her “bad guy” right, she’d immersed herself in a criminal’s life.

I could imagine her, Sara, walking away, tape recorder still warm in her hands. She often told me she could still hear it - the soft chink of his nails on his mug. Tapping. He was always tapping, always moving while he spoke. Nails on a table, nails on skin – his own arms, if he couldn’t reach hers, and these days she kept them on the other side of the glass window. If she hadn’t wanted to make the character realistic, she would never have gone there. She’d wanted to expose the world to the horrors of her criminal’s cloaked mind, each evening she’d tell me how real she could make it, how the insanity of this criminal intrigued her, how she would portray it to the world, so shamelessly real.

At one time or another, she’d seen it all as a sort of charity, but then, always with a hint of sadness, she would tell me that if it were charity, she would return tomorrow with no tape recorder and that rose he always asked her for. Neither of us could ever guess why he so wanted that rose, but nevertheless, he always did. She was always glad to walk away, back into to the fog and the piercing cold that nipped at her hands, but it was her ears that burned – his voice echoed in them.

She would have let an evening bleed through to morning before she’d listen to the tape, maybe longer, but she could never listen on the same day. The image of his clammy hands pressed up against the glass had revolted her. Her eyes used to glaze over when she told me about it, I could almost see her fighting the urge to gag, but then she would smile, and sadly say how in those moments, they were hands that pleaded, begging, threatening with complete futility. I closed my eyes briefly to let my thoughts settle before I played the tape.

“Don’t let me die.” He said.“Let me read it. Tell me the end.”

“You can read it when it’s published.”

“Don’t let me die.”

“What did you feel when you hit Penelope?”

“Nothing.”

“When you killed her?” I could hear the tension in her voice, even in the recording.

“Lust.” Perhaps he’d licked his lips then, flicked his tongue across them. Insanity was an image that suited him, and one I’d always favoured him with in my mind.

I stopped listening, the rest of the recording didn’t matter to me; the tape rambled on in words I no longer wished to hear. The ruffled notebook pages lay on the ground, and images of her writing hung like chalk drawings on the wall. The pages fell from my hand, crumpled, sweat infused.

My mind slipped into darkness then, before they found me.

A film to play, I’d watched it. Now it showed over and over again, and endless reel in my mind.

There were the voices, come for me. I heard her, calling to me. Her voice was joyful. But she was gone.

Madness?

“Son, we need to ask you some questions.” Not her voice. Whose?

“Never come to the church by night.” Her song. I begged her not to sing but it had begun, again.

“The camera…” I whispered it aloud, the only thought I had words for.

“What camera, son?” Then, softer, the call to others. “Did anyone see a camera?”

“What do you mean, Son?” And then the voices fell away.

***

"Look what I found!" She handed me the camera with awe - its age, meticulously well-kept condition; it was a thing of beauty. I turned it over in my hands, inspecting it in the porch light.

"Odd." I ran a finger over the digital screen, then down the brass casing. "It's not like ones I've seen before."

"Exactly." She kissed me softly on the cheek. "And I found it. Which means it's mine, Harry."

"Where was it?"

"Well I didn't exactly find it. I bought it in the antique store." A den of antiquities, I knew the one. I smiled at her, saw the excitement in her eyes.

"We might as well try it out." She took it out of my hands and ran off down the street, calling for me to follow her. Where she was running to, I didn’t know at the time. Perhaps if I had known, I wouldn’t have gone. I ran willingly, the sound of her laughter echoing on the breeze as it reverberated, house to house, lighting up each Christmas wreath as we passed it. The snow was melting and I ran without a second thought. Winter breezes stung our cheeks, though we cared little. She was still laughing when she stopped, her eyes bright and her cheeks flushed.

"Here. I want to take photos here." She'd picked the church. It was a sentimental place - people attended for weddings, baptisms, funerals. That was all, no day to day life. At night, the rector went to the pub with the choir boys, and the church was left to the candles and the hands of God. The garden was filled by the harpies of rumours, the roses were dead for the winter. Nobody tended the graves when they were filled.

"I don't think it's locked,” she said. “Churches never are." And I did not discourage her. The danger warmed me. When we entered, the candles were already burning bright, the dark walls glowing with a strange light. I could not deny its beauty - it seemed illuminated with every moment of our village's history, resonating with our laughing, our tears. I rubbed my hands against the whitewashed bricks. Yes, I could see the charm of it. The great arching doors spoke like history books with their creaking. For years, our parents, our families had handed flowers, rings and blessings to one another, then left without a thought. I lifted my eyes from the swirling engravings of the pews, and called to Sara. It would have been a beautiful picture, with the shadows and the dark wood, and the little shimmers of candlelight. A shame, really, that we never took it.

"Never come to the church by night,

The ghosts are here, the ghosts at night.

When the moon and the stars alight,

Do not go to the church at night."

Wherever she was, she sung it lightly. I guess she must have formulated the lyrics as she went along, singing it like a skipping rhyme. I never knew where she drew the words from, but I loved them all the same. The lyrics bounded off the high ceilings and gold leaf, but I could not see where they came from, the singer had disappeared. Her siren song was infinitely alluring.

"Sara?" I said. Nothing. For a moment, I thought I heard her laughing, but it could have been a breeze. I continued, looking around. "Sara, come here a second." Still no reply, I began searching. There was silence. A breeze rustled the shutters, and I called out again. The candles flickered in the chandeliers, I saw it there, resting on the altar. The camera I had seen earlier. My mind whirred briefly, a cloud seemed to haze over my eyes and a flush of dizziness passed over me.

"Never come to the church by night,

The ghosts are here, the ghosts at night.

When the moon and the stars alight,

Do not go to the church at night."

I heard her singing again. Louder this time.. I pinched myself hard, convinced for a moment I was dreaming, but as I walked to the alter I became increasingly sure of it. The sound was coming from the camera. The ground seemed immaterial, things were defying logic, and any reason I had left. Hesitantly, I picked it up, turning it over in my hands, as carefully as I had done earlier. There where white letters on an the otherwise black screen; numbers, in fact. 5:00. It couldn’t be the time, it had already been dark when I’d met Sara. I tried to see the pictures she'd taken thus far, but the display wouldn’t change no matter what I pushed. As I watched, captivated, the screen began to change.

5:00 became 4:30. A timer? For what?

I tried calling out into the seemingly empty space "Sara?" Of course, there was no reply. Why wouldn't she answer? "Sara, this isn't a game. Come down here. I mean it, if you're not down here, I'm going." The numbers faded out, and a new message appeared.

"Don't go."

The words hung on the screen for a moment, and once again I started at it, seating myself in a pew. A new number appeared. 4:00. They were back, a count down, but to what? The numbers were cycling by, digit by digit. I shook it, lifted it, tried to take a picture. Nothing. The singing became softer, a whisper. 3:30. I fought the urge to turn and run, but something inside me was fixed.

3:00. The dials of the camera were shifting, marking the progression of time, but my heartbeat told me that I was frozen. 2:30. This time, for no sane reason, other than as a last resort, I addressed the camera.

"Where is she? What's going on?"

And it sung back, still in her voice:

"Never come to the church by night,

The ghosts are here, the ghosts at night.

When the moon and the stars alight,

Do not go to the church at night."

I shook it, tried to remove the batteries, but there were none. It was not running on anything I could access, stop or pull away. 2:00 became 1:30. I shut my eyes. When it reached zero, I told myself nothing was going to happen. Nothing at all. It was just a queer camera. A joke. Sara was playing a joke, that’s all. A camera had no malice, it was just a machine. 1:00 became 0:30.

Bile rose in my throat as I sat as still as one of the gargoyles on the church roof, and watched. 00:00. The white faded away. All was black for a moment. Candles burned. Wax dripped. Outside, the wind rustled the fallen elm leaves.

"Sara?"

The words that had echoed around the church hall appeared on the screen. My lips formed their shapes, but the sound had been sung enough - nothing would come out.

The screen came to life . There was my Sara, definitely her, though she was dressed differently. Her casual jeans and t-shirt were gone. She wore a long, white gown, but it was shredded; dark stains covered parts of it. A rose floated into view, though I could not see who held it – their back was covered, as was their head. A pure white rose on a silver stem in their gloved hand, they advanced on my Sara. I wanted to cry out, but what was the use. It was a vision, I told myself, a film. Sara must have rigged it earlier.

The rose stroked against my Sara’s skin, and the cruelty of the craftsmanship stung me, a thorn hitched against her skin, before the entire construct was thrown into the corner, resting on a matt of cobwebs. I saw her body rise, saw her cry out, and fall back again. For a moment, I thought I heard her begging to stop, calling out. “Harry, what are you doing? Stop it. Stop it.” But I was here, and someone else was there with her. Something dark ran from the places where the petals met her skin. Pigs' blood, from the butcher no doubt. The figure dipped a finger in it, went to the wall, the camera following his every move. He began to write. In the corner of the screen, I thought I saw the white rose start to slowly darken.

“For every…” The finger ran dry, and he picked up the knife this time, dashed it now against Sara’s leg. I saw her body arch up as she screamed, her eyes terror. I could almost feel her tears on my chest, her hands clawing at me, begging me to stop. But no. No. I was here, and someone else was there.

“…white rose…” A dash to her other leg. The rose in the corner was getting darker, red dye seeping through its tiny veins. “…that you picked her…” To her other arm. “…she will bleed…” Her neck “…just a little more.” I refused now to believe it was a joke – my Sara was not so cruel as this. This was not her game. The figure continued to cut at her body, and draw on the wall. It was something from a story, something overused, the sort of thing my imagination ran wild on. But then, why could I feel her hands clawing at me, and the feel of something splitting under my hands? The camera was silent, so why were her cries for help so close to my eyes?

“For every white rose that you picked her, she will bleed just a little more. I hope you’re scared, Harry. I hope her corpse rots nice and slow.” The hands grasping at my shirt loosened, the crying stopped. This was the fear I’d often had – but in nightmares. Surreal as this was, I wasn’t asleep.

The screen fell blank, and I blinked as the flash flickered into life for just a second. The camera fell from my hands and smashed on the cold stone floor. I ran down the aisle, the very one I’d once dreamed of leading my Sara up. I opened the door to the rectory, pushing my way in. How had I known she was in there? This was insanity. If I had watched it, why did I know where it was. My feet tangled in something, a pile of neatly folded clothes, jeans, a tee shirt with the picture of a… I turned, so slowly.

There she lay. If the world could have fallen at that moment, tumbled from the sky and heavens and pitched to hell, it would only have been appropriate. I could not deny the red, when it ran down her cheeks, or seeped from her chest. Where was that white dress? Another imagining? I had once fantasised of her in one, the traditional vision of purity. My legs gave way, I crawled towards her, and saw it. It bloomed across her bare skin. The rose in the corner. But all the roses had been dead. It was winter. My mind lost itself to madness as I pulled that strange knife from her. The blood ran down the blade It was sharp even to pick up.. I picked up her limp hand, held it to my lips. It was so warm. I kissed it, my eyes crying. When I dropped it, it fell like lead. The knife lay dangerously close to my feet. She was a puppet. This was a sick joke, it had to be.

My mind reeled as I scanned her body. I picked up the knife, and stabbed it through her wishing it was her killer’s heart. Was it rage? Grief. Why did the motion feel so familiar to me? Part of me sneered through my tears. It wasn’t like she could feel it now. The rose in the corner was completely red, and seemed to be bleeding into the cobwebs below it. I stood, turned. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw myself in the mirror, her blood across my chest in little droplets. But I had not touched her there. Not with my chest. How was it her blood was there? A body eclipsed my own in the mirror. His body was covered, but I could make out his face, one Sara had described to me, that I had feared.


He walked forward, put a finger on Sara’s body, and licked the blood. His hands looked less clammy without the glass. He was behind me. I didn’t turn. The roses were dead, I told myself. The roses were always dead in winter. This was just the ghost of a rose, a story. But he stood before me, and then he was gone. The rose was in my hands, and the petals smeared over my clothes.

In my retelling, please understand, there was insanity in that church. The events merged, scattered, recreated themselves, surreal in my head. Allow me my oversights and imaginations – whatever I had done, I had never meant to do. I cannot explain it - I saw a man that night who never left his prison cell. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.
I abandoned her body and ran, hearing the footsteps of the rector, home from the pub...





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