Scratches in the Walls
I hear something moving around the house. Scratching, thumping. It’s past midnight. I’m inside the walls, in the servants’ passage. I’m scared to step outside.
Is it time? Is he coming for me? My double? My death?
The sight drove me to my knees. I didn't mean to make a sound, but a groan escaped my lips. At this Castile turned, and I can scarcely describe his expression. Mortified, I think. As if I had intruded on something deeply intimate.
There was a silence, and Castile took two steps toward me.
At that moment the woods took their revenge.
Something is banging on the walls. Like it’s trying to find a way in here. My double wouldn’t do that, would it? It knows where I am. It doesn’t have to look.
Or maybe it's the woods fighting their way in, to get to me.
Father’s axe fell from Castile’s twitching fingers and his face took the wide, shocked look of an impaled creature. He began to shake so violently that he fell to his knees in front of me, his face gone waxy.
Something was drumming a steady rhythm on the floorboards, a rat-tat-tat.
Castile jerked to one side, then another, like a marionette held by a child.
I did not understand what I was looking at. The rat-tat-tat went on, and Castile fell to the floor, and I realized what I was hearing:
The clean and careful snap of bones.
I was transfixed by the knowledge that it was a punishment for him, that he was feeling as the branches had beneath the axe. I watched as he reached out to me, then recoiled as the fingers on his left hand turned backwards one by one. He let out a choking cough.
Blood spattered the floorboards. Castile coughed again. White flecks covered the floor. At first I thought he was expelling shards of bone.
Then I realized they were twigs.
I heard coughing. Like a hacking wheeze a person makes right before they kick it. It was right behind me. Right behind me.
I turned around and he was there, my double, and he's still there now, coughing up little white twigs and blood, huddled in the dark corner beside Castile's overgrown corpse. How long has he been there? Should I go to him? Try to help him somehow?
He's stopped coughing and now he's just looking at me. I can see things moving under his skin. It's the woods. They're inside him. They're inside me. And God, he looks so sad. Like he feels sorry for me and not the other way around.
Something is still banging on the walls. Getting louder. More desperate.
It's looking for us both. It's trying to get in.
I staggered to my feet and stared down at Castile Madigan, at this twisted perversion of bones and branches. The whites of his bloodshot eyes showed as he stared up at me. He knew I hated him. Still, he asked my help.
“The shed,” he whispered.
I wanted to tell her how sorry I was. That by following me, by witnessing this, she had sealed her own fate.
I think she already knew. So I used the words I had for a more urgent purpose.
I cannot imagine how he summoned the strength to speak, but such precious words must be heard. Even if I despised him. I had to listen.
“Shed,” he said again. “The gasoline.”
My father had an automobile, an expensive novelty really, that he liked to take around the town. He kept fuel for it in the back garden shed.
“Burn it.” Castile spat blood with the words. “Burn it all.”
I could not say more than that. My consciousness was slipping. In the back of my mind I felt him approaching. He had sensed my distress and was, even at that moment, tearing through the woods toward us. No one had ever seen him in daylight.
I wondered if he would kill Alethe, or if he would leave her alone to attend to me.
He can be unpredictable.
My things have been going missing since I got here. Little things, like my protein bar and my phone and my glasses. I thought I was just being forgetful.
But I don’t think I’m alone on the estate. I don’t think I ever have been. There’s something else here, something that isn’t any version of me.
My doppelganger is here with me, in the walls. I don't think it ever wanted to hurt me. I don’t even know if it’s real.
It’s just a truth I was never supposed to see.
But there’s something banging on the walls. Something trying to find me. Something that was sleeping before, and I woke it up with my digging. I can hear it scratching, scrabbling like a swarm of rats along the walls.
I’ve barricaded myself in here. I hid the entrance with an old wardrobe.
Oh, God, I’m trapped in here.
And I am all alone.
I can’t get out.
I can’t get out.
I can’t get out.
I knew I had seen too much. I knew I was going to be murdered soon. I knew that had been my sister’s ghost in the wood. And whatever I knew, Castile knew more than me.
I felt like he’d spread a plague to me.
Something was thudding on the stairs, and I can’t explain the feeling I got at that moment except to say I knew it wasn’t a human thing coming toward us. I felt like a rabbit stuck in a fox den. This was it, wasn’t it? I thought.
Castile turned his glassy eyes on me and his blood-wet lips moved.
"Hide," I tried to tell her. No sound came out of me.
So I did.
It came into the room as I wiggled under Hazel’s bed. It did not walk; it sloughed. Its gait contradicted anatomy and common sense, yet there was also a strange litheness to its movements. Seeing it filled me with the same revulsion as the wet thrashing of an earthworm.
Castile’s letter came back to me: Your father mistook him for a mountain cat, didn’t he? Understandable.
So this was what had become of the gardener.
Can't slow down my breathing. I'm losing it. Calm down, Ben. Calm down. Just -
My double caught my eye. Raised a finger to his lips.
What are we hiding from?
I have to be silent in here, stuck in the walls with my death.
It picked Castile up from the floor as if he were a child. He let out a cry of pain and was quiet. There was a silence in which I was conscious of the noise of my own breath; the gardener turned toward me. I stopped breathing.
Then the gardener carried Castile to the shattered bedroom window and leapt away into the night.
Branches. Bones. Blood. Earth. I doubt it crossed Alethe’s mind that when it came time for Hazel’s funeral, I was scarcely human anymore - I had been dabbling with otherworldly forces for too long.
I know she meant to kill me that night, but what she saw must have left quite an impression on her. I think she heard many of the things I did not have time to say: that you cannot change things already in motion; that anyone who discovers the want of the woods then belongs to it, that there is a doom which spreads through knowledge of itself, and that the more people know a secret, the less easily it can be contained.
I still wonder why she did as I asked.
I do not know if I lit the match to kill my father and all the liars who pretended to know my sister, or if I did it to save them.
I do not suppose it matters.
It all burned the same either way.
It all burned the same either way.