The winter sun retired early and the room sank into a premature gloom. Sarah laid the paintbrush across the top of the paint can and wiped her hands down the sides of her jeans. There were no switch plates on any of the walls—the light was turned on and off by a string that dangled from a bare bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. Sarah didn’t hold out much hope for it, the lightbulb was an old one, burned black at the bottom with a filament that may or may not have been broken. She couldn’t tell. She pulled the string anyway and, to her astonishment, the light flickered into life. One less job, she thought.
The light was dim and didn’t reach the corners of the room. Sarah rubbed her arms, which had broken out in gooseflesh. There was a creak from outside the room, as if someone was walking along the hallway, but trying to be quiet about it. Sarah stood still, straining to hear above the evening sounds of the city outside. The room seemed to dim even more and the creak came again. She tiptoed to the door and pulled it open a crack. The hallway was empty. Sarah pulled the door all the way open. The rest of the flat was saturated in the afterglow of the sunset. She reached up and pulled the light string again and the bulb buzzed out. The darkness of the corners evaporated and the room seemed lighter than it had just a moment before. Sarah decided it wasn’t enough light to paint by and it was time to call it a day. She hammered the lid onto the paint can, dropped the brush into the jar of white spirits and closed the door of the room behind her. The paint would dry whether the door was open or closed, she decided, and she suddenly felt easier with it closed.
Sarah had strange dreams that night and, although she couldn’t recall what they were about, woke up the next day uneasy and unrested. A feeling of apprehensive trepidation trailed her through the morning. She showered, dressed, and left the flat to get coffee at the cafe on the corner. The morning was cold and remnants of the night’s frost clung to grass on the roadside verges and the hedges that lined the pavement.
The cafe buzzed with the chatter of weekend warriors on their way home from the gym and couples on their way out to the shops. Sarah waited in line trying to remember her dreams of the previous night. She felt as if she hadn’t slept a wink.
“Can I help you?”
Sarah snapped out of her daze and looked at the man behind the counter.
“What can I get started for you?” he asked. “Wait. It’s Sarah, isn’t it? Sarah Andrews?”
Sarah frowned. The man’s red hair was thinning on top. He was slightly heavyset and his stomach strained at the black apron he wore. His green eyes searched hers.
“It’s Will,” he said. “Will Farmer.”
Sarah blanched. Her dream tickled at the edges of her mind.
“Tommy’s brother,” the man persisted.
“Oh.” Sarah put her hand to her chest. “I’m sorry. So sorry. Tommy Farmer.”
“Yeah. You were there.”
“I was there. I’m sorry.” Sarah could feel the irritated stares of the people in the line behind her, could hear a few sighs.
“No, it’s…” Will shook his head. “What can I get for you?”
“Just a coffee, please.” She handed him her cup. She had been eyeing a tray of freshly baked scones, but now she just wanted to leave.
“I didn’t know you lived in this neck of the woods,” Will said as he poured her coffee.
“I don’t…I mean…I didn’t. I just moved here. To the flats on the corner.”
Will looked up sharply, then simply nodded and gave Sarah her cup back, filled to the brim with hot coffee.
“How much?” asked Sarah.
“On the house, love,” he said. Sarah bid him goodbye and left, all the while imagining his green eyes on her back.
When Sarah got back to the flat she had the overwhelming feeling that someone had been there. Whether it was a slight disturbance to the air or that things felt slightly out of place, she couldn’t tell. But the feeling lingered. She drank her coffee at the small kitchen counter, then rinsed her cup in the sink and placed it on the draining board. She stood in front of the closed door of the room she had been painting. The light that seeped from beneath the door looked wrong. The morning was bright and the room should have been immersed in the natural sunlight pouring in through the large windows. The windows were the reason she had chosen the room as her studio. But the light that crept through the crack was cold and clinical and flickered occasionally, as if a moth was fluttering around a lightbulb, brushing its dusty wings against the hot glass.
The lightbulb. Sarah couldn’t imagine what about it repulsed her. It was old and reminded her of abandoned rooms, maybe. Rooms in cellars or old, boarded-up houses. Something like that had no place in her large, bright flat. But it was just a lightbulb and she knew she was being silly. She pushed the door open and stood on the threshold of the room. She was positive she had turned out the light before going to bed last night, but it was on. It pulsated and buzzed, dipping the room into shadow then half-light. Sarah took three quick steps into the room and reached for the string; as she did she saw movement from the corner of her eye. She was sure, for a second, that there was someone crouched in the corner. A small, hunched thing, glaring from the darkness. She pulled the string and the room was once more bathed in the warm light of day drifting in through the windows. And Sarah was alone.
She looked at the bulb dangling from the ceiling and a cold shiver crept down her spine. She could see husks of long-dead insects inside the milky bulb. How did they get in there? Sarah got her step-ladder from the bedroom and brought it back to the studio. She climbed up and hesitantly touched the bulb. She imagined she could feel it pulse beneath her fingers like a large spider uncurling itself and her stomach churned. She grasped the bulb tighter and tried to turn it, but it remained firmly fixed in the socket. She turned harder, worried the bulb might shatter in her hand. The thought of spilled blood made her shudder. The bulb hadn’t moved even a millimeter. Sarah sighed and climbed back down to the floor. She used a screwdriver to lever the lid off the paint and dried her now-clean paintbrush on a rag and started on the second wall.
As she painted Sarah’s mind wandered. She hadn’t thought about Tommy Farmer for an age. Seeing his brother at the cafe had brought memories rushing back, along with a once-familiar heaviness in the pit of her stomach. Hadn’t they lived in these flats? she wondered.
Sarah took a break for lunch, eating a salad over the sink while she gazed out the kitchen window at the city skyline. When she went back to the studio the light was on and flickering again. The corners of the room were dark—the foreboding feeling made her dizzy and she thought, again, that she was not alone. She ran into the room, pulled the string to extinguish the light and ran back out, slamming the door closed behind her. She didn’t close the paint tin or wash the paintbrush.
She was haunted by more bad dreams that night. The flat had become large, with endless corridors stretching into blackness and staircases ending on darkened landings. She found herself, in the dream, standing before a door. Light crackled and pulsated around the edges—a strobe show from Hell. Her legs and arms felt lifeless, her feet as unwieldy as anchors. The light had become anathema to her—and there was something waiting in the room. Something terrible—hunched and patient. Sarah stood in front of the door unable to turn away, but overwhelmed by such fear that she couldn’t go in.
Sarah came awake, gasping as if she had been running from something. She had the distinct feeling that someone had been watching her. That someone was sitting in her dark bedroom as she slept. She turned the bedside lamp on, diminishing the shadows in the room, then went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. The studio door was closed, but the light was on. Sarah watched it flicker through the gap below the door. She pressed her ear against the door and breathed slowly and quietly. She imagined someone doing the same on the other side. She went back to bed, making sure to close and lock her bedroom door. She didn’t fall back to sleep, and instead watched as the night eventually gave way to morning and the sun rose over the city, infusing the flat with welcoming light.
“Are you okay, Sarah?”
Sarah switched the phone into her other hand and sighed into the mouthpiece.
“Yes, Mum. I’m fine,” she said.
“Only, you must be lonely, all on your lonesome in that big flat,” her mother persisted. “Don’t you miss Tony?”
“Not really, Mum.”
She couldn’t tell her mother that she did, in fact, miss Tony, but not for the reasons her mum would assume. She missed his sarcasm and demeaning comments; his expectations of perfection from all but himself; his careful mansplaining of things Sarah knew quite well. It was a relief to be on her own, but her mother couldn’t imagine how a woman could possibly derive joy from her own company.
“Mum,” Sarah said, hoping to change the subject. “Do you remember the Farmers? Tommy and Will?”
“Tommy Farmer?” her mum said. “Now, there’s a name I haven’t heard in years. Of course I remember him. You and your friends, well, you found him didn’t you? After he fell.”
Sarah was quiet for a moment.
“That’s right,” she said.
“Whatever made you think of little Tommy?”
“I saw his brother, Will. He works at the cafe down the road.”
“Does he? I’m surprised his family still lives around there. They lived in the flats didn’t they?”
“Yes. I was surprised too. Thought they’d moved after…well, after what happened.”
“Such a shame,” said her mum. “Such a waste.”
When she finished talking to her mother, Sarah stood in front of the studio door. The light was still on and flickering.
“Right,” she said and pushed the door open. The light illuminated only the area directly beneath it, the rest of the room was dark. Sarah felt eyes on her and turned to see movement in the shadows. Something skittered further into the corner. Sarah pushed down her revulsion and walked into the room. The darkness had weight to it—a sodden, cold heaviness like sea fog. She pulled the string and stepped back from the lightbulb. Its filament glowed bright, then winked out. The room warmed and brightened and there was nothing in there but paint cans and brushes, the stepladder and a drop-cloth.
There was a bundle of business cards wrapped in a rubber band in the kitchen drawer. The realtor had pointed it out to Sarah during the closing. She looked through the cards now and found the one she needed. Pete Horne, Electrician. She hated calling for something as simple as changing a lightbulb, but the thing had become her bête noire and besides, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried.
So Sarah called Pete Horne, Electrician and he promised to be at her flat before the end of the week.
“Can you give me an exact time?” asked Sarah. “At least tell me what day.”
“Sorry, love,” said Pete. “This week’s crazy and I don’t know when I’ll get a chance. Can’t say for sure. Probably Thursday or Friday.”
“Morning or afternoon?”
“Let’s say afternoon, shall we?”
“Okay. Thursday or Friday?”
“It’ll have to be Friday, love.”
Sarah sighed. “I suppose that will have to do,” she said.
Tommy Farmer had been four years younger, but had insisted on following Sarah and her friends around everywhere. He’d taken a strong liking to Sarah’s boyfriend at the time, Mark. They didn’t really mind when Tommy tagged along, but sometimes it could be a bit annoying.
They were two weeks into the summer holidays when it happened. Sarah and Mark had left their friends by the river and gone into the woods to be alone—to smoke the cigarettes Mark had pilfered from his mother’s purse and mess around a little bit. Sarah drew the line at kissing. She was going to university in September—she had a place at Cambridge—and didn’t want to screw up her future by screwing Mark Campo. They clambered up the rocky slope to the ledge that overlooked the river and peered down at their friends lounging on the riverbank. Mark handed Sarah one of the cigarettes and she lit it with a lighter tucked in the shoulder strap of her bikini. The lighter left an indent in her sunburnt skin.
“Come on, Sarah. You’ll be gone all autumn. Just once, what harm could it do?” Mark’s whinging was getting old and Sarah found herself longing for September. Mark reached across and grabbed her breast.
“Oy!” she shouted. “Knock it off!” She pushed his hand away and he dropped his own cigarette in the dirt.
“Bitch!” he spat. There was a scuffling in the trees behind them. Mark jumped up from the rock he’d been perched on.
“Jesus, Mark. Calm down, it’s just Tommy.” Sarah stood and squinted into the overgrowth. “Tommy, what are you doing in there?”
A small boy emerged from between the trees. He wore baggy swimming trunks and a Power Rangers t-shirt. His hair was red and his skin, after a morning in the summer sun, was almost as bright.
“Were you spying, you little brat?” Mark grabbed Tommy by one skinny arm.
“I just wanted to go swimming with you lot,” Tommy said.
It was all a blur beyond that. Everything had happened so fast and Sarah always had trouble sorting it out in her head. She thought Mark had pulled Tommy. Then Tommy must have slipped and fallen, because then they were looking down at him. His body sprawled on the rocks below. A slowly spreading pool of red, blooming like a halo around his head and drifting into the sluggish river.
Sarah awoke in front of the studio door with no memory of how she had come to be there. The light droned and she imagined she could hear it buzzing, like a thousand wasps drilling into her sleep-fogged brain. She saw the shadow of something scamper across the light below the door.
“Hello?” she whispered.
A giggle sounded on the other side. She backed away and turned all the lights on in the flat. She turned on the television, pumping the volume up for good measure, then sat curled into the corner of the couch, watching the hallway outside the studio door.
The doorbell rang. Sarah was painting the bathroom walls, having decided the studio could wait until the light issue was sorted. She didn’t want to admit how much the bulb scared her and she didn’t believe in ghosts—surely it was all her overactive imagination. She had just been spooked since coming face to face with Tommy’s brother. And her interrupted sleep of the past few nights didn’t help her uneasiness. She hoped the electrician had managed to clear some time from his busy schedule and was there earlier than expected. She buzzed the bell-ringer up and wondered if she’d just let a serial killer into the flats. She snorted—her imagination was working overtime these days.
Two minutes later she was looking at the lined face of an old man in oil-stained overalls through the spy hole of her front door. She opened the door on the security chain.
“Pete?” she asked. “Electrician?”
“Sure, love,” he said. His voice was hoarse and grating.
Sarah hesitated a moment, but spied the tool bag he held in his skeletal hand and opened the door all the way. She invited him in.
“It’s in here,” she led him to the studio. She stood beside the door and he stood looking at her.
“Aren’t you going to open the door?” he asked.
“Oh.” Sarah opened the door. The room was bathed in natural light, and nothing waited in the corners. The lightbulb that had so terrorized Sarah in previous days sat innocuously in the center of the ceiling.
“Lovely room, this,” the electrician said. “Gets gorgeous light from those windows.”
“It’s the light fixture that’s the problem,” said Sarah pointing at the lightbulb. The electrician looked up slowly and smiled. His teeth were yellow.
“Yes, I see,” he said. He didn’t look at all as Sarah had imagined after speaking to him on the phone. Come to think of it, he sounded different too. Older.
“This used to be little Tommy’s room,” he said.
“Tommy’s room?” Sarah whispered. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. “Who are you?”
“Little Tommy was my grandson. He was scared of the dark, poor little tyke.”
The man turned to Sarah. “Should have told the truth, Sarah. Should have illuminated us all.”
He drew the word ‘illuminated’ out into a long, breathy exhalation.
“It wasn’t me,” Sarah said breathlessly. “It was Mark. I wanted to tell, I meant to, but…”
“Your intention, was it? To tell?”
Sarah nodded—her feet felt as if they were cemented to the floor and her fingers tingled.
“You know what they say about the road to Hell and intentions, don’t you?”
Sarah jolted awake. The television was still blaring, the lights in the flat were all on. The image of the old man’s face from her dream drifted like smoke across her mind—the yellow teeth, the eyes that seemed to see all the way into her soul. She was still curled in the corner of the couch, but the sun had drifted weakly into the white winter sky while she had dozed. The doorbell rang.
“Who is it?” she called into the intercom. She was still groggy from sleep, vestiges of the nightmare lingered.
“It’s Pete,” the tinny voice replied. “Pete Horne. I had an appointment cancel—thought I’d fit you in. You said it was an easy job.”
“Right,” said Sarah. She was unsure if she should buzz him up, sure she would see the skeletal face of the old man again. She pushed the intercom button and waited by the door, peering through the spy hole. The man who got out of the lift looked much more like the owner of the voice from the other day—a well-fed middle-aged man with the name of his favorite soccer team emblazoned on the grubby t-shirt he wore. He lifted his badge to the spy hole for Sarah to examine.
“In here is it, love?”
Sarah, overwhelmed with the sense of deja-vu, nodded mutely.
“Right then,” said Pete and raised his eyebrows. He frowned up at the lightbulb.
“This is an old one,” he said. “They don’t sell these no more. All LED now. This one’s got a filament. Takes up much more energy to light.”
“Can you change it?” Sarah tried to stop the impatience from edging into her tone.
“Yeah,” Pete laughed.
Sarah wanted to get back to painting and unpacking. She was tired and hungry and she was sure Pete was about to mansplain how to change a lightbulb.
“It wouldn’t budge,” she said.
Pete pulled the string. Sarah braced for the flickering light and the gloom that always followed. The bulb stayed dark and cold.
“Hmmm. Don’t look like there’s any life left in this thing.” He climbed the stepladder that was still in the room and unscrewed the bulb easily. He turned and looked down at Sarah and smiled. He held the bulb up for her to see. She recoiled and backed towards the door. Pete squinted up into the now empty socket.
“It’s not connected,” he said. “That’s what the problem is. There’s nothing in here, no wires, nothing.”
Sarah’s stomach lurched.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Not connected to anything, love.” He came down the ladder and looked closely at Sarah’s face. “You all right?”
“Only, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“No, I’m okay,” she said.
“You grow up around here?” Pete asked.
“Close,” said Sarah. “The next borough.”
“You went to Primercy Comprehensive?”
“You must know the Farmer boys, then. Terrible what happened to little Tommy. They used to live in this flat.”
“How do you know that?”
“The dad…no wait…it was the grandad taking care of those lads—he called me out a few times to fix this and that. Tommy was a friendly little chap.”
“I know,” said Sarah. “Yes, I know them…knew them. Tommy was a lovely little boy.”
They stood in silence for a moment. Sarah glanced out the windows and imagined a small boy with red hair watching the city outside his bedroom.
“I was there when Tommy died,” she said quietly.
“Watched my boyfriend push him off the cliff. I never said anything. Just watched it happen and then pretended we found him like that.”
Pete ran his fingers through his sparse hair. He looked at the lightbulb he still held, then up at Sarah.
“Blimey,” he said.
“Maybe it’s time you said something, love.”
‘Yeah.” Sarah hugged herself. They stood awkwardly in the room for a moment, the sunlight touching the blue of the painted walls and the white patches on the unpainted ones. Sarah thought she might finish painting over the weekend, if the days were bright enough.
She dreamed that night of the flat—the corridors that stretched impossibly and the staircases that didn’t exist in real life. Darkness seeped in along the edges of things and she found herself, once more, outside the studio door. The door to what had once been little Tommy Farmer’s bedroom. She pushed the door open. Tommy stood in the middle of the room. He wore baggy swimming trunks and his Power Rangers t-shirt. He reached up with one skinny arm—the bruised outline of Mark’s fingers still visible—and pulled the light string. The shadows in the corners dissolved, but Sarah glimpsed a crouching figure before the light swallowed it.
“Mark,” she whispered. She watched as his face, glowering in the disappearing gloom, faded into the painted wall.
Sarah waited outside the busy cafe, looking up every time someone came out into the chilly morning. Her stomach churned uneasily and several times she turned to go back to her flat. She blew into her hands and rubbed them together, then turned again as the bell above the cafe door chimed once more.
“Will,” she said. The butterflies in her stomach whirled and she swallowed against the sudden wave of nausea.
Will let the door swing shut and paused at Sarah’s voice. He pulled his jacket on all the way and walked over to where she was waiting.
“Sarah,” he said. “Everything okay, love?”
“Yeah…I mean…I just…” She shook her head and took a deep breath. “Have you got time to talk?”
“I’m on break,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the cafe then back at Sarah. “I’ve only got ten minutes. But, yeah, I suppose so.”
“Can we go for a walk? Somewhere quiet?”
“There’s something I need to tell you.”
The story previously appeared in 72 Hours of Insanity: Anthology of the Games Vol. 8.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Josephine grew up in England and now lives in the northeast corner of the US. She writes flash fiction and short stories which tend towards the darker side of storytelling.