The crisp morning air burned the back of my throat, my breath a visible white vapour floating before me.
"This is it." Mr Dahmer smiled mockingly. "This is the place where you'll be staying for the next twenty-four hours. No more, no less, unless you don't want the money."
I ignored his tone, rolling my eyes with impatience.
"What about food?"
He mulled over that for a several long seconds. "I'm sure you'll manage, with or without food, if not, the road back to town is that way." He pointed to the south west, a long barren road called Ghormley Stretch fringed with tall dying trees and polluted with mist.
I shook my head. "I'll manage."
Mr Dahmer turned sharply back to his sleek black Audi. I pulled my hood up, hands buried deep in my pockets, and headed towards the fire-damaged school, the roar of Mr Dahmer's car far behind.
The deserted school stood solemnly, the empty window frames blackened, some covered in with wooden boards. The roof had been stripped down to charred wooden beams, its remains hanging down in to the rooms beneath.
The wooden floor boards creaked underfoot, avoiding the gaping holes and splintered ends. Squinting into the dark rooms and corners; searching for a dry room to shelter from the frosty weather. I refused to regret my decision, camping out in an abandoned primary school for the next 24 hours for five hundred thousand pounds. It was easy money but there had to be a catch buried deep in the small print. Something terrible must have happened to this place, a brutal history behind these blackened walls, something in the air that doesn't feel right. I was determined to find out what.
In an old classroom, decaying leaves scattered across the floor, the collapsed roof hanging above my head, broken upturned desks and chairs littered the room. A loud shriek made me jump, I then laughed nervously, realizing it was only a withering crow nestled amongst the beams in the ceiling.
My eyes fell to a half open cupboard, the blackened interior beckoning to me. I knelt down in front of it, my fingers hesitating on the handle, a soft whimpering coming from within. The door creaked open. Crouched inside was a young girl, her long black hair tied in plaits, her skin ghostly pale, cloudy droplets of water trickled down her cheeks, her large dark eyes focused on a small ribbon wrapped around her little fingers.
I stretched out a shaking hand, enchanted by the mysterious girl, intending to comfort her. The girl screeched a piercing scream cutting through the silence like a heavy steel tipped axe. Her skin burst into flames and within seconds she had been reduced to a pile of ash. I backed out of the classroom quickly, unable to believe the scene I had witnessed.
For a while I sat outside trying to comprehend the previous events. The sun was setting, disappearing behind the hills in the distance, reminding me of a night from long ago, the night when everything I had ever cared about was taken away from me. It had started with a spark...
Slowly, I rose and headed back inside the charred school. I decided not to search the other rooms, unwilling to find another unwanted surprise, so I went to the admin office near the front of the school. Crawling underneath a blackened metal desk, I planned to sleep until late morning or even early afternoon. Drifting in and out of consciousness, hoping a dreamless sleep awaits.
His face was familiar, a faint memory scratching at the walls of my mind. Was he someone I knew before the bright lights brought me here? I sat beside his resting body, studying his peaceful expression curiously, trying harder than before to break the boundaries of my confused mine. His brown hair was similar to copper shining in the sunlight; I touched my own curls, an exact match in colour. I frowned, frustrated by the complex puzzle of my memory, who was this man?
"So you've found the latest addition."
I turned to find Susan stood in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest, her pale lips turned down on one side.
"He's not like us. His heart still beats, he still breathes, and he's sleeping." I replied, observing his chest rising and falling. No, he was not a ghost like us.
"Not for long." She smirked, joined by Robert, Carolyn, Dave and Nancy. I opened my mouth to protest, but it was already too late, they had begun to torment the familiar man.
Whispering. All around. The taunting words surrounding me. I scream at the voices to let me sleep. Childish laughter mocked me. The whispering came faster and louder. I realized that the voices must belong to the trapped souls who had perished here. I bellowed at the ghosts, unable to withstand the suffering.
"You think your suffering? Suffer as we suffered!" They exclaimed simultaneously. Abruptly, my insides were burning, as if someone was holding a lighter to my internal organs. I screamed in agony, gripping the legs of the table tightly. The invisible flames spread through my flesh, searing my skin.
"Feel as we felt." My tormentor's chanted an endless cycle of pain and corruption.
"No!" I yelled through gritted teeth. All fell silent, the pain slipping away as if it were a figment of my imagination, had it been a dream? I gazed around the room, in a daze, then settled back into my sleeping position, determined to shake off the nightmare
I rolled my eyes, the snickering echoing throughout the building; at least they would leave him alone for a few hours. I unclasped my necklace, the thin silver chain falling into my hand, the heart shaped locket shining in the dim moonlight escaping through the hole in the ceiling. I couldn't recall when I got this necklace; it must have come with me to this strange place, another mystery that I doubted I would solve. Many times I had tried to open the locket but the fastening had been bent or melted making it impossible to free the secrets it held. I decided to leave it beside the sleeping man for him to find when he wakes, maybe it will mean something to him too.
The rising sun woke me the following morning, followed by a loud melody from a nearby bird, I grunted unappreciatively. I crawled out of the desk, and then stopped, a gleam catching my eye. I picked up a silver necklace, a shiver running down my spine like thin cold fingers. The necklace had belonged to Alice, my daughter who had died in the fire four years ago, the fire I had been blamed for starting, the reason why I had been sent to prison for murder. I clutched it in my hand, squeezing it tightly, a tear travelling down my cheek.
Sat on a rusty swing seat, swinging backwards and forwards gently, the chains creaking from my weight. I glanced to the side, the neighbouring swing was moving too, mimicking my own swings movements. I smiled, no longer phased by the paranormal activity around me.
"Who are you?" I asked, keeping my voice soft and welcoming, not wanting to threaten the supernatural visitor.
"I don't know." A quiet whisper replied. Had I actually just heard that or had it been the wind? It could have even been my imagination; my mind had been rattled by the strange stuff going on here.
"Are you the one who gave me that necklace?"
I swallowed back the lump in my throat. It was clear to me now that the ghost sat beside me was a little girl. Possibly... no, that would be impossible. Alice hadn't died here; she had died at home, back in Riverblossom, miles away from here. How could she possibly be at this empty carcass of a school? She couldn't be. But how could I be so sure?
A sudden scream snapped my attention to the school. The image before me shook me to the core. Flames were licking at the empty window frames, clouds of smoke hanging heavy in the morning air, herds of young children were trying to get out, kicking at each other to be free from the burning wreckage. Each of them was on fire, their flesh melting, exposing shiny white bones. My stomach lurched; I threw myself off of the swing, covering my mouth as I marched through the overgrown grass and thorns. I threw up, my body arched, my insides grinding together. I wiped my mouth with the sleeve of my ratted hoodie, turning behind to find bodies of young children crawling across the ground and over each other, their skin peeling away, empty bleeding sockets where their eyes used to be. They were after me. I ran; the grotesque squelching and whispering not far behind.
Pushing through trees with long bony fingers scratching at my clothes and skin, tripping over weeds and tree stumps, panting and sweating, not turning back for a second glance. The money meant nothing to me anymore. Mr Dahmer can keep his five hundred thousand grand. I don't care what happens to the money. All I wanted was to get away from the school of nightmares.
"James." A soft velvety voice called my name. I stopped. I knew that voice. "James, honey, come to me." Where was it coming from?
"Over here." I snapped my head to the left; the voice was coming from behind a tall oak tree. "Behind you." The voice laughed, reminding me of the rolling waves of the sea. I turned slowly, not sure of what to expect.
Sarah smiled at me, reaching forward to brush my cheek with her stone cold fingertips. "Here I am." She whispered. I backed away.
"No, you're not real." I shook my head, breaking eye contact with the imposter.
"James!" She gasped, her voice warping, transforming into something else entirely.
"My wife is dead! You are not her!" I shouted at her.
Sarah grinned mockingly, spiders and cockroaches crawling from her mouth. Her green eyes darkened until completely black. Her long blonde curls turned black too wrapping into long plaits tied with a red ribbon. Her body changed, shrinking into the body of an eight year old, her featured no longer those that belong to a full grown woman. It was the girl from inside the classroom.
"Why are you doing this to me?" I demanded, digging my hands into my pockets, clasping the silver necklace securely.
"Because he told us to." She replied sweetly, smiling childishly.
"Mr Dahmer. He's our head master, we have to do as he says, or he'll punish us." The ghostly girl answered.
"Did he do this to you?"
She nodded. "And to you."
Before I could question her more, she disappeared with a puff of smoke and ash. What did she mean? At least one thing had been cleared up, Dahmer had been planning this all along, it hadn't been a random number he had called a week ago as he had said on the phone. I shook all thoughts of Dahmer out of my head and continued to run in the direction of Ghormley Stretch knowing it was my only way back to town.
He was free. He had made it out of the school grounds and on to the twenty five mile stretch of road. I smiled, proud of the man who had gone against all odds, with my help of course. It had been hard fighting the other children. They were so much stronger than I was, I felt drained after saying two sentences to the familiar man. Susan was the strongest by far, she must have been the teacher's pet in school before she died in the fire. Not that any of them mattered anymore. I had plucked up the courage to go after the brave man who Susan had called James. Behind me, the charred school stood, leaving all of the undiscovered secrets along with it. None of that mattered anymore. My only objective is to find James. What comes after that will be decided in time.
I felt a hand in mine. I glanced down to the side, Alice smiled up at me. My lips curled up, knowing that this was no illusion; my daughter was really here beside me.
"I know now." She told me.
"You remember who you are?" I asked.
"Yes, I am Alice Walker, and I will never leave you again." Alice promised. I squeezed her hand, looking ahead at the long road in front of us, many adventures lying in wait for us to enjoy together.
"Promise?" I implored, dropping her silver locket into her hand.
"I promise." She vowed. There was a light, pure and white, wrapping around us, embracing us with its soft silky touch, taking us to a new place. A place where the happiness and love never ends.