Finnian made it all the way to the age of ten without being stabbed. Many people go an entire lifetime without experiencing such a thing, but for Finnian it was a mere decade.
It wasn’t quite an ordinary Saturday night, not for most boys his age. While they may have been online playing a rousing game involving automatic weapons and sniper assassinations, he was doing something far more dangerous. In fact, his parents probably wish they had relented and bought him the gaming console he has so passionately begged for at his last birthday. If they had, he too would merely be shooting his friends in cold blood, rather than courting actual catastrophe. As it was, he, and his older brother Jack were climbing down a set of rusted spiral stairs into the pitch dark basement of an abandoned hotel.
Well, strictly speaking it was no longer abandoned. As of Friday morning, Finnian’s parents had finalised the purchase of the two hundred year old building and as of an hour ago had taken possession of a huge ring of ancient brass keys and a couple of small steel ones. Neither Finnian nor Jack really wanted to be here. It was a new city and a very old home and the idea of renovating the hotel seemed to them, dirty and exhausting work that would lead eventually to much more dirty and exhausting work when the hotel finally reopened. But it was their mother’s dream and their mother was their father’s dream and so – they found themselves wandering the ground floor of the dark hotel just as the sun went down on what was, to them, a Saturday night that was, so far, showing very little promise.
Finnian’s mother flicked a switch inside the ornate front door – half stained glass, half haphazard wooden boards – and when precisely nothing occurred called out, ‘Didn’t work, try the other one!’ She flicked the switch again and this time a variety of lights, lamps, exit signs and an old juke box buzzed to life. There was a flickering exhausted feel to the lights that felt a little belligerent, as though they resented being woken. Eventually some sparked sharply back into darkness and other settled into a soft illumination that didn’t quite reach any of the corners of the room. His mother smiled, wrapped an arm around each of the boys, and whispered ‘Welcome home.’
A large wall clock, apparently re-invigorated by the electricity chimed four. It was not four o’clock anywhere that Finnian could think of. A few moments later it chimed three. His mother laughed, pulled up an old bar stool and climbed atop it to pull the clock from the wall. It refused to budge and instead chimed a cheerful two o’clock. She shrugged. “I guess you can’t expect too much. No one has even lived in here for twenty years. I’m surprised anything at all works.”
A muffled voice from outside called something that Finn couldn’t understand.
“What was that?” his mother called back.
His father, long ginger beard arriving first, pushed his way through a side door that was hidden behind a pile of old furniture to say again, “Try the elevator. Dan said it still works.”
They walked towards the elevator, which was located in the very centre of the back of the room with a staircase curving around behind it and an ornate set of tarnished brass gates across the front of it. Jack tentatively pressed the ‘UP’ button. It lit up immediately but nothing else seemed to happen.
“Hmmm,” his father rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Perhaps it needs to warm up. It is a very old mechanism.”
Jack looked through the gates at the darkness below. Finn looked up in the darkness above. There were thick cables, so darked and grimy it was impossible to know what they were made from, but there was no sign whatsoever of an elevator cab.
“This place is a graveyard”, Jack scowled at their mother. He was angry about the hotel, the city, and at the moment almost everything. Finnian’s brother was a talented basketball player. Someone in a newspaper had gone so face once, as to call him a prodigy. To move to the hotel he had had to leave the best team and the greatest coach in the country, and move to a smaller team that didn’t even compete at a National level. It had left him almost incapacitated with bitterness. Finnian had left his friends and his beloved beach but he knew he hadn’t lost as much as his brother. His brother was not interested in sympathy though. His reaction to anything Finnian had ventured to say in the last few days had been a sharp thump to the arm and Finnian had decided it was better just to leave him alone.
Their mother and father stared at the elevator hopefully for a few more moments before giving up with their usual ebullience.
“Ah well, it probably needs a bit of love after all these year,” Their father patted the old doors fondly. A few scraps of rusted metal flaked away and floated to the floor. “I’ll take a look at it in the morning.”
Finnian wondered what good it would possibly do the elevator to have his father, a finance lawyer, ‘take a look at it’. He had never seen James so much as glance at a mechanical machine and now he was embracing the role of handyman as though he knew a cog from a valve.
“No matter,” his mother refused to be daunted. “The apartment is only on the first floor – it isn’t far to carry our things if we work together. Perhaps you boys can take a look at the restaurant while James and I sort through what needs to be brought in tonight. I think the stairs to the basement might be in there somewhere and that’s where the boiler is. If we want any hot water tomorrow someone will have to go down there and turn it on.”
Jack walked away without a word, disappearing between piled chairs and tables into the darkness that contained the once and future restaurant. Finnian paused in the grand archway searching for his brother and waiting for his eyes to adjust. He didn’t like the dark. It moved in a way that made his skin crawl, slow lapping waves that crested around him and pulled at him. So infinitely different to the way sunshine fell warmly from above like rain. The restaurant slide into view as he narrowed his eyes. Dark shapes sharpened their edges: tables, chairs, hanging lights with triangular shades. Jack was wandering in front of him, touching tables lightly as he passed them to find his way around. Finnian kept his hands in his pockets. Something rustled in the darkness on the other side of the room and he instinctively jumped closer to his brother. They stopped moving, waiting for the silence to descend again. It felt heavier.
“What was that?” whispered Finnian. His neck and shoulders shivered involuntarily.
“Rat. Maybe.” Jack’s voice cracked and he coughed to cover it. “Bird. Ghost. You scared?” He was trying to sound confident and amused but it was coated in a thick layer of consternation. Their new bedroom was directly above upstairs from this room.
Just as Finnian was about to turn and sprint back to the warmly lit lobby the room blazed alight, causing both of the boys to cover their eyes. For a moment in the white heat of the light Finnian thought he saw someone standing to his right. When he turned and squinted, it was just a lamp.
“What the hell?” Jack raised a hand towards the row of brightly burning lights hanging throughout the restaurant illuminating tables and booths.
“Oh cool they work,” is mother enthused. “One more thing we won’t have to fix. Did you find the basement?”
“No, not yet.” Finnian glanced around the room. Without the darkness it was just a pile of dusty tables and chairs, no mystique, no danger. It felt almost disappointing.
“Here – I think this is it.” Jack called from behind a carved wooden bar. “There’s a staircase here.”
“Fabulous. See if you can get the boiler turned on. It a gas one apparently, so you’ll need to light it. Can you do that?”
Finnian nodded, pulling a lighter from his pocket and showing his mother. She rolled her eyes, but smiled.
“I’m going back upstairs to get some beds made up – it’s getting quite late.”
Finnian joined Jack at the top of the staircase. It was coiled into a tiny hole in the floor, a curved wrought iron staircase that went around only once before being enveloped by the darkness beneath.
“Is there a light?”
Jack looked around and flicked a set of switches on the wall by the bar. Nothing happened. Finnian walked around the small kitchen area looking for other potential light switches. No matter what he turned on, it was not the light to the basement.
“We can use my phone.” Jack flicked his phone a few times until it became a beam of light. It extended as far as the next coil of stairs, but no further. “Well, you’d better stay close.”
Finnian pulled the lighter from his pocket again and held it in his hand. With his other hand to took hold of the thin metal rail and followed his brother slowly down the stairs. Their footsteps echoed loudly as they moved, suggesting a huge cavern lay beneath them. The stairs moved back and forth perilously and Finnian wondered if they would ever end – they seemed to be going down into the bowels of the earth.
Finally Jack stepped of the final stair and shone his light around the room. It was large and light only hinted at edges and corners that were too far away to be brightened. A few broken chairs and tables were stacked haphazardly in one corner, legs akimbo and the cast sharp long shadows across walls that appeared to be carved of the earth. There was a dripping sound from the far side of the room and it had a slimy edge that made Finnian think of the cold underside of a snail. And there was a smell. A musty, mulchy smell that held echoes of decay and possibly even death and it caught in the back of Finnian’s throat until he had to cough. The sound echoed back and forth across the room and startled his brother who jumped and hissed at him, pointing the light of his phone directly into Finnian’s face. “Shut up. Don’t do that!” He swung a hand back and Finnian, slapping him hard against the side of his head. Usually Finnian would have swung back at his brother without impunity but this time he has stumbled back and put his hand on something cold and hard that took all of his attention.
“Shine the light here,” he whispered to his brother. “What is this?”
His brother was belligerent for a moment, walking a few steps in the other direction, but the murderous darkness was too much for him and he turned and shone the light towards his brother.
There was a small ledge of stone or brick about two feet from the floor that appeared to be a part of the wall, but also a kind of storage shelf. While everything else in the room was dirty, broken or covered in dust, cobwebs or mould, this shelf held a row of very shiny, sharp knives. Some of them looked modern, like kitchen knives. Others had an antique, ancient feel and one was wrought in strange shapes with a twisting vine-like handle. All of them gleamed and seemed dangerously sharp. Finnian’s hand had leaned down on the handle of the knife at the far left of the set, a set which comprised five very different blades and as he realised what they were he lifted it off sharply. The blade rocked slightly and there was a very gently ringing sound as it settled back against the stone.
“Wow.” Jack reached his hand towards the knives, but he too seemed reluctant to touch them. They seemed so out of place as to feel like a trap, almost as though they were daring an intruder to touch them. “Do you think… they belong to someone?” He looked around the basement again hurriedly, swinging the light back and forth as though to catch the owner of the knives. There were still the piles of furniture, and this time they noticed the bulk of a large boiler behind the stairs, but the darkness revealed no other occupants. Jack let the light rest on the huge heater for a moment. He didn’t need to say anything, they both knew they needed to walk over and turn it on, but neither of them wanted to move an inch. They look back at the knives and Jack pointed to the elaborate and quite beautiful silver knife on the end.
“When we come back down, and there is a light and stuff… that one is mine.” He looked pointedly at Finnian.
Finnian knew he should just let it go, but he had already claimed that knife in his head and was planning his return in the morning with one of his father’s large portable lights. “What? No way. I found them. That one is mine.”
Jack shoved his shoulder. “Not a chance. I saw it first. You can have the other ones. All of them.”
“They’re just regular old knives, that one is… that one is different.” They both went to reach for the knife but still couldn’t quite make themselves touch it.
“Tomorrow. It’s mine. Now go turn that heater on while I hold the light.”
Finnian groaned, “Why do I have to do it?”
Jack gestured with the light, “Because I won’t fit between that thing and the wall. Look.”
The heater was turned at an angle into the alcove behind the spiral staircase and his brother was right, it was turned in towards the wall, making it difficult to see the ignition buttons. Finnian sighed. His brother was right. He was going to have to crawl in there and to do it. He took another meaningful look at the knife, not trusting his brother to leave it alone and then walked across the room to the heater, trying to stay slightly out of the light so that he wouldn’t block its feeble illumination. He knelt down and peered at the rusted old buttons and tried to read the faded instructions in the half light. Jack moved to stand behind him with the light, but there was no way to get enough light onto the panel. Finnian pulled out his lighter and flicked it into a bright flame. It threw bright, dancing light across the base of the old contraption and he quickly examined the instructions. As he closed the lid on the lighter, extinguishing the flame he thought he saw something again, in the moment part way between dark and light, just to his left. He ignored it as he reached into the panel on the heater and flicked on the gas and the ignition button. It clicked and he heard the gentle wooshing of gas but nothing happened. He reached in again and wiped off the old lamp, clearing off a wad of dust and cobwebs. When he flicked the ignition button the second time the woosh became a whoomp as flame ignited the gas and pilot sprang to light. He felt its gentle warmth immediately and used the light to turn the water temperature all the way up to “very hot”. Finally, he dusted off his hands and back to crawl backwards out of the space. Behind him Jack moved further away to let him out and his shadow shifted allowing the dim light of the boiler to brighten the wall behind. Finnian squinted and was sure he saw a small door, the size of a trap door in the wall.
“Jack – there’s something here. Have a look.”
“Let’s just go. I want to get out of here. It’s weird.” Jack was already moving towards the stairs and Finnian felt a jolt of panic at being left behind by himself in this dense darkness. Even with the light of the boiler it was impossible to see more than a few metres in front of himself. He did really want to know what that door was though. He hesitated a moment and then pushed himself forward and grabbed at the little door handle twisting it open. The tiny door was stuck but not hard and with a second pull it popped open. A rush of warm air, dust and leaves hit Finnian in the face, filling his eyes with dirt and forcing them shut. The air smelt rotten the leaves felt damp and he panicked, scrambling backwards first into the boiler, and then finally back out into the open room. He rubbed at his eyes desperately, trying to clear out the grit, but even when he managed to open them his vision blurred.
“Jack. Where are you? I can’t see. Come here. Now. Come here.” He tried to sound commanding and not terrified but he could hear the fear in his voice.
He heard Jack from a few metres away, “What’s wrong with you? What was that? Wait – what are you doing? Stop it.”
He opened his eyes and saw his brother’s figure in the dark on the other side of the room, near the knives. “Stop it Jack – just leave them. I told you…”
There was a sound in the air. A gentle singing of metal humming as it did was it was made to do and sliced cleanly through the dank, old air. And then a thud. Finnian felt it and heard it at the same time. Felt it in his sinews. Heard it echo through his bones. He looked down and his foot and saw the antique knife shining dimly in the darkness, stuck firmly through his old tennis shoe and into the front part of his foot. He looked up at Jack in surprise and said the only word that would come out.
- That is the end of Chapter 1 of Ghostboy. This novel is collaborative and you are invited to submit ideas for what could happen next in the comments section or via a direct message to the author (firstname.lastname@example.org). She won’t take every suggestions but she will consider all of them.