If you’ve ever been around Sudbury, you’ve seen the old manor. It’s a wooden monstrosity nestled upon a hilltop vista at the far end of the city limit, a collection of worn brick and wood with slanted roofs and slatted windows. Certainly, it’s seen better days.
Visitors come from all around the world to see it: Sudbury Manor, home of the Mad Lord of Sudbury, who murdered his family and his servants. Then he started burning the townsfolk until one of his own guards stabbed him through the heart with a dagger and put an end to the whole, bloody mess. It’s a legend from centuries back and one that every soul in town is familiar with.
Growing up in the shadow of the manor, you learn to ignore it. The manor is always there, on that hillside, its failing walls and crumbling towers an eerie presence in the early morning fog. In the three decades that I’ve looked up at Sudbury Manor, it’s always looked the same: ageless, transcendent, and unchanged.
Which is why the light in the high tower caught my eye one morning as I made my way to a sixteen hour shift at the hospital reception desk. It was a single, tungsten presence, emanating for the tallest tower of the manor. At first, I thought it was the morning sunlight reflecting off a pane of glass, but the glow never wavered as that stalwart fog crept over the hillside and obscured the valley in a cloak of mist. I saw it again on my way home and called on my neighbor, Florence, to see if she’d noticed it.
“Did you see it?” I asked her. “There’s a light on at Sudbury Manor.”
Florence gave a throaty sigh, so thick I could almost feel it over the line. “Probably just some kids sneaking around up there. If someone goes missing, I guess we’ll know where to look.”
But the news report never came. Only the light. I saw it each day for a week, then a month, almost like someone had turned on a lamp and forgot to turn it off. But that was impossible. Sudbury Manor was so old that it wasn’t connected to the local power grid. The estate had changed hands dozens of times over the centuries, but nobody moved in, and nobody renovated the place.
“Surely, you’ve seen it by now,” I said to Florence after a full month had passed. “Tell me I’m not crazy.”
“Honestly, you might be. Since you told me about it, I check every day. There’s no light on up there. Unless . . . . You think the old ghosts are trying to send you a message?”
“Or a signal? Something?” On the phone, I frowned. Florence must’ve sensed it. “I know you don’t believe in ghosts, but you’re the one seeing something that nobody else can see. Maybe it’s worth a look.”
“You mean, like going up there?”
“Why not?” Florence asked. “What’s there to be afraid of?”
Splintered wood. Rusted wrought iron fencing. Unstable floors. Waterlogged architecture.
These were the things to be afraid of, and it’s what I would’ve told Florence on the phone if I’d have taken a second to think about things instead of jumping headlong into this asinine plan in the first place. That was before the two of us were standing in front of her red Fiat, parked at the end of a muddy, gravel drive. The padlock wrapped around the old gate had been broken and it squealed on its hinges as it swung idly in the crisp morning air.
“You sure about this?” I asked Florence. “I didn’t see the light at all coming up there.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I always wanted to check this place out. I just never had an excuse. Come on.”
Florence led the way onto the ground and through the front door. The graffiti painted on the walls was, to me, a sign of immediate relief. If kids or thugs or whomever had been lurking about, then any danger was unmistakably human. People had come and gone — and survived this passage — since before our untimely arrival. I said nothing to Florence, though I breathed a little easier as we wound through the creaking house and up to the second floor, then the third.
“It’s getting dark,” Florence said. “Did you bring a light?”
I dug a small flashlight out of my purse. Little more than a keychain light, it was enough for us to move from room to room when combined with the ambient light pouring through the window as we wound our way to the top of the stairwell and took another to the top of the tallest tower.
The door to the room where I’d seen the light was sealed and barred from the outside. I frowned, placed my hand on the reinforced wood, and tried to push it open. Turning, I handed the flashlight to Florence, who held it up while I jostled the knob and leaned against the lock.
“Hold the light around here,” I told her.
Florence did so, but she jostled the light in her grip and held it in such a way that it cast my shadow on the door and dimmed my vision. I grit my teeth and ignored it a moment, too focused on fiddling with the knob to bother. Frustration rose up in my chest when I couldn’t get the knob to budge.
“Flo, I need you to hold the light farther to the left so that I can see what I’m doing.”
“I apologize,” Florence said.
Except that it wasn’t Florence.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a pale, blue hand fixed firmly around the flashlight. As the figure moved into view, I caught sight of a spectral-looking knife gleaming in the other hand.
“Have you considered knocking?” the specter asked, in Florence’s voice. “I’m quite certain the bodies inside will delighted if you’d join them.”