Ada walked past number 23 twice a day. Known locally as “the bad house”, it was the last house on the left before the bus stop – or the first house on the right, depending on your direction.
It could have been a nice house, if the owner hadn’t let it rot on the end of the block. Its porch clung to the front wall, the broken front door obscured by an old kitchen bench hammered into place by the local police. Some months ago the downstairs curtains disappeared, and Ada occasionally sneaked a sideways glance into the front room. Illegible graffiti now covered one of the walls. She didn’t always like to look – she often worried that one day she’d see someone looking back.
Ada didn’t know who owned the house, but a phone call to the council revealed that the owners intended to sell “at some point” and would “renovate when necessary”. Ada thought that sounded like nonsense, but it wasn’t really her place to say so. She just didn’t like walking past the overgrown front garden and broken windows at night.
On the morning in question, she walked past number 23 at 7:30am towards the bus stop. The early morning sunlight forced itself between the streaks of grime on the windows, and for a moment, the house would have looked pleasant, were it not for the newspapers taped to the upstairs windows. Ada risked a glance at the garden. Foxgloves and periwinkles lined the remains of the path to the door, holding back a thicket of long grass and brambles.
She caught the bus into town and thought no more about number 23, until 10pm that evening when the bus pulled up at the stop. She clambered out of the bus, regretting that final drink with her colleagues, and tottered along the road. The path curved up to the left, past the Bad House. She tutted at herself – it was quite safe to pass it this time, now that number 23 was the first house on her right.
Ada passed the garden, refusing to look up. She wouldn’t give in to her fear. Not when she’d had such a pleasant evening. Her phone buzzed in her bag, and she looked down, glad for the excuse not to look at the house.
She had just passed number 19 when the slow creak sliced open the quiet night air. Her mind wanted her to pause and process the sound, but her feet forced her onwards. They obeyed that tiny primeval voice in the back of her head that knew exactly what the sound was.
Something moved between the plants behind her. Ada told herself not to look, and not to be so silly. Two kitchen worktops covered the door to number 23. Anyone inside would have to take those off before they could reach the path, and she’d definitely hear that. After all, it’s not like someone could just squeeze between them…
“Excuse me miss, do you know when the next bus is due?” The voice made her jump, and Ada whirled around. Its owner stood behind her, a man clad in black. He stood beneath the streetlight, his features lost in darkness – all of his features except his teeth. Why did she want to look at his teeth?
“Miss? The bus?” He spoke again. She caught a glimpse of white, but nothing more.
“Er, should be fifteen minutes I think. I don’t know at this time of night,” she replied. She looked down, trying to estimate the distance between his feet and hers. Would he think her rude if she bolted? How far would she get before he caught up? And why didn’t he cast a shadow on the tarmac path?
A cat pushed itself out of number 17’s cat flap to her right. It landed in its front garden, and gave her its best disdainful expression.
“Hey kitty,” said Ada.
The cat looked at the stranger. Its back bristled, its fur on end, and it hissed. The hiss went on for what felt like hours, rising in pitch to a frenzied yowl. Ada took the hint and bolted, sprinting up the path on her toes. She reached the top of the block, where a dog-leg in the fence led her around a corner into the next street, and risked a look over her shoulder. The stranger was gone.
Ada allowed herself a moment to catch her breath, and let her pulse slow. The cat wandered up the street towards her. She smiled – normally she didn’t like cats, but on this occasion she could see the appeal.
Ada turned away, and walked straight into the stranger. He loomed over her, his features in shadow and his clothes smelling of cold and damp places.
“Running away was so rude, Ada.”
He smiled, revealing white, pointed teeth. They were the last things she saw before the world went black.