Becca slapped Liam; hard. It caused her fingers to tingle and palms burn as the sound echoed around the dilapidated bedroom. "I am not, nor will I ever drop my standards low enough to contemplate touching any part of your druggie ass."
"What did you say?" Liam raised his hand and pressed a finger to the red mark that had blossomed on his face.
"Do you think I'm stupid or blind? You're off the waggon and halfway to the gutter, I'm not going to give you the chance to drag me down with you." Becca grabbed her camera from the nightstand and stuffed it into her bag. She looked around for the rest of her equipment, snatching it up and throwing objects into the side pouches of her backpack.
Liam stood in the doorway, arms outstretched to prevent her leaving. "I made you Becca," he sneered, "I can unmake you too. No one will follow your frigid ass when I tell them all about you. All those nightmares will become real."
"My nightmares pale in comparison to your proposition. The thought is enough to require intensive therapy," she pretended to gag as she tried to push through the gap under his arm.
He thwarted her efforts to escape. His arms closed around her waist and pulled her in close, close enough to whisper in her ear "I know all about him."
Becca looked at him through the corner of her eye, her composure faltering slightly as she saw the wild look in his eyes. "A lot of people know, "She said quietly.
"You're damaged goods."
A fire burned in her gut, it gave her the power to struggle loose enough to send her knee to a mighty collision course with his groin. She felt him wilt, drawing back away from her. "Takes one to know one honey. Birds of a feather and all that, but at least I am aware of my flaws and try to improve myself. I don't spend every waking moment of my day so lost in a drug-induced haze I forget to bathe and go to the bathroom."
He made an effort to lunge at her, but the ache in his testicles was too great. He collapsed in a heap, calling her every derogatory word his tweaked mind could muster.
She ran down the stairs, dodging the rotten timbers and missing planks. Gabbing the remainder of her equipment while Liam was incapacitated. She made for the front door. The ground in front of her lengthened, she sped up but so did the distortion. Her hand reaching for the handle that kept slipping further away from her.
The door flew open, another bedroom filled the space where the outside should have been. Recognition sent her into a skidding halt. She tried to run but the polarity had shifted, the door was sucking her in now. Drawing her closer until it ate her whole.
"No, not here. I don't want to be here." She closed her eyes tight.
"Don't be scared Rebecca, I won't hurt you." A voice crooned as if talking to a young child.
'Wake up Becca.'She thought to herself as she pinched her forearm as tight as possible. "Someone wake me up!" She screamed it at the top of her lungs as something slithered up behind her.
The letterbox rattled loudly, followed by the dull thuds of letters on carpet, and the final slam of the flap. Becca jolted awake. Her breathing heavy as she surveyed the room. A thick layer of cold sweat coated her flesh, soaked through her nightshirt and dampened her messy hair. She clambered out of bed, feverish to get as much distance from her nightmares as possible.
The postman had delivered her a stark reminder of her living nightmare. Every bill she opened kicked her in the gut. Twisting her insides with self-doubt and setting off the eerie echo of her mother's voice in her head 'You can always come home you know."
"No I can't," She said as she shoved the fresh demands for money on top of the old ones. It was then that she noticed one remaining envelope as if her self-affirming statement had manifested it. She turned it over in her hand to expose the return address. Media City.
Her hands fumbled as she scrambled to open the envelope, unsure which one of the 20 production companies had deemed her worthy enough of a written response. Stomach knotted and ears ringing from lack of oxygen she held her breath as she unfolded the letter and began to read.
Infinity production group; she hadn't heard of them, but held out hope until she saw the second set of logos. Guiding light - 'Real Hauntings'. "Ugh," she said as she flung the letter towards the bin. "I'm done with the paranormal." Annoyed, she set off to the kitchen for a calming cup of tea. As she walked back through from the kitchen her foot collided with the metal wastebasket. She cursed it and hopped to the sofa, trying not to spill too much of her tea.
It stared at her from across the room. An innocuous piece of paper she had refused to read past the letterheads. She set down her too hot beverage and snatched up the letter. It was an offer. Subject to an interview the time and date of which was just days away. "No money to get there," she crumpled the paper up this time, "What a shame." The ball hit the rim of the recently righted bin and bounced back towards her feet. Cursing as she marched she snatched the paper from the ground and rammed it home in the main recycling bin, not noticing as an empty tin of beans bit her thumb.
She was cleaning the wound when her mother rang, she watched the blood flow in a ribbon through the cold water. Her slippery hands struggled to turn off the tap. She gave 'real hauntings' one final obscenity as the water stopped and ran to pick up the phone before it could get to the fifth ring. "Sorry Mum," she walked the phone into the living room, "I know you worry when I take too long to answer, I was just..."
"Any news?" Her mother interrupted, excitement heavy in her voice.
Becca was shocked, not as shocked as she was the first time her mother sensed something was going on, but still surprised enough that she couldn't quite find words.
"I was hoping perhaps you had gotten a proper job by now. Filming a few weddings are not going to pay you enough to maintain that flat." The excitement had dropped, and a slight air of disappointment lingered. "You can always come home, Becca."
"I can't," Becca said through dry lips. Her mouth had turned into a desert.
"It could be temporary..."
"No." Becca closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
"You are not listening to me Rebecca Louise Thompson, and it is about time you did."
Becca opened her eyes and sat up straighter.
"All you are doing at this point is eating through your savings, and for what? Because I said one thing you didn't like. You cannot live like this, you deserve better." Her mother's voice wavered.
The audible sound of tears stabbed Becca in the gut, enough to cause a prickling in her own eyes. An apology sat mutely on her tongue.
"After everything that has happened to us, everything we have lost, I don't want to lose you too." She blew her nose into a tissue. "I want you to be happy Becca, but you are fighting a losing battle. You could be a female Spielberg and they wouldn't hire you because you have a Vagina." She coughed at the crudeness of her own words. "Or worse, some would lure you into things under false promises, it's all over the news."
Becca sat listening to her mother's sobs, her eyes lingering on the growing pile of unpaid bills. Another month and she wouldn't have the money for the rent. She sat there, her ears shut off from her mother's desperate pleas, as her mind contemplated her two options. Before she had a chance to decide her gut took control of her mouth, "I've got an interview," She cringed as her mother's scream of delight deafened her right ear; still audible at arm's length. "Don't get your hopes up, it's not the next big blockbuster."
"It's better than nothing sweetie. It could be just the stepping stone you need."
Becca sat absentmindedly staring out of the office window, her fingers knotting and pulling at a loose thread at the cuff of her shirt. She shifted her weight in the hard plastic chair, it squeaked suggestively, heat rose in her cheeks as she caught the judging eye of the receptionist. Willing the ground would open up and swallow her, she scrunched her eyes closed. Doubt was rising like a fast-moving tide, making her body unnaturally heavy, and the air thin. Her pulse quickened. Eyes focused on the exit, she could think of nothing else but leaving.
'Stop.' She thought firmly to herself and took a long deep breath. Putting her feet firmly on the floor she focused on the balance between gravity and the resistance of the ground. The pressure on her seat bones. Her heart slowed, the tightness in her chest eased and she could finally open her eyes and see the office for what it was. Barren.
It was clinically white, full of tinted glass, and devoid of any personality. No pictures adorned the walls, only panels of texture or bright colour to cut through the brilliant white. If she hadn't known which production company she was being interviewed by then there was little here to tell her. Or perhaps they were ashamed of 'real hauntings' too, they didn't want any potential investors to know that this was the office in charge of such a debacle of a TV show. She bit her lip and tried not to laugh at her thoughts.
Becca snapped back to reality, her blank stare making the girl standing in front of her uncomfortable. It took her brain several seconds to process the situation before she was capable of giving a discernible response.
"Guiding Light is ready for you," The girl kept her distance as Becca rose from her seat, "I'll take you through if you want to follow me."
"Thanks." Becca offered a reassuring smile, but the look she received in return told her that the girl had misread it as the look of a crazy person. In truth, anyone applying for this position was probably cracked in one way or another. So she trailed the girl in silence, through the winding corridors, until they came to door beside the gent's toilets on the north side of the building.
Two people sat at a table that seemed out of proportion to the scale of the room, their bright smiles and beckoning hands brought little comfort to such a space. It was a broom cupboard, or it should have been. Not enough light came through the poky window, overhead lights cast everything in a sallow glow.
"Take a seat," Maria stood up to receive Becca's hand. She masked her repulsion at the moist palm offered with a chuckle, before taking her own seat. "Glad to finally meet you, I've been reading through your CV and I have to say you did quite well at University."
"I managed to achieve a few of the awards, and got highly commended in a national short film competition..."
"But not a lot of hands-on industry experience, bar the compulsory work placements, which aren't long enough to get a true representation of how the industry works in reality." Maria's eyes never left Becca's, it was like she was trying to read the woman's soul.
Becca's insides dropped into a bottomless pit, her mind numbed to thought. The dryness in her mouth, robbing her of the opportunity of defence. Her skin crackled with electricity as the fight began to fill the void in her gut. She opened and closed her mouth several times as the words in her head fought amongst themselves.
"Sorry, that was a little bit much wasn't it?" Kev put his hand on his partner's arm, it was sufficient to break her deadpan stare. "We didn't bring you all the way up here for nothing, you read the letter, there is a good chance that you could be the one we are looking for."
"I'm glad to hear it." Becca tried to inhale the words back in as soon as she said them, but there was no chance. She looked quickly from one face to the other, both looked a little shocked by the outburst, but it was Maria that broke the tension with a laugh. "Sorry."
"No need to apologise, I understand the stress of the boardroom, we have to pitch to other production companies and broadcasters for every season or live show we wish to produce. A little personality isn't a problem." Kev smiled reassuringly, he leaned back in his chair. "So now we need to talk business. I know it sounds silly but, are you aware of what it is we do? Since your CV was passed onto us, it can't be assumed that you were aiming to get this position."
Becca fought the urge to speak her mind, to tell them that she would never have willingly put her name forward and she knew all about their fakeness. Instead, she took the time to clear the negativity from her thoughts and concentrate on a more constructive reply. "I'll be honest and say that before I got the letter inviting me here, I hadn't watched your show for a while. But I can remember enjoying the show as a teenager, defying my mother who forbade me to watch it in case I got possessed."
Maria crossed her arms in front of her chest, "Possession is a risk in this business, we take protective measures, but your safety cannot be assured."
"We go to dilapidated buildings, disused mine shafts, graveyards and other physically dangerous locations. Are you physically capable of carrying all the necessary equipment and filming in that environment?"
"I have some personal experience in urban exploring, I've been down mines and caves, I've climbed mountains and scraggly hills. Now I'll admit I haven't done any of those things with the full weight of a camera, but I'm pretty good on my feet."
"Hmm..." Maria chewed at the inside of her cheek as she thought through her options. She pulled Kev towards her so that Becca couldn't try to read their lips as they debated her potential future as a member of the 'Real Hauntings' team. "We have an offer for your consideration, it is temporary, a one-time filming gig."
"That's better than nothing." Her smile was a desperate attempt to remain positive, she knew that until the paperwork was signed there was no guarantee of getting any work. She might only have to do a few days filming for them, but it could lead to a better deal with someone else.
"We have a location booked for four days, it's not in too bad a condition, locals have been keeping it as up and together as the spirits will allow. But it is too close for us to get the crew together to meet you preproduction, so you will meet them all at the scene if you agree."
"If we can get this paperwork signed then you could be leaving for the location with us tomorrow morning at 8 am. Does that work okay for you?"
Becca sat with her mouth slightly open as her mind reeled. She was now a professional camera tech, they say you can only call yourself that when you have a last minute call to travel to some strange location. Her mind wandered to how happy her mother would be, and how much they both needed some good news, but she couldn't silence the nagging doubt that something was going to go wrong. She hadn't planned to be away from home for any period of time, her suitcase only contained the necessary change of clothes for two days away from home, a pair of warm pyjamas and the smart clothes she was currently wearing.
"Okay, let's do this." She nodded, no so much to reiterate her agreement, but more to reassure herself that she was going to take this chance.
The engine of the van thrummed, sending vibrations up Becca's legs as she watched the countryside flash by. Her suitcase nudged against her ankle. Her new clothes felt foreign; like they belonged to someone else and she was playing dress-up. The embroidered logo on her chest like a badge of honour, a mark of belonging she didn't quite feel she had earned just yet. Could she keep them if it didn't work out? Would she want to?
"You okay back there?" Tim called without taking his eyes off the road, elbowing and gesturing to Graeme to take a look.
"Yeah, I'm just thinking." Becca smiled at Graeme before going back to look out of the window.
The two men nodded silently. Tim glanced at the silenced Sat Nav, before cursing under his breath and taking a quick left without using the indicators. A car horn bellowed repeatedly as a car whizzed by, the driver giving rude hand gestures and screaming obscenities.
Becca thanked her seatbelt for saving her, the equipment wasn't so lucky, the force of the turn had sent several black boxes scurrying across the floor. Her own suitcase was now wedged in the step by the sliding door.
"Sorry, I can't stand that thing barking instructions at me, but sometimes I don't catch the turns until the last minutes." Tim laughed.
"You get used to it," Graeme twisted in his seat so he could get a better view of their passenger. She looked peaky, her hair a mess and he caught a brief hint of fear in her eyes. "Normally there is a fight for who doesn't have to ride with him, and if we have to be a passenger on his van ride of terror, we all do our damnedest to get a front seat so we can see what the heck is going on."
"At least she's not a screamer." Tim slowed down for a mini-roundabout, consulting the Sat Nav before heading straight and letting the right wheels ride up over the low white hump.
"I'll save that for Maria." Becca adjusted the collar of her polo-shirt, the seatbelt had pulled it over exposing more of the pale skin of her chest than felt comfortable with.
"Keep cracking jokes like that and you'll be stuck with my driving for the rest of your adventures with us." Tim said with a wide grin. He gave Graeme a sideways questioning glance.
"You want to make your first on-the-job bet?" Graeme asked, seeing the look of uncertainty on Becca's face, he decided it was better for him to clarify, "It's more of a prediction a guess, harmless fun, silly really, but it breaks up the monotony of driving and it has gotten me a free quarter-pounder or two."
"Okay." She tried to sound enthusiastic but a voice in the back of her head wondered if they had already made bets on how long she would last. After all, she was only here because someone else had been fired or quit and they needed an extra pair of hands because they couldn't rearrange the location.
"We'll start easy, how long before Maria gives her trademark scream?" Tim allowed the van to slow down as they came to the back of a tail of traffic with a beaten up old tractor at its head, hauling an even more dilapidated hay baler.
"We're here for a few days, so we won't get the real thing on day one, hints maybe but not the first day. I would say day two, early hours of the morning before we pack up for the morning. Post production... 22 minutes." Three days of binge-watching the show, scribbling notes, all poured from her mouth without thought.
"Confidence sounds good on you," Graeme smiled over his shoulder, "So what is your stake?"
Becca contemplated for a moment, her own stomach gurgling with hunger. "Double cheeseburger?"
"Deal." Graeme stretched his arm over the seat to shake her hand and seal the bet. "Now I'm going to bet a double pack of doughnuts, glazed or iced, that she holds out until the main vigil on day two. I'll throw in a drink of your choosing if she storms off and refuses to film on the afternoon of day three."
"What do you know that I don't?" Tim shot him a raised eyebrow, distracting him from the fact the tractor had now vacated their path. Behind the van, several of the drivers yelled out of their open windows and honked their horns. He revved the engine and changed gear with a clunk, and the three of them were flung into their seats as the van surged forward under his lead feet.
"I know nothing more than the name of the place."
"Where are we going?" Becca asked, trying to break the tension that had built in the front seats.
Graeme shook his head, "I'm not going to ruin it for you."
"She probably hasn't even heard of the place." Tim said with a tone of annoyance, "She's from the south."
"Have you ever heard of Dewberry Village School?"
"Nope." Becca turned her face away from the conversation and back to the view from her window. "But I can guess one thing about it."
"Oh yeah, whats that then?" Tim cocked his head to read the road sign at the side of the road. Knowing he was close enough to their destination to use them instead of the infuriating device on his dashboard.
"It's probably haunted."
The school sat just north of the village centre, down hill from the old church and it’s sprawling grounds. Sun-bleached bunting flapped in the breeze. It was hard to believe that anything untoward could be happening in this place, or at least to the degree that warranted a full TV crew and demonologist for a four night investigation.
Becca squinted as she stepped out of the van, her legs felt strange after being crammed in to a vehicle that vibrated far more than was healthy. She couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed at the location from the outside, there wasn’t the usual dark shadows and dead, or at least close to dead, looking tree that threatened to scratch the windows in the middle of the night. In fact the locals had done well with their efforts to save the building, the flowers and shrubs filled the area with enough colour that it distracted from the fact that there were no children.
Tim had sparked up a cigarette and was leaning on the wall, sending little clouds of toxic smoke in the direction of the large wooden school doors. “Don’t bother lugging that stuff about yet, the grounds keeper isn’t unlocking until one o’clock, and the rest of the team aren’t hear yet.”
“Okay.” Becca replied without looking at him, she hadn’t even made an effort to unload the boxes that were strewn around the van floor. The only thing that had left the vehicle was her suitcase, and that had toppled out when they opened the door.
Fifteen minutes later the second van arrived, closely followed by a black sports car with tinted windows. An army swarmed the small school yard, their excitement raising their voices that eerily sounded like children at play. The doors of the sports car however stayed firmly shut, no one emerged. The gate between the church yard and the school swung open freely, caught by the wind it slammed into the stone wall and made everyone fall silent and turn in the direction of the sound.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” a slim woman shut the gate hurriedly, “I see you all made it safely.”
“Are you Carol?” Tim stepped forward to greet her first.
“Caroline.” She said with a smile.
Her hand felt cold in his, forcing him to back out of the handshake early with a shaky smile. “Thanks for letting us investigate, looks like it will be a good one.”
“Honestly I was against it, but the committee think it will be good for tourism, and I was outvoted.” She said curtly, working her way through the group offering her hand to anyone wanting to shake it. “I think it’s disrespectful to those that built, worked and were taught here to shout ghost. It is an old building, wood creaks when it expands, the floors and doors are warped with water damage, thats really why the doors slam shut.”
“So you’re a skeptic then?” Tim said with a wry smile.
“Call me what you like, but I have been working on this restoration for the past eight years and I have yet to see a single thing to convince me this place is haunted.”
The driver’s door of the sports car opened, the crew grew quiet as the boss emerged. Evidence of a heated debate still present on her face. “Hi there Caroline, I’m Maria.” She brushed a stray blond hair out of her face. “Thank you for agreeing to show us around.”
The strength of Maria’s greeting appeared to knock the wind from her sails. She smiled politely and pulled a heavy set of keys from her pocket. “I’m the Vicar’s wife, I can’t remember if I told you that, but if you have any problems just come up to the rectory and I’ll try to help you out.” The lock slid open with a clunk. She pushed the door open and walked inside, the sudden darkness robbing her of sight for a few moments until her eyes adjusted. “I’ll show you through to the main office, your crew can drop their things in there and make themselves a drink while I walk you round.”
Inside the building was a contrast to the outside, the walls though freshly painted didn’t reflect the light that beamed in the large sash windows. The high ceilings, with dark wooden beams looked like a giant’s skeleton looming over their heads. A cold chill had set in the building, the life had long since left and not much of its soul remained.
The office wasn’t much of one. A modern desk, melamine and particleboard, available at any large home improvement store, sat cluttered on one side of the room. Across the back wall was a long table slightly bowed in the middle. It held the necessities for making hot beverages alongside a selection of single serving biscuits. Old pictures, or bad scans of them, yellowing and faded hung in salvaged frames. Old headmasters stood proud with their charges. A nurse was checking a young boy for lice. Men on the west side roof replacing the tiles after the great storm of 1922. It was the last photo that gave Becca the most uneasy feeling, the staff photo taken in 1983, on their last day at Dewberry School.
“I wonder what happened to them,” Mike said over her shoulder, he noticed her jump and took a step back, “If they moved on to the new school at Shaw Hill, or perhaps retired.”
“Maybe Maria managed to find one of them, she’s pretty good at finding people, and we can ask them,” Tim said as he dunked his custard cream into a mug of tea. “Or we can ask if it was haunted back then too.”
Becca lost track of their conversation, her eyes wandered up and down the wall of memories.
“Hey Becky, stop looking at those pictures, you’ll only freak yourself out before we even have our walk around.” Alan laughed and took her by the shoulders. He walked her across the room and forced her into one of the folding chairs they had brought with them.
“I doubt it.” She quipped, her eyes narrowing at him until he removed his hands from her shoulders. “I’m new to your team, not ghost hunting, haunted locations or camping out in creepy places. And my name is Becca.”
Alan said nothing. He busied himself with pouring a second cup of coffee and cramming a third packet of digestive biscuits in his mouth.
The room was filled with an awkward silence, punctuated with the rustle of a plastic wrappers and over-enthusiastic slurping. Becca looked at the muddy looking tea in her ‘Dewberry Gardening’ mug.
“Have you met Brian yet?” Tim asked timidly, he avoided eye contact with both Becca and Alan.
“Not yet.” Becca swirled the contents of her mug. “What time does he normally show up?”
“Ah not ‘till late, normally just before the big investigation.” Tim felt relief as he saw the anger had gone from her eyes, and her jaw was no longer clenched shut. He rolled his wrist and looked at his smart watch, “I should probably go stand out front and wait for our first witness,” he saw the pleading look in her face and the fleeting glance at Alan, “You can come with me if you like.”
“Emily will be here soon, an as little as she has to do with my hair,” Graeme rubbed his bald head, “She is probably going to want to play with Becca’s hair for at least half an hour.”
“I’m behind the camera not in front of it.” Becca’s hand slipped on the mug. Fortunately it was close enough to the surface of the desk that it landed safely with an audible thud, spewing a wave of murky tea across the cluttered surface. “Bollocks!” She groped at the collection of papers to move them out of harm’s way. Graeme handed her a wad of paper towels to mop up the spreading mess. Her hand’s were shaking. Mind spinning. The three mouthfuls of tea churning in her gut.
“You’ll be fine.” Graeme whispered as he pulled up the sodden towels and offered her another handful. “You’re just going to be in frame, we won’t focus on you, you don’t have to do anything more than remember to hit record.” He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, “Why don’t you and Tim get some fresh air and wait for Emily?”