Ellis picks up the brick he plucked from the front garden wall and tosses it a few inches into the air and catches it, and he repeats t...

   Ellis picks up the brick he plucked from the front garden wall and tosses it a few inches into the air and catches it, and he repeats this action a couple of times. He wants to appear as if he’s testing the weight of the brick, calculating the exact force and trajectory required, like an athlete or a mathematician would; but this display is unnecessary, as his friend doesn’t care why he’s doing it. Billy, the only person who would be stupid enough to accompany Ellis on a night mission like this, is focused on only one thing, practically drooling with excitement, waiting eagerly for Ellis to smash the window and bring the insides of the old haunted house on Ickleton Road within their grasp at last.

   The brick glides through the single pane of glass almost soundlessly, the thud of it on the floorboards beyond louder than the smash of its forced entry. The boys look at each other, and though Ellis’s face shows no more emotion than that ubiquitous dark smile of his, Billy’s eyes grow wider still, his open-mouthed grin stretching further like he’s overdosed on laughing gas or had something large inserted where it didn’t belong or perhaps both. Ellis is the first to enter, and he drapes his jumper over the window frame to save himself from glass cuts as they both climb into the living room.

   ‘See?’ Ellis says, pointing the flashlight from his phone at the cobwebs and the dust that line every piece of furniture, ‘I told you, it’s not been lived in for years.’

   ‘Do you reckon it’s actually haunted?’ Asks Billy from behind him, his voice sounding a little too apprehensive.

   ‘Course it fucking isn’t,’ says Ellis, lifting a book from the top of a coffee table and blowing off the dust from its cover. He says it, but he’s not sure of it.

   Ickleton Road is a line of terraced houses so narrow and cramped that one would think by looking at them that they were once much wider, before they had all been squashed together by a god or a giant. They have tiny front gardens, no more than a couple of square metres each, and no driveways. The pavement that runs along the front of these houses has space for about half a car per house, and as a result, parking on the street is always a nightmare. But to kids like Ellis and Billy, so accustomed to the cramped flats on Broadman Way and the Hiddleston Estate, Ickleton Road’s houses are spacious, and to have an extra floor would be a dream.

   So this one house on the end of the road, the only detached house within about three miles, looking like it was built in the 1800s and last lived in a hundred years before that, has always been a mansion from a different time and place, on their doorstep, begging to be explored. From its overgrown lawn to its half-torn, age-stained curtains hanging limp and still in all the windows, its wooden panelled façade to its ornate knocker hanging on that thick, oaken front door, it has been a mystery to every kid in the area for the last three generations. But until now, no one the boys knew of had been bold enough to venture inside, not after hearing all the stories about what lay in wait in there.

   Which is why Ellis had to. Ever since that night two years ago, when he and his friends killed that puppy and all Ellis did was cry and cry and then hit one of the boys so that he bled out of his skull and then run away and cry some more, and more and more, for weeks on end… ever since then, Ellis has felt a constant need to prove he is stronger than that, harder than that, more capable of doing dark and horrible things than you’d ever think such a sweet kid could be. So the old haunted house with the tower poking out of its roof like you see in castles in fairy-tales that no one had ever dared to break into… that seemed as good a way as any.

   Quite who he’s proving it to, he has never been sure. He doesn’t need to prove anything to Billy; Billy is already wrapped around his finger. Slightly dim-witted and always grinning and nodding, Billy is the sidekick Ellis never asked for but had always secretly wanted. He’d stick around whether Ellis thought up these stupid schemes or not. But no, his opinion doesn’t really matter.

   It might be Ellis’s own conscience he’s always trying to prove himself to, or it might be his mother, or it might be Candice, that girl he’s been messaging and whom he plans to bring here one night after he’s done his initial casing of the joint, with a view to finally taking her pants down in privacy. It could be any of these, all of them, none of them. Whoever it is, they’ll never be satisfied. Not the way Ellis sees it. He’ll always have to keep reaching.

   In darker moments, analysing his own neuroses in his bed at night, Ellis wonders if it’s the fact that the police never came, that made him like this. The absence of punishment for killing that boy – because he had killed him, he saw the body bleeding out and the life drifting away and the news reports that said it was probably a mugging that went wrong that took the life of this sweet, innocent schoolboy – had left him wondering why no one had come for him, whether they were always watching, if their hands were already, and always, inches from his shoulders. So maybe all this acting up, all this proving himself, is really a cry for punishment. Giving the authorities more to punish him for, so they’ll bring it more swiftly. Perhaps he itches to be caught. Maybe, or maybe not.  When these thoughts take hold, that’s when he’ll get up and sit on the windowsill, smoke a cigarette, look out at the night’s sky.

   ‘Do you reckon there’s money in this place?’ Billy says, opening and closing the drawers of a writing desk by the window.

   ‘I doubt it, it’s a shithole,’ Ellis says, ‘and if there is, it’s probably too old to use. Roman coins or something.’

   ‘That’s worth something, ain’t it?’

   Ellis shrugs, grunts, walks out into the hallway.

   Billy follows, his heavy steps in a half-jog clomping loudly on the old floorboards.

   While Ellis empties the cupboards in the dining room at the back of the house, finding only piles of old magazines and cardboard boxes of all sizes, the sizes of wedding rings and shoes and flatpack furniture, all of them empty or else filled with dust and more magazines, Billy goes into the kitchen and searches the cupboards for booze or food, something he can steal and consume. After a short while, a few minutes of cluttering about in there, he lets out a yell that jolts Ellis out of the glass cupboard he has his head in and sends him running into the doorway of the kitchen.

   ‘What happened?’ He says, expecting Billy to be bleeding or crushed by the fridge or else killed by an apparition.

   Billy just stands there laughing, a throaty, dumb laugh that comes right from inside his heart. ‘A rat run out from under one of the units,’ he replies, ‘nearly made me shit my pants.’

   Ellis smiles, doesn’t tell Billy that his heart is racing and he was ready to run out of the house if he’d found his friend injured.

   ‘There ain’t nothing in any of these cupboards, place is bare,’ Billy says, kicking a kitchen unit. ‘I’m gonna go upstairs.’

   And as Ellis follows Billy up the stairs, their hands blackening from the dust lining the ornate handrail, Billy keeps talking. ‘You know ‘Arrison from the estate says he’s seen an old bloke coming in and out of here?’ He says, ‘Says he don’t use the front door, just slips through a little gap in his back fence.’

   ‘Sounds like bullshit,’ Ellis replies, as he would have even if it hadn’t sounded like bullshit, ‘Harrison is a prick anyway. I don’t know why you even talk to him after what he did to your sister.’

   Edward Harrison didn’t do anything to Billy’s sister, but the rumour that he stuck four of his fingers in her anus and then in her mouth and then told all his friends has gained enough traction with the kids in the estate that Billy has begun to believe it, and stiffens at the mention of it, as if he is constantly forgetting it and being reminded awakens a deep, uncontrollable rage in him that has to be contained at all costs. On this occasion, he is too concentrated on exploring to stiffen as much as he usually would, so he just grunts, ‘Yeah, he’s a cunt,’ and wanders into one of the huge bedrooms.

   The bedrooms are more of the same – nothing to steal, covered in dust, abandoned and rotting, like a very rich family once lived here but vacated several decades ago. A wave of disappointment washes over Ellis, so sure had he been that inside this house it would be pristine, untouched, gleaming and ready to be turned into a second home for the boys to retreat to whenever they found a nice girl, or an alright girl, or any willing girl, who didn’t want to give it up behind the garages at the yard or in the alley behind the McDonalds on the high street, who wanted to be treated a bit more special than that. Or, you know, for when they wanted to throw a party. But no girl would want to take her clothes off in here, and nor would anyone want to attend a party in this old place, with its cobwebs the size of your t-shirts and its cupboards bare of everything, particularly alcohol. With no redeeming features, Ellis wonders why this old building was so inviting in the first place.

   Negative emotions – disappointment, sadness, anger – weigh heavily on Ellis’s heart. Whenever they take hold they consume all, and his whole experience of the world is tainted by them. He becomes sullen, introverted, self-loathing. Suddenly, his skin feels itchy and he feels like he wants to peel it off and be someone else. This is something that has always been the case, one of the few defects he has which he doesn’t blame on that night in the alley. But the fear of reprisals after that night, all those bedtimes spent reliving in his head that moment when Stephen’s body hit the ground and the jagged crack in his skull started pouring out steaming hot blood like a saucepan boiling over onto the hob, those were the nights when that weight pushed down on his shoulders so hard that the only way out that he could see was to end it all, to put a knife to his own wrists and just push down, all the way from hand to elbow, and let all that pain seep out into the night and be gone forever. Only, after a sleep, in the blinding light of day, he would be amused that he had ever felt like that, suddenly so sure that everything was going to be alright and there was no situation that couldn’t be overcome. This was a cycle that continued for months – suicidal nights and overconfident mornings, mood swings from happy to devastated and back again, on and on and on for months and months until the night in the alley was a distant memory and there were now so many more things to be ashamed of and afraid of (not that Ellis would admit to ever being afraid of anything or anyone), like losing his virginity to a girl who might have been asleep or might have been in a drug-induced coma, or stealing his friend’s car and driving it into a stream and then denying all knowledge of its final whereabouts. It is an endless, pointless pile of lies and betrayals and failures that Ellis builds up to prove he is and always was big enough to overcome his mistakes. He’s so big, he can make a thousand more, and still stay standing.

   But this one, breaking into a haunted house without any ghosts, money, booze or any kind of entertainment, isn’t even one to be proud of.

   Why. Bother.

   Billy’s enthusiasm is waning too, albeit at a rate far slower than Ellis’s. He starts to drag his feet, pull back the covers on the dusty old beds without even looking to see what’s underneath before he starts to walk away. It’s only when he reaches the first step of the wrought iron, spiral staircase in the front bedroom, the staircase that leads to the room in the tower, that his excitement reignites.

   ‘Did you hear that?’ He whispers, hunching over as if becoming physically smaller will make his voice quieter.

   ‘Hear what?’ Ellis replies, standing in a doorway to a bedroom, shrugging as if he hadn’t heard a slamming door.

   ‘A door, downstairs.’

   Ellis approaches the bannister on the landing and leans over it, that dark smile spreading across his face once more. ‘Let’s go down and investigate.’

   ‘I don’t know,’ says Billy, stepping away from the staircase that leads to the tower as if he knows that they’re surrounded both up and down by threats.

   ‘Come on,’ says Ellis, strutting towards the stairs, seizing the opportunity to demonstrate his fearlessness.

   When they reach the bottom of the staircase, they find the ground floor to be as they left it. The brick they entered with sits untouched on the floor of the lounge, the cupboards they left open remain open, and no one sits waiting for them, undead or otherwise. A shower of rain that neither of the boys had noticed beats against those windows which survive unbroken, and the boys look around in puzzlement for what might have made the sound.

   It’s only once Ellis shines the flashlight from his phone onto the wooden floor that he notices a trail of wet footprints from the back door of the house to the tiny door under the staircase. Without even consulting Billy, he opens the door and heads down the stairs inside to the basement.

   Beyond the ceiling below, revealed a little further by each slow step, is a bar like one would expect to find in a fancy theatre or hotel from a time that only Hollywood remembers. All gold trim and mahogany surfaces, red velvet and soft jazz. There are tables spread around the room, which is as big as an entire floor of the house above, and each table has two or three chairs. The wall to the right holds the counter, shiny as the day it was installed, and stocked up with all the alcohol a man could never need.

   The bar is unstaffed and completely empty, except for an old man who sits at a table in the centre of the room sipping a brownish liquid from a small glass. The man is dressed in a suit and his hair is slicked back, but he doesn’t look like his clothes have ever been fashionable. His eyes have been swallowed by the wrinkles on his face, and his hair is as thin as it is pure white. He looks too old to be sitting up, let alone drinking.

   Ellis keeps walking to the bottom of the staircase after noticing the old man, thinking that the man must be blind with those tiny sunken eyes and deep brown liver spots; but when Billy notices the man, he stops dead on the stairs, stiffens, and whispers, ‘Oh, fucking hell,’ as if spotting the old man has consequences.

   The two boys stand still and watch the old man take a long drink. Once he has emptied the glass into his mouth, he places it noisily on the table and sighs, dabbing his mouth with a handkerchief he pulls from his pocket.

   Carefully folding up the handkerchief, inspecting it for stains and imperfections, he says, ‘I suppose you boys think you’re the first to break in here, don’t ya.’

   He receives no answer.

   ‘You ain’t. I get boys coming in here once or twice a year. The biggest, meanest year eleven from over at Goodman’s usually wants to prove himself in here. Sometimes he does, too. Sometimes he don’t.’

   The old man stands with no small amount of effort, and carries his glass slowly behind the bar. Picking up a bottle filled with more of that brownish liquid, he points the neck at Ellis and Billy and says, ‘You boys from Goodman’s, are ya?’

   Ellis says nothing.

   Billy, loosening up more as the man talks, says, ‘Rowe’s,’ and edges toward the next step down. It’s true that they’re in year eleven at the local comprehensive, but as Billy says the name Ellis sighs and rolls his eyes. He’s irritated that the old man was nearly right on all counts.

   The man chuckles as he unscrews the cap of the bottle and pours himself another drink. He screws the cap back on with shaky hands and then leans on the bar as if the exertion of pouring the drink was too much for him and he needs a rest from resting. After a short while of standing like this, he seems to regain his strength, and he stands to look at the boys again. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘since you’re here, you might as well have a drink.’

   Ellis shakes his head, remaining in his spot and still not making a sound. Billy, on the other hand, loosens up completely, bounding down the rest of the steps and approaching the bar without a moment’s hesitation. ‘You got beer?’ He asks.

   The old man uncaps a beer, hands it to the boy, and makes his way slowly back to his seat. From the state of his skin, his weathered face, his vacant look, one would guess the man was pushing ninety; but his back is not nearly as bent as it should be, and his steps nowhere near as delicate. He is either fitter than his years, or looks older than he ought to, and this is what Ellis notices as he sidesteps slowly toward a seat in the corner of the room, not taking his eyes off the old man with the drink.

   ‘I know why you think you’re here,’ the man says as he lowers himself cautiously into his rickety seat. ‘You think you’re here because you ain’t afraid of nothing. You’re the hardest lads in the borough, and there ain’t no haunted house that can scare you two off.’

   Ellis frowns at the man, involuntarily. Without real reason, he feels angry, and is seething more with every word the old man says, building up a hatred that has no foundation and no firm base, but will always stay standing. He hates that this man has spoiled his fun, and he hates that the man thinks he knows Ellis when he couldn’t possibly. Because what does this old man know? Nothing. To the world, this man doesn’t even exist.

   ‘Did you go in the tower?’ Asks the old man.

   Billy shakes his head vigorously, the neck of the bottle of beer fully in his mouth. ‘Nah,’ he says, swallowing mid-utterance, ‘we was about to, when we heard you get in.’

   Ellis rolls his eyes again. The gesture goes unheeded.

   ‘I’ve set up a little scene in there, gets a few of em,’ the old man says, chuckling to himself. ‘All fake blood and whatnot. Probably dusty now, I haven’t been up there for weeks…’ he seems to trail off, staring down at his shaking hand and getting lost in a thought he can’t seem to keep track of. The boys look at each other, and Billy grins.

   ‘But no, no,’ the old man says, waking up from his stupor, ‘that ain’t why you’re here. We all know that. You don’t go breaking into an old haunted house because you’re not scared; you do it because you are scared, and you’ll do anything you can to deny you are. You two are here because you’re the sissiest pair of ninnies in a five mile radius. That’s the truth.’

   Ellis sighs loudly, but remains silent. Billy seems more concerned with swilling the remaining beer around the bottom of his bottle than actually listening to the old man.

   ‘But it ain’t just you. We’re all scared. Why do you think I’m down here? I’ve barely left the house in twenty years because I’ve been terrified for the last fifty years that there’ll be a nuclear war and I’ll be caught in the middle of it. Said out loud, it sounds insane even to me; but in my head, it’s as real as you sitting there with that frown on your face. All I do down here is worry, think over how I’ll survive in the aftermath, wonder how we ever let such raving psychopaths run our countries, and it’s all wasted energy, thoughts that’ll never get me anywhere. Worry and worry and drink and worry and drive yourself mad with the worrying…’

   The man drifts off again, staring at the table in front of him, the corner of his mouth twitching spasmodically; but begins again with a couple of seconds.

   ‘But what does all that mean, after the bomb drops? Where can I say it got me, if the thing I’ve been worrying about all these years comes true, and I spent all those years doing nothing but worrying that it would? The truth is that those are wasted years, whether my fears come true or not. I imagine an afterlife where we’re all in the queue and everyone would have something to say like, “Well, it’s a shame I had to go like that, but at least I had fun while I was up there. At least I did all I wanted to do, seized every opportunity and that,” and all I’d be able to say is, I knew this’d happen. I spent years in a basement thinking that this’d happen.

   ‘And imagine how much stupider I’d feel in that queue if the bomb ain’t what did it.

   ‘What I should be doing is going and living up there, like I used to before Greta left. I should be living some kind of life. I shouldn’t be wasting energy being scared of things I have no influence over.

   ‘But I’m just a slave to my fear, like you boys.’

   Ellis, now silently livid, doesn’t consider whether anything the old man has said is true or not. He doesn’t take the time to weigh up whether all of his actions these past few years have been driven by fear, whether the very reason he entered this spiral was through the fear of not being liked or whether every time he commits a minor crime or destroys something beautiful can all be rooted back to a deep fear of failure, of falling, of living an empty alternative to the life he’s filled up with chaos; and he doesn’t consider this, because right at the back of his mind, in the part of our brains where nothing but chemicals and hardwiring can control, he knows that it’s true. And this makes him angry. Angry and scared. He wants to throttle the old man, jump across the tables with all the force of a pouncing cheetah, and rip out the man’s throat. But this, he knows, would also be driven by fear. Fear of facing up to his fear. Fear of fear of fear of fear. Which makes him want to cry, run home to his mother, sleep forever. Which, of course, also scares him. Stuck in a cycle of fear and loathing, he bites his nails and frowns tightly and all these thoughts tumble around his head and his eyes start to water, and all the old man does is sit there.

   Billy is now staring at his empty beer bottle, slouching on his barstool. His face is sullen, as if the old man’s words have got to him, too; but Ellis can’t see any of the same disastrous sadness in Billy’s expression that he can feel in his own heart. In a room where two others are mulling over the same emptiness as Ellis, he feels completely alone.

   ‘The worst part is,’ the old man continues, now mumbling as if he doesn’t care if the boys are listening any longer, ‘that the worst decisions you’ll ever make come from that place. It’s nothing but destructive. You only have to read a single book to know the kinds of toxic relationships people stay in because they’re scared of being alone, or the kinds of degrading jobs people will do out of fear that they’ll sink under their debt, the crazy stories people will believe to quell their fears of death, and this is all considered normal. We’re a culture bred on fear, raised on fear, and it rots away at our core every single day. I could talk til my throat was sore about the fear I’m crippled by, and it wouldn’t change a thing.’

   The old man keeps mumbling inaudibly, until his chin sinks into his chest and he slouches further in his seat and his hand stops shaking. Ellis thinks he sees a tear rolling down the crevices in the old man’s face, and this pleases him. The man is so still he could be asleep or he could be stone cold dead, and either way Ellis wouldn’t care.

   Billy doesn’t turn to face Ellis, but speaks to the bar knowing that he’s addressing the whole of the room. ‘He’s right Ell, if I think about it. I’m scared every time I go out with you. I think we probably both are. But he’s also a bit wrong because, I think the fear makes us excited. I get this feeling in my belly like I’m terrified but I want more of it. Remember when we slashed the tyres of that history teacher’s car? I felt sick that night from worrying, but I was out stealing beer from the offy with you the next night. I think he’s right that we’re all scared. I was shitting myself coming in here. But I don’t reckon it ruins anything. I don’t think I make bad decisions because I’m scared. Do you?’

   And the genuine wonder in his voice, and his wilful ignorance to the destruction his fear has caused, and the way the old man saw through Ellis like a sheet of thin glass, and the way we’re all the fucking same and all sinking down down down and never coming up for air, all pile on top of Ellis, and all he can do to stop himself from crying and crying and eternally crying is to get up and walk out of that basement, leaving the sleeping or dead man and his dim-witted friend to sit and drink and talk and feel sad, all of which Ellis wants no part of.

   ‘Ellis?’ Billy calls, as Ellis climbs the stairs.

   ‘Ellis, where you going?’ He calls from the basement, as Ellis collects his jumper from the front room.

   ‘Ell! Ellis!’ Shouts Billy, his voice fading, as Ellis slams the front door, and walks out into the night, leaving all of his fear and his anger and his need for destruction and punishment and hatred and violence behind him, closing the door not only on that house haunted by the ghost of an old man who no longer exists to the world, but also on a form of himself which, as of this moment, will also be gone forever.

The book is called Brisingr , and is written by Christopher Paolini. I haven't read it, and to be honest, I have no desire...

The book is called Brisingr, and is written by Christopher Paolini. I haven't read it, and to be honest, I have no desire to (soz, Chris); but it was in the charity book sale at Sainsbury's and the pages looked like a good size and the book was in good condition, so I snapped it up. Little bit of PVA and water (some of which you can see glistening in one of the above photographs) and a nice sharp Stanley knife, and the job's a good'un.

And no, it's not an original idea, it's been done, but I don't do DIY so I'm just pleased it went well, alright? Get off my back. Jees.