Withering Branch

Submitted into Contest #64 in response to: Set your story in a Gothic manor house.... view prompt

16 comments

Fantasy Science Fiction Thriller

The dream invariably started the same way.

I am in the backseat of what appears to be an old vehicle. The back of the driver’s head has a large gash in it that oozes a nauseating mix of blood and puss. I try to tell him that he’s hurt or ask if he needs help but my mouth is papery and dry. The words stick in my throat.

There is another passenger next to me but I can only just make out the silhouette. It appeared to be human but an overwhelming sense of unease told me that it might have been something else. This feeling made me want to vomit but as I make a move for the door, I realize there are no handles. I don’t know why but I can tell the Shape next to me wants me there.

I just want to feel wanted.

I catch a glimpse out of the mirror to see an ominous, starless sky and trees that have been stripped of all their foliage. They are spaced at regular intervals and I realize that we are moving along a driveway of sorts. I want to look forward to see where we are going but I can’t shake the feeling that I am better off not knowing. When I finally convince my head to turn, I see what I can only describe as a house but even that would be a generous term for what I saw. The roof was sagging under the weight of years in the elements and from disrepair. There were turrets and windows where there didn’t feel like there should have been. The geometry of the building felt sinister and it set my teeth on edge just to look at it. The Shape next to me touches my hand and a rush of icy cold dread shoots from my fingers to the back of my neck and everything goes black.

I just want to feel wanted.

That’s when I wake up.

But on the morning of October 25, something was different.

I woke up from the unsettling dream, covered in a cold sweat. Only it wasn’t sweat.

It was melted ice. There were still small crystals of it stuck in my hair.

Before I could catch my breath, I grabbed my phone, dug out a scrap of paper from my bedside table with a phone number scrawled on it, and called Angela Bennings.

-

I met Angela Bennings on Thanksgiving Day of last year in the Nauls County Behavioral Health Center.

The Bennings family had roots in Nauls county as deep as the Miskatonic Mountains that stand watch along the county’s western border. Absalom Bennings and Orville Nauls were the first men to settle their families in the foothills of Miskatonic range after being excommunicated from their conservative Quaker community for ideas that many among their peers considered unnatural. Orville and Absalom’s fortunes grew to astronomical proportions and named their new settlement Withering Branch, after the unusually small, shriveled branch on the great tree in the center of the settlement. In fact, Absalom named his estate after the tree, as well: Withering Branch Manor. The branch never seemed to fully die, no matter what befell the tree. Absalom hoped that would be his family’s fate, it was said. Everlasting even if it meant existing in weakness.

 Withering Branch Manor was opulent, according to legend, and more settlers decided to brave the Miskatonic Mountains, seeking the same fame and fortune that had been bestowed on Orville and Absalom. And while the new settlers certainly made their fair share of money, no one could quite figure out how the Bennings and Nauls clans kept getting wealthier. It could not have come from farming alone. At some point, however, a bitter disagreement arose between Orville and Absalom. Orville decided to take his family and abandon his own estate and his friendship with Absalom. To this day, no one knows what the spat was about but the Bennings fortunes quickly changed and Orville and his family faded from local history. Absalom eventually died penniless and his body was found dangling from the very tree that gave the town it’s name. Some say his grief from losing so much wealth drove him mad while others maintain that he had made a deal with the Devil and when the Devil came to collect, Absalom reneged and paid the price.

No one else from Absalom’s family was ever seen again, nor was his reputedly palatial home.  

The town was now supported, for better or for worse, from the psych hospital. It was a massive structure, built around and out of the remains of Orville Nauls’ former estate. In certain places, this was more evident than others. The spires that framed the main entrance were the most obvious reminders of Orville’s gothic obsession. But throughout the hospital, there were more subtle nods to the buildings unusual past. Orville, shortly before his spat with Absalom and his subsequent departure, had taken to painting nightmarish vistas and monsters along the hallways and on the walls of his manor. One in particular seemed to never be able to be fully painted over. You could see the green eyes of a blue, winged humanoid behind the industrial paint. In certain wings of the hospital, most of them now unused for housing patients, Orville’s original design was largely unchanged. The rooms remained the same as they had when the Nauls family lived there and were even toured on Halloween as a part of the “Withering Branch Ghost Tour.”

Meanwhile, back in present day, I had just been stripped naked and asked to squat and cough in a single-stall men’s bathroom by some tech. The overheard fluorescent light flickered at irregular intervals so that my head began to hurt. I felt exposed, and not just because I didn’t have any clothes on. After it was determined that I hadn’t tried to bring in any contraband the old-fashioned way, I was given a paper gown and put into a dingy, beige day room. There was an old cathode-ray tube television bolted to the ceiling in the opposite corner. The room looked to be what Orville might have formerly used as a study but was now used as purgatory for the mentally ill.

It all felt strangely familiar, almost like home, although I had never been inside before now.

You’re probably wondering why and how I wound up as a patient. A fair question, and if I had a definitive answer, I would give you one but the reality is: I wasn’t quite sure myself.

My best guess was that I had most likely done something foolish while drunk. See, some people say that I am an alcoholic and, while I am willing to admit that I drink a lot, “alcoholic” seems harsh. I have never felt very comfortable in my own skin. The argument could even be made that I don’t really like myself. Alcohol made me someone different. Someone that people wanted to be around.

That feeling of belonging, as illusory as it may have been, was what I craved. I never knew my biological family and while I knew my foster parents loved me dearly; I just didn’t feel like I fit anywhere. So, I floated around everywhere, trying to make myself fit into whatever mold that was set in front of me. It was absolute chaos but at least it was familiar. The only order I knew was disorder.

I just want to feel wanted.

I wanted to be a part of something.

But at this point, I also really wanted my clothes back. The tech that saw me naked was sitting at a desk with his feet propped up, reading The da Vinci Code. I was too embarrassed to talk to him. After all, it had been awfully cold in that bathroom. Eventually, I swallowed what little pride I had and walked to the desk.

The tech’s nametag read “Hal” and he didn’t even look up when I asked about my clothes; he just pointed to a room at the end of a hallway with yet another flickering florescent light. When it became clear that I would get no words from Hal, I was left to assume that my room and my clothes were that way. Suddenly, I could sense that someone was standing behind me.

“I know who you really are.”

I recognized her face because we had gone to high school together but her voice sounded hollow, like it wasn’t truly her voice. I turned to see Angela Bennings standing inches from my face. I couldn’t back up even if I had wanted to because she had me cornered at the desk. I could smell stale cigarettes on her breath and her skin looked frail and dry from the mass-produced bar soap that the hospital no doubt used. She wore a halter top and a pair of dingy, gray sweatpants. Angela’s tangled hair was inky black with the exception of a deep green streak that you could see when she pushed her hair behind her ear. Her eyes matched the streak in her hair in both color and wildness. There was something behind those emerald green eyes that I could not place at that moment. They made me want to claw my own eyes out and simultaneously never look away.

I just wanted to feel seen.

She handed me a slip of paper, turned, and walked away. Her gait was strange and halting, like she wasn’t used to having legs.

She had given me her phone number.

It made me feel wanted.

But there was something else on the paper too, scrawled out in the margin was some sort of symbol, though I could not tell what it was. It looked like a circle with an incomplete pentagram in the center. There were three open dots placed at what looked to be either very random or very deliberate spots within the circle. There were smaller, less decipherable symbols written around the outside of the circle. I had a harder time making these out but the longer I looked at them, the more uneasy I got. Thinking about them made my chest tight with a looming sense of dread; like something terrible was about to happen.

Angela and I were both discharged from Nauls County Behavioral Health on the same day and we would most likely would have never crossed paths again had it not been for my vision on October 25th. I had taken to calling them visions instead of dreams because they were just too vivid to be mere dreams.

This time, in the vision, the figure next to me had see a green streak smeared across its hazy head. The rest of the vision remained largely the same: the bare trees looming overhead, the monolithic house falling in on itself, the gash in the driver’s skull.

I can’t tell you why I decided to call Angela Bennings when I woke up. Truth be told, she scared me. There was something about her eyes and the way that she carried herself that made me want crawl out of my skin but I could not deny the urgency in the feeling. So picked up the phone, dug out the small scrap of paper from my bedside table, and called her number.

Angela answered hollowly in the same, almost disembodied voice I had heard her speak with in Nauls County Behavioral Health.

“Hello. I have been expecting your call.”

I don’t know how she knew that it was me but she certainly seemed like she had been wanting me to call.

That is all I’d ever really wanted.

“I am coming to your house. I want to show you who you really are.”

Then the line went dead.

Why I decided to get up and get dressed and wait on Angela Bennings to come pick me up is beyond me. Everything logical in my body screamed at me to get back in bed, lock all my doors, and forget that Angela Bennings had ever existed. But I couldn’t. I had to see what she wanted because at the end of the day, she wanted me to be a part of it.

The car pulled up and a disconcerting feeling of familiarity fell over me. I got in the backseat with Angela and the black sedan pulled away into the night.

We drove for what felt like hours but could have easily only been minutes and as the car began to slow, I saw that we were at a wrought iron gate set between two decrepit brick pillars. A rusted bronze plaque that read “Withering Branch Manor” swung lazily in the wind from the pillar in the right.

Something wasn’t right. The air felt heavier here and as the gate swung open thanks to some unseen keepers, my heart sank into the seat of the old, black sedan.

Withering Branch Manor was the monstrous house from my vision.

This was Absalom Bennings’ former home.

Everything from the dead, bare trees to the starless, night sky was exactly how I had seen it in my sleep.

I was panicked but also intensely aware that I did not want to leave.

The interior of the structure, while it appeared to have been somewhat maintained, was even more unsettling than the exterior. The entry way looked just like the entryway of any number of gothic-inspired houses but there was something . . . wrong. It felt off-center and so cavernous that it was difficult to imagine that it could be this large from looking at it on the outside of the home. To my left appeared to be a kind of study area with a large oaken desk in the center of the room. The walls were lined with books but I was too far away to make any of the titles out. To my right was an observatory with a large sphere in the center of the room that appeared to be suspended in midair. In the middle of the entry was a large statue of what could have been a person but looked wholly alien from any human I had ever seen. It stood with arms outstretched and had green, piercing eyes.

 I hear something as my senses adjust; a slow but rising chant.

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

The upper levels of the house were suddenly filled with cloaked and hooded figures. I wasn’t sure if they were there when we walked in but they must have been. There was no way they could have simply materialized. The whole house echoed with the perverse moving of the chanter’s unseen lips.  

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

The statue in the foyer began to glow with what I would only describe as blue but I honestly don’t know that I had seen a color like this before, and a familiar symbol was visible on his chest.

It was the symbol from the slip of paper Angela had handed me.

 B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

The menacing statue began to vibrate.

Why did I let myself come to this unholy place?

I just want to feel wanted.

The sound was deafening now and the chants were now a steady roar. My head began to pound, the world around me pitched and swirled before it eventually went black.

I just want to feel a part of something.

When I eventually came to, my head was still spinning. I felt like I was going to be sick but as I tried to turn to vomit, I couldn’t move. I was completely paralyzed. I was staring up at the cobwebbed chandelier in the foyer to the house and felt cold, smooth stone against my skin.

Angela Bennings was standing over me and the stone slab I was on with a dagger in her right hand.

“Do you know who you are?” she asked me. “I wouldn’t expect you to. He saw to it that you would be difficult to find.”

Her voice was deeper than I remembered it being but every bit as abrasive and unnerving.

Unable to move or to even speak, all I could do was listen.

“When my great-great-grandfather, Absalom Bennings, settled here he had with him another man: Orville Nauls.”

She spit on the ground after saying Orville’s name.

“Orville and Absalom came across a ghastly volume in the cellar of an old bookshop and used its power to become wealthier than any of their lineage had before them. And not just materially. The knowledge contained in that book had the power to bend the world to the knowers will. But Orville, that simple-minded swine, nearly destroyed it all when he became scared of what was to come, of the price that eventually had to be paid, and used it one last time to curse the Bennings name and everything that he and Absalom had built.”

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

B'gnuuuuuuu-Thuuuuuun

But it is now time for the curse to be lifted. For we, The Elect, will make way for the Lord of Winter Chaos, B’GNU-THUN! For he will cover the world in his icy fury and from the melted snow and mud we will be reborn and will claim what was so callously denied us by your foolish ancestor.”

Ancestor?

“B’GNU-THUN! WE BRING YOU THE LAST REMNANT OF ORVILLE NAULS!”

I just wanted to feel wanted.

Angela Bennings looked at me with a sinister sneer and growled, “Welcome home, Blair Nauls, great-great-grandson of Orville Nauls.”

The dagger plunged downwards in slow motion towards my heart.

I was going to die but at least I was finally a part of something.

October 24, 2020 01:08

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16 comments

Radhika Diksha
12:35 Oct 26, 2020

I suppose you are new here. So basically your story is good, but I found it lengthy. If you could have shortened it then it would be far gripping. The length of the story made me bore at a point. But overall the story was good and keep writing. And by the way checkout my new stories and give your valuable feedback

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Daniel Deschenes
13:24 Oct 26, 2020

Thank you for the feedback! And I agree that it is overly long. By the time I realized that it was as long as it was, it was too late to shorten it and still make it all fit together. I need to work on saying what I want to say in less words. Haha.

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Radhika Diksha
14:05 Oct 26, 2020

We improve ourselves by practice , and we can improve each other by constructive criticism. And please checkout my new stories and give your valuable feedback.

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11:09 Nov 12, 2020

Hii, Daniel Sorry to intervene, in this brutal manner, I have a request for you would be kind to give a single glance over the vehicle which my team had been working over months. https://www.instagram.com/p/CHX5VUPBJOp/?igshid=5f72nb3cgg30 Sorry to take your time and If possible like the post.Because this would help team to win

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Dalyane Deblois
01:33 Oct 30, 2020

I really enjoyed your story and it was really entertaining to read! The main character is well defined and the overall story is well written! Keep writing!

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Daniel Deschenes
13:38 Oct 30, 2020

Thank you so much!! I really appreciate the feedback

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Brittany Cogbill
04:06 Jun 14, 2021

Your story was very well written, creative, and you did an amazing job of describing the dream. It gave me a sense of fear and dread while reading it, which is a good thing! Reminded me of a vintage ghost story, love the manor, and the character just wanting to be wanted, I love how that part was included. That was my favorite part. I sympathized with the character. Great writing!!! Can’t wait to see more!

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11:09 Nov 12, 2020

I loved the story

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Unknown User
22:11 Oct 28, 2020

<removed by user>

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Daniel Deschenes
23:54 Oct 28, 2020

Thank you for the feedback! Which parts were confusing, if you don't mind me asking? I have no doubt that it was "blurry" at times. It is actually a mashup of two different stories that I had already started and I don't think I fully knew how I was going to make them fit when I started that process. Haha.

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Unknown User
04:07 Oct 29, 2020

<removed by user>

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Daniel Deschenes
11:20 Oct 29, 2020

Well, it makes sense that those would be difficult to follow because that is where I personally had trouble piecing the two stories together. You live and you learn! Thank you again for reading!

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Unknown User
13:16 Oct 29, 2020

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Molly Leasure
04:13 Oct 27, 2020

Creative! I like the story you've crafted here and the needy main character. His personality is certainly relatable. And I did like a lot of the description that you added as well, though it did get bogged down. I notice the other comment here mentioned length, and while that's true yes, they didn't really specify in what way it was lengthy. I think part of why it's lengthy is because you have a lot of backstory and description all at once. A way to help keep the action flowing, while introducing a lot of information, is to interweave it thr...

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Daniel Deschenes
13:12 Oct 27, 2020

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your feedback!! And don't apologize for wordy. I need specifics. Haha. If you think I could do a better job at something, just give it to me straight. That's why I posted the story. None of us will get better if we don't provide constructive criticism and positive feedback! Thanks again.

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Molly Leasure
21:11 Oct 27, 2020

Haha, very true! Us writers need to have thick skin in order to improve. (Even though that's hard sometimes)

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