Pitman House by Will Weisser

In Philadelphia, walking at 3 am might be considered eccentric behavior at best, suicidal at worst. But Ethan Harkness cared little about others’ approval. He loved the silence of the night, free of phone rings and engine rumbles, and after hundreds of years of being alive, he had decided such indulgences were worth the loss of propriety. The neighborhood was relatively safe, at least; expensively historical, with narrow, cobblestone streets named after trees. Ethan had his head down, focusing on the tap of his walking stick, when a flash of light caught his attention.

A figure glided down the opposite sidewalk, wrapped in a linen shawl with light pouring from every crease and crevice, white with overtones of gray, as if someone had cut out a piece of the moon and made it ambulatory. Ethan stood and watched the creature float past him, awestruck by its grace. The thing’s head swiveled, the face revealing itself for a moment, beautiful, petite, and feminine. It might have been his imagination, but Ethan could have sworn he saw her wink and smile.

His stomach lurched. Amelia. It was Amelia. She made no sound as she walked up the street, but he felt her presence as a chill in the early autumn air, until she ascended a marble stoop and disappeared through a closed door. He looked up and down the block for other witnesses, but found none. Amelia—or whatever had assumed her form—had stepped into a small three story building, its brick facade streaked and crumbling with age. Why hadn’t she passed on? Ethan breathed deeply, collapsed his retractable walking stick, and followed her trail to the stoop.

The door was solid—no chance of him repeating Amelia’s feat—but it opened easily when he turned the handle, which gave him pause. No one in downtown Philly left doors unlocked. He stepped through and found himself in a drawing room, surrounded by slender wood furniture atop an oriental rug. Photographs lined the walls, portraits of dour young women in dark dresses, their black and white visages staring into the distance. Firelight reflected off the panes, and Ethan headed around a corner towards its source.

He found nothing but an end table and a plush green velvet chair. He spun—the firelight was now behind him, coming from the place he had just left. So that was the game; change the dimensions of the room, move around the contents. Toy with him. Had someone drawn him in here out of boredom?

No. Why would they have used her face? Her, out of all the women he had known and loved? She must be close. A photograph caught his eye, and he leaned in closer to see: a rotund woman, face covered in a tight white hood, pendulous breasts falling out of her leather halter top, holding a harp with strings made of small intestine.

Ethan frowned and stepped back, then returned the way he came. He rounded the corner again, and this time the lit hearth was there, with a man in front of it.

He was dressed in a green wool coat and high waist trousers, sitting in the same velvet chair that Ethan had just turned away from. A cigarette and holder rested in an ash tray on the end table. He looked up and spoke, his eyes flashing green under slicked-back hair, his voice a rasp from the shadows.

“Cold tonight.”

Ethan glanced at the door. It wasn’t particularly cold out, at least not by Philly standards, but to the dead every day was as chilled as the grave.  “I beg your pardon for the intrusion, sir.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Ethan. Ethan Harkness.”

“My tooth. It hurts.”

Ethan swallowed. “I thought I saw a woman, an acquaintance of mine, step in through that doorway moments ago. I wanted to check on her condition.”

The man took a pull on his cigarette, and smoke puffed out of the side of his cheek. Ethan grimaced. In the light of the embers, red gums were visible through a hole near his jaw, ringed with ragged and rotting black flesh.

“Amelia.” The man tapped the cigarette and frowned. “She is not allowed out of her room. But she bent the rules. Now she’s back where she belongs.”

“What is this place?”

“A sanctuary.”

“A prison, you mean? You’re holding her here against her will?”

The man sat back in his chair, his eyes widening. His head jerked to the side, and he looked frightened for a moment before his mouth twisted into a smile. “Ethan. I know you, Ethan. Amelia spoke of you. But that cannot be; you’re young, and it’s been so long. So long.”

“Yes, long. Long enough for you to release her.”

“No. No, no. Dear Lord, my tooth hurts. Where is that nurse?”

“Sir, I beseech you—I must see her. Please, take me to her.”

The man balled his fist and looked past Ethan, toward the opposite side of the room. “Dammit, I need a physician. Go fetch one now; never mind the time. It hurts.”

“Please—” Ethan took a step forward, and the dimensions of the room changed. Beams groaned, cracks ran along the ceiling, and walls met at oblique angles. He whispered between clenched teeth. “I only want to help her!”

“You only seek to help yourself.”  The man shook his head. “The pain, doctor. It’s like a chisel to my brain.”

“I’ll help you as well,” Ethan said. “I’ll find a way. Just show me how to get to her.”

The man took a breath, and the room relaxed with him. Head down, body shaking, he pointed to his left. A doorway had appeared there, the hall beyond covered in darkness.

“Thank you,” Ethan said shakily. “I won’t forget this.”

He made a small bow, walked through the opening and fell several feet into a dumpster.

The smell made him gag. He floundered to retrieve his collapsed walking stick, shaking pieces of rotten lettuce off his shoulder, then rolled out of the dumpster and landed in the alley. He stood for a few moments, fists balled, staring at the solid brick wall he had just fallen out of. In the back of his mind, too faint to be real sound, he heard a man chuckling.

“So that’s how it’s going to be,” he muttered, before stalking off down the alley and back to the street.

~*~

“So this is the place?”

Henry Witten leaned back on his heels to avoid a passing pedestrian. It was noontime, and the sidewalk was filled with young business people on their lunch breaks who gave odd looks to the pair of gentleman as they passed. Ethan knew why; Henry tended to dress like a character from a Jazz-era drama, the time when he came of age. It seemed that the Enduring, like humans, were given only one period in their lives where their brains could comprehend current fashion, and were thereafter condemned to a life of cultural obsolescence. It was the reason Ethan only wore dark, rather severe suits, although the old-fashioned cut he preferred might have drawn more gazes than he cared to admit.

“This is it.” Ethan walked up and examined the bronze plaque next to the front door. “Gregory Pitman House, Register of Historic Places. Strange I didn’t see this last night.”

“Well, it was dark,” Henry said. “They say night vision is one of the first things to go in old age.”

He shot Ethan a well-practiced smirk. An old joke, but one Henry had yet to grow tired of. The truth was that even if Henry, with his boyish features and protruding ears, looked to be in his mid-twenties, most would never peg Ethan as being more than a decade older, despite their two-century difference in age.

“Just keep on your toes. By now the entity’s powers should be at their nadir, but we still don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Exactly what I wanted to hear,” Henry said, pushing open the door.

They entered into a drawing room that was different from the one Ethan had seen the night before. The rug was the same but more worn, and there was no fireplace and no plush chair at all.

“Hello!” A young woman, her straightened hair tied in a bun, sat behind a high desk on the far side of the room. “Are you waiting for a group?”

“Oh, uh…no.” Ethan said. “We’re here alone. That is, we’re here together. Alone.”

The young woman giggled and pushed the remains of her lunch to the side. Ethan eyed the salad warily.

“I’m sorry. I thought maybe the rest of your bus was out there. They usually come around this time. But feel free to look around, and don’t forget you can leave a donation in the box by the door.”

“Actually,” Ethan said. “I do have some questions, Miss…?”

“Marissa,” she said.

“Marissa. A lovely name. Do you run this place by yourself?”

“Oh no, it’s run by the foundation, the Friends of History Society. But that’s just the board members. Most of what they raise goes into maintenance.” She glanced at the fresh crack in the ceiling. “That’s why I’m supposed to remind everyone about the donations.”

“I see,” Ethan said. “Do you like working here, then?”

“Oh yeah, it’s great. You meet all kinds of interesting people.” She gave them both a meaningful look. “Plus I’m getting my masters in education right now at Temple, so it’s nice to have something part time. Student loan debt can be pretty scary.”

“Positively hair-raising,” Henry mumbled. Ethan elbowed him in the ribs.

“Did you want me to give you a tour?” Marissa asked.

“Not if it’s too much trouble,” Ethan said.

“Oh no! It won’t take long, anyway. You can start with the art collection. Over here.” She waved them through a doorway on her right.

Ethan stepped into the gallery and examined the paintings nearest the entrance. “Very interesting. Where did this one come from?”

“From Mr. Pitman. Most of our collection comes from his personal belongings.”

“Right. Of course.”

“There’s a photo of him over there.” She pointed at a black and white picture in the corner, half-hidden by a floor plant.

Ethan went over and recognized the young man with slicked back hair in the photo. He beckoned Henry over. “Look: it says he died in 1867.”

“He was an interesting character,” Marissa said. “Architect, inventor, reputed to be some sort of mystic as well. At least that’s what they say—I think that’s just nineteenth-century code for a sex maniac. You know, just between us, there are some photos we keep down in storage that would make your head spin.”

“Ooo, can we see those?” Henry asked.

“I’d rather not,” Ethan said. “What’s up this staircase?”

“The second floor has some antique furniture, if you’re interested. It’s a little bare compared to what we keep downstairs, though.”

Ethan nodded and headed upstairs with the others in tow. “Was the furniture Pitman’s?”

“No,” she said. “We don’t think so. The house changed hands a few times after he died. It’s been an office, a hospital, a convent; then it was abandoned until the foundation restored it.”

At the top of the stairs, a hallway branched out into several open bedrooms. In the nearest, a metal bed frame, white paint worn, rested on a cracked and faded wooden floor.

“Do you know what it was being used for, around, say, 1910ish?”

“You know, I’m not sure.” She turned and regarded them queerly. “I’d have to go look it up. What makes you ask?”

“Oh, nothing.” Ethan gave a nervous chuckle. “Don’t bother yourself on our account.”

“It’s fine,” she said. Her voice had changed. She turned and her brown eyes flashed green. “I know you only seek to help yourself.”

A door slammed downstairs, and the noise made Ethan jump.

“Oh, that’s the tour group!” Marissa smiled and pushed past him, her voice and eyes back to normal. “Excuse me one moment.”

“Henry,” Ethan whispered. “We’re leaving. Now.”

“What’s up here?” Henry asked, leaning over a chain that blocked access to the third floor. “Smells like ammonia.”

“Now!”

Ethan grabbed the surprised Henry by the arm and dragged him downstairs, past a small crowd of tourists with cameras, then out onto the sidewalk. They hung a right at the Philadelphia Ghost Tours bus parked outside and made their way up the alley.

“What was that all about?” Henry asked, tugging his arm away.

“I saw him; Pitman. He has enough strength to take control of that poor girl.”

“During the day?”

“Yes. I thought we’d have the place to ourselves, but he was taunting me, letting me know he’s onto us.”

“Incredible power,” Henry said. “But I suppose that’s what happens when an entity remains resident for so long.”

“We have to go back. At night, when Amelia is visible again. We need to find a way to set her free.”

“Now hold on.” Henry stopped in his tracks, leaving Ethan to walk up the alley for a few paces. “You want me to go in there? At night?”

“It’s the only time I’ll be able to contact her.”

“It’s the only time Pitman will be able to tear our spleens out! What’s gotten into you, anyway? What’s so important about this girl?”

Ethan looked down. “Amelia was by far the loveliest of the turn of the century society, and sharp as a tack as well. I remember her smoking on a ballroom balcony, telling me that she could have any suitor out on the floor, but she wanted me. ‘All the others treat me like a child,’ she said. We used to walk together along the Schuykill, reading aloud from Byron and Coleridge, then retreat to my apartment and make love until dawn.”

“You old dog. Didn’t she wonder why she never got pregnant?”

“We were both living in a dream, in some ways. I was foolish then; I said many things to her that an Enduring should never say to a mortal, made many promises I had no way of keeping. Then, in 1907, her father went broke during the bank panic, and all of her suitors disappeared. I wanted to help, but I had problems of my own; an especially enthusiastic hunter on my tail, attempting to expose me.  I had to flee to London, and I never found out what happened to her after I left, other than that her father committed suicide.”

“I see. And for an Enduring, eternal regret is more haunting than any specter.”

“Yes. I know I’ve learned much since then, but if she is trapped between worlds, I can’t just let it go. Even if it kills me.”

“Well, you may have learned much, but I still haven’t.”

“Oh?”

“At least, I must have not,” Henry said. “Because I’m actually considering going with you.”

~*~

Ethan spent the rest of the day brooding over his task, resting, mediating. He prayed at a local Presbyterian church, one of his favorites. He ate a meal at his favorite cafe, read in his home library, stopped by the home for the elderly where he volunteered, and finally took another long evening walk until midnight came. As he strolled toward Pitman House, he saw Henry approaching, carrying a mason jar.

“My God,” Ethan said when they drew close. “What is that thing?”

“Jersey devil skeleton.” Henry checked to make sure no one was around and held the jar up to the light. “Found in a cabin in the Pine Barrens. The cabin was Prohibition Era, but this little guy here is much older. They’re sinks for excess supernatural energy, so if we expose it to our friend Pitman, it should suck up his power in an attempt to bring itself back to life.”

Ethan studied the thing and grimaced at the bits of fossilized fur clinging to its skull. “Are you sure someone didn’t just glue bat wings to a dead rat?”

“Honestly? No. But I hope not; it cost me fifty thousand, and that was thirty years ago.”

“I suppose you’ll want to be reimbursed?”

“Nah,” Henry said. “What’s fifty between friends? Oh, and I also have this.” He pulled a copper coin from his pocket. “1883 Indian head. Two for five dollars at the flea market, but I did have a sangoma in Camden put a ward on it. Best I could do on short notice.”

He flipped the penny to Ethan, who dropped it in his breast pocket. “Right. Let’s get this over with.”

They advanced on the building and Ethan tried the door. “Locked. I guess Pitman doesn’t want more visitors.”

“Luckily, I came prepared,” Henry said, pulling a small pry-bar from his coat. While Ethan kept watch, he pressed it into the door frame and pressed it forward. “What…would you…do…unf…without me?”

With a pop and the clatter of a lock assembly on the floor, the door opened. They walked inside and stood, waiting for their eyes to adjust. The streetlight pouring in behind them gave the room an orange glow.

“Hello?!” Henry called.

“Sshhh!” Ethan stepped further into the room. “Something’s wrong. The room hasn’t changed. It looks the same as it did this afternoon.”

“I’d call that a good thing,” Henry said.

A noise halfway between a creak and a moan sounded above them, rattling the ceiling and echoing down the stairs.

“Come on,” Ethan said, heading toward it.

Near the bend of the staircase, the darkness changed, became more tangible. Both men slowed their pace, and the creaking of their steps elongated as shadows folded around them. The second floor was black and stuffy like a fog. Ethan blinked hard, trying to shake the wooziness, and opened his eyes to see Pitman standing before them. Henry gasped, and Ethan held up his hand, as much to steady himself as his friend. “Listen to me, Pitman. You can let go. You’re trapped here as much as Amelia. Cages within cages. You have to break free.”

“If I go, you take my place,” Pitman said. His lips had not moved. “You keep them here.”

“No.”

Pitman looked down and chuckled, long and low, the sound multiplying and stretching. The walls flexed, their plaster cracking, sending down sheets of dust. Henry screamed; behind them, the stairwell had twisted into a mouth, the steps becoming rows of teeth. The stair-jaws came forward and Henry struck out with the pry-bar, but the heavy oak slammed down on his wrist. His bones cracked and he screamed again in agony.

Ethan turned toward Pitman, pressed the button to extend his walking stick and lunged. He swung in a wide arc, aiming for the smile. The tip caught Pitman on the cheek and stopped—no impact, just a sudden halt. But the momentum had to go somewhere, and the handle of the cane flew sideways, dragging Ethan along with it into the wall. He took the impact on his shoulders and fell in a heap. Henry struggled and grunted, and the mason jar worked its way out of his coat pocket and fell to the floor. The glass broke, and the inside glowed white and crackled, sucking in the air with a rushing noise, turning the plaster dust in the hallway into a white gale.

Pitman frowned and disappeared. The stairs retreated, leaving Henry crumpled on the floor. The wind ceased, and all was dark and silent again.

Ethan crawled through the dust and knelt over his friend. “Are you all right?”

Henry held his wrist, clearly bent at an awkward angle, and spoke through clenched teeth. “No. Hurts like the devil. I…” He gasped in pain.

Ethan sat and waited for his friend to be able to speak, but Henry suddenly fell silent.

“You heard it too?” Ethan asked, listening to the scratches from above them. “The third floor.”

Henry nodded. Ethan stood and approached the stairway leading up. The chain was gone. He narrowed his eyes and took the steps two at a time, whispering a prayer:

“Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man; preserve me from the violent man, which imagine mischiefs in their heart.”

He stepped off the landing and felt threefold whatever force had clouded his mind before. Now the hallway was endless, stretching out as he walked, containing hundreds of closed doors that somehow piled up in multitudes behind him even as they drifted past as slow as a lazy river. From each door came sounds: metallic clanks, groans, and two women in whispered conversation.

“Found some chit’lins under Macgregor’s bed. They’re not too moldy.”

“Should we give ‘em to Ms. Beth?”

“Nah, the bitch chucked up the good oatmeal I gave her last night. I let ‘er sleep with it to teach ‘er a lesson.”

A light formed near the end of the hall. No, not a light; an anti-light, a deeper black that nonetheless held the form of a door.

“Hold still, damnit.” A man’s voice this time, from his right.

A hoarse yell. Then another, louder.

“Doctor?”

“The ether’s wearing off. Hold him down.”

Ethan walked faster to escape the screams. The door drew him closer until he stood in front of it. It opened without a touch.

The room inside was small, isolated, with a single bed pressed into the corner, mattress stained and metal posts peeling. A young woman lay upon it, curled up and facing away from him, coughing violently. Somehow he knew it was her. Blood spattered the wall below a dirty window, where heavy snow fell amid the light of gas street lamps.

“Amelia.”

The skin on his arms and neck tingled. The coughing continued, deep and wet, until she seemed to have spent her innards on the wall.

“Amelia…”

She lay there, back turned, shaking and cowering, with fear or embarrassment he couldn’t tell. He stepped closer. The room was deathly cold. The light outside the window cracked and went out, leaving only the purplish glow of the moon on snow. He reached out and touched her shoulder.

She whipped up in a spray of sheets and blood, and her face was not a face, but a mass of fangs and empty black eyes. Ethan screamed, stumbled, and fell back against the closed door. She rose above him, hair streaming, fingernails long and cracked at the end of her stick arms. The fangs parted and her hands grasped, nails against his cheeks, holding his head in place to sink them in.

Heat bloomed on his chest, and a light came from his breast pocket; the coin. It fizzled and threw sparks, and the Amelia-thing shrank away. Ethan’s head fell back and smacked the door. He had lost all control of his muscles. The mental fog descended again, and he was falling, twisting. He caught a glimpse of a face— Pitman?—and then he was lying on his back in a dark place.

Silence. He tried to sit up and bumped his head on hard wood.

A bench?

No, a pew.

He rolled out from underneath it and dusted himself off. He was sitting in a church, dark and empty.

“Oh, Christ!” Henry’s voice echoed. “Where the hell are we?”

“St. Mark’s on Locust,” Ethan said, standing up shakily. “I’ve prayed here many times.”

Henry tried to stand up, then grabbed his wrist and grunted in pain.

Ethan went over to help. “Come on. We need to get you to a hospital.”

“Urgent care is better. They don’t mind taking cash.”

Ethan nodded and lifted his friend, supporting his arm over his own shoulders.

“What happened?” Henry asked.

“I think Pitman did it. He let me see what I needed to, and then he sent us away.” Ethan said. “I was right about him, Henry, but wrong as well. He is a jailer, but the purpose of a jail is to keep those of us on the outside safe. Whatever Amelia experienced in that place before her death—it left her too twisted to reason, too bitter to forgive. And she’s not alone, either. Pitman is using his energy to keep those souls locked away. They must stay there, in that state, forever. Oh Amelia…”

Something skittered a few feet away, and both men started. Ethan reached for his walking stick, and the church fell silent save for Henry’s ragged breathing. One breath, two, and then a creature jumped out of the darkness towards them.

Ethan flailed and yelled, and the Jersey devil veered in mid-jump, its stunted wings not capable of true flight. It landed on the wall, staring at them with beady eyes, then hissed and skittered up a stone column toward the rafters.

“Oh, great,” Henry said. “How are we going to get it down from there?”

“You’ll have to come back later and find it,” Ethan said, folding the stick and walking away. “At least it won’t hurt anyone in the meantime.”

“Sure,” Henry said. “Tell that to the churchgoers when they get their heads shat on at mass.”

Ethan beckoned, and Henry clutched his wrist and continued toward the exit.

“So what how about you?” Henry asked. “Do you feel any better?”

“Oh no,” Ethan said. “Much worse. Amelia must remain imprisoned, for the good of the world. Pitman offered to let me shoulder his burden. Offered me a chance for absolution…” He sighed. “But I can’t do it, Henry. All I can do is pray—pray for God to forgive me, and for Pitman to keep his strength.”

“If you’d rather go, I can make it to the clinic by myself. I’m a big boy, you know.”

Ethan shook his head. “It can wait until morning, along with something else I have to do.”

“What?”

“Retrieving some money. A sizable amount.” Ethan smiled sadly as he pushed open the heavy church door. “I need to make a donation.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Will Weisser is a professional software developer and part-time author from Cherry Hill, NJ. His other interests include training in mixed martial arts, playing guitar, and compulsively scouring Wikipedia. Despite all that, he’s managed to publish a novella titled Epic Fantasy 0.9b on Amazon, as well as complete an as-yet unpublished science fiction novel.

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