Elliott Kalan’s reedy voice bounced off the walls leading up to Dan’s apartment. Usually, Elliott waited until he was actually in the apartment, arms laden with boxes of fried chicken, before he started squealing excitedly about one thing or the other.
“Did he say something about a castle?” Stuart asked Dan.
“I don’t know,” Dan sighed. They’d been waiting for the tardy Mr. Kalan for twenty minutes. Dan had a podcast to record; time was ticking and, well, this was serious business. Yes, Elliott had a new baby at home. Yes, Elliott was the head writer for a major cable comedy program. Yes, their bad movie podcast was most likely about as far down on Elliott’s priority list as anything else not directly related to family or income. Yes to all that. But, come on. Bad movie podcast!
Elliott threw open the door, sending Dan’s cat scurrying into the kitchen.
“Sorry I’m late,” Elliott cried, “But, hold on to your butts! You will not believe what I just found out!”
“You’re inheriting a castle?” Stuart said from his position on the sofa.
“Y – wait, how did you know?” Elliott asked.
“You were bellowing it as you ran up the stairs,” Stuart replied.
“Right! That. Yes.,” Elliott said, “Sorry, it’s just been a bit of a whirlwind.”
“Are we going to be able to start soon?” Dan asked fiddling with the microphones, “And where’s the chicken?”
“Forget the chicken!” Elliott said, “Forget the chicken, forget the mics and forget the podcast! This is bigger than any of that! Guys! I’m -”
“Inheriting a castle, yes, we know,” Dan said.
“It’s more than that,” Elliott said, “I’m inheriting a castle and we’re all going!”
Stuart leaned forward, his beer momentarily forgotten. “Explain, dude.”
“Okay, I know I’ve mentioned this to you guys before,” Elliott began, “But the Kalans have a deep deep cultural history in Ireland.”
“Wait, what?!” Stuart said.
“Yeah, there’s a huge Jewish presence out on the moors. Watch out we don’t bite you, or you’ll turn into a Were-Jew.”
“Is that, like, a man who only turns Jewish once a month?” Stuart asked.
“No, it’s just a guy who’s half Jewish. Like, his dad was Jewish and he never went to Hebrew school. Werrrrre-Jeeewwwww! Watch out! Don’t get bitten or you’ll be suuuuuch a disappointment to your mottttthhhherrr!” Elliott waggled his fingers in Dan’s face.
“I have a feeling we’re all disappointments to our mothers,” Dan said.
“Well, don’t bring the room down, Dan,” Elliott said, “I’m trying to explain my Irish heritage and my wonderful new castle.”
“Why do you get an Irish castle?” Dan said, “I’m the McCoy! Shouldn’t I get an Irish castle?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Dan,” Elliott said, “Why don’t you hop in a time machine and ask your ancestors to work harder? ‘Hey, Seamus McCoy!'” Elliott mimed knocking on a door, “‘Open up! It’s me, your great great great great grandson, Dan! Uh, I’m here to shame you for not being nobility! What? You want to burn me as a witch?’ Sorry, Dan, you’ve been burned as a witch.”
“Look,” Dan said, trying to get things back on track, “Did you or did you not actually -”
“Yes, Dan, it’s what I’ve been trying to explain to you. Castle O’Kalan has stood for hundreds of years, being passed from O’Kalan to O’Kalan by complicated lineage. I got a call this morning from a solicitor who informed me that my fifth uncle three-times removed -”
“That’s not really a thing,” Dan interrupted.
“My fifth uncle, three-times removed,” Elliott continued, “just passed away -”
“What was his name?” Dan asked.
“Uh, Dudley O’Kalan,” Elliott said.
Stuart choked on his beer.
“Dudley O’Kalan died in a mysterious accident. Apparently, through the twistings and turnings of our complicated, um, Torah-based Irish inheritance system, his castle falls to me. But, in order to claim my inheritance, I have to spend a night in Castle O’Kalan. However, I’m allowed to bring two retainers to spend the night with me and I choose you guys!”
“So, wait,” Stuart said, “does that make you a Lord? Are you Lord Elliott?”
“Yes, I’m a Dark Lord of the Sith. Darth Heritor. Because, by Sith naming convention I have to take a word that begins with “In” and remove the prefix. Beware my psychotic inheriting abilities.”
“Elliott,” Dan said, “We can’t just pack up and head out to Ireland. We have lives, jobs, families.”
“It’s one night, Dan. We’ll fly in, get to the castle – we’ll be so jetlagged, we’ll probably just fall asleep, wake up and the castle will be mine! I’ll have a castle and it’ll all be thanks to you two!”
“Can’t you ask your brother to go with you?”
“David? No, he’s not allowed to set foot on Irish soil.”
“Stop bringing up painful family secrets, Dan!”
“But, I – ”
“So,” Stuart interjected, “When do we leave?”
“I got us three tickets to Ireland, leaving tonight!”
“Tonight?!” Dan said, “I can’t just leave tonight! I have stuff I need to -”
“Tonight!” Elliott repeated.
“That’s cool,” Stuart said, “Can I finish my beer?”
At seven the next morning, Dan, Stuart and Elliott – jet-lagged, achy and in the case of one of them maybe a bit hung-over – were packed in a cab and heading across Ireland for Castle O’Kalan. Their driver – an old man named Bill – was chattier than they were hoping, but pleasant enough. He had many tales about the moors surrounding Castle O’Kalan, which the men listened to as well as they could.
“And, that, lads, is why they say to never wear a shawl after sundown by Castle O’Kalan!” Bill let loose an uproarious laugh.
“That’s great,” Elliott responded. His extreme fatigue was beginning to wear on his sanity a bit. He wished he could sleep, but excitement combined with anticipation was making that impossible. Also, being hemmed in by his two compatriots on either side. Stuart was snoring lightly and Dan just stared out the window with a semi-shellshocked look on his face.
“So,” Bill said, “What bring ye lads out to Castle O’Kalan? Doin’ a wee bit o’ sightseein’?”
“Actually,” Elliott said, “My name is Elliott Kalan. I’m a descendant of Dublin O’Kalan, the original builder of the castle. I found out yesterday that I’m inheriting it.”
Bill didn’t slam on the breaks, but he did take his foot off the gas pedal and let the car slow to a halt.
“You’re inheriting Castle O’Kalan?” he asked. Elliott noticed that all the color had drained from Bill’s face.
“Uh, yep,” Elliott said.
“I – I’m sorry boys,” Bill said, “But, I’m going to have to ask you to leave my vehicle.”
Dan, who had been lost in his own thoughts, suddenly looked around.
“Hey, did we stop?” he asked.
“Yes, Dan,” Elliott said, “About five minutes ago.”
“Why are you getting out of the car?” Dan asked.
“Because Bill here has asked us to,” Elliott replied.
Dan looked at Bill. The old man’s eyes were watery and his hands were trembling as he opened the trunk and took the three suitcases out, setting them gently on the ground.
“Wait, you can’t ask us to leave your cab,” Dan said, “That has to be illegal or something! We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
“Geez, Dan,” Elliott said, “It’s modern Ireland. Way to insult this man’s entire history. Your country is a vast wasteland! We’re all in danger of being eaten by a grue!”
“Elliott,” Dan snapped, “We are at least ten miles from the castle. At least! We’re tired. Hungry. Stuart is barely able to hold himself up! How are we going to make it all the way to Castle O’Kalan? How?!”
Ten minute later, the cab was speeding away behind them and Dan, Stuart and Elliott were dragging their bags up the dirt road to Castle O’Kalan.
“I wish you dudes had woken me up sooner,” Stuart said, “I’d have tossed that cabbie around a bit. Maybe hijacked his wheels. We’d be sitting pretty all the way to the castle.”
“You’re drunk, Stuart,” Dan said.
“I’m not drunk,” Stuart shot back, “I’m hungover and angry!”
“No, no,” Elliott said, “Dan was calling you Drunk Stuart. You’re Drunk Stuart, he’s Mopey Dan and I’m Computer Kalan. We’re the new members of the Burger King Kid’s Club. Except, I should really be in a wheelchair. I’m Wheels Kalan. The gang just calls me ‘Wheels!’ I’m a computer whiz!”
“Why are you in a wheelchair?” Stuart asked.
“Per Nineties cartoon convention, every group of characters numbering more than five, has to have at least one kid in a wheelchair,” Elliott answered.
“Then, wait, was there always a drunk?” Dan asked, “I don’t remember many drunk kids on television in the nineties.”
“Well, of course you couldn’t see their illness, Dan. Geez. Alcoholism can be a silent addiction. Not all alcoholics are hilarious Andy Griffith Show caricatures. Have a little compassion!”
“But, I’m -“
“Any other groups you’d like to rag on? We’ve got quite a walk ahead of us. MAybe you’d like to dip into orphans.”
“Gross, dude,” said Stuart.
“Forget it,” Dan said.
“I’m just curious,” Stuart continued, “As to what you said to our cabbie that made him take off like that.”
“Nothing!” Elliott said, “I just mentioned that I’m inheriting Castle O’Kalan, he stopped the car, told us to get out and drove off! That’s all! I didn’t insult his mother or anything!”
“Maybe you should have,” Stuart said, “Maybe he’d be into that.”
The three men walked in silence for the next few miles.
“You know,” Dan said, “I would have thought we’d have seen some other cars or something by now. This isn’t exactly a deserted spot and Castle O’Kalan is listed as a semi-popular tourist attraction.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Dan,” Elliott said, “I’m a powerful man but I don’t have control over the world’s cars just yet.”
“I’m just saying,” Dan started.
“Maybe they’re all at work,” Stuart said. “It’s a Friday and people usually work on Fridays. That’s a worldwide phenomenon, right? Work on Friday? It’s not some isolated American thing?”
“Yeah, these kooky Irish with their four-day work-weeks and easily frightened cabbies,” Elliott said, “Those are probably the two biggest Irish stereotypes: short work-weeks and easily spooked. That’s why the Notre Dame mascot is a leprechaun hiding behind a bush watching TV while outside the window you see kids going to school.”
“That’s a fairly convoluted shorthand for ‘four-day work week’,” Dan said.
“Well, in the fast-paced world of mascot design, you’ve got to hit your audience with your message and move on,” Elliott said, “If your sports team mascot doesn’t convey a) your contempt for a specific culture and b) how many days a week that culture works, it ain’t doing its job!”
Three hours later, Castle O’Kalan came into view.
“Thank god,” Dan said.
“Wow,” Elliott added.
“So,” Stuart threw in, “no one’s made a ‘Castle Freak’ joke, yet, because we’re not talking for the benefit of an audience, but if I may: ‘If that were my castle, I’d freak.'”
Indeed. The pictures the guys had found of Castle O’Kalan had in no way prepared them for the sheer immensity and presence of the ancient edifice. The structure stood at the end of the road, in the middle of a foggy landscape, surrounded by modern fencing. A small parking lot stood off to one side, but it was clear of any vehicles. The castle itself was large, grey, ugly and intimidating. Ivy clung to its sides. The windows, few though they were, betrayed no sign of life. Castle O’Kalan stood as a silent sentry. But, against what?
“Were we supposed to meet anyone here?” Dan asked.
“The solicitor told me a caretaker lived on the grounds,” Elliott said, “But, I don’t see any lights on inside. Maybe, he has a separate house or something.”
“Welp,” said Stuart, heading for the door, “Only one way to find out.”
“Find out what?” Dan asked.
“Whether or not this place is filled with g-g-g-ghosts!” Stuart answered. He rapped on the heavy wooden door.
There was a pause. Stuart had lifted his arm to pound again on the door, when the sound of a latch being thrown broke the silence. A loud metallic clanking noise filled the gloom and suddenly the door began to creak open, seemingly of its own accord. It scraped against the ground and the men could see that it was being pulled open by a series of chains and weights. Obviously, someone was inside operating a crank of some sort.
“Someone must be inside, operating a crank of some sort,” Dan said.
“Obviously,” Elliott replied.
The door stopped moving and stood open. Simultaneously, the guys leaned forward, trying to see through into the darkness.
“Hel-” Dan began, when a figure stuck his head around the door.
“Gah!” the guys cried out. Elliott pinwheeled his arms, lost his balance and sat down hard in the dirt. It wasn’t the sudden appearance of the man that had thrown him, but the fact that – except for the gray hair, mustache and stooped shoulders – he looked just like Elliott!
“Welcome,” the man said, “to Castle O’Kalan.”
Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled.
“Things just got spooky,” Stuart pointed out.
“My name,” said the old Elliott-looking man as he poured the three guys cups of hot tea, “Is Dilbert O’Kalan.”
“That’s not a real name,” Dan said.
The old man looked up at Dan, “Sure it is, lad. My father before me was Smedley O’Kalan. His father was Scoop O’Kalan. Going back hundreds of years, the O’Kalans have had a presence on this island. ‘Twasn’t until the 1880s when Hawley O’Kalan set sail to Ellis Island to found the first – and, sadly, last – O’Kalan’s Haberdashery and Locksmithery, that we had a presence outside Ireland. Hawley’s people soon dropped the ‘O’ prefix. Wanted their name to sound a little less ‘ethnic’ they said. Hm. Well, in any case, he took with him to the States a branch of the inheritance line to this castle. See, it’s not a direct inheritance.”
Dilbert pulled a large, rolled-up piece of parchment out of a case by his feet. Carefully, he unrolled it on the thick wooden table around which the men were seated. On the parchment, lines intersected one another. Strange symbols and marking indicating who-knows-what seemed scattered across the surface as if at random.
“What the heck is this?” Stuart asked.
“This is the lineage calculator we use to determine inheritance in the O’Kalan family. It goes back to antiquity. Takes three scholars a year to calculate a single inheritance. That’s why we O’Kalans have learned to forgo the complicated process and make sure we don’t possess anything when we die. ‘Live Hard, Die Poor, Skip The Complicated Inheritance Process’ is what it says on our Coat of Arms. In Latin or somesuch. In any case, this is the map of your lineage, young Elliott. See? There you are in the whole morass.”
Elliott, who had been strangely quiet since Dilbert had answered the door, followed the old man’s finger to a triangular symbol on the parchment. In the middle of the triangle, a circle was drawn with lines radiating outward from its center.
“What does that symbol mean?” Elliott asked.
“Oh,” said Dilbert, suddenly looking apprehensive, “just, um, inheritor or something. Nothing. It’s a symbol. So. According to the rules of inheritance, you and your retainers have to spend one night in Castle O’Kalan in order for the castle to come into your possession. If you leave the castle for any length of time and for any reason, you forfeit . . . your claim.”
“Why did you pause just then?” Stuart asked.
“Pause just when?” Dilbert asked back.
“Before you said ‘your claim.’ It sounded like you were gong to maybe say something else and then you stopped yourself and said ‘your claim.’ Were you maybe going to, I dunno, threaten Elliott? Maybe say ‘your life’ or something instead?”
“No,” Dilbert said innocently, “Just, um, picking my words carefully is all.”
With one grand gesture, he swept the parchment up, rolled it back into a tube and secreted it away in his case.
“The castle has rudimentary toileting facilities, is lit only by candles and there is no cell reception or wi-fi. You are, for all intents and purposes, isolated. The larder is stocked for a day or two of eating. I will be leaving now and returning in the morning. If you leave the castle . . . I’ll know.”
“How will you-” Dan began.
“I’ll know!” Dilbert interrupted, “Rooms are upstairs. Three beds have been set up for you. Supplies for your quarters will be found in footlockers a the ends of each of your beds. This includes candles, matches, extra sheets, towels, etcetera. Any questions?”
The guys looked at each other.
“Uh, none,” Elliott finally said.
“Wonderful,” Dilbert said, “then enjoy your stay in Castle O’Kalan! And, I’ll see you on the morrow.”
And, with that, Dilbert left the castle and they were alone.
“That guy,” Stuart said, “Is the worst guy.”
“I know,” Dan added, “At first I thought he would be all helpful and charming, but then he ended up being condescending and kind of creepy.”
“Well,” said Elliott, “let’s get settled in. I’m so tired, I can barely think straight. I don’t even have a quippy comment for Dan.”
“I’d noticed,” Stuart said, “Are you feeling okay?”
Elliott thought for a second, “I was going to say ‘yes’ but that’d be a lie. I feel weird in here, guys. I’m kinda sorry I dragged you into this.”
Dan looked his friend in the eyes, “Elliott, it’s just a creepy old castle. We’re going to be fine. Nothing will hurt us and if anything tries, we’ll help each other out.”
Elliott looked back at Dan, “What are you talking about? Of course nothing’s going to hurt us! I’m not five, Dan. I know the Goosebumps books aren’t real! I meant I’m sorry I pulled you away from your lives, not dragged you into a haunted charnel house! Geez!”
Elliott walked into the hallway, “Let’s go find our rooms! Dan, I’ll try to make sure yours doesn’t have a secret passageway behind the bookcase with skeletons hiding inside! OooooOOOooooH!”
Dan just sighed and followed.
“I’ll see you guys in the morning!” Dan called out of his doorway. His room proved to be less creepy than he’d anticipated. It was round, with a stone floor and walls. One small window looked out over the fog-shrouded landscape. A beautiful crimson rug ran most of the length of the room and decorative pennants hung from the stone walls. His bed was a large fourposter with an overstuffed mattress. An ancient brown chest rested at the foot of the bed.
Opening the chest, Dan felt a chill across the back of his neck.
“Great,” he said out loud, “A draft. That’s just what I need.”
The chest contained the candles and matches as promised. Also extra sheets and pillowcases. A small flashlight. And, curiously, a leather-bound journal and pencil. The journal was blank.
“Guess if I get in the mood to write, I’m taken care of.”
It was early evening, but the activity of the day had left Dan completely wiped out. He lit three candles, changed out of his travel clothes and threw on his pajamas. Normally, he’d stick with boxers and a t-shirt, but the draft he’d felt earlier made him realize how chilly it was growing. Strangely, it hadn’t been cold at all when they’d entered the castle, but now a strong chill was creeping up his spine. Even standing on the rug, Dan could feel the cold in his feet. He put on a pair of socks, grabbed his laptop and settled into bed.
Despite the lack of wi-fi, Dan had plenty of movies stored on his hard drive and he’s decided to pop one on as he fell asleep. Secretly, this was how Dan preferred to watch a film: on a small screen, through earbuds, all by himself. The guys were great and he loved his wife, but Dan knew the best audience was an audience of one. He called it the “Danience.” Sometimes, when a movie was over, he’d say, “What did the Danience think about that?” And then, depending on what he had thought, he’d respond, “I give it two Dans up!” or “I give it two Dans down!” Then, he’d laugh. It always cracked him up.
Tonight, the movie of choice was an old favorite “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” He’d seen it a million times and Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of the crazed conquistador never failed to delight him as he drifted off to sleep. Unfortunately, his video player didn’t seem to be cooperating. He pressed ‘play’ over and over again, but no picture resolved itself on the screen.
“Come on!” Dan said, “Come on you stupid machine!” He clicked play again and again, but to no avail.
“Dang it!” he said, “Dang it all!”
Disgusted, he closed his laptop and turned to set it aside. That’s when he noticed the shape of the body in his sheets.
Dan’s blood went cold. There was someone under the sheets in the bed next to him. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman but he certainly hadn’t noticed anyone in the bed when he’d gotten in and no one had entered the room since he’d closed the door. And yet, by the flicker of the candlelight, there it was. A human form.
“I have to get out of the bed,” Dan thought to himself. He shifted his weight to one side and the body under the sheets . . . crawled. Just a bit. But, it crawled, pulling itself towards him with now visible hands and fingers. Dan’s heart began pounding. And the air in the room grew insanely cold. He breathed out and saw the frost form in the air in front of him.
Dan’s only thought now was to get to the door. Exit the room. Find the guys. The edge of his bed seemed miles away as he moved his leg to throw himself off.
The shape under the sheets scuttled toward him.
The shape froze.
“Help,” he said, but his words were barely a chocked whisper.
“Hhhhhhllllp,” a voice came from under the sheets.
“Go . . . go away,” Dan said to the thing.
“Guuuhhhhhh whhhhhaaaaay,” the thing repeated at him.
Remembering the laptop in his hands, Dan raised the computer above his head and quickly brought it down onto the shape.
Not quickly enough.
A strong wind blew through the room, extinguishing the candles and causing the sheets to rise like a wave at the beach. Underneath, the body was visible, embedded in the other side. A desiccated corpse formed from the folds and weave of the bedding. It was a tangible nightmare; its face rotting and peeling away, it’s eye sockets dark holes and its teeth. It’s teeth gaped open in a silent scream or in a desperate hunger. Flapping as if propelled by an unfelt wind, the sheet corpse flew at Dan, wrapping his body in a constricting squeeze. Dan tried to cry out, but he felt the air crushed from his lungs. The sheet covered his face, and even in the darkness Dan could see the other face looking at him. It’s mouth so hungry. It’s eyes so empty. The cloth around him felt like arms, but too many arms. As his consciousness faded, he continued to kick and struggle against the thing in his bed.
Five minutes later, the sheets floated to the ground. The candles relit. And Dan was nowhere to be found.