They’d started late. The baby had spit up something, so they waited to see if he was sick, but he wasn’t. So they left anyway but not On the Dot of Six like Dad had said. A lot later.
The van sped down the highway, then rolled along blacktop roads, then crept down a gravel track crowded by dark trees. “It’s not the end of the world if we don’t finish the hike,” Mom said. “If it starts getting dark, we can just turn around.”
Dad didn’t say anything.
Toni sat in the back by the baby, watching him kick at the air. She had a new backpack with her own bottle for water, her own small flashlight, and purple plastic binoculars. She wore a hat, and her face was smeared with sunscreen. She was excited.
Now the van pulled up by a tiny log building. A smiling woman in a ranger hat stuck out her head, took some money, and handed Dad a trail map. Then she glanced at her watch, and her smile faded a little. “Now you be sure to get back before dark,” she said.
“Oh, of course,” said Mom. Her long hair was tied up under a wide-brimmed hat.
“Late start, so that might mean turning back early,” said the ranger.
“Nah, we’ll make it,” said Dad.
“But if we don’t, we’ll turn back,” said Mom. “I mean right? It’s not a competition.”
“That’s the right attitude,” said the ranger. “Ten years ago, when I was new at this job, a family like yours went out on this hike. But they stayed out after night fell, and”–she glanced at Toni, then leaned in and lowered her voice. Mom’s face became a worried frown.
The ranger straightened and smiled uneasily. “Anyway,” she said. “Made a big impression on me. So just make sure to get back before nightfall, all right?”
“Sure,” said Dad. “And if we don’t, we have a flashlight.”
“I’ll leave a light on for you,” the ranger said. She smiled as if she had made a joke. But Toni thought it wasn’t a real smile.
The beginning of the hike was all trees and going down and down for a long time. The air smelled woody, fresh and alive. Dad carried a pack with sandwiches and insect repellant and water; Mom carried the baby on her back.
The next part of the hike was long grass and yellow and pink flowers and a flat trail. Toni liked that. They walked a long time. Then came a bad part of the hike, which was more trees, thicker and older ones, and a trail that went up and up forever.
Toni didn’t like this part, but you Shouldn’t Complain. Once they stopped and ate tuna fish sandwiches.
After a while, their shadows got long, and the birds woke up to dart and sing around them. Mom said, “I wonder if we should turn back.“
“We’re almost there,” said Dad. His eyes were bright. He was looking ahead, and not looking at them.
Mom jogged to catch up with him, bouncing the baby on her back. Toni heard her say, “But remember what the ranger said about . . . ” She couldn’t hear any more.
Dad was wrong, it wasn’t almost, it was a long while yet. In that long while, as they trudged on, Toni watched her parents’ shadows grow spindly-tall and monstrous. Even the baby’s shadow-arms were long and thin, waving on the green and yellow grass.
Finally they came to an enormous lake, gray in the slanting light. “This is it,” said Dad.
“I’m gonna take off my shoes and socks and put my feet in!” said Toni.
Her mother looked hard at her father.
“Ah, I think we need to head back right away, buddy,” Dad said. “The walk took a little longer than I thought. We want to get back before dark.” He looked at her mom, and his look said Sorry. “We should probably head back right now, actually,” he said.
“But I’m hungry,” said Toni.
“Grab an apple and eat it on the way.”
They walked down and down, and they walked flat, till Toni was tired of walking. The shadows went away, and the light turned clear and strange, then dim and dimmer. Then light was hard to see in; then it was almost gone. The birds went away.
When they came into trees again, the light was gone.
Dad switched on his flashlight. “Well, now we’re in for it,” he said, in a voice like a joke. But no one laughed, and after a while he said, “We’re fine, you guys. Come on. It’s the same place we just walked through, only now it’s dark. It’s the exact same place—it wasn’t scary an hour ago.”
But it was scary now. The night had fallen on them, the night held them in its black jaws. Far above, wind rushed through the tops of trees like a long sigh, then went silent. The flashlight played ahead of them, worrying in all the corners of the trail as it ran down and down and down.
At least it isn’t the going up part anymore, Toni thought.
“Toni?” said her mother suddenly.
“Stay right by me,” said Mom. “Hold onto the strap of my pack and don’t let go.”
Toni watched the patch of light running along the ground ahead of them like a ghost.
“Should we sing?” said Mom.
No one answered. The night was like a black wool blanket wrapped all around them.
The ghost-light raced up the path, growing smaller and smaller. “I can’t move that fast with the kids,” said Mom. “Slow down.”
“Hang on,” said Dad. His voice was farther away. “I think I heard something.”
“Don’t go far,” said Mom. “We shouldn’t separate. Remember what the ranger. . . besides, we need the light.”
“Not going far,” said Dad.
“Toni, hold onto that strap,” said her mother.
The light was a small bobbing thing now, a glowing apple far up the path. It moved to the left, played against trees. Dad’s voice: “I just want to see—“
The light went out.
There was silence.
“Honey?” said Mom. Her voice was high. “Anything wrong?”
“Steve?” she called, louder.
Silence, except the night insects, and the sighing, invisible wind.
“Steven!” she shouted.
The backpack strap yanked out of Toni’s hand; she heard steps, running along the dirt. “Mom!” Toni called. She was too afraid to move. The steps stopped. There was a long silence. They listened to each other breathing hard.
“Toni.” Mom’s voice, finally. “Do you still have that flashlight?
Toni kneeled down to open her backpack, feeling around blindly inside. By the time she had it in her hand and the pack shrugged back on, the warmth of Mom’s big, safe body was at her side. They found each other’s hands in the dark, and Mom clicked the flashlight on, shone it around. It only made a little egg of light, compared to Dad’s, but it was something.
Together, Mom and Toni and the baby walked a few yards in the darkness, calling for Dad. The toy flashlight ran a dot of light across the trees, then along the ground among the trees, where it picked out bark, a leaf, a black shape, a stone. They walked and called for a long time.
Mom told Toni to wait for a minute with the baby while she walked off the trail. Toni sat on the ground, holding the baby’s soft, drool-wet face by her own, and closed her eyes. “Keep talking,” she said.
“I’m here, it’s fine, I won’t stop talking,” said her mother from the trees.
After a while, Mom came back, with a new, darker silence around her, and put the baby on her back again. Together they walked down the dark trail. “We’re getting help,” said Mom. Her voice came fierce out of the dark above Toni, like she was arguing with someone. “We’re getting help, people with big lights and megaphones, people who know this area, who can help find him.”
Their feet crunched over stones. Even walking down as they were, it was hard to keep up with Mom right now. “Is he dead?” Toni asked.
“Of course he’s not dead,” said her mother sharply. “Why would you say something like that? He probably just twisted his ankle or something.”
“Then why doesn’t he answer us?”
“Are you holding on to that strap? Hold tight. Just hold tight.”
It had been hot in the day, but now the cool wind felt around your sleeves and collar for a place to slip in. Toni felt like her eyes were as wide as they could go, but still she saw nothing at all, unless she looked up and saw stars.
They walked for a long time. “Mama, I’m really tired.”
“Honey, I can’t carry you both.” The sound of her hiking the baby higher on her back, tightening the straps.
Then the flashlight went out.
“It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t enough light to make a difference anyway.”
The cold air felt clammy on Toni’s faces. She zipped up her jacket higher. “Mom. What did the ranger lady say about that other—“
“Oh, nothing. Some old story. Keep up, honey. We’re going to walk a little faster. Are you holding onto the strap?”
Toni was starting to feel confused about up and down, ground and sky. The black trees were closing in around them, with their insect whisperings, with their low, scary night-bird calls.
“Look!” said Mom.
Toni looked. Far ahead, in the black distance, was a tiny glowing light.
“We’re there!” said Mom. She sounded like she might be crying a little. “We’re there, that’s the ranger station, we’re almost there. As long as you have something glowing to walk toward, you’re all right. So we’re all right.”
The baby, who had been so good all day, started crying. But at least that silenced the trees, the birds. They walked toward the glow, hearing only their crunching steps and the baby’s sobs.
Toni’s shoe came loose. She bent down in the dark, feeling for the shoestrings, pulling them tight across her foot.
Abruptly, the baby stopped crying. At that same moment, Toni realized she had let go of the strap.
“Mom?” she said.
First she said it in a small voice. Then she said it louder, in case Mom hadn’t heard.
But there was no answer, only insect whispers and animal breaths and the sighs of trees.
“Mom!” she screamed. She screamed it again. She screamed for her mother, over and over, eyes closed tight, shoe untied, feet planted on rocky dirt she hoped was the path. Toni screamed for her mom until she could only whisper, but she kept whispering, she wouldn’t stop, she whispered against the dark.
She opened her eyes and saw that tiny glow down the path.
As long as you have something glowing to walk toward, you’re all right.
She walked again, blind in the breathing dark.
Getting help. People with big lights and megaphones. I will be the one who saves them.
She looked up between the waving shadows of tree and saw the trail of wild, cold stars. She looked back at the glowing light.
“Mom?” she whispered, over and over. “Mom?”
Or they’ll be there, and they’ll save me. Someone will save someone.
Toni walked toward the light, down and down the sloping trail. Sometimes her path wavered, so that she stumbled against a tree or brush, but then she straightened herself again. Once she stumbled over something soft, too soft for the rough forest, but she didn’t stop to pick it up.
Didn’t stop to find that it was shreds of a baby blanket.
As long as you have a something glowing to walk toward. As long as, as long as.
The cold hand of the wind slipped around her throat. A rock sprang up in front of her foot and she slipped and fell, tumbling down the sloping trail.
Toni sat in the blackness, crying a little, holding her hurt knee, thinking.
The trail was going down. But when they had started the trail, they’d been going down.
So if they were nearly back at the ranger place, the trail should be going up.
So why was the trail going down? she wondered. And if wasn’t the ranger station, who was making that light?
As if in answer, the light grows larger. The light is walking toward her now, brighter, bigger by the second.
And with the light comes a sound, a terrible sound, a sort of gurgling moan, half like a laugh, half like a strangled scream.
Toni’s almost blind again now, not from dark this time, but from the light in her eyes. But before she goes quite blind, she sees something behind the light. Three tall, black figures are coming toward her, elongated as afternoon shadows. The creatures are reaching out towards her with their long, spindly arms, making raspy growls in the back of their throats, gurgling, laughing, strangling back their own excited screams.
Mom, Toni whispers, as the long, thin arms snake towards her.
But then it’s dark again.
And then it’s dark forever.
It starts when you feel a little tickle on your right ankle. You’re lying on the couch, reading a book, and then this little . . . tickle. Small as a cat’s whisker.
But the cat’s not around.
It’s a good book, so you don’t think about it.
But then—ugh—you feel the tickle moving. The little tickle is climbing up your leg, right up onto your calf.
Too late, though. It’s already crawled up to your knee, the soft, inside part of the knee, and it’s scratching away there. You’re sitting up now, trying to sort of reach up inside your pants’ leg to get it . . .
. . . but now you feel another tickle on your collarbone, like something walking across your collarbone on tiny insect feet.
Ugh, GROSS. You reach to pinch it off, to get it off you, but it’s already scurried down lower, inside your shirt. And now there’s another one on your other ankle—no, that one’s fast, it’s already up your calf. And the collarbone one is already tickling down your breastbone, straight down toward your navel.
Now you’re on your feet, of course. The book’s on the floor half open, its pages bent. There are so many little tickles now—god, one’s in your hair—and you claw at your hair: get it out, get it out.
Then you realize that you said that out loud, you shouted it, actually, and you’re still shouting, GET IT OUT! GET THEM OFF ME!
Clawing at your hair, you grab one of the little creatures. YES. You GOT it. But did you get it? Or did it get you? Because you can feel tiny, clawlike fingers and toes clinging to your index finger.
So you look at your hand, at the thing that’s wrapping itself around your finger. It isn’t a centipede; it isn’t a roach; it isn’t a horrid little spider. It isn’t anything you’d imagined.
It’s a human sort of thing, but tiny, and dull gray all over, with thick black stripes, and hands and feet like little claws. It has a sort of face, with shiny black eyes like tiny stones in its head. And it’s wearing a tiny black hat.
You look at the thing. It looks at you. Its dark gray lips twist up in a grin, exposing little black needle-sharp fangs.
Then, without warning it scuttles down your hand and up your arm, inside your sleeve.
And now you scream for real.
Because you see them, now, you see them all: streaming out of the walls, marching out of that faint crack in the ceiling, pouring out of the stuffing of the couch you were just lying on so comfortably. They’re running toward you on their tiny feet, hundreds of them, thousands.
Why are they here? Who are they? You don’t know. And honestly, right now you don’t have time to think about stuff like that.
Because the one on your stomach is biting. It bites hard. It hurts so much, so shockingly much, the pain radiates from your stomach throughout your body like an electrical field. For a moment you’re paralyzed with pain, you can’t move, you can only feel the agonizing pain, and behind it the tiny claw-hands and claw-feet that scamper over every part of your body.
Now, on your thigh, another bite. At your soft throat: another bite.
You scream and scream and you run out your front door. HELP ME, you’re screaming. THEY’RE ON ME! THEY’RE BITING!
Screaming, you fall down on the street, rolling on the hard surface, trying to crush the horrid, grinning little biters. But it’s as if they’re made of rubber or something—they won’t crush. They spring right back, and dig back in with their poison-needle fangs.
Neighbors are out now, they’ve run to you on the street, and from the way they stop short, from their horrified faces, you have a flash of what you must look like: red face, bulging eyes, rolling on the street, screaming Stop them, it hurts, they’re hurting me.
The neighbors call an ambulance, of course, and the ambulance takes you away. The ambulance people say things that make no sense, and they don’t help you, they don’t get them off you at all.
You’re at the hospital, and your parents have come, and your mom is crying. But are they here right now? she asks, do you feel them even right now?
And you, clawing and slapping and flapping at yourself under the sheets: Yes, of COURSE they’re here now, can’t you see them, look, just LOOK.
And your dad says, really soft, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but we can’t see them. No one else can see them, kiddo. Don’t you think—
But just then one of them bites you extra-hard, and you scream, and the nurse comes running in. Now your dad is crying, too.
You pull up your shirt, for the millionth time that day, and scream, Look! Look! Will somebody just look? Look at them and look what they’re doing to me! You look down at your stomach, the writhing gray creatures with their little black claws and evil grins, at your skin with its swelling blisters and oozing sores.
You looks at your parents, you look at the nurse.
And your mother says wetly, through the tissue at her nose, But there’s nothing, honey, there’s nothing at all.
And the nurse says, I’ve got a sedative here, that will help, at least for a while.
And as the drug takes effect, you hear a voice saying—and is it your voice? it might be—saying, They’re on me, get them off . . get them off . . .
The strange tale which I am about to recount took place many years ago, in the summer of 19—, upon my return from university in Hertfordshire for the summer. My parents, as you will recall, had died in my youth, and I was staying with my aunt, who, being of busy disposition and not entirely sound mind, had decided to abandon a handsome rental in St. Albans and move north to the country, for no particular reason other than that she felt it might be a pleasant change. She had purchased a snug house in Ivydale and was eager to get there as soon as possible.
She had been hasty in her decision, however, and had completely overlooked making arrangements with the landlord concerning the St. Albans lease, not to mention paying her debts at the shops and saying goodbye to the bridge club and farewell to the postman and the milkman and the woman who did her cleaning on Wednesdays. She asked whether I wouldn’t travel up a few days early to make sure the house was weather-tight and all was in order, and she would follow directly after. I said yes, of course, Aunty, I’d be happy to.
In truth I was utterly miserable at the prospect.
Ivydale, as it happens, was the town where my Aunt grew up, and it was also the town where my parents had lived, and thus, of course, where I had lived with them when they were alive. I had fond memories of sunny lanes and ripe, buzzing fields, and now that I was older and reasonable, and viewed everything exactly as it was, I feared I would find the town dull and commonplace, and all my recollections would be tainted. But I was in no position to argue with my aunt, being little better than a charity case, and having found university rather a lonely place full of clever, frightening people, I decided to make the most of this latest inconvenience. I packed my satchel and took the train up first thing the next morning.
I had sent a telegram ahead to what friends I could still remember from my years in Ivydale. I did not expect to see any of them, but upon stepping off the train, four familiar faces were there to greet me. There was Jenny, who had shared a desk with me in the first year of school. There was Bill, who had been a braggart in the play-yard, and was still a braggart now. He told me straightaway he had ‘thought about leaving this dowdy old town’, but did I know, the money here was so much better than in the bigger places? I found this claim to be dubious. Then there was Oliver, who thought himself superior to all of us because he had been stationed in London at the very tail-end of the war, and there was his own acquaintance, a dour boy named Hackford, who I did not know and who was very quiet and long in the face.
We went on a short trip ’round Ivydale to our old haunts – the brook along the town’s border, a red-brick bridge and the weeping willows, Mrs. Whyst’s Cake Shop – and we were rather a loud, uncommonly merry group compared to what I was used to. I was in good spirits and happy to find the town mostly unchanged since I had last been there. It was still tiny, and leafy, bleeding effortlessly from grass to dusty lane and back again. The people had grown a bit grayer and more wrinkled since my last visit here, and there was now a train station, but otherwise progress seemed to have passed Ivydale by completely, without so much as a general store or movie theater deposited in its wake.
After several hours, I told my friends of the reason for my coming here, and of my Aunt’s new abode. When I told them its address, they agreed to accompany me there and to inspect whether it was up to snuff for a lady from the City, though I noticed that Hackford looked up sharply when I mentioned the location of the place.
We went along the lane out of the center of town, laughing and talking. Jenny pointed out the house to me as we approached. It stood at the top of a low hill and was lovely from the outside, bright-white and neat, with climbing roses and a high, stone wall around the garden. The roof was steeply pitched and the shutters had been painted not long past.
I unlocked the door with the key my Aunt had supplied me, and we all crowded into the hall. The house was very small inside, dim and tight. A small parlor opening off one side of the entry and a cramped study on the other. I observed the air was musty and close, but I also observed that there was no dust on any of the furnishings. I wondered if someone had come up from the village to clean before our arrival. We resolved right away to open all the windows and give the place a good airing. We proceeded to go through the house, throwing the casements wide, and as we went Bill asked if I planned to stay here alone until my Aunt arrived. I said, of course I would, but with no great conviction and soon it happened as I had secretly hoped, and Oliver, Bill, and Hackford agreed to stay in the cottage the first night to keep me company. We each chose sleeping spaces for ourselves on the second floor and explored all the little rooms. The house was not small, really, but it had been partitioned so many times that it seemed almost like a collection of closets, opening one into another. Another oddity we noticed, and which Jenny commented on at once, was the fact that the previous owner, whose things were still everywhere, appeared to have had a fondness for little Victorian dolls and clowns. There were a total of fourteen of them lined up on a shelf in the parlor.
It came about evening, and we went down to the inn for a bite, and to the corner shop for basic supplies. Jenny left our group then, with a backward wave and a merry farewell, and we set off back to the house. When we returned, we found it just as we had left it, only I realized we ought to have closed the windows before going out, as a wind had kicked up in our absence and was flapping the curtains madly, and racing so strongly I was worried it might send some of the many baubles and dolls flying out into the night.
We hurried through the house, closing the panes against the wind. I noticed at once, when we had finished and were congregated again in the parlor, that the whole exercise had done very little good: the house still felt tight and tiny, and the air smelled musty, as if the very walls and furniture had closed their pores and cracks against any sort of invasion of fresh air or newness. I decided it must be the decor; Aunty had warned me the house would be just as it was when the previous owners lived in it and she said she was most assuredly going to throw everything away when she arrived and decorate the house to the modern style, but for the moment, I wouldn’t mind, would I?
And I had said, no, Aunty, of course not, I’m sure it will be lovely.
We stayed a while in the parlor, lit a lamp and spoke of old times under the watchful, beady little black eyes of the dolls and clowns, and when the clock on the mantel began chiming 10, we all rose and bid each other a good night. I thanked Bill and Oliver and Hackford for being good sports about the house, and was apologetic to its faults, and tried to make it clear that I was very grateful they were there.
Bill, no doubt deciding I was becoming soppy, went to wind the clock on the mantel.
“Don’t bother,” Oliver said. “You don’t want that loud old thing going off at all hours of the night. Let it wind down on its own.”
And then we all went upstairs, peculiarly hushed, as though we had suddenly said everything we could say. There were two bedrooms on the second floor, down a short, narrow corridor from the stairs, and I thought, of course, that we might split the space evenly. Oliver had different plans, however, and took one room to himself, insisting he was of the highest rank among us and thus entitled to it. This left Bill, Hackford and myself the room across the corridor from him. I explored the second story a bit longer after the others had lain down on their makeshift beds, and came upon a small bathroom, very old-fashioned, with nary a spigot or running water to speak of. I found there on the edge of the basin a small square of terry cloth, filthy and damp of the sort a gardener might use after a long day of toiling in the soil, and I wondered at it being left there when the rest of the house was so fastidiously clean.
I returned to the bedroom and there we sat up a while longer in the light of a monstrous old kerosene lamp and spoke.
“You know,” said Hackford, after a while of idle talk. “I don’t fancy this house. And I don’t think your aunt will either once she gets to know the place a bit.”
“What d’you mean?” I ask him.
“Shut up,” said Bill, but Hackford continued.
“The man who lived here before . . . he was an odd one. His wife had died, and then he became a bit warped, always smiling when he came down to the shop in town, always friendly. But he had this cold, glittering sort of gaze above his smile that would make your heart stop in your chest. None of us really liked him.”
“He was just an eccentric,” Bill said. “There was no ‘cold and glittering gaze’, or whatever you said. We didn’t know him well enough to dislike him.”
“Well, that’s all the reason one needs to dislike someone,” I said, hoping to sound clever. “Not knowing them, I mean. What happened to him? He moved, I suppose.”
“Yes,” said Bill, staring up at the ceiling. “Or died. He had grown incredibly large in an unhealthy sort of way. Liked those cakes of Mrs. Whyst’s. Skin like flaps of old cheese, last I saw him, wandering about town in an odd hat and an odd suit. Probably went off to a nursing home like old Mr. Beecham from the shops. You know Mr. Beecham?”
The conversation turned to other things and then died down altogether. After some time, I drifted off to sleep.
Slowly, I came to my senses again to the distinct sound of a clock, ticking, somewhere in the house.
I lay still for some minutes, trying to sort out where it was coming from. And after a while I became certain the ticking was from downstairs in the parlor
I sat up in bed. The room was very dark. I was in no mood to go downstairs, but I was sure Bill had said it was about to wind down. Why, then, was it still ticking? It seemed very loud, and suddenly there was sharp clang and I suppose it must have reached midnight for it began ringing incessantly. Bill shifted somewhere on the floor, but did not wake. I decided I could not return to sleep with this racket going off and so I climbed from the narrow bed, resolving to go downstairs and wind the clock down by hand.
I slipped out into the hall and down the stairs, shuddering somewhat; the walls seemed very close, and the doors did too, and it all combined to give me the impression that if anything dreadful were in this house it would have no option but to be uncomfortably close to me. I came to the parlor and stepped in. Sure enough, there on the mantel, the parlor clock was tick-tocking merrily away, almost too quickly, like a maniacal little seesaw. I went to it, found its key on the backside, and wound it down sharply. It is not wise to wind a clock down by hand, as it is likely to damage the gears, but I was tired and Aunty would not be needing the clock anyway. I twisted the key all the way to its end, hearing the gears grind and snap in protest, and then I set the clock back down and turned and stepped into the entry way.
I had hardly gone five steps when I heard a sound behind me, a swift, metallic clicking and the rasp of a key, and then a brushing sound, like fabric being drawn swiftly over the floor. I spun, just in time to see the clock falling from the mantel and shattering to the floor.
The silence that followed was quite sudden and complete, my heart hammering in my ears.
I stared at the clock on the floor, illuminated by moonlight through the tiny windows. I looked at the fourteen dolls and clowns on their high shelf. They seemed like a small jury, inspecting me. And where there more dolls now on the shelf, more than fourteen? I thought perhaps I should go into the parlor and see what had caused the fall, but for some reason I dared not step over the threshold. Feeling suddenly very cold, I forced myself to do it and hurried about, careful to avoid the glass on the floor. The windows were all firmly closed. I found no evidence of a slant on the mantel that might have caused the clock to slip. My mind went to Hackford suddenly, and I recalled his dower ways and sinister descriptions, and wondered if he was playing a practical joke on us. But Hackford was soundly asleep upstairs – I had stepped over his body on the way out of the room – and what a foolish thing it would be if one were not even awake to enjoy the aftermath of one’s wicked jokes.
I started slowly back up the stairs, pondering the clock. When I reached the second floor, I noticed at once a light coming from the bathroom at the end of the corridor. It was very faint and it wavered as if someone were walking in front of it. The door stood slightly open.
I spun away and went straightaway back to bed, taking care to note the measured breathing of Hackford and Bill. I burrowed under the covers and waited, and there was not a sound, nor a disturbance, until I fell asleep.
I woke the next morning refreshed and well-rested, as if nothing had occurred, and recounted my tale to the others.
“Don’t worry,” Bill said. “We’ll bin it all up.” And we set about doing just that, gathering the clock and all the hideous dolls, and putting them outside together with a great deal of other turn-of-the-century rubbish.
After some hours my friends departed and I sat in the kitchen for my dinner. Aunty would be arriving tomorrow. The house was in good order, though I was beginning to agree with Hackford that she would not like it. This last night I was to be on my own. I must say I dreaded it greatly. I recalled I had forgotten to ask any of them if they had used the bathroom late that night and I very much wish I had. The smashed clock was gone and so were the dolls, but I could not forget the words Hackford had said, about the man with skin like old cheese, always smiling, cold and glitt’ring, cold and glitt’ring. I imagined him pawing over all the little knickknacks, rocking in the chair, dusting the furniture, and I felt a trespasser entirely.
I went to bed early, determined to sleep soundly and wake soon, but it was not to be. Sometime in the night, a small creaking from the corridor pulled me from sleep. I sat bolt upright. It was the unmistakeable sound of footsteps, and not quiet, stealthy footsteps, but someone walking quite freely down the corridor, soles clacking on the wooden floor. I rose quickly, unsure what to do, and then I took up the great old lamp and crept out into the corridor. It was empty. I was terrified I would see some ruffian, the flash of a knife or a pistol, but no one was there.
I was sure I had not imagined it. The corridor was so small and narrow, and I distinctly remember the sound of someone striding down it, perhaps even wheezing breaths and great arms touching the walls.
I turned to look down the stairs. Turned to look to at the opposite end. . .
And what should I see but the light of the bathroom on again, flickering, and a sound: the unmistakable sound of someone shaving his face; the scratch of a razor and sweeping rasp of a brush in barber’s cream; and humming. High, shrill, deeply unpleasant humming, in time to the sound of the blade and the foam.
Broke my clock
I’ll snap his back
I froze, gripped by such cold terror I could scarcely breathe. The voice was real, neither imagined nor dreamed. I could hear the wheezing breaths again, and how the man seemed to swing around in the small space, a great beast in that tiny closet of a room. And as I watched I saw the toes of a pair of great black shoes, just peeking past the edge of the door, as the man stood before the mirror.
I turned slowly, meaning to go down the stairs and flee, but as I was turning the floor contrived to squeak loudly and the sound of the razor and the foam-brush stopped. So did the wheezing and so did the song. I stood frozen, the air around me electric, as if waiting in expectation for some untold horror to occur, and when I looked back over my shoulder I saw only the toes of the shoes, motionless before the sink, and a huge pale hand gripping a razor.
I fled for the stairs, clattered down them, and coming to the front hall, rattled at the door. It was locked by my own hand, earlier that night, and the key was upstairs beneath my pillow. I fled into the parlor. The high shelf was empty, but for one doll, a little clown holding a satchel, with a wide red grimace on its bone-pale face. It was lying strangely, and I realized its back was broken, snapped into a triangle.
Upstairs, a slow tread emerged into the hallway, advancing toward the stairs, and whatever it was began to sing again, a stone-cold malice in its voice:
Locked the lock
He won’t get out
High in the rafters, deep in the earth
My lies in the roof and my truths in the dirt
They’d have me strung up
By my tail, by my hair
Too late for that now, friends
Too late for that now
And here, whatever it was up there in the hall reached the head of the stairs and I saw in the darkness a face, or perhaps a mask, and it seemed like that of a clown, freakishly exaggerated and grinning, black eye-holes in a pale face, and lips painted red as a wound.
I turned and smashed the window to the lawn, and leaped out and fled across the grass and through the gate. I did not stop running until I was at the inn, and there I banged on the door until the proprietor screamed at me and let me in. But even in the crisp sheets of my new bed, with the owner below and the guests above, I was still terrified that whatever was in that house might follow me down the hill and snap my back like a pencil.
It happened, later, that the police were brought in to investigate what I had told them was possibly a squatter or wandering criminal. They told me they found no evidence of such a person staying there, but they did find several large knives and a cleaver and a little room with a bolt on the outside, and in the end, the lovely little yard was dug up and there were discovered fourteen bodies buried at various depths, belonging to the many folks thought vanished or runaway from the village over the years. And in the attic, under a heavy blanket, was found the great corpse of the owner, who had died inside a chest which he had specially constructed to bolt from within, so that he might stay in his house even after death. Judging by the level of decomposition, the police suspected him to have been dead at least six months.
Later that year I returned to Hertfordshire and university, quite shaken by the entire ordeal and in fact very much excited to never go back to Ivydale again. As for my aunt, she was persuaded she did not want to live in the house on the hill after all the unpleasantness with the lawn coming up corpses, and she moved instead to a modern cottage in town, with running water and very many large, bright windows to let in the sun.
Rippling tents, the scent of candy floss, a baking sun that threatened to melt the paint off a hundred faces. Inside one of the tents, the largest, jugglers threw and lions roared and spangled acrobats flew from one trapeze to the next.
The fair came every summer, and Ruby’s parents always took her and, usually, her older brother, but this year he’d said he was too old for silly fairs. That was just fine with Ruby, who was quite happy to eat his share of candy floss for him.
Bunting flags snapped. A clown smiled at her with wide, painted red lips that looked as sticky as her own felt. Ruby stepped away, behind her mother, and watched a woman catch a tossed ribbon of flame in a bare hand, her grin never wavering with pain.
“Can we go in there?” Ruby asked, pointing behind the fire lady to a long, low tent. “Please?”
“Last year you didn’t want to!” said her mother. “Are you sure you won’t be frightened?”
Ruby huffed. Her brother wasn’t the only one getting older, and this year, the hall of mirrors would not scare her. Clowns were still strange, because they pretended to be something they weren’t, but the mirrors would pretend to be something Ruby wasn’t. She understood the difference now. “I’m positive.”
“Let’s go, then,” said her father cheerfully, finishing the last of his ice cream in a single bite.
It was quiet inside. Quieter, at least, filled with murmurings and footsteps tapping on the temporary wooden floor. And cooler, definitely, away from the sun. Mirrors faced and angled, gleaming away to the end of the tent. Barely one step in and already she could see ten of her and her parents, each reflection showing a different shape and size. This one made the three of them look as if they ate candy floss and ice cream for every meal, that one stretched them taller than even the man who stalked the fair on stilts. Ruby ran from one to another, her face swirling like an oil painting or dripping down into her socks.
“Stay where we can see you,” called her mother, a silly thing to say in a hall of mirrors. Ruby could see herself everywhere.
Here was a room within the tent, just one gap to step through so she was nearly surrounded. Here it really was quiet, a silence that rang in her ears after a day full of sound as loud as the clowns’ bright wigs, lime green and lemon yellow and purple that has no fruit. It wasn’t simply cooler here, it was cold.
Ruby shivered. She approached the first mirror. It showed her laughing, though she knew she wasn’t. In the next, shining tears ran down her face in the silver surface, so real she reached up to touch her cheek, dry and chilled. The following showed her asleep while she was awake, the one after that, dancing as she stood still. She reminded herself that none of this was truly real, it was meant to be just real enough to be strange. Her whisper bounced off the mirrors and back into her ears.
But the last one was real, or so it looked. Good grief, she had chocolate ice cream on her shirt. She wiggled her fingers and the mirror waved back. Ruby stepped toward it, closer, closer.
And stepped right through.
The sun beat down. People were all around. Oops. She hadn’t meant to find the exit, and she’d better run back to find mum and dad before they noticed she was missing. The door, however–for it must have been a door–had swung shut and locked behind her. She didn’t remember seeing the actual door part of the door. All those mirrors had played tricks on her eyes, and the bright, blinding sun wasn’t much better, but all she had to do was walk round the outside of the tent to where she’d gone in with mum and dad.
She went round the whole thing once. And again, more slowly.
“Excuse me,” she said, trying not to let her voice shake. “Do you know where the entrance is?” If she said she was lost, the lady in front of her would take her hand and shout for help, and Ruby wasn’t lost. She couldn’t find the door, that’s all.
The lady gazed at her, a slow smile growing to a grin and then, a shout. But it wasn’t for help.
“We’ve got a Real!”
All the people stopped what they were doing. Ruby felt the weight of a hundred stares, hotter than the sun. “I…I’m sorry? I just need to go into the tent.”
“Why would you want to do that?” asked a man, nearing her. There was something…odd…about his face. Something odd about the expression he wore. “You could stay here with us.”
There was something odd about the way he said it. Ruby looked around.
She had lived in the same town her whole life. Gone to its schools and played in its parks. Watched the sun set over the flat fields surrounding it that, once a year, gave up a few acres for the fair. “Where am I?” she asked, her gaze climbing, climbing, climbing the tall hills all around. This time, her voice did shake.
“The Uncanny Valley, where we so rarely get visitors, and we do so enjoy them.”
He said it the way a person might say they enjoy breakfast. Ruby backed away until her shoulders brushed the silk of the tent.
“I think…I think you have frightened her, Godric,” said the woman Ruby had asked for help. “Have we frightened you? We are sorry, little girl. We just want to learn from you.”
“Learn from me? No, I need to get back inside and find my mum and dad. They’ll be worried.” The tent rippled under her palm.
“They will see you in the mirrors,” said the woman. “To them, you are still there. But really, you are here. Isn’t that clever? And now you can teach us.”
“Teach you what?” demanded Ruby, whose heart was beating like the ringmaster’s drum she’d heard just an hour ago.
“It is easier if we show you. Ingrid! Fetch a bowl and a cloth.”
From the crowd of staring eyes, a girl near enough Ruby’s age stepped forward. She wore a pretty dress and had long, very straight black hair shielding a tanned face. She disappeared into another tent and returned a moment later, carrying the requested items. At Ruby’s feet, she knelt and scrubbed her face, droplets of water splashing the parched grass.
Ruby could back away no further when Ingrid raised her head again, the stained cloth still in her hands. Stained with her face, or what had seemed to be her face. The long hair fell to the ground with a hiss, frizzy curls of purple (that has no fruit) springing up in its place.
“Clown,” Ruby whispered.
“We dislike that word. It is inaccurate,” said the man, Godric. “We are us. But we learn to be you, because you are very amusing. Show us how you walk.”
“How about that thing, you know, where your head explodes, except it doesn’t?”
Ruby was confused enough to consider the question. “Um…?”
“And there’s a hilarious noise?”
“A sneeze?” she asked.
“That’s the one! The last one showed us that.”
There had been others. Others who had come through the door that wasn’t a door. Had they been allowed to return home? Ruby didn’t ask. She didn’t want to hear the answer.
Apparently, however, she didn’t need to. “Don’t worry,” said Ingrid. “We’ll show you the way, but please help us first? We are always trying to get better at our craft. Come, look.”
There were a hundred of them, at least, all in human clothes, with human bodies and human hands, wide red smiles and big red noses hiding under fake human faces. They gathered in a circle around Ruby as she moved slowly away from the tent and into another, where two long rails groaned, one under the weight of dresses and suits and shirts, the other huge striped outfits with buttons the size of dinner plates. Racks of dainty sandals and loafers stood beside boots Ruby could have bathed in. A long table held brushes and more pots of makeup than her mother could buy in a lifetime.
“All this, to pretend to be human?” she asked.
“It takes a lot of work,” said the woman, leading Ruby back outside. The crowd was still there, waiting. Ruby scratched her head and they roared with laughter. Her arm dropped to her side.
She turned in a circle and they clapped.
She bent over to tie her shoelace and a boy about her brother’s age joined her in the circle, copying every motion. After this, they all began to imitate her, a hundred reflections like in the hall of mirrors. They snapped their fingers, stuck out their tongues, danced on the spot an instant after she did, laughing madly all the while. She did everything she could think of, steps from her ballet lessons and karate classes, shouting instructions as if she was playing an enormous game of Simon Says. The boiling sun slid across the valley floor and over the hilltops.
Their faces looked more human in the fading light.
“Teach us how to be sad,” said Ingrid. Her face, still scrubbed clean, wore its enormous red smile.
“I…” began Ruby. She couldn’t teach them that. Sadness was a thing that happened. You were or you weren’t. She frowned.
“Yes, just like that!”
One by one, their painted faces began to twist, slowly, painfully. They closed their eyes in concentration, trying to force their lips downward. It was the saddest thing Ruby had ever seen, but none of them could get it right.
“What about that thing, where water comes from your eyes? The last one did that because he wanted to go back, and we just wanted to keep him a little longer?”
“No!” Ruby shouted. It had all been almost fun, just for a minute, but now it wasn’t anymore. She couldn’t teach them to cry, and she was suddenly near tears herself, because what if they were lying about her parents not knowing she was gone?” “I need to go back, too!” She pushed her way through the crowd, hands grasping at her, clutching at her ice cream-stained shirt as if they could keep part of her for themselves. She ran to the tent, slapping at the rippling silk with her fists. “How do I get in? Tell me! There was a door, there must have been a door!”
A finger touched her shoulder. “I’ll show you,” said Ingrid. “You all want to leave us. This way.”
Ruby stopped and pointed at Ingrid’s face. “That feeling, that is how to be sad,” she said, and she felt a little happier, despite everything, that she had taught Ingrid this. But not happy enough to stay. When Ingrid parted a section of curtain and revealed the mirrors beyond, Ruby ran inside.
“Find the mirror that is truly you and step through it,” said Ingrid. Ruby ran back and forth, heart hammering, lost in her own twisted reflections. After what was surely far too long, she moved in front of one, ice cream stains and a pale, frightened face.
“There you are!” said her father cheerfully. “We thought we’d lost you for a moment. Are we finished here? Would you like a hot dog?”
Ruby felt a tiny bit sick. “No, thank you. Can we go home now?”
On the way back to the car, she heard her mother saying she’d known Ruby would be frightened by the mirrors, her father saying it didn’t hurt to be a bit scared sometimes. It was a relief to get home, where she could change her shirt and play with the dog and watch television after supper.
Human things. Human things the not-clowns couldn’t do.
The sun set, as it had done in the Uncanny Valley, and Ruby was sent to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth and hair, wash her face. She leaned over the sink, scrubbing away the last sticky traces of candy floss, and raised her head to look in the mirror.
A bone-white face and wide red lips faced her. A single frizzy curl, as bright as her name, fell into the sink and washed away.
My dearest Curators,
I stumbled upon this newspaper clipping whilst foraging through an abandoned farmhouse for haunted relics, as one does, and was immediately intrigued, for obvious reasons. Why a man would want to desecrate the cemetery where his own children lay buried is not something even I, with all my experience in the dark and twisted, can understand. I managed to trace the clipping’s origins back to 1902, to a small town that fits the phrase “in the middle of nowhere” better than any other “middle of nowhere” place I have encountered–and, as you know, that has been quite a few.
There, I dragged the river in an attempt to locate any of the desecrated headstones, although I did not have much hope, seeing as how over a century has passed. Fortuitously, I did find one scrap of stone that called to me more than the other scraps of stone along the riverbed–called to me quite literally, with a sharp-edged voice that I could identify as neither girl nor boy, young nor old, but rather something between and of all of those things, too. The voice in the stone babbled and hissed, croaked and raved, and truly at first it made not one whit of sense. But I think I have managed to arrange the words I could understand into a sort of story, although it is different from the others I have collected.
I have enclosed said stone in this parcel, along with the clipping and my story, all of which should of course be archived, and posthaste. Perhaps one of you will have more luck listening to the voice inside this stone and piecing together its tale. I would advise you do so quickly, for the voice fades every day. I do believe it will soon fall quiet altogether, so far from its home.
I don’t like flowers
I never have
not the yellow ones like Mama’s hair
and not deep blue like winter mornings
not blood-red, not meat-red, not red like bad gums
they stain pockets and they turn my skin to crawling
they look happy when I am happy
but they look
when I am not
and I don’t like this new one either
this new flower who
when it works
yes I do believe this new flower is
the first thing he did was
he took the stones and
from the dirt
from the roots
until we had no heads
until the wind gnawed our bones bare
then what did he do? what did he do then?
I’ll tell you
he built a house with them
he spread them out like a deck of cards
or maybe more like
if you squint real hard
stacks upon stacks
worse, though, was the others
the other ones he took
and he tossed
and he threw them in the river’s mouth
their names lost to the waters of the
he built his house upon them
our stolen stones
left us cold and left us
took his plow and tilled us
churned us into chunks
pushed his seeds into us
brought his wife and his babies
tucked them in
“this is our home now” he told them
and we want it back
he is no flower, this creature with his hat
his rake full of metal fangs
his name is that but he’s got no
he has only a face made of
eyes made of
I think he knows
as he stabs our earth with
he imagines he is hurting us
He will not be glad for long
There are many here in the dank dark deep
There’s me and sister, yes of course
and Big Bad Joe who never meant no harm but has a
face cops thought belonged
There’s Ellis Haze whose daddy sawed off her feet
so she’d never walk away
And the Bloom boys
who knew better
There’s that girl Frankie who thought
And old man Lyle
And the family called Drake
And then there’s the girls with their faces
I bet Flowers
(that’s his name, but he isn’t a flower
I bet Flowers won’t like
those cut-up girls
But he’ll like me least of all
He always did
We crawl up through the house
its rooms like hearts
its stolen stones
We drag our way up into the scorching world
(it’s like Hell up here)
(too hot and too much noise)
(too much remembering
The air forgives, in the dank dark deep
The air caresses and soothes
up here in this Hell of Flowers
(Daddy, Daddy, why’d you leave me)
(Daddy, Daddy, why’d you drop me in this
Our hands are spiders and
Our legs are worms and
Our tongues are vipers and
Our fingernails carve like that rake of yours, Mr. Flowers
Didn’t you know what you done dug up
didn’t you didn’t you
Didn’t you know my face
(half of it is yours, you know)
(Mama always said I got your eyes)
Are your walls crawling now with that black germ sir
Is that your ceiling shaking like the endtimes
Are those your babies screaming for their mama sir
Are those your babies screaming
You brought us up here into this
You shook out our sleeping veins and
You broke our chains and
drowned our names in silt
and now you pay the price
and now your house of cards comes falling
and now we take back these stolen teeth
Now we kiss your face like plague
and now you’re here with me, Mr. Flowers
How’s about we root you down here real nice
How’s about we stuff that mouth with food
for your roots
for your petals
How’s about we plant you just so, like that
Where the light don’t reach
Where the water seeps slow like
the turn of ages
the drag of death
How’s about you sit right here next to me, Daddy
(now don’t cry sir)
(hush little baby don’t cry)
(don’t make me call for the cut-up girls sir)
(it’s bad enough here with me, don’t you think?)
Flowers don’t cry Daddy
(didn’t you know?)
Flowers don’t cry in the
they wilt, they choke
they flatten, sir
and they shrivel up