The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Every Person a Prism

Curator’s note:

Well now, what have we here? A new story, collected from the adventures that have kept us so long away? By carrier pigeon and smoke signal, letters in the sky and messages sent on the wind, your four Curators have kept in contact even as we each traveled to the most far-flung, forgotten corners of worlds both real and decidedly not. We always knew we would return, and that our joyous reunion would be alight with tales of the things we had seen. Stuffed to the gills with cake and thrilled to all be in the same place again, we held our curious new treasures up to the light and debated where each might best fit in our Cabinet. Now, you might well imagine that on our journeys we encountered all manner of people, creatures, and objects, most–if not all–of which were not at first what they seemed to be. For that reason, our newest collection is on the theme of imposters.

Please, do enjoy.

Your Curators.

The car pulled up outside a tiny house on a narrow street in a small village. None of it was familiar except Evie’s grandmother, already waiting on the front porch. Evie waved through the window and smushed her face up against the glass as her mother parked in the driveway. Grandma June waved back, a smile eating up all the wrinkles on her face.

The moment the car stopped, Evie yanked off her seatbelt and jumped out, running up to get her hug. Grandma June gave her lots of hugs in the week or two they spent together every summer, but this first one was always the best. Soft and squishy and perfumed with roses and talcum powder.

“Hello, my darling,” said Grandma June, squeezing the very breath out of Evie. “How are you today?”

“Good,” gasped Evie. Grandma let her go, and together they waited for Evie’s parents to join them with Evie’s small, green suitcase. Her mother had originally picked out a pink one, but no, Evie had wanted the green, the color of the apple skins that littered the kitchen counter while the smell of baking pie filled grandma’s house. They always baked a pie on their first day together, and they’d eat it with ice cream for dinner, making a pact not to tell Evie’s parents that there hadn’t been a vegetable in sight.

The pie had fruit in it, anyway. It was healthy.

But it would be a different house this time, a different kitchen counter. Grandma June used to live in a city almost the same size as the one Evie lived in, but a few months ago, she had decided the hustle and bustle was more than she could take in her old age. She wanted quiet, she said, and to go to the shop for milk without a thousand people getting in her way, or huffing rudely because she wasn’t quick on her feet anymore. She had moved while Evie was still in school, so Evie had stayed with her best friend for several days while her parents had helped Grandma June move everything she wanted to keep to this tiny house.

“You planted your flowers,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, pointing at the beds below the porch. “They look beautiful.”

“Thank you, dear. Couldn’t live without them, wherever I am.”

“Are you settled in?” asked Evie’s father. “Enjoying it here? It’s very quiet, isn’t it? We didn’t see a single person on the way through.”

“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “Quiet, for certain, but I was after quiet! I do have a new bridge club here with some lovely friends, and a very nice young man comes to cut my grass, though I tell him every time that he’s not to touch my flowers, and the sweet people at the grocery store know my name and fetch the things I can’t reach. Now, will you stay for a drink? We could have it out here,” she said, pointing at the wicker furniture. “It’s such a beautiful summer day, I made lemonade. Mrs. Hill down the road gave me lemons from her tree.”

“I’ll get it,” said Evie’s father, patting his mother-in-law on the shoulder. “You sit down.”

“I’ll help,” said Evie. She wanted to see inside the house. Grandma’s old house, where she’d lived with Granddad before he died, had been big and tall, full of so many rooms that Evie had always been able to pick which bedroom she wanted to sleep in on the trip. This house was only one floor, Evie saw that from the outside, and when she stepped in, she could see practically the whole place from the front door. A kitchen was to the left, and a living room to the right, and ahead was a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom leading off it. It was very different, but it smelled like Grandma, all roses and talcum powder, and that was the most important thing.

A big bowl full of green apples sat on the kitchen counter. Evie smiled to herself.

As was tradition, Evie’s parents stayed for a drink and a bit of a rest after the drive, then they kissed Evie and Grandma June goodbye and got back in the car. They would go home, back to their jobs, leaving Evie and Grandma June to get up to whatever mischief they could find to get into. Evie was the only grandchild, so she and her grandmother had all of that special kind of mischief to themselves, just between the two of them. Grandma June had taught her how to knit, and bake, and play chess so well Evie could beat her father at it now, and she was only ten. They did all kinds of fun activities together. Besides making apple pie, the other thing they’d do today is choose a book from Grandma’s shelves, and spend evenings taking turns reading it out loud.

First, however, there was some housekeeping to do. They put the empty glasses in the sink and then Grandma June showed Evie her new bedroom, the empty chest of drawers into which Evie could unpack the clothes from her little green suitcase. All right, so she didn’t have bedrooms to choose from anymore, but she recognized the furniture from Grandma’s old house, and there, in the middle of the pillows, was an old, threadbare stuffed elephant. At home, with her parents, Evie swore she was too grown up for stuffed animals, but it was unthinkable to sleep at Grandma June’s without Henry. Evie looked forward to seeing his ragged trunk every summer almost as much as she looked forward to seeing Grandma June.

They put away Evie’s things and returned to the kitchen, where the bowl of apples waited. While Grandma peeled, Evie mixed together the butter and flour for the crust. The oven heated up, slowly warming the room around it on an already warm day, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It felt cozy, it felt like living inside all the happy memories Evie had of Grandma June, even while they were making a new one.

“How was school, my darling?” Grandma June asked, using a very sharp knife to slice the apples. “I’m not sure your letters told me everything.”

“It was okay,” said Evie. She stabbed at a particularly stubborn chunk of butter with the end of her wooden spoon.

“Just okay?”

Sometimes, Grandma June knew Evie better than anyone.

“Well,” said Evie, “Beth wasn’t in my class this year. I missed her. I kept getting paired up with Melissa Jones for projects, and she hates me. She pinched me all the time when Mr. Watson wasn’t looking.”

“Did you tell your parents?”

“No,” said Evie. Some things she just didn’t want to tell them, she didn’t want to worry them, but it was safe and warm here. “It’s all right now. Hopefully she won’t be in my class when we go back to school, and Beth will.”

Grandma June nodded in time with the slicing knife. “You are a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you? Always looking on the bright side. You get that from me. Which reminds me, we’re going to have tea with a friend of mine tomorrow. I’ve been telling her all about you since the day I moved here and she was the first person I met in the street, and she’s simply desperate to meet my little Evie.”

“That sounds fun,” said Evie. “Have you made many friends here?” She didn’t want Grandma June to be lonely in this new place.

“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “In a small place like this, you get to know everyone in the blink of an eye, and heaven forbid you have a secret! Tell one person, and five minutes later everyone’ll know it.”

“That’s not nice,” said Evie. “People shouldn’t tell other people’s secrets.”

Grandma June chuckled. “They’re not really secrets. It’s nice to feel welcomed here, part of the community. It’s much harder to feel like that in a big city.”

It was time to assemble the pie. Soon, the smell of it cooking wafted through the small house, making Evie’s mouth water.

They ate it for dinner, its warmth melting the scoops of ice cream Grandma put on top of both their slices. Evie licked her plate clean, and Grandma June pretended not to notice. Full and happy, they curled up together on the same flowered sofa that had been in Grandma June’s old house, with a book from the same bookshelves. When the sun set outside the picture window and the room grew dim, Grandma June switched on a lamp and they kept reading until Evie’s eyelids began to droop and she yawned between the words.

It had been a long day, what with packing her little green suitcase and the hours in the car, plus the happy ones with Grandma June since she’d arrived. Evie climbed gratefully into bed, hugged Henry the elephant to her chest, and fell into a deep, long sleep.

Morning came, Evie’s first full day with Grandma June. After breakfast, Evie put on her shoes and took Grandma’s hand as the two of them headed off to see the village. Everything was new to Evie, the shops and little cottages and pretty squares, laid with grass and flowers, ringed with wrought-iron fences.

“Where is everybody?” Evie asked. It had suddenly occurred to her that there should be people about, running errands or simply strolling along in the summer sunshine, as she and Grandma June were.

“Oh, here and there, I imagine. You must remember this isn’t the city, my darling. Not nearly so many other souls here. Can you hear that?” Grandma June tilted her head and closed her eyes.

Evie copied her, but she couldn’t hear a single thing. “I can’t hear anything,” she said.

“Exactly!” said Grandma June.

A bird chirped from a nearby tree, breaking the silence.

“Well,” said Grandma June, blinking, “if it’s people you want, let’s go call on Mrs. Watson, my friend I told you about, remember? Since my company isn’t good enough for you.” She winked to show Evie she was teasing.

They turned the next corner, into a winding lane lined with houses. There was an old, crumbling church, too, with crooked headstones in the churchyard, but the bell in the tall tower was silent.

“June!” A door two houses down opened and a woman stepped out onto the front step, waving. Grandma June waved back, leading Evie to the garden path that ran up to Mrs. Watson’s home.

“You must be Evie,” said Mrs. Watson, coming down to join them. “It’s so nice to meet someone I’ve heard so much about!”

Evie focused her eyes on the little diamonds in the print of Mrs. Watson’s blue dress. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said politely, though she couldn’t say she’d heard much about Mrs. Watson. Only that she was one of Grandma June’s new friends here. Mrs. Watson looked to be younger than Grandma; her hair was blonde instead of white, and she had fewer wrinkles, but Evie loved Grandma June’s wrinkles.

“Well, come in, come in. I’ll put the kettle on and we can all have a nice chat. I just might be able to find some cake, too.”

That made Evie smile. Cake was always a reason to smile. Mrs. Watson gave her a knowing look, and Evie relaxed. It would be nice to meet Grandma June’s new friends.

Inside, the house showed a different sort of taste than Grandma June had, or Evie’s parents had. Everything was sleek, modern, in black or white or gray. Evie was slightly afraid to touch anything, and the sofa she perched on was stiff and uncomfortable.

A kettle whistled, plates clinked together. Mrs. Watson came in with a tray, laden with a clear glass teapot and china plates as white as bones.

“Now, Evie, tell me everything about yourself that June here has forgotten to mention,” said Mrs. Watson, handing Evie a slice of chocolate cake. “Oh, and don’t worry a bit about the crumbs, that’s what vacuum cleaners are for. Now, I want to know all about you.” Mrs. Watson leaned forward, her eyes bright, curious.

Evie’s face flushed with warmth. Um. She never quite knew what to say in these sorts of situations. Her parents had friends like this, too, who wanted to seem interested in Evie but weren’t very good at being normal about it. Adults could be very strange sometimes. “Er. I like to read?” she said, as if she wasn’t sure herself. “I play the piano, but not very well. I don’t like broccoli.” That wasn’t everything, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Well, you’re delightful,” declared Mrs. Watson. “And you’re very pretty. Do all the boys at your school chase after you?”

Evie blushed even more deeply and shook her head. Grandma June laughed. “She’s far too young for that kind of thing, Marilyn. Plenty of time for that later.”

“But you and I are running out,” said Mrs. Watson. “Which reminds me, I caught that Mr. Lee at the post office giving me the eye the other day.”

“Oh, did you, now?” asked Grandma June.

Evie ate her cake, being careful of the crumbs. Whatever Mrs. Watson had said, she didn’t want to make a mess. As she chewed, she looked around the room, but there wasn’t very much to see. A few glass vases that were quite like the teapot, really, and a shiny gray bowl filled with odd white sticks.

Grandma June was laughing as she and Mrs. Watson discussed some man at their bridge club. Evie frowned. She’d never seen her grandmother like this before, and it hadn’t been so very long since her grandfather died. Grandma June couldn’t have forgotten him already, could she?

Evie sipped her tea through a frown and waited for the two of them to finish talking. Which, finally, they did.

“We’d best not take up all of your day–you need to go to the post office, after all,” said Grandma June, winking.

“Thank you very much for the cake,” said Evie.

“My pleasure, my dear. Do call on me again before you go home, will you? It’s so nice to have visitors.”

Evie nodded. Time had passed curiously in the house; it felt as if they’d been there ages, but when she checked her watch, it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Perhaps this was just the way of sleepy little villages.

“Let’s go home a different way,” said Grandma June, taking Evie’s hand. All the quiet, tree-lined streets looked nearly the same to Evie, but she trusted that this was not the way they had come. She could sort of understand why Grandma liked it here, it was indeed very peaceful. The village was surrounded by rolling fields, over which, in the distance, a summer storm was brewing, the clouds dark and coiled, ready to strike.

Evie stopped. All right, not all the houses in the village were the same. That one was strange.

“Who lives there?” she asked, pointing. It sat in the middle of a huge lawn, far back from the road. Weathered shingles threatened to fall off its jagged roof at any minute. Its porch was rotting, sinking into the ground, and starving ivy crawled across the dark red brick.

“Why, every village has to have a creepy old house. Where else would the monster live?” Grandma June laughed. “Oh, darling, I’m teasing. It’s empty, so far as I know. Shame, isn’t it? It’s a lovely old place.”

Evie wasn’t certain about that. She thought creepy was truly the right word.

They made it home before the rain, and sat reading as lighting flashed and thunder crashed and drops pelted the window. When Evie’s stomach growled–the cake had been a while ago, and breakfast a while before that–Grandma June made them sandwiches. Evie didn’t worry about getting crumbs on the sofa this time. Afternoon turned to evening, with dinner and more of their book. This was how Evie liked Grandma June, settled in a cozy living room, just the two of them.

And so the new routine of their summer visit began. Every day, after breakfast, they would leave the house and go for a walk, dropping into the shop to buy milk on their way, or stopping to speak to the rare people they encountered on the street, on errands of their own or walking their dogs. Everyone they met already knew about Evie, and she had to keep coming up with things to tell them about herself. She was nine years old, she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up so she could read books all day, she liked butterflies but not caterpillars. It was certainly different to the visit they’d had only last year. When she’d visited Grandma at her old house in the city they had gone exploring, of course, but to zoos and museums and art galleries, and in a place with so many people they’d almost never run into anyone Grandma knew. Here, though it was so quiet, so seemingly empty, everyone they did meet knew Grandma, and she knew them.

And Grandma June was different, too. Evie couldn’t quite put her finger on how. Perhaps it was, simply, that the setting was new, and so Grandma June was a little bit new, too.

But she was still Grandma June, with her books and apple pies and roses and talcum powder, and that was the important thing.

Evie awoke, Henry the elephant clutched to her chest. It was still dark in her room, and she checked her watch on the nightstand, pressing the button on the side to make the little screen light up. Just after midnight. She didn’t know what had woken her, maybe there’d been a noise outside.

Her heartbeat sped. Maybe there’d been a noise inside.

She froze under the covers. If she lay very still and held her breath, she’d be safe.

But she couldn’t do that. Grandma June was old. What if there was someone in the house? Evie had to protect her. It took all of Evie’s might to force herself from the bed, her bare feet silent on the carpet as she crept into the hallway. Moonlight shone in through the windows, the curtains open everywhere because it was supposed to be safe here in this little village.

Inch by inch, she moved toward Grandma June’s room. The door was ajar, and it pushed open without even the hint of a squeak.

Grandma June was a lump of shadows and blankets in the bed. Evie tiptoed across the floor until her knees touched the mattress.

Grandma June rolled over, and the moonlight hit her face.

Evie’s hand flew to her mouth so fast and so hard she hurt herself as she tried not to scream.




“Good morning, my darling. Did you sleep well?”

Evie rubbed her eyes. “Yes,” she said softly. The nightmare was over, but it had felt so real at the time. She’d never had a dream like that before, where the feeling of being awake and terrified had lasted for hours, all the way until dawn. Now, in the bright summer sunlight of morning, she wasn’t sure whether she’d left her bed at all. She didn’t think she’d ever sleepwalked before.

It had felt so real. She stared into her bowl of cereal, but all she could see was Grandma June’s face…or rather, the blank, featureless mask where her face should have been, lying against a ruffled, rose-printed pillow. It had looked like a face Evie might have sculpted from clay in one of her art classes, smooth and unwrinkled, with little marks from her fingernail for eyes, nose, mouth.

“Are you sure, my darling? You look tired. Perhaps we’ve been adventuring around the village too much. Shall we stay home today?”

Evie shook her head, clearing it of the horrible lingering nightmare. “No,” she said, squaring her shoulders. She’d had bad dreams before–none like that, admittedly, but she’d had them, and they always wore off. No reason to ruin a perfectly good day. “No, I’m all right. Let’s go for another walk.”

“As you wish,” said Grandma June, her smile making all her lovely wrinkles deepen. Evie breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was back to normal, the nightmare was fading already.

They went to the street where all the shops were, and stopped outside one whose entrance was nearly blocked with plants and flowers. A man a little older than Evie’s father waved through the window, and Grandma June pushed open the door.

“You must be Evie!” said the man, smiling down at her.

“Evie, this is Mr. Patel, who helps me find the perfect flowers for my garden.”

“And for you, young lady, I have these,” said Mr. Patel, moving to a nearby table and picking up a pot of the most beautiful lilies, striped with orange. Evie startled. Grandma June must have told him those were her favorites.

“Thank you,” said Evie.

“We’ll plant them this afternoon,” said Grandma June. “Now, Mr. Patel, about my roses…”

Evie wandered around the shop, barely listening to the discussion about how best to keep pests away from Grandma’s perfect flowers. The scent in here was almost overwhelming, but in a good way; she breathed deeply and inspected all the different plants, orchids and sunflowers and spiky little cactuses. The memory of the nightmare was almost completely gone now, but a new thought had replaced it. She thought she might know why Grandma June seemed a little bit new here.

“Do you talk to Mr. Patel about flowers a lot?” asked Evie when they were back out in the street, cradling the pot of lilies in her arms.

“Of course,” said Grandma June. “That was the first thing I did when I moved here, found someone who could help me with everything I needed for the garden.”

“And you talk about the man at the post office with Mrs. Watson.”

“Among other things, yes, but I do believe you’re right, she’d like to find a new husband, that one.”

“And at the grocery store, you told that girl which was the best flour for pie crusts.”

Grandma June gave Evie a look. “And with you, I’m Grandma June,” she said, smiling. “You’re right, you know. I’ve noticed it more too since I moved here. We are all different people to different people, does that make sense? We make friends for all kinds of reasons, and together, all those reasons make up an entire person, like you, or me.”

Evie thought about this for a minute. She had her very best friend; they always went to the library together, but at school, she played hopscotch or tag with other kids. And she thought her next-door neighbor was annoying because he was younger than her, but when he invited her up to his treehouse, he was sort of all right. Those were all different parts of Evie, but they were still all Evie. She was just seeing new sides of Grandma June, here in the new village with all her new friends.

That made sense. Grandma June always made the world make sense.

The sun shone on them all afternoon while they worked in the garden, planting and pulling weeds, spraying water from the hose. Tired and muddy, they ate dinner on the porch as the sky darkened and, in the distance, a light in the empty, creepy old house flickered on and off.

“Did you see that?” asked Evie, pointing.

“See what, my darling?”

Evie blinked and squinted. She was sure she’d seen a light in the topmost window, just visible over the roofs of the other houses. But it was off now.

She shook her head. Maybe it had been a reflection, or a firefly.

That night, the bad dream came back.




It was Evie’s last night with Grandma June. Part of her was sad, and part of her was not. The part that was sad would miss the reading, the gardening, the walks and apple pies. The part of her that was not wanted a good night’s sleep in her own bed, where she never had that dream. Every night since the first time, she had dreamed of waking up, getting out of bed, creeping to Grandma June’s room, seeing the featureless, clay-like face on the pillow. And every night, she had stopped herself from waking up Grandma June in the dream, afraid of what might happen if she did. Would Grandma wake up in real life? Would Evie? Would both of them scream at once?

Moonlight shone in through the windows. The carpet was soft under Evie’s toes. She was asleep, she knew it, but she had to follow the nightmare through to its end. Grandma June’s bedroom door opened without a squeak, and the terrifying, blank face slept on the pillow.

It was her last chance.

Evie reached out her hand.

The voice filled her head, and the room, but it did not wake Grandma June.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it said.

Evie did scream this time. And it did not wake Grandma June. She wheeled around, peering into the shadowy corners. A ghostly, wispy shape hovered in front of her, its face as blank as Grandma’s.

“It is so lovely to finally meet you properly,” said the shape. “Of course, I have been meeting you in all manner of ways for two weeks now. Evie, who loves lilies but not broccoli, and reading but not the girl who pulls her hair at school.”

Evie’s heart hammered in her chest. This was a nightmare. A very strange nightmare. She just had to go back to bed.

Her feet wouldn’t move. “Who are you?” she asked.

“A good question,” said the wispy thing. “I am everyone. Do you remember the conversation you had with your grandmother? With me? We are all different people to different people. You, my darling, are a prism, each facet of you casting a new rainbow to the chosen few who see it.”

Evie’s mouth went dry. She had to force the words out. “What do you mean, the conversation I had with you?”

The shape shimmered in the darkness. And there, standing before her, awake and smiling, was Grandma June. The Grandma June behind Evie in the bed rolled over and muttered something in her sleep. The shape shimmered again, and there was Mrs. Watson. Again, and there was Mr. Patel from the flower shop. “I had to learn everything I could about you,” it said. “All the different things you’d tell different people, that together make up who you are. Only then could you become part of me.”

Another shimmer.

And there, in front of Evie, was Evie herself.

Evie, the real Evie–for she was real, wasn’t she? Real and asleep and having the most terrible dream–closed her eyes and ran, stumbling blindly from the room, crashing into the wall, feeling her way to her own bed. She clutched Henry the elephant to her chest and refused to open her eyes until the sun was high in the sky.

Slowly, she made her way to the kitchen. Grandma June smiled at her over a chopping board piled with strawberries.

“Good morning, my darling,” said Grandma June. She looked like Grandma June, sounded like her, smelled like her, roses and talcum powder.

It had all been a nightmare.

“Good morning,” said Evie.

“Your parents made an early start. Eat up your breakfast and pack your case, they’ll be here soon.”

“Okay,” said Evie.

She waited on the porch for the familiar car, glancing between the road and all of Grandma June’s flowers. Her little green case sat beside her, and Grandma June was in one of the wicker chairs, sipping at her tea with a smile. The moment the car came into view, Evie jumped up and ran down to the driveway.

“We missed you too, Evie-girl,” said her father as he climbed out and gave her a big hug. “The house is too quiet without you.”

“We won’t stay,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, “we’ll let you have your quiet back, I can only imagine how busy this one has kept you! Come for a visit in a month or two.”

“I will,” said Grandma June, kissing Evie’s mother’s cheek. “We’ve had a wonderful time here. I’m already planning all the things we’ll do next summer.”

A sick feeling filled Evie’s stomach, but she forced a smile and nodded. She might have the nightmare here again, if she came back. She might have it at home, but she didn’t want to think about that. She hugged Grandma June goodbye. It felt like Grandma June.

Evie buckled herself into the back seat and waved as the car pulled away. She twisted to look through the rear window, at Grandma June still standing on the porch.

With Evie, right beside her.


The Cabinet Curators are Out Adventuring

Do you hear, dear reader, that mournful wind in the hallways of our once busy abode, the insects in the walls, scuttling to and fro? Or perhaps you saw the hastily painted sign on one of our many front doors, or peered in a window and glimpsed the layers of dust on the furniture. We have not dusted in a while, we know. In fact, we are all off adventuring in the wilds of various Continents, and are hardly ever in, except to snatch up the odd satchel of ruby-dust, or a brass periwinkle machine, or other such necessities.

In short, we are on a brief hiatus from our storytelling and cataloging duties, and will announce our re-opening when we have returned to the Cabinet hale and healthy. In the meantime we wish you all the very best on your own curious adventures, and hope you will return to us, in time, for our new crop of shivery and downright bizarre tales of a brief and sinister nature.


The Curators

Night Walkers


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.”

Mom frowned.

“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.

“I’m here.”

“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.

Wait, though.

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.

How It Feels When They Come

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.

swarmDisgusting. You slap at your leg.

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 run.

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 . . .


Tick Tock

Artwork by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo

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.

Tick Tock

Broke my clock

Clickety Clack

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:


Tick Tock

Locked the lock

Weep, shout

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.