“And they all lived happily ever after. The end.” Father closed the thick old storybook with a soft thump.
“Can you please read me another?” The little boy on Father’s lap bounced up and down a few times. He grabbed his father’s arm and held on tight as if that could somehow keep him from leaving.
“I’m sorry, Will, but I have to go. I’ll be back before you know it. Besides, you’ll be just fine with Mrs. Crabtree.”
Will had to struggle not to roll his eyes. He didn’t like Mrs. Crabtree very much. Her coat always smelled musty, she was constantly cross, and she didn’t know the Rules. The Rules, Father had told him time and time again, were very important. Will could only watch as Father gathered his things. He leaned down and ruffled Will’s hair.
“I love you.”
“Love you too,” mumbled Will, only to be answered by the slamming door. There stood Mrs. Crabtree in all of her thunderous glory. Will thought she resembled a storm cloud, but he didn’t say anything for fear of the wooden spoon she always carried with her. At this moment, she was using it as a pointer, brandishing it in the direction of the stairs.
“Time for your bath, boy!”
Will suddenly lost all of his will to be defiant. He did as he was told, but he took his sweet time about it.
Dinner was barely worthy of the word. Will toyed around with his oatmeal for the longest time and tried to pretend to eat it, but Mrs. Crabtree made it rather difficult with her eagle-eyed stare. It was a miracle how that woman could be so watchful and knit all at the same time. Eventually, Will averted his gaze and focused on the piece of parchment tacked to the post in the middle of the kitchen. His father had put it there the day they moved in, and for practically every moment since, those words had been drilled into his mind until Will could recite them in his sleep.
Rule #1: Don’t go into the attic without asking.
Rule #2: Never go into the attic at night.
Rule #3: Always put the attic keys back where you found them.
“Quit your mumbling and finish your supper!”
Will jumped. He hadn’t realized he’d been mouthing the words. Somehow he managed to force down the rest of his cold oatmeal, then it was on to the next trial. Homework. Mrs. Crabtree drilled and cajoled him until his hand ached, his sleeve was blotched with ink, his head spun, and the candle had burned down into almost nothing. A storm was beginning to pick up outside, howling between the buildings and herding leaves down the street. The clock in the main square tolled its bell 10 times. Mrs. Crabtree listened to each one, then hustled Will up the stairs. She didn’t even bother to tuck him in.
“Say your prayers so the night beasts don’t get you.”
With that, she was gone, the door closing behind her with a snap, leaving Will alone in the dark with only a candle for company. He hunkered down under the covers, pulling them up to his chin. Father always read him a story before bed. He added that shortcoming to the list of things he didn’t like about Mrs. Crabtree. Outside his door, something jingled in the hallway. Will froze. His stomach was drawn up tight, his heart galloping. After a few quiet moments, he calmed down enough to peek out into the hall with his candle. He had to hold it with both hands to keep the light steady.
Everything was normal. All of the doors were closed as they should have been, and he could feel the vibrations of Mrs. Crabtree snoring from downstairs. He laughed to himself at that and was just about to go back to bed when something stopped him in his tracks. On the wall at the far end of the hall was a hook. That was where the attic keys should have been, but they weren’t. They were gone.
No one had ever dove into bed faster than Will. He threw the blankets over his head and prayed harder than he ever had in his life, even the time he broke the lady next door’s window. The storm continued to gather. At first, just a few raindrops came, then more and more until they were clattering against the windows and pounding the roof. Lightning flashed across the sky. A few moments later, thunder shook the house, rumbling louder than the brewery men rolling their barrels down the street. The noise completely drowned out Mrs. Crabtree’s snoring. In his bed, William shook. Every shadow held a monster. Every normal object had taken on a terrible new life. They were all coming to get him. He felt like he was on one of his father’s ships, tossed at sea, lost. Somehow, he fretted himself into a shallow sleep, tossing and turning as the storm continued to vent its anger on the little town.
He woke up again sometime in the middle of the night. The storm had quieted by then, content to simply drum on the windows. Everything was calm and dark.
Dark. A bolt of energy shot through Will, jolting him awake. When had the candle gone out? The streetlamps were no help. He could barely see his hand in front of his face.
Outside in the hall, something began to stir.
Creeeeeak. Thump. Something clanked against the floor. A chorus of small footsteps padded on the wood flooring, coming closer and closer. Will knotted his blankets in his fists when he heard his door swing open. A sudden bolt of lightning shone briefly through his windows, illuminating the room. The moment Will risked a peek at the door he wished he hadn’t.
Something was there, lurking in the darkness just outside his door. He could barely see it, but it was a few shades darker than the rest of the shadows. The little footsteps skittered across his floor and split up at the end of the bed. Then there was silence. Will could imagine the scene in his head. The monster was towering over him at that very moment, trying to decide how it would best like to cook him.
Will was one of those boys blessed with the same brand of curiosity that killed the cat. Even though he was terrified, and even though he’d regretted it the past few times, he determinedly pushed back the blankets covering his head and sat up.
The darkness had eyes. They hovered all around him like a cloud of multicolored fireflies, and it took everything in him not to scream. He heard little claws scrabbling at the metal bed frame. Something climbed up and over the edge and plopped down between his feet. He brought his knees up to his chest as it came closer. And then it spoke, in a peculiar dark little voice.
“ ‘Scuse me?” It paused, as though waiting for him to answer. “We is hating to be disturbing you, but we is wondering… yes, we is wondering if we could trouble you, since you is so great big.”
Will tried to speak, but he found that his throat had gone dry. He tried again.
“Is there room on your big pillow?”
The thunder and lightning returned with a vengeance. Will was left with a fading image of sloppy silhouettes. Whatever these creatures were, they looked like little children had attempted to cut them out of scrap paper with blunt scissors.
“Is there room?” The little voice asked again. “The upstairs is cold and the rumblings are scary and we don’t like it. No we don’t.”
Pity began to make its way into Will’s heart.
Various noises of assent echoed around his bed. Even though he was terrified of them, he couldn’t help but feel sorry. He knew just how they felt.
“I s’pose all of you could fit. But just this once.”
With a great chattering of joy, all of the creatures climbed up onto the bed, crowding in around him. The experience reminded Will of playing hide and seek in his grandfather’s mansion when he was younger. He’d always loved getting lost in the coat closets with their luxurious furs and cozy smells of dust and leather. He’d been afraid of the dark then, too, but the closet felt safe.
Even though he was sitting in bed surrounded by monsters, Will found that he wasn’t afraid anymore. A sudden idea brought a smile to his face. As the rain tapped on the windows, he told his favorite stories to the creatures, using different voices like his father had on other stormy nights when he couldn’t sleep. One by one, the creatures fell asleep, snoring wheezily to themselves.
“And they all lived happily ever after,” said Will. “The end.”
“Can you please tell me another?” whispered the voice.
“Of course,” said Will.