by Neil J. Beynon
Stevie disliked the house from the moment he first set eyes on it. The street was one of those red-bricked Victorian terrace affairs so typical of older parts of London. Stevie's parents had driven him there for the first time on the day they had moved and so he had not been given the opportunity to give his opinion one way or another. They had arrived outside the house in a yellow Ford Fiesta that had seen better days, drawing to a halt with a bone-crunching pull of the handbrake.
The majority of the area had been built in the late Victorian period to support the docklands, at that time the industrial heartland of London. The toll of two world wars could be seen in more scattered modern architecture of varying degrees of success. To Stevie, who had never been into a city before, the queer mix of old and new that merged in London gave the city a half-finished feeling, or more insidiously, the sense the city was alive and growing like a fungus.
This house was an old Victorian survivor of the war that had been gradually altered by one resident after another but never really finished. The front garden had been concreted over but the original black and white tiled steps were still there ready to turn to a death trap at the slightest piece of moisture. The front door was a faded blue with large panels of frosted glass that had not been cleaned since their installation circa nineteen seventy. The bay windows top and bottom were scorched from the recent hot summer, the paint cracked and flaking. It was not the most inviting place, but beggars could not be choosers -- the house was all Stevie's parents could afford.
Stevie was ignorant of this. All he knew was that after a four-hour journey he could no longer see any greenery anywhere and that the pokey red brick building he stared up at was now home. It was confusing; his eyes told him it was smaller than his old house, but because of the steps up to the front door the building seemed to loom over him.
Stevie stood in the gateway at the front of the steps and simply stared at the building as if willing it to move. He was dimly aware of the murmuring of his younger brother as his mother freed him from the child seat.
"Stevie, for God's sake move out of the way!" said his mother. Her patience had run out around Junction 12 of the motorway.
Stevie obliged by flattening himself against the wall as his mother shuffled past with his brother who grinned toothlessly at him.
Stevie remained on the front steps as his father shuttled back and forth between the car and the house unloading their bags. Having decided that Stevie was in no immediate danger where he was, his father ignored him in the way that parents do.
It was only much later, when his parents had put his brother down in the hastily erected playpen and sat down to a cup of tea that they realised quiet Stevie was not in the house. Frantically they searched high and low before they actually opened the front door and found him sitting patiently on the front steps. His hands were a little blue from the cold but other than that he was fine.
"Stevie," said his father with a look that warned his mother not to shout. "What are you doing out here?"
"I'd like to go home now, Dad," said Stevie.
"We are home, Stevie," said his mother.
"No, we're not! I want to go home," said Stevie.
"This is our home now, Matey," said his father. "Why don't you come and have a look around?"
"I don't like it," Stevie said, looking up at his father with gleam of tears in his eyes.
"I know mate, come here," said his father, gathering him up. His father carried him into the house, ending all discussion, and as Stevie felt himself pass over the porch he saw with a sinking heart his mother refusing to meet his gaze.
The interior of the house was dim. A small hallway linked the dining room, living room and kitchen. A narrow, almost vertical staircase led up to a darkened landing -- a black expanse that Stevie was not anxious to explore. His father carried him into the living room and set him down near his brother's playpen before returning to his cup of tea. Stevie's brother crawled over to the edge of the pen and pulled himself up before poking the netting with his plump fist.
"Svie!" he said.
"Not now, Nicky," said Stevie as he walked away towards the sofa.
The room already had its furniture in place from the removal firm's earlier delivery and so the sofa had been left against the rear wall, affording a good platform to look out at the garden. Stevie made his ascent and resting his chin on the windowsill looked out at the garden. A long strip of grass so overgrown it stood nearly as high as Stevie stretched out for perhaps fifty yards before a grey, sun-dried fence ended the garden.
"Not bad, eh Stevie?" said his mother behind him.
"It needs a cut," said Stevie quietly.
"We'll have something sorted in no time," said his Mum.
Stevie made a noncommittal sound and returned to staring at the garden. As he watched, the grass swayed in a snake-like pattern as if something were moving. Stevie let out a yelp and turned with a start, dropping to his bottom on the sofa.
His mother put down her mug with a thud and strode over to him.
"Listen, Stevie, I know it's a new place and not as nice as our last, but remember what we talked about," she said, squeezing his arm.
"Daddy's new job," said Stevie.
"That's right, Daddy got a new job. And what did I say?"
"To be good so I don't make him sad," said Stevie.
His Mum released his arm.
"That's right, now stop moping around and explore," said his Mum.
Stevie dropped off the couch. After a few minutes of teasing his brother through the netting of his playpen, he made his way into the dining room. This room was quite bare save for the table that had been placed in the centre of the room; there was no carpet and the wallpaper was yellowed with age. Still it was easily his favourite room as the light shone in through the large bay window giving the room an airy feel the rest of the house lacked. He moved towards the window and felt his foot stick slightly on a section of the bare floorboards. Curious he squatted down on his heels to look at the board in question.
None of the floorboards were in particularly good condition, and they had not been left bare for artistic reasons but had been exposed when the carpet was ripped out prior to moving in. They were unvarnished, dusty, and in this case dirty. The two boards on which he had placed his feet had a kind of chocolate brown stain running across them. They were not exactly wet but had remained sticky and there was a sickly sweet smell that Stevie did not like. He hastily wiped his hand on the cushion of the nearest chair. Looking up at the ceiling of the room, he could see the same stain where it had leaked through from above. It reminded him of something, but he couldn't think what.
He stayed a while in the dining room, sitting by the window watching the people go by, until the sun started to dip low in the sky and the shadows in the room grew tall. Stevie's thoughts grew dark as the stain niggled at his mind. As he struggled to recall where he had seen something like it before, the setting sun gave the room a sickly glow that made the living room seem very inviting all of a sudden. As many children do, Stevie had a singular talent for walking into earshot just as his parents were talking about him, and he sputtered to a halt as he heard the tone that meant they were talking about him rather than to him.
"I don't know what to do, Anne," said his father. "I don't want to be here any more than he does, but we have to eat."
"I know, Phil," his mother answered. "It's just not what he's used to. He'll settle down and before you know it he'll be careening around like he used to."
"He just seems so genuinely unsettled," said his father.
"It'll get back to normal," said his mother.
Stevie paused for a moment before entering the room but when he did he forced the ghost of a grin onto his face.
"Hey there, Stevie, where you been?" said his father with a smile that did not reach his eyes.
"People watching," said Stevie. "Front window's a good spot."
His mother gave his father a look and his father's smile reached a little higher; Stevie got a little kick out of that. He still needed a pause to build his courage up for his next move.
"Dad, will you show me my room?" asked Stevie.
"Sure, Stevie," said his Dad. He stood and passed his mug to Stevie's Mum.
As his father paused to flick the switch at the foot of the stairs so that they were bathed in the yellow light of a low voltage bulb, Stevie looked up with trepidation. Trying to cheer his Dad up or not, he was terrified and so he slipped his clammy hand into his father's; the cold wetness of Stevie's hand in his father's own caused Phil to look down.
"You okay, Stevie?"
Stevie smiled up at his Dad with an ease he did not feel. "Sure, Dad."
The landing was a little roomier than the hallway but not by much. A similar layout to the bottom floor was maintained with the bathroom lying over the kitchen and the two bedrooms over the two reception rooms. The landing had little in it other than another shocking piece of seventies décor in the shape of a brown floral carpet. Other than this the only distinct feature was a small hatch in the ceiling that presumably led to the attic. Stevie had never been inside an attic but he understood it to be some kind of storage area for parent's stuff that they don't use but must be forbidden to throw away. The attic hatch didn't seem to sit right in its slot for there was a gap on one side that showed darkness behind it and Stevie fought back a strong urge to grab a broom to knock it back into place.
His reverie was broken by his father returning from the front bedroom.
"This one's yours, Stevie," said his father. He pointed back at the doorway through which he had just come. The pair walked into the front room, the one over the dining room, where the light from the street lamp outside cast an amber glow across the far wall and added to the surreal feel of the room.
Stevie's bed had been placed against the wall in which the doorway had been cut and his brother's cot had been placed by the wall separating the room from his parents'. Against the far wall there was an old-fashioned chimney block running through the room, and set into it was a small Victorian cast-iron fireplace that had a face shaped into the top of it. The face had that sloping down-turned mouth that Stevie had seen in stonework of older buildings and churches but he could not remember what they had been called. His Dad strode into the middle of room and twisted to face his son with a grin that the street light turned into something as grotesque as the fireplace.
"Well, what do you think?"
Stevie fought the twisting of his stomach and the thumping of his heart in ears, and smiled at his Dad.
"It's great," he said. But his eyes did not leave the face of the fireplace gargoyle.
"Of course we'll redecorate as soon as we can," said his Dad. "I was thinking a race car theme?"
"Sounds good," said Stevie with a grin he did not feel.
"Well?" said his Mum from the doorway. She held Stevie's brother on her hip like a bundle of laundry (if laundry could squirm and kick).
"Stevie likes it," said his father with a smile. "We're just discussing décor."
As his father rushed down the stairs to get the kids' toy box up to the room, Stevie's mother winked at him, and Stevie felt pleasing warmth in his stomach. Basking in the glow of his own sense of goodness, he dropped onto his bed.
But as soon as his back touched the coverlet, a searing shot of nausea burst through him. In a yelp he rolled off the bed onto the floor causing his brother to point and laugh. His mother looked at him with a slight frown.
"Don't go too far, Stevie," she whispered as his father came back up the stairs.
Stevie dusted himself off and smiled uncertainly before looking warily at the bed but he could see nothing wrong with it. His father dropped the main box of toys by the grate before picking Stevie up with a firm hug.
"How about we go get some food?" he said with a smile.
"What did you have in mind?" asked his wife.
His father looked at Stevie with a wicked grin. "Chips!" he bellowed.
Stevie's Mum rolled her eyes but did not object as he led them back out to the car.
As they left the room, Stevie cast a look back over his father's shoulder at the fireplace. He thought he saw the face on the iron grate turn to look at him. He buried his face in his father's shoulder until they were out of the house.
Stevie lay back in the water and let the warmth seep into his body as he plunged his head under the surface. He looked up at the neon strip light on the ceiling, its straight lines made wobbly by the rippling water.
His belly was full of chips and the warmth of the water was pushing away his misgivings about the house. Although a precocious child, he still had the enviable ability to lose his train of thought on the slightest distraction. As he lay in the water holding his breath, he imagined himself in the sea near their old house on a summer's day. Closing his eyes he could imagine the sun on his face but a short sharp tug on his ankle brought him choking up from the water.
Wide-eyed, he scanned the bathroom, his heart practically exploding from his chest. The room was empty now, as he had moved swiftly to the age where he preferred his mother to leave him in peace to bathe, but something had pulled on his ankle.
The only thing he could hear beyond the thump of his heart and the sharp intake of his breath was the buzz of the neon strip light. Warily he leant back in the bath looking at the end where his feet lay but he could not feel the metallic surface of the bath. Instead he felt a soft, leathery surface behind his back that moved within its skin in a deeply unpleasant squishy sensation that caused him to leap up a second time. This time he was standing in the bath staring down at the surface that again looked normal in spite of the fright he had felt.
The slam of the bathroom door and the sound of Stevie running from the bathroom to the bedroom where he threw himself, wrapped hastily in his towel, onto the bed, brought his mother running up the stairs.
"What the hell is going on?"
"Spider," said Stevie hurriedly. His mother rolled her eyes in exasperation and left the room. Stevie could hear her banging around in the bathroom and opening the window to let out the moisture.
"Well, there's nothing there now," said his mother when she returned. "In any case, it was probably more afraid of you than you were of it."
"I doubt it," said Stevie quietly.
His mother laughed. "Now get off that bed. Honestly, how are you going to sleep if you soak your sheets? Dry yourself and I‘ll call your father to read to you."
Sleep took a long time to come that night. Every time Stevie closed his eyes, he felt that sensation underneath him, that feeling that he was lying on something alive, and started awake. The sound of his brother breathing softly in his sleep sounded in Stevie's ears like a freight train going past but eventually sleep did come.
Stevie wasn't quite sure why he woke because he hadn't been dreaming of anything in particular, and yet the darkness of the room told him he was awake too soon. Sitting up, he saw his brother standing in his cot, looking at the far wall. The curtains were partially open so the amber glow of the streetlight illuminated the room.
Stevie looked over at the wall where his brother was looking and saw the dark grate of the iron fireplace lit by the streetlamp. A low grinding sound pulled Stevie's eyes into focus as the face on the iron grate turned towards him and reversed its frown into a smile. There was nothing pleasant in it in spite of the giggles it produced in his brother. Stevie shrank back against the wall as the face continued to look at him and leer, its thick black lids blinking now and again. Then, as if trying to pull free of the grate, it lolled and pulled its features forward, baring its lips to reveal long pointed teeth.
Stevie screamed, not a small shriek, but a full belly aching roar that sounded as if he was being murdered, and he continued to make this noise until his father burst in to the room in his boxer shorts. The light came on and his Dad stood in the room, golf club in hand.
This new shock shut Stevie up, but he sat quietly sobbing in the damp sheets of his bed. To his embarrassment, he had wet his bed, something he had not done in years.
"Jesus, Stevie, What's wrong?" asked his father. He let the golf club fall to the floor as he realised that no murder had taken place.
Stevie's eyes had not moved from the grate and so he could see it was now back to normal. Not wishing to appear mad and be sent away (as he had heard happened to Loons), he thought quickly.
"N-n-n-nightmare," he managed to say.
"Okay, matey," said his Dad, mollified a little. "Come here -- oh god, you're soaking. That must have been some nightmare."
"'Twas," he mumbled into his shoulder as his Dad carried him to the bathroom.
"What is it, Phil?" called his mother.
"Just a nightmare, Anne, I've got it, go back to sleep," answered his Dad.
His Dad left him to clean himself up in the bathroom while he changed the sheets and turned the mattress on Stevie's bed. Stevie had calmed down now and the shame of wetting the bed was now burning on his cheeks as he dried off, but at least the bath had not misbehaved this time.
When his father returned, he passed Stevie a clean set of pyjamas and told him not to worry -- it was their secret -- then he led him back to his bed. This time Stevie did not drop off to sleep but lay on his back through the remaining hours of the night listening to his brother now back asleep and praying hard that he would not hear that grinding sound again.
The next night exactly the same thing happened. Stevie dropped off to sleep eventually, only to awake in the middle of the night to find his brother giggling and pointing at the grate. The face in the grate turned to look at him and showed its teeth again but this time it growled his name in a horrid grinding tone not dissimilar to the one it made when it moved.
Once again Stevie screamed and once again he lost control of his bladder. His father was less patient with him this time, and so when it happened the following night he screamed into the mattress. The face did not cease this time because there was no interruption and so when his bladder let go it was Stevie who turned on the light in a desperate leap to the doorway. The light seemed to trigger the fireplace into silence and he quietly cleaned himself up before returning to bed to stare at the ceiling.
He awoke the next morning with a start, pleased he had managed to fall asleep; the light was obviously the key. The following night he left the light on and confidently fell straight asleep, but when he awoke in the early hours the light was off.
The grate began its usual performance but this time the head stretched forward, mouth yawning, until it was within two feet of his bed and he could smell its putrid meaty breath. Stevie screamed into his pillow but did not lose control this time. His sheets were soaked in sweat by the time his mother going to the bathroom sent the head retreating snake-like back to the grate. When Stevie tried to turn the light on it failed to work, so he lay awake, his heart working furiously as he stared at the ceiling, desperately trying to block out the grinding sound.
The following morning at breakfast he fell asleep in his cornflakes, prompting a look between his parents.
His father asked him on the way to school if he was still having nightmares.
Stevie answered sheepishly that he was, and that he would like to have the light on at night but it was broken.
"Well, kiddo, I'll sort the light out, but we need to find a way for you to fight this nightmare so you can get some sleep regardless," his Dad said.
"That would be good," agreed Stevie with a weak smile.
Stevie was surprised when he got in from school to find his mother waiting for him in the kitchen where a bright orange bowl sat on the table.
"Come here, Stevie," she called.
Stevie obeyed and plonked himself down on a seat next to her, now he was closer he could see she had one of his plastic swords next to the bowl.
"How was school?" she asked.
"Okay. We built a bridge," said Stevie. "What's this?"
"Your father told me you were having nightmares," said his Mum carefully.
"That was a secret!" said Stevie.
"I know, and I won't tell a soul but your father thought I might be able to help -- and I think I can," said his mother.
"Well, I know a special kind of magic that sends nightmares far away," said his mother.
"I don't know..." Stevie answered.
"What do you have to lose?" said his mother.
Stevie wasn't sure, but he thought it quite likely he was being taken for a ride. Anyway, he was fairly certain that the monstrous face from the fireplace grate was real, so surely a different kind of magic to the one used on nightmares was required.
But any magic would be better than none, so he said "Okay."
"Good, now I've prepared the formula but I need you to stir..."
"Mum, it's empty!" said Stevie reproachfully.
"I knew you didn't believe me!" said his mother with a grin. "Fetch me this stuff from the pantry."
Stevie took the list and went to work gathering the ingredients. He was mollified that the formula at least was real even if it was unlikely to work on the grate.
"Now we've added them into the bowl, I need you to stir it, Stevie," said his Mum.
Stevie obeyed and as he did so his Mum spoke again.
"Whilst you're doing that Stevie you need to think of all those things you're fond of, all the good thoughts you have, I want you to think of them all. Pour them into the bowl as you stir."
"Is it done yet?" said Stevie, his arm growing tired.
"Nearly," said his Mum. "I just need you to coat the sword in the mixture and leave it to dry."
"The sword?" asked Stevie.
"Well, you need something cool to use in your nightmare? I thought about a teddy but you're getting a bit old for that."
"Okay," said Stevie.
Having set the sword down on the draining board to dry Stevie went into the living room to watch TV as his mother cleared away the mess.
Stevie's father had wanted to send him for therapy, but she had said no. Instead, she persuading him to let her try the remedy her mother, years ago, had tried on her. She licked the pleasing sugary paste she had gotten Stevie to mix off her finger, and smiled at the taste from her childhood. She placed the bowl on the counter. She did not see the tile she placed it next to fall away from the wall onto the cover of the bowl where it bubbled before fading into nothingness.
That night Stevie went to sleep with the sword, a reassuring bump, under his pillow, and when he woke in the early hours the grinding was already incredibly loud. Warily he rolled up onto his knees, his plastic sword held out in front of him, but the head was not in front of his bed. To his horror it was by the bars to his brother's cot. His brother lay sleeping still, but the head's teeth were snapping just out of reach of his fingers.
Stevie's fear was forgotten. He leaped from the bed like some crazed berserker and landed astride the thing's tubular black neck, bringing his plastic sword down on it. The head wailed in pain and reared up, cracking the plaster on the ceiling and throwing Stevie against the windowed wall, the sword sliding in the other direction. Stevie shook his head to clear his vision and saw the head looming down at him, its dark jagged mouth open; he rolled just in time and saw the head crash into the plaster of the wall. He looked around for the sword frantically and saw it by the skirting board, glowing with a kind of blue light.
The creature, making the same grinding noise it always did, knocked Stevie's legs from under him, but the boy rolled up again grabbing the sword as he did so. As the creature came at him again, this time with its mouth open, he drew back his arm. Stevie threw the sword with all his strength and all his will. This sent the toy flying in a true arc straight into the mouth of the creature. As it struck the back of its throat the sword flared so bright blue that it lit the whole room; there was a dull popping sound as the creature closed its mouth in shock. The neck shrunk immediately returning the face to the grate where its eyes bulged wide then the grate burst out of the wall before slamming to the floorboards with a crash.
When his father rushed into the room, Stevie was sitting up in bed looking tired and staring at the grate on the floor looking as confused as his father.
"What happened, Stevie?"
"I don't know Dad," answered Stevie sleepily.
"I guess it's just worked itself loose over the years," said his Dad, looking at the grate. "Tell you the truth, Stevie, I don't really like this thing -- you mind if I get rid of it?"
"No problem, Dad," said Stevie. "Wouldn't want it to fall on Nicky."
"My thoughts exactly, matey," said his Dad. "I'll get rid of it tomorrow."
The next morning Stevie awoke for the first time in a week with no problem and went downstairs to have his breakfast. His father was throwing the grate on the skip outside and his mother had put his cereal out for him, his brother was having fun smearing his own breakfast all over his face.
"Hey Stevie," said his Mum. "How did that sword work out?"
"It worked," said Stevie with a smile. "It worked really well."
"Good. I'm glad," said his Mum.
Anne got back to the house from dropping Stevie at school. She swore at Phil leaving the attic open again then having deposited Nicky in his cot she kicked off her shoes and collapsed in an exhausted heap on the bed. A light sleeper for as long as she could remember, Stevie's extended period of nightmares had left her regularly without the eight hours of rest she needed to function. A late morning nap had become a regular indulgence that would not be denied and so she sank back into the warm duvet. Sleep rushed towards her with considerable speed accompanied by a soundtrack of Nicky gurgling happily and a grinding noise that she really should mention to Phil later.
Anne was unsure how long she had been asleep as she began to claw her way up from unconsciousness, enjoying the delicious feeling of a decadent mid morning nap. The play of Phil's hands, slightly coarse and leathery, under her skirt, the warm palms on her thighs, added a delicious electric feeling to her lower belly as she stretched awake. His hands were gently squeezing her legs as they pulled her down the bed slightly parting them and arching her back. Then she remembered Phil was in work.
Anne's eyes snapped open at the same moment her heart leapt into her mouth, her brain going from semi-conscious to awake in the blink of an eye. She saw the open attic hatch and the thing at the end of the bed in one mind-splintering instant.
Her screams lasted only a few seconds before they were muffled then died altogether. In the next room Stevie's brother began to cry.
© 2007 Neil J. Beynon
Bio: Neil Beynon is a writer who lives in London. He earns a crust by marketing and he does penance for this by making things up he hopes other people will enjoy. He can be found online at The other side of the river.
E-mail: Neil J. Beynon
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