Mrs Timothy never wanted Yasmin to be frightened, not of anything, and she made sure that in all her picture books the lions had nice smiles and the crocodiles came with blunted teeth. Mr Timothy disagreed, and that was predictable enough, since Yasmin’s birth her husband seemed to have found a way to disagree with his wife about everything. “You can’t protect her from the world,” he said. “It’s big and it’s scary and it’s right outside the door!” Mrs Timothy knew this was true, but it was a scary world Yasmin needn’t have to confront just yet—and when it came to kindergarten, and school, and college, and all the other horrors her husband kept throwing at her, then they’d have to see, wouldn’t they?—maybe some careful control would be in order. Maybe they could just do their job as loving parents and make sure Yasmin never had to mix with the wrong sort.
When Yasmin was put to bed at night Mrs Timothy would leave the light on. And she’d read her her favourite stories—about very hungry caterpillars, about beautiful princesses, about kindly folk who would never do her any harm. Mrs Timothy was not an especially good reader, and her voice inclined towards a flat monotone, so before very long Yasmin’s eyes would get heavy and she’d fall asleep. And that was good, that was right, and the final image with which the story would leave her would never put her into a state of anxious suspense.
One night—only a few months ago, was it really so recent?—Mrs Timothy heard screams coming from Yasmin’s bedroom, and she ran to see what was wrong. Yasmin was sitting up in bed, and she seemed to be shrinking away from the sheets, from the windows, from the wardrobe, from everything; she held her little pillow out before her as if it were a shield. “Don’t let the giants get me,” she said. It turned out that earlier that evening Mr Timothy had read her a story himself, quite against his wife’s instructions, whilst Mrs Timothy was busy cooking dinner. The story had featured giants galore. Mr Timothy said, “She seemed to be enjoying it at the time,” and Mrs Timothy opened the book and was horrified by what she saw there: men as big as houses, and stamping upon the little fairy folk, and pulling them apart like Christmas crackers, and eating them whole and raw. It took two readings back to back of Robbie the Happy Rabbit to calm Yasmin down again, and even then Mrs Timothy had had to edit out the bits where Robbie had chewed at his carrots, Yasmin didn’t need to hear any more about chewing that night.
It wasn’t the incident that caused the break-up, but it hadn’t helped. “You don’t love me any more,” Mrs Timothy said one day, and Mr Timothy thought about it, and agreed, as if it were a revelation. “And you don’t love Yasmin either,” sobbed Mrs Timothy, “or you wouldn’t have frightened her so!” Mr Timothy said nothing to this, but he didn’t deny it, so it was probably true. And that very same hour he left, he didn’t even bother to pack, and Mrs Timothy was left to cry with her daughter and wonder why there was so much wickedness in the world.
Back before Mrs Timothy had become Mrs Timothy, long ago, when she’d believed everyone in the world loved her and no one would let her down, she’d had an Uncle Jack who would read her bedtime stories. Uncle Jack would come to her room after lights out and sit on the edge of her bed, and say, “Time for a story, my pretty princess.” She didn’t want to hear his stories, but the pretty princess always won her over—and she couldn’t but help like Uncle Jack, he smelled so unlike her parents, and she couldn’t work out why—maybe he smoked a different brand of cigarettes, or drank a different sort of beer—it was a strange smell, a sweet smell, as if her Uncle Jack was full of sugar—and sometimes, if she listened to one of his stories without making a single sound, he’d ruffle her hair as a treat. She knew when he began a story she should keep quiet, she mustn’t scream or cry out, she mustn’t even whimper—if she did, he’d simply stop the story, turn back the pages, and start all over again.
He brought the book with him. An enormous book, when he sat it down upon his lap and opened it up it was wider than he was, and she could only imagine how many stories there must be in there—hundreds, no, thousands, no, all the stories in the world. The pages were thick and heavy and as he turned them they creaked like old floorboards. He didn’t turn on the lamp, he read to her by moonlight. Sometimes if the moonlight was bright enough she’d steal a look at those pages; they were dense with long words, and the words crushed tight on to the paper, and there were no pictures.
The stories frightened the girl.
One night he told a particularly terrifying story. And she tried not to, but she kept gasping out loud with fear. And each time she did, no matter how softly, Uncle Jack would hear her, and he’d stop, and back would creak all the pages, and he’d begin once more. He never seemed angry. He never seemed impatient. He read just as before, the same pace, the same wet hiss, the same emphasis on the most disturbing of words. And it was always at the exact same point that she’d gasp—five times, six times now, she could never get beyond the moment where Little Red Riding Hood admired the size of the wolf’s mouth. She knew that all that was waiting for Little Red Riding Hood was death, the same horrible death that had befallen her grandmother, and she didn’t even know what death was, not properly, only that it was big and black and would consume her, and once it had consumed her she’d be lost and no one would ever find her again.
Six times, seven times, eight. All through the night he read to her the same story, over and over, and each time the girl would jam her fist into her mouth, she’d hold her breath, she’d try to lie in bed stiff and hard and not move a muscle—anything, so long as the story would continue, so that the story would at last come to an end.
She fell asleep at last, for all her terror she was too tired to keep awake. And then she sat up with a start, and it was so dark, and the moonlight had gone, it was as if the moon had been switched off, and she was still terrified, and Uncle Jack was gone. His book, however, was lying on the edge of her bed.
It was her one chance to be rid of it. And yet stretching out her hand to touch it seemed such a dreadful thing. She could feel her heart beating so fast it would pop, and she wondered if that’s how her parents would find her in the morning, lying dead on the bed, her fingers just brushing the warm leathery cover of a giant book; she wondered if Uncle Jack would be sad she was gone, or even care.
The book was so heavy she thought she would never lift it. Still, she did.
The house seemed different in the dead of night. The stairs made noises that sounded like warnings as she stepped on them—or maybe they weren’t warnings, maybe they were threats—maybe they were calling out to the strange shadows on the wall to turn on her and eat her. The book filled her arms, as she walked ever downwards shifting its bulk from side to side it seemed she was dancing with it. She reached the back door. She unlocked it. She opened it. The blackness of the outside seemed richer and meatier than the blackness of the house, and in it poured.
She dropped the book into the bin. She slammed the lid down, in case it tried to get out again.
And then, back to her room, this time running, as fast as she could, no time to shut the back door, let alone lock it, back to her bed and under her covers before anything could eat her alive.
She had a temperature the next day, and her mother was worried, and kept her in bed. And all day long the little girl looked out of the window and hoped it would stay daytime forever and wouldn’t get dark. Because as soon as it was dark, she knew, Uncle Jack would return. And what would he say when he found out she’d thrown his book away? He wouldn’t be pleased.
She couldn’t sleep that night. She waited for him. But Uncle Jack didn’t come.
Mrs Timothy was worried Yasmin might be disturbed by her father’s disappearance, but she seemed to take it in her stride. It was her mummy who dressed her in the morning, who fed her, who read her bedtime stories. “Sometimes things just end,” Mrs Timothy offered as explanation, and Yasmin had nodded slowly, as if she were a grown-up too, as if she could understand such things. But maybe the mistake was that Mrs Timothy had used the same phrase to explain why the next door dog had vanished after being hit by that car; one day Yasmin frowned at her mother, she had something to ask that had been on her mind for quite a while. She said, “Is Daddy dead?”
“Good god, no.”
“He’s just away. Somewhere else. For the time being.”
But Yasmin wouldn’t let it go, and eventually Mrs Timothy had been forced to call her husband. She hadn’t spoken to him in a month. Damn him, she thought, and she felt lightheaded and girlish as she waited for him to pick up, and she was angry with herself for that, and angry with him too.
She didn’t bother with a hello. “Yasmin thinks you’re dead, can you talk to Yasmin and prove you’re not dead?” She handed over the phone to Yasmin before he could give a reply. Yasmin listened. Her eyes went big. She said, “Okay.” She handed the phone back to her mother. Mrs Timothy put it straight to her ear, but her husband had already hung up. “What did he say?” she asked.
“He’s coming back soon,” said Yasmin, and smiled, and went to watch something wholesome on the television.
This is all your fault, Mrs Timothy thought, and gripped the phone tight and hard and pretended Mr Timothy could feel it, pretended she could make him hurt. She wouldn’t even know what death was without your stupid giants, if you hadn’t walked out on us, if you hadn’t been someone different to the man you promised to be. And now he was causing more problems, making promises to Yasmin he wouldn’t be able to keep.
She phoned him again, straight away. He didn’t answer.
When the little girl grew up and became Mrs Timothy, she understood that most of the fairy tales we know today as pantomimes and Disney cartoons were much more violent and disturbing in the original. She read some of the Brothers Grimm, just to see. They were darker, it was true. But they were nothing like the gruesome stories she’d heard from Uncle Jack.
Because he’d told her of Sleeping Beauty, and how when the princess had fallen asleep for a hundred years even the maggots had thought she was dead. And some of those maggots had got sealed fast behind her eyelids, and they were hungry, so they had to feed upon the soft jellies of her eyes, and then when the eyes were gone, they burrowed their way deep into her brain. And when the prince woke her with a magic kiss the princess gazed at him with empty sockets, and her brain had turned to Swiss cheese, and she no longer knew how to speak, or how to think, or how to love. And in the summer months when the weather was hot her brain would start melting and bits of it would dribble out fat and greasy from her ears.
He’d told her of Cinderella, but that she’d had twelve wicked stepsisters, not just two, and that each night they would take turns to beat Cinderella with wire and flay off her skin. And when the prince married her, Cinderella got her revenge. And for a wedding gift she begged for the right to punish her stepsisters by whatever methods she chose. She sought counsel from all the wise men of the land, they would help her devise new tortures never before experienced by man, they would invent machines capable of prolonging each and every agony. And the stepsisters fled; and the soldiers were sent after them; and one by one they’d be caught, and tortured, and killed, and their broken corpses would be hung side by side on the castle battlements for everyone to see. But only eleven stepsisters were ever caught. One got away. And each night Cinderella would lie in bed with her Prince Charming, and she wouldn’t sleep for fear that her last sister was coming to get her, that for all the guards she had posted on the door she would find a way in.
He’d told her of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was unspeakable.
One day, as an adult, Mrs Timothy dared to ask her parents about Uncle Jack. They had no idea who she was talking about. Her father was an only child, her mother had only sisters. Her parents didn’t seem very concerned, though. This Uncle Jack, he’d probably been a family friend.
There was a scream that woke Mrs Timothy up—“Yasmin?” she called—and only then did she realize there was a heavy storm; thunder roared above the house, lightning flashed, and rain battered hard against the windows as if it were trying to break in.
“Yasmin?” She reached her daughter’s room, and the room was dark, and she tried the light switch but it was no use. “Sweetheart, it’s just a power cut, it’s all right, don’t be scared.”
And as her eyes adjusted she could make out Yasmin, sitting up in bed, quite composed, pert even. “I’m not scared,” she said.
“Did the thunder wake you? Did you see the lightning? It’s all right, nothing can get at us in here.”
Yasmin didn’t say anything. Mrs Timothy felt strangely embarrassed, as if she should leave. Instead she sat down on the end of her bed. “I’ll put you back to sleep,” she said. “I’ll read you a story, would you like that?”
“Yes,” said Yasmin.
“I’ll read you one of your favourite stories.” She took from the shelf the tale of the very hungry caterpillar, sat back down again. Reaching for the bedside lamp she checked herself, remembered that the electricity was out. It didn’t matter. She’d read the book so many times she probably knew it all by heart, and besides, there was moonlight. She opened the book, strained to make out the text. Her voice was not only monotonous, it was halting, even Mrs Timothy could hear how boring she was. Reading by moonlight was harder than she’d ever thought, she wondered how he had ever—and then she stopped herself.
“I don’t want to hear about the caterpillar,” said Yasmin.
“No. Fair enough.”
“I want a different sort of story.”
“Let me tell you a story.”
“Yes. Yes. You tell me a story, sweetheart.”
Yasmin’s story wasn’t very good, but her voice was clearer than her mother’s, and so much more confident, and she didn’t hesitate over any of the words. And Mrs Timothy wanted her to stop, but she didn’t think she could, she froze, and she knew that she had to keep quiet, if she made even the slightest sound Yasmin would start all over—and no, that was nonsense, of course she could make it stop, she only had to tell her to stop, this was a four year old girl, stop, stop, stop.
“Where did you hear that?” Mrs Timothy asked, trying to sound calm, trying to sound as if everything was normal.
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t just make it up. You couldn’t.” Yasmin just stared at her, her mother could almost feel her eyes boring into her. “Who’s been telling you this stuff? Who have you been talking to? Was it your father?” And she thought that, yes, maybe her little daughter was making phone calls to her husband, all behind her back, they were ganging up on her, laughing about her, Yasmin was taking sides. It was awful. It was awful. But still so much better than—“I asked you a question, Yasmin! Was it your father?” And she was shaking her, perhaps a little too roughly.
And it was at that moment the electricity chose to come back on. And Mrs Timothy blinked in the sudden light, and saw herself grabbing on to her daughter, and she let go, ashamed. And she saw her darling little daughter’s face, and it was glaring at her.
“Well,” said Mrs Timothy. “Well.” She got up to her feet. “Do you think you can sleep now?”
“Night night, my darling.” And—“You have lovely dreams.”
Still Yasmin wouldn’t say anything, but she did nestle deeper beneath the sheets.
“Night night,” Mrs Timothy said again. And made to leave the room. “Mummy?” she heard, and turned around.
“Mummy,” Yasmin said, “I’m sorry about the story.”
“That’s all right. Never mind.”
“I’m sorry about what it’s let in.”
Mrs Timothy didn’t know what to say to that.
“Please,” said Yasmin, “would you turn off the light for me?”
Her mother hesitated. Then did as she was told.
The hallway back to her bedroom seemed longer than usual, and Mrs Timothy felt cold. A flash of lightning blazed through the house for a moment, it startled her.
She reached her room, closed the door behind her.
She got into bed.
The bed was very cold, and there was a sort of dampness to the cold. It was as if the rainstorm had got in, danced lightly about her bedspread, and got out before she’d returned.
It seemed such a big bed, stupidly big, so empty without her husband, and for the first time since he’d left she wished he was there to help fill it.
She wasn’t frightened by Yasmin’s story. But nevertheless she decided she’d turn the light on, just for a little while. Her fingers tugged at the cord above her head. Nothing, still darkness. The power must have gone off again.
No, she wasn’t frightened, that would be absurd. Indeed, she could barely remember what the story was even about now, it was already fading away like a dream—and she tried to grasp on to the memory of it, and then she made herself let it go, no, let go.
It wasn’t the story that was frightening. It was what the story might have let in. The words popped into her head like a cold truth, and she didn’t even know what that could mean—let what in? Still, it made her shiver.
She pulled up the sheets to her throat. She felt the wetness on her chin, it was damp. Disgusted, she threw the sheets off again. They formed a huddle on the floor by the side of the bed.
She looked around the room. She knew the room so well. She’d slept in the room for nearly four years, ever since they’d moved here, ever since she was pregnant with Yasmin. There was nothing to fear from this room. This room was her sanctuary. She had slept in this room over a thousand times, she had never been hurt here, had she? She’d never once been haunted by ghosts, or attacked by monsters, or bitten by vampires, or killed. She wished she hadn’t thought of that word, ‘killed.’
The shadows were bleeding out from the corners towards her. She knew why that was. The storm was doing strange things to the light, it was causing it to distort somehow, to break it into weird shapes. If she didn’t like it, she could always get up and close the curtains. Get up then, close the curtains. Get up.
She didn’t want to get up.
She was frightened of what the story might have let in. What had Yasmin done? She wanted to run to her bedroom, wake her, demand that she take her story back. Unsay it, make it all go away. She should get up and find her.
Oh, but she didn’t want to get up, did she? Why didn’t she want to get up? Think.
Because there was something under her bed. There was something under her bed. She knew it. She could sense it. If she listened closely, she could hear it whispering to her. Yes, and the moment she put her foot over the side, it would grab her, pull her under and into the darkness. Look at that body on the floor, it whispered. That could be you.—There isn’t a body on the floor, that’s just the sheets I kicked off, I did that myself.—No, it’s a body on the floor.
From downstairs she heard a knock against the door.
It was just the wind, of course—but there it was again, and this time there was a rhythm to it, a tattoo of three beats, thump-thump-thump. And again.
It must be her husband. And she’d wanted him there only a few minutes before, but now he seemed a very real and present danger, and she wanted him gone, she wanted him off her property—he couldn’t just turn up whenever he felt like, he’d made his choice, he’d made his bloody choice, and she’d go and see him and tell him just that—and she nearly got out of bed, this was something real, and she was just putting her foot down to the carpet when she felt it brush against her, it was too smooth and too oily, and she realized that the darkness had a texture to it now, the shadows were alive, the shadows wanted her.
She pulled her foot back to safety. The door kept knocking. You knock away, she thought, I’m staying where I am.
She closed her eyes. She tried not to think of all the darkness in her head when she did that, that the darkness she had within her might be the same darkness waiting for her without.
Thump-thump-thump—and then stop.
And nothing. No more of that.
And she kept her eyes closed, and stilled her breath, and listened for the slightest sound.
She heard nothing, but she felt it, a new weight on the end of her bed.
Her eyes snapped open, and there was nothing there—it was all right, of course there was nothing there—and she gasped with relief and thought she might even cry—and the door, her bedroom door, had she closed it?—the door was open.
She hadn’t closed it. That was it. She could go and close it if she wanted to. She would, just get up and close the door. Get up. Get up.
What had Yasmin’s story let in?
And at the doorway she saw the darkness harden, and grow denser, and turn into the shape of a person, and she thought her heart would pop—and she thought, this is how my little daughter will find me in the morning, slumped dead against the pillows, my eyes open so wide in fear, oh, Yasmin.
“Is that you, Yasmin?” she made herself ask.
And the figure said, quietly, “Yes.”
She wanted nothing to frighten her, not now, not ever. “Were you afraid of the thunder? It’s all right, darling. You sleep with me. I’ll protect you. This bed’s big enough for both of us.” It was too big, that was a certainty—and now she’d have someone to hold again, and she’d be brave, and all the ghosts and monsters could come and she’d see them all off.
The figure came in, the figure wasn’t bothered by the shadows, or the darkness under the bed, or the sheet body on the floor—and the figure climbed in beside her, and Mrs Timothy had one last terror, that maybe this wasn’t Yasmin after all—but it was, it was, and she could now see her clearly, this was her own little angel.
Mrs Timothy hugged her. She smelled nice and sweet. “Don’t be scared,” she told her.
“I’m not scared,” her daughter replied. She whispered it in her mother’s ear.
Such a sweet smell, she recognized that smell. And Yasmin was slightly damp too, as if the rain had got to her. And Yasmin was right by her ear. “Shall I finish my story?”
And Mrs Timothy pulled away from her, just for a moment, and she saw that Yasmin’s eyes were too wide, and her mouth was too big for her face, and then Yasmin pulled her back, she held on to her mother’s head tight so it couldn’t move.
She told her story. She made her understand that there were so many ghosts, you could never tell who was a ghost and who wasn’t. So very many—and some of them want to tear you apart, some of them want to drag you down to Hell—and some, if you’re lucky, just want to tell you stories.
The smell wasn’t of cigarettes and beer, it was of soft decay. And her touch was moist.
She told her mother her story, and her mother was good, and kept quiet during the whole thing. So she ruffled her hair before she got out of bed. And Mrs Timothy’s mind still had some room to think, to wonder at how much bigger Yasmin had become, why, she looked quite the grown-up.
Yasmin stood there, and they were both standing there, she was holding hands with a man without a face who had just leaked out of the shadows, perhaps he’d always been there, perhaps he had been waiting all this time.
They were holding hands, they looked down at the frightened little girl in the bed like they were mummy and daddy.
It was the daddy who said, “Sleep well, my pretty princess,” and the mummy who said, “There’ll be more stories tomorrow.” And they shrunk away into the darkness of the hallway, and closed the door, and locked it.
Hello! Stepping out of the story here.
This creepy tale has also just been published in issue 4 of Shadows & Tall Trees, and is released here with kind permission of its editor, Michael Kelly. I’m very proud to appear in the latest issue, alongside such names as Reggie Oliver, Gary McMahon, and recent Man Booker Prize nominee Alison Moore – and it also has the sort of cover that’ll make your head spin!
If you’ve enjoyed my story, do consider checking out the other contributors – it’s a really terrific anthology. You can find more details at http://www.undertowbooks.com/issues/