As he hurried through the doorway, Forrest Eckman’s lanyard caught behind him. It yanked him back by the neck, and the stack of papers and folders in his arms flew out all over the bottom of the garage stairs.
“Damnation!” Forrest muttered to himself as freed himself from the fire door’s clutches. “I can’t believe this!” He stopped suddenly, blinking.
Was that a child’s laughter he’d heard?
He dismissed it, and groaned as he bent over to pick up the mess of papers he’d been grading. He’d been in a hurry of course; he’d lost track of time while sipping coffee at the bookshop. Again. His girlfriend had promised… Well, she’d promised all sorts of things if he got home on time, and there was still a chance.
Forrest snatched up the last pieces of paper and stuffed them into the students’ folders. He’d sort them out later. Right now, he was answering to a higher calling.
Mess cleaned up, he dashed up the steps, taking them two and three at a time all the way up three floors. As he neared his destination, he hopped up the last few steps, and missed.
He hadn’t missed it completely, but he didn’t make it, either. His foot collided with the edge of the step and down his foot went. And down he went. And up the papers went.
This time, he knew he’d heard laughter. Children’s laughter.
As a sixth grade history teacher, he knew children’s laughter when he heard it, and that’s what he’d just heard.
He bolted upright, spinning in place. Where were those chuckling hooligans? Forrest would teach them to laugh at another’s misfortunes! As his eyes scanned Stair C of the City Center Parking Garage, he spotted a familiar set of keys at the bottom of the stairs. His. He must have dropped them when he fell, and of course, they’d tumbled all the way back down.
Forrest scratched his thick brown beard, sighed, and trudged down the stairs to get his keys. Just as he crouched down, he heard more laughter. This time it clearly came from behind him, up the stairs. He whirled to face the little miscreants, but again there was no one there. He knitted his eyebrows and turned to retrieve his keys.
As he did, he saw a small, skinny, dirty hand reach out from around the corner and snatch the keys. “Hey!” shouted Forrest. “That’s not funny. Game’s over, kids. Give back my keys before I call the cops.” He leapt around the corner, but the stairs were still empty. Forrest ran all the way down the stairs, searching. He was sure he hadn’t heard the fire doors open at any point, yet he saw no one.
Forrest reached the bottom of the stairwell in the basement, and stood there in the watery, flickering fluorescent light. The anger melted somewhat and was replaced by bewilderment. Where had they gone?
Forrest really was stuck now. He had no car keys. So much for making it home on time.
He could call his girlfriend and ask her to pick him up, but the teacher in him was wondering why children so young were left to their own devices in a public stairwell. He started up the stairs, still finding no sign of the children and was just about to reach for his cell phone when he heard a lone young voice singing.
‘Tween the day
And the morning twilight.
Drift with us,
Ne’er be lost,
On the shores of Hali.
‘Tween the day
And the evening sunlight.”
Forrest was hypnotized. The bell-like sound of the words reverberated off the concrete walls and steel railings. He was just standing, staring up the stairs, gaping.
He closed his mouth and crept upwards. As he rounded the corner on to the flight where he’d fallen, there was a little girl who couldn’t be any older than six standing there, holding his keys. She wore a torn, short, white summer dress, despite the fall chill. Her shoulder-length hair was matted, and there were smudges of dirt on her face, arms, and legs.
Forrest could not move. Standing at the bottom of the staircase, he looked up at the little urchin while she gazed down at him. “Wh-who are you?”
The girl blinked and tilted her head to one side. “I’m one of the children.”
“One of whose children? Do they know you’re out here?”
“Oh yes! This is one of the places we visit all the time.”
“Visit? So where do you live?”
“We live by the lake, of course!” Her tone sounded to Forrest as if her subtext was “Duh, how could you not know these things?” The girl’s answers, though, only confused him further, forcing him to ask more. What lake? There was no lake in the middle of the city. He quelled this urge, though, and stepped slowly toward her. He wanted to get close enough to her to see if he could help her, get her home, or at least to some place safe.
She made no move to dash away again, and held out his keys to him when he was within arm’s reach. She smiled as she did so, and her smile lit up her face and sang liquid notes. Forrest took his keys and smiled back. He stood there, and the girl turned and walked up the stairs around the corner.
“Wait!” Forrest cried as she disappeared.
“What?” she asked, popping back, worried. “What’s the matter?”
Forrest shook his head and ran his hand through his hair. “Well, shouldn’t you be home by now? It’s kinda late.”
“Okay, if you think so.” She shrugged.
“I’ll go home, if you think it’s late.”
“Did you need me to get you there? I could drive you.”
She gave him her mystified face again, clearly baffled.
“O-only if it’d be easier,” Forrest stammered. “You know, than walking.” He wished he could figure out what it was about this girl that made him nervous.
“Oh, I don’t think it would be.”
Forrest marveled at the girl and wondered at children in general. It was, in a large part, why he’d become a teacher in the first place. He was continually amazed at how young minds could be so sure of something that was completely absurd. They believed unflinchingly, and held onto those beliefs. This little girl, for instance, clearly knew that it would be easier for her to walk home than be driven. “Look, you shouldn’t be here alone—”
“I’m not alone!”
Forrest went cold.
She was right. Now that he thought about it, he’d heard children laughing, not a single child. There were a lot of voices, more than just the one. Before he could voice this sudden realization, he and the little girl were no longer alone in the stairwell.
Forrest’s mouth went dry.
All dressed in similar, lightweight tattered clothing with dirty, smudged faces and snarled hair, the children surrounded him. He had no idea where they’d all suddenly come from. They hadn’t walked up or down the steps. They had all just suddenly stepped into the stairwell.
Forrest gawked at the sudden crowd. “See? I’m not alone.”
“This is my family, silly.” She giggled. It was a beautiful, crystalline bell of a sound.
And Forrest saw the similarities among the boys, among the girls. It was odd, though. The boys looked nothing like the girls. The boys had wiry brown hair and sparkling blue eyes in their impish little faces, whereas the girls had blonde hair and soft brown eyes. The similarities the boys shared with the girls had nothing to do with genetics: it was the state of (un)dress and smudges of dirt all over their exposed skin. Their ages also varied very little.
The more he stared at them, the less sense it all made. Forrest’s breaths started coming in gasps, and he held onto the wall for balance. The first little girl grinned reassurance at him.
“We’re from the Places Between, but we stay mostly in Stairsie,” she said.
She gestured at their surroundings.
“You mean the stairs?”
Forrest paused, wondering. And suddenly, he got it. “Oooooh!” he cried. “Stair C!”
“Isn’t that what I just said? Geez, Forrest.”
Forrest stopped. She’d just said his name. He knew how she knew his name, but realized he’d been resisting the crazy reason this girl knew him. This little girl made him nervous because she looked just like his girlfriend when she was younger. She’d shown him pictures of herself as a little girl and those pictures were of this little girl. The little girls all around him, in fact, were her somehow.
The way she’d just emphasized the second syllable in his name and tilted her head as she did had opened his eyes. And twisted his mind.
This couldn’t be her.
How could it?
She was waiting for him at home…wasn’t she?
Not to mention she had to be at least twenty years older!
This just could not, could not be!
A chill ran through Forrest’s whole body…the girl wasn’t the real problem, though.
If this little girl was his girlfriend, then that little boy was…
Forrest turned and looked about him in the sea of selves and decades-younger-than-now girlfriends and started gulping air. He ran a clammy hand over his beard and tugged at his tie.
“It’s okay, Forrest,” the first girl said as she rested a hand on his forearm. Forrest couldn’t tie the face to the name. He wouldn’t. Forrest turned away.
He had to.
His quavering stomach couldn’t take it.
His wobbling mind couldn’t, either.
But the voice was right now.
It was no longer the little girl’s voice. The children around him all started humming a tune softly. It was the same tune he’d heard the first girl sing in the stairwell. The older voice spoke. Forrest squeezed his eyes shut, trying to dissociate the young face from the older voice.
“Forrest,” she said. “Look at me.”
“I can’t,” he said through clenched teeth.
“It’s me, Forrest. I’m here.”
The hand on his arm was no longer a little girl’s hand. It was the delicate, sculpted hand of his beautiful girlfriend.
“Cass?” he quavered, eyes still closed.
“Yes, dearest. It’s me. I’m so sorry. I’ve wanted to tell you forever, but I wanted to be sure, first.”
“That you were who I thought you were.”
“That doesn’t…what?” Forrest opened his eyes. There was his Cassie in all her beautiful glory. Oddly, she was still wearing the little tattered white dress. The effect on the young woman was quite different than when it was on the little girl, and despite everything that had just happened (and was still happening), his body started to react.
And they were alone.
And she was holding him.
“Don’t you recognize the tune, Forrest?”
While the children were all gone, he could still hear them humming. He suddenly remembered, and looked at Cassie wide-eyed. “That tune you play!”
“Yes,” Cassie said, smiling. “The one you didn’t like at first.”
“I called it ‘haunting.’ And I’m still right.”
Cassie laughed, and so did all the children. Forrest pulled away and tensed.
“No, no…don’t worry, Forrest. Relax. Come with me.”
“It’s time to meet the family.”
The mind’s sleep and waking.
And off the side of eyesight.
Come with me,
To land between
Your birth and dying,
Time does fade,
And light does bleed.
Won’t you join Cassilda?”
Forrest took her hand, and she led him to the towered city on the shores of the ethereal lake.
Tom is a longtime devotee of the art of the weird tale, and is descended from a line of family that enjoys a good nightmare, so is it any wonder he writes stories with a darker twist? Tom has stories in Horror for the Holidays, Undead and Unbound, Eldritch Chrome, and Tales of the Talisman volume 8, issue 4, and will soon be appearing in Atomic Age Cthulhu: Terrifying Tales of the Mythos Menace and Dark Rites of Cthulhu. There are others, but the ink is not yet dry enough to share details.
By day, Tom is expanding young minds as an elementary school teacher and spends what little spare time he has hunched over his keyboard coming up with more stories for his readers’ enjoyment.
If you enjoyed this story, let Tom know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Jason Wren.