By William Meikle
And don’t come out until I say so.
The cold emotionless voice spoke through the thin wood of the door which rattled on its hinges as it slammed. Billy Morrison was left in the cold and the dark and the quiet. Again.
He listened as his father stomped back downstairs, the steps vibrating through the floors, sending shock waves through Billy’s buttocks and thighs as he began to push himself off the floor.
I’ll bet he’s going to sit in front of the telly all night, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. That’s all he’s good for. I hate him.
He immediately covered his mouth with both hands. Even though it was the truth, he had no wish to be overheard. He’d made that mistake before, and that time he’d ended up having to be kept out of school for a week – “Suffering from a touch of flu” his mother, who had still been around at the time, had said. It was a funny sort of flu, which gave you black and blue bruises all over your body and made you pee blood for days afterwards.
He rubbed his upper arm, inspecting the large white finger imprints which blossomed there, now slowly filling up red. Using only his fingertips he pushed at the inflamed area, lightly, until the pain came. This time everything was okay. There was only a dull ache, not the bright pain of a broken bone.
Billy had just passed his ninth birthday and already had too much experience with hospitals and plaster casts. He had lost count of the number of times he had ‘fallen down stairs’ or ‘walked into doors’, or ‘slipped in the bath’. When the doctors, and then the social workers, and then the police had asked him about his accidents, he had gone along with his parents’ story. His friend Tommy had told him that you don’t get to heaven if you tell tales, and Billy would have dearly loved to go to heaven.
He was a thin child. As he lifted his T-shirt over his head, it was possible to count all his ribs and, as he leaned over the bed, it was possible to see how scrawny and spindly his legs had become.
He drew a pajama jacket from under his pillow and pulled it around him, fastening it in front with a small length of string. Slowly, on tiptoe, so as not to be overheard, he made his way to his wardrobe, expertly avoiding the many creaking floorboards that would give him away. Silently shifting aside a box of old toys, he reached in and took out two items he always kept hidden – a book and a flashlight.
Five minutes later he was under the bedclothes, all carefully arranged so that no light seeped out and no cold could get in. The flashlight was lit, protecting him, wrapping him in his own warm, yellow world. He was very soon lost, somewhere under the Misty Mountains, in the land of Bilbo the Hobbit.
Sometime later he was asleep, having seen Bilbo out of the dark and up the mountains on the back of the king of eagles. He dreamed, his eyelids twitching, of goblins, red-eyed in the blackness, pot-bellied and thick-armed, stinking of sweat, beer and smoke, arranged in serried ranks as they marched upwards, into the light, led on by the incessant drum of his hear.
He was finally forced awake by the smell, the noise, and the fear, but the drumbeat stayed, banging into his brain from just underneath his pillow.
He lifted his head, banishing the rhythms back to dreamland as he checked the dark corners for goblins that might be trying to creep up on him.
He was wise to the ways of goblins. They would hide, listening and watching, just waiting to catch him misbehaving and drag him, screaming and kicking, downwards, down to the depths where the drums beat and the smoke hissed and Gollum was waiting just around the corner.
He lay still, making sure the dreams had gone, before venturing from his sanctuary. He could tell by the silence that it was late in the night. The house, the street, possibly the whole world, had shut down, building its energy for the coming day, trying to make sense of the one that had just passed.
This was the best time. It was a time of peace, a time of quiet freedom, a time for play. He pulled back the covers and slipped out of bed, feeling the floorboards cold and rough underfoot.
Quickly, silently, he removed his pajama jacket and reached for his clothes, a pair of denims, gold battered training shoes, two T-shirts and a thick jacket. It would be cold outside.
Moonlight showed him the way to the door, silver, sharp, crisp and clear. He was more confident in the dark; he had no need to hide. He opened the door, making sure he slipped out before it reached wide enough to creek. Tonight he would not need his flashlight. His friend the moon would show him the way.
The foot of the stairs was reached with no further sound. Light spilled from under the living room door, a flickering blue. His father must have fallen asleep in the armchair again in front of the whispering television, slumped almost to the floor, mouth hanging open, belly pointed skyward. Billy listened and could hear the deep regular rumblings of his father’s snores. He was finally able to let out a breath as he headed for the back door and freedom. Beyond the door the silver light beckoned, leading him out to the garden where the shadows fell, sharp and black, and the sky danced with the firefly stars.
He wasted no time. His goal was waiting. The dark houses sat on either side of him as he travelled the well-trodden path. He looked up, soaking in the moonlight, filling up his deep gray eyes.
He had left the house behind now, and in front of him all was silent as he surveyed the dark pool, a sleeping part of the river, stretching away into the blackness. The reflected moon winked at him as a ripple passed, before returning solid and dependable to show him to his place.
The large rock welcomed him, as it always did, as he sat and surveyed his domain. Over in the shadows, almost under the bank, the heron stood, gray and blue and vigilant. It was sleeping, but still watchful, waiting for an unwary fish to spur it into a blur of deadly action.
In the blackness to his left there was a rustling which brought a small smile to his face. The ghost-white owl was still there. He remembered its hunting eyes, its cruel beak, as his mind wandered, thinking of eagles and mountains, rings and riddles, dark pools and moonlight.
He was brought awake by a sudden cold draft and noticed that the moon had gone, hidden behind a small cloud. The darkness had become softer, the shadows more threatening, and there was a sound just loud enough to hear, a whispering and a crackling – like the quiet sound of the television when the programs have finished for the day. From behind the clouds there was a flash of sudden moonbeam, and he caught a glimpse of something white. Not, not white, silver; silver and blue and white and radiant, all at the same time. And then it was gone, but not completely.
Something had been left behind. He scrambled off his rock and approached. As he did so the moon reappeared and he was able to see the ice, noticeably thick and growing out to a foot from the bank.
From off to one side he heard laughter, a boy’s laugh, as if from far away.
He waited quiet; he was good at these things. The wisp of cloud passed on and the pool was again bathed in sharp moonlight. He listened and finally heard. The crackling returned to his left under the trees. Being careful, pretending he was at home, he crouched into a crawl inching slowly forward.
Under the trees the water was in a thick black shadow, and the crackling had grown louder. A patch of moonlight found its way through the branches and was softly rippling in the water.
As he watched, the rippling formed and the moon faded, disappearing, eaten away from the shore to the center as the ice formed and the crystals cracked and the water solidified. A feather appeared in the moonlight, a small glowing feather, out of which the ice poured through thin veins of pulsating silver as it brushed across the water. And, guiding the feather, just coming into sight, was a small boy’s hand.
The laughter came again as another cloud obscured the moon and the scene faded to black. Billy waited. He was not an impatient child.
The temperature fell further causing him to shiver, but he stayed still – he had endured much worse.
Finally he was rewarded. The cloud moved on, the moon shone and the perpetrator of the laughter was revealed. Billy felt warmth spreading through him. Life had finally surprised him, really surprised him for the first time in many days.
At first glance it looked like a boy, small; thin, about the same age as Billy. It only took a second glance to see it was no normal boy. His skin was blue; a thin watery blue like the clearest summer sky, and the veins which stood out proud from his arms pulsed in pure silver. His hands were long and thin, the fingers ending in jet-black fingernails. But, his eyes were deep and kind as he held the feather out to Billy.
Billy did not need to be asked twice. He took it, feeling the cold spread through his fingertips. He bent to the water’s edge and stroked the feather across its surface. He felt a cold thrill pass up his arm as the feather pulsed and a thin trace of ice drew itself on the black liquid. He passed the feather across a second time, enthralled as the ice thickened and the cold in his arms deepened. He hadn’t noticed it yet, but the fingernail on his thumb had turned black.
He turned back to the boy, handing back the feather. The blue boy took it and looked at Billy for a long time. Billy could still feel the cold creeping through him, but he didn’t mind it. He was caught in the enchantment of the moment.
He watched as the boy bent to an unfrozen patch of water and immersed the feather completely.
There was a sudden flash, blue and silver, which momentarily dazzled Billy. When his eyes recovered, the boy was standing in front of him, a feather in each hand. He offered the left one to Billy.
He realized he was being offered something big, something which would affect his life from now on.
He took it with barely a second thought, feeling again the deep blue cold stretching up his arms. This one was even lighter, its whiteness dazzling him if her looked too closely.
The other boy took Billy’s free hand, leading him up river away from the pool. Billy looked back, only once, and saw that behind them they were leaving a trail of silver, a covering of frost which grew as they moved on, spreading in a blanket across the short grass.
He was led to a waterfall where he stroked icicles into being from the falling water. He was stunned when one dip of his feather on the edge of a reservoir sent blue ice sheeting out across the water, faster than the eye could see. He did not notice the silver veins spreading like tree roots up his arms.
All night they ran, crossing the forest, coating the trees white, peeking into houses as they traced frosty cobwebs on windows, dropping tiny needle sharp icicles from rooftops. All too soon the first red of dawn painted the eastern sky.
They finally stopped in the front garden of Billy’s home, surveying their work. The other boy lifted his gaze to the sky then looked at Billy, a question in his eyes. He held out a hand, the thick veins pulsing, filled with work yet to do.
Billy looked at his own hand, at the black nails, at the silver veins leading up his now blue arms. The feather or the hand; that was the decision he must make. He thought of home, of the pain, of the constant fear, of the noise.
Through the front window he could see his father still slumped in the chair. He was smiling and his mouth was closed. He looked happy. Billy could remember the last time he saw that smile. It was winter and he was much smaller than he was now. He had woken in the morning to find that the world had turned white with snow. All that morning he had played with his father, building a snow castle, throwing balls of crushed whiteness at each other, both laughing as the balls hit their targets, exploding into a million white fragments. His mother had made hot soup and he had spent the afternoon basking in the warm glow of happiness.
He turned back to the boy, his face showing his sadness, and held out the feather. The boy moved to take it. Then there was a noise from the living room. Billy turned and saw his father rising out of the chair. The smile had gone and the Goblin had turned.
The monster was shouting but Billy could hear only a muffled roar through the windows. He didn’t really think about the next action, it was merely his new found means of protecting himself. He placed the feather against the window and thought of the iced-up reservoir.
The Goblin stopped, frozen in a shout, as white particles shot across his body. The room turned a silvery-blue just before the icy cobwebs on the window obscured Billy’s view.
There were tears in his eyes, tears which froze before dropping with a tinkle to the grass below. He took the boy’s hand without looking back, and together they rose into the air, flying, accelerating, into the darker west.
They crossed over the town again, over his house, but Billy gave it no thought.
From now on it would always be play time.
William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with fifteen novels published in the genre press and over 250 short story credits in thirteen countries. His work has appeared in a number of professional anthologies. He is the author of the ongoing Midnight Eye series and his e-books Invasion and The Valley have reached the top of the charts in their genres on Amazon.com. Read more about this prolific author on his website.