‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!’
Ali waited for the house to go silent. Now that she was sleeping in the library, it was easy to sneak out. There was bright moonlight again, so she skirted the lawn, keeping to the shadow of the trees, and lowered herself into the well.
She made her way along the brick passageway. She’d brought a bucket full of cleaning gear and she set it down on the tunnel floor beneath the trapdoor.
It was only now that an obvious problem struck her. Crap! What an idiot. How wide would the trapdoor open upwards under the bed? Last night, she’d pushed the bed back into position over the top of it. How dumb was that! If she couldn’t squeeze through, she’d have to go back and get the key.
She pushed on the trapdoor and heard it thud against the underside of the bed. It looked like the gap was wide enough, and she tested it by squeezing her head, arms and shoulders through.
‘It’s all about the bum,’ she whispered, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. The thought of getting stuck there, half in and half out of a trapdoor in a barn nobody came to, was a recipe for an undignified end. Ali began to slide backward . . . and found she couldn’t.
‘What the frack!’
The trapdoor was resting on her back. She could edge forwards, but when she tried to shuffle backwards the trapdoor clamped down like the lip of a giant clam. She fought a wave of panic, telling herself to keep still. Then she focused on her breathing and began to crawl her way forwards, using her elbows on the floor like short legs.
Then a new problem presented itself – the trapdoor opened towards her puddle of vomit.
‘Oh great!’ She had no choice but to shuffle like a worm straight at it, trying as best she could to arch her chest above the congealing mess, her elbows on either side. Doing her best not to breathe in the acrid smell, she scrambled to her feet, shining her penlight over her clothes. Her jeans had escaped, but the front of her T-shirt had a long smear of vomit.
‘Gross!’ She carefully peeled the shirt over her head, holding it away from her face and hair. Then she dragged the bed to one side and retrieved the bucket of cleaning gear from the tunnel.
It didn’t take long to scrub the floor and rinse the patch of vomit from her shirt. She pulled her shirt back on and was about to drop the bucket down into the passage when she saw something move out of the corner of her eye.
‘Woah!’ Ali jumped backwards. Whatever it was, it had darted between the stacks of boxes. It moved like a rat, its coat black and sleek, but it had been too big. A cat, maybe? Ali clambered onto the bed and swept her light over the boxes. Nothing.
‘Hello, creepy thing. Come on out where I can see you.’ She looked round the barn for something to use as a weapon. Apart from the boxes and furniture, the place was pretty bare. Then the creature started whimpering.
Ali remembered nursing a stray when she was a child. The poor animal had been in a fight and one of its ears was badly torn so it must have been in pain, but it had chosen to suffer in silence. Whatever this thing was, it was not a cat.
She crawled to the end of the bed to get a better view between two boxes . . . and saw a pair of yellow eyes. She’d read about the chill of fear, how it felt like ice moving up the spine, but she’d never felt it herself. Until now. The creature was little more than a dark shape crouched in shadow; only its eyes were visible, two yellow slits staring back at her.
Ali ran through her options for getting out. She could jump into the tunnel and run to the well. But if that thing jumped down after her? No thanks.
She shone her penlight at the nearest window. If she ran full speed, it would take her two or three seconds, a few more to break the glass and climb out. If the creature’s teeth were as big as its eyes, it could do a lot of damage in that time. And she had nothing to beat it off with.
Or maybe she did. The bed had an iron frame with vertical bars in the headboard. If they were screwed into the base of the frame, they could be unscrewed. Ali tried each bar till she found one that turned. She unscrewed it till it came free.
‘Show time,’ she said, switching her penlight back on and directing it at the boxes. The rat thing wasn’t in the gap anymore. She climbed down and went over to the boxes, gave one a kick and stepped back. Nothing. She kicked again and got a glimpse of the creature as it darted behind a packing case.
‘What the hell are you?’ Not a cat; the body was too long and too low to the ground. A stoat? She lifted the iron bar and kicked over the packing case.
There it was, still half in shadow: it had pointed ears and a long snout, and there was something clamped in its jaws – a sheet of paper. Ali hadn’t packed away her mess from the night before and the various books and paperwork were still lying around. The creature gave a shrill squeak and crouched, as if preparing to pounce.
Ali waved her iron bar. The creature yelped, dropped the sheet of paper, and jumped onto the dressing table.
‘Shit!’ Ali lifted the bar again, ready to defend herself, but the creature was gone; only the sheet of paper remained, falling slowly to the floor.
‘Yeah, piss off why don’t you!’ Ali screamed. She felt the blood pumping in her temples, her heart racing from the rush of adrenalin. ‘And don’t come back! I’ll squish your ugly face if I see it again.’ She picked up the sheet of paper, which was punctured with small teeth marks. A little forensic science was called for; the spacing of the teeth might tell her some- thing about the creature.
She started to leave, and realised she couldn’t. The bed was on top of the trapdoor. She’d been able to push it up from below to get into the barn, but there was no way she could lift the trapdoor to get out, not if she was under the bed herself. And if she pulled the bed out of the way first, it would leave the trapdoor in plain sight to anyone passing the barn window in the morning.
There had to be a smarter way to do this. What if she moved everything, like props on a film set, moved them a few feet to the right? She could put one of the storage trunks over the trap door instead of the bed. She emptied the trunk, stuffing its books under the bed, then dragged it till it sat directly over the trapdoor. The handle was on the far side, visible to anyone who came inside and took a really close look, but only if they peered right over the trunk.
Ali felt pretty good about the result. Anyone looking through the window would never spot the change. She tried lifting the trapdoor, it was heavy, but the trunk tilted up and tilted down and stayed in place, so long as she didn’t open the trapdoor more than halfway. Plenty of room to squeeze in and out.
When she got back to the library, she was too wired to sleep. ‘Hot milk, I need hot milk.’ She went to the kitchen and began poking around for a saucepan. Then Waxstaff appeared in the doorway.
‘Looking for something?
‘Milk saucepan,’ said Ali. ‘Can’t sleep.’
‘Bad dreams?’ Something about the way Waxstaff looked at her, her head to the side, made Ali feel uneasy.
‘No. House specialty, is it? Ghosts and bad dreams part of the package?’
‘It is for your aunt – she’s always sleepwalking,’ said Waxstaff.
‘That right? Good to know. I just fancied a hot milk.’ ‘After the amount of food you put away at dinner?’
‘I know! Where do I put it, right?’ She grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge and carried on looking for the saucepan.
‘Under the bench, third cupboard. Need help?’
‘No, all good.’
‘Clean it when you’re done,’ said Waxstaff. ‘The pans are ancient and milk sets like concrete if you don’t rinse them.’ And she left the kitchen.
Ali poured the milk and set it on the stove, then took the sheet of paper from her pocket and studied the teeth marks. They were small, and there were a lot of them. What creature had that many teeth? The sheet of paper itself was a short, hand-written letter. Ali leaned back against the kitchen bench and began read.
Dearest Alice, my great-grandniece to be,
I pray these books survive undisturbed until your arrival so many years from now. I will explain all when we meet, for meet we must. I entrust my safety to you. Everything you need to know is hidden in these books, penned as childish tales of distraction. The books hold the key to finding me. Forgive their cryptic conceits; I have to protect access to this peculiar world from dark hearts who are set on destroying it.
Dear child, please find me. More is at stake than my survival or I would not send this bottle across the tide of years to your future shore.
With hope and affection,
your great-aunt, Alice
Ali stared at the letter, read it through again, and began to shake. Part of her, the rational scientist, was sneering with disbelief; a far deeper part was being torn and shredded.
‘This must be a fracking joke!’ she whispered as her legs gave way and she sagged to the floor, her back sliding down the cupboard. The conversation with Peter came flooding back, her lecture about models of reality, about being brave and poking holes in what we think we know. In that moment, as the milk boiled over on the stove above, Ali knew with complete conviction that her life would never be the same again.