I haven’t been able to write a blog post thing in over two months, because I’ve been busy saving the world and making out with the unbelievably cute and Scott Pilgrim-ish girl who works at the game store (in my imagination. I’m fairly sure I didn’t have to clarify that.) The point is a lot of stuff is going on, and has been going on since around the last time I wrote anything on here, when I was in the forest with those deer being called Frodo by a drunk fellow – and even now, in a moment of respite, I can’t dredge up the energy or the willingness to do a post, so I’m going to just put the beginning of the story I’ve been writing, as a stand-in. And while you’re reading that, I’ll be flying a super cool airship over the alternative Victorian version of England with the game store girl at my side while elegantly sporting the most amazing sideburns you’ve ever seen. So here you are. And it’s weird, just to let you know in advance.
“SASHA” – first chapter
The carriage creaked away into the darkness, leaving Sasha alone in front of the gates, holding his suitcase in one hand and leaning on his cane. He reached into his pocket, letting the cane rest against his leg, and took out the small slip of paper they’d given him—and unfolding it, he read by the light of the lamp hanging from the gate, 667 Errant Street.
He looked at the plaque on the gate.
667 Errant Street.
For a while he and the letters on the plaque fought a silent battle of wills, as he tried to mentally force it to change, and the plaque simply sat there and refused. Eventually he put the paper back in his pocket, and took up his cane again. He knocked it against the bars as a very reluctant greeting. Nothing stirred; he pushed on the gate, and it swung in with a gentle creak. He stepped in slowly, and looked up the length of the house. It was tall and dark, with arched windows that stared blankly like a whole lot of unfriendly eyes. Large, ragged trees grouped around the entrance, like the triangular heads of monsters sitting beneath the ground. On the top window of the house, set into the roof, a single light glowed; Sasha wondered how many people were in there. He knew about his uncle, but were there servants? Did he have a family? He knew almost nothing.
Slowly, after pushing the gate closed, (it clanged with a note of unnerving finality, as if there could be no escaping) he made his way down the short garden path. He went up the set of creaky front stairs, and hesitantly pushed the doorbell in. It felt cold and unpleasant against his finger, and he wiped it off on his jacket, not quite sure why he felt the need. The house creaked slightly; there was a suggestion of disease and unhealthiness, and he hadn’t even gone inside yet.
He was almost afraid of what might come to the door to let him in—but when it opened, there was only a very normal-looking girl standing there, holding a candle in one hand and looking at him under a veil of messy blond hair. She wore a light white dress, maybe the kind girls slept in, and also, Sasha noticed, had a stake sticking out of her pocket.
She took him in, unhurriedly. She was in her bare feet, and Sasha wondered if she was cold; it was a chilly night, and just standing out on the step he was getting goose bumps. Or maybe that had nothing to do with the cold at all.
“We don’t take vampires,” the girl said finally, making to shut the door.
“Wait,” said Sasha.
“Sorry, I don’t wait,” she said, going to shut it again. He stuck his foot in at the last moment, and she almost broke his toes. He gasped slightly, and wincing said, “Hold on! I’m Mr. Sadness’s nephew. Sasha.”
She cocked her head slightly, and put the candle closer to his face. He blinked in the watery light. The girl studied him with strange violet-colored eyes—they were the slightly unreal and transparent color of marbles—and she said, “Hm. I was told to expect some sort of relative.”
Sasha nodded. After he was inside he was going to take off his shoe and check to see all his nails were still attached. The girl went on, after another moment of consideration, “I suppose I’ll let you in. Notice I have a stake in my pocket. Please come in.”
She stepped back, and Sasha, thanking her, stepped in. He looked around anxiously as she shut the door, cutting off the fresh air. Immediately he noticed the air in here was stifling; it smelled like dust, old wood, and something unwholesome that he couldn’t put a name to, and was sort of glad he couldn’t. The entryway was low and dark, and there was a staircase visible in the gloom, leading up into the blue. Portraits hung on the walls, which were half green and white striped wallpaper, and half wood. Stools with dead-looking plants sat here and there along them—there were two doors facing each other across the hallway, each looking more unfriendly than the other.
“Should I take off my shoes?” he asked, and his voice did a funny thing when it left his mouth—first it seemed to echo, but then suddenly it was swallowed up, as if the hallway had taken a bite out of it. He stared into the gloom, afraid. He’d been living with his aunt for years, and she was pretty horrible, but at least she hadn’t been a bizarre old house that ate his voice when he talked. He looked at the girl, who was the one normal thing, only to find that she was pulling some hair away from a pair of very real horns, which stuck out from her head, sharp and gently gnarled, a shade of olive.
“You can take off your shoes,” she said, either ignoring or not noticing the fact that his eyes had locked themselves on her horns, “but if you do the Shoething will eat them as soon as you turn around. I would leave them on.”
“Oh,” said Sasha, and he looked down.
“Do you want to see Mr. Sadness? He’s upstairs,” said the girl, and moved towards the stairs. Her candle cast a cloud of soft whiteness all around, which Sasha suddenly had a fervent desire to place himself in. He hurried to catch up with her, his cane tapping against the floor, and then followed her as she began up the stairs. The bannister was thick and ancient, and had a slightly unfriendly appearance—he would’ve liked to hold onto it for balance but something told him not to.
“Mind the stair goblins,” said the girl, vaguely, as they went up.
“The what?” said Sasha, and something grabbed his ankle.
He fell hard into the stairs, jamming his chin against the wooden edge, and lay dazed for a moment, speechless with pain and surprise. The girl turned to look down at him.
“Hm,” she said. “Saw that coming.”
“Where are they?” Sasha said, getting painfully to his feet and staring at the stairs. He realized they were the kind that didn’t have backs.
“I’ll be damned if anyone ever told me,” said the girl. “Do you want to see Mr. Sadness or not?”
“I do,” he said.
She turned around to keep going, and he followed, his eyes locked on the stairs. Two floors passed by, and then they had reached a very narrow set that rose up into pure darkness. There was no railing, and the stairs, although this time having backs, seemed distorted and uneven. Sasha stared up at them, until they were lost in the darkness, and couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to get up those. He turned to the girl to ask for help, but she was gone out of thin air—or maybe he’d just been distracted by the stairs. The only light now came from an old light bulb flickering from the ceiling, which seemed in danger of going out. He looked side to side, and then over his shoulder, but there was nothing but darkness and stairs in every direction. Slowly he turned to face the challenge before him, and decided if he was going to go up, he was going to have to go on his hands and knees, and that meant leaving his cane and suitcase behind, or if not, then somehow dragging them along with him. Either way it was going to be strenuous and extremely difficult.
He was undoing his jacket when he noticed someone at his side, and almost jumped right out of his skin.
“I’m sorry if we scared you,” said the person, who was a very short, stumpy-looking man. He wore a dinner jacket and a pair of gardening gloves, from which dangled a pocket flashlight that was shooting dim yellow light around in the darkness. He had big features, except that his eyes were very small, and his hair stuck up in all directions.
Sasha’s heart was just settling when a second face leaned in next to the little man’s—he jumped again, and the second face said, “I’m sorry if we scared you, again.”
For a moment Sasha thought the man had two heads—but then the second head’s body appeared, which was much taller and thinner. It belonged to a scarecrow-like man in a plaid suit. They were both watching him nervously.
“That’s fine,” he said, trying to get his wits back. He was absolutely hating everything about this house so far, right down to its weird dark-hallway surprises. He said, “Where did the girl go?”
“She got us,” said the little man.
“We’re the Attic Stair Squad,” said the skinny man. “We’re here to help you get up the stairs.”
“Really?” said Sasha, impressed. “That’s very nice of you.”
“Well, it’s what we’re for,” said the little man, sounding a bit embarrassed.
“In fact it’s all we’re for,” said the skinny man.
“Yeah. Well, let’s get the ball rolling, huh? Put on your light.”
The skinny man’s hand went to his head, and he flicked on a light that was attached to his hat. It shone strongly into Sasha’s eyes, and he squinted. Then the two began to move, and somehow Sasha was being half-pulled, half-pushed up the stairs as if it was no great endeavor; even though he was lame and weighed a hundred and forty pounds last time he’d checked. The stair squad, as they were apparently called, got him up the stairs in no time at all, as it turned out—and by the time he was at the top, standing with his cane and suitcase in his hands, he was feeling giddy because he had no idea how any of it had really happened. The two strange men tipped their hats, and he thanked them, and they disappeared down the stairs again, climbing with ease. They’d given him a little flashlight, and he flicked it on to guide himself through the darkness. He was now in a low hallway, and the walls were made of old, dull wood—more portraits hung here, and Sasha shone his flashlight over them as he went down the creaky floor. None were very interesting; they were all long-dead members of the family, men and women with dark hair and eyes, wearing various expressions, though most of them carried some hint of sadness or disdain.
At the end of the hallway was a door, and from beneath this door came a soft orange light. Sasha paused, and then knocked—a long moment passed in the dark stillness, and then a muffled voice replied, “Yes?”
“It’s Sasha,” he called back, uncertainly putting his hand on the doorknob.
A deep silence; then, finally, “Enter!”
He turned the doorknob, and opened the door carefully. The orange light washed softly over him—he found himself looking into a very agreeable-looking bedroom, agreeable because it was so very normal at first glance. The ceiling was sloped upwards, meeting in the middle, and raftered with wooden beams; an arched window looked out on the nighttime world. There were books everywhere, shelves full of them, and every surface had a stack piled on—there was a comfortable bed in a corner, a few armchairs near the window, and a fireplace, from which the welcoming light glowed. Sasha liked the room; it felt cozy and good. He looked around for the source of the voice, and had to do a few look-overs before he realized that it was actually empty.
“Hello?” he said, worried.
“Hello,” the voice replied.
Slowly he limped further into the room, and took another look around, just to be sure. “Uncle… Sadness?”
“Yes, here. Behind this door.”
Sasha looked. There was a narrow, desperately unwelcoming-looking door set into a wall between two bookshelves, painted black, with a padlock. He didn’t want to get close to that; he stood on the soft rug, wondering what sort of world this was where everything had to be weird, and then the voice said, “Do not be alarmed, Sasha. I am behind this door.”
“Are you Uncle S—,”
“Yes. And you are my nephew Sasha.” A thoughtful pause. “I wonder what you look like. You see that they never put eyeholes in this door. From how you sound, I imagine you look a lot like my brother—do you look a lot like my brother?”
“My dad? I don’t know,” said Sasha. He tried to remember old pictures of his father. “We both have… black hair.”
“As I thought. And do you have black eyes?”
“No, they’re blue.”
“Blue!” Uncle Sadness took a moment to think about that. Eventually he said, “Well, I must say I don’t really know what to think about that. Nobody in the family has ever had blue eyes as far as I’m aware. Who’s your mother?”
“Past tense, then. Who was your mother?”
“She was… just my mother. Why?” Sasha felt uncomfortable, and leaned heavily on his cane.
“Because she must be who you got your eyes from. Now we move to business. I was told that you would be coming to live with me, because I am your last living relative—either that, or you would be sent to an orphanage, and I once read Oliver Twist, so I couldn’t make you go there. No, Sasha, you’re lucky—you get to live here with us instead.”
“Us,” Sasha repeated, to himself. “Who’s the girl, if you don’t mind me asking? Is she your daughter?”
“The what? Oh, her. No, there’s no relation. Her name is Morris, and I found her in the forest one time. As well as her, there is also the dog, the bird, the cook, the thing that lives down the well, and Benny. I’m sure you will find the atmosphere most agreeable. There are certain house rules to remember—,”
“Just a moment,” Sasha said, hesitantly.
“It’s just about all the stairs.”
“Oh, yes—the stair goblins are no fun at all, but we’ve learned to live with them.”
“No, not the goblins. Well—yes, that too, but anyway, the thing is I’ve got a bad leg, Uncle Sadness. I was wondering if I could have a room on the first floor, if that’s not too much trouble.”
“Well, of course you can stay on the first floor, nephew. In fact that’s where your room is already.”
“Really? Thank you very much,” said Sasha, relieved.
“Just ask Morris or Benny how to find it. Now, I’m sure it’s late and you want to get to bed, so I’ll be quick about the house rules.” There was a pause as the voice behind the door cleared its throat. “First, meals are taken three times a day, that’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner; at eight o’clock, noon, and six o’clock, respectively. Breakfast is in the dining room, lunch is in the dining room, and dinner is also in the dining room, except when it’s in the backyard. Which is always.”
“Yes. The horsemen may join us when they feel sociable. It is to be noted, and this is very important: every night, regardless of weather, you must empty half your portion down the well or we’ll all be dead by morning. Other things to note: the bird only comes back at night to sleep, and its cage, located in the old ballroom, must be cleaned once a week or he will be very mad at us. The dog, which is under Benny’s care, is an amiable sort, but she’s very sensitive to sound. In other words, refrain from yelling loudly in her ears. You must also never enter the basement—that is an undertaking meant only for Benny and Morris. Often they will bring the dog, and the pinafore. Under no circumstances, Sasha, are you permitted to go down there.”
“All right,” said Sasha, faintly.
“Not even if someone tells you to. If it is a matter of dying or going to the basement, choose the former. Also, you will want to stay on the good side of the black beetles—and if you leave your shoes lying around the Shoething will find them. I believe that is all. Do you have questions?”
Sasha had many questions, but for the moment he just wanted to go to sleep. He’d had a long day of traveling, and his leg was hurting him. He said, “Thank you for letting me stay with you, Uncle Sadness.”
“It does not trouble me at all. I’m sure we’ll see each other in a few weeks, Sasha, and when we do we can get properly acquainted. Goodbye.”
Sasha leaned in to look around the parlor, which seemed empty. A single, pale yellow candle sat like a solid tear of light on the mantle of the fireplace, casting ghostly shadows; the furniture here was all very old, very flowery, and very overstuffed. A bear’s head glowered on the wall—thick curtains were pulled over the arched windows. He glanced over his shoulder, and when he looked back into the room, found the girl with the horns, Morris, standing directly in front of him, a candle in her hand.
He jumped, and she said, “What is it?”
“The Stair Squad told me to go find you,” Sasha said, his voice slightly uneven as his heart tried to settle itself. It had been jumping all over the place since he’d gotten here. He went on, “They told me you’d be in the parlor. I’m just looking for my room.”
“Follow me,” said Morris, walking past him, holding her candle up to light the way. He followed after her, limping quickly to keep up.
She opened one of the unfriendly-looking doors, and Sasha found it led down a long, narrow, high corridor. Empty, dusty bottles sat in alcoves in the walls—he glanced at each one as they passed. There was a low humming in the air, like something electric; he wondered what it was, but was almost afraid to ask. Morris didn’t speak as she led him down the old, musty-smelling carpet, which occasionally breathed out whispers of dust under their feet.
“Is it lonely here?” Sasha asked her. His voice was swallowed up instantly as it left his mouth, and then he thought he heard it echo, far away down the hall.
“Not really,” Morris replied. She looked ghostly with the candle’s light spread over her white dress and pale hair.
She didn’t seem very forthcoming, he realized. He was wondering about asking another question when Morris suddenly stopped, standing next to what he thought at first was a shaft of moonlight. But there were no windows here, and anyways, moonlight had never been so colorful and twitchy. As he looked closer, he saw it was like a hole in the air, about five feet tall, and not quite touching the floor—it rippled and shook and looked somehow dangerous, as if it shouldn’t be disturbed. Staring inside, Sasha could just get a glimpse of the same hallway, but cast in different light. He turned to Morris for an explanation, and found that she had one foot through the hole. She glanced at him wordlessly, her expression inviting him to follow, and disappeared straight through. He stared for a moment, suddenly alone in the corridor, and then hurriedly leaned over to check behind the strange phenomenon—but she wasn’t there. He leaned his head in close, trying to see more of what was on the other side—and then a hand reached through, got him by his collar, and nudged him impatiently. He thought about it for a long moment, and then held his breath and stepped inside.
Not a whole lot really changed, except that the corridor got somewhat brighter. Now it had windows—a line of narrow ones looking out on a dark country road, half-lit by moonlight. He looked at Morris, who looked back at him under her pale hair.
“Was that supposed to be there?” he asked.
She nodded, and silently reached out to open a door. “Here’s your room.”
Sasha looked in at a nice, spacious bedroom. It looked relatively empty, but comfortable, with a bed, a good-sized rug, a fireplace, a bookshelf, a closet, a dresser, and a nice big window with the curtains drawn across. He said, “Is this a different world?”
“It’s just a different version of the house.”
“But what’s that road?” he said, pointing at a window.
Morris looked. “A different version of the countryside. Are we good here? I’ve got to go feed the bird.”
“How do I get back to the real house?”
“You step through the convenient doorway.” She stood with her candle, looking ready to leave, but waiting half-politely for him to say the word.
“Okay,” he said, accepting it. “Thanks.”
She nodded briefly, and then stepped through the doorway, into the other, darker corridor. Sasha leaned over to watch her walk away, and then an idea struck him. He limped quickly down the hall until he got to the door that led onto the entryway; he opened it slowly, leaning around the edge, and jumped a little when he saw a man in overalls and a hat sweeping the floor with a broom, whistling to himself.
“Hi,” said the man, glancing at him.
Sasha flinched back slightly, and then, holding onto the side of the door, “Uh—are you the handyman?”
“No. I’m sweeping the floor.”
“Right… is there another Uncle Sadness and another Morris around here or something?”
“Don’t know what you mean there, buddy boy, but I can tell you the house is a hundred percent empty,” said the man, sweeping some dust into a corner.
“Well… I’m just staying in the bedroom down here now. Is that all right?”
“That’s all right by me, long as Madeleine knows. Hmm, now the house is let’s see maybe ninety-something empty. Depends how much of a percent you take up. I’ll think about that. My name’s George.”
“Hi, George,” Sasha said, holding out his hand. They shook. “I’m Sasha.”
The man got back to sweeping and Sasha closed the door, limping back to his bedroom. He was about halfway there when he stopped, and quickly limped back to the door—he opened it, and George looked up from his sweeping. Sasha said, “Sorry to bother you again. Who’s Madeleine?”
George leaned on his broom and gave Sasha a long look under the brim of his discolored baseball hat. He said after a while, “Madeleine? The Great and Powerful Landlord. …No?”
“No,” Sasha replied, worried.
“Ah, well. Doesn’t matter. Good night.” He began to whistle again, sweeping the floor with his dusty straw broom. Sasha stood for a few more moments, and then let it go, closing the door again and limping back to his bedroom.
Getting ready for bed was the usual tiresome sequence of chores, except this time without brushing his teeth or washing his face, since he wasn’t sure where the bathroom was and was a little nervous about going outside again unless he had to. Once he was in his pajamas and had put away his clothes in the dresser and hung his jacket in the closet, he levered himself gratefully into bed, and sank beneath the covers, resting his cheek on a cold, soft pillow that smelled faintly of must. The room was very dark except for a single candle he’d left burning on the bedside table; he watched its flame flicker and wave in the quiet air, casting shadows across the ceiling. His leg started to hurt, and he rolled onto his back, looking tiredly up at the ceiling.
He was exhausted from everything that had happened. First his grandfather’s death, and then three months stuck with his aunt before she died, too—this time of old age, not zombies. After that he’d been sure they were going to put him in a foster home or an orphanage, but it turned out there was another relative, his father’s brother, Uncle Sadness. He lived in a big old house in the countryside. He was Sasha’s other grandfather’s son, so that meant he was part vampire, too.
Sasha yawned, and turned his head to the side, finding it difficult to get comfortable. His new bedroom was a little eerie. The shifting shadows on the ceiling made it worse, but the darkness would’ve been too frightening—it was better to have the candle burning. He closed his eyes, telling himself to fall asleep, and that tomorrow would be better.
Somewhere between waking and sleeping Sasha witnessed a subtitled shadow puppet play on the bedroom ceiling.
First, a rabbit hopped into view. It was clearly just someone’s hand with two fingers sticking up, rudimentary. It turned side to side. Oh no! I think I’m lost.
Then a fox or a dog or some sort of four-legged animal slid across the ceiling, stopping next to the rabbit. Its mouth, which was just somebody’s thumb, wagged as it spoke. I can show you how to get back home. Follow me!
As the rabbit hopped after the animal, it turned into a very detailed shadow-rabbit, with two large ears, eyes, moving legs and a tail. Sasha privately thought it was pretty much a perfect recreation of the real thing. The other animal, meanwhile, became a fox—it turned its head around to check on the rabbit, its ears flicking.
Not too far now, the words read.
In that a burrow? the rabbit asked.
But that doesn’t look like MY burrow.
The fox said nothing.
They came up to the burrow, which rose from the ground, the hole yawning like a mouth. The fox turned around, its tail sliding around its back legs. It seemed almost to smile. You first.
Okay, said the rabbit.
“Oh no,” said Sasha, wishing he could tell the rabbit not to go.
Just in here, the fox prompted.
Then the rabbit’s mouth spread wide, impossibly so, and it swallowed the fox in one bite. The tail came last, twitching wildly—the rabbit paused, and then hopped away. The burrow mound disappeared.
Sasha jerked into a sitting position, his heart beating hard, feeling sweaty and panicked. Without really thinking, he tore off the covers and swung his legs out, remembering too late that his leg couldn’t move like that. A flash of sickening pain jolted up his leg and into his stomach, and he gasped, fumbling for his cane, which he remembered putting against the bedside table. He grabbed it, more for comfort than anything, and waited for the pain to ebb away. While he was catching his breath, the image of the eaten fox vivid in his mind, there was a sharp tap at the bedroom door.
He blinked in the darkness. Fear trickled up his spine. The candle was still burning, but it had almost gone down the whole way, and was beginning to drown in its own wax. He considered who or what might be at his door—he hoped it was just Morris, coming back to tell him something. He didn’t dare call out. He waited on his bed, sweating and scared, and then the door opened and a light blinked on, momentarily blinding him.
“Morris?” he called out, his voice breaking.
There was no answer. A shadow crossed the wall—the light dimmed slightly, and it seemed George was standing there, holding a lantern, looking worriedly at Sasha from under his discolored baseball hat. He said, “You okay, buddy boy?”
“I’m fine,” Sasha rasped, but it was a bit of a stretch to say so. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Sorry for breaking in like this,” said George. He reached into his pocket, and took something small out. He shuffled forward, and held it out. “Here. You need this to sleep in old Madeleine’s house. I forgot. Sorry.”
Sasha took it, holding it up to get a closer look. It was just a card of some kind, like a playing card, except he didn’t recognize the suit and the picture was of a little boy in a white dressing gown holding a bright candle in his hand.
“Yep, you need that,” George repeated.
“What does it do?”
“Keeps the stupid shadows from doing their stuff,” he replied. “And other things. Keep it on you so you don’t lose it, or something. Okay. Well, I’d better leave you alone.” He turned around.
“Hey, do you sleep in the house?” Sasha asked.
“Yeah. Top floor,” said George. He smiled slightly, and a crooked tooth became visible. “It’s a weird place, isn’t it?”
“Oh God, yes,” Sasha agreed, feeling relief pour through him.
“Thought it was just you? Yeah, I’ve been there. Come get me if things get weird again.” He pointed upwards at the ceiling. “Top floor.”
“Great,” said Sasha. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, you’re welcome.” He waved a hand, and left the room. He closed the door quietly, and Sasha heard his footsteps going down the hall.
He sank back into the bed, and pulled the covers up over his head, stuffing the card safely under his pillow. Exhaustion grabbed him and threw him into a deep, welcome sleep.