Even before she opened her eyes, Fenella knew she was not in her own bed. It was the smell more than anything: moths and dust.
The ceiling above her was twice as high as the ceiling in her room at home; it was the colour of tea-stained paper. The wall to her left was covered in knobbly white wallpaper that resembled a doily run amok. In its patterns she saw hundreds of faces staring back at her.
In a swift movement, she leapt from the bed and when she touched the floor she bent her knees, absorbing the impact and the sound.
I’ve never been here before, she thought as she surveyed the room. She tried to remember where she had been. I was with Ellen…
In the far left hand corner was a door with a golden knob. Fenella tried to open it but it was stuck. She started banging against it with her fist. “Hello,” she shouted. “Can anyone hear me? I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”
No one responded. Angry now, she banged twice as hard and shouted twice as loud. “Hello! Hello! Will someone let me out? Now! I have things to do.”
She couldn’t remember her plans exactly, but she was convinced that they involved Ellen. They always did.
Fenella stopped banging. She could hear something outside the door. It sounded like furniture being dragged along carpet. Chhhh. Chhhh. It grew louder. She took two steps back. Chhhh. Chhhh. The light poking under the crack of the door grew dark as something stood on the other side.
“Hello,” Fenella said. There was silence. “Look, can you let me out? I want my clothes. I don’t want to spend the whole day dressed in my pyjama—”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” the thing behind the door said. The sound made Fenella feel sick. It was so high it hurt her ears and so low it shook her stomach. It rattled the door in its frame. “Shhhhh… Ella… Ella… Shhhhh… Ella,” it said in a voice deep and dry. It’s trying to say my name, she thought and shivered.
It had to be an it. No person made sounds like that.
She wanted to run back to the bed and hide beneath the covers. Instead she balled her fists and stayed put. Running was a last resort, Fenella knew that. Most angry things only wanted to scare you. They didn’t want to eat you. But God help you if you run. When you run you start a chase, and a chase can make an angry thing a hungry thing.
The thing went quiet but the shadow at the foot of the door remained for a moment. Then seemingly sated by the silence, it lurched off. Fenella took a deep breath and looked around.
The room was sparse and spacious and looked like it belonged to someone incredibly old and incredibly dull. In the middle of the wall opposite the door was a window. Fenella looked out to find she was very high up. In all directions were barren, muddy fields that looked freshly ploughed. On the wall to her left were wonky rows of books from floor to ceiling. She recognised some of the titles from her parents’ collection. And from Ellen’s. She had no books of her own.
The quiet was cut open.
Fenella turned to address a mechanical humming that emanated from two small doors in the wall across from the window. Beneath the doors there was a faded red chair. She stood on it and gave the tiny gold doorknobs a tug. They didn’t open. She pressed her ear against the cold wood and vibrations tickled her face. Inside, she heard metallic machinations, cogs turning and gears grinding.
Then the noise stopped. Fenella tentatively tugged again. This time they opened.
Inside was a square chamber containing a glass of water and some folded clothes.
It’s a little lift, she thought.
She took the items and closed the doors; they made a strange click. When she tried to open them again they wouldn’t move.
• • •
Fenella dressed and decided to be well behaved, reasoning that if she kept quiet and did not cause a fuss, she might be allowed to leave.
There wasn’t much to do though. She stared out of the window. She counted as high as she could and practised her times tables. She daydreamed of climbing trees with Ellen, of taking it in turns trying to out-sing the birds.
Hadn’t we been doing something like that just before… just before… Before what?
She couldn’t remember.
Time passed slowly.
When she was hungry, she started playing with the little doors. They were open again. She put her empty water glass inside them and the little lift whirred into life. Minutes later the humming resumed and when it stopped she found the glass had been replaced with a fish finger sandwich and a glass of juice. It tasted just like something Ellen’s Mother might make. Afterwards, she found a dictionary on the book shelf and looked for rude words. There were plenty.
At tea time the little lift brought her pasta. The sun had started to set and she was fed up. After eating she went to the main door and demanded to be let out. She punched it and kicked it and yelled as loud as she could but her reward was just the return of the thing and its awful sounds. “Shhhhh… Ella…. eeeeeeed… Shhhhh…”
That evening she built a tower of books. When it collapsed, Fenella lay amongst them and thought about her parents and about Ellen. She imagined what they might be doing and wondered if they were missing her. When she started shivering, she climbed into her dusty bed and fell asleep.
• • •
The days after that were much the same. Occasionally she was scared; mostly, she was bored. Whatever she needed, the lift delivered; what she wanted never came. If she made too much fuss, too much noise, the thing would come back and chastise her with its own din. Nothing changed but the position of the sun over the barren fields.
• • •
Fenella started by believing that her parents had been called away on some emergency and any minute they would come bounding through the door, bursting with hugs and apologies. She would tell them all about how nasty it had been to be kept indoors all day long without any company. Her parents would be cross at this and exact some sort of punishment before taking her back home and treating her to Raspberry Ripple ice-cream. But that belief grew weaker with each passing day and Fenella felt a new belief growing to occupy the old belief’s place: the thing behind the door was a captor not a custodian.
When she ran out of other things to do, she started to read. Usually she hated reading; she preferred outside, the woods and Marlstone Park. Ellen had always been reading. Fenella had never understood it and had called her a “book slug”. She regretted that now and read to feel close to Ellen as much as she did to pass the time. She read Matilda by Roald Dahl to start with. They had been half way through it at school so it didn’t take long to finish. Then she tried to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes because it was her Father’s favourite but she gave up because it was too dull.
Late one afternoon, she built a book tower to sit and read on. She was staring out of the window at the fields, looking at how the crops had started to poke their noses through the topsoil, when she misplaced her weight and the tower collapsed. When she got to her feet, she noticed a silvery hardback called Fairy Tales for Feminists. She didn’t know what a feminist was or whether she was one, but she read it from cover to cover. Then she opened it at the first page and started again.
The story she liked the most was Rapunzel, the tale of a girl kept prisoner at the top of a skyscraper by her jealous husband. The accompanying illustration was of a dark haired girl staring down at the people passing by on the street far below. The simply rendered face – mouth ever so slightly smiling, eyes focused on a point far off–depicted a girl biding her time. A talking crow had to bring Rapunzel news from the outside world because Rapunzel’s husband had hidden her computer and her phone.
The best part was when Rapunzel released her long black hair from its bun, tied it to the radiator and climbed down the skyscraper to freedom – chopping the whole lot off when she reached the pavement.
One morning, after Fenella had put her empty breakfast plates into the little lift, she opened her window in the hope a crow would come. She stared down at the ground, her long hair hanging down around her shoulders.
It’s too thin, she thought. It’s not long enough and it’s too thin. If I tried to climb down my hair it would break. I would need something thick, something strong. Like Ellen’s hair…
Fenella had an idea. She went to the bed and pulled off the sky blue duvet and dragged it over to the window. Holding one corner, she pushed it through the window and dangled it out as far as she could. It was too short.
I‘d need nine, she thought.
With a sigh, she pulled the duvet back in and set it down on the bed in a heap. She buried her face in it. Something hard pushed against her eye – a plastic button. She undid all the buttons on the duvet cover and pulled out the chunky duvet and threw it to one side. Then she yanked the bed sheet from the mattress and pulled both it and the blue duvet cover over to the window. Taking the corners of both, she twisted them until they were thin and rope-like. Using a double fisherman’s knot that she had learned at Guides – “outstanding” Brenda, the Scout leader, had said of Fenella’s knots; Ellen had not fared so well – she tied blue to white. Then she dangled the rope of blankets out of the window, tying her end to the foot of the bed.
Still, it was too short.
• • •
At lunch time, the little lift brought her cheese on toast and a glass of orange juice. She sat on the floor amongst a mess of bedclothes and scoffed down the food in a few bites. She went for the juice with the same gusto but in her haste, spilled some onto the white bed sheet. She stared with interest as the stain bloomed. When it stopped, she put her finger into the remaining juice and let another drop fall onto the blanket. Nine. She thought. I need nine.
Fenella stood up and looked at the two little doors. The gold knobs glared back. With a flick of her wrist she dumped the last of her juice onto the blankets and waited.
Her wait wasn’t long; the little lift started humming. Fenella smiled. When the rattling and rumbling ceased, she opened the doors. Inside was a replacement sky blue duvet cover and a replacement white bed sheet. It fell for it, she thought. I can’t believe it fell for it. She took out the blankets and threw them to the floor to join the rest of the mess.
Now I only need five.
After a celebratory dance around the room, she felt a tug of thirst. The thing usually sent her up a drink but she waited and nothing came. An hour later, Fenella’s thirst was hounding her. She went to the little doors and found that they weren’t locked.
They wanted something.
“You’re not having them back!” Defiant, she picked a book from the shelf called The Little Book of Calm. On the front cover was a cloud. Cloud nine, she thought and sat down to read.
Much later, she gave up. It was dark then and she was thirsty and hungry. When her stomach had rumbled, no food came. She could not bear the thought of sleeping on an empty stomach so collected all the dirty blankets from the floor and stuffed them into the little lift. She felt like crying. And Fenella never cried – everyone said so. As she was about to close the doors, she heard Ellen’s voice in her head: What would Rapunzel do? Fenella thought about it.
“I don’t know. She would probably climb in the lift.” The thought frightened her. The little lift suddenly looked a lot like a little coffin. “You can forget that, Ellen, if I die it’s going to be in here, not in there.” But she did not shut the doors. Would it even work? She thought.
“Fine,” Fenella said. She went and got The Little Book of Calm and then climbed back on the chair. She put the book in with the dirty bedclothes and shut the doors. The wall hummed. Minutes later they hummed again and a pint of water, a glass of orange juice and small bowl of spaghetti arrived. There was garlic bread on the side too.
The Little Book of Calm had gone.
Fenella felt excitement, and then dread, and then both at once.
• • •
Next morning, Fenella went straight to the book shelf. The Little Book of Calm had been returned during the night. That same day she read Anne of Green Gables – one of her Mother’s favourites – and that night she put the book in the little lift with her used plates. Next morning, it too had found its way back on the shelf.
Maybe I could escape when it brings the books back in the night. Ellen had no response to this.
Feeling as mischievous as Anne Shirley, she sent a copy of Treasure Island down after tea and then stacked a pile of books in front of the door in the hope an intruder would send them tumbling. The light left on, she went to sleep and was awoken by a repetitive thumping sound. It was the door banging against the stacked books. Heart thumping, she watched as the thing that had captured her tried to get inside. But it could not. They aren’t that heavy! Fenella thought. They should just topple over. It must be weak.
She went to the door on tiptoes and grabbed the handle. A frustrated snuffling sound came from the other side. When she pulled the door, it came easily toward her. It surprised her. There was a furious screech and the handle was yanked from her grip. The door slammed shut. Fenella pulled the handle again but this time the door did not move.
It doesn’t feel weak.
From behind the door, she heard laboured rasping.
It isn’t weak but it sounds sick.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… Ella… Shhhhhhhh,” it said.
“Shut up!” Fenella stomped back to bed.
Upon waking, the memory of the night’s failure made her want to roll over and never wake up again. But her sadness was short lived. When she looked on the bookshelf, the space where Treasure Island had been was still empty.
• • •
The weather grew hot and Fenella had to read by the window to stay cool. She noticed how the crops in the fields had grown tall in some places and not so tall in other places. There were even some places where they had not grown at all. A particularly hot afternoon made her so thirsty that the little lift brought her an additional glass of water that ran against the general order she had grown accustomed to. She drank it and decided she would join the empty glass on the return journey.
She made a pile of Encyclopaedia Britannicas (the sturdiest books) on the red chair and climbed on them to get level with the lift. The inside of the lift was tight but after some squirming and a little wriggling, she managed to fold herself inside, feet pressed against one side, head pressed against the other and her knees almost touching her lips. She placed the empty glass on her stomach and used her right hand to pull one of the small doors closed.
This might be the last thing I see. It was a mousy little thought and another one rose up, deeper and stronger to challenge it: That would be true even if you stayed.
She thought about Anne Shirley from Green Gables. She thought about Rapunzel. It won’t let me die because it needs me alive.
With a final steadying breath, she gripped the side of the open door with her fingernails and pulled it to. It clicked into place and all Fenella could see was the thin white line of light in between the two doors. For a moment, nothing happened. Fenella was almost relieved. She wanted to get out and was happy for the excuse.
She pushed the doors but they did not move. She pushed harder. Still, they did not move. Panic tried overwhelming her but before it could blossom the little lift suddenly started rumbling.
Then it moved.
Above her, she heard the cogs and springs rattle into life and she felt the vibrations in her toes and her skull. It made her nose itch. The white line of light started to shrink, as if being devoured from the bottom up by a skinny black snake.
At least I was right. It is a lift. It was a bright thought in the pitch black. She clung to it like a weapon.
There was more rumbling and humming all around her and the lift seemed to speed up. She could feel the speed even though she could not see it. It was pushing her towards the ceiling.
Then she could see it: the thin crack in the door filling with light as the lift passed room after room. One room, the final room, filled the crack with a strange red light. Then it went dark and she felt the little lift slowing down. The pull from above relinquished; gravity asserted itself. Wherever she was going, she was nearly there. Both the noises and the vibrations began to quieten. Fenella could hear her heart.
The lift stopped.
• • •
After a long silence, she heard the tiniest of clicks from the little doors. She pushed them open and tumbled out onto a surprisingly close surface. It was a steely counter in a shiny metallic kitchen. Pots and pans were scattered everywhere. It smelt of delicious things: saucy meaty things and sweet fruity things, lemons, limes, chicken, fish. Another smell lingered too, sickly and rank. It made her think of bin juice.
There was enough light to see that she was alone.
This is too easy. It’s somewhere. Watching me. Waiting for just the right moment…
At the very far end of the long kitchen she saw the source of the light and as she went towards it she could see it was a door. The light was the sun. She ran then, ran noisily, without composure or grace or any attempt to hide that she was a frightened little girl running for her life. She grabbed the handle and she could barely believe it when it opened. Cold, damp air blew in and wrapped around her body and she breathed it in.
In front of her was the field of crops she had seen from the bedroom. From up there it had been impossible to see just how big they were. And how ugly. She had no idea how they were meant to look, having never seen a crop like it, but even the biggest of them looked unwell. They rustled gently like corn stalks. Each plant had a bumpy green stem that could barely support its own weight and tapered to a sharp point. Coiled around each one from the top to the bottom was a spindly purple vine. At seemingly random intervals along the vine, a pale grape-like fruit grew.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Fenella went rigid. “Shhh… Ella…. Waaayyyyyt…. Waaayyyyt.” It was skulking closer. “Waaaaytt.” It sounded desperate.
Run. Run now, it won’t be able to catch you.
“I’m not waiting for you,” Fenella said and took a step forward onto the soil outside.
“Ella…Shhhhhhh…. Pleeeeeesssse.” It sounded hurt and upset. It bothered Fenella. Every tense muscle was primed and screaming to sprint, but she didn’t.
Without turning around she said: “I don’t know what you want me for but I can’t stay. I have to meet someone. I’m going now.” The thing that captured her made no sound. “Thank you for the food.”
It screeched. The sound shook the door and her bones. Even the strange crops appeared to pull away from it. Then, in a much quieter voice it croaked: “Reeeeeeeee.”
“Read?” She turned as she spoke and for the first time faced the thing. It was standing in the shadows of the kitchen so she couldn’t see much of it. But it was gigantic, almost as tall as the ceiling with a pot belly and short stumpy legs. At the end of its spidery arms were garden-rake hands with long hooked fingers. It held one of them up, palm outward like a salute.
“Reeeeeeeeed, to feeeeeeeed, the fruuuuuuit,” it said and then one finger at a time folded the raised hand into a fist. Then opened it again. Then folded it. She heard its nails clicking its palm.
Fenella was about to speak when the thing that had captured her grunted. It was a confused sound. The thing started to shuffle.
“I am going to go now. I can’t read for you,” Fenella said. In response, it made the same sound again and then started shaking slowly from side to side. It was staring at her, she could tell, even though she could not see its eyes.
“Wrrrrroooong….” it said. It pointed one of its fingers at her accusingly and roared: “Wrrrrrrooong.”
It shuffled forward and light spilled over it. Fenella saw its face. Or at least she saw its teeth. Then she knew that this was not a creature that deserved explanations or pity. In its other hand she saw the copy of Treasure Island. It spoke again and the words were angry and clear: “Yooooo aaaare wrong.”
Fenella ran out of the door, straight into the field of bumpy stalks and spindly vines. From far behind she could hear it screeching again but she ran so fast that it was out of earshot before long. It did not chase her.
• • •
Stray leaves slapped her face as she ran.
Why did it want me to read? she thought.
It let me go, she thought. It said I was wrong. Another thought came to her then, one that frightened her so much that she found the strength to run even faster despite the pain in her legs.
She ran for someone else’s life.
The books. That awful voice. “Reeeeeeeed.”
It never wanted me in the first place.
Fenella’s memories began to come back. She had been in Ellen’s room. Ellen had gone to brush her teeth. Fenella had been alone in her sleeping bag.
Something had started scratching on the inside of Ellen’s wooden toy box. Fenella, being curious, had opened it. Then… then she remembered its hand wrapping around her and nothing more.
It wanted Ellen. Ellen, her book slug. Ellen who would have read for eternity and never once tried to escape.
“Ella… Ella…” Over and over she had heard it, but all along it had not been saying her name at all.
Now it knows though, Fenella thought. It knows and it will come for her again.
The furrow she was running along ended. She ran straight through the brittle crops. The green stems sprayed her with moisture and the grape-like fruits popped and splattered on her clothes. She smelled something like compost and stagnant water. Her eyes were stinging so she shut them and put her hands out in front of her to scythe down the crops.
She ran in the dark for a long time and when she next opened her eyes, she was in a different field with a different crop. A field of corn.
Quickly the corn thinned out and the field ended abruptly at the edge of a road. It was one she recognised. Ellen’s road.
It’s coming for her.
Her exhausted legs started to pump again and she sprinted past rows of identical houses to number 16. It might already be there.
The front door was open and she bounded into the house and up the stairs to Ellen’s room. Her heart pounded in her ears.
Fenella burst through the door. Ellen was sitting on her bed reading. She dropped her book and screamed. “Fenella!”
Fenella ran to her friend and threw her arms around her. “You’re still here.”
“Of course I am. Fenella where have you been? You’re soaking. Everyone has been—”
“It’s coming. We need to go somewhere it can’t find you. We need—” Fenella’s words trailed off as she looked at the toy chest in the corner of the room. On top of it was a mountain of books: an Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fairytales for Feminists, Matilda, Sherlock Holmes and more.
Fenella grinned at her friend. “How did you know to do that?”
Ellen’s eyes were full of confusion. Fenella hugged her tight again. “How did I do what? We need to tell Mom and—”
“The books. How did you know it can’t get past the books?”
“What are you on about? I was just sorting my books because I wanted to read this.” She bent down and picked up her book from the floor. It was a copy of Anne of Green Gables.
“Don’t you think the two friends are like us?” Fenella asked. Ellen shrugged.
“A bit. Fenella we have to tell people you are back. We have to tell them now. You were on the television.”
“Okay, in a minute.” Fenella went over to the toy chest. “But we need to keep these books here. We can’t move them.”
“Fine,” Ellen said. “I don’t want to move them anyway. I think there’s a rat in there.”
Cold broke through the heat of Fenella’s exhaustion. “A rat?”
“Yeah. Something’s been scratching about in there for hours.”
S.R. Mastrantone is a writer and musician from Oxford in the United Kingdom. He likes airports, anthropomorphism and alliteration. You can read his blog here