Content warning: implied child abuse.
“Knock, knock!” Madeleine listens at the basement door, her Shell-coloured pigtails dusting its fading, Ceylon wood. She smiles at a reply no-one else would hear, and twists the brass knob, carefully, quietly. Beyond the door, the space below yawns in Oolong Black. She checks her surroundings, but the Guild Grey kitchen is cold and empty. There is time to play… if she does not wake the sleeper upstairs.
Pulling on the basement light cord, she tiptoes sideways down creaking steps. The halogen bulb swings, too bright, casting stripes of White on White and Otto Ice into the shadows like moonbeams. Her Firebird red water bottle, swinging from one hand, clunks against the Bread Crumb walls. Chalk dust falls in its wake, gritty.
“It’s me. I brought you a present,” she calls. Damp, Brown Earth vinyl and impatient spiderwebs swallow her words.
Marshmallow-pale bare feet step in old footprints on the floor. They trace the path she has worn through the junk pile city. Dusty, Dark Metal and Rusted Crimson boxes tower beside the path, whilst Domino Black mould frames the rotting insulation poking through the ceiling’s guts in Cheery Yellow.
Finally, she finds her. The paper girl. She curtsies. “Hello again, your Majesty.”
The paper girl says nothing. She used to be the same size as Madeleine, but the latter’s slow growth has overtaken the paper girl’s time-bound figure. Her eyes are two Purple Wildflower card circles. Her hair is long gone. The paper girl’s garment flutters in the wind of Madeleine’s curtsey. It is a dress of tiny, individual scales, edges uneven; threaded together into a rainbow of graduated colours. They shift and change with the slightest breath.
Madeleine crouches for inspection. Her Lily Pink fingers, scrubbed raw for Momma, brush lightly over the dress. She recites each scale’s name. “Waterway; Seachange; Submarine; Dewpoint; Ultramarine; Porpoise…”
She lets out a huff. “Who’s been chewing on Nightjar Blue?” From her Light Leather bag she withdraws sewing scissors and carefully trims the shape. “Apologies, my lady.”
The inspection is concluded by unscrewing her water bottle and dribbling a circle of lemon juice around the figure. Acid for insects, Momma always says. She follows this with a sprinkle of cinnamon powder, the jar lifted from the kitchen bin. It is nearly empty, but enough remains that when Madeleine sniffs it she sneezes, almost missing a silverfish as it scurries away. Its Endless Dusk body and Stonecrop antennae twitch through shadows and light.
“Hold it, you little skank,” Madeleine says, and chases it to the corner. But she’s forgotten about the Hole there, its dark the nameless beyond grey. She lets the insect flee then, her lips tight and eyelids trembling. Backs away on hands and knees.
“Your present,” she whispers to the paper girl, and turns away to fetch several rectangular cards from her bag. The Hole is a blank space without colour, a mirror to the house above. It is cold in there; dirt-stuffed; silent. Drag marks sully its edge. She evades their presence with today’s offering, holding out a fan of old paint swatches. Momma’s needle glints in the bag’s fold.
“I think we should make a belt next. Let’s see. Highland Cream, Quarter Rice, or Beige Royal?” She studies the paper girl. “Let’s use this one. It matches your skin.”
She tears a buckle from the card named Bone.
It’s October–that month of scary stories everywhere in countries that ‘celebrate’ Hallowe’en. I thought I’d join in and share a short one. It’s a little different for me, not being much of a horror reader, watcher, or writer. Originally written for Furious Fiction in September, I’ve edited and expanded a little from the 500-word contest entry (I didn’t place). I felt sorry for Madeleine, and wretched for leaving her like that… But at the same time, I think this is the reality for many victims of abuse: they are frequently left undiscovered. Thus, the horror.
Hope you (enjoyed?) the story. Thanks for reading.
PS: If you have reason to believe that a child is experiencing, or at risk of experiencing harm, please report it. Anyone can make a report; it can protect a child and get help for a family. In Australia, see here for more information. Or contact the local authorities for your country. Thank you.