Alexander sat on the blue carpet floor, playing with the dinosaurs. The plastic figures clenched in his pale hands stalked the building-block mountains in search of each other, and as it was every morning, a battle ensued. Soon, as it was every morning, Alexander grew tired of his plastic combat, and looked for some other means of consuming his five-year-old attention.
Something was wrong today, something poor Alexander couldn’t put his finger on. Mrs. Whitby was there, watching over the children as they began their first playtime of the day. The children were there as well; Alice, the spoiled girl who pulled Alexander’s hair, Julian, the angry boy who Alexander was afraid to talk to, Lucien, the quiet boy. All of the familiar faces, red cheeks and yelping voices in the colorful room Alexander was so accustomed to.
The day was the same as well, Mommy had taken Alexander to the school, and Daddy had kissed him goodbye. He fell asleep on the way, and then he was here. Sometimes, the way seemed so long, with the morning sun through the window so warm on his face and his blonde hair, he couldn’t help but fall asleep. Once, he woke up very afraid, as Mommy carried him to the class. But this morning, he only remembered being here, with his toys, and the ride before. He was a bit tired, though.
In fact, Alexander noticed, all the boys and girls in the classroom seemed tired today. Alice’s big brown eyes, always looking for adult attention, seemed somehow, not so brown, and not so big, Alexander thought. Julian sat quietly, something that was very much unusual. Lucien seemed sad, and looked sick, his skin was grey, not like it’s usual almost-brown. Alexander wondered what was wrong, but being shy as he was, Alexander simply put down the dinosaurs and looked for more toys to play with.
Just as Alexander’s bright green eyes locked on the abandoned set of finger-paints, a tiny tinkling sound filled the room. Recognizing it, Alexander dashed to his desk, sitting down, crossing pudgy fingers and staring straight ahead. The other children had done the same. Mrs.Whitby set her little silver bell down on her desk. Alexander’s eyes drifted, just slightly, away from the smiling face of Mrs.Whitby to the bell. The sunlight came through the window, just like every morning, and hit the bell like every morning. But this time, the bell seemed to have lost its shine. It’s once-glittering surface seemed so dull, like a worn-away nickel. Alexander snapped his eyes upward again when he heard Mrs.Whitby’s pretty voice.
"Hello children." a chorus of replies responded, Alexander’s quiet voice included in it. "How are you this morning?" Everyone replied with "fine" or "very well". Alexander beamed with delight. His morning was progressing just the same as it always had.
"Mrs.Whitby?" a girl’s voice echoed from the back of the room "I bought a new puppy dog yesterday." It was Alice, spoiled Alice. She always started the class with a story to brag about all the lovely things she owned. Alexander looked over his shoulder at the girl, her face a prim picture. Alexander sighed.
She doesn’t like you Alexander.
Alexander gasped and turned around at the very loud voice behind him. He put a finger over his lips and shushed whoever it was. Even though he didn’t like Alice, he knew it was against the rules to interrupt.
Mrs.Whitby seemed not to notice, and after listening patiently to Alice’s story of her new puppy, returned her attention to the class.
"One of our students will not be present today." she began. Alexander watched her face while she spoke. He never realized how many tiny lines made up a face before. Like a spider had crawled over it and left little webs. Mrs.Whitby seemed very old to Alexander. "He may not be present for a while." Alexander craned his neck, eyes darting from desk to desk. Each in turn was filled with a little body. Alexander couldn’t understand. He held his arm up, fingers stretched towards the fan that turned slowly above. He waited. Mrs. Whitby looked past him, around him, through him he thought. His arm began to ache.
"Mrs.Whitby…" he whispered, almost afraid to break the perfect morning with the sound of his voice. "I have a question." Mrs.Whitby sat at her desk.
"Mrs.Whitby, please?" She sighed and opened a book.
"Everyone take out your English books. I am going to read you a story."
Mrs.Whitby opened her book, and Alexander slowly lowered his hand. His cheeks burned. Embarrassment flooded him. Mrs.Whitby didn’t even say a word. Seeking to avoid further trouble, Alexander reached down, fingertips grasping at the edge of his desk. He tugged the desk up, trying to open it. The wood stuck. The desk did not open, and so Alexander furrowed his forehead and pulled, hard. The desk did not budge. Alexander began to panic. He was still too embarrassed to ask for Mrs.Whitby’s help, but he could not possibly continue the class without his English book. Alex sank in his seat, trying ever so hard to become invisible as the other children lifted their books and placed them on their desks.
"Mrs.Whitby?" the voice came loud from the box over the door. The intercom, the way the adults talked to each other when a child was in trouble. Alex sank deeper. Was he in trouble? Did the Principal want to talk to him because he wanted to ask a question about the student who was sick? Was he in trouble for breaking his desk? "We need to see you. It’s about the Bellemore boy." Alexander gasped and clamped a hand over his mouth. Bellemore was his last name.
"I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry." Alexander began to whisper through white-knuckled clenched fingers. His panicked breath warmed his palm.
It’s too late Alexander. Mrs.Whitby is going to tell the Principal what a bad boy you are.
Alexander’s eyes clamped shut, tears beginning to stream down his bright red cheeks as he pushed himself deeper into his seat. He hid, with all his might. From Mrs.Whitby, from Julian (who would certainly taunt him with cries of "cry baby! cry baby!"), from all the world. His vision, clouded by tears, never registered Mrs.Whitby leaving the room, holding a handkerchief over her mouth, her shoulders moving up and down in tiny, hiccoughing sobs.
The other children quietly read their English books while Mrs.Whitby was gone. Alexander hid under his desk, the top of his head pressed against the underside of the cold metal. The room was silent, save the tiny gasps as Alexander tried to hide his sobbing. Everything seemed to close in right then, like when Mommy tucked him into his covers at night. But instead of warmth, it was like cold was cuddling him up in its arms. Alexander began to shiver, and cry, and gasp, and shiver again. He looked around at all the feet, some swinging, some still, some sandaled, others with shiny plastic shoes and velcro straps. He thought if only he could’ve opened his desk, or kept his hand down, Mrs.Whitby would still like him, and call him "Little Alex" like she always used to. And now everyone hated him.
I’m sorry Alexander, but that’s just how it has to be. You’re in very deep trouble for being such a terrible little boy.
Alexander shook his head, the voice coming so loud, like one of the other boys in the room was screaming right in his ear. "No! It isn’t true, it isn’t! I didn’t mean to be such a bad boy!" Alex whispered, as loudly as he could. None of the other children saw him, huddled there under his desk. Alexander’s eyes, full of tears, darted back and forth across the room. Then, suddenly, there were four extra feet in the room. Two pairs, one a man, the other a lady. The man wore grey pants, and the woman had a pleated grey skirt. Their shoes were very shiny. The new sets of feet walked their way down the aisle, as Alexander prayed to be invisible. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry" he whispered through his sobs. The grey pants and grey skirt and shiny shoes stopped beside Alexander’s desk.
"Hello little one." a man’s voice, ever so gentle. "Are you alright?" Alexander pulled his arms tight around himself, eyes clenched, tears dripping from his round chin onto his shirt. Mommy would notice and know he was crying. "Little one?" the voice came again, and the man with the shiny shoes and the grey pants knelt down beside the desk, and looked at Alexander. Alexander slowly opened his eyes, shaking from fear and from the cold.
"Are you …" Alexander whimpered "the Principal?" He blinked the tears from his eyes and looked at the man, who smiled at Alex, a bright, friendly smile. He had black hair, like Daddy’s friend John, and a pair of the funniest glasses Alex had ever seen. They were great square things, lenses nearly the size of Alex’s whole hand. The man had eyes to match them too, quite big and a rather lovely color of green, like the slide in the playground. Alexander looked at the man and couldn’t help but smile a little, despite his fear.
"Oh no, little one, I’m not the principal at all." the man chuckled a little,but not the kind of chuckle that Alexander learned meant you’d asked a silly question, but the kind of chuckle that perhaps Santa Claus might chuckle if you’d asked for a rather large present this Christmas. "Perhaps you’d like to come out and talk with us. Don’t be afraid." The man with the enormous glasses held out his hand. His fingers looked soft to Alexander, and the little golden buttons on his cuff shone like tiny coins.
No Alexander! Don’t go with him! The Principal will come and take you away, and Daddy will yell at you!
Alexander froze, his hand, half outstretched, and trembled. "I can’t." he whispered.
"Why not, little one?" the man asked, retracting his hand very slowly, placing his palm on the blue carpet below. "What’s wrong?" Alexander didn’t know what to do. The boy who kept saying such terrible things was right, the Principal could come and take him away, and he certainly wouldn’t want to make Daddy mad. "Please little one, just for a moment?" Alexander, not wanting to be rude, desperately sought an excuse.
"My, my, my" he sobbed out, his tears slowly degenerating into a pattern of wet gasps "Mommy said that I shouldn’t talk to strangers." The man looked up to the woman in the grey skirt, standing beside him. He nodded and turned back to Alexander.
"Well then, we mustn’t stay strangers." He grinned, he had big white teeth, and they were nearly as shiny as the gold buttons on his cuffs. Alexander couldn’t hide the smile again, the man looked ever so silly. "My name is Mr.Greene." Mr.Greene reached his hand out again, turned sideways this time. Alexander reached out and took his hand. Mr.Greene pumped it once, squeezing just a little, like Daddy did with his businessmen friends.
"My name is Alexander Jeremy Bellemore," Alexander began, reciting what his Mommy had taught him to say "and I live at 122 Applebee avenue." Mr.Greene chuckled and smiled at Alexander.
"Well Mr.Alexander Jeremy Bellemore, perhaps you would like to come and meet my friend?" He smiled again, and winked one of his enormous green eyes at Alexander. Mr.Greene stood up, and Alexander crawled after him on his hands and knees, one hand wiping away tears from his cheeks. He stood, slowly, staying close to Mr.Greene’s grey pant-clad leg. His eyes, still stinging from tears, scanned the room. The children were still reading, and no-one, not even mean little Julian was staring at Mr.Greene or the lady who’d come with him.
Alexander looked past Mr.Greene’s skinny shoulders to the woman he was with. She was very pretty, with curly red hair and shiny skin and red cheeks and lovely blue eyes. She wore a white blouse and had a pin on her collar, shaped just like a television. She smiled, just like Mr.Greene, a very friendly smile.
"Hello there Alexander." she curtsied, lifting her skirt and nodding her head a little. Alexander giggled. "My name is Mrs.Greene." Alexander looked at Mr.Greene, who winked an emerald eye. "We’ve come to meet you Alexander." Alexander’s interest began to corrode his fear.
"Why?" he whispered. Alexander stepped a little closer, and he could smell flowers. Mrs.Greene was very pretty.
"Because we’ve come to take you on a trip Alexander." she smiled, and Alexander shook his head.
"Oh no, Mrs.Greene, I mustn’t. I must stay and read my English book. I really must be good." His eyes were wide, and he looked suddenly at the door, worrying again about when Mrs.Whitby would come back, and whether the Principal was coming. "I’m ever so sorry I’ve been bad." He sat down in his desk, and tried to ignore Mr and Mrs.Greene. He felt a hand on his shoulder, a soft touch, and looked down to see the daintily-painted fingernails of Mrs.Greene.
"It’s alright Alexander. We’ve got permission from your teacher, and from the Principal." she smiled again, and Alexander couldn’t help but smile, try as he might. Mr.Greene leaned over.
"Would you like to see a magic trick, Alexander?" Alexander nodded and turned his head to Mr.Greene, who reached out and plucked something from behind Alex’s ear. In his hand was a small, round piece of odd green metal. A coin of sorts. He handed it to Alexander. "It’s an Oboli Alexander. A special sort of coin. You’ll need it to board the train." Alexander immediately perked up.
"The train?" He said, quietly, excitement evident in his voice. He had only ever ridden a train once before, when he was younger, Daddy and Mommy took him to visit his Aunty in the country, and they rode a train. Alexander remembered it very well. "We’re going to take a train?"
"Yes Alexander, a very special train." Mr.Greene looked at Alexander as he pulled himself from his desk and stood between the Greenes. "Are you ready now?"
Don’t go Alexander. You’ll regret it. Mommy and Daddy will be very cross with you.
"Please be quiet." Alexander said, politely, to the voice, whomever it came from. "I would like to ride the train." Mr. and Mrs. Greene looked at each other. Mr.Greene wrinkled his forehead the way Alexander’s Daddy did when it came time to pay the bills. Mrs.Greene just sighed and took Alexander’s hand.
"That’s the way Alexander, you’re a very good boy." the three of them walked away, out of the classroom. Alexander took a moment, looking over his shoulder into the class. The children were still sitting, reading, and hadn’t even noticed him leave. He thought he saw a spiderweb in the corner near his desk as Mrs.Greene led him from the room.
As Alexander, Mrs.Greene and Mr.Greene walked along the street by the school, Alexander watched the leaves on the great big oak trees that lined the sidewalk in the quiet neighborhood. He knew it would be autumn soon, the leaves were yellow and red, and many of the trees were bare altogether. Though it seemed awfully early in the year. The sun dappled light through the black-barked limbs of the trees, casting patterns on the cracked cement. Alexander puzzled. It wasn’t nearly late enough to be Autumn yet, he thought. The sun was warm, he remembered wearing his new blue shorts just the day before. It was cold today, even though the sun was very bright. His attention was suddenly distracted, when he noticed Mrs.Greene was humming.
It was a very pretty song, just like Mrs.Greene was very pretty. Mr.Greene was walking in time, and as Alexander was between them, holding their hands, he walked in time as well. He felt very happy, despite the worry of the morning. As his red cheeks split in a grin, a voice came whispering, like smoke from a guttering fire, across his ears.
Alexander. Alexander, please listen. They mean you nothing but harm. You’re only safe alone Alexander. Run away Alexander. Into the dark corners where they won’t find you. And then you can be home again.
Alexander stopped, was pulled a half-step forward, and stumbled to his knees, his sweaty hands slipping. His knees hit the sidewalk. He stayed there, trembling, the last echoes of the sickly-sweet voice passing away with the sound of the passing cars.
"Alexander! Are you alright?!" Mr. and Mrs.Greene stopped, both turned. Mr.Greene’s eyes were wider than Alexander thought possible. He knelt on the cold cement, lips closed, eyes open, tears burning in his throat. He looked up, a tear slipping down his cheek, warm in the cold air.
"Mr.Greene, I would like to see my Mommy." he said, trying ever so hard to be a good, strong boy, like Daddy always said he should be. Mrs.Greene’s beautiful face wrinkled with worry as she knelt on the pavement beside Alexander.
"What’s wrong Alexander?" sincerity clung to her features like a beautiful ceramic mask.
"I heard something I didn’t like." Alexander said, his voice half-whimper, half-whisper of fear. "A voice, like if a snake or a beetle could talk, I think that is what it would sound like" he paused, then added;
"Mrs.Greene". Mrs.Greene shook her head slowly, red ringlets dancing on her cheeks. She stood again, and took Mr.Greene by the arm, leading him a step away. As they talked, Alexander stood up, and rubbed his eyes, wiping away the tears from his cheeks. He looked around, at the dark shapes of the cars flying by, and the cracked cement, and the shadows the trees cast on the ground. He felt his eyes drawn across the road.
A house sat there, amid a clump of angry-looking trees with knotted and gnarled limbs. It was old, it’s windows broken or boarded over, it’s door hanging open like a toothless mouth. Darkness dwelt inside, bits of it falling through the windows and the open door onto the wooden slats of the shattered porch.
I’m sorry I scared you Alexander. I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. Then a pause, and harsher;
Look at them Alexander.
Alexander shook a little, the voice felt thick, like oil. He looked over at Mr. and Mrs.Greene. They were still talking.
"Yes?" Alexander whispered, "I don’t see anything." He stared as hard as he could, and scrunched his eyes until they hurt. Then, slowly, like a mirage that bled over into reality, he saw them. Hanging over Mr. and Mrs.Greene, two black shapes, made of arms, and legs, and a head, but all black, and frightening, somehow. They held strings in their hands, tendrils of darkness that fell from their fingertip to Mr. and Mrs.Greene’s arms and legs and mouth. The darkness pulled the strings and the Greenes moved their limbs in shuffling little movements, whispered in conspiratorial voices.
Do you see now Alexander? They’re just puppets.
"I don’t believe it!" Alexander screamed, holding his hands over his eyes. He stood there, on the edge of the street, feeling the dark-filled house watching him. He stayed that way until he felt gentle hands on his wrists and smelled a pleasant smell, like raspberries. He moved his hands slowly and looked up to see Mrs.Greene, a look of concern in her eyes.
"Are you alright Alexander?" she knelt down, closer to Alexander, and wiped a tear off his cheek. He looked at her through teary eyes, and saw none of the dark puppeteers from before. "You said you heard something?" Alexander nodded, sniffling. "Was it a voice Alexander? A voice in your head?" Alexander nodded again. "Don’t you worry Alexander. When we get to where we’re going, you’ll be able to get rid of that dreadful voice. For a little while anyway." Alexander sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
"Well chap, are you ready to go?" asked Mr.Greene, his great wide eyes wrinkled at the corners as he smiled happily. Alexander, still wary, only took a few steps forward. "We don’t want to miss the train, and we’ve still got a long way to walk, little one." He held out his hand. Alexander stood between the dark house and Mr.Greene and wondered. What had he seen? What was the voice? When would he see his Mommy and Daddy again? He stood, transfixed by the decision of forward or back.
Go ahead Alexander. You’ll see in the end.
Alexander steeled himself and stepped forward, taking Mr.Greene’s hand.
"Let’s go then." He said, quietly, trying desperately to ignore the oil-slick voice slithering in his ears.
As the day passed, Mr. and Mrs.Greene told Alexander all about themselves, and about the train, and where they were going. They told him about the Emerald Legion, the club that they belonged to. They taught him songs and sayings of the Legion, like "Cogs Turn Wheels" (one Alexander was particularly fond of, and found himself repeating in his head). They told him of the wonderful city of Stygia. Stygia was, Alexander learned, where the Greene’s had come from. It was a great big city on an island, full of interesting people and interesting things to see. Alexander was very excited to go there. The Greene’s asked him about himself. They asked what he loved most, and what were his favorite things. What did he want to do and what made him angry. So many questions that Alexander became very tired. The last thing he remembered as he fell asleep, carried on Mr.Greene’s back, was that dreadful house, so full of oily darkness, and the voice that matched it, whispering doom into his head while he slumbered.
Alexander awoke much later, when the moon was full in the sky, higher above than he had ever remembered it to be. He was laying on a metal bench that was once covered in green plasticky paint, but now rotted and rusting. He was at a train station downtown, he almost recognized it. Daddy had driven him past here on the way to the zoo once or twice, but Alexander remembered it to be much brighter and more colorful. But here, the lights were broken and sparking, and the great big clock was broken and it’s arms twisted.
Alexander stirred and sat up, looking around and rubbing his eyes. He saw Mr. and Mrs.Greene sitting on a bench nearby, talking in quiet tones. The dim light made the darkness seem to close in with every spark of the broken bulbs. Alexander stood and walked with shuffling steps to where Mr. and Mrs.Greene were speaking.
"Could I use the telephone please?" he asked, quietly.
"I’d like to call Mommy and ask what we’re having for dinner." Mr.Greene turned his head, his wide, white eyes reflecting the dull yellow light of the train station.
"I don’t think there is a phone here Alexander" he said, with a sigh. "Perhaps you can wait until we get to Stygia?" Alexander thought a moment, and resigned to sit down on the bench next to Mrs.Greene. He swung his feet absently, and his hand reached into his pocket. His fingers found the oboli, cold and round. He took it out and examined it under the light. It was thicker than any coin Alexander had seen. It was a sort of funny green color too. Alexander flipped it a few times, then became bored.
"When will the train come?" Alexander asked, "I can’t wait to see Stygia!" He stood and walked to the edge of the platform, looking down the rotten-wood tracks.
"Soon Alexander, very soon." replied Mr.Greene, with a glance at Mrs.Greene.
"Will it be nighttime there? Will we stay in a hotel? Are Mommy and Daddy coming too?" Alexander’s barrage of questions broke the placid silence of the abandoned station.
"So many questions Alexander." Mrs.Greene chuckled.
"Just be patient." She said, then, after a moment, pointed down the tracks.
"Do you see it?"
Alexander looked, following her finger. At the very edge of his vision, buried in the inky blackness, Alexander spotted a light, faint and nearly invisible. Aspot of white like the kind that would appear if you rubbed your eyes at night. Then it grew, slowly, until it took form. A light, then soon, a heavy cast-iron tube, then a train! Alexander stepped back as Mr. and Mrs.Greene stood up.
"Still have the coin, Alexander?" Mr.Greene asked. Alexander presented it proudly as the cold night air filled with the whoosh of train wheels on the steel line. As the massive engine arrived, Alexanders eyes grew wide. It was a colossal thing, like some metal dragon or coal munching monster. Alexander marveled as the mighty beast crawled on round arms and legs to lay it’s iron bulk against the station’s crumbling wooden platform. The train belched a gout of steam and lay silent. Behind the engine lay a hundred or more large wooden boxes, with foggy glass windows and old-looking wooden trim. Tattooed on the head of the beast were two towering numbers, almost as big as Alexander himself. "13" it said. Engine 13. Alexander was shaken out of his awe by Mr.Greene urging him along the platform.
"Don’t dawdle Alexander, we must get on board." he said, taking Alexanders hand. Mr.Greene led Alexander to a door, which opened when they approached. Mrs.Greene stopped, and looked down at Alexander.
"When we’re riding the train Alexander, we mustn’t be separated.
Promise you won’t leave?" She looked Alexander in the eyes, her pretty face creased with worry-lines.
"I promise." said Alexander. Though secretly, his fingers were crossed in his pocket. Alexander was never one to make promises he couldn’t keep, and this was just too exciting to stay in one place. He felt bad lying to Mrs.Greene. As she smiled and looked up again, Alexander thought he heard an oily-sounding chuckle, but shook it from his thoughts.
"Three please." Mr.Greene said to a man standing in the doorway. He was dressed in a conductors outfit, all blue and white stripes, and a proud-looking cap with a silver button. Mr.Greene handed him an oboli, as did Mrs.Greene. When it came Alexander’s turn, he proudly placed his coin in the conductors hand. The conductor looked down at him and smiled with crooked yellow teeth. Alexander tried to hide his sudden fear as he stepped back and bumped into a woman standing behind him. She spun around and snapped at Alexander in a sharp language Alexander didn’t understand. Her face was sunken and grey and very frightening. Mr.Greene took Alexander by the shoulder and led him to the safety of a large, red, pillowed seat.
"It’ll be alright in here Alexander. Just stay close by." Alexander barely noticed Mrs.Greene as he looked around the car. It was full of people, some very strange. There was a man with a grey suit, like Daddy’s, who carried a briefcase and wore sunglasses. Beside him was a man with brown skin, who was carrying a long stick with little white bones hanging from it. He wasn’t wearing any regular clothes, but had a cloak made of spiny-looking fur. Next to him was a man who looked like he was in charge of the whole train. He wore the kind of armor that Alexander had seen in the movies when Daddy had taken him to see Ben-Hur. It was shiny and bright, and the man had a very squareface and looked quite proud of himself. Alexander wondered if they were going to a costume party.
Mr. and Mrs.Greene sat, watching out the window, their faces reflected in the foggy glass. Alexander saw shadows dance in the darkness outside, and remembered what the oily voice had said. About looking closer. He turned his eyes back to the crowded room and squinted hard, his eyes aching. Then he saw them.
Just as it was with the Greene’s, each man and woman in the car had a black shape. Some were men, others were less tangible shapes. One was a skull, grinning with black teeth. Alexander choked out a yelp and clapped his hand over his mouth, opening his eyes wide. The shadowy things passed away.
Do you see it now Alexander? You’re in grave danger. I am the only one who can help you Alexander. Will you let me?
Alexander froze, the voices words burning in his head like acid. He looked over at Mr. and Mrs.Greene. They stared into the darkness as the train shook, a blast of steam and a keening whistle, a lurch and the beast in whose belly they rode crawled into the darkness. Alexander nodded slowly. He could not hear the call as it went out from his mind, into the darkness. A voice startled Alexander.
"Alexander." it was Mommy. He turned quickly, but saw nothing but the crowd of people in the car. "This way Alexander". Alexander cast a nervous look back at Mr and Mrs.Greene, who seemed to have forgotten him altogether, sitting whispering together. Alexander turned again, and began to push his way through the crowded car. The voice was quiet, but insistent, his mother calling him through the throng.
You see Alexander? If you had only trusted me from the beginning. We’ll be home soon enough.
Alexander, too panicked to find his Mommy, never stopped to wonder why the voice seemed to think it was his home too. He pushed between a massive man in a long and tattered toga and a woman in a turtleneck, and came to a door. He reached for the handle, and as he turned it, he thought he heard a hiss of pleasure from somewhere. He would not be distracted. Alexander turned the cold steel handle, and the door slid aside with a long rasping sound.
Outside, between the cars, was a set of small balconies with a little ladder between them. Alexander expected to see the countryside whizzing by beside the train, lit up by the moon. He turned his head a moment, as was paralyzed by the vision. A terrible sea of red, a boiling soup of blood and bits of thick gore. Occasionally, a shape, almost human, would surface under the gruesome mass, claw it’s way to the surface and break it like a boil, spewing ooze across the swirling red sea. It’s skinless form would thrash, seeming to drown in the air then fall back under the gooey crimson waves. Alexander clenched white-knuckled, round little hands on the bars of the balconies, staring out between them, prisonlike.
Terrible, isn’t it?
The voice burned in his ears, the words taking on a tone of mocking praise. Onward Alexander. Onward.
He heard Mommy again, calling from above. A ladder up onto the top of one of the cars. Alexander set his tiny hands to climb it. Shutting his eyes against the dreadful sea on which the train sped. Like the jungle-gym at home, the bars of the ladder felt cold and huge in his five year-old hands. "Alexander." she called to him. "Alexander" he climbed another rung. "Alexander" he clenched his teeth, climbing to the top, finally, pulling himself onto the metal roof. There she was, waiting for him. Wearing the pretty dress she wore to church on Sunday. Alexander smiled, and lifted himself to his feet.
His vision was filled with a field of red, the struggling figures thrashing and weeping in the sea all around him. Mommy stepped forward, and knelt down. "Hello Alexander." She said, her face wrinkled by a half-smile. "Where have you been?"
Alexander told her the story of the day, of how the teacher had ignored him, and how everything looked dead at home, and how Mr. and Mrs.Greene had promised to take him to Stygia. The voice, that sounded just like him, but was ever so helpful in finding his way. He told Mommy about the great dying house, all full of blackness. He told her about the black shapes that played with everyone like puppets. Then he had a thought, and as though answering;
Go ahead, look at her Alexander.
Alexander looked with the same squinty eyes at his Mommy. There was nothing at first, the horrid black shapes that had been hovering over everyone else he’d seen today was not there. Instead, a little white light seemed to dwell inside her, pushing against her skin like it was desperate to escape. Alexander did not know what this meant, but it was Mommy.
"Come here Alexander." she suddenly seemed very cross.
"You’ve been a very bad boy. Daddy and I were so worried when you didn’t come home. Daddy spent all night looking for you, and he was so tired he couldn’t go to work the next day. And do you know what happened Alexander?" Her face was wrinkled and angry. Alexander shook his head, afraid and at the edge of tears. "He lost his job, and now we can’t live at home, or have nice things like the television anymore Alexander. And it’s all because you ran away from us."
Alexander shook his head, tears burning hot streams down his cheeks.
"No Mommy! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!" He came closer, to be held, to be accepted again, but Mommy stood and turned away. "Please Mommy! I didn’t mean to be bad." Alexanders eyes grew blurry with tears, his heart throbbed in his chest, his throat closed up.
Mommy walked a few steps away. "I’m sorry Alexander. You’ll just have to go back down and tell Mr. and Mrs.Greene that they’ll have to be your new Mommy and Daddy. We just don’t love you anymore Alexander."
Alexander froze, tears falling onto the cold metal roof. His vision was a terrible blur of red, only Mommy, clear in her white dress stood out ahead of him. There was movement, slithery and dark at the edge of his vision. "I love you Mommy."
Time slowed, and Alexander felt as though he was falling. Not down to the metal roof, or away, but inside. Falling away from his vision, into a dark place. He felt the voice swell up inside him, fill his head and his arms and legs, the places he rightfully belonged. He still felt the tears on his cheeks and the rumbling of the beastly train below, still saw his Mommy, but it was like gazing through a black curtain.
Yesssss… the voice hissed. Mommy turned, smiling, and stepped forward. Her features twisted, the dress fell away like rotting rags. Mommy’s skin crawled, and her hair fell out in clumps. Alexander screamed, but it was like screaming into a pillow. He tried to shut his eyes, but the voice wouldn’t let him. They were his eyes now. Alexander watched the naked ghoul walk forward, skin sagging and grey, eyes sunken, and glowing with a sickly green light. The thing held Alexanders face with taloned hands, and the voice turned Alexander’s head out, so he could see the crawling sea.
The sea itself had changed, become a massive field of white sand, swirling like it was swept by a powerful wind. Maggots crawled under it’s surface. And near the train was a great hole, a black pit in the sand. It was so dark, like the door of that black house when Alexander was still near home. He felt the hag hold tight his shoulders, and felt the voice move his feet, one step at a time, to the edge of the train.
"No!" Alexander screamed, but he knew he had taken the voice’s place, no-one could hear him but it.
Oh yes Alexander … time to go home.
Alexander felt the hand shove him forward, and felt the voice move his legs to leap as hard as he could, out, away from the train, and down, into the seething sand below. The pit loomed in slow motion as he tumbled towards it. The voice screamed in primal joy, but Alexander screamed in terror. As he fell past the train, he saw Mr. and Mrs.Greene stand and watch him fall, their faces full of the same fear Alexander felt. They saw his body hit the sand, then the train leaped away into the distance.
He felt the sand swirling around him, almost alive as it filled his mouth, seeped into his lungs, tore at his clothes and burned his skin raw. The pit surrounded him as he fell into it. Darkness filled his eyes, and the voice seemed enraptured by the whole event.
Alexander gasped hard, amazed that it was his lungs that filled, his lips over which cool air passed, his eyes blinked in the bright light. He was back again. The voice was gone. Alexander looked around, and saw his room, and his house. He looked down, and saw none of the burning red skin where the sand had wrapped itself around him. He felt his shoulders, his face, his head. He seemed to be fine. Alexander lay back on his bed, breathing hard.
"Alexander!" a voice, his Mommy, came from downstairs. The smell of pancakes accompanied it. A little wary, Alexander responded.
"Coming!" he stood, walking down the short staircase into the kitchen. Inside, Daddy was sitting at the table, reading the newspaper and eating his grape-fruit with a little spoon, just like every morning, and Mommy was making pancakes, and there was his plate, and his Mickey Mouse spoon and his juice cup and everything that awaited him every morning. Just like always.
Alexander smiled and sat at the table. Mommy brought him pancakes, and they ate breakfast and Daddy read him the comics and Mommy smiled and kissed Daddy’s cheek and Daddy went to work. Everything was just like Alexander had remembered. When the house was quiet, and Mommy was cleaning the kitchen, Alexander told her about what had happened, about all the things in his head, just as he remembered them.
"That’s terrible Alexander" Mommy replied, after some reflection. "That must have been a very frightening dream you had." Alexander nodded. "But it’s over now, and you’re safe at home." She smiled, and patted Alexander on the head.
"When am I going to school Mommy?" Alexander asked, looking at the clock that hung over the table.
"Not today, Alexander, I have something else I need you to do." Mommy stood up. "I have lots of things for you to do today, in fact, so we’d better get started." Alexander looked up happily at his Mommy.
"What are we going to do today Mommy?" Alexander followed his Mommy from the kitchen into the living room and to the front door.
"Plenty of wonderful things, my little child." Mommy smiled, and knelt down, holding her arms out. Alexander stepped forward and wrapped his round arms around his Mommy. He smiled, feeling safe again. His family kept him safe.
"I love you Mommy" Alexander whispered.
"We love you too, little one." Mommy whispered back, her face in a haunting smile. Alexander and Mommy left the house together, hand in hand, and as they stepped outside, into the cold air, Alexander felt himself drifting away. It was like falling into a blissful sleep, warm and comfortable. Comatose. As he did, he heard a cascade of slithery voices, his Mommy and Daddy among them, and the voice in his head from his dream. They all told him what a good boy he was, and how proud he would make them. He smiled happily, though it felt as though someone else were pulling his lips. This time, it didn’t bother him. Everything was fine.
If Alexander had looked behind him, he would have not seen his home, but the wicked and decaying manor he had seen in his dream; it’s mouth-like-door, spewing darkness into the streets beyond. If he were truly looking, he would not have seen his street, or the sky, or anything but the pulsating walls of the Labyrinth. He was content for now, however, to let him Mommy guide him and listen to the echoes of the praising voices in his head.