… Allen … Allen … Allen … From the depths of the warm bed, Alice heard her door creak, slowly, quietly, the soft rustle of clothes. She frowned, coming out of her dark sleep; who could be in her room so early? She could hear someone moving. Alice’s eyes fluttered once – maybe twice – and she woke with a start. Opening her eyes fully, she tensed in shock before realizing her surroundings and allowing the darness of her bedroom to ghost away her nightmare. She sighed and closed her eyes again. The same dream again. Nothing different! Not her own bedroom; not her own bed. But of .. the bookstore, of … another time so long ago. The image of the tall, graystone structure, with it’s sloping black roof and rows of barred windows framed in black shutters, always shrouded in a foreboding darkness. The bookstore, her prison. So long ago. She still felt as if she was hiding in it’s shadows, in the safety of the gnarled, wind-twisted stand of oaks she’d come to love. It was then that Sarah suddenly became aware of the whispering. Soft, foreign, unintelligible, yet somehow, faintly familiar. "Who – who’s there?" she managed to stammer in a high, little voice she didn’t recognize. "Alice—sssh—Alice. It’s me." The voice pierced the bedroom quiet. The door creaked, opened a bit more, then quietly closed. Again, she could hear whispering, someone moving about. Alice peeked up from the blankets toward the intrusion. It only took a few seconds to recognize the hushed murmur. Sarah, her youngest cousin, was standing inside the room. She was smiling back at her, not a warm smile, not a friendly smile, but the coldest, most frightening smile she had ever seen. Sarah sighed and motioned the little girl to come closer. The hesitancy left her expression and a twisted smile parted the hard fullness of her lips. She seemed to glide across the room to her, the lightness of her footsteps barely making any sound at all. A pale blue lace ribbon contrasted the raven black of her hair, sweeping the length of it away from her face and leaving it to cascade in soft curls down her back. She resembled the winter outside; porcelainlike, cold and chalky. Sarah had forgotten what a little thing she was. "Come, I’ve got to show you something," said twelve-year old Sarah impatiently. "Come on! Hurry!" Getting out of bed, Alice padded softly across the small room to peer out the window with her cousin. The first snow had fallen during the night and the sight depressed her, as did her thoughts. She recalled another scene just like it, the blackened branches poking out everywhere through a heavy blanket of fresh white snow. Thousands of miles from Boston, a lifetime from – him, Monsieur Allen Wishenski. She shivered as she remembered the monster: Iron-gray hair above a high, old-fashioned collar, from which protruded a scrawny neck several sizes too small. She always thought he resembled something straight out of a Stephen King novel. He was a wretched man. Yet to outsiders, he presented himself as puritanical, prim, and proper, always dressed in his solitary, most prized possession: a starched, coal-black suit shiny with age. And the monster’s eyes. How she had come to fear those hardened eyes. Glowing with hate behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, they always gleamed back at her with a sadistic intent. And his cheeks, paled by the perpetual darkness of his precious bookstore, sat on either side of a small, sharp nose, down which the spectacles slid to perch precariously at its very tip. He was the monster she’d come here to forget and couldn’t. ***** "Sarah! W-what is it? What are you doing up so early? It’s so cold!" Her anxiety had gone to fear, and the fear eventually became anger. She was her cousin, and there came a time when it no longer mattered who was right or wrong. "Sarah?" Silence. "Sarah, please. Answer me!" Again, silence. Something was wrong, she thought. "Sarah, don’t be cross with me. I’m sorry if I woke you, but I had another bad dream." "He’s here." "Who’s here, Sarah?" "Him – Monsieur Allen. He followed you to Boston. He wants you to go back with him. You don’t need to be afraid of him anymore." "Sarah? Did you hear me?" Her fingers moved to tentatively touch her shoulder. "Don’t!" She flinched from her, shutting her eyes tightly against the tears. "It’s not possible. H-he’s dead. I saw… many things … things. Things you’re too young to understand." "But, …" Alice held out her hand. She reluctantly accepted Alice’s hand with limp fingers. "I saw him downstairs. I just know I did. "Don’t ‘But Sarah’ me, young lady. You must have seen shadows or something. I don’t think –" "But it’s important." Smoothly, she steered Alice down the hall. "Please …," she whined. "Please. I did see Monsieur Allen! I did!" The monster here. She knew it was impossible. The silence stretched like a bridge between them. She was hesitating, reluctant to say the words that would hurt her cousin’s feelings. She finally agreed. Winning at last, Alice walked to an oil lamp and took it up. Lighting it, she waited for Sarah to dress then escorted her towards an old wooden stairway. The steps felt rough and cold under her stocking feet, and they squeaked and creaked loudly as they descended hand-in-hand. At the base of the stairs was a large, oval antique mirror and Sarah paused to glance at her own reflection. She was the image of candy-box prettiness. Dressed in a blue ankle-length nightgown embroidered with small birds and flowers., her two long, fluffy pony tails exploded from each side of a wispy fringe of brown hair. Like two moons, a pair of gold wire-rim glasses perched lightly on a cute button nose above two pouted lips. "Give me your hand," Alice said firmly. Puzzled, she held it out to her. "Why?" "Why? To see if I can prove to you it wasn’t only shadows I saw." "Prove to –" Mentally, she shook herself. "I’m sorry, Sarah. It’s late and I’m too tired for games." Her hand, held out to her cousin in defeat, was trembling. "Just … just hurry up." Her heart pounding, she looked back at her cousin. The childish smile on her face was a smile of victory. Alice didn’t notice the smile fading quickly from her face. Alice didn’t feel at all scared until they reached the empty back kitchen … and she heard the whispering again. Then she suddenly had a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. What if he really was here, she thought. Pausing, Alice leaned against the banister and listened. "It’s nothing," Her cousin nervously told her. "The snow is all. Or the wind on the old roof. Don’t worry. Please, let’s go quickly. He’s waiting." Alice hesitated. He? What ‘he’? "I said let’s go," Sarah whined impatiently. Her voice echoed against the stone walls of the empty room. Though puzzled, whatever else she said made sense. What else could it be? Alice loosened her grip on the banister and silently followed the little girl, creeping down the long, narrow hallway, guiding herself by letting her free hand run along the wall, until they finally stopped outside a door which was closed. Instinctively, she grabbed the doorknob first and started to turn it – when somebody crept up from behind and grabbed her shoulder.
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