Trapped in Cavington Hall, Apple wakes to a strange sound.
I wake in darkness, drenched in sweat and shaking. I must have been thrashing about in my sleep as I am completely tangled up in the blanket. Unwinding it from my ankle, I wrap it round my shoulders. I won’t be able to get back to sleep while I am as tense as this; I’m still trembling from the dream. In the gloom I can make out the shape of my brother on the bed, so I hold his hand to help me calm down.
My blood runs cold. It is the sound from my dream, I am certain of it! I pinch myself just to make certain and wince quietly from the sharp pain. No solace there.
There’s no denying it now. I definitely heard that noise and it sounds horribly close. I grip Skye’s hand tightly, silently begging him to wake up and protect me. Still holding on, I wiggle under the bed and lie there, quivering like a mouse. My heart beats faster as I hold my breath, listening. Under the bed is very dusty and I can feel my nose itching. I pray desperately not to sneeze.
I try to think rationally. Skye said there was no such thing as ghosts, and he was right about the owl in the woods. Surely there were no such things as monsters? It must just be George banging around downstairs, or the doctor doing some work? Right? As hard as I try, in the enveloping darkness of the strange house it is very hard to think rationally.
I think of my father’s ghost stories, of the woman alone in the graveyard and the unseen thing pursuing her. It was scary enough then, wrapped in the blanket with Skye awake and teasing me. Now the very thought of it turns my muscles to jelly. I try to push back the memories, but they rush through, unstoppable, like the cloud of bats that emerges from the forbidden cave in his tales.
I let out a quiet whimper, unable to suppress it completely. The noise sounds louder now, as if it is right outside the door. I let go of Skye’s hand, and move further under the bed, curling myself up into a tiny ball. If I keep really quiet, really still, maybe it won’t notice me. I wrap my hands around my knees, trying to prevent them from knocking together as they shake. It doesn’t really sound like footsteps, not human ones at least. What creature moves with a sound like that? Nothing normal comes to mind.
Skye! I realise I have almost forgotten about him. If there is something out there then he is defenceless, lying above me. I force myself to crawl out from under the bed and stand up, holding on to the post. It takes a while for me to be certain my legs won’t give out beneath me. I take his arm and try to pull him off the bed, but he’s very heavy and my hands are slick with sweat. The mattress is old and has a deep indent in the centre where Skye is lying. After a few struggling attempts, I reluctantly give up.
The sound has not gotten any louder, maybe it has stopped moving? I look at the welcoming darkness under the bed, wanting to hide myself away again. No. I can’t do that. If there is something out there, then I need to be able to protect my brother. It’s my turn to be the strong one. There is no tinder box in the room as George lights the candles in the evening by himself. I pick up the candle-stick though, as it has a reasonable weight for a weapon.
Taking a deep breath I tighten my grip around my weapon.
“Don’t worry, Skye,” I whisper as quietly as I can. “I’ll protect you.”
Being brave for Skye helps me to be brave for myself and I open the bedroom door a crack. Peering out, I can see moonlight flooding in through one window, bathing the corridor with its ethereal light. Nothing moves, not even a spider.
It’s coming from the nursery across the hall, I realise. I tense, memories of the doctor’s reaction flooding back. I almost turn back. He locked the door; I saw him. If there’s anything in there, it won’t be able to get out. But as well as fear, there is a morbid curiosity that grips at me. What on earth is making that noise?
Slowly, I cross the corridor, my bare feet making almost no sound as I move. The air is bitterly cold out here and I can see my breath coming out in a ghostly cloud. Shivering violently, I bend down and prepare to peer through the keyhole. My traitorously vivid imagination pictures an eyeball staring back at me. I close my eyes for a moment and count to ten.
I look though. Something moves by the window. I don’t see it so much as I see the change in the pattern of moonlight, but there was definite movement. Something is in there! My whole body tenses, and my heart beats so fast it’s painful. My hand brushes the doorknob and the door moves. The door is not locked. And if I can get in, whatever is inside can get out.
I want to run and get help, but I don’t know where George or the doctor sleep. And if I just shout for them then I will attract the attention of whatever is in there. I want to run. I want to hide. I want my big brother. But I just have me: Apple and the candle-stick against whatever creeping horror lies inside. And I can’t let whatever it is hurt either of us. I take a deep breath, tighten my grip on the weapon in my hand, and think of Skye.
Then I throw open the door.
It slams against the inside wall with a bang and I hold my breath. Inside the room is complete still. The curtains are open and the moonlight paints a silver highlight on all the surfaces. The wooden horse stands proud on its runners, and the chests of toys sit quiet on the floor, their lids open showing off their treasures. There are no monsters, no demons, no things that go thump in the night. As I stand there looking around, I grow braver and eventually summon the courage to throw open the wardrobe and drawers.
Nothing. Not a rat or a mouse or a spider.
I feel relieved, but also somewhat deflated, as all the tension runs out of me. I take a last look at the rocking horse, the moonlight turning the horsehair to liquid silver. In the distance, I hear a sound, like children laughing. My nerves break and I sprint all the way back to Skye’s room, not bothering to shut the nursery door behind me. Let the doctor punish me in the morning. At least he’s made of flesh and blood.
Panting, I throw myself into my nest of blankets. I pull a pillow over my head and sob quietly until sleep overcomes me.