This story is by Chris LaRoche and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Harvest Moon hung low in the velvety night sky, its deep orange glow cresting the slate roofline of the Victorian Mansion, stretching shadows to eerie proportions. Twin turrets reached across the neglected garden of weather beaten rhododendrons and creeping clematis, their ornate finials cast out in a phantom like claw, an illusion of jagged fingers, poised by the front gate.
Lucy gripped the rusted spires to the wicket, her pale skin in stark contrast to the black of the wrought iron. Clamping her eyes shut, she scrunched up her face, her freckles coming together in a reddish-brown line across the bridge of her nose. “I’m not going to run away… I’m not going to run away… I’m not going to run away,” she whispered with waning conviction as she wrung her hands, the metal warm and damp to the touch after a hot and humid day.
She peeked back over both shoulders, the tall forest of pine trees pressing in on her, pushing her to act. Silence hung heavy in the sticky air. An unnatural state here in the Lowlands where the night was a symphony of sounds. Her breathing and the beat of her heart filled in the void, stoking her growing trepidation. She stepped through the gate, her slim frame grazing the bars.
A flock of crows burst from their roost in the trees, their glossy plumage shimmering in the light of the moon. Lucy screamed as they zeroed in on her, ganging up on their prey. She waved at them wildly in a blind sprint for the mansion as they danced and fluttered above her head, pulling and teasing the curls of her strawberry blonde hair. Tripping over a gnarly root, she fell to her knees, the landing soft and muddy from the day’s rain. She shrunk in terror, folding over herself, protecting her head. “Go away,” she cried, “go away.” The crows retreated to the darkness, her pink ribbon their prize, dangling from a pair of talons like a snake.
While the crows squawked and fought over the ribbon to her hair, Lucy made for the mansion. She scrambled up the dilapidated stone steps, her footing unsteady as the mortar siphoned away. Slipping past the partially open door, she rested her weight against the knotted oak. The latch engaged as a second wave of crows attacked, their beaks like little arrows, piercing the timbered entry in rapid succession. Thump, thump, thump, thump.
Black beaks continued to stab and peck at the heavyset door as Lucy backed into the grand foyer, her little feet crushing shards of glass, leaving bloodied footprints on the white marble floor. The faint sound of organ music played as she spun in a tight circle under a spotlight of ambient moonlight coming through the leaden glass domed ceiling. A figurine in a life size music box.
The music grew, enraging the birds. Lucy steeled herself and fled up a palatial staircase, her raw feet coming down on a threadbare Persian rug of blue and beige. As she climbed higher and higher, the cadence of children joined the soundscape and the smell of cotton candy filled the air. Her head swam, almost dreamy, the floor appeared to undulate as if on a ship at sea. She stared down the mouth of a long hallway, the narrow passage terminating at a singular black door.
An explosion of wood and glass, and the heavy beat of wings rose up from the belly of the mansion.
“They won’t harm you, not unless I tell them to,” whispered a tiny voice in Lucy’s ear. The words paralyzed her in fear as she felt a bitter coldness wash over her. The frigid air clung to her like a second skin, turning her rose tinted lips blue.
“It’s only fun if you run,” said the voice.
Chased by the giggles of a little girl, Lucy bolted for the door. The guttural call of the crows reverberated along the corridor, rattling the crumbling ceiling. Plaster dust rained down on her head like snow, collecting in her frozen furls.
“They’re here,” said the little girl, slowly emphasizing each word.
Lucy grasped the round brass knob with both hands, spinning and spinning the intricate APL woven into the design. Tears welled in her emerald green eyes, freezing to her long, fair lashes.
“I can’t very well let everyone in,” said the little girl, her words unadorned with emotion.
Lucy turned her back to the door, bracing herself for the onslaught. Raging against her despair, she shrilled, “I was invited.” The door swung inward and slammed shut just the same, leaving her sprawled on her backside, staring up at a pure white door.
Denied their laurels, the crows called out in anger, their impetus carrying them through the door in a puff of black smoke. Whoosh. A single feather fluttered and danced as the smoke dissipated, landing softly in Lucy’s lap. Frantic, she scuttled to her feet, brushing aside the quill for fear it may resurrect another.
Stumbling backwards, Lucy gaped at the splendor of the great room. The floor gave rise to the open ocean; the rotunda, an endless galaxy; the walls, alive with books. But for all its grandeur, she sensed a great sadness rooted in place as she circled a silent carousel veiled in malevolence. The painted ponies caught in mid-gallop, straining to break free from their hollowed state; aged mirrors neglected over time, their reflections warped and hideous; and the golden pipes of the organ, choked into silence.
It is in that silence where the little girl sat, a single crow perched at her side. “Why have you come?” she asked, looking wistful at the pink ribbon dangling from the crow’s arched beak.
“I’ve never been invited to a birthday party before,” Lucy said.
“You will have to forgive my father, for he insists on making up for his past indiscretions,” she said, rolling up the sleeves to her nightdress. “He was a horrid, horrid man, you see. Even in death the bruises never fade away.”
Lucy tugged at her own sleeves, afraid at what they might reveal.
The little girl took Lucy by the hand. An unnatural state indeed. She stood a full head shorter than Lucy, her nightdress a tattered and sickly grey, matching the color of her sunken eyes. “I can take you anywhere you want to go,” she said, skipping them over to a seemingly endless collection of books. “All you have to do is choose.”
“Choose?” Lucy asked, her arm going numb as the little girl swung it back and forth like a swing.
“Choose,” she said, squeezing Lucy’s hand tight.
Lucy winced in pain. “Through the Looking Glass,” she said, wringing her hand free from the girl’s icy grip.
“One of my favorites,” said the little girl as she plucked the volume from a nearby shelf.
Lucy again heard the faint tin of children.
“They do tend to get overly excited when we have company,” said the little girl, noticing Lucy’s distress. Stroking the spine, she quieted the voices.
The delirium grew. A melodic drone burst forth from the organ as the carousel drew new breath. Lucy climbed up on a white pony with pink ribbons braided in its mane, the eyes innocent and free.
The little girl opened the book and began to read, her voice hypnotic.
Lucy held tight to the brass pole, digging her bare knees into the horse’s side. “I’m sorry,” she said as the carousel started to turn, “but I didn’t bring you a present.”
The little girl laughed in spite of herself. “You’re my gift, Lucy,” she said as the carousel spun faster and faster. Its passenger all but a blur.
Lucy screamed and then disappeared.
The little girl returned the book to the shelf, the carousel silent once again.
The crow circled the heavens, dropping the pink ribbon in her lap.
“Thank you, father.”