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The Boy in the Attic

By Stephen Boswell

There was a single, small window in the attic; barely ten centimetres across. Sunlight shone through the window, making a square of light on the bare wooden door. Between the window and the square of light you could see dust mites floating. They moved slowly, yet no matter how hard you tried you could never follow the movements of any one of them. They always got lost in the crowd.

The walls angled upwards to form a line pointing due north. Against the walls was piled what seemed to be the bric-a-brac of a hundred lifetimes. Down the middle of the attic, running along the house's spine, was a wide corridor, free of the pervading junk. The corridor ran from a trapdoor at one end to the window at the other. It was the only place where bare floorboards were visible.

In the middle of the corridor sat a table. There were two wooden chairs facing each other across the table. On one of the chairs sat a boy. He was about ten years old, and was dressed in short and a loose shirt. There was a Risk board on the table. Black was winning.

Something stirred the air in the attic. It rushed away from the window, carrying the dust with it. The boy's hair fluttered; Risk pieces scattered across the floor. Tiny plastic soldiers rolled under hundred-year-old chairs.

The boy watched as if he'd been expecting this all along.

The space in front of the window was now a cold, airless vacuum. The sound of out-rushing air was drowned out by the noise of ancient engines forcing a hole in reality - convincing the universe at large that the impossible, at least for a moment, not only could happen, but would.

A box teetered and fell, scattering marbles across the floor.

A blue shape began to take form. At first it was just a haze; a mirage. Then it was a wraith - a translucent blue box about three metres tall. On the roof of the box a light flashed in time to the groaning of the engines.

(The air was electric. The boy could taste battery acid as he breathed. He knew he was watching magic.)

Matter flowed into the shape from everywhere and nowhere. The wraith solidified - its blue colour became deeper, more intense. Now a sign above the door in the front of the box was readable. It said: POLICE PUBLIC CALL BOX.

The police box's door opened a crack, and a man poked his head out. He had long, receding brown hair, and his face seemed to show centuries of wear. His eyes were hooded in shadow, but if you looked closely it was almost as if you could see stars floating in those shadows.

The man stepped out of the police box. He was wearing a brown tweed jacket and he carried an umbrella with a question mark handle. The man stared at the boy for several moments before speaking. ‘You shouldn't be here,’ said the man. ‘You must leave.’

‘It's cold outside. I think I'll stay.’

‘You're bringing a storm.’

‘I don't see any other way.’

The man took a few steps closer to the boy. ‘You should leave.’

‘No. I don't want to be cold again.’

The man looked down at his feet. ‘Time is far more delicate than you imagine.’

‘That doesn't matter. I'm staying.’ The boy reached down to the floor and picked something up. He held out his hand to reveal a blue plastic cannon, and smiled. ‘Want to play Risk?’

Abbie pushed her hair back. Ever since she'd had it cut it never seemed to stay where she put it. She played absently with the curls at the back of her neck.

Graham noticed her staring at him. He turned and raised an eyebrow. She still didn't say anything, so he did. ‘Yes?’

Abbie took a deep breath, then spoke. ‘I'm worried about Emily.’

‘You're always worried about Emily.’

‘I heard her talking to someone today, then I looked and there was no-one there.’

‘She was playing.’

‘No, I asked her, and she really seemed to believe there was someone there. A boy named David.’

Graham shrugged. ‘So she has an imaginary friend. Lots of children do.’

‘I think she needs to spend more time with children her own age.’

Graham turned back to the television. ‘You worry too much.’

Emily sat cross-legged on a toadstool. It was soft, and slightly warm to the touch. A big, fat cat jumped up onto the toadstool, and Emily began stroking it. It smiled up at her.

The cat had teeth like daggers covered in blood.

Emily snatched her hand back and screamed. She backed away from the cat until she fell off the toadstool. The ground was rocky, and scratched Emily as she backed away from the cat.

The cat poked its head over the edge of the toadstool, and smiled its dagger smile down at Emily. ‘the knife-man's coming,’ it said in a voice like thunder.

The words echoed over and over again:

the knife man's coming

the knife man's coming

the knife man's coming

Emily's eyes snapped open. A dream? But she hadn't been sleeping, had she? She was sure she hadn't been. She rubbed her eyes and stood up. She never fell asleep on the floor. But then, if she wasn't asleep, what had happened? She decided that she must have been sleeping.

Maybe she should tell David about her dream. That would be a good idea - she hadn't spoken to him since before lunch, and they could finish their game.

She walked out of her room and down the hall. She looked about to make sure there was no sign of her parents. Nope. She had to jump to grab the cord that brought down the ladder that led to the attic. Her parents didn't think she could jump that high.

The attic was darker than usual. Something was blocking the window. There was someone else with David. A man. They were playing Risk. Both of them looked up from the game and saw her at the same time.

‘Oh, hello Emily,’ said David. ‘This is my new friend, the Doctor.’

Emily stared nervously at the Doctor. The dream had already shaken her, and she'd come here looking for reassurance, not strangers.

The Doctor stood up and walked towards her. He had a nice smile. He kneeled down in front of her and held out his hands. ‘Empty, see,’ he said. Emily nodded. He reached behind her ear and pulled out a coin. He gave her the coin and she examined it closely. It was a sort-of shiny blue, and there was a picture of an octopus-thing holding a spaceship. A big eye peered out of a window in the spaceship.

Emily smiled, and when the Doctor offered his hand she took it. He led her back to the table and sat her down. The Doctor looked solemn now.

‘David has to leave,’ said the Doctor.

‘What?’ Emily turned to David, who was shaking his head.

‘I'm not going. I won't!’

‘We talked about this, David,’ said the Doctor, ‘you must leave.’

‘No. It's cold out there.’

Emily reached out and took David's hand. ‘Why does he have to leave?’

The Doctor looked Emily in the eye, and it seemed that his shadowed eyes were peering into her soul. ‘Because the knife-man is following him.’

Emily felt something in her lungs, trying to push its way out. As they worked their way up her throat she realised that they were words and her mouth began moving to shape them. They came out like the thunder of the dagger-cat's voice - ‘let me advise you, my dear young friend - nay, let me warn you with all seriousness, that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely. Be warned!’

Colleen poured milk into the tea. Where was the sugar? It wasn't on the right shelf. She turned around and saw a cat walking in through the kitchen door.

‘Hello, puss, how'd you get in here?’ she said.

The cat only purred in reply, and rubbed itself against her legs. Colleen bent down and picked the cat up, stroking it She walked through the kitchen door, into the hall, carrying the cat. The back door was open, despite the fact that she could have sworn she closed it.

‘Now kitty,’ she said as she walked towards the open door, ‘how'd that happen, eh?’

‘I opened it,’ came the reply. The man now standing in the doorway was tall and heavily built. His long, matted hair was soaked by the rain, and his head lolled to one side. There was a red mark around his neck. His clothes were loose and ragged.

Colleen dropped the cat, which landed on its feet and ran to the man. ‘Wh-what do you want?’

‘This is just a quick stop on my way somewhere.’ He pulled a long, rusty knife from among the rags he wore. ‘Please don't scream.’

Graham was the first to react to Emily's scream - Abbie was frozen in place. He ran up the stairs three at a time, to see Emily running down the hallway from the attic ladder towards him. She ran into his arms and he wrapped them around her.

A man climbed down from the attic and walked towards Graham. He was short, and wearing a brown tweed jacket. Abbie ran up behind Graham.

‘Who are you?’ he asked the man.

‘I'm the Doctor.’

‘Daddy, Daddy!’ Graham looked down at Emily. ‘The knife-man's coming! I heard it in my head!’

Graham looked at the Doctor. ‘What the hell's going on here?’

‘That might be a little difficult to explain.’

Graham looked down to see Emily jerking her head about, searching for something. ‘What is it?’

‘Can't you hear it?’ Emily said. ‘The clock, it's so loud.’

Graham listened and heard a soft ticking. But the ticking quickly became louder and louder. Each sound was like a hammer against his head. He dragged his family down the stairs - he had to get away from the noise and the craziness. They ran hand-in-hand down the hall to the front door. Graham fumbled with the deadlock and chain for what seemed like forever before he managed to get the door open. He went to drag his family through it.

There was a man standing in his way.

And Emily screamed.

The boy watched as the Doctor climbed back up into the attic. The Doctor walked towards him, a look of fury on his face.

‘Do you hear it?’ asked the Doctor. ‘The clock.’

‘Yes. I remember it. I remember it echoing through this house when I was alive. At night, when everything else was quiet, it seemed so loud. I couldn't sleep. It won't let me sleep.’

The boy was crying now. The Doctor turned away from him. ‘I warned you this would happen,’ said the Doctor, and descended from the attic.

The boy continued to cry, and his tears were blood.

Emily screamed until her throat burned, but it still couldn't drown out the sound of the ticking clock. It couldn't burn away the knife-man. The sound and the strength drained from Emily's body.

The knife-man reached out a dead-cold hand and patted her on the head. He pointed. ‘Watch,’ he said.

And she did:

David was running down the stairs, screaming no and no and no and no! Behind him was the knife-man, his heavy boots pounding in time to the sound of the clock. David tripped, and fell to the bottom of the stairs. He was crying. The knife-man jumped down the last few stairs and landed next to David. The knife slashed downwards.

David moved. There was a spray of blood as the knife tore through his cheek. He tried to crawl away from the knife-man. Emily could see David's teeth through the gaping hole where his cheek hung off.

In a voice like a thousand voices speaking a thousand languages, all of them older than time, the knife-man said:

blood of my blood

flesh of my flesh

soul of my soul

death of my death

He plunged his knife into David. David stopped moving. The knife-man wiped David's blood from his face, and pointed into the living room. ‘Watch,’ he said.

And she did:

A woman tried to fend off the frenzied attack of the knife-man, but he kept slashing at her, again and again. Her blood stained the floor red, but her screams could not drown out the clock. The last signs of life slid from the woman and she fell to the floor. The house seemed to grow darker.

‘I'm glad you let me in,’ said the knife-man. He was standing next to Emily now. She looked up at him and he pointed out through the door. ‘Watch,’ he said.

And she did:

She saw the old elm tree across the street. She saw the knife-man swinging back and forth by his neck; blown by the wind.

‘They needed more than my death,’ said the knife-man, ‘they needed my blood. Now I have none to offer, but you do.’

The hall was a million miles long, and every inch was like swimming through concrete. The storm was here, and the Doctor knew he had to end it, or worse would come.

He could just make out the blurred image of Emily and her family standing in the doorway. They were at the epicentre; the eye of the storm.

No, they were the eye of the storm.

He had to get closer, but it was so hard. He clasped the crystal in his hand tighter, and hoped that it would be enough to break the resonance.

‘My son heard your call,’ said the knife-man, ‘and I heard his. I have been to a time beyond time, where dark reflections rule. I am back and I would bring my masters here.’

Emily tried to back away, but something seemed to push her back no matter which way she tried to go. A scream of terror caught in her throat, unable to find its way out. It felt as if she would choke on the scream. Her parents seemed to be frozen in place.

The shadows were moving.

The shadows had teeth; and mouths that stretched to another place. It hurt Emily's eyes to look at them.

There was a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, into the Doctor's face. ‘We're going to break the resonance,’ he said. He held out a white crystal on a chain. ‘Put this on.’

‘What about David?’

‘David will be gone. It has to happen this way. Otherwise the darkness will be free.’

Emily looked at the mouths reaching out of the shadows. Their teeth were snapping. Furniture and pieces of wall disappeared, accompanied by flashes of light. The mouths grew bigger; the shadows deeper. Emily reached out for the crystal - and it was snatched away from her. David was standing next to her, clasping the crystal to his chest.

‘No!’ he said. ‘I won't go back there! I won't go back to the darkness!’

‘It's all right, David.’ The Doctor held out his hands towards David. ‘With the resonance broken, you won't go back there. You'll be free.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

The knife-man stepped towards them. ‘Don't trust him, David. He's lying. We'll be sent back to the shadows and the pain.’ The knife-man seemed to want to come closer still, but something held him back.

‘Trust me,’ said the Doctor. David dropped the crystal into the Doctor's hand, and the Doctor put the chain around Emily's neck.

‘He's lying!’ screamed the knife-man.

Light spread from the crystal, clearing the shadows from every corner of the house. David and the knife-man faded, then disappeared. Emily found she was free to move again. The Doctor looked deep into the eyes of each of her parents.

‘Take Emily from this place,’ he said. ‘Never bring her back. Some minds don't mix well with some places.’

‘What about David?’ asked Emily. ‘Will he go back?’

The Doctor looked down at her, and the stars in his eyes were gone. ‘I don't know,’ he said.

This item appeared in TSV 51 (June 1997).

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