Hurtling. He’s hurtling. Cyrus has a head the size of three balloons welded into one, rubber bumps in all the right places. Someone set him up, something stung him.
Trinkets and engraved goblets topple from overloaded shelves as the boy, nearly a man runs the length of the room and back again. His eyes are peas in the growing face. He tears as them, not knowing if they are about to sink forever into the burgeoning flesh or pop and burst. Salty old seadog, those tears that spill; they sting the stretch marks spreading and ripping at the child’s visage.
Blind, Cyrus throws himself to the floor. Screaming is impossible; the fattened mouth is full to suffocation with a tongue of weeping meatloaf. Who would hear him anyway?
They start with a jingle, the bells; whispering at Cyrus with their teasing voices. He slaps at the spaces his ears used to be, hearing only mosquito torture and fearing another assault. So they play a little louder. The boy shudders as the noise grows in volume. Tinkling, ding dong dinging, tolling and tolling and tolling until the sound is too much and the eardrums inside Cyrus’s attic-sized head explode. The roar that almost kills him is enough to wake Mr and Mrs Cleavage in their bedroom below.
It’s the same every night since their son disappeared. They hear him scream, always at the witching hour of 3:15am. Charlie Cleavage had stopped his wife Debonair from exploring the loft; that was over a year ago. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t wonder – still.
“What is it hun? Hey, are my eggs ready yet?”
Debbie flips them once, then back again without spilling a drop of bile-shaded yolk. Charlie doesn’t care for his wife’s allergies, or that eggs make her gag every morning. Charlie has needs.
“I want… I mean – can we have a yard sale?”
She slips the eggs onto a plate next to a pile of grits and chunks of fried bread. It’s casual, how she hands her husband his breakfast but he knows she’s up to something. He grabs her wrist. Debonair has long since learned not to give Charlie the satisfaction of a flinch. She sits down, ignoring the pain and smiles with red lips.
“I saw something you’d like.”
Charlie releases his grip, attacks the eggs in a spattering mess.
“What?” is all he can manage with a full mouth.
“Now honey that would ruin the surprise. You know how I like to please you.”
She runs her skinny hand over his knee, hating every moment.
“This is special. But I need a lidda bit of money, and I thought we could – you know, clear out the back-room, the attic, the garage…”
Charlie drops his fork on the plate.
Debbie smoothes her skirt over knees made of sticks. They shake beneath the floral-patterned cotton.
“Yup. The attic. I decided you were right. Cyrus isn’t coming back.”
Cyrus isn’t coming back. She’s practised the line until it no longer shakes in her mouth. Charlie eyes her, his thick brows bristling like April caterpillars ready to spin a cold cocoon. Ain’t no butterflies in that bastard, Debbie thinks.
He pats Debonair’s leg, lingering at her thigh. She swallows the hate and claps her hands.
“Oh, goodie! I’ll make a start while you’re at the mill today.”
She stands, escaping before he can spread his hand wide enough to hurt.
The back-room, Charlie’s den that never was a den is the easiest. She’s done it already. Cleared out the artisanal tables made of maple and deer horn; they’ll fetch a good price. As will her mother-in-law’s “loada fucking’ crap” watercolours.
The garage will be last; Debbie doesn’t understand cars so will leave anything mechanical untouched. She drifts outside to check her pitch at the front of the house before contemplating the loft-space. From the dormer above Cyrus stares down at his mother, not quite understanding why she hasn’t been to see him in so long. At his side, the Tooth Fairy wipes dribble from her plastic chin and rings her bell. Time to eat.
Cyrus’s old toys get their kicks in the usual ways, fathering soulless rejects by dolls with no holes, getting high from licks of raindrops that occasionally creep through the rafters. They shake, rattle and roll as Cyrus gets into position. Splayed out with everything on display Cyrus squeezes his eyes shut and lets his friends do their thing. He doesn’t mind so much anymore; it still hurts like shit but as they’ve explained – they are hungry, and if they feed they can stay alive to keep Cyrus company. It all makes sense. No. He doesn’t mind.
Debbie sings “Could It Be Magic?”. She’s allowed to sing when Charlie’s not at home. She does a little Donna Summer wiggle and belts out the lyrics as the sale starts to seem like an even better idea than she’d planned. Neatly labelled boxes vie for space beside transparent pink crates crammed with magazines and dog-eared paperbacks. Debbie’s song fades to a hum, trails away to silence. She gathers herself before making the ascent, before looking for Cyrus one last time.
The memory of that day kicks Debbie in the gut harder than a punch from her husband. She grabs the only chair not laden with goods and pulls herself onto it, parking her backside before her legs give way. She doesn’t cry. “Crying’s weak, bitch.” For once she is grateful for Charlie’s uninvited lesson because today she needs more strength than she has ever summoned before. She thinks of Cyrus’s freckled face; how his nose had a permanent pink stripe on the bridge from squinting at the sun. Debbie reaches out her hand to stroke the hair that isn’t there. Pale, almost peach strands of fine, fine locks – like hers used to be before Charlie declared he would never consider marrying a ‘non-blond’. She draws back to pat at her own head, fingering the stiff tresses murdered by peroxide.
When Cyrus hadn’t come home from school Debbie instantly believed him dead; abducted by trailer-trash and dumped, lifeless somewhere in the forest – the very place Charlie spent his time killing trees for a living. Charlie hit her a good one for that outburst.
The cops did their bit, a few perfunctory searches and a poster campaign, but Debbie could see it their eyes – eyes that wouldn’t return her pleading stare – they knew Cyrus was dead too.
It had quickly transpired Cyrus had never even gone to school that day. He hadn’t got on the bus, didn’t turn up to meet his pals on the corner first. They assumed their friend was sick – that’s what they told the driver. The day’s relief teacher, being new to the role had accepted Cyrus Cleavage’s absence without contacting the parents. It turned out to be the last teaching job he’d ever have but that was no comfort to the Cleavages. Charlie had made sure the young man would never make a mistake like that again, and would likely never sire a child of his own. He thought Debbie didn’t know, but she knew a lot more than Charlie gave her credit for.
Once the pre-school disappearance became common knowledge suspicions did the rounds, coming squarely back to land on the Cleavages’ shoulders. Charlie’s temper was no secret and that stuck-up wife of his had to be complicit.
Debonair wipes a lonely, disobedient tear from her cheek.
“But we didn’t do it Cyrus, did we? Not even your Daddy with those filthy fists o’his. He never touched you.”
Upstairs, a glass breaks. Downstairs, Debbie gasps. She hears it, like she’s heard that scream every night. But this is louder still, and in broad daylight. She grabs the keys from the table, forcing her trembling legs to carry her into the hallway. If she could leap three steps at a time she would but dainty skips will have to do.
Another crash. From the very top of the house. Debbie’s heart is a throbbing casket, pounding in her ears, rushing blood through too-thin arteries.
“Mommy! It hurts. Help me.”
Debbie cannot open her mouth to call her son’s name but in her head she shouts in reply “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
She is at the top hallway. Muffled bell sounds tinkle through the ceiling, clashing with the jingle of keys in Debonair’s hands. She stares about, searching for the pole to pull the ladder down. It isn’t where she left it. Charlie must have moved it when he put the lock on the inner door to stop her going up there. She tries to calm herself though her nostrils flare and her chest palpitates. She’s seen it somewhere else over the last couple of days, hell she’s even seen it this morning.
“Think, woman,” she grinds her teeth as the noises above her rise in pitch.
She wants to scream but tries to sound calm for Cyrus’s sake.
“I’ll be back in a sec honey. Wait. Don’t go anywhere.”
The comment doesn’t strike her as idiotic until she’s out the side door and standing on oil-stained concrete. Quickly scanning the room she spots the pull-pole hanging from Charlie’s neat tool board. The nail falls to the ground as Debbie yanks the pole down and heads back inside the house, leaving the garage door open. Charlie can beat her for that later; it won’t matter to her any more.
Her body speeds on adrenalin as she races back up the two flights of stairs.
“I’m here Cyrus! Mommy’s here.”
But now the world above her screams in overwhelming silence because Cyrus isn’t there. Even as Debbie drops the hatch and drags the ladder down she knows her son was never there. She ignores her own fear and mounts the steps regardless. Reaching the top she must crawl into the holding space to access the short door and is stalled by a moment of wonder that her hulk of a husband could have installed something so solid in such a cramped place.
It’s dark. She fumbles at the fob in her hand. Five keys of different sizes. She hadn’t asked Charlie which was the right one for the loft when he threw them at her but through trial and error is successful on the fourth attempt. Her fingers are sticky with sweat as she twists the lock and pushes the door open.
There is no broken glass. There are no bells chiming. Cyrus isn’t sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor waiting for his mom because Cyrus is hanging from the ceiling by his hair. He is dressed in a life-size teddy outfit sewn from smaller bears, ripped apart and rejoined. Blood drips from every clumsy stitch, wrought with the same thread that has sealed Cyrus’s mouth into a permanent smile.
Debonair Cleavage drops to her knees. She doesn’t flinch as the door clicks shut behind her though the sound drowns out her ears. Sunlight blares through the dormer window to create a halo around her swinging son.
“Cyrus, where have you been?”
It’s all she can manage to say.
To her sides, feet scuttle behind piles of ephemera. Clonking great wooden shoes and soft rubber pumps trip towards Debonair who is staring at her son’s face, his own eyes huge with warning. A migraine of sparks whirl in the periphery closing in on the desperate mother. She twists abruptly.
They dance, not slowly but with violent lurches and spins as though reeling from coiled springs wound to the limit. The procession of toylife rushes at Debonair, teeth gnashing, ready to bite. Those with hands clasp the strangest of weapons – toenail scissors, broken electricals with buzzing exposed wires… Cyrus convulses. The golden locks tear from his scalp as he writhes. Debbie crawls towards him, raises her arms up to grab at his feet – all too late. The dolls attack Debonair from all directions and even as Cyrus’s body slumps to the ground beside her – so close, so close – he can see them feeding already. He loses consciousness as tiny fingers dip into the pouring lacerations in his skull.
Dusk falls and the Mill Bar has closed for the week, sending workers away until the Monday shift. Charlie guzzles the last of his personal supply and remarks on the state of the lawn as he pulls into the Cleavage driveway. Two trestle tables have fallen over in the wind; the old curtains his wife has used to cover them are strewn on the grass. Has she sold everything? Reluctantly impressed, Charlie starts to wonder what treat Debonair will be buying him with the proceeds. His pleasure is short-lived; he can clearly see light glaring into the garage as its door slowly peels backward. She’s left the inner-door wide open – how many times has he told her? Trust her to ruin everything. He storms into the house, his hand already raised for the slap.
She’s up in the attic; he can hear her dragging stuff about.
“Get your sorry ass down here and tell me what the hell’s going on.” Patience isn’t one of Charlie’s few virtues; when his wife fails to respond he bounds up the stairs two at a time.
“Debonaire! Dammit woman, you answer me when I’m talkin’ at ya.”
The thud from above is enough to stop Charlie in his tracks for all of a second. He rushes the remaining stairs toward the first floor landing and is up on the top level in moments. The step-ladder is still hanging from the loft. Charlie squeezes his bulk onto it and climbs, frowning at the whispering noises that twitter in the space beyond the hatch. If she’s stolen his radio she’s gonna pay. He hammers on the solid construction – a fine piece of work – and twists the key that his wife has left in the lock.
“I’m comin’ in Debonair. You’d better be…”
Charlie’s words are ripped from his mouth, along with the end of his tongue. Shrill laughter pierces his eardrum as the knife glints – it is snatched away by unseen hands and his mouth fills with hot blood. Choking, he spits on the floor. The flow won’t stop. He reaches for the light-pull but even as he tugs it stinging arrows fly at him from the corner of the room. Squinting with pain he spies the bow from his son’s old archery set waving about, but not who is firing at him. His legs give way and he has no time to feel shame. He lands hard on his butt, his fat cheeks crashing into a pile-up of metal automobiles – Cyrus’s collection of all things with wheels. Charlie had taken them from the boy the day he went missing, angry with the lad for answering him back. Now they are crushed. Grief hits Charlie unexpectedly; his son would never be able to play with them again. Even if he were still alive, the vehicles were probably broken beyond repair, all because of me. Charlie slams a fist into the hardwood floor. The shock resonates through his core, sparking his senses back to life.
“Who’th here?” he lisps, splattering rusted spittle down his plaid shirt. The only sound is his heart drumming in his ears. Outside the wind is rising; it howls though the rafters. The sky blackens with purple storm clouds that rage black against the dormer window. Charlie doesn’t see them because of the two life-size puppets that drop from the beam to obscure his view and stop his breath. They dance. Strings rise and fall to move the limbs, they flip and flap in broken symmetry. The bile in Charlie’s gut surges upward to burn his throat as he recognises the outlines of his wife and son. Behind him, a dull click as the string-pull is grabbed and the bodies are flooded with light.
“Jesus fuckin’ hell.”
Charlie pisses his pants at the scene before his eyes. The corpses of the only family he has left in the world are bloated and pulsing, the skin rippling. How can Cyrus be here? How long has he been here? The realisation that his son must have been alive all this time and living in the goddamn house – the god-damned house – hits Charlie with such force the angry, violent heart that’s been swelling and beating at an impossible rate finally breaks. He roars in agony, clutching at his left-arm – its flesh already torn from the arrow attack – and collapses. As Charlie Cleavage’s chest spasms the last sound he hears is that of bells; his last vision is his wife and son’s mouths dropping open and dolls and toys of all makes and sizes crawling out to drop to the ground. The man that didn’t kill his son but beat his wife dies at their feet as they empty out before him.
They have done with this family, these creatures made by human hands. They have fed – gorged themselves on Cleavage blood until the hosts became their playthings. They leave the crusts behind – paper-thin of skin and void of organs – and beat a strange retreat into the woods behind the house.
Tooth Fairy has collected her dues. She drags molars and incisors in a brown leather bag; they clink against each other, jingling in discord. As she closes the Cleavage back door she coughs a spark into the kitchen. It catches Debonair’s red and white chequered table-cloth, the cotton flares, flames rising to lick at papers and cardboard boxes. They burn fast. With no-one to dampen the fire’s enthusiasm it pulls the rafters into its maw.
No-one will care. The boy – long-gone – has already been grieved for. Not a single person will shed a tear for Charlie Cleavage. And Debonair – Debonair was already a shell – she left years ago.
If you go down to the woods today… beware the tiny bells. Sometimes they chime. And sometimes they bite.
Bio: Lily Childs… writes dark fiction, horror and chilling mysteries. She is currently completing her first novel, a supernatural asylum thriller set in the south of England. Her twisted fairytale, In Search of Silver Boughs will be published by KnightWatch Press in their subscriber chapbook series in 2016.
Lily’s work has appeared in many anthologies and collections; she has also published stand-alone short stories such as the recent Within Wet Walls and The House of Three (Ganglion Press). In 2015, Lily’s B-Movie tale Bite of the Horrorcane burst forth from KnightWatch Press’s Killer Bees from Outer Space and Jimson Jane seethed its way into The Grimorium Verum from Western Legends Publishing. She has also been published by James Ward Kirk Fiction and Soul Bay Press.
Cabaret of Dread: a Horror Compendium (2012) is a gathering of Lily’s terrifying tales. It includes her psychological crime thriller Carpaccio, nominated for a Spinetingler Award in 2011 and Smiling Cyrus, which is re-published here on TK’n’C. She is a member of The British Fantasy Society, former Horror Editor at Thrillers Killers ‘n’ Chillers e-zine and owner/editor/publisher of Ganglion Press.
Lily’s books on Amazon
Blog: The Feardom
Twitter @LilyChilds and Facebook.com/LilyChildsFeardom