TO FLEE THE CITY OF SHADOWS
There’s a small farmhouse, and the first room you enter is a parlor. Picture it in your mind. It’s late afternoon, almost dusk, so shadows are thickening. From nearby comes the soft sound of movement. Everything in the room is old-fashioned, from the framed black-and-white photos on the walls to the round wall clock. A large TV is pushed against one wall with two chairs in front of it. One is a lounger; the other is a skinny wood rocking chair. A narrow closet door is underneath a staircase. Next to the closet is this heavy wooden roll-top desk, and on the other side of it is a short hall leading to the kitchen. Two windows, separated by the front door, look out on the front yard.
* * *
Ian Tremblin paused a moment, and said, “I know I’m being overly descriptive, but it’s important that you have a good idea of what it looks like.”
“Go on,” Demarius said.
* * *
The front door flies open, bangs against the wall, and nearly swings closed. A little girl runs in wearing grubby bib overalls; her tangled blond hair is pulled into pigtails. Breathing hard, she stops to look at the wall clock, then runs to the door and opens it all the way. She hurries to the closet door and twists a lock above the knob, then goes and pulls the chair from the desk, crawls in the chair well, and hides by pulling in the chair.
The clock ticks off a few minutes, and there’s a thump followed by a brushing sound. The knob on the closet door rattles, twists, and the door opens. A person emerges. A skinny man in his fifties staggers into the parlor. His neck twists so that his left ear nearly rests on his shoulder. His right arm is drawn up so that his hand dangles under his chin. His left arm swings loosely. He barely lifts his right foot to step, then drags his left behind him. He wears dirty brown slacks, and his T-shirt is stained a crusty brown and rust red. His blank eyes are sickly yellow, and his flesh is the color of ash. He stumbles across the parlor floor and out the open front door, dragging his left foot up and over the sill.
The girl pushes the chair from the desk, crawls out, and runs to the door, shutting it and twisting the deadbolt lock.
“Bye-bye,” she says in a sweet little girl voice.
* * *
There weren’t supposed to be any this far from the city, but we’d spotted four.
“I say we let them catch up, then crack open their heads.” Carlos swung a two-by-four.
“No, no, no.” Ramsey shook his head. “There’s more around, I can feel it.”
“Ram’s right,” I said. “It’s night, and we need a safe place.”
“Who asked you, loser?” Carlos sneered. He was a big kid with intense blue eyes. He didn’t have a drop of Latin blood, but his mom had been a Carlos Santana fan, and that’s how he got his name. He was the typical neighborhood bully. Being smaller, I spent my life either avoiding him or getting beat up. It was the same for most of the neighborhood kids, except for Ramsey, a chubby black guy and Carlos’s only friend. When it became too dangerous to stay in the city, I left with them.
My old friends might not think much of me running off with Carlos and Ram. They might think of me as a collaborator, something we’d been studying before the breakout. In times of war there are always collaborators, our history teacher had told us. They were traitors who, generally out of fear, worked for the other side. Collaborators in Iraq helped U.S. forces, then passed information to the insurgents. During World War II, collaborators turned in their Jewish friends and neighbors because they were afraid of the Gestapo. Centuries ago, Roman collaborators identified Christians, who were fed to lions in arenas as a form of entertainment. Would traveling with Carlos make me a collaborator?
I’m not sure why they let me go with them. To Carlos I was a weakling, a punching bag that breathed. Maybe on an instinctive level they knew the same thing I did: There’s safety in numbers.
“Hey, look at the top of that hill.” Ramsey pointed out a small farmhouse illuminated by the moon.
“I don’t know if that would be secure,” I said.
“Who cares what you think,” Carlos growled, and threw the two-by-four behind us. “Maybe they have food.” And he started toward the house, Ramsey in tow.
I sighed and followed.
“Hey, it’s in pretty good shape,” Ram said as we got close.
Shadow Eaters were slow and stupid, but once they got a whiff of fresh meat they were relentless and would shatter windows and break down doors to get people. This place, however, still had windows and a door securely in place.
“A good spot to hunker down,” Carlos said.
“If they’ll let us,” I said.
“Oh, they’ll let us,” Carlos said, and lifted his shirt for the umpteenth time to display the pistol tucked in his waistband. He’d found it in the apartment of a neighbor who’d been killed when the Shadow Eaters came for dinner. Normally I’d stay away from an armed Carlos, but the way things were then, I liked the idea of a gun in our group. Carlos dropped the shirt and banged on the door. “Hey! Open up! We’re living!”
After a few moments, Ramsey tried the knob, but it was locked.
“Get back,” Carlos growled, and pulled his pistol.
I guess he was going to shoot the lock, like in the movies. Before he had a chance, there was a soft click and the door opened. It was dark inside, but we saw somebody stepping toward us. Carlos pointed his gun, the barrel shaking, at the figure.
“Are you going to shoot me?” It was a little girl’s voice.
Another step forward and we saw a kid in pigtails, wearing OshKosh overalls. Carlos laughed nervously and shoved past her. I followed Ram inside and shut the door. There was no light, and I pulled off my backpack and fumbled for my flashlight. The beam was weak, but it provided something to see by. I pointed it at Carlos, who grinned, knowing my fear of darkness. A match flared and the little girl lit a kerosene lantern that sat on an open roll-top desk. She crossed the room and lit a candle on an old dinosaur of a television, then another on a small table between two chairs.
“Welcome to my uncle’s home.” There was a trace of a lisp in her small voice. “I’m Melody.”
I knelt in front of her. “Hi, Melody.” I’d always had a soft spot for little kids. I pointed at my companions. “That’s Carlos, and he’s Ramsey. My name is—”
“Loser,” Carlos said, laughing. “That’s his name.”
She looked at him and said, “You’re mean.”
Carlos chuckled. “So you better be nice to me, huh? Where’s your uncle?”
“He’s out getting food.”
“If he’s out there,” Ram said, “he’ll be food. We saw numb-munchers.”
“He’ll be all right. He always is.”
Carlos fell into the big stuffed chair. “Hey, loser, your flashlight is dead.”
I groaned, not having any more batteries. Since the outbreak in the city, flashlights have become very important. Shadow Eaters can’t stand bright lights. In their transition from human to zombie, something happens and they become supersensitive to concentrated light. If the Shadow Eaters forced their way in, I would be without a valuable defense. The lantern and candles wouldn’t help; the light they produce is too diffuse.
Someone tugged the flashlight from my hand—the little girl. “We have batteries. I’ll put some in for you.” She started for the kitchen.
“Hey, brat! Put new ones in mine, too,” Carlos ordered.
She got his, then Ram’s, and took all three into the kitchen.
Ramsey sat in the rocking chair next to Carlos. “What’s the plan, Big C?”
“We’ll wait for the uncle to get back with food. If he gives us a hard time, I’ll teach him who’s boss,” he said, patting the gun under his shirt.
“Come on, Carlos,” I said. Now that he had a gun, Carlos acted like a gangster.
“Maybe I’ll shoot him in the kneecap and throw him out for the numb-munchers.”
Ram laughed nervously.
“Don’t be a jerk,” I said.
I knew I’d said the wrong thing the moment the words came out.
Carlos stood and aimed the gun at me. “You give me any more grief, loser boy, and I’ll bust a cap in your leg and throw you out there. Get this through your head: I can do what I want. Who’s to stop me?”
I didn’t reply, and he pushed the gun into his pants. Slowly, with my back to the wall, I slid to the floor. Carlos, I realized, wasn’t faring too well mentally. Was it the stress of the outbreak, or had he been like that all along? Whichever, I needed to get away before he killed someone, and I’d take the girl.
“Here you go,” she called sweetly as she stepped from the kitchen and placed our flashlights on the desk.
“Everyone sit down and wait for her uncle to get back,” Carlos ordered, falling back into the stuffed chair.
I stayed on the floor, and the little girl pulled out the desk chair and sat.
Time passed. Carlos and Ram whispered. I slipped in and out of a light sleep. The girl sat quietly, her short legs swinging back and forth.
Carlos kept glancing at the wall clock, and finally stood, moving to the girl. “When is your uncle getting back with the food?”
She giggled. “He went to get food. I didn’t say he’d bring any back, silly.”
“What?” Carlos’s face reddened. “What’re we supposed to eat?”
“If you’re hungry, there’s food in the kitchen. I can fix—”
Carlos grabbed the girl by her bib straps. “You little twerp! I’m starving and you’ve had food all this time?”
She looked at him, and though tears started to flow, her words were calm and precise. “You’re a mean man.”
Carlos’s face turned red, and he lifted her from the chair. I quickly got up and pulled her from his grasp. Setting her on her feet, I pointed to the kitchen. “You better get Carlos something to eat.”
She looked at me gratefully, then turned her attention to Carlos and narrowed her eyes. “Food!” she spat, and marched into the kitchen.
I turned to Carlos and my jaw exploded in pain. I hit the floor, seeing double. When my vision cleared, Carlos stood over me, gun in hand. Had he shot me? I nearly fainted in agony when I touched my jaw. No, he hadn’t shot me—he’d hit me with the gun!
Smiling, Carlos turned his gaze to the gun. He had enjoyed that act of violence. Would he like it more if it escalated? He stared at me with glassy eyes, bringing up the gun. There was a flash of light, and I accepted death. Except I wasn’t dead.
“What the—” Carlos mumbled.
“Oh, man,” Ram said shakily.
Light came through the windows. Not much, just enough so the front of the house was dimly lit. A low-wattage bulb, I guessed. That could be bad, enough light to let the Shadow Eaters know someone is here, but not strong enough to scare them off.
“Who turned that on?” Ram’s voice was nearly a squeal.
Carlos ran across the room and pulled down a shade on one of the windows. “Close that one,” he ordered Ram.
The little girl appeared in the kitchen hallway, a smile on her lips. This was my chance to get her out. I pushed up on unsteady legs and crossed the room. My jaw still hurt from the pistol whipping, and I was hit with a moment of dizziness. I stumbled against the rocker, which got Carlos’s attention. He came at me, then saw the girl standing there.
“Why the hell did you turn on the porch light?”
“Time to eat,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Carlos,” Ram said in a forced whisper, “this ain’t good.”
Shadows were cast against the window blinds. Silhouettes of jerky, shuffling dead. They collected at the windows, first one, then another, then more. I thought they’d force their way in. But no, they simply gathered outside.
Ram hid next to one window, his back flat against the wall. “What do we do?”
Carlos pulled me close and said, “Go get the flashlights.”
He shoved me toward the desk and, still light-headed, I nearly fell. I picked up Ram’s flashlight, and right away I could tell the weight was wrong. Before I could check it out, Carlos yelled for me to toss it to Ram, which I did. Then I threw Carlos his. I didn’t even bother to pick up my flashlight. I knew that it, like theirs, would not be heavy enough.
Carlos moved to the TV set and said, “Okay, here’s what—oh, crap, Ram! The girl!”
She stood at the front door twisting the deadbolt. Ram rushed at her as she opened the door. A hand pushed in and grasped his throat. Ram tried to pull away, tugging at the wrist with one hand, banging it with the flashlight in his other. Two more hands reached in; on one of them two of the fingers were just stumps. The stumped hand grabbed his hair; the other tugged at his arm.
“Ram! You idiot! Use the flashlight!” Carlos yelled.
Ram aimed the flashlight through the open door and pushed the button. Nothing happened. I knew why. The girl had taken the batteries out, making them useless. The door banged wide and Ram was pulled into a mass of grasping hands and ripping teeth.
Even before Ram’s screams died, the little girl took my hand and led me to the desk. She pulled out the chair and pointed into the chair well, saying, “Get in there.”
I got on all fours, crawled in, and sat. As if it wasn’t cramped enough, she crawled in, then pulled the chair in as far as she could manage. I sat hunched, head twisted at a painful angle, knees by my ears, and the little girl huddled between my legs.
“We’ll be safe now,” she said.
The Shadow Eaters hobbled inside. I could only see what was going on below knee level, which, from my view, showed dirty pants, flayed flesh, and open wounds. Carlos was almost comical, running around like a Chihuahua trapped in a pen with pit bulls.
“My uncle is dead, but he still looks out for me.” She spoke calmly. “He came after me a couple of times, but always stopped himself and went outside to hunt instead. I think it’s ’cause he loved me lots. Even though he’s one of them, some love stayed in him.”
I shook my head. I’d never heard of a Shadow Eater passing up food. There were gunshots, and a couple of the numb-munchers stumbled back, then started for Carlos again. The shooting stopped, followed by a couple of clicks, and the gun fell at his feet.
“People leaving the city see our house and how good it looks and come wanting a safe place to stay.” The little girl sighed heavily and pointed to the Shadow Eaters’ legs. “They leave me alone if I let them in to eat the travelers.”
They closed in on Carlos. His flashlight dropped next to his gun. Bait, I thought. They let her live and use her as bait.
“You didn’t have any food or supplies, but most people do—more than enough for me.”
She lived off what people left there.
Carlos fell to the floor, his head toward our little hidey-hole. The Shadow Eaters dropped to each side of him like he was a buffet table. He struggled, then lifted his head and saw me crouched under the desk. He didn’t plead for help or say anything. Instead, our eyes locked as they began to feed. When one of them, a woman with a badly burned face, bit into his cheek, I closed my eyes and hummed loudly to block the wet sounds.
I don’t know if it was shock, the blow to the jaw, or the days and nights of running, but I slipped into unconsciousness. I woke in agony, my jaw swollen and a stabbing pain in my neck from being twisted in that chair well all night. I crawled out and muttered a good morning to the little girl, who was scrubbing the spot where Carlos had been eaten. There really wasn’t much of a mess: What they didn’t eat they took with them, and they’d licked most of the blood from the floor. I grabbed a rag and helped her.
Afterward, she led me to the kitchen table and fed me cornflakes and canned milk.
“I’ll be leaving soon,” I said. “You can come with me.”
“No thank you,” she answered. “This is my home.”
I didn’t try to change her mind. Even though she had saved my life, I was glad she turned me down. I recognized her for what she was. Sure, I’d collaborated with Carlos and Ram, teaming up with them to escape the city. But there, sitting innocently on the other side of the table, was history’s first collaborator with the walking dead.
“Twisted!” Demarius announced with a smile.
Mrs. Amalfi came in balancing numerous plates on her hands and up her arms. As she placed them on the table, everyone congratulated Ian Tremblin on a well-told story, and he grinned like a kid awarded a gold star.
“My mom would point out it wasn’t a proper dinnertime story,” Lucinda said, “which means I totally liked it.” She took a bite of food, and her face melted into a smile.
I tasted my seafood fra diavolo, and it was so good I closed my eyes to savor the flavor. Perspiration beaded on my forehead—oh, yeah, spicy hot! We ate and shared our food. Everything was great, even Scungilli’s scungilli. When we started to get full, the conversation turned to the truth, or lack thereof, of what happened in Daemon Hall.
“All I’m saying is I got your book out of the teen fiction section,” Lucinda said with a squinted eye.
Demarius, exasperated, sat at the edge of his seat. “It really happened.”
Matt shook his head. “Give it a rest, would you? Like Lucinda said, it’s fiction.”
Demarius started to argue, but Ian Tremblin held up a hand. “How about you, Millie, do you believe?”
She pondered the question. “Well, someone did die. You were in a mental institution.” She looked at me with sympathy. “And Mr. Tremblin had legal troubles.”
“I know that stuff was real,” Lucinda said, waving her fork. “But I don’t believe in the ghosts grabbing contestants, Mr. Tremblin trapped in mirror-land, oh, and my favorite: the football player sucked down a sink. I mean, come on.”
It did sound stupid when put into words; however, Demarius kept arguing. “We were there. We saw. We—we—Mr. Tremblin?”
The writer shrugged.
Millie took a sip of water. “There are strange things out there. But to be honest, it’s easier to believe that you suffered some kind of mass hallucination, or you’re lying.”
“You get more publicity if people think it really happened.”
Demarius, in frustration, flung himself back in his chair.
“There’s no argument that will change a made-up mind, Demarius,” Ian Tremblin said. “It would be a different matter if we could take them to Daemon Hall.”
“But you can’t, since it burned down,” Matt countered, and then his eyes lit up. “Hey, if you guys set the fire, like in your book, you’d be in major trouble.”
Arson is a serious crime and certainly not something that I should casually confess. I looked to Demarius, but he kept his head down, focusing on the table. Mr. Tremblin, however, gazed at me and gave his head a little shake.
“Well, what about that?” Lucinda asked. “Why weren’t you guys arrested?”
Good question, why didn’t they lock us up? The answer is simple: because we lied. Before we set the fire, everyone who took part—Demarius, Chris, Kara, and I—agreed that we would keep our involvement secret at all costs. Ian Tremblin was the only one who knew our plans. When the time came, we set up alibis and committed the crime. Mr. Tremblin said that it’s sometimes best to hide in plain sight and insisted that I use what happened as a way to end the book.
Of course I can’t tell Millie, Lucinda, and Matt all that; instead, I repeated the lie we told the police, the falsehood that kept us from facing arson charges. “When Daemon Hall caught on fire, Mr. Tremblin thought the idea of us setting it would make the perfect epilogue. I spoke with the police and told them I was using a fictionalized account of the fire in my book. They couldn’t have cared less. I don’t think anyone minded that the place burned down.”
Lucinda held up her glass and glared at me over the rim. “Hmm, you say the book is true, but now you admit a big part of it is bogus.”
Demarius looked miserable. I could tell he wanted to tell them the truth, that we were the ones who set the fire. He looked at me and I shook my head. Demarius sighed. “Yeah, well, the rest of the book is true.”
Ian Tremblin said, “Anyhow, I liked the epilogue and insisted the publisher add it just before the publication deadline.”
“So, the infamous Daemon Hall is ashes now?” Millie asked.
“Naw,” Demarius said. “It’s a shell of a house. Those stone walls stayed up, but just about everything inside was gutted.”
Mrs. Amalfi swept in bearing a tray of something that looked wonderfully sweet.
“Ah, let’s continue this later,” Ian Tremblin said. “Antonia has brought her marvelous tiramisu! After which we’ll return to my house and freshen up. At eleven we’ll meet in my favorite room at Tremblin’s Lair: the library.”
We arrived at the library. Demarius, Millie, Lucinda, and Matt carried their stories in black notebooks that Ian Tremblin had provided. No one seemed to notice that I didn’t have one. Ian Tremblin was in his smoking jacket, and the rest of us had changed into lounging clothes.
The library was located in the back of the house and was hexagonally shaped with a high ceiling. Six freestanding bookcases towered over us and radiated from the middle of the room. From above they would resemble spokes in a wheel. They held thousands of books—tens of thousands. The reading area was in the hub and included several plush chairs. A brass plaque was affixed to the end of one of the bookcases. I read it aloud.
BOOKS TO THE CEILING,
BOOKS TO THE SKY,
MY PILE OF BOOKS IS A MILE HIGH.
HOW I LOVE THEM! HOW I NEED THEM!
I’LL HAVE A LONG BEARD BY THE TIME I READ THEM.
Demarius laughed. “You already have the beard, Mr. Tremblin.”
“Didn’t Arnold Lobel write the Frog and Toad books?” Millie asked.
“I loved those when I was a kid.”
Smiling, Ian Tremblin said, “I still do. In fact, I’d love to have that poem on the home page of my Web site. We’ll need permission and to attribute it to Lobel, of course.”
“I’ll take care of it when we’re done,” Matt said. “What’s the password to get into your Web site utilities?”
Tremblin looked at everybody. “I’m sure I can trust all of you. It’s Afghanistan banana stand.”
Matt snickered. “Not likely to forget that.”
Millie grinned. “Afghanistan banana stand—rolls right off the tongue.”
Demarius laughed, then his smile faded when he looked to the center of the room where a pedestal stood. Next to it was something both familiar and unsettling: the candelabrum Mr. Tremblin had brought to Daemon Hall for the first contest.
Demarius eyed it warily. “I can’t believe you went back for that.”
“Not until it was morning. I was helping the police search for Wade, and after we checked the study, I went ahead and took it with me. There’s a sentimental attachment.”
He turned and held out his hand, indicating the hundreds of volumes on one of the bookcases. “These are collectibles: first editions, antiques, rarities, that kind of thing.” Some were bound in cloth, others in leather. Some titles were written by hand and some used gold leaf. There were those that looked ancient and ready to fall to pieces, and others, while obviously old, were in excellent shape. “Please don’t touch these, they’re easily damaged. This room is climate-controlled for their preservation.”
“Here’s the good stuff.” Demarius stood before another bookcase. “Neil Gaiman! Here’s Stephenie Meyer and Garth Nix. Scott Westerfeld anyone?”
“Perhaps later, Demarius. Now is the time to show all of you what will be the most important book during our contest.” Ian Tremblin led us to the pedestal in the middle of the library. “Wade, examine this, please.”
The volume on the pedestal was the size of an unabridged dictionary and covered in cracked brown leather. At first I thought it was without a title, but I looked closer and saw faint brown smudges that were nearly invisible letters.
“Try this.” Mr. Tremblin handed me a large magnifying glass.
I bent over the book deciphering the title letter by letter. I felt a cold jolt and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I lifted my gaze to the others.
“What is it?” Millie asked.
Smiling, Ian Tremblin said, “I’ve always believed that a good book transfers the reader to another place and time. I think Wade is experiencing a similar sensation.”
“What’s the title?” Demarius asked.
I took a deep breath and told them, “Book of Daemon Hall.”
Demarius groaned. “Aww, I thought we were done with that place.”
“No worries, Demarius, we won’t leave Pennbrook.” Ian Tremblin turned to me. “Yours is not the first book on Daemon Hall, Wade. See for yourself.”
I touched the book. Though it sat in a cool, climate-controlled room, the cover felt warm, like flesh.
“Open it,” Millie said impatiently.
I cautiously turned to the first page. At the top was an illustration of a skull. Two crossed pens were drawn underneath, the kind you have to dip into an inkwell. Below those were handwritten words, one over the other.
“Titles?” Lucinda asked.
“Looks like it.” I read them aloud. “‘The Entering,’ ‘A Promise for Bones—’”
Matt interrupted, “That’s the title you gave me, Mr. Tremblin.”
“‘The Go-To Guy,’ ‘A Patchwork Quilt,’ and ‘The Leaving.’”
Demarius looked from the page to Ian Tremblin. “A table of contents?”
He nodded. “I gave each of you, judges included, a title to use in developing a short story. They were taken from this book.”
Matt picked at his face. “Why write stories for titles that already have stories?”
I turned to where the first story should start, but other than the title, the page was blank. I flipped through until I got to another title, but still no story.
“Have a seat for a history lesson on the Book of Daemon Hall.”
We got settled, everybody else putting their notebooks by their chairs.
“After the publicity of our contest last year, I was contacted by a book dealer who claimed to possess a volume entitled Book of Daemon Hall. This was over eight months ago. Since then I’ve learned little.”
“I’m surprised you could find anything about an old book like that,” Millie said.
“Via the internet, I discovered that the Daemon family historical papers are archived at the University of Chicago; the school was founded by John D. Rockefeller, who partnered with Rudolph Daemon’s father on various business ventures. The Daemons made substantial donations to the school, which is why their family papers are kept there. At the university I learned the history of the home’s construction. Millie, as a Nanticoke, you’re aware of the legend of Oaskagu, the black land upon which Daemon Hall was built.”
“Anyone who read Wade’s book knows about that,” Lucinda said.
Millie nodded. “It’s Nanticoke lore. In fact, Oaskagu is the setting for my story.”
Ian Tremblin widened his eyes. “Really?”
“When I sat down to write, it seemed the only possible locale. What I know about Oaskagu comes from my grandfather.”
“A historian of your people?”
“My great-great-grandmother was the last person who could fluently speak the Nanticoke tongue. His interest started with her, and he kept gathering knowledge until he knew more about Nanticoke history than just about anyone.”
“Let’s see what he taught you.” Ian Tremblin focused on Millie and spoke slowly. “There was a tree where Rudolph Daemon located his home. This tree, on the dark lands, was described as towering, black, and—unique.”
Millie leaned forward in her chair. “That’s funny.”
“Funny strange or funny ha-ha?” Demarius asked.
“Funny interesting. Oaskagu’s evil supposedly came from a spirit that either lived in or took the shape of a giant tree, what they called Oaskaguakw, or dark tree. I’m wondering—could those two trees, Daemon’s and the Nanticokes’, be the same?”
Lucinda rolled her eyes. “You talk like all this is real.”
“This is history, Lucinda. It plays into the Daemon Hall estate, a place some of us have experienced.” Ian Tremblin spoke forcefully. “You don’t believe, fine, but you can’t deny history. Rudolph Daemon had the tree cut down and pulped some of it. It was turned into paper, from which he had that made.” He pointed at the Book of Daemon Hall.
“No offense,” Matt said, “but what’s the big deal about a blank book?”
“We all know the fate Rudolph Daemon suffered, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Demarius said. “He went nuts and killed his family.”
“His madness started about the time he had the book made to chronicle the history of Daemon Hall. Yet he claims never to have written in it. The book, according to him, filled itself with insane histories of the surrounding land.” Seeing our puzzled expressions, he spelled it out for us. “Rudolph Daemon claimed that the book wrote itself.”
“Ha! Give me a break,” Lucinda exclaimed.
“I’m just telling you what Rudolph Daemon thought.” The writer shrugged.
We were quiet until Demarius said, “I’m confused. Nothing’s in the book except for the titles. If it wrote itself, where are those stories?”
“Obviously there were no stories. The pages are and have always been blank, but to Daemon, a man in the throes of madness, it appeared to be filled with historical accounts of unimaginable horrors. I believe, in his mental state, Rudolph put those titles in and imagined anything else he saw written there.”
“So, besides a contest, you’ll put our stories in the book?” I asked.
“Yes, which will keep the unsettling spirit of Daemon Hall in our competition without our actually having to go there. I had you write stories based on the titles in the book. Millie, Lucinda, and Matt will be judged on those entries. The winner, like Wade in my last contest, will have a book published in my Macabre Master series. And though Wade and Demarius are judges, they will tell stories based on the other two titles.”
I squirmed in my seat. The pressure from not writing a story was turning out to be about a hundred times worse than any homework I’d ever neglected.
“After the contest everyone’s story will be handwritten into the book. Why? you may ask. Because there’s nothing more pathetic than an unfinished book, especially one with the frightening potential of this one. Millie, you were assigned the first title, ‘The Entering.’ Please do us the honors.”
Millie picked up her notebook from the floor and carried it to the pedestal, where she placed it on the open pages of the Book of Daemon Hall.
“Hold on.” I went over to the Día de los Muertos candelabrum, what had been our sole source of light during that night in Daemon Hall. It was made of black metal with candles mounted at the top on a slanted S shape held up by interwoven bars. El Día de los Muertos means “the Day of the Dead.” It’s a Mexican holiday, in honor of which several pottery objects had been imbedded in the framework: skulls, skeletons, and coffins. Two matchbooks sat on a lantern at the base of the candelabrum.
“Turn out the lights,” I said to Demarius.
“Excellent idea, Wade,” Ian Tremblin noted.
I waited for full darkness, then struck a match and lit the candles. Shadows flickered over our faces. We could just make out the freestanding bookcases and nearby chairs, but the rest of the library had been swallowed in gloom.
I glanced from Lucinda to Matt to Millie. “In Daemon Hall we learned that some things are best read by candlelight.”
Text copyright © 2011 by Andrew Nance
Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Coleman Polhemus