Artie eyed the shadows in the room as his mother tucked him into bed.
Claire noticed her son’s nervous glances. She caressed his face with a gentle hand. “I know this is hard, Artie. Once the insurance comes through I’ll buy you a whole new bedroom. Promise. Until then… you’re stuck with all this junk, I’m afraid.”
“It smells like old people in here,” said Artie.
Claire laughed. “Well, at least it’s not smoke. I don’t think I’m ever getting the stink out of my hair.”
Claire kissed her son on the forehead. She made for the door, almost tripping on a play mat as she looked around at the mismatched furniture.
“First thing to go is that wardrobe.” Claire nodded at the mahogany monstrosity hogging the far wall.
“It’s an armoire,” said Artie with a French lilt.
“Big word for a little man. Where’d you learn it?”
Claire smiled at her son’s aloofness, blew him a kiss, and softly closed the door.
Artie’s eyes immediately went to the timeworn steamer trunk in a corner. His breath grew ragged. He pulled the covers tight to his chin. And he waited.
A noise wrenched Artie from his sleep. The creak of rusted hinges.
He sat straight up, wiping crust from his eyes and trying to see in the pale half-light of the bedroom.
The steamer trunk was open.
For a moment there was nothing… then from inside the trunk small fingers curled over and gripped the edge.
A girl emerged, naked and gaunt. She shambled across the floor, watching Artie with her vacant eyes as she knelt before the play mat.
Another youth – a boy this time – climbed from the trunk to kneel beside the girl. Two others followed: a younger boy and girl. The four children formed a neat semicircle around the mat. They gazed at Artie.
“Come and play, boy,” said the older girl. “He needs you to finish the game.”
A hollow rasp hissed from the trunk, distant but undeniably fierce.
“Who is he?” asked Artie, a tremble in his voice.
“Our father,” said the older boy.
“Our mother,” said the older girl.
“He’s all that we need,” said the younger boy. “We were like you once. Frightened. Alone. He gave us a home.”
The younger girl held out her hand. “Finish the game, Artie,” she said in a delicate French accent. “Please? So we can go home.”
Artie steadied his breathing. He climbed out of bed and knelt on the opposite side of the mat from his visitors. They studied him with large, lifeless eyes.
Artie reached under the play mat and removed a red marker. He then flipped the mat over, revealing a pattern of intricate symbols scribbled on the underside.
“Say the words,” said the older boy.
“Draw the runes,” said the older girl.
“Finish the game,” said the four in unison.
Artie traced one of the symbols with the marker. Red ink smeared as his hand slid across the mat.
“Tasa…” He moved to the next symbol. “Roma…”
“Reme!” scolded the younger boy.
The trunk hissed again, louder and nearer this time.
Artie shook his head. “I can’t do this.” He felt a rumble in the pit of his stomach.
The younger girl spoke. “He knows your secret, Artie. You started the fire. He’s not mad. It was only natural to act out after your father left. He promises to always be there, Artie. He’ll never walk out on you. Ever.”
Artie choked on a sob.
The children smiled at him.
“Finish the game,” they said.
Claire woke with a start. She gasped at the shadow beside her bed before she recognised Artie’s silhouette.
“What’s wrong, baby?” she croaked.
Artie’s shape cocked its head. It extended a hand and caressed her face. Claire shivered at the touch.
The shape bent towards her.
Its breath reeked of smoke as it hissed in her ear.
“Can you keep a secret?”