This week, instead of my usual flash fiction and microfiction, I’m posting a full-length short story. It stars a pair of young friends who bravely journey through a mysterious, magical night to heal old wounds and lay the past to rest.
I’ll be posting Part 2 on Thursday, and Part 3 on Saturday. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
Ben lay awake until the Glancing Hour, when time slowed and starlight fell in silver droplets against his bedroom window. Then, he made his escape. He knew every creaky floorboard in the old cottage by heart, navigated by maps of wood grain beneath his stockinged feet. Tied together by their laces, his boots made for a heavy necklace.
The door’s hinges were greased with stolen chicken fat, and it opened silently. From the far end of the dark hallway came muffled snores: his mother and the man who lived here now.
Two weeks ago, Ben’s previous escape attempt had ended quickly and ingloriously, with a slip from his bedroom’s window ledge. He’d landed in a rosebush with a crash that must have woken half the village. Thorns he’d received as souvenirs still worked their way out of his skin on a weekly basis. Come next spring, his shaggy black hair might shed flower petals if he kept it watered.
They’d never asked him where he was going, or why, though he’d overheard them talking. Apparently, he just wanted attention.
But not right now.
Blindly, he tiptoed closer to discovery, hoping the cottage wouldn’t betray him. His hands felt along peeling wallpaper until they found the staircase. Its steps would crack like gunshots at the lightest touch. So instead, he eased himself belly down onto the bannister. Slowly, he descended, careful not to let his dangling boots.
By the time he landed softly near the front door, he was nearly out of breath. He’d expected to get caught. When his mother and the man yelled at him, he’d defiantly announce his intentions. Then, they’d understand and feel ashamed.
He looked back up the stairs, almost hoping they’d appear. But he’d made a clean escape. Well, good. That’s what he wanted.
Ben worked the front door’s rusted bolt loose and stepped into the wild night. Cool air glowed blue and silver around him while the Glancing Hour was still young. Drops of ethereal starlight splashed off his outstretched arms.
Tall grass grew around the cottage, overdue for an appointment with the scythe. The chicken coop, which he distinctly recalled painting red, had taken on a ghastly purple radiance and stretched to a sinister height, like some miniature haunted castle. He’d heard plenty of condescending warnings about the Hour playing tricks on the eyes, so it didn’t surprise him. However, when he noticed the chickens themselves, Ben almost turned around and went back to bed.
The chickens flew effortless circles above the cottage in perfect formation. Neck craned to watch, Ben tried to simultaneously pull his boots on and wound up falling in the grass.
“Get down here!” he hissed.
The plumpest hen swooped down to greet him, her wings blurring the air like a hummingbird’s. She clucked quizzically.
Ben wasn’t prepared for a proper conversation. He scratched his head. “Well, Clarissa, I guess it’s okay if you fly around. So long as you don’t run off.”
She clucked again in admonishment.
“I’m a person, I can run off if I want.” He finally got his boots tied and bounced back to his feet. “Let’s call it even.”
The hen bobbed her head and soared back into the sky.
He hopped over the yard’s wire fence and briskly walked away, deciding never to tell anyone about that little conversation. He set off upon a dirt path into the surrounding forest, headed for distant, flickering torchlight. The path sloped gently downward, encouraging him forward, even as brambles clawed at his shirt and giant roots snared his boots. They seemed almost alive, determined to stop him. But he didn’t hesitate until reaching the outskirts of town, and peering from behind a dense wall of shrubbery.
The mountain village, which visitors dubbed “sleepy,” was not living up to its reputation. Furtive shadows moved between the rustic houses on main street. There was a commotion of some sort near the old mill.
And much nearer to where Ben hid, Owen, the lamplighter, stared uncertainly at his handiwork. Enormous flames escaped the confines of the lamp’s glass box and swayed in the breeze, threatening to ignite nearby rooftops.
Mr. Lakes had come to offer his assistance by yelling at Owen and waving his hands around dramatically. The laconic lamplighter shrugged and chewed his gum. He mimicked the plaintiff’s hand movements for a moment, and the flames died down, but they sprang back to life the instant he stopped.
Owen shrugged again. “You expect me to stand here waggling my arms all night?”
Twigs snapped as someone came stomping toward Ben. An oddly shaped silhouette appeared against the slow drip of silver from the leaves above. The lamplight flared again and revealed a boy sporting a crown of twisted roots that fell over his ears, and a robe so big that its sleeves dragged through the dirt. He bore a wooden staff topped with a spinning wheel, from which tiny animal figurines dangled.
Ben’s wheezed with laughter. “Curtis, what are you wearing?!”
The round-faced boy blinked slowly and spoke in a grave voice. “I found this stuff in my grandmother’s attic. It will protect us. The Glancing Hour is-”
“‘Not to be taken lightly,’ yeah, yeah. I’ve heard Mr. Bells say that a thousand times, too. If it was actually dangerous, don’t you think Owen’s the last person who would be out tonight? Besides, nobody uses those antiques anymore, they’re just silly superstitions. Monsters are no match for guns.”
Curtis delicately placed an identical, oversized crown on Ben’s head. “We don’t have guns.”
Ben resigned himself to his new, uncomfortable headwear, to avoid further argument. “Well, we’re not going to run into monsters anyway. Did you bring our supplies at least?”
A canvas bag was offered, and Ben rifled through its contents: two canteens, four strips of salted jerky, a tinderbox, and…
He held up a small orb that fit in his palm. “Curtis, what is this?”
“A crystal ball.”
“I can see that.”
“It’s so we can pray for help, if we lose our way.”
Ben sighed loudly. “I told you, we’re not going to get lost. We’ll be back before they even know we’re gone. Come on.”
He navigated east through the underbrush, with Curtis crashing along beside him, dragging half the sticks and leaves in the forest on the hem of his robe. It was a good thing most of the villagers were asleep. The dark, uneven terrain slowed their pace, but Ben didn’t want to risk the road until they were well out of sight.
Meanwhile, birds broke into song. At first, their chirps were repetitive and ordinary, except for the peculiar hour. Then a soulful melody emerged, and their notes sketched complex harmonies. Before long, they were belting out some forgotten hymn in full chorus.
It reassured Ben that the Glancing Hour was nothing to fear. The villagers just liked to gossip and exaggerate.
The boys left the music behind with the forest. A lone road wound through the countryside, and they paralleled its course while remaining hidden in the fields. The wheat on Mrs. Canter’s farm grew twisted and misshapen, bent toward a looming wicker statue of a giant squirrel. In its shadow, chittering gray rodents scampered between the stalks, uprooting weeds with their tiny paws and munching on grasshoppers.
The next field was overgrown with weeds that swayed over the boys’ heads. On a mossy swell in the distance, vines crawled over a derelict farmhouse. There wasn’t much food to go around these days. There weren’t as many mouths to feed either.
A swaying lantern appeared on the road ahead. The boys dove into the thickest growth for cover, panting from fright. As the lantern neared their hiding spot, its blinding radiance obscured the traveler who held it outstretched.
“Ben? Are you there?” It was his mother. He couldn’t understand how she’d found him, or why she was walking toward the village, instead of away from it. But clearly he was caught.
Ben opened his mouth to answer, only to have it clamped shut by a firm hand. Meeting his gaze, Curtis slowly shook his head.
“Come home this instant!” The traveler’s gruff voice now belonged to Curtis’ grandfather.
They held their breath as the lantern passed by. Its wielder never became visible, but heavy, lumbering footsteps accompanied it. The boys waited until the light had vanished over a hill before rising again. Their eyes met, glowing silver discs. Truthfully, Ben had always figured his friend’s wits were as slow as his manner of speaking. He felt a bit guilty now.
Curtis nodded in unspoken agreement, leaning heavily on his staff. “The Glancing Hour is-”
“Do you want to go back?”
Ben turned to the east, where starlight pelted the meadows in gleaming torrents. It was a long journey still, and they’d hardly left the village. Who knew what dangers awaited? “If we don’t bury them now, who will? When? We’ve waited long enough.” He hesitated. “Right?”
Curtis laid a hand on his shoulder and nodded gravely. They continued side by side into the frozen night. Long after an hour had passed on their journey, the Glancing Hour persisted.
Thanks for reading, and check back on Thursday for the next installment!