By Ana Sharma
It was the eve of Christmas, and the clouds hung low, deep and dark, in the sky. The frost had found its way into the warmest and brightest of houses, clinging to the tree branches, verandas and doorways, like an impenetrable film of white. It was a time of hope, a time of longing, a time of loneliness. And yet, it seemed like the beginning of everything, in the strangest of ways…
River lay wide awake, his brown, unblinking eyes fixed upon the glow-in-the-dark stars which lay above his head, twinkling down at him. A flurry of thoughts raced through his mind, considering what tomorrow would bring. River had always been that way. An inquisitive child from birth, he possessed an insatiable appetite for adventure, and the deepest desire to uncover all the hidden mysteries of life. And yet, though he was feverish at the thought of tomorrow, fear settled itself onto his chest, pressing down upon him. What would happen if tomorrow never came, if this moment froze in time, immoveable, for ever? Or if it came in that slow, slippery way exciting things always appeared to come? Would he be able to bear it?
Not for the first time that evening, he restlessly climbed out of bed, this time putting on his furry, Paw Patrol slippers, and tightly wrapping his dressing gown around his body. He was ready. Cautiously stepping past his room, then tiptoeing past his parents’, he felt the dull thud of fear beating underneath his chest, rendering him mute. In the distance, the distinctive tick-tock of the household clock, gifted by his grandmother, could be heard. Its menacing, dark hands appeared to slash at the black numbers almost mercilessly, each time louder than the one before. He could not look at it, for fear that it would devour him too.
Walking swiftly down the stairs, he looked, left and right, up and down, surveying his now unrecognisable surroundings. His beautiful house which, in the warmth of daylight, looked like a stroke of art, had become a house of darkness. What was it about the darkness that fashioned every ornament, every painting, into the darkest of nightmares? The hat stand, always so tall and regal-looking, in an instant became a murderous weapon of death, shrewdly surveying River and all his doings. The pink woolen coat, his mother’s favourite, was transformed into a menacing monster, whose questionable black beads for eyes had never looked so frightening to River. He had never liked the nighttime, for it represented silence, sleep and darkness, all of which he strongly detested, as every child does at that tender age.
River tentatively walked towards the living room, feeling the chill of the night slithering down his spine. He was not a cowardly child, nor was he one to shy away from a challenge, or even less, an adventure. But the silence of that great house, the unfamiliarity of it all, terrified him, and he found himself wishing he was back in the enveloping warmth of his bedsheets.
Suddenly, he heard a quiet rap. Tap, tap, tap. He stopped in his tracks. Then again, tap, tap, tap. A horrible realisation dawned upon him, in his innocence; he had come down, unarmed, on a dark evening, on the darkest of evenings. Then silence. The tapping had stopped. Hearing its cessation, River rose, silent as can be, his fear lessening as he approached the hallway. A part of him suspected that the noise had not come from the inside of the house, but the outside, for the house was as still as it had been all night, and the only noise he could hear was the faint patter of the rain upon the roof. He put one ear to the door, the blood rushing to his face all at once. He could hear the ragged breaths of a creature, quite unknown to him, on the other side. In those very breaths, he heard multiple sounds; the hooting of an owl, the rustle of a rabbit, the oinking of a pig, and the slithering of a snake. All those sounds he heard, and yet, they could not have been further from the truth.
“What shall I do?” River whispered to himself, simultaneously filled with a sense of eeriness and wonder. What if this was the beginning of a wonderful adventure, much like the ones he had read so much about, and if the door remained unopened, so did this adventure? A flurry of childish and rather heroic thoughts leapt through his mind, so much so that he did not hear the tapping resume once more. This time, it grew more frantic, as though the creature was becoming increasingly desperate, impatient, and afraid. River heard it, and in his naivete, interpreted the tapping as an obvious cry for help. Believing he knew the fullness of what he was about to do, he made for the door, and in one step, stood next to it. He observed its fine archway, made of thick pillars of white wood, and its tremendous strength. Although River was frightened of what he might find, he extinguished those doubting thoughts in his mind, knowing what he had to do. If he never opened that door, how would he ever know what lay behind it?
Fumbling through the drawer on his left, River searched for a thin, old-fashioned key. His fingers caught upon a slim piece of metal, and seizing it, he deftly slipped it through the keyhole. He gave it one good push, and in an instant, a loud click ensued.
“Now what?” He asked aloud, his voice breathless with excitement. His eyes fell on the door, with childish curiosity. Resting the key on the drawer, he took a deep breath, and slowly pushed open the door…
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