This story is one of the October Writing Challenge entries that was chosen to be a featured story.
When the leaves upon the trees turned orange, Darcy was annually dropped on the doorstep of her grandmother’s house at the top of the country. Her fifteenth autumn was no different. Bundled up in a coat to fight off the biting cold, she strolled up the leaf-strewn driveway, satisfied with the crunch the leaves made under the influence of her heavy boots. Once her feet were planted on the Welcome mat, she knocked on the door with an eagerness she had never had before. This year she would leave without the burning questions that she seemed to have left with for years and years. This year she would discover the truth.
Her grandmother smiled crookedly when she opened the door. The earthy, fresh smell of her grandmother’s house filled her with nostalgia as she stepped inside. The fire crackled on the fireplace as the flames danced upon the wood. She was engulfed by warmth. No one could have guessed that the house she was basking in the comfort of once haunted her nightmares as a child. Tonight she would conquer those nightmares.
The afternoon which followed went as expected. Her grandmother made her a big lunch and then suggested they go on a conker hunt, just like they did every year. It was blustery outside when they left the house. Due to a light shower earlier, the fallen leaves squelched under her, which was a much less satisfying sound. Darcy dug through the soggy red leaves under the deciduous trees, picking out the concealed conkers. She mentally thanked her grandmother for the ugly pair of gloves as she removed the particularly prickly shell of one ripe conker. The perfect conker. Sublimely round, immaculately smooth and hard as a pebble. If she understood how to play conkers, she could have won the championships with that one conker. Instead she put it with the others in her orange bucket.
It was only when they returned to the house and the sky was turning gold that she remembered what she had to do. The door needed to be opened. Dread pulsed through her. She had tried rather successfully to suppress her fear of the door for the past few weeks. She had almost been convinced that she was no longer burdened by naive fears. However, as the sun fell from the sky on the first day of her visit, she realised no matter how old she would get, the fear of what lived above the spare room would always be present if she didn’t face whatever it was. After she did, she’d be free.
After a dinner that trumped the amount they ate for lunch, her grandmother retired to her room. Darcy’s dread switched to fully fledged panic. She was alone at night in her own personal haunted house. She left some time for her grandmother to fall asleep, and once she was sure it was safe, she headed to her room. Whilst digging through her backpack for supplies, the noises began. Rhythmic thuds came from the ceiling, a sound that resembled rain upon a roof. There was not a drop to be seen outside. The thuds were accompanied by murmurs and mumbles which sounded like the white noise of a crowd, but muted to a lower volume. Her grandmother always blamed the noise on echoes in the empty attic, dismissive of the thought of it being anything else. In a matter of minutes she would prove her grandmother wrong.
She retrieved some supplies from her backpack: a torch, a box of paperclips, and a knife. She’d never held a knife before with an intent that wasn’t to cut open a baguette. She was certain that whatever it was, was alive. Fifteen years or more in an attic could surely turn someone (or something) insane. The knife was a precaution. Whether or not she’d be able to use it was another question. With the knife in one hand, the torch in the other, and the paperclips stored in her pockets, she ventured down the corridor to the first step of the staircase leading to the door. She prayed her grandmother would remain asleep. The sight of her granddaughter lurking around her house with a knife would surely send her to the grave.
She walked up the rickety stairs to the attic, wincing every time the wood groaned under her weight. Her curiosity couldn’t take it any longer. She had to know what was behind the door that now stood before her. Pulling out the paperclips, she tried to remember the video she watched on how to pick a lock. It took longer than she’d hoped, but she finally heard the click of the lock. Just one turn of the doorknob and all this would be over. No more questions.
Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw. This led to an irrational reaction. A ferocious noise clawed its way out of her throat. She lifted her knife above her head, ready to stab everything in sight. She paused, knife nearly slaughtering what was before her. A tiny person, no taller than four inches, sat on her perfect conker, wide-eyed and visibly shaking. His friends who had scurried when she entered the room charged out of houses made from cardboard scraps, gripping sewing needles, ready to protect their own. Darcy took a look around the attic. A little civilisation to house the tiny people, all surrounded by a ring of old Christmas lights. There were other conkers along with the one the boy sat on. They were laid out in a circle surrounding a leaf holding bread crumbs. Everything looked so delicate. She looked back at the faces of the little people warding her off with needles. They were terrified. She dropped the arm with the knife to her side. What right did she have?
When Darcy returned home after her fifteenth autumn, she was no longer scared, for that autumn she discovered that her monsters were afraid and oh so innocent.