Matt Neil Hill
Adventurous Ted hanging by one paw from his pudgy fist, Leonard stands in the middle of the living room in his happy robot pyjamas while angry snakes hiss from the grooves of a stuck record. Smoke hangs in the air, bluish and sickly-sweet. The coffee table and one of the big lamps have been knocked over, part of some clumsy party game. Grown-ups can be so messy sometimes. Leonard can be messy too, but when he does it he gets told off. Even though it’s been drilled into him often enough that he’s not supposed to, he checked in mummy and daddy’s room just a few moments ago. They weren’t there. In fact, he can’t find them anywhere. The only people left from the grown-ups’ party are Uncle John and Aunty Claire from next door, curled up asleep on the sofa, hands limp and mouths and necks red with wine. He wants to ask them a question, but he knows how angry people can get when you wake them up. In the half-dark he can’t be sure if their chests rise and fall at all. Mummy and daddy’s new friends aren’t in the flat either—not the lady with the sad smile and bruises on her arms, not the big man with cold eyes and a warm smile behind his big shaggy beard who rubbed at Leonard’s hair when daddy told him to say hello, thick fingers smelling of school soap. It’s only him and the bear that are awake. And the snakes.
He keeps trying not to look too hard at the front door, but at some point there’s nowhere else to look. It stands wide open, when in the middle of the night it should really be shut.
The lights in the corridor are so bright it’s like staring into the sun. He did that once, fat black coins slithering across his eyes for hours afterwards. Leonard keeps his head down as he and Adventurous Ted take a few steps forward. On the doormat there’s a small pile of purple glass beads exactly like the ones from mummy’s favourite necklace. He kneels down and methodically picks them all up, dropping them one by one into the little pocket next to his heart. It hits him after a while that the big WELCOME written on the mat used to point outwards, but now it’s pointed at him. Probably the big kids’ idea of playing a joke—like when they draw private parts and rude words on the walls—only it’s not very funny. More beads glint outside. Usually when he and mummy and daddy play hide and seek they leave him special clues. Even though he does the same thing, he always seems to find them a lot quicker than they find him. Leonard grips Adventurous Ted’s paw tighter and steps across the threshold.
The corridors in this tower block don’t make sense to him. Up until a few months ago he and mummy and daddy lived in grandma’s house, and it was small and cosy just like she was. But that was before grandma went to heaven. He’d liked it much better there, even though daddy said mean things about grandma behind her back and she and mummy argued a lot about daddy. Inside the safety of new flat everything makes sense, but once you’re through the door there are dead ends and funny curves and weird angles, like when Alice eats or drinks what the cards tell her to and goes too big or small. The walls are rough and crumbling, with stains the colour of a broken rainbow leaking down from the floors above. Everything smells like a toilet.
The trail of beads leads away from home. A faint, ghost train music drifts to him from way down the corridor.
He’s only a few doors away when one of the overhead lights flickers and goes out. Leonard shivers, but Adventurous Ted convinces him the way the sharp lines around them have been softened is actually comforting. And anyway, he and the little bear have excellent eyesight, so there’s no need to worry about searching out the next piece of treasure. By the time the next light winks out he isn’t scared at all. He walks slowly and carefully—stooping occasionally to pick up an abandoned bead from the shadows—each step cold beneath his bed socks as it brings him closer to the muffled song of the party that’s still going on.
When he discovers he can go no farther there’s one last door, the final purple jewel waiting outside on the bare concrete. No welcome mat for this family. When Leonard rests his ear against the warm wood, he can’t tell if the voices on the other side belong to his mummy and daddy or not. Always polite, he wants to knock but finds himself caught in the fuzzy dawn world between too late and too early. Everybody should really be in bed.
The door swings open and he looks up into the face of the man who ruffled his hair, a new friend who has taken the party away with him along with mummy and daddy. His eyes are still cold, but now his lips and teeth and shaggy beard are sticky with wine just like Uncle John and Aunty Claire, except he has it on his hands and all up his arms as well. Leonard can see candles flickering in the room beyond. A scent like rotten eggs and hot pennies wafts over him. The music stops suddenly and there’s the furious sound of snakes again, mixed with grown-ups laughing and crying at the same time.
The man kneels down and gives him a big hug, the pressure from his damp arms firm but gentle. He tells Leonard what a clever boy he is to have found his way here; that he told his wife he would and that he’s won a bet. That he should come inside and join in the fun. Leonard remembers being told not to go with strangers, but mummy and daddy know this man so he can’t be one. Over the man’s shoulder he can see the dark shapes of people dancing, even though the music has stopped. He can pick out bruises and the flash of sad smiles in the yellow gloom. His mummy and daddy too, their eyes wide with surprise that he has found them at last. He hopes they’re not too disappointed. They must have thought they had more time to finish the new game they’d started, their feet and hands still tied to their chairs with ropes and their mouths covered with black rags.
He lets himself be drawn inside, the bearded man’s big hand soft and wet and warm on his shoulder. He watches mummy and daddy trying to jump for joy in their seats. He squeezes Adventurous Ted’s paw as tight as tight can be, relieved that this round of hide and seek is finally over.
Matt Neil Hill has published speculative and neo-noir fiction in Syntax & Salt, Shotgun Honey and Weirdbook. He’s married and the proud owner of a socially maladjusted rescue cat. He can be found on Twitter @mattneilhill.