By JD Miller
Photography by Catherine Turk
Tedrick hadn’t felt this good since the time he hid all those snakes in the outhouse and just about killed his aunt. His aunt had been constantly complaining about her ‘indigestion,’ and in his own words, ‘he’d only been trying to help.’
He hadn’t been trying to kill his aunt. When Father Clary, who nobody could look in the eye and lie to, asked him why he did it, he told him the truth: It seemed like it would be fun. And was it? Asked the priest.
Yes, said Tedrick.
So you’re telling me that you like to cause chaos in people’s lives? Asked the priest, just double checking, maybe offering a means of escape through penitence. But Tedrick just had to remember how he’d felt when he heart the fat old woman scream, her hands pounding the walls of the outhouse.
“Yes,” he said, like it was plain to see and warranted no further explanation.
Father Clary had tried twice to “banish the wicked spirits from him,” but if Tedrick did have wicked spirits that caused him to hide snakes or steal candy or strike matches, then they were still in there.
And anyway, he felt good today. That kind of good.
A week ago, Carrigan—sometimes called Mr. Carrigan, sometimes ‘That Accursed Magician’—went missing. Or, more to the point, because he was missing almost all the time, he was declared dead. Everyone knew he was dead because the newspapers started to pile up, and he hadn’t called anybody to let them know he’d be out of town and to please not pile the newspapers up on his porch. He hated piled-up newspapers almost as much as he hated solicitors, nosy neighbors, and people in general.
And now he was dead. Because there was no way he’d forget to call the newspaper office, not after all these years. And the question on everybody’s mind was, how long do we have to wait before we walk up there and open the door? The old man lived alone, in that gigantic mansion, which meant he could be anywhere, lying at the bottom of the stairs with his neck broken, or with his head leaning on the edge of the bathtub and the water long-gone cold.
How long did they have to wait? Wondered the newspaper boy, who stood at the tall iron gate at the edge of the paved yard, from which place he hurled his paper every morning. When the pile was thirty papers high? Or forty?
Probably, said old men, until the electric or the water bill went unpaid long enough and then they could send somebody in.
But then the question was, would anybody want to get in? It was the mansion of an evil magician, after all, who’d spent his life terrorizing anyone who went near his property, and plenty of people who’d stayed clear, just for good measure. Not to mention, there was a monster living inside his tower. Everybody knew that. The mansion had been a church, a hundred years ago, and everybody in town knew, by now, that something terrible lived up there where the bells used to be. They didn’t know what. But they knew. What kind of man, even eccentric old magicians, would turn a church into their own strange mansion? It just didn’t sit right.
So assuming the whole place wasn’t booby trapped, assuming there were no curses or tripwires or blood-sucking bats, there was still the matter of the monster, and rumors of it were getting worse every day.
For instance: ‘I bet that monster killed the old man,’ or, ‘I bet it got so big and out of control that it turned against him. If we don’t burn that terrible place down, well, it’ll probably turn on all of us too!’
As children went, Tedrick didn’t know a lot about monsters. And as townspeople went, he was a little young to pay much attention to the gossip. His chief concern, this morning, was getting over the gate. And that proved to be pretty easy, actually. So easy, it was a marvel nobody’d ever done it before.
He dropped down on the other side of the spiked wrought iron, and stood where nobody had stood in years, other than the old man himself. He expected some sort of magic spell to break both his legs, but instead there was just the usual stinging in his soles from the landing. He walked up to the porch, the grounds silent, stepping over a dozen newspapers in various early stages of decay, and hesitated only when he reached the door.
A peek over the shoulder. A quick vision across his mind, what would auntie think of me now? What would Father Clary’s face look like? He pictured them standing on the other side of the gate.
The door was locked tight. It didn’t even rattle in its hinges. And all of the windows were higher off the ground than he was, and dark. So dark, he wondered if they even let in any light. He walked around the gigantic building, dragging his hands over the stones, until he’d reached the base of the tower itself, and the trunk of a twisted Elm tree that was probably as old as the foundations themselves.
As children went, Tedrick was as good a climber as any. Probably even above average. Climbing was an essential piece of his trouble-making toolkit. He’d used it to peer in windows, to pour water down chimneys, to get into gardens, etc…
He’d climbed more challenging things than trees. None as high as the tower. But the stones were pretty much the right-size for climbing, with thick grooves in between each one that gave his fingers and toes plenty of room to squeeze into, and he was infamously wiry and strong.
The whole time he climbed, he pictured the faces of the other kids in the orphanage, gawking. Pictured his aunt in her ridiculous outfit, her hands over her wide mouth. Or maybe she’d faint. Maybe she’d fall and bruise her butt and not be able to sit down for a week. Maybe Father Clary would be there, yelling until his face turned bright red.
He was pretty near the top of the tower before he started to wonder what exactly he hoped to find, up there. After all, he’d heard that there was a monster in here. Something capable of murdering its own creator. Something probably capable of even worse things.
If there was a monster, he decided, he’d get a good peek at it, at least. He’d get his eyes over the edge of the bell-tower and look in, and if he saw it, that would be enough. He’d head back down and tell anybody who’d listen, “I climbed the old coot’s tower and saw his monster, and it’s not so bad. Matter of fact, it was pretty boring.” Or, something like that. He could work out he details later. Whatever made it sound like he’d been in the most possible danger.
Or, if there wasn’t a monster, he thought, sweat starting to bead on his face, then he’d be able to climb right in. He’d be the first person in town to see the inside of the old man’s house. He’d find the magician’s body, too, be the first one to see it, the one to tell everyone else that he was, definitely, dead.
That would be the first dead body he’d seen. So he was sort of excited about that, even though it made him feel kind of queasy. Lots of exciting things made him feel a little queasy. Queasy was part of that good feeling, from that day with the outhouse.
He reached the top of the tower, breathing quickly, and gripped the edge of the windowsill with his fingertips before he pushed himself up high enough to look in. Just a quick peek, he thought, Just enough to see the monster.
He raised one eye and then the other, up over the edge. Saw nothing but blackness. He pulled himself up to his elbows, scraped the wall with his toes until he got his knees up onto the ledge too. His eyes narrowed, trying to spot anything moving in the dark. If there was a monster, there was a good chance it was asleep.
Also a good chance that it was holding perfectly still, waiting for him to get all the way inside the window.
If it killed him, the thought crossed his mind for the first time, nobody would know where to look. Nobody would probably ever find him, assuming anybody would look.
Auntie would look. What was that feeling? Almost a pang of remorse. Like all the fun was being drained out of him. That must be the fear, he thought. Sometimes fear made you feel cold, made you want to run.
He stood blinking in the dark, his heart racing silently.
Piece by piece, he could make out the shape of rafters all around him, a bell that had been lowered until its open mouth was right against the floor. He saw blankets, kicked into the corner, and unlit candles, and one rickety stool with a little looking glass and a book resting on it.
And then something moved, above his head. He looked up, stepped backward toward the window, his stomach going cold with the idea of a real monster, but also with the knowledge of what would happen if he jumped out of the window to avoid it. The tree wouldn’t break his fall.
The thing in the rafters moved. It was pale, and seemed like it took up the whole roof. With his eyes as wide as saucers he breathed, “Monster!”
The thing dropped to the floor, almost noiselessly, the way a cat drops off a bed. He took another step toward the window and almost lost his balance, the sill hitting the back of his thighs. His hands grabbed the window frame on either side, as the thing stood up.
He saw that the pale part were actually two gigantic wings—so big that they took up the whole room, even though they were bent and crooked. When they moved, they almost encircled him. He could feel feathers, as long as his arm and white as a dove’s, grazing his skin. And in between the two feathers, almost as light, was a girl, who couldn’t have been older than him, or taller, but who’s face seemed just as afraid as his.
And more than anything else, that’s what surprised him. Of all the things Tedrick expected the monster to be—real or fake, terrible or disappointing—he hadn’t expected it to be beautiful. Or so afraid.