DEAD OF NIGHT
“Who’s there?” he asked. Softly but out loud, he was sure. Almost sure.
No reply. Sky gave them five seconds. It was a reasonable question. If he’d woken up because someone had spoken, it was only fair that they speak again. Said who they were. Stated their business.
“Did you say something?” His tone was less polite now.
Silence still. He couldn’t hear breathing, but anyone could hold their breath. He could hold his for two minutes and twenty-two seconds.
“Look . . . ,” he started, quite angrily, then stopped. If someone was going to speak, they’d have spoken by now. Unless they had a reason not to. But there were other possibilities to consider. Number one . . . was he even awake? The fact that he was standing up didn’t prove it either way. Not when you were King of the Sleepwalkers.
He reached his hand forward and it almost disappeared, the room was so dark. Reached slowly, because if there was someone still holding their breath there, you really, really, didn’t want to be touching them. . . .
Nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing . . . uh! . . . hardness . . . wall! Two walls and inside, too, he could tell by the slight give of the wallpaper. One there, one . . . there. Joined. So, a corner. He was in the corner of a room. Probably his bedroom, but he couldn’t be certain of that yet. He’d woken up in lots of other rooms. He’d woken up in no rooms at all.
Still, a corner. A good place to get your bearings. You weren’t close to a light switch . . . but at least no one could creep up on you from behind.
He wedged his back into the join of walls, narrowed his eyes, tried to see anything in the black- ness . . . Aha! Light. Red light. His clock radio: 4:17.
Now that was strange. He’d woken up at 4:17 the previous three mornings. But he’d definitely woken up those mornings; so the odds were good that he was awake now. He’d also been alone; so he was almost certainly alone now.
This was better. Still, to be on the safe side, he needed to get his bearings.
With the clock there, his bed was beneath it and the window over . . . there! Yeah, there it was, a rectangle of slightly lighter gloom. Hadn’t one of his teachers, three schools back, said, “It’s always darkest before the dawn”? His parents hadn’t gotten round to putting curtains up yet, so the darkness wasn’t blocked by anything except itself. It had been raining quite heavily when he went to bed, and the clouds must still have been thick out there. Yet even as he looked, something silver shot through the intense dark. It came, went, as if someone had shone a flashlight, then snapped it off.
That needed checking out. Perhaps that was what had woken him.
He pushed himself away from the wall, took a step toward the window. A floorboard creaked, loudly. It was full of creaks, this old house they’d rented. With the wind blowing, as it was that night, it had taken him ages to fall asleep because of all the shiftings and settlings. They sounded like voices; and this creak had a definite cry to it, the word “Don’t!” So he didn’t. Didn’t take another step, just stopped, waited. The wind picked up outside, something moved against the window, a thump followed by a scratch, like a finger placed then dragged away. That was . . . not good. He almost turned, ran to where the door had to be. Then he remembered his father’s words from a few weeks back.
“That needs trimming or it’ll break the glass in a storm,” he’d said. They’d been standing in the little orchard-garden of their new house, and he was pointing at an oak whose branches pressed against the wall. “And you’d probably use it as a fire escape!” Henry had grabbed Sky around the shoulders, twisting him in a wrestling move. “Too tempting for you, my lad.”
Of course, Sky thought, that’s all it is!
Confident now, he stepped forward, the movements in the floor just creaks, the thump and scratch just a tree. Then, as he reached the window, the clouds shifted, allowing moonlight through again . . . which explained the on-off light. The garden, previously dark, was instantly full of contrasts, the sides of the trees facing the moon silvered by it, their backs streaming away in shadows. He pressed his cheek against a pane, sought the moon to the right of the house. It was low down, just above the treetops, nearly full.
And it was red. It looked like it was covered in blood.
He knew what that was. The sun had risen enough over the curved surface of the planet to bounce its rays off the departing moon. He knew this for a scientific fact; but it didn’t stop the shivering that came.
And that’s just the cold, he thought. So I’ll go back to bed, pull the duvet over my head, doze till the alarm goes off and the music starts or until sunlight—yellow, not red—moves into the room.
He took one step toward that sanctuary. Just the one before a sudden movement below halted him. Something had slid swiftly from moonbeams to shadow. It failed to blend there because it was wider than the tree it moved behind, and Sky saw a long cloak settle onto grass, saw bleached, white fingers wrap around the trunk, saw another hand reaching toward the house, a finger uncurl. Saw a black hood tipping back, up.
He shut his eyes so he would not have to see any more. But he could not shut his ears.
“They are here.” The words wheezed up from the darkness. “Bring them. Bring them to me!”
More than anything now, he wanted to believe he was still asleep. That this was one of his nightmares. However horrible, at least they were familiar. They ended when you woke up. You could be comforted after a nightmare.
This wasn’t a nightmare. He was awake. So this . . . thing was real; the skeleton hand, the black cloak, real. The empty hood that should contain a face, a face that should even now be reddened by moonlight, real.
His scream, though, when it finally came, could have come from a nightmare—squeezed out, dead slow, stuck for the longest time in his throat. While whisper slowly grew to wail, the hood stayed motionless, lifted up at him, that beckoning finger raised. At last, he heard his parents scrambling for dressing gowns; corridor light etched his doorframe, feet thumped toward his room. But only at the very moment that his door burst open did the finger lower, the hood drop. Only then did the shape move away, slipping out of the rectangle of sudden bedroom light, dissolving into shadow, vanishing down an alley of apple trees.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Fetch by Chris Humphreys. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Humphreys. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.