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"THE LITTLE HELPERS"

Written by Mason McDonald

Cassandra hated the cold. Ever since she was a little girl. She never understood how some people found joy in the frigid cold, how some loved walking in the snow and feeling the nip of chilled air against their skin. Some people even swam in icy waters just for the sheer thrill of it.

It boggled her mind.

Yet, somehow she’d allowed her husband to convince her to buy the old house in northern Canada. The house, while big and spacious with vaulted ceilings and the stairwell of her dreams despite the age and condition of it all, was stuffed into the mountains and covered in ice and snow. One had to drive for hours up winding roads that twisted through the admittedly mystical white and green pine forest.

Peter was writing a picture about a group of men trapped in the wilderness through winter, forced to survive the harsh climate with nothing but their wits and grit. What better way, he supposed, to get in the minds of the lost souls he meant to convey then to live in the very environment they’d find themselves held captive by?

She lived in a beautiful home within walking distance of the most beautiful privately-owned beach in Los Angeles. The years they wintered at home she spent her time shopping the most influential boutiques in the city, while some years her Peter took her on cruises of the Caribbean or the South Pacific. One year they spent it in Spain and they made love on a balcony overlooking the waters of the Cies Archipelago.

Now? She was wading through knee-deep snow, the cold tearing at her flesh, as their driver Marcio tried his best to keep their luggage from getting wet. Trying, but failing.

“Marcio, do be careful!” Cassandra shouted, attempting to be heard over the blaring wind that tossed her fur coat and scarves about her face. “Those are original Balenciagas! One of a kind!”

“Darling,” Peter said, taking her arm and shielding his face from the wind with his other, “Marcio knows what he’s doing. Don’t you Marcio?”

“Oui,” Marcio replied.

“And besides, did you really need to bring those dresses? You’re apt to freeze up here should you wear those things.”

“I’d rather freeze to death,” Cassandra said through chattering teeth, “then be caught dead in anything less.”

Peter laughed. Their marriage wasn’t always perfect, take right now for instance, but they got on because they understood each other's differences. Peter came from a blue collar family. His father was a butcher and his mother a maid. He worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, interning for Columbia before writing a few pictures himself. When A Riot On Bleak Street got nominated for an Academy Award, Peter’s career took flight. He made more money off his next script than his father made in his entire career. His father held no ill will about this, as the first thing Peter did was buy his parents a brand new home closer to the city so they could be nearer to him. That was the type of soul Peter was.

She was of no delusion that she was printed on the same cloth as her husband. Cassandra’s father owned almost every luxury automobile dealership in Hollywood and had interests in every industry from automotive to oil, from diamonds to coal. She grew up eating caviar and drinking wine that cost more than those serving it to her made in a year.

Cassandra loved Peter for his gentle, unassuming upbringing, and for the way he never judged her for coming up the opposite. He never made her feel like some spoiled Daddy’s girl who never had to work for anything in her life, even if it was true. It wasn’t her fault she never had to struggle, so he never treated her like it was.

Further than that, their marriage persisted because unlike so many of their friends and associates, their marriage was one of true, unequivocal love. All these years on and they still stared into one another’s eyes when making love. They still kissed each other awake. Peter still cupped his palm under her chin, pressing down on her bottom lip with his thumb, and kissed her forehead as he entered her, whispering that he was hers and she, his. She loved him more than she thought capable of loving anything.

He never took a hand to her, never drank himself into stupors, never so much as raised his voice to her. And sometimes, she figured, she downright deserved to be yelled at. She knew how difficult she could be. But he loved her anyway.

So yes, when he told her he bought a house in the mountains of northern Canada and told her he intended to stay there all winter, she said she’d accompany him. No questions about it. He asked if she was sure, and she told him no she wasn’t but would go regardless. “Someone has to make sure you don’t freeze up there,” she said, “and besides, handsome, I’d miss you too much.”

Marcio held the tall doors open as they rushed inside, away from the wind and blowing snow. Marcio fought the pressure of the cold air and slammed the heavy doors shut as Peter removed his hat and beat the snow from it. Cassandra tried her best to brush it from the fur of her coat but her gloves were equally as saturated.

“Damn!” Cassandra exclaimed.

“Here, darling, allow me,” Peter said and gripped her coat, brushing the flaky snow from the fur. As he did, Cassandra looked around the room. It was already furnished, as Peter had paid for it as-is, but the furniture was old and worn and not to Cassandra’s tastes at all. It was wood and stuffed cotton, browns and oranges mostly. She was more of a crimson leather and deep black velvet type of gal.

Peter caught her looking. He sighed. “I know it isn’t much to look at,” he began, “but it isn’t permanent, remember. And also remember, I meant to be alone when I purchased her. I never expected to have company with such…”

He smirked and she couldn’t help but return it. “Luxurious tastes,” he finished.

“It’s got a certain… flavour to it, I can give it that,” Cassandra said.

“You hate it, and that’s okay,” Peter said. He kissed her cheek. The heat from his lips was a welcome reprieve from the chill that seemed to sink past her flesh and into her blood. “But you know, you are not my prisoner, my love. You say the words and I’ll have Marcio here take you back into town and have you on the next flight back home.”

“Home?” Cassandra said and grabbed his collar with both hands and drew him into a kiss. When their lips parted with a suction she never wanted to snap, she looked deeply into his blue eyes. “You’re my home.”

Peter set to starting the fire in the big stone fireplace in the lounge while Marcio retrieved the rest of their luggage. Cassandra was tempted to sit and wait for the fire to start to thaw her frozen bones, but she was scared that should she sit, her bones would atrophy and she’d never move again. Instead, she busied herself with exploration.

The place was indeed big, much bigger on the inside than it appeared, and the flavour that Cassandra had mentioned (had lied about really) tasted like dusty boards and cobwebbed light fixtures. There were paintings on the walls of people she never knew. A family, maybe. Those who called this place home before them.

She went from the lounge back to the foyer, but when Marcio opened the door again and allowed the cold to blast her, she quickly hurried off through another archway, eager to be away from that damned cold.

She was in a hallway that ran behind the grand stairs in the foyer. It was dark save for the pale grey light from the single frosted window, and she braced her hand against the splintery wall to keep her straight.

It was a regular hallway, nothing strange about it. She figured it looped back into the lounge, as she could hear Peter’s fiddling and cursing as he struggled with the fire.

She stopped, however, when she saw the door.

She almost missed it. It was against the wall that braced the stairs, so it led underneath them. She would have been tempted to enter it, as her curious nature would have her do, but that would prove impossible.

The door was only about one foot high.

***

As the days went on, Cassandra spent most of her time exploring the old house. With the snow storm still raging (Peter and Marcio both insisted this was not a storm and simply regular weather for this time of year in this place, but Cassandra couldn’t wrap her head around that), she had no urge to step one foot outside.

She’d admit, the first day or so didn’t go so well, the first night especially. She felt dirty and closed in, unused to places like this and conditions like these. The storm beat tree branches and sleet against the bedroom windows and casted angry shadows on the wall. That night when Peter and her tried to make love, she had to tell him to stop—she couldn’t shake the feeling they were being watched.

“Like ghosts? Oh, darling,” Peter laughed.

“I’m not a child, Peter,” Cassandra said. Peter apologized for laughing at her, and she apologized for being silly.

But was she being silly? Because for just a moment, a single second, she swore she heard the patter of tiny footsteps and were there eyes in the corner of the room, behind the coat rack holding her nightgowns? Little yellow eyes that glowed like a cat’s? She blinked and they were gone, and she convinced herself she was just unnerved at the unfamiliar surroundings, but still it killed their mood and she felt awful about it.

But…

But still…

Now, days on, she was more used to their situation and actually found a semblance of a routine to be had here. She’d make tea and read in the mornings while Peter wrote in his office upstairs, and then she would join Marcio in the lounge and they’d talk or play gin rummy. Marcio was an interesting fellow—they’d hired him, as he was local and used to assisting the area’s more upper class residents. His father had been a woodsman, or so he said, so he was no stranger to the “way of the woods”. He spoke with a heavy accent (“Quebecois,” he called himself) and he kept a thin, neatly waxed and trimmed black mustache that turned up in playful wisps at the edges. He’d smoke equally thin cigars with white filters and would never allow her to light her own cigarettes or fetch her holder. Once, she made to pour her own scotch and he just about fell over himself trying to get there first and snatch the bottle from her. She found herself on multiple occasions telling Peter they’d have to pay to ship him back home. You just couldn’t find help like that anymore.

Today, she sat alone and played solitaire. Marcio was nowhere to be found. She assumed he was outside chopping firewood or some other manly effort. She loved her Peter and his blue-collar sensibilities, but he was more bookworm than handyman so it was Marcio that was mostly keeping the place running.

A knocking sound broke her from her concentration on her game. Well, it was more of a tapping. She looked around, hoping it wouldn’t be some sort of rodent or other creature of the woods. Oh, she couldn’t handle that! She checked the window behind her thinking maybe a stray branch had begun rapping its knotty knuckles against the glass. But no, there were no trees on this side of the house. She saw only the blowing snow and the faint outline of the wood shed and their buried car.

She paused and listened. The knocking had stopped. She returned to her game but before she could play a single card, the sound resumed. A soft, barely audible tapping, like someone on the other side of the wall lightly hitting their fingertips against it.

Cassandra got up and paced the room, searching for the sound. She followed it out of the lounge and into the foyer, but it started to dim so she circled back. She went the opposite way through the archway into the hallway that she knew would loop behind the stairs and back to the foyer again. The sound began to grow louder as she proceeded. As loud as it could, she supposed, as it was still just barely above a whisper.

The hallway was just as dark and musty as it had been when they’d arrived. It served little purpose other than to fill empty space and one could more quickly traverse the home going the opposite way, so she didn’t see the need for them to spend any time back there at all. The window was still frozen over and the only light filtering through was grey and thin.

She had mentioned the small door to the men and Marcio had taken a look. To him, it resembled one of two things: a playful way to patch a hole in the wall, perhaps from mice or rats, or (he smiled when he said this and Cassandra found herself quite charmed) they had themselves a house elf infestation. “Have to call an exterminator,” he joked and they all laughed.

As Cassandra approached the tiny, white door, the knocking grew even louder and it became evident it was coming from behind it. Originally hoping it would be anything but rats, she now found herself praying it was nothing but a rat.

She crouched and grabbed the wooden knob of the door between her thumb and forefinger. She would have opened it and had been done with her scared fantasies, but when she began to turn the knob, the knocking stopped.

As if whatever was doing it was eagerly anticipating the door to open.

Feeling like a scared child, she released the knob and walked away. She had lived a sheltered life, she knew this, but even she knew to trust her gut. And right then, her gut told her to leave it be.

If she only knew how little it mattered, though. Some doors were meant to open no matter what.

***

That night, Peter announced he had a breakthrough. “Cassandra,” he called out from his office upstairs, banging and running through the hall and down the loud stairs, “Cassandra, I’ve done it! I’ve done it!”

She was in the lounge enjoying a nightcap of scotch by her lonesome. Where was Marcio? “Done what, dear? Have you finished the script?”

Peter stopped in his tracks and looked at her like a dog would a strange noise, like he couldn’t comprehend what she had said. When he was composing, when he was in a story so deep he found himself lost, he would walk around the world in a daze. Sometimes, her friends in the city would ask her why her husband appeared to be so spacey. “Oh, he’s just in Peter’s World,” she’d say and it would always gain a few laughs.

“What? No, still far from that,” he said. “I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out where the characters need to be, where they need to go, where I need to go!”

Her heart skipped a beat. As much as she’d begrudgingly begun to appreciate the flavour of this place, if Peter’s next words were to tell her they’d be leaving and never coming back, she’d be fine with it. Instead, he broke her heart just the tiniest bit. “I need to find Marcio. I was stuck,” he ran his hand through his hair and breathed, trying to calm himself, “I was stuck because I thought merely being here would be all I needed. But my characters? The men, lost in the frozen north, their plane bursting to flames in some damnable arctic—they don’t have a warm home, do they? How can I even begin to capture their thoughts and feelings and fears if I am only seeing their struggle from this side of the looking glass?”

Peter laughed and Cassandra didn’t like how it sounded. “I need to step through the glass and follow the rabbit, don’t I? Where’s Marcio? He will need to fetch some equipment, of course.”

“I haven’t seen him,” she said meekly. She was confused.

“Well! No matter,” Peter said and began to leave the room, “I can get it myself. I won’t need much, no not much at all. My men don’t have much, do they? Ha! I just need—”

“Peter!” Cassandra shouted, stopping him. She cleared her throat and straightened her nightgown. “Where are you going?”

“Apologies, darling, I’m just so ignited right now I’ve forgotten myself,” he said and went to her, putting her face in his hands, “I’m going out there.”

They’d fought. Oh, it was the worst of their marriage. In the end he won, because she couldn’t bring herself to fight with him to the amount necessary to keep him there. And, she’d admit, she didn’t want to be the type of wife that would extinguish her husband’s creative fire. How could she live with herself if she did that?

Marcio still hadn’t returned by the next morning and Peter assumed he had abruptly quit and returned to town. “Good riddance,” he said and left it at that. He said he’d stop in town on his way back and hire someone new. “I won’t be gone but two days,” he said to her when saying their goodbyes by the door, he bundled up with a pack on his back, she drinking her earliest glass of scotch she’d drank in a while, “but the wood is properly stocked for you, I made sure of it, and you know how to start the fire don’t you?”

She nodded and took a sip. Her hand was shaking.

“Good woman. When I come back I will bring new help, better help, and a mind and soul fit to finish this story. Which is good, right? The faster it is done, the faster we can go home.”

Peter left into the snow and Cassandra wished she’d fought with him harder.

Because she never saw her Peter again.

The day went by relatively okay. Being alone in the house was scary by itself, but then again she’d never had to suffer or struggle in her life. She just told herself this was her time, as it was everyone’s at some point, and soon it would pass.

The only incident while the sun was out occurred a little past noon when she was making herself lunch in the kitchen. She was making a sandwich and laid the knife down on the countertop to her right. When she went to the icebox and came back, the knife was gone. She looked everywhere on the counter and the floor, thinking maybe she bumped it with her elbow or something, but it never turned up. She chalked it up to going a smidge stir crazy from being in the house for so damn long.

The next incident was shortly before bed. She was finishing a scotch and cigarette in the lounge, reading the final few pages of a paperback novel she’d barely paid any attention to. The only light came from the burning fire, bathing everything in a dancing orange aura.

As she put out her cigarette and downed her last bit of drink, she saw the shadow of something flash across the floorboards. She started up, almost dropping her glass. A moment later she heard the pittering of small footsteps.

“Oh,” she moaned and put her face in her hands, “damn rats.”

Of course they’d make their first appearance when she was alone. That was just her luck, wasn’t it?

She grabbed the fire poker and wielded it like a baseball bat and slowly crept through the lounge, looking behind the furniture. The sofa and chair were fine, as were the multiple tables. The last she checked was the bookshelf beside the fireplace. She peered behind it, ready for a rodent to dart out at her and only hoped it would scurry over her feet and not lunge at her face.

But to her relief, there was nothing there. She laughed at how scared she’d been and stood, coming face to face with the yellow-eyed thing on a shelf in the bookcase. She tried to scream, but it caught in her throat and broke through her tight vocal chords, coming out only as a sad squeak. Like a mouse’s.

The thing was standing in front of two books, staring at her with a round head that tilted inquisitively to the side. It was human shaped but no bigger than a man’s hand. Its legs and arms were tiny, and wore a pin-striped green outfit that resembled children’s pajamas. It wore a matching cone hat that limped lifelessly to the side. Its flesh was grey and cracked and pitted in spots. Cassandra thought it resembled some sort of alien dried fruit. Its mouth was open, seemed to be stuck so, and its teeth were that of a large canine’s, except thinner and much sharper. Needle-like is the term that flashed in her mind.

And its eyes…

They glowed an unearthly, disgusting yellow that brought to mind piss and disease. There was nothing in those eyes besides the sick yellow light.

Cassandra was trapped by her fear and couldn’t move. For a moment, the two just stared at one another, neither making the first move. Cassandra began to convince herself that it was some toy or ornament she’d somehow missed after all this time, when she noticed in its hand the knife from her lunch. It was twice the length of the creature and it dragged on the shelf beside it.

The thing blinked. Cassandra screamed.

She swung the fire poker but it deftly hopped down, causing her to hit nothing but encyclopedias. The thing scurried away from the orange light of the fire and disappeared into the shadows, dragging the knife behind it, scraping the floorboards.

Cassandra was plenty of things,but she wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t about to flail about in the dark lounge, swinging at ghosts, getting her feet and ankles jabbed and sliced up with the knife from spots she couldn’t see. She pictured the knife sliding out from under the sofa and snipping her Achilles tendon.

Without a second thought, she darted from the lounge and ran up the stairs. She passed the framed photos of the previous family and swore the eyes of the patriarch, a wide bellied bearded man, surveyed her and followed her. Behind her was that sound of tiny feet running across the boards and, oh God, the chilling sound of a child’s giggles.

Cassandra stormed into her bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her. She locked it and pulled over a desk chair and stuck that under the knob for good measure.

Outside, the snow still raged. It beat the glass of her window. She briefly wondered how Peter was faring and cursed him for leaving her. On the other hand, he was probably faring better than she was at that moment. Worst case scenario, she was being stalked by some sort of fae, and best case she was completely losing her mind to cabin fever.

Her ear to the door, she listened. Nothing. No giggles, no footsteps. Just the sound of the wind outside and the dead air of an empty house as old as the trees that guarded it.

Eventually, with the idea of her lost mind to comfort her against the thoughts of killer imps, she found herself drowsing off. She pulled herself into the bed and let sleep take her.

She dreamt of Peter and not of elves and imps and fae. Only her Peter. Always her Peter.

***

The giggles woke her up.

She couldn’t move. In the darkness of her room, she could see nothing save for the white of the window and the glowing yellow eyes of the things holding her down, pinning the blankets on each side to encase her inside of them. There were dozens of eyes. Maybe hundreds. They lined the bed and the footboard, the dresser and the chair against the door. They were above her on the headboard and they were on the window sill below the frosted panes. The floor, the baseboards, the crack in the closet where they poked their heads out from.

Cassandra screamed and tried to fight her arms free, but it was no use. The blanket was pulled so tight she could barely wiggle her digits.

One of them climbed down from the footboard, dragging something behind it. Something sharp that traced along her body as it walked. Once on her chest, she recognized it for what it was.

The same one from the lounge.

The one with the knife.

It laughed and sounded like a child, but distorted. Like if a child had their lungs filled with mucus and blood and gravel.

It continued laughing as the rest joined in, a chorus of high pitched laughter that sounded like the soundtrack to Hell itself, and it raised the knife high above its head. Cassandra damned her Peter for bringing her here, and she cursed his name for leaving her alone, but she loved him anyway.

She loved her Peter.

The thing crept closer, the knife raised high above its head, and others hopped up on top of her, weightless as one but heavy as lead together, and they laughed as they got closer with bared teeth and tiny, clawed hands extended out.

The knife came down and Cassandra screamed.

***

From his camp in the trees, Peter thought he heard someone scream. He made sure to not stray too far from the house in case Cassandra needed him. He’d never forgive himself if something were to happen to her.

His camp was meagre. He wished Marcio had been around to go on a run for him, but that lazy bag of bones hopped out early on them. Good riddance to bad rubbish, he said. Besides, he hadn’t been fond of the way Marcio had been looking at his wife. Call him crazy.

The fire was hot enough and the tent he fashioned from a tarp and blankets was doing the trick. He found some thick boots and some tools for felling trees and branches in the old workshop in the rear of the house. The previous owner seemed to have a pension for carpentry, specifically with knick knacks and children’s toys. The workshop was filled with ancient, dusty rocking horses, jack-in-the-boxes, building blocks, and others. Some of the work had been so intricate it was a wonder a grown man had done it himself.

“Would need some damn small hands,” Peter said as he tossed another log on to the fire. From the distance, that wail sounded again. He listened, and it never returned.

The wind can make some awful sounds up here. At the right pitch, it could even sound downright bloodcurdling.

Peter smiled and took out his paper and pencil with shaky hands. He’d need to write that down.

It would go great in his script.

mason mcdonald 01Mason McDonald is the author of A Time For Monsters. When not inventing yuletide boogeymen, he can be found drinking booze and fist fighting his own personal Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. He currently lives in Port Morien, NS with his wife Jenna and their collection of animals.

You can pick up his collection by clicking one of the links below!

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