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Goodnight Child

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The room is quiet, the fire hissing and popping in a gentle, crackling dance of consumption. It casts out constantly shifting shadows, shapes that form and dissipate and reform and change again across the deep green of the wallpaper, making the tiny golden brown stripes seem to move. Inside, in this forest-dark room, the house is warm, despite the wind that hisses outside the windows, despite the snow and all the vagaries of winter.

The telephone is silent, given a rest from the day's calls, from the operator's connecting voice. Its earpiece hangs in the side cradle, the dark wood of the telephone box itself merging with the darker corners of the room. Its place on the wall has remained, wired in, proof this was not always a bedroom. (A sickroom.) Everything else has been changed to reflect the new purpose, from rocking chair to painted cow to teddy bears having tea at their little table.

In the corner a red balloon droops, half-way between floor and ceiling. It has only slowly begun to leak gas, but tomorrow will find it ankle high, the next day limp on the ground. The old lady pushes her feet off a little harder, rocks a little more conscientiously, and does not watch the balloon. She watches the bed, and then the twisting of yarn around her knitting needles.

The fire subsides, gradually sinking towards embers, and the old woman likewise sinks into sleep. She breathes in little audible breaths, hands lax on her knitting.

The winter kittens, born in the coal cellar, have been curled together on the hearth in their little basket. The bed they cannot reach, but the room offers lots of other things to investigate, and as the moon rises they creep out to do so; first the little grey tom, fat tail pointed in the air, and then his marmalade sister, tumbling head over feet to fetch up against the six-inch doll's chairs. Marmalade sniffs at the teddy bears feet, each of the three in turn, before rubbing her face on Baby Bear's paw, until Baby topples sideways against Papa. Grey jumps as the bear falls, all four legs stiff, then sinks tiny needle-tipped claws into Mama Bear's dress.

But the bears are new, and smell of the toy store and the winter outside, and grey is searching for something else, something more familiar. The toy house smells like the hands that petted them earlier, warm and gentle and tentative, salty under the grey's tongue when he licked the little fingertips. The scent is all over the tiny house, though not as strong, and the kitten is thorough, and small enough to thread his way past the little balsa wood fireplace, the tiny twisted wire and embroidery chairs. In the tiny kitchen, by the tiny metal basin, is a tiny wooden girl in a red dress, with little painted curls. The grey kitten curls around it, batting gently with his back feet as he gnaws on her hair.

On the bedside table, the comb and brush are threaded through with strands of dark, curly hair, an exact match to the dollhouse girl.

While the grey kitten investigates the dollhouse, the marmalade has found her way past the old lady's heavy slippers and the rag rug to the farthest corner away from the fireplace. Something is skittering behind the wall, and there is a smell the kitten does not know.

The old woman would know it, if she were awake. So would the kitten's mother. The walls are double layered brick, and trap the heat well (and the heat is needed), but they make too good a breeding space for mice and rats. But the coal-cellar queen is a good mouser, and she has bred true. The mousehole is easy to find, and the kitten is patient.

The old lady sleeps.

The moon spins higher, farther away. The fire is embers, now, and the night chill is seeping in to fill the places where the light has retreated. On the nightstand, the bowl of oatmeal mush is congealing, beginning to flake and crack away from the edge of the bowl. The cinnamon and brown sugar of it still scent the air, mixing faintly with the smell of the tonic from the bottle beside the bowl. Porridge to cover the taste of the medicine. Beside the discarded spoon, the thermometer hovers at room temperature, mercury shaken down from its earlier use.

At the mousehole, a twitching nose pokes out. Newly furred, newly seeing, it is as untried as the kitten in the ways of the world. As unfamiliar with new smells, new species. As curious.

But not as fast.

The young mouse breaks for the center of the rug, only to fall, battered under orange paws. It screams with an untested voice. High, thready, needy. Desperate. Marmalade bites down.

The mouse is silent then; the only sign of life left is the spastic twitching of its little hind foot. The orange kitten bats at it with a paw, and tries to fit small, syringe-toothed jaws around its head.

The Westminster Chimes of the hall clock sound, and then a count of three. The old lady stirs, but doesn't wake. Her head is tilted back, now, just enough to permit the beginning of a snore. Winter is as hard on old bodies as young.

The child wakes.

She shivers; the quilt that is proof against the chill of winter is not proof against the chill of heated flesh. The glowing embers of the fire catch the shape of her mittens on the fireside rack, where they have been drying for days and days since she was last allowed outside. The shadows they cast are like giant's hands, stretching darkly all the way up the bedcovers.

The marmalade kitten freezes in her act of musine decapitation, ears pricked, eyes wild. The grey bolts from the dollhouse, fur on end.

There is another shadow, and it is not from the firelight. It stoops over the bed, and tucks the quilt up again around the child's shoulders as she curls her hot face into the cotton pillowcase. The shadow's hand is thin and white, but when it strokes back her curls, the pain goes away, and it's so much easier to relax, and to sleep.

Thank you, she says.

And

Goodnight, nobody.

Nobody runs its fingers through her hair, oh so slowly, and the heat drains away. And away. By morning she will be like the thermometer, mercury shaken down to room temperature.

Goodnight, child.