Gossamer Page 5

"Thought you'd get it, huh? Thought I liked you?" He spoke in a low voice so the woman wouldn't hear him. She was at the door, waving to the car the social work lady drove. It was a business car, with the city seal on its door. She probably didn't even have her own. She was probably married to some jerk who wouldn't let her have a car, who said she was a dumb broad, too dumb to drive. She had to take a bus to work, he figured.

Carefully he put the dog biscuit into his pocket. "I might give it to you later," he whispered to the dog. It was a good game, to get someone to believe you, even a dumb dog. Get them to trust you. Then surprise them. Hah. He'd keep pulling the biscuit away forever.

He pounded once with both hands on the piano. Then he went to the kitchen, picked up the glass from the table, and gulped the rest of the lemonade. If he didn't, she would take it away from him, hoping he would cry so she could hit him.

She was holding his suitcase now, and smiling at him. He frowned and wiped his sticky mouth with the back of one hand.

"Where's the TV?" he asked in a loud voice.


Sinisteeds rarely sleep. No sprawled snoozing Heap for them. They are a restless herd, these dark creatures who contain within them the most profound of all our fears, the hidden things, old guilts and failings that we will ourselves to forget. Their constant pawing and snorting is accompanied by an atmosphere of foul-smelling sweat, for they glisten with it. Their energy is boundless. They toss their heads and flare their nostrils, tasting the air, searching for the places where they will spew their loathsome holdings, waiting for deepest night, the time when infliction takes place.

They are not bound by rules or limits, as the dream-givers are. They prey on the most vulnerable. They have no mercy.

And they were aware of the boy. They were making ready for the boy.


Most Ancient called a meeting. The dream-givers gathered early in the evening, before dark fully fell, before they went out on their nightly work.

"A warning to you all," he announced. "I dislike bringing this up. It is not something we like discussing. But I'm feeling some early warning signs. Small tremors in the earth. I want you to be alert."

A murmur rippled through the Heap. Littlest One listened carefully. Around her, she heard the ssssss sound. The dream-givers were saying the word under their breath.

Sinisteeds. Sinisteeds.

"They're convening," Most Ancient said. "I believe they have a victim identified. They've been on the prowl."

"Prowl?" Trooper asked. Trooper was a large, muscular dream-giver, forceful and decisive. "I'd say rampage is the word for it. I had to deal with one quite recently. It inflicted a terrible nightmare on a young man in my assigned house. Did a lot of damage. I've been doing remedial dreams ever since."

"I've had some trouble as well!" another voice called. Littlest peered toward the back of the Heap to see who was speaking. It was Dowager, so precise always, speaking now in a clipped tone. "I've been able to ward them off, but I've definitely felt some approaches. And I saw scorch marks on the wall of a bedroom."

"Scorch marks?" Littlest whispered in a questioning voice to Thin Elderly, who was beside her. "What are scorch marks?"

"I'll explain later," he whispered back.

"Anyone else?" Most Ancient looked around. Some heads nodded. A few hands went up.

"Well. We've always had these individual forays, of course. Trooper, good work. You do deal well with these. If any of you need help, feel free to call on Trooper for a little extra muscle.

"But what I want you all to be on the lookout for are signs of a pending group attack. I'm feeling a gathering starting. A Horde.

"This happens only rarely. Over the years, occasionally, they have focused on one victim, someone particularly helpless. Then they mass and descend. Perhaps only the oldest of you here have ever experienced it. Anyone remember the last Horde attack?" He looked around. "No one? Well, it's been a very long while.

"I don't mean to worry or alarm you. And I don't see it as imminent. But we must be on the lookout. Somewhere out there they are beginning to sniff—to sense—a victim. Let's be vigilant. Let's be on guard."

Subdued, the dream-givers rose from the Heap and began to set out for their night of work. There were apprehensive murmurs among them. Littlest could hear the whispered sound, ssssss, that meant some of them were still saying the name under their breath.

"Sinisteeeeed," she whispered to herself, testing the sound of it.

But Thin Elderly, looking down at her, shook his head in warning. He put his finger to his lips. Chastened and a little nervous, Littlest reached up, took his hand, and held tightly to it as they set out.


"I can't stay in a house with no TV," he said again. He was standing beside the piano with his hands clenched. The dog nosed at his sneakers but the boy didn't notice.

The woman knelt beside him, though she knew already not to reach out with a touch. Earlier she had tried to put her arm around him but he had flinched and pushed her away.

"You know," she said in a calm voice, "there are a lot of other things to do. I'll read to you, or you can read to yourself. There are plenty of books. Some left over from my own childhood. The Bobbsey Twins? I suppose that's more for girls. But there will be some book you'd like, I'm sure."

He rolled his eyes. "Get me a Game Boy, then, if all you have are stupid books," he said.

"A what?" she asked, laughing. "I don't even know what that is. But if you like games, we can play games. Ever played Monopoly? I always lose, but I'm a pretty good sport. I have a Monopoly set in the cupboard over there, and Scrabble, and some others. I keep them for visiting children. I have a lot of grandnieces and grandnephews."

"I'm gonna run away," he announced. "Even if that door is locked I know how to open it. I'm out of here."

"Listen," the woman said, and tilted her head. "Hear that?"

They could both hear the sound of the heavy rain that had started to fall, and in the distance some rumbles of thunder.

"The door isn't locked. You can simply open it and walk through," she told him, "but it's nasty weather outside, and I'd be worried about you, about where you would sleep and what you'd find to eat.

"Why don't you wait until morning? At least this evening you'll have a nice dinner and a warm bed."

"I need TV."

"Well, I can't provide that, I'm afraid. But I do have a meatloaf in the oven."

He scowled. "Do you have ketchup?" he asked. She nodded. "And ice cream for dessert."

"Do you have cards?"


"You know, with A's and K's and Q's."

"Oh. Yes, I do, actually. Do you know some card games? We could do that after dinner."

"Okay," he told her, grudgingly. "I'll stay tonight. We can play war."


"Is it a Horde?" Littlest asked Thin Elderly in an apprehensive voice. She was trying hard to appear courageous and mature. The two were inside the house, huddled in the hallway between the bedrooms. The rain had stopped and there was a moon now; it illuminated the faded wallpaper, with its sentimental pattern of hoop-skirted ladies in gardens. It was dream-giving time, the darkest time of night, but the pair had not yet begun their work because of the sound of an approaching Sinisteed.

Thin Elderly was listening attentively. "No," he said. "It's alone."

Bravely, Littlest One made a tiny fist and held it up. "Shall I punch at it?"

"No. It's much stronger than we are. We can't fight it. We have to huddle here and watch it do its damage," Thin Elderly explained. "It'll probably choose only one: the woman or the boy. They don't much bother with dogs."

"What's that?" Littlest jumped, startled. "I can hear something right there by the window!"

"Hot breath. Exhalations," Thin Elderly whispered. "It's how they get in. They breathe themselves through the walls. That's the scorching you asked about."

The sound was increasingly terrible, first a snorting and heavy breathing, then a pawing against the wall of the house. Littlest thought she could even feel the heat of it and smell the acrid wet-smoke scent.

"Make yourself as small as possible," Thin Elderly instructed. "Don't bother dissolving. It won't bother us. It won't even notice us. It'll enter, probably through this wall right here, where we hear the breaths. Then it'll choose its victim, do the infliction—it's quite fast—and then gallop away. Try not to be frightened. But be small, to avoid being trampled."

"I don't want it to choose the boy," Littlest whispered in her tiniest voice. "He's not as strong as the woman. He cried in his bed before he slept."

Thin Elderly put his fingers gently over her mouth. "Shhh. Here it comes."

Together they withdrew into their very smallest selves and curled against each other silently while the beast entered, breathing itself an opening though the wall, searing the wallpaper, which peeled back with burned edges, and charring the plaster beneath. The noise became deafening—thumps and pounds and whinnies—but the woman and the boy continued to sleep. It was a sound that humans did not hear, and even the dog, with his heightened sense of hearing, perceived only a muffled thump and turned from one side to the other with a sigh.

Littlest, peeking, terrified, through her fingers, could see the eyes, bloodshot and angry, and smell its filthy, matted coat as it entered and stood, tossing its head. The beast filled the hallway, and its shadow against the wall in the moonlight was even larger. She trembled. But Thin Elderly was correct; it had no interest in her. It whipped its ropey mane back and forth with the tossing of its head, as if in decision-making, and then strode through the open door of the guest room and toward the bed where the little boy, in his striped pajamas, lay breathing evenly, one arm curled around a pillow.

The Sinisteed leaned its massive head down toward the boy and then, like an engine releasing steam, it snorted a hissing emanation of breath that enveloped the boy's head. Sssssssssss! It lasted only a second. Then the creature shook its head, whinnied triumphantly, and disappeared through the wall, which repaired itself instantly, into the night.

"Your first infliction," Thin Elderly told Littlest One. "Amazing, how quickly it happens, isn't it? You would have missed it if you had blinked."

He looked at her and she gave him a nervous smile.

"Did you blink?" he asked.

Littlest shook her head. "No," she said, "but I had my eyes closed tight. I was scared."

"Well," he told her, "there's really not much to see. The sound, though, is astonishing. That hiss. Now we must try to undo it."

"Undo it?"

"Have you gathered something calming to bestow on him?"

"Yes. But look!" Littlest said, pointing.

The boy had sat upright in the bed and was crying out. "Don't! Don't!" He turned his head from side to side, an odd repetition of what the beast had done. His eyes were closed but he continued to call out in panic. "Don't let him get me!"

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