The wall smiled in a way walls shouldn’t smile.
Theo knew that regular walls didn’t smile, but if one did, it wouldn’t look like this lopsided grin. The brickwork cracked and warped, and concrete crumbled, raining down like asbestos dandruff. A moaning roar thrummed through his bedroom, so loud one might clamp their hands over their ears if terror hadn’t already frozen them in place.
And it was a smile. Scholars and politicians might dispute such possibilities, but Theo recognized a smile when he saw one. The splintered bricks twisted up in a line, the center sagging as the edges curled high. The stone lips parted, ready to devour him, and still, the roaring filled his room.
Then the smile lunged.
Seconds before the brickwork tumbled over his head, a hand grabbed Theo’s pajama shirt and hauled him backward. His legs yanked into the air, following his stolen body as it hurtled toward a doorway.
But this doorway was not the usual entrance to his bedroom. A new hole had opened in the air, one not present moments earlier. Much like the grinning wall, this oddity would have boggled his mind if time had allowed Theo to consider the issue. But no time existed for such thoughts, so he flew through the door with his feet flapping behind him.
Just before crossing the threshold, the wall’s roar altered. Its triumph vanished, replaced by rage. Then the sound vanished, cut off as the swirling mystical door slammed shut. The scene closed, leaving Theo floating in nothingness that held a tinge of somethingness—if such a thing were even possible. Lights glowed, which meant at least one hint of reality remained. And his body existed, still dressed in his sky blue pajamas, which was also something. Air filled his lungs, and his skin tingled with a light buzz that was almost unpleasant… but not.
But no floor rested beneath his feet. And the air he sucked into his lungs tasted bland and lifeless as if cleansed of all the things that made regular air fresh. Theo’s eyes saw, but only light blue mist greeted his sight, and his body felt, but no fear thrummed through his veins. No, whatever he was experiencing was definitely not normal.
Then again, twelve-years-old was hardly old enough to judge if smiling walls and doorways into otherworldly voids were ordinary. While this situation seemed unusual to Theo, perhaps such events were commonplace to adults. God forbid they tell him grownup things.
Hands gripped his shoulders from behind, and a hoarse voice whispered in his left ear. The speaker sounded winded, and his rough tone carried a desperate edge. Perhaps Theo’s savior had seen the smiling wall and thought it strange, too. Theo wanted to turn and see the man, but the hands gripped him tight, refusing to let him move.
“What did you say?” asked Theo. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re not scared at all, are you?” gasped his rescuer.
Theo probed his emotions but found all traces of fear missing. He understood alarm, he’d experienced it often enough when his uncle bellowed at him. But for the life of him, Theo couldn’t find a hint of panic drifting through him. He should feel terrified, for a smiling wall was not something that made one happy. But still, his fear remained absent.
“Something’s found you, Theo. You need to flee.”
The young boy scowled. “What do you mean?”
A pause, during which the speaker huffed ragged breaths. Why was he so breathless? Had he run here to save Theo? Considering which, how had this man entered the house? Uncle Marvin never left the doors unlocked. And bars protected all the windows. Thick bars. The type of bars that made Theo think of prison every time he peered out through the grimy glass.
“You don’t know?” The man’s words came out barely louder than a whisper.
“Your father, he was—”
The sky tore open, and Theo squeezed his eyes shut against the blast of light pouring through the split. The man holding him gasped.
“Flee, Theo! I’ll hold it off as long as possible.”
Theo longed to ask questions, but his chance to talk shredded as the stranger hurled him away once again. The wind stung Theo’s cheeks, but it only lasted a moment. Then the sky parted, and he plunged into a world containing more than mere mist. Gravity snatched him from the air, and he tumbled down a grassy hillock, heels over ears. When he came to a rest at the mound’s base, he sucked in a breath and coughed.
Theo rose to his knees, and his hazel eyes peered around at the London street. Historic brick buildings built from light-colored stone surrounded him, and a two-lane road wound nearby like an asphalt river between the tall structures.
He frowned. Something was wrong. He’d landed in a different area of the city to that which he frequented. Nothing about the street seemed familiar. Theo might never venture far beyond plodding to school and back, but he still felt confident the stranger had flung him far from the building he called home. Such an event seemed preposterous, but Theo had already seen a smiling wall, and that would have been laughable before tonight. What else might emerge by night’s end?
As if to confirm his location, a distinctly Londonish red double-decker bus zoomed by, leaving a plume of blue-gray smoke wafting through the air in its wake. Theo wandered to the nearby intersection and peered up at the street sign.
Kensington High Street.
He’d heard of Kensington High Street but had never walked its length nor crossed its path. As such, he had no way of knowing where it lay relating to Uncle Marvin’s house.
“Where do I go?” he murmured.
“Can’t go home,” cawed an odd voice.
Theo turned around, expecting to see a person, but only an old crow met his gaze. Gray plumage ruffled its black feathers, and something ancient lingered in the stare the bird returned to him.
“I’m sorry, but did you speak?” asked Theo. In a world where walls smiled, a talking bird was hardly the most astonishing thing he could imagine.
“Can’t go home,” the crow repeated.
For a moment, Theo stared at the crow, a frown creasing his forehead. He looked up and down Kensington High Street, wondering if someone were playing a prank on him. But even the bullies from his school, led by William H. Somersby, would never imagine such a hoax. And they were imaginative in their tormenting.
But William H. Somersby didn’t stroll Kensington High Street this evening. Nor did his cronies. Down the road, a man noisily carried out his trash, while back the other way, a cat dashed into the bushes outside a house. A red sedan rumbled past, but the driver didn’t even look at the small boy standing on the roadside wearing hand-me-down pajamas and no shoes.
“Can’t go home,” the crow squawked again.
“Then where should I go?” Theo asked.
“Can’t go home.”
Theo sighed, shrugged, and walked. Someone would find him.
The crow flapped its wings and flew after him, landing on his right shoulder. Theo jolted and paused his stride, shocked at the weight of the black and gray bird. For several seconds, he stared at the creature sitting mere inches away from his face, wondering if such a thing were safe. It might peck out his eyes at any moment or poop on his second-hand pajamas.
The pavement chilled Theo’s bare feet, and he yearned to walk once more if for nothing other than to do something productive. He looked at the crow, and it tilted its head and peered back at him with its left eye. Intelligence glittered there. Not the cleverness of an animal able to collect shiny objects. Something more.
“Which way should I go?” Theo asked.
The crow nodded forward, aiming its black beak down Kensington High Street in the opposite direction to where the bus had roared.
Theo trudged the way the crow indicated, hands at his sides, yearning for pockets in his pajamas to hide his fingers from the brisk evening air. Luckily, winter was a memory, or else his toes might have dropped off from the cold. Half a block down the road, the crow tapped him on the crown. Theo paused and glanced sideways at the talking bird.
“What is it?” he asked.
The crow poked his beak to the left, and Theo turned to look where he pointed. A dark side street beckoned, and Theo scowled. In the murk, a neon sign flickered, but he couldn’t make out what it said.
“I don’t want to go down there.”
The crow pecked him again on the scalp, harder this time.
“Ow! No need to be nasty.”
The bird jabbed its beak toward the alley. “Can’t go home,” it cawed.
Theo stared into the gloom once more. Whatever awaited him down there wasn’t likely to be worse than his smiling bedroom wall. At least he hoped not. He squared his shoulders, sucked in a breath, and crossed the street.
The alley swallowed Theo in one gulp. Ancient cobbles chilled the soles of his feet, and he hopped along as if they were blocks of ice. The other street hadn’t held such stabbing cold, and he wondered at the difference.
Until he reached the flickering sign. Once there, all other thoughts faded away, and he gawped at what it depicted.
A human skull, white and bare, laughed down at him. The skull’s jaw snapped up and down as eyeless sockets peered straight at Theo. It swished back and forth across the sign like a frenzied shark in a tank trying to escape its confines. All the while, the dead gaze gripped him.
The shop’s front door creaked open, startling Theo out of his daze. The door was white, built of plain wood with a regular handle. In stark contrast to the chilled alleyway, the shop interior glowed with warmth. This confused Theo; such a macabre sign should accompany an equally creepy store.
“What do you think?” Theo asked the crow perched on his shoulder.
The new phrase startled Theo, but everything about tonight was peculiar, so he didn’t consider it long. Instead, he looked farther down the alley, searching for other shops, but only gloom lurked beyond the open shop door’s dim light. Whatever lay down there was unlikely to invite him in like this shop. He turned back toward Kensington High Street, only to see the end of the alleyway vanished as if bitten by a huge mouth. Dark mist swirled beyond the chomped-off lane, at once gray and then white. As he listened, Theo thought he heard voices whispering within that fog, calling out to him.
“I’m not going back that way,” he murmured. The crow cawed, the sound remarkably like laughter. With a sigh, Theo faced the inviting entrance once more. The cobbles burned his soles with their coldness, and he yearned to step through the door. “Nowhere to go but forward, I suppose.”
The moment Theo crossed the threshold, the door banged shut, and the skull on the sign tilted backward, cackling silently into the night.