If the Talbet colonial family home were cut in half, it would resemble a wormy apple. Abnormally large rooms with luxury surroundings and accents of old money work hard to obscure the places where the gleaming network of brass tubes reach beyond the obscurity of wooden walls. The metal veins that connect every room are there for the convenience of the important family and to ensure Mr. and Mrs. Talbet never have to see the help unless they want to. Which, they rarely do.
Lucy Ann Talbet, a fairy of a human being, just five years old, quietly pads down the darkened hall into the overstocked family library. Stepping into the moonlight painted room, she swiftly crosses to the wall opposite the gilded bay window and built-in reading nook.
On her tippiest of toes, she runs her little hand along the smooth wallpaper until she feels what she is looking for. She pushes her tiny footstool, from its position in front of her similarly sized reading chair, flush with the wall, aiding her reach. Lucy digs her little fingers into the grooves around an ornate piece of molding. It is almost imperceptible from the rest of the hand-carved sculpture spanning the room at the halfway point in the wall.
Lucy Ann pulls until her fingernails turn white and finally the piece gives way, nearly toppling her as it opens on its hinge. Lucy Ann smiles with anticipation, bringing her little mouth to the hole and whispers, “Jeffery! Ally ally oxen free!”
Her voice vibrates the ingenious metal contraption and races through the house along the network of talking tubes.
Lucy Ann puts her ear to the hole and waits. Another voice, this one a little older and male, returns, “Are you in the library?”
Lucy Ann giggles. “How did you know on first guess? Did you leave the kitchen?”
Jeffery responds, “I don’t cheat! I could tell you weren’t in the attic because I couldn’t hear the wind, and you always pick one or the other. It’s my turn now, so be quiet. If Nan wakes up, Mom is gonna know too.”
Lucy Ann speaks into the tube. “Okay, I’ll wait right here, and I’ll whisper.” Her voice softens as she speaks the last word.
Lucy sits down on the little footstool and swings her legs, eagerly waiting for her turn to guess which intercom tube her brother will call her from next.
A moment later a clownish falsetto faintly asks, “Hello? Are you still there?”
Lucy is confused, but she stands up and puts her ear to the hole in the wall again, then turns to speak into it. “Jeffery! You’re supposed to say, ‘Ally ally oxen free.’”
The exaggerated childish voice responds. “You said it for me!”
Lucy becomes unsure and timidly whispers into the speaking tube, “Why do you sound like that?”
“Don’t you like it? I’m being silly!”
Lucy smiles. “Oh! Okay, do I get to guess now?”
The falsetto responds, “Yes, guess!”
Lucy thinks really hard, gripping the sides of the hole with excitement and tries to keep her voice down. “Are you in the kitchen still?”
The high-pitched voice pauses, then responds, “Yes, come meet me in here. I have a treat for you!”
Lucy grins. “Is it a strawberry?”
The voice responds, “You’ll have to come see.”
Lucy runs from the room, not even bothering to replace her pedestal or close the intercom.
# # #
A few moments later, Jeffery’s fingers reveal another speaking tube in the pantry bathed in flickering candle light. He puts his mouth to the tube and giggles. “Ally ally oxen free, Lucy Ann!”
A full beat passes before Jeffery decides to try again. “Lucy, ally ally oxen free!”
This time another voice answers, a gruff woman’s tenor crackling with sleep and irritation. “I swear to the Lord Himself, Jeffery, you and your sister better be in bed when I come up to check on you!”
Jeffery’s eyes widen and betray his eleven years in a moment. “Nan! I, uh, we’re in bed!”
The boy blows out his candle and races from the pantry back up the long, polished hallway, bits of hot wax dribbling on the marble floor.
# # #
The kitchen is in darkness as Nan opens the door and walks across the rich boards to where the tile surrounds a large wood-burning stove and a clean stack of logs beside it.
Nan glares as she looks around and doesn’t see anything of note.
She wipes her eyes, walking with purpose down the long hallway and up the stairs to Jeffery’s open door. He’s in bed, his back to Nan.
“Mmm hmm. Goodnight, Jeffery. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
Jeffery twitches and snores audibly but looks back at Nan who catches him with an accusing purse of her lips.
Jeffery rolls back over, resigned to the knowledge he’s been caught.
Nan continues down the hallway to Lucy Ann’s room, where the door is ajar. Nan pauses outside and shakes her head, opening the door to reveal an empty room fit for a princess.
Nan stalks back into Jeffery’s room. “Jeffery, where is your sister?
From down the hall, a hair-whitening scream echoes, its pitch like struck crystal, a warning of innocence dissolving, terror replacing its fleeting memory.
Nan runs from Jeffery’s room into the kitchen, the door now wide open. Her own son, Brandon, a boy of about eight, stands framed by the gray trim.
The scream reverberates from him uncontrollably, tears streaking down his stunned little face. Brandon closes his mouth, cutting off the cry only when his mother reaches him. Nan is on her knees instantly, checking him for wounds.
The rest of the estate, awakened, clamors to the kitchen. Jeffery enters the doorway in time to see Nan take her little boy in her arms. After a long hug, she pulls back and sternly asks, “What happened, Brandon? What happened?”
Mr. and Mrs. Talbet enter behind Jeffery. Mr. Talbet moves the boy aside as sleep rushes from both of his parents’ expressions.
Mr. Talbet slowly crosses to Nan and Brandon. “What is it, son? What’s wrong?”
Mrs. Talbet unconsciously takes Jeffery in her arms. “Where’s Lucy?”
Brandon looks at Mrs. Talbet and manages to squeak out, “I saw him take Lucy Ann. I saw it!”
A shriek escapes Mrs. Talbet’s lips as Mr. Talbet quickens his pace, crossing to Nan and her son. Squatting down to look the little boy square in the eyes, Mr. Talbet asks, “Where, Brandon? Who took her?”
The little boy stays his quivering lips and speaks with a clarity beyond his years. “Mister Tasty Treats took Lucy Ann. He took her out there. I couldn’t stop him!” His tiny hand points into the darkened woods beyond the family estate. Fresh tears pour from his eyes.