The town, the street, and the houses were all dark and quiet, all except one. In the attic window of the Allan house, a candle burned as the young Edgar Poe grappled with a rhyme. His ink-stained fingers clutched a quill that scratched out yet another unsatisfactory verse, while his other hand propped up the head of the struggling poet. The wondrous words that had crowded his brain earlier that night were gone. They seemed to have slipped through his fingers and flown out the open window into the night, or at least, wherever they had gone, they were now beyond his reach.
Just a few short hours before, he had crept up the stairs to this makeshift attic study for a nightly rendezvous with his imagination. At that point the words, his words, had come to him so fast and furiously that he had barely had enough time to scribble them down. The rush of creativity had made him feel as if he were flying. He had soared on the wings of inspiration. Every word that had flowed from his pen had felt absolutely perfect, landing with grace and beauty upon the white page.
But now, as he read and reread those same lines, they stiffened, curled up, and died—becoming lifeless black squiggles on the shroud of paper. In disgust he ripped the offending scrawl from the roll of otherwise clean paper, crumpled the piece, and then tossed it into the graveyard of similar wads that lay at his feet.
“Ah, why don’t you just quit!” a small, unpleasant voice rasped in the boy’s ear. “Call it a night and hit the hay. Or, better yet, let’s climb up onto the roof and howl at the moon!”
“Arrgh!” Eddie flopped backward into the dusty upholstery and exhaled a frustrated sigh. “Where did it go? I almost had it. The words were right here. . . . They were so sweet. . . . Now they’re not only sour, but they’re rotten and they stink!”
“Ah, maybe you’re all washed up!” the voice tossed in.
“Shut up, McCobber!” Eddie ran his fingers through his hair and, sighing once more, sank farther back into his chair. “Some help you are.”
“Nice way to talk to your old pal,” McCobber said, pretending to be hurt. “Why, who is at your shoulder day in and day out, helping you through all the hard times by offering you his many centuries’ worth of sage advice?”
“Hmmm . . .” Eddie was not listening. He was watching as the flickering candle flame made the strange shapes of Uncle Galt’s collection appear to move and breathe.
His foster father’s rich uncle had a passion for collecting. Years ago, long before Eddie had come to live with the Allans, Uncle Galt had started what learned men called a “cabinet of curiosities.” He had filled it with fossils, natural specimens, ancient relics, and whatnot. But long ago the collection had outgrown the cabinet, or even a closet, and it was now stored in the back rooms of several buildings that Uncle Galt owned, as well as here in the Allans’ attic. John Allan called it a rat’s nest, and had it not been for all the favors he owed the old man, he would have gladly chucked every scrap of it into the street.
Eddie, however, loved it. The dusty fossils, the moth-eaten specimens, the musty antiques, and the sooty old paintings all held secrets from past lives. That was one of the reasons Eddie had carved out a little niche for himself up here. He found inspiration nestled in the moldering decay.
Eddie’s thoughts drifted as he absentmindedly ran his fingers over the battered face of an old devil puppet that hung from the rafters near his chair. It was part of a set of hand puppets once used by a traveling puppeteer. Eddie had seen a show something like it on a street corner when he was younger.
“I’ll bet you were a real star in your day,” Eddie thought out loud. He smiled at the gruesomely funny features. “You probably saw more of the world from your puppet stage than most humans ever will. . . . If you could only talk. . . .” He sighed.
“Yeah,” McCobber interjected sarcastically. “I bet that would be fascinating. Hey, maybe he could tell us what it’s like to have sweaty puppeteer fingers wiggling around in your head.”
On second thought, Eddie decided, maybe it was best that this devil couldn’t speak. Eddie personally had more talking devils than he needed.
McCobber stretched. Looking from Eddie’s shoulder into the night, he yawned and said, “Aaahh, it’s late, laddie. Maybe that little prince of darkness doesn’t need his beauty rest, but I—YONNIE CO-HONNIE, DID YOU SEE THAT? THERE’S A MONSTER OVER THERE!”
Eddie shot forward in his chair and peered out the open window. Across the backyard in the boardinghouse next door, all was dark—with the exception of a single light burning in a lone window.
“Where?” he asked. “I don’t—”
“THERE!” McCobber shouted. “LOOK! There’s a monster in that house, I tell ya!”
Eddie watched in horror as indeed a truly monstrous shadow moved across the drawn window shade.
“I told you!” McCobber yanked on Eddie’s ear and waved wildly. “Look at that hairy fiend, will ya! That’s no man. It’s not even an animal. It’s . . . It’s some kind of . . . a . . . a . . . a WEREWOLF! Just look at it hulking around over there. By Godfrey, I hope it doesn’t come through that window!” The little imp was frantic now and barely able to keep his balance on the boy’s shoulder.
“Look, look. . . . What’s it doing? It just lunged for something. CRIMONETTELY! It just caught a poor little bird in its clutches . . . and . . . and . . . Ahhh, jeez! Did you see that? That horrid creature just swallowed a wee, helpless bird! It was HORRIBLE. That big shadow just swallowed the little shadow. Oh, ICCK! . . . WAIT! WHERE’D HE GO?” McCobber’s horrified eyes bulged from their sockets. “I bet he saw us! Jeez-loweez. I just know it! He’s comin’ for us!”
The poor imp dove behind Eddie’s collar and peeked out. He cried, in a fear-strangled whisper, “Quick, Eddie boy! Douse that light!”
Suddenly there was a rush of air, as a flapping black shape burst from the darkness and landed on the sill next to them.
“AAAAAHHHH!” McCobber screamed in Eddie’s ear, the boy started.
“Are you boys still up?” It was Eddie’s pet raven, returning from a late-night outing.
“Whew.” Eddie exhaled in relief. “Raven, it’s just you!” He took another deep breath and hoped his heartbeat would slow to a normal rate.
“What’s going on?” Raven asked, smiling. “You lads look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“We’ve just seen an evil bird-eatin’ monster, that’s all!” spat McCobber.
“Up to your old tricks, eh, Mac?” The raven shook his head. “Listen, Impy, why don’t you lay off and let the kid get some sleep? It’s a school night, you know.”
“Why, you yolk-brained moron!” McCobber growled. “I wish you’d land that fat feathered carcass of yours on the windowsill across the way there. Then we’d see how smart you are. . . . Go on. Once you’re a midnight snack, we can all get some peace!”
“What windowsill?” Raven asked, looking across the yard at the dark houses. The window was now dark.
“That one over there, it . . . ,” McCobber began.
“Forget it,” Eddie said, shaking his head. “It was probably nothing.”
He capped his ink bottle, then stretched and yawned.
“Raven is right, McCobber. It’s time for bed.”
McCobber started to protest, but the boy cut him off—“Say good night, McCobber”—as he picked up the candle.
“Ah, good night,” he snarled, “but I hope that monster finds you where you sleep and drags you flappin’ and screamin’ from your snug little nest—”
“And a good night to you, too, McCobber.” The raven smiled. “Sleep well, Eddie.”
“Good night, Raven.” Eddie had crossed the room, had lifted the trapdoor, and was heading down the narrow attic stairway.
“By the way, Satan Junior,” Raven called in a loud whisper from the windowsill, “how about you keep a lid on the nightmare action so Eddie can get a little rest tonight.”
McCobber started fuming.
“Just say good night, McCobber,” Eddie said quietly as he descended through the floor.
“Why, you . . .” were McCobber’s parting words, and the light from Eddie’s candle was lost behind the closing door.
The raven chuckled softly, then cocked his head and listened. Leaves rustled outside the window. Pushing off, the raven caught the tail of a breeze that carried him into the night.
© 2011 Scott Gustafson