Logan, Liam, and Lenox had lived in the big green house on Archer Avenue for twelve, ten, and four years, respectively before they found the secret passageway.
In fact, it was the very night of little Lenox’s fourth birthday that it happened. Dinner had been quickly devoured (steak and jacket potatoes with real butter, Lenox’s favorite), and four candles had been blown out atop a three-layered chocolate cake. The winter sun had set, and a glow of red and green shone from the decorated spruce that stood in front of the large picture window.
Father had retired to the sitting room in front of a roaring fire with a heavy, boring-looking book lying open across his rising and falling belly. His argyle-socked feet sat crossed atop the coffee table, and a soft snore fluttered from his lips. He rarely got more than nine words into reading before falling asleep in his favorite armchair after a large supper.
Mother hummed a Christmas carol – Good King Wenceslas – as she washed the dishes and tidied up the kitchen. In between each dish, she dried her hands on her apron and plucked up a nibble of leftover chocolate cake. Chocolate anything was her favourite.
The children gathered on the floor by the tree; Lenox lay on his stomach pushing a toy train back and forth along the ridges of the rug, Liam lie on his back staring up at the ceiling in deep thought, and Logan sat against the sofa with her fingers tied up in a cat’s cradle, her tongue sticking out, trying to figure out her next move.
“What do you think is in that big green one?” Lenox asked as he pointed to a long, thin, wrapped present under the tree. One of his springy red curls fell into his face and he blew it away with the side of his mouth. Of all three children, Lenox was the only one with curls, and the only one with red hair, which Liam loved to tease him about, but Mother said that it made him special.
“Why do you even care? You already got your presents,” Liam said with a sneer.
Liam wasn’t happy that Lenox had been allowed to open his presents earlier that night, even though it was his little brother’s birthday. An agreement had been made the year before that Lenox would be allowed to unwrap all of his presents on his birthday (the 24th) save for one, and he would unwrap the remaining one on Christmas morning when the rest of the children opened theirs. Liam didn’t think it was fair that Lenox was allowed to open his presents early while he and Logan were tormented standing by with their presents still under the tree. It wasn’t Liam’s fault that the doctor pulled a baby Lenox out of the door in his Mother’s stomach so close to Christmas.
Like a soldier in the trenches, Lenox shimmied himself along the floor on his stomach over to the present to take a closer look. “I haven’t opened all of my presents. I still get one more. Maybe this one’s mine,” he said.
“Don’t be a dummy. That one can’t be yours. Santa has to bring your last present later tonight, along with the rest of ours. That one has to be mine,” said Liam with a smile.
Logan bent forward over her tangled fingers and whispered to Lenox, “I bet you that my present is hidden in the study, because it would make too much noise being wrapped up under the tree.”
“How could a present make noise?” asked Lenox.
Logan stuck out her tongue flat and panted, then gave a soft, “Ruff ruff!”
Lenox’s eyes lit up as he shouted, “A puppy?!”
“Shhh!” Logan released her right hand from the string and covered Lenox’s mouth. All three of them sat in silence for a moment as they listened to see if Mother had heard. She hadn’t, and Father continued to snore.
“I heard rustling coming from the study just before dinner.” Logan whispered with a smile. “It’s got to be a puppy. I’ve been asking for one for almost a year.”
“Let’s go look!” Lenox said softly as he motioned toward the study with his thumb.
“How will we get in? Father always locks it behind him when he comes out,” said Liam.
“The key is there,” Logan pointed across the room to an blue ceramic dish that held pennies, lint, and Father’s keys.
The children had always been told to never enter the study. Father said that it was a place where adults can have peace and quiet, and that there was nothing at all that could possibly spark a child’s interest in there anyway; which, of course, sparked the children’s interest even more.
The sink faucet stopped running, the kitchen light turned out, and Mother emerged with a glass of red wine in her hand and a satisfied smile upon her face. She always felt euphoric after getting everything clean and in order, though with three children it usually wasn’t long before the mess slowly crept its way back.
“Off to bed now, little ones,” she said petting Logan’s long brown hair.
“But we want to stay up to see Santa, Mother. Can’t we just sleep out here by the fire?” Logan looked up at her and lied.
Mother and Father didn’t know yet, but Logan had found out two years before that Santa wasn’t real. She had silently watched Father placing presents beneath the tree and eating the milk and cookies they had left out two Christmases ago. But she wasn’t going to spoil it for her brothers, and she certainly wasn’t going to miss out on presents from both her parents and “Santa Claus.”
“Afraid not, my loves. Santa works alone. Now, go on to bed.”
The children made their way down the hall, each one pausing at their bedroom doorway to look back at each other. Logan gave Liam and Lenox a quick wink, and the boys knew just what their sister’s signal meant as they each shut their door.
Thirty-three extra-long minutes later, the click of their parents’ bedroom door shutting for the night echoed from down the hall, and they each leapt from their beds. Quietly as can be, they emerged from their rooms.
Logan slowly and softly removed Father’s keys from the blue ceramic dish, while Lenox grabbed a flashlight, and Liam kept an eye on his parents’ bedroom door. The light shining from the slit underneath finally went out, and he joined his brother and sister in the sitting room.
“They’re asleep,” Liam said as he tiptoed into the room.
“Good. Now, let’s go find that puppy!” said Logan.
The study was on the opposite side of the house, in between the linen closet and the blue bathroom that no one ever used because the flusher on the toilet was perpetually broken. Logan slid the long, silver key into the study keyhole and turned clockwise until it clicked.
Inside was a dreary place, much smaller than they had expected, with just one small window up high. A solid oak desk stood underneath it, with papers, a lamp, and a well-worn red velvet sitting chair. Dark wood bookshelves were built into the walls from floor to ceiling holding books with dried, crusty spines. Logan turned on the lamp and the children began to look around.
“I don’t see a puppy,” Lenox whispered as he scooched across the hardwood floor on his hands and knees.
“But I heard something in here earlier. I know I did,” Logan said as she looked under the chair. But there was indeed no sign of a puppy.
“There’s nothing here,” Liam said through a yawn.
Logan bent down and looked under the desk again, but all she found was Lenox shining the flashlight into her eyes.
“I’m tired. Can we just go back to bed?” Liam yawned again and leaned back against one of the bookshelves, which slightly gave way to his weight and made a clicking noise. As he stepped away from it, it pushed out away from the wall and stood a few inches ajar.
“What the heck?” Liam said, pulling the heavy bookcase open.
Logan and Lenox walked over, and there the three children stood in the newly found doorway.
“What is it?” Logan asked, popping her head just inside, but all she could see was a partial black metal floor that was being shined on by the desk lamp. The smell coming from inside the dark space was old and musty in the warm air that came up from below.
“It’s a secret passage!” Liam shout-whispered.
Lenox stuck his head in between Logan and Liam’s torsos and said, “Maybe the puppy is in there!”
Lenox nudged Logan forward.
“I’m not going first!” she said.
Liam rolled his eyes and grabbed the flashlight from Lenox’s hand, then pushed forward and shined it down into the darkness. A black metal spiral staircase with no railing wound downwards.
“Come on,” Liam said, leading the way.
The three children slowly crept down the staircase into the darkness, lit only by the yellow glow of Liam’s flashlight and what small amount of light shined from the desk lamp in the study above.
Just before they reached the bottom stair, they heard a soft shuffle and then a loud thud, which made Logan grab Liam’s arm, halting him from moving forward.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Maybe it’s your puppy,” said Liam.
“No. That sounded bigger than a puppy.”
At the bottom of the staircase was a narrow hall with yellow walls. The musty smell grew stronger and the air grew warmer and thicker the further they walked. Logan’s heart was thumping in her chest, and little Lenox grabbed at himself so as not to wet his pajamas.
At the end of the hall was a small raised platform area about five feet by eight, and a foot and a half off the ground.
“Wait, Liam. I’m scared,” Logan said and tugged at Liam’s nightshirt. “Let’s go back upstairs.”
“No. I wanna see what’s down here.” He continued down the hall, then stopped and shined the light directly into the crawl space. “What the –”
A white duvet and pillow were laid out like a makeshift bed in the small space, and candy wrappers, a freshly eaten banana’s peel, and two small dolls lay scattered over it.
“Somebody’s been down here!” Liam said taking a step back. “Look.” He shined the flashlight onto the candy wrappers. “Those are my Halloween candies that I thought you took from my stash, Lenox!”
“I told you I didn’t take it, dummy,” Lenox whispered, still gripping at his crotch.
“Shhh, the both of you!” Logan shushed them both. She grabbed the flashlight from Liam and scanned the entire area with the light, looking for any sign of whoever had been down there. She began to creep forward, seeing that there was a small crawl space just off to the right of the platform.
Logan pointed the flashlight back to shine on Liam and Lenox. “This is creepy. I’m going back upsta-” She screamed mid-sentence and dropped the flashlight to the ground. Something had moved right next to her, as though someone unseen was trying to pass by them down the short, narrow hallway.
“What was that?!” Liam shouted as he scrambled for the light. Finally grasping it, he shined it towards the bottom of the spiral staircase.
Lenox screamed and pulled at the back of Logan’s nightshirt. All three of them froze as the light revealed what was cowering in the light at the base of the stairs. It was…a little girl.
She was very tiny, with curly red hair, like Lenox’s, but it sprouted from a head that was missing half its face. A large, pale, skin-covered indentation replaced a left ear, left eye, and nose, and drool dripped from the small hole that was her three-toothed mouth. Skinny, stumpy arms with only three fingers on each hand emerged just slightly out of the holes of a torn green frock. Her thin legs were bowed in and the skin of her kneecaps looked as though at any moment it could give way, and her bony knee would come piercing through.
Logan’s heart thumped in her ears as she took a step closer. “Who are you?” she asked in a shaky voice, trying not to fall over with fright.
The little deformed girl crouched down onto the bottom stair, clutching at the metal rungs as she stared at the children with her one eye, then she looked up the staircase at the light shining from the study above.
“Mutheh…Fathah…,” she brokenly uttered and then pointed up the staircase to the lit study above. Her fingernails were long, curled and yellow.
“Mother and Father?” said Liam.
The girl hobbled over to Logan who shuffled back and grabbed Liam by the arm. “Stay away!” Logan said.
Logan took a closer look at the girl, while still keeping her distance. “Wait,” she said looking at what the girl was wearing. “That used to be my dress. Who are you?” she asked.
The girl tugged at her tangled hair and said, “Luh-noh.”
“What’d she say?” asked Lenox.
“Luh-noh, Luh-noh, Luh-noh,” the little creature said, tapping herself on the chest.
“Lenore? Wasn’t that-” Liam began.
“The baby that died. The one that was supposed to come home with Lenox,” said Logan.
“What?” Lenox asked.
“When…” she took a deep breath, keeping her stare on the girl. “When Mother brought you home from the hospital, she was supposed to bring home two babies, a boy and a girl. But she and Father told us that the girl baby died after you both came out. They had named her Lenore.”
“Luh-nor,” the deformed girl said again, this time pronouncing the “R”. She smiled and let out a terrifying sound that seemed to be gleeful, and then hopped up and down and continued making the loud noise.
“Shhhhhhh!” Logan said.
Liam grabbed Lenore’s frail arm and whispered, “Be quiet! You’re going to wake Mother and Father!”
But it was too late.
“Charles! They’ve found her!” Mother shouted from above.
Liam shined the flashlight up the spiral staircase to see her in a red robe standing at its top, looking down at the children with a head full of pink rollers and rage-filled eyes.
“Mother?” Logan whimpered from below. “What’s going on?”
Lenox was now clutching so tightly at his sister’s shirt that he was pinching her skin. “Ow!” She shoved his hand off.
Father’s heavy footsteps came down the hall above and he joined Mother at the top of the stairs. The flashlight, dying now, flickered on his angry face.
“Father, who is this?” Liam asked pointing to Lenore.
“Luh-noh! Luh-noh!!!” she said poking at her chest again, another big gob of drool escaping her half-mouth.
“Goddamn it!” Father shouted, looking down at them. He punched the wall hard and disappeared again. His footsteps, more quickly now, headed back down the hall and loud thumping came from above, as though he was tossing things onto the floor.
Liam’s dying flashlight flickered on Mother’s face. She was quickly removing her curlers, two at a time, and tossing them to the floor. “Oh, children. You have made a big mistake. We told you never to enter the study. Such awful, horrible little children.”
“We’re sorry, Mother! We were just looking for our Christmas presents. But then we…we found…her,” said Liam. “Why is she down here, Mother?” The flashlight gave one last flicker, then gave up the ghost, making Mother just a dark silhouette above.
Father shouted from down the hall, “Fiona, just shut the door! You knew what we would have to do if they ever found out. We need to go! Now!”
Mother gritted her teeth and began closing the bookcase. “Father is right. We can’t let you leave now. Now that you’ve seen her. You will all have to stay down there now. You never should have gone into the study.”
“What?! Mother, please!” Logan cried as she ran to the bottom of the staircase.
The light above narrowed as Mother slowly began to close the secret bookcase door. “Goodbye, children.”
“Nooooo!” Logan shouted as everything went black.
Lenox began crying loudly. “Why did Mother do that? What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” Liam said and knocked at the flashlight hoping to revive it, but to no avail. “Logan, where are you? I can’t see a thing.”
“Me either,” said Logan who had her arms straight out in front of her, trying to find her way back to her brothers as she slowly scooted foot by foot to the other side of the room. But then suddenly, everything became illuminated with a warm orange glow.
The children looked over to the crawl space to see Lenore holding a small gas lamp and smiling proudly.
“Thank you,” Logan said walking over to her new sister. “Can I use this?” She reached out her hand for the gas lamp and Lenore handed it off to her.
Logan began to climb the spiral staircase. “Maybe this is just a joke. You know, like a prank that Mother and Father are playing on us?”
“Some prank,” said Liam and sat on the floor.
Logan reached the top of the stairs and pushed on the flat surface of the secret door, but it didn’t budge. She pushed again, then kicked at it. Nothing. She pounded and screamed, “Mother! Father!” She put her ear to the door, but not a sound came from the other side.
Logan came back down and sat on the bottom stair, setting the gas lamp on the floor. “What do we do now?”
“Plehy! Plehy!” Lenore said excitedly as she pushed several marbles across the floor.
A bright blue one reached Liam’s bare foot, and he looked over to his sister with an expression of utter despair. “We have to get out of here.”
Hours passed as the children searched every nook and cranny of the hidden space for some way out. Lenox played marbles with Lenore for a while until he started to get sleepy and she laid out a second blanket for him next to her own.
“I’m so tired. There’s no way out,” said Liam as he huffed and laid down on the floor himself.
“We’ll keep looking a little later. Or, maybe they’ll come back.” Logan said. She lay down right beside him, trying to keep warm against him on the cold concrete floor. The gas lamp’s flame began to shrink and Logan’s eyes became heavy until she could fight off slumber no more.
Sometime later, a loud thump came from above, and then heavy shuffling and the sound of someone dragging something across the floor. Logan sat straight up and shook Liam awake. “Liam, wake up! They came back! I told you!”
She felt her way through the darkness back to the spiral staircase. “Mother? Father?” She climbed the stairs and began pounding on the door when she reached the top. “Please let us out!”
From the other side of the door came footsteps and then a man’s deep voice. “Hello? Who’s there?”
“Help! Help us! Please! We’re trapped in here!” Liam shouted from below as he felt his way over to the staircase.
“Liam? Where? Where are you?”
“We’re on the other side of the bookcase. It’s a secret door! You have to push on it and then it’ll open! Please!” shouted Logan. “Here!” She pounded again three times as loudly as she could. “We’re here!”
“Who is that?” asked Liam as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. Lenore was still sound asleep next to him, snoring loudly through her half-nose.
“I don’t know,” said Liam. “But he knows who I am.”
“Here?” asked the man as he pounded from the other side.
“Yes! Right here!” Logan and Liam both pounded again.
“Okay,” the man said.
From the other side of the wall came two heavy thumps, then a creaking sound, and light from the study began to fill the hidden room as the secret bookcase slowly opened.
Logan squinted and adjusted her eyes to the light. “Thank y-” she stopped.
There stood Santa Claus, holding a golden puppy with a red bow tied around its neck.