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Gossamer(9)
Author: Lois Lowry

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?"

"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."

13

"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!"

"Drat!" whispered Thin Elderly. "It's too late. Stay here. Be quiet. Dissolve."

Littlest shrank herself into invisibility and Thin Elderly, beside her, did the same. Just in time. The woman, tying the belt of her robe, hurried from her own bedroom across the hall and into the room where the boy was calling.

"John!" she said in a firm, quiet voice. She sat on the bed and put her arms around him. He struggled, crying. "Help me!" he sobbed.

"Wake up, John," she said to him firmly. "You're having a nightmare."

In a moment his eyes opened and he looked around, whimpering. The bedroom was unchanged: his little suitcase was on the floor by the chair, his clothes draped over the chair's wooden arm. A nightlight glowed in the corner.

"Someone was—" the boy said. He blinked. "He was chasing me!"

"It was a nightmare," she told him again. "You're safe here."

He lay back down. She pulled the covers up over him and stroked his back through the blanket.

"I'll tell you a story," she said to him in a quiet voice.

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