Tommy had been seven when he’d vanished.
He didn’t remember it. He only knew that he’d been missing because his family had left clues scattered around his grandmother’s house. Newspaper clippings his father had cut out, stuck on the board in his study; news reports that played on repeat for two days; the other newspaper articles – the ones dated back to the First World War – that mentioned all the other children who had gone missing near Misselthwaite House.
Tommy had dreams about the day he disappeared.
He remembered waking up in the middle of the night to scratching. He’d tried to convince himself that he was imagining it – that there weren’t any creatures in the walls – but he couldn’t. It happened every night. He could hear a loud scraping noise, like a heavy chair being dragged across the floor. He’d been too scared to get out of bed and go have a look, or to wake up his brother, Peri. Instead he’d pull the blankets up over his face and curl into a ball.
It was middle of winter and Tommy had been stifling hot underneath his blankets. He wanted to kick them off, cool down in night air, but then he would see the light – a torch or candle – and smell something earthy and damp. Shutting his eyes tightly, Tommy would repeat, over and over again in his mind, it’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there.
When he would finally open his eyes it was morning and the room looked exactly the same as it had the night before.
In his dreams, the bookcase slid aside in his grandfather’s study and Tommy crawled into the passageway behind it. It was clean, free of dust and grime. If Tommy had known better he would have realised that the tunnels were being used by someone outside the family, someone who had no business sneaking around between the walls of children’s bedrooms.
In his dreams, he would descend down; down past the second floor, right by the ground floor and into the basement. He would crawl out of the tunnel, covered in dead leaves and dirt, and stand in front of a large old oak door. He would grab a black knocker, shaped like a screaming human face, and knock once – twice – three times. Then the door would slide open and he would go inside.
Tommy kicked viciously at the football. It went flying through the air like a torpedo and slammed into his father’s stomach. Tommy would have apologised if he hadn’t been so angry.
“I still don’t understand why we have to go stay with her, Dad.”
It wasn’t that Tommy didn’t like his grandmother or Misselthwaite, her house. As a small boy, he'd known Misselthwaite was filled with secrets. He had heard stories of the old servant’s staircases that ran all throughout the house, hidden away. He had spent countless rainy afternoons over winter holidays hunting for their concealed entrances, taping walls, pulling and pressing on bricks and old ornaments. The bookcase in his grandfather’s old study revolved on its hinges to reveal a narrow staircase leading down into musty darkness. Tommy had been seven and running away from Misha and Lochie when he’d found it.
It didn’t, however, bring the shiver of excitement Tommy had long imagined having, because the circumstances of its discovery were not what he had imagined at all. Tommy remembered feeling scared, remembered a strange chill that had covered him like his favourite blanket.
“There isn’t anybody else left to go stay with her, Tommy,” said his father, voice thin as he tried to get his breath back. “We’ve been through this a hundred times before.”
“Why can’t I just stay with Orson?” asked Tommy.
“You already know the answer to that. You tried this weeks ago, when we first told you that we were visiting Grandi. Orson and his parents are going away to their beach house at Philip Island.”
“I can’t believe this!” snapped Tommy, scowling. “Why can’t I go visit Nanna instead? She wouldn’t mind having me. She actually likes me.”
“But it’s true! Grandi hates it when I’m at her place. She goes to so much trouble for me, doesn’t she?” He pulled a face. “It’s bad enough being stuck in that horrible, spider infested dump for a couple of days over Christmas. And we only go then because you insist on having Christmas together!”
“That isn’t true.”
“Yes it is. She doesn’t want me there any more then I want to be there, and we both know it. Name one time, just one time, when she’s invited as over there by herself,” Tommy challenged, giving his father a look.
“You can’t, can you? It’s because she hates me. She doesn’t even call me by my name when she sees me.”
His father didn’t deny it.
“That’s enough Thomas.”
In Tommy’s family, no one ever called anybody by their full names. Don was Don, Misha was Misha, Peri was Peri and he was Tommy. Full names were only used if one of his six brothers ever did something wrong – well his five older brothers, anyway, because Peri never did anything bad.
Tommy could only remember being called by his full name twice. Once, when he was five and broken all of his mum’s good China. Again when he was seven; Tommy didn’t actually remember that time all that well. He just remembered his mum’s frightened face and his Grandi’s terrified, knowing expression. That had been the last time his family had been invited over to her house. Ever since, his dad had just stormed them over and made himself at home.
His dad sighed, rubbing his face, and walked over to where Tommy stood quietly. He knelt down and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry Tommy. I understand that you don’t feel comfortable at Misselthwaite House and that your grandmother is… strange. But she is still your grandmother.” He grabbed Tommy’s chin and turned his face up, giving him a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I understand. I really do. But sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, because they’re the right thing to do.”
Tommy said nothing, trying to will away the awful lump in his throat. After a few wordless moments his father stood up, dusting off his jeans. It was a pointed end to a discussion, and Tommy tried to ignore the guilty feeling eating at his stomach.
His father walked towards the garage where he kept his motor bike and car, before heading inside and leaving Tommy alone in the backyard.
A low whining sounded from a bunch of wild bushes along the fence and Tommy saw the two black eyes of his family’s chocolate Labrador, Lily. Tommy kicked the football away and called Lily over. The dog perked up, bounding forward and flattening him in a tackle. She rested her big head on his chest and whined some more, licking his face lovingly. Tommy rubbed a hand over her ears and gazed up at the pale blue sky miserably.
Tommy shifted, nudging Lily away, and sat up. He nearly laughed when he saw the grubby face of his best friend. It couldn’t have been any dirtier if he had walked over to a pile of mud, slathered his hands in it, and rubbed them all over his face. Two shiny trails cut through the dirt. Tommy wondered why Orson had been crying.
“You alright, Orson?” he called out.
Orson rubbed at his face quickly. “Never better.”
“Fine,” Orson grumbled, hoisting himself up to sit on top of the fence, “I was crying. But only because I played footy this morning and one of the other team punched me in the face trying to get at the ball.” He crossed his arms and huffed. “But so would you, if a boy twice your size and as ugly as an elephant’s butt punched you in the face.”
“Twice your size?”
“Fine. A head taller.”
Tommy knew he wasn’t going to get the true story either way. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” said Orson with a stiff nod as he dropped down into Tommy’s backyard.
Orson Cooper was a tall boy, with a mop of shaggy, dirty blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. His cheeks were always a little red, and he ate enough to feed three of Tommy’s brothers. It never did anything, though, because Orson was as skinny as a scarecrow. They had been best friends since Tommy had moved into his house, after coming back from a year in America. Tommy and Orson were in grade six together, even though Tommy and his brother, Peri, were a year younger, at eleven.
“So what did Mr Sullivan say?” Orson asked, plopping down next to him on the grass.
Lily sniffed, crinkling her noise up in disgust before slinking away. Tommy laughed at Orson’s offended expression and kept laughing, even after the other boy punched him in the arm.
Tommy quieted down, petting Lily’s big head affectionately. “He said the same thing as always: that I have to go see Grandi, and I have to deal with her hating me like a man.”
Orson nodded sympathetically, patting him on the shoulder. “That sucks mate.”
They didn’t speak again. Orson tried to convince Lily to come near him with her favourite tennis ball and Tommy stared up at the sky and wondered why his father had to be such a jerk. It just wasn’t fair.
Tommy had loved going to see his grandmother when he was little and she had seemed to love having him over. He and Peri, his twin, had always baked chocolate cakes and slices with her. They would explore her massive garden, right down to the bottom where her property met the edge of the Murray River. Then he had turned seven everything changed. He wished he could remember more, but it was like his memory was covered in a layer of foil. He had asked his parents about it, but they’d both told him that he was imagining things. His brothers had said the same thing, or teased him mercilessly.
“Tommy!” Tommy looked up just in time to catch his three-almost-four year old sister, Vivienne, as she barrelled into him. “Tommy, I missed you!”
Tommy rolled his eyes at Orson’s kissy faces and smiled down at Vivvy. “I missed you too, little frog.”
She giggled. “That isn’t my name.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” she shrieked, clenching her hands into little fists and whacking him with them. It tickled, more than hurt, but he still tried to ween her away as Orson sat laughing unhelpfully.
His sister, growing up with seven older brothers, was as stubborn as they came. Peri was her favourite out of the six of them, and Tommy came in a close second. Or he thought he did.
“Vivvy,” sighed his mother, coming around the side of the house. She was still wearing her work things: a tailored grey suit with black flats and her hair in a bun. She was a science professor at the Melbourne University, which was how she had met Tommy’s father, who taught history and literature. “Don’t attack your brother like that.”
Vivvy giggled and snuggle against his chest. Tommy sighed in relief. His mother noticed and gave him a bemused smile. “Hello boys.”
“Good afternoon Doctor Sullivan,” squeaked Orson, his face flushed. Tommy rolled his eyes and kicked at his friend.
“How many times do I have to tell you Orson? Call me Thea.”
“Hey Mum,” Tommy interrupted, moving Vivvy around to sit on his hip as he stood up. “How was work?”
Thea Sullivan rolled her eyes. “Those kids will be the death of me. And Tommy, two of my work colleagues are coming over tonight with their daughter, Elisabeth. Orson can only stay for a while this evening.”
Tommy nodded, standing up and shooing Lily away. She went with an unhappy snort, Vivvy following close behind.
Tommy led Orson inside through the backdoor, the metal security screen crashing against the wall as he pushed inside. The kitchen was bright and cramped, a circular wooden table stuffed in one corner that was piled high with books and piles upon piles of papers. His father was clattering around, cooking dinner a little hap hazardously, throwing knives and other dirty cutlery into the sink as he whistled a cheery tune while the hamburgers spat in the frying pan. The news droned in the living room and his dad would sneak a peek whenever he looked away from the boiling vegetables.
Life at the Sullivan’s was as different as possible from life in every other house along his street. At Orson’s, his parents liked everything neat and ordered; the Sullivan’s house was bursting with mess and things – with old toys, books, animals, skateboards, tennis balls and cricket bats as far as the eye could see. The first time Tommy had invited Orson over, the other boy had gotten a shock. Strange noises, banging, explosions and the like were normal from Misha and Lochie’s room, while the dying screams and sound of spurting blood were quite common from Don’s room.
Because Tommy had six brothers, everyone – besides Ria, who was thirteen – shared a room with someone else. Tommy shared with Peri (Peri was younger by seven minutes) and the two of them looked exactly alike. They had the same face, strange eyes and tall, lanky bodies.
Don was nineteen and shared the attic with Neddy, who was seventeen. It was a big place, about the size of two of Tommy’s bedroom, and off-limits to anyone who was younger then sixteen. Tommy had snuck in there once with Orson and Peri. Don had come home and thrown them out before they could investigate properly. Misha and Lochie, twins themselves at fifteen, were almost as identical as Tommy was with Peri. Misha and Lochie both loved science and always had some sort of experiment running. Tommy was used to hearing strange noises and smelling weird fumes whenever he walked by. Vivvy, being the only girl and the youngest, got a room to herself.
Neddy was on the couch, his laptop on his knees and headphones securely covering his ears. Orson, who knew Tommy’s home about as well as his own, immediately turned right and headed for the stairs. As they passed by the lounge room, Tommy caught sight of his mother pacing in front of Misha and Lochie.
Lochie didn’t have any eyebrows.
“I love coming to your house,” Orson whispered as he followed Tommy’s lead and tip-toed by.
As they moved up the stairs, the smell of smoke and burning cotton became thicker.
“Me too,” agreed Tommy. Don cried out in victory as a zombie died on his TV screen.
Orson grinned. “Hey, have you played that new online game? Empires of Sand and Blood?”
Tommy shook his head and pushed open the door to his bedroom. Peri’s side of the room was neatly made and organised right down to the books on his shelf. His side was more like a rocket launch pad after a crash.
Orson made himself right at home, flopping back on Tommy’s bed. Tommy slid into his swivel desk chair, switching on his computer.
“What do your brothers do in their room anyway? There’s always something smoking or boiling in one of those glass beakers. Are they making a bomb or something?”
Tommy had no idea. On the odd occasion when he or Peri had asked what Misha and Lochie did, the older twins shared a look before launching into an explanation that sounded more like Russian then English.
The computer monitor flickered to life and Tommy spun his chair around and wheeled it closer to the desk.
He had just finished typing in the password when the computer screen blipped out and turned dark. He paused, his fingers hovering over the keyboard in surprise. It had been on. The power hadn’t surged or gone out. He jiggled the mouse, watching the white arrow jerk across the screen. He lowered his fingers to the board when words he hadn’t typed began to scroll across the screen.
Tommy Sullivan. Do you like Hide and Seek? We see you. We’re coming for you.
He froze. The words continued as the screen filled up quickly with similar sinister sentences, over and over again. Tommy Sullivan. Do you like Hide and Seek? We see you. We’re coming for you. Run, hide, run, hide. Tommy Sullivan. Do you like Hide and Seek? We see you. We’re coming for you. Run, hide, run, hide. We see you. We’re coming for you. Run, hide, run, hide. We see you. We’re coming for you. Run, hide, run, hide, run, hide, run, hide….
Orson was leaning over his shoulder, his eyes wide as he read the words. “What is it?” he asked, his mouth gaping. “Is it your brothers? Another one of Lochie’s jokes?”
Tommy pushed away from the desk and stormed out of the room, his chair flying back and hitting the edge of his bed. He reached the twins door and pounded, hitting it again and again until Misha opened the door.
“What is it dork?”
“Did you do something to my computer?” demanded Tommy, pushing into the bedroom.
An expensive chemistry set sat on a long desk, beakers filled with multi-coloured liquids. Lochie was standing in front of a mirror hanging from one of the wardrobe doors. He was glaring at his missing eyebrows.
“Why would I want to do something to your computer?” Misha drawled, turning away and returning to whatever chemicals he was playing with.
Tommy turned his scowl on Lochie.
“Don’t look at me. I have better things to do then make your life miserable.”
Tommy gave a frustrated growl and slammed the door behind him as he left. Orson was sitting in front of the computer, scrolling through a group of new phrases that had appeared.
Tommy Sullivan. Not important enough to bother. Do you like Hide and Seek? You can’t hide, you can’t run. We see you. We know you. Tommy Sullivan. Not important enough to bother. Do you like Hide and Seek? You can’t hide, you can’t run. We see you. We know you.
“Orson!” his mother’s voice carried up the stairs. “Your father is here to pick you up!”
His friend slid off the bed, his eyes wide as he watched the computer screen as it blanked and refreshed, starting another page of taunts. He managed an apologetic look at Tommy as he slowly backed away.
“See you in a week, yeah?”
Orson couldn’t leave the bedroom fast enough.
Tommy Sullivan. Not important enough to bother. Do you like Charades? You don’t know, you can’t guess. We have the answers. We know the reason. Tommy Sullivan. Not important enough to bother. Do you like Hide and Seek? Come find us. We’ll be hiding in Inside.
Tommy’s knees shook as he dropped on to his bed and stared blankly at the screen. It filled again, flashing like an alarm clock after a blackout, before suddenly flicking off. The messages vanished.
He buried his face into his hands and took a few deep breaths.
A faint snicker cut through the silence of his room and his head snapped up, his fringe flopping into his eyes.
Silhouetted against the black light of the screen was a tiny Thing. It looked like a skeleton, with spindly twig-thin arms and a non-existent waist. It was so skinny and gaunt that Tommy could count every rib in its body. Its spine pressed against veiny-skin, and its huge batlike ears were bigger than its actual face. Slitted, glowing yellow eyes regarded him from the screen, gleaming with malicious intelligence.
It met Tommy’s eyes and its mouth – chapped lips and flaky skin – pulled back, showing a row of pearly white sharp teeth as it gave a feral smile. A six-fingered hand reached out towards him, reaching through the screen and becoming three dimensional as the creature started stepping out of the monitor.
“No... Go away!” Tommy shouted, squeezing his eyes shut and burying his face in his arms. He sat, tensed up and tighter then a prison cell.
After what felt like hours, he shifted, peeking out between his fringe and moving his eyes to the monitor. The creature was gone and the home screen was illuminated.
He sat there a moment, staring at the spot where the creature had started coming out of the screen, his mind spinning in a dozen directions at once, before he stood up and dived for the power cord.
He unplugged the computer and watched with horrified happiness as the screen went black.