Who was going to save Samuel Lee?
That was where he was in the current story.
Things had grown so strange, he honestly didn’t know if he could take it anymore. The stack of library books piled on the floor wasn’t helping. Neither was his favorite playlist.
All he could do was return to the story inside his head. The one he’d been making up since he was seven and a half and the strange man had moved in next door. Samuel was ten now.
The man seriously creeped Samuel out. Samuel started crossing the street rather than cross in front of the cottage next door, certain the man would leap out and snatch him away one day.
“Just don’t pay attention to him, Samuel,” his mother said. “He’s just a sad, angry man, and it has nothing to do with you.”
She didn’t know. The library books taught Samuel that parents were often oblivious to what was truly going on. Adults tended to see what was on the surface and miss the sideways places.
The sideways places were the most important things, Samuel knew.
They glimmered and beckoned and called. Things entered and did not return. Other things emerged.
Like the man.
The rain fell in steady, drenching sheets, the way it had been for twenty-five days, nonstop. It grew a little lighter at times and whipped up wind and trees in the middle of the night, but mostly, it was the same, straight down, a monochrome fall of wet.
Samuel didn’t mind, except it made it harder to keep his books dry. And it obscured his view of the sideways places. He figured he should feel relieved by that, but he knew that not being able to see or hear whatever was there was worse than seeing and hearing. He could still feel something. He just had no idea what was there.
The man next door really had stepped out of the sideways places one day. That was the thing his mother didn’t understand.
“Oh, he just moved his things in when we were gone that Saturday. Don’t you remember? We went to see Spiderman, and out for ice cream after.”
But Samuel had seen him. He had seen him slide through the shimmering air in his hunched black coat and slope-crowned, broad-brimmed black hat, with his skin as white as moonlight on birch bark, and his chin and cheekbones sharp as knives. The man didn’t have much nose to speak of, and it was hard to see his eyes.
Samuel felt the man stare at him that day. It was the last sunny day before the rains hunkered down in earnest that year. The last day of autumn before the winter came.
The man paused, the top of his face shaded into darkness by the hat, white lower half of his face gleaming, and looked—Samuel was sure of it!—straight into Samuel’s eyes. Then the man scuttled around the back side of the house next door.
There was no moving truck. No car full of boxes. Just a man who stepped out from a narrow slit in the shadows, into the sun.
Things were okay for the first year or so. The man scuttled out now and then, but mostly stayed in the hulking cottage, which used to be cute, with neat little curtains and a tidy stoop, but month after month, the house took on a more gloomy cast, even at the height of summer.
Then the rains returned.
And the neighborhood cats began to disappear.
At first, no one noticed. They figured the cats were hunkering down under houses or deep in the bushes somewhere, waiting for a break in the downpour.
The break in the rain never came. And neither did the cats. They insisted on going out, morning, noon, or night. And they simply failed to return.
Their humans stood, holding offerings of tuna and kibble, on broad porches and back stoops, and called the cat’s use-names off the balconies of the apartment complex on the corner. The shouted names and rattling of food boxes disappeared beneath the steady sound of falling water.
And Samuel Lee? Samuel played cards with his oma, did his homework, played online video games with his best friend, Hal, and went to school. He tried to not pay attention to the rapidly crumbling cottage next door, to the winds that whipped the tree branches and rattled his windowpanes every night. He tried to ignore the steady, drenching rain.
But most of all, Samuel tried to pay no attention to the man next door.
Oh, he still saw him. Samuel saw the man all the time now. Out of the corner of his eye, the man was waiting. When Samuel stepped off the school bus in the afternoons, he saw the shadow of the man’s hat and the rain that bounced off the brim. But when he turned to look, all he would see was a mailbox, or a tree stump, or sometimes nothing at all.
Who would save Samuel Lee? The story was at a standstill. All he knew was that he was in danger.
Spiny hands grabbed at his arms. Spiny fingers turned his face. The fingers were like claws, like knives. Samuel lashed out with elbows and the heels of his winter boots. He struggled against his raincoat, tried to slip his arms out of the backpack that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Rainwater sluiced down his face, into his ears, his mouth, even up his nose. Samuel gasped and sputtered and fought and flailed.
“Get off me!” Samuel couldn’t see what had attached itself to him, but if he had to place any bets, he would bet it was the man. “Let me go!” Samuel kicked out again, this time connecting with a shin. The spiny hands didn’t lose their grip, not for one second. Samuel’s mind raced, trying to remember what he learned from the three months of kid’s judo his mother had forced him to take the year before.
He went limp, and all the fight dropped from his body at once. Startled, the hands let go. Samuel ran.
He ran all the way toward the tan brick bulk of the library, where he was supposed to meet Hal and work on their history assignment. Dragging open the heavy wooden glass doors, he flung himself into the shadowed vestibule, and stood panting, dripping water on the gray mat covering the marble floor. He peered through one of the panes of glass in the door, but all he could see were the bare maple branches waving in the wind, some cars, and the steady rain.
Samuel swept the hood off his head, wiped his face, and entered the library.
The library had been one of his favorite places since he was small. He loved the smell of books, the quiet murmuring of the librarians, and the possibility that he just might find the answers he was looking for. He might even find out the answer to the question of who would save Samuel Lee. But he was starting to doubt that. Especially now.
The rows of metal shelving filled with plastic=wrapped spines of hardbacks made way to paperbacks, and finally, to the wooden study carrels. He could see the top of Hal’s spiky blond hair already bent over some books. Hal was as much of a nerd as Samuel was.
Samuel quickened his pace until he was standing right next to Hal. He slung his backpack off and dropped it like a weight to the floor. Then he shook himself out of his raincoat and draped it over the back of a wooden chair.
“Dude, you’re soaked.” Hal was always one to state the obvious. “You okay?”
Samuel dropped into his chair and leaned in close, lowering his voice, “I think that man tried to grab me.”
“For real? The weird guy? What makes you think it was him? What happened?”
Samuel explained as best he could, but it sounded strange even to his ears. Hal looked interested, because nothing weird ever happened to him, but Samuel could tell he was skeptical. Skeptical. That was their word of the week.
“Maybe it was nothing. I don’t know. But something grabbed me, that’s for sure.”
“Should we tell somebody?” Howell said. “Like the librarian? Maybe other kids are in danger.”
Samuel thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. Who was there to tell?
He woke in the darkness. For once, the wind didn’t lash the windows, and the rain had receded to a steady patter.
The man was in his room. Samuel could feel him. There was a disturbance in the air, the kind that let you know you weren’t alone. And if he tried, he could hear someone breathing under the sound of the rain. Samuel lay very still. He tried to think of what to do. Should he yell? Call his parents?
That didn’t seem right. Samuel didn’t know how he knew it, he just did. The man was mysterious, and maybe he made the cats disappear, but Samuel hadn’t heard any stories of children disappearing.
He made his decision. Quick as lightning, he reached out for his Buzz Lightyear lamp and flicked it on.
The man peered out from underneath his broad-brimmed hat, his eyes still in shadow, his cheekbone still like knives.
“What do you want?” Samuel whispered.
The man cleared his throat. It sounded like rocks tumbling down the hills onto the highway. It was strange. Samuel realized he didn’t feel afraid anymore. The old man wasn’t exactly a friendly neighbor, and maybe he was still some freak from the sideways worlds, but he was also just someone who happened to be sitting in Samuel’s bedroom in the middle of the night.
Yeah… Maybe it was a little weird. Maybe Samuel was a little bit weird.
“She thinks you’re ready.” The man’s voice carried all the weight of winter. It was filled with long, dark nights, the feeling of ice on the back of your neck, and the taste of rain.
“Who? Who thinks I’m ready?”
The man shook his head, just slightly, enough to shake the edges of the brim of that dark hat.
“If you’re willing, put on your shoes and come with me.” The man stood, long dark coat folding around his ankles, white fingers emerging from the cuffs, face still half-shadowed.
Guess it’s up to you now, Samuel Lee, Samuel thought. He flipped back his Crab Nebula comforter and swung his feet to the cold floor.
Samuel carried his shoes down the stairs, pausing in the kitchen to slip them on and lace them. His coat hung on a hook near the back door. The air in the kitchen was cold and smelled like spaghetti sauce. He was glad he’d pulled a sweatshirt on over his pajamas. Buttoning the coat up all the way, he stepped outside. It was dark. But the rain was letting up, which was good. Samuel didn’t feel like getting soaked again. He’d had enough of that lately. Everyone complained about the rain, and not just the usual complaints, because it rained every winter. But not like this, the people said. Not like the last three years.
Not like since the man moved in.
“This way,” the man said. Samuel followed him into the dark of the garden towards the back gate. The gate swung open quietly on its well-oiled hinges. Something skittered through the bushes. Opossum, Samuel figured. A yellow streetlamp marked the space between Samuel’s parents’ home and the man’s cottage. The man slid around the pool of light, and it set the edges of his hat and coat gleaming. Samuel wondered why he didn’t walk straight through, but he figured he’d better follow whatever it was the man was doing.
That was what the stories always told you. When someone came from a place that wasn’t earth, you either ran as fast as you could, or you did exactly what they did. Because you never knew what misstep might end up trapping you.
You never knew what thing you ate or drank or said meant that you’d never see your family and home again.
They walked behind the cottage, and Samuel stifled a gasp. Where the cottage was falling down, the garden had flourished.
Secret hollows were covered in ivy. Japanese maples brooded over stones. From a back corner, Samuel caught the slight trickling sound of a waterfall. And in the center of it all were circling row after row of blooming roses.
Samuel moved toward them, sniffing their perfume. Then he saw that the bushes weren’t quite right. Some of the bushes were in full bloom, others were tipped with delicate buds, and interspersed between them all were the bare rosebushes of winter, fat rose hips gleaming red in the mottled light and dark.
“What is this place?”
There was no answer, so Samuel just followed the man, who seemed to be leading him directly towards the center of the rosebush circles. Samuel understood now why the cottage was so neglected: all the man’s attention must’ve gone back here.
There was an opening between one bush filled with deep red roses, and another of the winter bushes whose rose hips were bigger than any Samuel had ever seen.
His oma put rosehips into honey and ate them all winter long. Samuel liked the combination of tart and sweet. Mama said it was the best way to get vitamin C.
Oma was never sick, so she must know what she was talking about.
“Where are you taking me?”
The man just flicked his spiny knife fingers forward. Samuel followed.
And there she was. He could swear she hadn’t been there seconds before, but she was there now.
Surrounded by roses, hair pale as moonlight tumbled down her shoulders until it almost reached the ground. The ground that was covered with maple leaves, oak leaves, ginkgo leaves, and the petals of pink and yellow roses. The man bowed deeply, sweeping the broad-brimmed hat off his head for just a moment. Samuel could see he was bald. And then the man stood tall again, hat back on his head, face in shadow. Leaving Samuel to stand and stare.
Her face was all flat planes and hollows, her skin the color of the walnut dresser in his oma’s room. Three birch trees shook their silvery leaves, their bark as pale as her hair. Like the old man’s skin.
“Who are you?” Samuel asked the question, but he knew. He knew exactly who she was. And the man? He must be some sort of messenger or something. Kings and queens always had messengers, didn’t they?
She spoke. Her voice sounded the way Samuel imagined a glacier cracking would sound.
“I am the Queen of Winter,” she said. “And I have been waiting for you.”
It didn’t explain the cats. Later that night, back in bed, that was the thought that flickered through Samuel’s mind.
What happened to the cats?
The hems of his pajamas were damp around his feet, he shivered beneath the Crab Nebula comforter and burrowed more deeply into his flannel pillow. Out of all the things he wondered, maybe that was a little strange, but Samuel wanted to know. He had a hard time falling asleep that night, but he finally did.
She should have been terrifying, but she wasn’t. Instead, Samuel found himself wishing that instead of a rose garden at night, they were sitting in front of the fireplace in his favorite rocking chair, the one so big he could sit cross-legged in it, a book propped on his lap. He would offer her the special hot chocolate his father made, the one with spices in it. She would like it, he was sure.
Instead, he stood shivering in the winter garden, staring at the flat plains of her face, wondering why she called him there.
“I need the ones who see what isn’t there,” she said. “We always watch for the ones who pay attention. You’ve been seeing us for years, haven’t you?”
Samuel froze in place, pinned like a beetle on a board. She was right. When he was five, he tried to tell his mother about it. She ruffled his hair and complemented his imagination. “But I’m not…” She smiled and told him to draw a picture.
So he did. He had notebooks filled with pictures that he would share only with Hal. Together, they made up stories about the sideways worlds and the people who lived there.
But he never thought to see one like this. Standing directly in front of him, with a voice like a glacier, and hair like the moon.
“I was never sure it was real,” he said. “I mean, I only ever caught glimpses, you know?”
She nodded gravely. “That was by design.”
Samuel shuffled his feet a little; his toes were getting cold. He cleared his throat. “So, um, the man, he said…”
“That I was waiting for you.”
Samuel didn’t remember what happened after that. All he knew was that the man was carrying him up the stairs to his bedroom. The spiny white fingers helped him off with his boots and tucked him into bed, leaving Samuel awake with his thoughts.
Night after night it, happened. The man would wake him up, or sometimes Samuel would be reading, and the man would come. Samuel had learned to dress more warmly for bed. Sometimes it was raining now, sometimes not. And then the snow came.
The garden was white with it. Hushed with it.
Except for the ring of roses. The ring of roses looked as it had before. And there she was, with her moonlight hair and her walnut face, arms crossed over her velvet-covered chest.
“Are you ready this time?”
Samuel knew exactly what she was talking about. He nodded. “I want to go,” he said.
And that was the truth; he did want to go. It is just taken him a while to work up to it. He finally figured out what had happened that first night. He had fainted. That was embarrassing, but oh well. The only thing that bugged him now about the situation was the fact that he hadn’t told Hal. He just couldn’t quite figure out how to talk to his best friend about it. Out of all the freaky stuff they discussed, this was a little too freaky.
But Hal would be pissed off that he had gone and not invited him along. Maybe next time. After reconnaissance.
After Samuel had figured out exactly where this was leading.
He didn’t see the doorway, the gateway, the whatever it was. One minute they were in the middle of the roses with snow sprinkling the garden all around them, and the next thing they were in a brick hallway, a corridor, the fantasy books called it. Torchlight sputtered and flared, lighting up the stones. Like, real torchlight. Iron rings bolted into the walls with flaming sticks thrust into them.
“Cool,” Samuel whispered. He followed the long, trailing velvet skirts of the Winter Queen. He could feel the man in the broad-brimmed hat behind. Samuel didn’t know if that should make him feel safe or afraid. He shrugged. Might as well just go with it.
The hallway opened onto a vast hall with tall, vaulted ceilings held up by carved wood beams. There was an itching at the back of Samuel’s eyes. He started to tear up. Then he sneezed.
Looking down at the flagstone floor, he finally figured out where the cats had gone. There they were, dozens and dozens of them. Big orange bruisers, mottled tabbies, Siamese, even a Persian or two. They lapped at dishes of water and food, reclined on fluffy cushions, or played with endless balls of red and yellow yarn.
Samuel laughed and laughed and laughed. The room was so huge, his voice felt swallowed up. When he looked at the woman, she had a smile on her face.
“And that is why we called you here today. Our hob is sick.
We need someone to care for all these cats.”
“I don’t get it,” Hal said. “Why would the Queen of Winter need you to take care of the neighborhood cats? And why’d the cats run away in the first place?”
The boys were in Samuel’s room, supposedly working on a science-art project. Popsicle sticks, glue, and construction paper littered the floor. The room smelled like the hot chocolate Samuel’s dad had delivered half an hour ago. Samuel peered into his white mug. Yep. All gone.
“I’m not really sure. Not yet. None of it makes sense to me, though Strickleton says it ‘will all be clear in time.’ As if.”
“Strickleton’s the creepy guy next door? Why doesn’t he take care of the cats?”
“I asked him that,” Samuel replied.
Strickleton sniffed, a sniff that seemed too mighty to come from his tiny nose. His rocks-rolling-down-a-hill voice rumbled, “I,” he said, “am the Gardener.”
Just like that. Capital letter and everything. Gardeners, it turned out, did not take care of cats. Everyone in Sideways had a job and wasn’t allowed to do anyone else’s. And yeah, the hob who held the title of Cat-Herder was sick.
“You are perfect,” the Winter Queen said. “We always offer gifts to the observant children like yourself. You shall grow up blessed, touched by our realms.”
She’d paused then, and tilted her head his way. “Do you have a longing to be a poet?” she asked. “A bard? A painter, perhaps?”
“I want to be an astronomer!” Samuel blurted out.
The Winter Queen looked a bit disappointed at that. “Ah. I see. Well, the stars are nice, I suppose. We have different constellations here,” she said. “We shall show them to you the next time you come.” The queen paused then, to drink deeply from a pretty golden cup. “If, that is, you agree to care for the cats for four phases of the moon.”
Samuel rubbed at his eyes. He would really like to see the Sideways Constellations. But there was the one problem…
“So you have to help me!” he said to Hal. “You love cats, right? And didn’t Moggie run away last year? I bet she’s there! You could find her again. Bring her home!”
Hal didn’t look too keen on the prospect.
“I don’t know, Samuel, you sound kind of crazy, you know?” Hal was gluing popsicle sticks together, trying to form a geodesic dome. “We’re not little kids anymore.”
Samuel paced the carpet in his small bedroom, from bed to desk, to the door. He skirted around Hal, waving his arms with excitement.
“Don’t you see? All those books we’ve read, all the stories…” Samuel stopped and flopped back down on the floor. He leaned toward his friend, whose blond hair was even more spiky than usual. Samuel wondered if Hal had accidentally-on-purpose rubbed some glue into his hair. “What if they’re true?”
Hal sat down two triangles on a piece of newspaper to dry. “I don’t know, Samuel. I have enough trouble getting my parents to let me come over to your house. You really think they’re going to let me traipse off to wherever it is?”
“But that’s the beauty of it,” Samuel said. “They won’t know.”
Sure enough, Samuel convinced Hal to join him. Samuel figured if he brought someone to take care of the cats—though he still wasn’t sure why exactly the cats had gone to the sideways world—then maybe, just maybe, as a reward, the Queen of Winter would let them both see the stars.
“Holy shit,” Hal said.
“I know, right?” Samuel looked around the hall, still impressed by the vaulted ceiling, the crisscross of wooden beams, and all the cats.
He turned to the man in the slouch-brimmed hat. “Do we wait here?”
The man started to walk, threading a pathway through the cats. His bone-white, lifelike fingers gestured them forward. Hal looked at Samuel; Samuel just shrugged and loped after the man’s dark coat.
Hal tugged at Samuel’s coat sleeve. “This is like some Dungeons & Dragons stuff,” he whispered. Samuel nodded again and kept moving. He just hoped this deal was going to work.
They entered a brick hallway lit with the same sconces, flames casting red and gold shadows everywhere. It was strangely medieval. Samuel wondered if all the sideways worlds were like this or if it was just this one in particular. Maybe the Queen of Winter just liked it this way. He wondered if the torches were magical, or if there was a Torch-Lighting Hob that took care of them.
Just as suddenly as the corridor began, it ended, this time opening into a smaller room. The ceilings were just as high, but the walls were close in, forming a cozy space. Fire crackled in an enormous hearth, which was flanked by two wolfhounds, who twitched their ears and slit-opened their eyes. Checking for danger? The dog on the left sighed and closed its eyes again. The dog on the right stretched and yawned, then trotted over to a large comfortable chair where the Queen of Winter sat, reading a book. Samuel would’ve expected a big tome with gilded edges, but it looked like an ordinary paper book from home. In her other hand, she held a half-eaten apple. The dog sat at her feet and whined. She looked up.
“Ah,” she said, “I see you brought a friend to meet me.” She held up the book. It looked familiar. “Do you like A Wrinkle in Time?”
It was one of Samuel’s favorite books. “I love it.”
The dark planes of the Winter Queen’s face arranged themselves into what Samuel supposed was a smile. “Then I’m sure will be great friends.”
She turned her eyes on Hal, who stood frozen to the spot.
“Are you the new Cat-Herder? You don’t look like a hob. You look like a boy,” she said.
Hal blushed, all the way from his T-shirt to his spiky blond hair. “Uhhh… Yes, ma’am. I’m just…”
The Queen tilted her head in question. Then she clapped her hands, “I know! You are a Bard! I can see it all around you. You must also be a friend of the Wind.”
Samuel’s jaw dropped. He stared at his friend, who only grew redder in the face. Hal sketched a shallow bow, then straightened up again.
“At your service, my Queen.”
Wow. This sure was getting interesting, Samuel thought.
“How delightful,” the Winter Queen said. “An astronomer and a Bard.” She turned to the man in the hat. “Well done, Strickleton. But what are we to do with all these cats?”
Strickleton moved forward, just as Hal burst out, “I’ll take care of them!” Strickleton stopped in his tracks.
“Well, well, well,” the Winter Queen said, “a Bard and a Cat-Herder combined. This is turning out better than I ever imagined. Would anyone care for some tea?”
And so the adventure began. Every evening between homework and bed, for four cycles of the moon, Hal would whistle at Samuel’s window, and off the boys would sneak to the hollow of roses in Strickleton’s garden. Samuel was making a study of the constellations in the sideways realm while Hal brushed five cats a night in turn. The cat-herding hob did not return, so the boys continued.
After six months or six days or six years of this, the Queen of Winter rewarded Samuel with the most clever and cunning telescope and astrolabe he’d ever seen. For Hal, she procured a lute.
The cats, it turned out, liked the cream from the sideways worlds better than the cream at home. Plus, there was always a soft cushion or a warm hearth to be had.
Mostly? The cats hated the rain.
And so the boys grew up together, making music and gazing at stars. Years later, Hal became both a rock musician and a poet of some renown. He raised Maine Coon cats in his spare time when he wasn’t recording or on tour.
And Samuel Lee? It turned out he didn’t need saving at all. He fell in love nine times, helped to raise three children, and mapped areas of space no one even knew existed before.
He also wrote illustrated children’s books. The title of his most beloved work was The Stars of Neverwhere.
It’s still in print today.
This is reader funded writing. I thank all of my Patreon supporters for making it possible for me to provide one free essay and short story every month. Most of this writing would not exist without these people. They all rock.
Want to join my Patreon crew? You get advance copies of essays and stories before they hit the web, plus a chance for free books once or so a year.
One thousand blessings to supporters Bear, Doneby, Dayle, Devotaj, Will, Brooks, Law Nerd, Michelle, Gwynne, Mark, Merri Ann, Meagan, Veronica, Shira, Allyson, Jocelyne, Michael, Dawn, Joanna, Lia, Rachel, Kiya, Corinne, Evodjie, Angela, Zann, Daniel, Luna, Christopher, Sarah, Amerwitch, Tamara, Elizabeth, J. Anthony, Sea Serpent, Jen, David, Emilie, Jennifer, Elliot, Ellen, a phoenix, Jersey Meg, Tony, Sean, Sherry, Christopher, Stephanie, Lira, Ariana, Tamara, Karen, Morgaine, Sarah, Rachel, Jenny, Joanna, R.M., Ember, San, Miriam, Leslie, Sharon, Mary Anne, Joanna, Tony, Angela, Constance, Stone, Omorka, Unwoman, Shemandoah, Sarah, Rain, Cid, Alley, Mica, Christine, Vyviane, Katie, Emilie, Louise, Victoria, Greg, Ealasaid, Jennifer, Louise, Rose, Starr, Sinead, Lyssa, Aeptha, Cara, Crystal, Angela, Misha, Eridanus, Cheryl, Lori, Soli, Peter, Angela, Ambariel, Sonia, Jennifer, Ruth, Miranda, Jeremy, Jonah, Michelle, Jenny, Jen, Mir, Ruth, Emilie, Jonathan, Kate, Roger and Nancy.