As Georgia neared the kitchen, she heard the familiar thwump of the outside door slapping the butter churn, and she froze.
Georgia stood still, her whooshing skirts and leather boots silent for the first time all day, not daring to enter the kitchen alone. Darkness had finally engulfed the house, as the sun had set an hour past, and none of the gas lamps or candles had been lit on the first floor. She felt certain that the Master should be home by now sitting in his study, smoking his tobacco, and dispelling whoever had entered the kitchen with a stern word.
Nervously, she reached into her apron and brought out her tinderbox. She lit the slender piece of wood and watched the fire spark to life in her fingers. Reaching over to light the first lamp, she heard the cupboard doors open and slam shut one by one. Then something smashed against the floor, followed by licking and sucking sounds. The boys must have snuck past her on their silent feet and entered the kitchen. Georgia had hidden one or two tarts in the uppermost shelves of the pantry for her and Eudora to eat later. Furious, Georgia grabbed a thin tallow candle and pushed the door between the kitchen and the back hallway with her shoulder. She burned red with the heat of her blood filling the angry veins in her face.
“I have had about enough of the rules being broken!“ Georgia paused in her diatribe. Though shadows filled the room, there were no children to be found.
Holding the candle high above her head to increase the amount of light that fell on the tile floor, Georgia peered past where the soft light ended. She couldn’t find a boy or girl in the room. A cold stillness found its way into her limbs. A flickering set of blinking eyes scuttled back from the candlelight. When she bent to pick up the pieces of the broken plate, another set pushed past the small circle.
The diners were inside.
Georgia clutched the sharp piece of plate in one hand and held the candle up with the other. The wick flickered, as if to go out from an unseen breeze. Praying she’d make it, Georgia took slow steps backwards to the butter churn. She had to put the piece of broken dish in her pocket to free her hand. She reached out and pushed the door open, hoping the diners would find their way out. She used the birch broom to prop the door wide open. The eyes continued to peer at her, candlelight being reflected back, but she couldn’t see a shape or form in the shadows.
They didn’t approach her as they kept themselves safely out of the circle of light. That’s when Georgia noticed that the tapered candle in her hand had burned down dangerously low. It was meant to light the other candles in the candelabras and gas lamps. She estimated she had a few more minutes before it would burn out and leave her in the darkness with the diners.
Moving away from the open door and taking the light with her, Georgia continued to hold the candle above her head. Her arm ached. She changed hands, all the while wishing the things would leave. When the points of reflected light disappeared, Georgia let out a gasp, not hearing Eudora open the door behind her.
“What are you---“
“Sssh” Georgia hissed. She followed it with a whispered, “the diners are here. In the kitchen. We have to get to the children.”
What she really meant was they needed to get the hell out of the kitchen. The bedtime stories Georgia had been raised on were filled with the diners unending hunger from sunset to sunup on every Tuesday of the year. The Master had confirmed her beliefs and created new ones for Eudora, who wasn’t from this part of the country.
Georgia recalled his words clearly, “The diners were created by Pluto. They were sent to remove all traces of dead things that hadn’t received a proper burial and tribute to him from the land and returned to his realm.”
As Georgia went over the herbs and weapons within arm’s reach, the candle sputtered in her hand and went out. It was followed by the soft call of the whippoorwill. Both girls screamed and ran. The sounds of claws on the polished wooden floor echoed behind them. The door between the kitchen and hallway pushed out or in depending on the need. There was no way to lock or secure it. Georgia heard the soft thump of something hitting the swinging door and hoped they wouldn’t be strong enough to push it all the way open. Then she remembered that she’d left the outside door propped open. Even if the few in the kitchen couldn’t open it, there would be more of the creatures on their heels in no time.
“Cover your hair,” Georgia said, pushing behind Eudora and stuffing a dusting rag into her hand. Eudora’s hair hung in brilliant red curls. Red would attract the diners as quickly as the strawberry tarts.
Eudora tied the filthy rag with shaking hands, messily shoving loose curls under the fabric. She tripped on her skirts and fell face-first onto the second-floor landing. The candlesticks she’d been holding clanged against the floor. Bright blood blossomed on her lip, tears welled in her eyes. Georgia didn’t have enough time to be sympathetic. She simply ripped a piece of cloth from her sleeve and pressed it to Eudora’s bleeding mouth.
When they reached the children’s wing, Georgia discovered that all the lamps had been extinguished. The hallway seemed too long and dusty, like a tomb forgotten by time. She’d never had reason to check on the children after their baths. This was when the Master would go and stay with them for a time, reading from large dusty books while Georgia and Eudora were allowed to eat supper or finish their sewing.
Both girls took time relighting the lamps and turning the gas up all the way. Somehow the sight of long tongues of flame comforted them both. The door to the children’s sleeping room was cracked open. Timidly, Georgia opened the door and almost dropped her candlestick. Tiny pairs of lights turned toward them. The children were not in their beds and the room was in shambles. Somehow the diners had reached this wing before them.
Indicating the attic with her free hand, Georgia backed away from the door. She pulled it closed and slipped the bronze key into the lock, turning it and replacing it back in her pocket. She followed Eudora up the stairs to the attic -- careful not to step in the watery footprints and slip herself -- where at last they were greeted with the bright glow of lamplight. The children stood in the far corner. Belle’s hair dripped, her shoulders trembled with cold or fear. The boys were between her and the stairs. A gash ran along Lionel’s arm from wrist to elbow. A dark stain gathered on his tattered pajama sleeve. Sebastian’s hair stuck up at crazy angles.
“W-w-what are they?” Sebastian managed to say.
Eudora tutted at him and went to attend to Lionel’s wound. Georgia let her. Tonight was one hundred percent the children’s fault. One look at shivering Belle softened her heart only enough before remembering how the girl had encouraged Georgia to pick up the creature earlier. Georgia placed the candle stick on the far dresser table where Belle kept her broken-faced dolls.
She crossed her arms firmly in front of her before she said, “The diners. You enticed them into the house by eating the tarts and the three of you together sealed the deal by raising that raccoon.”
“Those are just st-stories,” murmured Belle, still hiding behind her brothers.
Georgia shrugged. “Can stories frighten children from their beds? Yes.” She gripped Lionel’s badly bandaged arm, wrapping another strip of cloth around it. “But the darker legends speak of how Mars, ever ready to spread torture and pain, instructed the diners in secret to prey upon not only dead things, but the living as well, if we don’t burn hickory in our southwest facing rooms, or place sweet dishes on the edges of our property, but most especially if we harbor dead things in our homes on Tuesdays. The day meant to honor him with its terrible consequences.
“It’s not stories that have cut your brother or have us hiding up here right now. It’s the diners. We’ll have to see if we can outwait them until morning. They seem to fear, or at least avoid, the light.”
Sweeping the room with her eyes, Georgia noticed that the two lamps were in need of oil. Something she or Eudora would have done after supper. The sound of scratching on the stairs to the attic forced all eyes to the small wooden wall that separated the stairs from the rest of the attic. A flash of lightning so intense Georgia had to shield her eyes followed. The thunder that followed rumbled through her, shaking her bones beneath her skin. When she finally looked up the Master’s head, followed by shoulders and body, came into view.
“The house has been cleansed,” he said. The Master looked to be carrying a great weight. Long shadows fell from beneath his eyelids. “I don’t want to know what happened here tonight, only that it will not be repeated.”
The children followed their uncle down the stairs. Georgia watched their shadows in the gaslight. Belle’s seemed to have wings, Lionel tiny horns, and Sebastian definitely had a tail. Before Georgia could say anything, Belle turned to her -- eyes glowing like a cat’s -- and winked.
Join us next Tuesday as Valerie starts off a whole new story with endless possibilities!
*Photo by oceansandcathedrals via Flickr Creative Commons