I firmly believe one of the greatest joys in the world is to sit up and read before bed. Nothing beats getting out of a warm bath, dressing in your comfy pink pajamas, and crawling beneath your thick sheets to read by the light of the accordion lamp right by your head. Perhaps it was just me, since Rilei rarely did any reading before bed. If she did it was usually because her insomnia decided to creep back in and keep her up for days on end. When reading didn’t do the trick for her, she made a habit of beckoning me into her room so I could sing her to sleep. More often than not that worked and in a matter of moments she floated away into dreamland.
But me? I loved reading in bed. Of course I loved reading just about anywhere so maybe that doesn’t hold as much weight as I initially thought. Point is, when I leaned my body into the overstuffed plushness of my lace-edged pillows and my mind did much the same thing with whatever book I chose for the night I don’t think anything could’ve made me happier.
The light from my steel accordion lamp, which held a single tesla bulb on the end, threw an ambient yellow glow about as far as the end of my bed. From there the edges of the light grew fuzzy and distant in their attempt to draw back as many of the shadows as possible.
I glanced up from my book at the sound of someone knocking on my bedroom door.
“It’s Pennyworth, Miss Shiloh. May I come in?”
“Yes, please.” I placed the well-used bookmark with a little pink tassel attached to the end into the crevice. The door came open and Pennyworth floated in, steam pouring from his propulsion engine in waves, as I placed the book on the end table beside my bed.
“Glad to see you looking so comfortable, Miss Shiloh. I wanted to see if there was anything I could get for you before you go to bed. Tea, perhaps? Nothing feels quite as invigorating as a nice hot cup of tea with a good book. Might I ask what tonight’s chosen adventure is?”
“Hard Times by Charles Dickens.”
“Ah! Mr. Dickens! Quite a good choice, Miss. You know, it is said that critics of the time focused highly on his treatment of trade unions and his post–Industrial Revolution pessimism in regards to capitalist mill owners and undervalued workers during the time period, which is believed to be highly prevalent themes within the novel.”
“Is that right?” I could see what he was talking about, though in my defense Pennyworth said the same thing every time I plucked Hard Times out of the library and mentioned something to him about it; just like how he could spew facts about any of the other novels sitting on the shelves in the library at that very moment. He needed only for the topic to be brought up. The facts themselves never changed.
“Oh yes! It is said that the lead character, Mr. Gradgrind, symbolizes the spirit of the Industrial Revolution because of the way he treats people like they’re machines.” He gave another of his garbled laughs, the lights in his eyes going out and coming back on to match the gesture. “Though as a machine I find it difficult to have a problem with that!”
I laughed like I did the thousands of other times he made the same joke. I suspected it might hurt his feelings if I didn’t and it wasn’t as if he could help repeating himself so much.
At length his laughter began to die down, though little giggling twists in his voice box remained clinging to the edges of his words. “Ah but all joking aside, is there anything you require of me, Miss Shiloh?”
I took a moment to consider his question. “No thank you, Pennyworth. I think I’m all right. Oh! Wait! Can we have pancakes for breakfast tomorrow?”
A warbling laugh bubbled up from inside of him. “Of course, Miss Shiloh! I’ll make you a towering stack of chocolate chip pancakes just the way you like them.”
I thanked him again, unable to control the grin on my face. Pennyworth made the best pancakes. Where a human might make a habit of breaking the first few pancakes in a batch, Pennyworth got them perfect every time. If the metal skeleton floating atop a propulsion steam engine didn’t give him away as an android, then his exceptional pancake skills would have.
Once Pennyworth floated back out the door, shutting it behind him as he did, I picked my book up and went back to reading.
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but when I did I fell into a one so deep and wonderful that it felt as if a warm, dark blanket was pulled over my mind and tucked all around it. I dreamt of Mr. Bounderby in the drawing room at Stone Lodge, telling Mrs. Gradgrind about his poverty-stricken childhood.
A great bump in the night roused me from my sleep. Because I’d toed the line between waking and dreaming so closely, I didn’t entirely believe the group of shadows dressed all in black huddled around my bed were real. Not right away.
Then, as if I’d been struck on the side of the head with a hammer, my senses shot awake and my heart leapt into my throat.
Until the moment my eyes opened I don’t think they knew I was awake. But one of them must’ve seen the way the light over my head illuminated something in my face because in an instant they were after me. Five total.
One of the creatures in black, one with a broader frame than the others in the collective, took a half-step ahead of the rest. “Come on, kid. Don’t make this harder than it has to—”
I screamed and bounded out of bed.
The creature sighed. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want you to do!”
All the others dove after me as I scrambled around them, each step an accidental pirouette into a graceful escape. When one reached out for me I stepped just out of reach. When another tried to tackle me to the floor I leapt out of the way in time to see my attacker fall full-on into my dresser, sending my glass dome butterfly display clattering to the floor along with a bell jar full of seashells Father brought back whenever his trips led him to the coast. When a third tried to block the open bedroom door I hesitated just long enough for him—or her, or maybe these things didn’t have a gender at all—to think launching themselves at me would be a good move, and when they were out of the way I spun around them and out into the hallway.
My thoughts first and foremost were of Rilei. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t even entertain the idea that whoever—or whatever—these monsters were they’d gotten my sister. That something happened to her and I wasn’t there to protect her. My stomach clenched and I thought I might throw up just picturing it.
“What is all this ruckus?”
I saw Pennyworth’s glowing eyes as he came down the hallway at full speed, leaving a trail of steam behind him.
“Miss Shiloh! Come away from there at once!”
Tears burned behind my eyes as I scrambled towards him, my heart beating in my throat as I heard the footsteps of the intruders behind me. My mind dedicated itself entirely to obeying Pennyworth right down to the very syllables of his command.
With one cold, metal hand Pennyworth grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the way. He stuck his other hand out in front of him and his long, spindly fingers shot forward and drove themselves deep into the flesh of a shadow creature’s neck. Four long cords attaching the tips of Pennyworth’s fingers to the main part of his hand went rigid as the shadow creature fought to free itself. A deep crimson spray shot out the back of its neck, then out the front as Pennyworth retracted the tips of his fingers and drew the creature down to the ground. Large, sickeningly human chunks remained on the tips of my butler’s fingers, dripping. Dripping. Dripping.
A creature came up from behind us while my mind was occupied with the violent queasiness percolating in my stomach at the sight of the meaty lumps and, in the time it took for me to realize what was happening, brought an electric baton down hard on the back of my butler’s head.
From that moment my senses were fully awake. I saw the electricity throwing blue sparks upon coming in contact with the back of Pennyworth’s skull.
Wattson fell face-first into the floor. The lights in his eyes flickering . . . flickering . . .
The fissure cutting down the length of my heart with every twinge of fear, with every burst of pain from my shoulder, with every second spent cornered like an animal by these devils, finally ran deep enough to snap it in half. A strangled cry choked out of my throat.
Something blunt came down hard on the back of my head and a sea of pepper rolled over my vision, turning the whole world black.