The night air was cool.
It crept through the crack in the window and filled up the room. It should have been refreshing, but the cool air blowing through the thin cotton of her nightgown only kept her awake.
Rolling over in bed, Viola peered over the edge. Her room was dark; she could scarcely see the floor in the darkness. “Neville.” She whispered.
Sighing, she rolled onto her back on her bed. Looking up at the ceiling, she let her arm drop so it hung off the side. Her hand felt weightless as it swung through the air. “Neville, tell me the story again.”
Blowing stray hairs out of her face, she gave in and pushed it back with her hand. The silence slowly filled with the sound of crickets chirping outside and a faint buzzing. She wasn’t sure what it was, and she didn’t spend too much time wondering about it.
All she could think about was the story.
“Neville.” She added a little whine to her voice, hoping it would break his reserve. He hated when she whined.
“Neville… are you there?” Her brow rose. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure if he was under her bed. Where else could he have gone? She wondered.
Would he come back?
Viola frowned. She didn’t know. He had never left before. No matter what time of the day, no matter what, she could always find him in the shadows under her bed. But she hadn’t heard from him all night, and now she didn’t know if she would ever hear from him again.
Just as panic was rising in her chest, her mind whirling with thoughts, something brushed against her hand, pushing it through the air, making it sway.
She smiled. “Don’t do that.” She hissed.
“Do what?” His voice was raspy; she imagined it as the voice of a shadow, dark and hushed.
“I thought you left.” She told him.
“Not yet. There is still a lot to do here. A story to tell.”
Viola smiled. “Are you going to tell me again then?”
“What will I get?” He hit her hand again.
The question confused her. “What?”
Neville’s sigh was more like a growl that rumbled the bed slightly. “There has to be some give and take. I tell you stories you love; yet you give me nothing. If you want me to tell you the same story, yet again, you must give me something. A fee.”
She knew what that meant. Neville wanted an exchange.
It was true that he did delight her with stories, ones that filled her mind up to the very brim. They occupied her thoughts as she went through the day, and she found herself unable to think about anything else.
Only truly wonderful stories could do that. And he had told the stories to her asking for nothing in return.
“Okay.” She said suddenly. “A fee.”
Viola waited for him to tell her what he wanted. Neville said nothing, letting the silence fill the room until she couldn’t breathe through it any longer. “What would you like?” She said suddenly, trying not to sound annoyed.
Grabbing onto her hand, he pulled her from the bed. She landed hard on the floor, the air knocked out of her chest as he dragged her under the bed and into the darkness.
“Ouch, Neville.” She moaned.
His smile lit up the space under the bed. An eerie crooked smile, that seemed so bright yet dull in the shadows. “Don’t be such a baby.” He told her.
Squaring her jaw, Viola propped herself up on her elbows, rubbing at her aching wrist as she looked at the smile that seemed to float in the darkness. “I am not.” She said defiantly, before adding. “Go on then. What do you want?”
“A game of pretend.” He said immediately.
His words were fierce, but she didn’t think it was odd. It was just like Neville to be forceful and crass. Lifting her shoulders, she pursed her lips. “Okay. What should we pretend?”
“It shall be a game that takes three turns.” He told her. “One shall be tonight, one tomorrow, and one the night after.”
“Okay. And what do I have to do.”
“Tonight,” He began. She could suddenly feel hot breath on her face as he spoke, as though he had inched forward in the darkness. “You will sneak into baby Edward’s room. Be silent as you move through the halls, your mother sleeps lightly now with him fussing. Now, you must go to his crib and take his silver rattle.”
Her eyes widened. Sneaking out of her room past bedtime was already something she would get into trouble for. She wasn’t allowed to move through the house after bedtime, her mother had told her that several times over.
She most definitely wasn’t allowed to be in baby Edward’s room in the middle of the night. To the bathroom and back… anything else she would get punished for.
Swallowing hard, she bit down on her lip before shaking her head. “I don’t know, Neville.”
He hissed at her. “Don’t know?”
“Mama will be mad if I get caught up and about, but she will be livid if she catches me in baby Edward’s room. What will I tell her if I get caught?” Viola didn’t like this game of pretend. “Let’s play something else.”
“No!” The bed shook. Under the bed was cast completely into darkness as the floating smile disappeared.
“Shh!” Viola hushed him. “Stop, you’ll wake my mum and dad.”
His voice was low and harsh. “You’ll get no more stories from me, Viola.”
“You greedy, greedy girl. Always Neville, tell me a story. Neville! Tell me a story! Never once have I asked you for anything.”
Guilt suddenly weighed on her. “It’s not that I don’t want to give you anything.”
He interrupted her. “Do you think you are the only little girl who likes stories? In this town alone there are at least two-dozen little girls your age. Of those, I don’t think there is a single one who would say no to a good story.”
“Perhaps I am wasting my time here with you, Viola. You are an unappreciative little whelp. I need to be telling my stories to someone far more grateful than you.”
“No, no. Please Neville, don’t get so upset with me.” Swallowing hard, she tried her best not to pout. “I will play pretend with you.” She hesitated a moment. “All I have to do it take baby Edward’s rattle?”
“Well,” He smiled again, slightly lighting up under the bed. “There is one other thing. While you take it, you have to believe with all your heart that the rattle is not a rattle.”
Viola’s brow creased. “Not a rattle? What do I have to believe it is?”
“Baby Edward’s life.” He said flatly.
“Baby Edward’s life.” She repeated. “Why?”
“Because it’s a game of pretend and in exchange for more stories, I want you to give me baby Edward’s life. For pretend. Do you think you can do that?”
She was confused. “Why would you want baby Edward’s life? He’s just a baby and he doesn’t really do anything. You should want the life of someone more exciting; an acrobat, or a movie star. Baby Edward.” She shook her head. “What a waste of pretend.”
“Viola, you have to believe it or else it won’t count.”
Crawling out from under the bed, she sighed as she got to her feet. “It hardly seems worth getting into trouble for.” She whispered. “Baby Edward’s life. The rattle is probably worth more.” She shook her head. “I’m stealing baby Edward’s life and giving it to Neville.” She mumbled to herself.
As the door creaked open, slicing through the silence, Viola snuck into the hall.
All that could be seen in the darkness of her room was a dull white smile under her bed and the slight glow of eyes above it.