Sunday, 28 October 2018

The Forgotten Hollow Tinies: Interlude B - First Night on the Job

As the sun set over Forgotten Hollow, I peeked out of the living room window, and saw that Clara was still outside, swinging around on the monkey bars I had placed between the gravestones. She was alone, and yet, she seemed to be having a conversation with someone.

This didn't surprise me. It had become apparent in recent weeks that my creative daughter had a throng of imaginary friends. She had told me about them in great detail. The interesting thing was the variety among them. They each had their own little stories, too. 

There was a little girl with ringlets and a bonnet, who liked to chant playground rhymes with Clara. There was a teenage boy in a soldier's uniform who had lost a leg and an arm, who was calmed by the melodies of Benjamin's violin floating through the window. Most intriguing of all was a slightly older man, probably aged about thirty or so from my daughter's descriptions, and who she claimed always held a baby in his arms.

"He comes here because Mrs. Casper won't let him in," she said, rather mysteriously.

It was clear where Clara's vivid creations had come from. After all, their names and ages matched those carved into the gravestones she played amongst. Only the man and baby were anonymous. When I 'd asked Clara why, she'd merely replied:

"It's because this isn't the place where they sleep."

Perhaps she had run out of names from the graves. 

In any case, as content as I usually was to watch her play, tonight was a special night. As her siblings ran around like headless chickens hanging up balloons and laying out plates, I knew it was time to call her inside.

"Clara! Come on, honey - Adelaide will be blowing her candles out soon!"

"OK, Mum - I'm coming!"

After waving a quick goodbye to a person or persons unseen, Clara dashed into the house and scurried towards the bathroom to wash up for dinner - crossing Adelaide in the doorway as the latter emerged: her makeup tasteful, her hair elegant.

I blinked back tears. Tonight was my eldest daughter's 18th birthday, and here before me was a beautiful and gifted young woman - ready to face the world beyond this gloomy glade.

Once Clara's hands were clean and she had joined the rest of her siblings gathered around the kitchen area, I lit the candles atop Adelaide's cake, and together, we all sang "Happy Birthday": my younger poppets allowing an excess of volume to compensate for a lack of tune.

With one big breath, Adelaide leaned forward and blew out the candles...

... and the whole house was plunged into darkness.

The stunned and sombre silence that followed was broken only by a shrill shriek bursting forth from the birthday girls' lips: her hands flying towards her chest, clawing at it desperately

"Hot," she wheezed, in between distressed gulps for air. "Bur... burning..."

I rushed to her aid, but before I could do anything, Adelaide fled like a greyhound out of a trap and barricaded herself in the bathroom once again. Through the door, I could hear a tap running.... presumably so she could splash some cold water onto herself.

Moments later, she emerged, slowly: her face as pale as snow, her fragile figure trembling in fear. As I looked at her, I could feel my heart plummeting into misery - sinking like a stone.

There, upon Adelaide's chest, was a symbol that mirrored my own. The eerie tattoo that denoted one who belonged to the Reaper.

The mark of my covenant.

"M...Mum?" she stammered, barely able to speak. "What... what is this? What's happening to me?"

God, how I had prayed this day wouldn't come. How I had longed for my precious children to live in ignorance of their purpose: to be the same as anyone else. But that could never be. I had made my deal. And now, the first of many payments was due.

"Darling," I said, with a soft firmness - forcing myself to be matter-of-fact whilst still showing my maternal love. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was going to tell you before. I should have told you, but I... I was so afraid..."

"Tell me what? Mum, what's going on?"

As the rest of my children all closed in, scared but intrigued in equal measure, I knew it was time to share my secret with them all. Clutching Adelaide's hands, I recounted the whole sorry tale about my brush with death, my pledge to bear an alphabetical army of children for the Reaper, and how she,my beloved first-born, was now ready to take on the role she and her siblings were all destined for.

As she heard this sorry saga, Adelaide shook her head wildly.

"The Grim Reaper!" she wailed. "No... no, this can't be! I don't want to be his acolyte! What about college? And marriage, and children, and all of that? That's the future I want!"

"It matters not," a chilling, stark voice muttered from a corner. "This is the future fate has given you. Just as it will be one day be bestowed upon all 26 of my promised ones."

We both turned, startled. Without any announcement or invitation, my dark and deadly master had appeared in my home. Now, I could only stand there and watch passively as he hovered towards my eldest child. The movement of his hood tellingly implied that he was examining her as one inspects an employee in their uniform.

"So, this is the birthday girl," he continued, his voice an unnerving coo. "Adelaide Cote Livingstone. My, my... you have blossomed into quite the beauty, haven't you, young lady? I can see many men willingly going to their deaths with you as their psychopomp."

Adelaide stayed silent - too unnerved to speak. Instead, it was me who found the courage to object.

"Must she go with you now?" I pleaded. "Please... I beg you... let her at least have a taste of a true human life -"

"That cannot be done," the Reaper barked sharply. "The moment Adelaide came of her age, your deal was made binding. She became immortal, freed from the threats of both illness and age. She is no longer a "true" human. She is a Reaper, like myself. And, as such, she must do a Reaper's work."

Then, he turned back to Adelaide, and spoke in tones far more sympathetic and gentle than those I had ever heard him use before.

"I know you are frightened, my dear," he said, "and that you were born from a mortal man's seed. But, in a spiritual sense, I have always been your true father.  Thus, for my part, I swear that I will care for you like any loving father would care for his daughter. You will dwell in a grand palace beyond this earthly realm, where your siblings will one day join you, and I will teach you your trade dutifully."

Adelaide hung her head, mourning for her lost hopes and dreams... but nevertheless, she nodded in acceptance.

"Come, now," the Reaper told her. "Bid farewell to your family. We have much work to do."

There were no protests. No objections. Instead, Adelaide merely made her way around all of her siblings in turn - offering them kisses and hugs as she bid them farewell. Benjamin's goodbye, whilst still tender and touching, was the most fleeting. After all, it wouldn't be very long before he entered the Reaper's employ for himself.

When, at last, she came to me, I held her tighter than I ever had before - dreading the moment when I would have to let her go.

To let her go forever.

"Goodbye, my angel," I whispered. "I know you will make me proud. When I die, I pray that I will see you again."

Following one quick kiss, I released my grasp. As the Reaper approached the front door, it opened for him of its own accord, and as he hovered outside into the night. Adelaide followed him obediently.

Rushing into the yard, I could feel the tears flowing down my face as I watched the pair strolling up the street together, until they vanished suddenly into nothingness - presumably having crossed from this world into the other.

I had to carry on. What other choice did I have? One child was gone, but I still had six others to care for - not to mention a promised legion still to bring into the world. They needed me, and I had to focus on them - even if I felt like my heart had just been torn out of my chest. Adelaide's goodbye wouldn't be the last... although I had the most awful feeling it would never get any easier.

That night, as I tucked Clara and Dahlia into bed, my usually chatty raven-haired little socialite was strangely... quiet. It was as if something was playing on her mind. Finally, after stories had been read and blankets had been pulled up, she broke her uncharacteristic silence.


"Yes, Dahlia?"

"You know that scary man who came for Adelaide tonight?"

"You mean the Grim Reaper?"


"What about him, dearie?"

"Well... will he come for us, too?"

I hesitated. The last thing I wanted to do was give any of my children nightmares. But, lying to them wasn't the best course of action, either. After contemplating this dilemma for some moments, I answered her.

"Yes, darling," I admitted. "One day, he will. But not for a very long time."

"I'm not scared," Clara chirped up, with a strange brightness. "He's a nice man once you get to know him. My friends said so."

"Which friends are those, sweetie?" I asked, intrigued.

"The ones I play with outside," Clara continued. "The ones who sleep under the ground."

She yawned sleepily, snuggling down beneath the bedsheet.

"After all," she concluded, "he was nice when he came for them."

Chills shot up my spine like electricity. Without another word, I kissed both girls goodnight, retired to my own room... and collapsed weeping into my pillow.

Friday, 12 October 2018

The Forgotten Hollow Tinies: Part Five - Skills Not Skulls

Now that Clara and Dahlia are toddlers, its time for them to start developing vital skills! Given that Benjamin and Adelaide are busy with schoolwork, and that Amelia has her hands full with the infants - not to mention the one she has on the way! - she reluctantly dips into her savings to buy a tablet for her two little munchkins.

While she still assists with playtimes and potty training whenever she can, it's good to know that they can start to learn independently whilst she's rushed off her feet with nappy changes and feedings.

As for the two eldest reapers-to-be, their hard work has been paying off! They come home from school with As, which means they're ready to become teenagers!

The first-born is naturally the first to blow out the candles...

Like her mother before her, I gave her a bit of a gothic makeover... but that lipstick came with the aging process. I kept it, as I reckon it suits her. Even a future Grim Reaper is allowed a bit of colour, don't you think?

Benjamin swiftly followed suit.

Speaking of suits, that was my choice, but this time, the glasses were the gift of fate. Such a smart-looking young man, in both senses of the word! You can tell his father is one of the Curious clan! 

One massive benefit of having teens in the house is that they're grown-up enough to help care for their younger siblings - a role they seem to take on with relish. Adelaide shows Dahlia what the potty is all about...

... whilst Benjamin gives his mother a break by tending to the little family members of all. (Once he's fully grown, perhaps I'll pop him on the Gallery for other baby challenge writers to use. After all, his behaviour already suggests he'd be a great father!)

I mean, just look at this. You can feel the maternal and fraternal pride just oozing out of this image. After this, no wonder the blocks became Clara's favourite toy.

Still, learning isn't only important to the toddlers. The new teenagers also need to start developing adult talents in order to improve their grades. Thankfully, they seem to have inherited some sort of Livingstone love of creative pursuits. Benjamin builds on his budding violin skills, while Adelaide stands in Amelia's footsteps in front on the easel.

As fun as these hobbies are, it's not an excuse to neglect schoolwork. Using a tip I picked up from other challenge players (thanks, folks!), I decide to start a homework club - the Grim Study Buddies - for the Livingstone siblings, with Adelaide and Benjamin becoming the founding members. It will prove to be a godsend - no more missed assignments!

That said, don't work too hard, you two! I need both of you to stay here and help out with your little brothers and sisters for as long as you can!

Especially now that there's one more!

Great news for Benjamin! We finally have another boy!

G is for Gabriel, angel on Earth.

(Baby 7 - Gabriel Maxwell Livingstone)


With help from their two teenage teachers, Clara and Dahlia are soon all brushed up on their toddler skills and ready for childhood!

(I wasn't quick enough to grab a shot of Dahlia blowing out the candles, so here are both girls post-party!)

As they start school, both girls are swiftly inducted into the Study Buddies...

... and take up hobbies. Clara, it seems, is destined to be yet another Livingstone artist, whilst Dahlia, a budding socialite, spends hours talking to herself in the mirror, perfecting her charm to utilise on her classmates.

Meanwhile, Einin enters the terrible twos, and inherits the tablet - which Amelia still insists is purely for educational purposes.

With the older kids busy as bees, her newborn son content in his cradle, profits from paintings in the family fund, and a full house meaning that Baby H is postponed, Amelia takes some time for herself. Having seven kids hasn't been easy on her figure, so she decides to hit the treadmill: hoping that a slimmer physique will boost her sense of sexiness, and help her win more baby daddies to fulfil her promise.

But, with Adelaide now on the verge of adulthood, Amelia's supernatural supervisor will soon be paying the family a call...

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Dr. Marlow's Home for the Sanity-Challenged: Part Ten - Beyond the Cuckoo's Nest

5th January 1900

It has now been ten years since we were released from Dr. Marlow's horrendous home. A new century has begun. I can only hope the future is as joyful and prosperous as the last few years have been for all of the former inmates. I know this since I often exchange letters and photographs with them all: sharing our latest news, and helping to seal our lasting friendships.

They cut it rather too close for comfort, but ultimately, Lucian and Fifi did marry before their baby arrived. Only a few short weeks after their nuptials, they welcomed a son, whom they named "Laurence", in honour of the late Mr. Wilde. I'm told he is quite a creative boy... which, no doubt, would please our poet friend very much.

Both Mr. and Mrs Claymore earn their money on the entertainment circuit. Fifi has become a well-known pianist and singer, popular with audiences across the country. Her most famous music hall song, "Little Red Roses", was adapted from one of Mr. Wilde's poems, and has helped ensure his own name has lived on.

Lucian, meanwhile, is a championship boxer, earning money from his victories in professional matches. However, Fifi - or rather, Fiona, as now she insists on being called offstage - assures me that his aggression never leaves the ring. They have disagreements, of course, as all married couples do, but Lucian has never laid a hand on her, or indeed, anyone who wasn't a chosen opponent. 

Still, in between performances and matches, they've found time to raise a family. They have three children now - Laurence, Edward and little Alice - who travel with them as they tour the nation with their respective acts. A most exciting childhood, I should think. Fiona has hopes of going further afield one day (perhaps to Paris, or somewhere in America) but their next stop will be nearer my way, and I have every intention of paying them a call.

Sister Marie-Catherine Rose was granted her Papal dispensation, and left the convent a weeks after her release from the Asylum. Reverting back to her birth name of Charlotte Ruswell, she was delighted to be swiftly reunited with her beloved Sammy... and it wasn't too long before she found her name changing once more.

Thanks to his natural flair with gardening, Sammy has managed to turn his back on criminal activity once and for all, having found stable work in the stately homes surrounding London: managing the nobles' vast lawns, conservatories and arboretums in exchange for a plentiful wage. To supplement this even further, he even grows his own fruits and vegetables at home, which he sells at the local market.

The extra money, of course, was useful to them... given that their garden wasn't the only thing growing.

These days, they are proud parents to two sons, Seamus and Sean, whom they are raising in the Catholic faith. 

Despite Charlotte's negative experiences within the convent, her faith is something she has never lost and whilst she is primarily a housewife, she is also the teacher at the local Sunday school.

And sometimes, just every so often... she sees a familiar face kneeling at the foot of the altar.

Through Charlotte, I have learnt that, upon professing her vows, Clarice Treadmere was given the name of Sister Marie Monica Barnabas. That last part, I am told, was in my honour. 

Her time in the Home, whilst tragic, seems to have not been entirely in vain, as caring for invalid inmates gave her the experience she needed to work in the convent hospital. In addition to her daily prayers and religious duties, she is devoted to looking after the abandoned, the poor, and all those unable to find the help they need elsewhere: comforting them with basic medicine and Holy Scripture.

Clarice, as she then was, wrote to me only once: before she took the vows that would remove her from the wider world. In it, she promised that, each night in her cell, as she read from her prayer book, she would remember everyone from Marlow's Home, and ask the Lord to care for us all. I may never know for sure if she kept her word, but given the blessings our lives have seen, I am inclined to believe that she did.


As for myself, I returned to London life, left Marlow's employment, and established my own medical practice close to Harley Street. When word spread about my fellow inmates and their miraculous healing under my care, I was welcomed back into the Fellowship of Physicians with open arms, and my number of patients grew substantially. The madman, it seems, was correct all along. Thanks to my surgery's success, I was earning a considerable amount of money: enough to buy a townhouse in the fashionable part of the city - the central property in a long, elegant row.

Deidre, as agreed, came to live with me as my housekeeper: a spare upstairs room becoming her lodgings. She undertook the chores and cooking selfishly, skillfully and without complaint: making my life far easier, and allow me to truly devote myself to my patients. After a while, it occurred to me that simply having someone to come home to each night, and the polite company Deidre provided, was worth every penny I paid her by itself.

Everything was peaceful and contented... until, one day, about six months into my resumed life, I was paid a most unexpectedly call by two Cockney ruffians. They had spotted Deidre buying ingredients for supper in the market, and followed her back here - wanting to ensure that she paid off her debt to their employer.

Sensing their presence, Deidre panicked and rushed into the house: hiding herself away in the lounge, terrified, and leaving me to deal with our unwelcome visitors.

"We ain't 'ere to cause yer good self any trouble, guv," one told me as stood in my hallway. "We just want the bird, that's all. She 'as a... payment to make, you see. Just bring 'er out to us, and nobody gets 'urt."

I remained calm. Bizarre as it was, I had been prepared for this eventuality for some time. The first part of my plan involved getting these thugs as far away from Deidre as possible. They'd been civil with me so far, but if they thought I was going to risk letting them get within five feet of the person most dear to me in the world, they were deluding themselves.

"Come now," I said to them firmly. "There is no need for violence. Pray, come upstairs into my study, and we can discuss the matter like gentlemen."

This unusual offer threw the off guard, but, nevertheless, they accepted it. As I led them up to the first floor and across the hall into the small, book-filled room, their eyes were immediately drawn to a large chest in one corner... exactly as I had hoped.

"Please," I told them. "Go ahead."

As the thinner of the two men knelt down to open it up, his eyes widened and his face beamed as he examined its contents, turning to his partner excitedly.

"There's a ton of money in 'ere!" he cried, elated. "We're talkin' more than a year's wages, mate!"

"Indeed," I told them. "I've been saving for months now. Enough to pay off Ms. DeMille's debt, wouldn't you say?"

"Not 'alf!"

"And there we have it," I explained. "It's yours, gentlemen. All of it. That is... if you agree to never bother Ms. DeMille again. Her debt is repaid, and you have no need to speak to her. From now on, she is a persona incognita. You understand?"

The two man exchanged glances, then whipped off their caps, and reached out to shake my hand.

"Pleasure doing business with yer."

With the smirks of mischievous goblins, they picked up the chest between them, and scurried down the stairs... with myself closely following to make sure they didn't try and grab any extras on the way out. 

Once the front door had firmly shut behind them, I went into the lounge, where I found the still shaking Deidre slowly coming out of hiding.

"Are... are they gone?" she asked weakly.

"Yes," I told her. "And they're never coming back. You no longer have any business with them."

"But, 'ow can that be?"

"I... I have paid off your debt," I explained. "As of today, you owe those men nothing. You have a clean slate. A new start."

Deidre shook her head in shock  - unable to comprehend what I was saying. I saw tears of joy forming in her eyes as she stifled a gasp.

"I... I might never be able to pay yer back..." she began.

"No need," I said dismissively. "I don't wish you to. The money means nothing to me - I still have plenty. I simply wanted to help you."

 "But, why.... why would yer do such a kind thing for me?"

Drawing in a breath, I summoned up the courage I needed to tell her the truth.

"Because... because I love you, Deidre."

Deidre said nothing. She merely stared at me as though she didn't speak the same language as I - causing me to panic, and to ramble on like a true madman.

"Please.... please don't think I've tried to "purchase" you, or anything untoward like that. That wasn't my intention, I swear it. I simply felt that, that you had to know the truth now. If... if you wish to leave my employ, then I completely understand, but I... I had hoped -"

"Doctor," Deidre said quickly in her old Duchess tone, stunning me into silence. "May one be allowed to convey one's true feelings?"

"Of course."

With a giggle, she lurched forward, and kissed my lips passionately.

It was a moment of pure heavenliness.


Less than a month later, Deidre made me the happiest man alive by becoming Mrs. Barnaby Tripp.

As I held my bride in my arms and looked into her eyes, I knew that I was going to be with her for the rest of my earthly days. I would not end up a callous, miserly megalomaniac like Marlow. I would be a renowned doctor who cared for his patients, and who would always feel love in his heart, thanks to the love that Deidre shared with me. I would do anything to ensure her future happiness.

Part of that happiness, I knew, was the hope that we, like our former fellow inmates, would be able to start a family. Having never before laid with a woman, my wedding night filled with a strong sense of nervousness and expectation, but also excitement. Consummation, I hoped, would not be an issue - and indeed, as it transpired, I enjoyed the process immensely - but procreation might prove an obstacle.

In the end, I had no reason to worry. Exceeding even my own highest expectations, I proved to be... most virile.

Thus far, the Lord has blessed Deidre and I with six beautiful children. We have three sons - James, Michael and Albert, and three daughters - Emily, Amelia and Victoria... all of whom, God be praised, were carried and delivered by their mother with little difficulty. Whilst we would certainly welcome any more children that providence may grant us, our family as it stands is marvellous beyond both of our wildest dreams. Thankfully, our time in the asylum helped us prepare for the upcoming years of raising a large group of people, who at times can seem rather uncontrollable!

Earlier this morning, I ventured up to Highgate Cemetery, in order to visit Laurence's grave. He lies alongside fellow poets and creative souls, exactly as he'd wished. In all of the years since his passing, fresh flowers have always been on his grave, and the spot is well-tended and cared for. Alphonse, I suspect, is the most common caller, but I feel his friends from the Home must come by here often, too. In life, society may have rejected Laurence, but here, he is one of the most visited people of all. He is still remembered, and he is still loved.

In stark contrast, at the other side of the cemetery, there is a decrepit, damaged headstone atop a patch of muddy, barren earth. If anyone cared to wipe away from the dust from the grey marble, they would learn that this is the resting place of one Dr. Nicholas Marlow: died 1895, unmarried, no children... and clearly, no mourners to speak of. 

As I passed it by on my way out, I knelt before it for a few moments in deep thought. For years, I have tried to rid myself of the terrible memories of Marlow, and what he and his ghoulish Home for the Sanity-Challenged tried to do to myself and the others who had dwelled there. He had wanted to rob us of our lives: to gain the respect of learned men at the cost of our liberty and humanity. It was a monstrous notion. Yet, still... had I never been sent there, I would not have my loving wife and beautiful children today. 

Against all of his intentions, Marlow had granted me a blessing, not a curse. He had saved me from his own harsh fate... and for that, as unnatural as it felt, I had to be grateful. That was why, in my hallway, a pencil sketch of the Home's exterior was hung up in a frame upon the wall. Beneath it was an inscription, consisting of six simple words.


Home - my home - was calling me now. Six o'clock was drawing near. Deidre would have dinner ready soon, and no doubt the children would all be babbling over one another in the frantic rush to tell me about the day's activities.

For now, however, no words were forthcoming. 

With a respectful dip of my hat, I bid farewell to my former employer, and left quietly.