It's not that they're not lovely bedclothes, littlesey, but I can see you shivering right through them. Face buried, arms crossed, knobby knocking knees clattering together like drumsticks, they draw me in. I creep, creep, creep across the floorboards, fingers long and smile wide, and by your headboard I stop. And I wait.
You know who I am, littlesey. You know me by the polished copper buttons on my coat, each one shining like a dull star in the dark. You know me by the way my breath sounds like gas running through a lamp. A hiss of propane and the scent of carrion. My tongue licks the specks out between yellowing lengths while I wait for you to acknowledge me.
Most of my bobbinses don't say a word, but they do look me in the eye before I've left. I can see the wet marks of budding tears and the wide black wells of pupils and I tut to them softly from behind my teeth.
They have nothing to fear from old Jack. He's but a tourist. A fleeting visitor to their bedchambers.
He wants what everyone else wants: to feel full.
Hush, littlesey. If you didn't want this visit, then you never should have strayed. Slipping your mumpsty's hand in the crowd so that you could peer into the alleyway. You'd thought you'd seen something there, all amidst the rotting scrapwood and the garbage.
Afterwards, you wouldn't stop glancing over your shoulder. Every look was like a dry, crusty fleck of bread to me. I followed them back to your doorstep, littlesey. Old Jack popped them one at a time into his mouth, and then he scrabble, scrabble, scrabbled up the long windy drainpipe and sat waiting on the rooftop for night to fall.
To an observer, I might have looked like a bit of torn umbrella wound around a chimney.
At first glance, at least. No one who saw me looked twice. If they had, I would have known, and then I would be curled around their chimney next.
Littlesey, no. Deep breaths. I insist. Those shallow hiccups will only fog the mind, teeter you on the fringes of graying away. Wakefulness is next to godliness, littlesey, if only because it puts you next to me.
There. That's better. Mumpsty is all sleepytucked in her crib. She won't intrude. Put the scream back in your mouth and let's have an honest discussion, shall we?
All the pennyrags from Up-And-Dreaming down to Maudlake have their covers a mess with a silhouette their writers think is mine. He bounds and capers and strides through the moonlight because that is the kind of thing that all the mumpstys and dandycanes imagine when their errands take them out past the smothering of the sun. They think that their home is a refuge.
And it is.
I am older than houses. I am older than bridges. I am nearly as old as barrows and I am exactly as old as lanes. Once upon a time, I had to be cautious. The bobbinses that old Jack picked meant something to me. They were soft and warm on my fingers. They were packed in leaves and peat and their breath was steam on the chilly air and when our eyes met there was a kind of surrender.
Oh, they said with a shivering and a widening, this is something we have anticipated. If it were not you, it would be wolves. Or famine. Or the wildman from down in the valley. Your breath is as good as any other's at our necks.
And they would leave out tokens. Beads and baubles. Saucers full of milk for a thin, lashing tongue to lick. Cats, when I could catch them, my lips already spattered and sweet with milk-reek.
It did nothing to curb my appetite, but it was pleasing to be recognized. And feared. And accepted.
Your Jack-of-the-papers is a criminal. An aberrant. A thing to be curbed. He is an uneven cobblestone, littlesey, that the cart of progress will run shatteringly over. And when his pieces have been fished out of the street and thrown away, there will no longer be any respect for me.
I will be a hunch of cloth and a glitter of wild eyes at the end of an alley as the world blooms taller and sootier around me. I will be forgotten, except for in moments like ours, littlesey.
This is why I propose a bargain.
Oh, but did your ears perk up. All flush with blood and heat (don't think I can't see that through the pillow) and straining to catch every skittering syllable. I would run a finger down them, littlesey, but then you might cry out, and we are not finished yet.
In any trade, there is an exchange of sought-for things. In your case, that is me: gone, out of your bedroom. No longer will I haunt the fringes and floorboard creaks of your house. No more will you feel my eyes upon you when you are asked to bring an item up from the basement.
These last few weeks must have been hard. I will relieve you of that.
In return, you must give to me something I cannot make for myself.
No, however much I might relish it, I will not make you guess. My needs are simple: become my pupil.
I have always been one. A singular thing. That is a good ratio for predators. No competition and an endless flock.
It is also a dreadful, lonely narrowness. An alleyway snake-bent and endless, leading to nothing much at all.
I have never been caught and killed because I cannot be caught and killed. Were old Jack of a species with its own mumpstys and dandycanes, we would be overrun with ourselves. This will not be allowed to happen, but perhaps we can manage something else instead. A half-way point. A raggedy cloak around the shoulders of a littlesey, until he looks just like a broken umbrella in the gloom.
There's a gimlet glint in your eyes. Don't you think old Jack didn't catch it: cunning and exhaustion and dreadful hope, all crashing in on you at once.
But dig deeper, my brave little prey. Think on your mumpsty and the clients she keeps. Think on the grave where your dandycane lies. Think on your echoing house, and the meager inheritance that keeps it sustained.
What if you could punish the world for the cruelties it has visited upon you? What if you could make it bleed for allowing a thing like me to exist? Or worse, for permitting all those men your mumpsty brings inside the house?
Ah, yes. A grin. Sly as a spring thaw upon the ice.
All humor has its roots in fear.
Isn't that much better, littlesey? A proposition ever-so-much grander than being string between my teeth?
You'll need a name, of course. Something to wear like a mantle over your cold, quavering shoulders. And you'll have to come with me for a spell. Out into the night, where the lamps burn low and desperate. Out to the sacred, twisting stacks of roads that only I know.
Do not worry, littlesey.
In time you will return.
When you are longer and leaner and hungrier, your house will be here and waiting. Its creaking gables and sagging staircases will sing the arrival of their master, and dearest mumpsty will sit up in nocturnal dread that one of her customers has come trip-trip-trapping back through the foyer uninvited.
Perhaps it is because I do not have any of my own, but I always find family reunions the sweetest.
Easy now, littlesey. Slide out of the blankets. Lay your feet on the cold-as-ghosts floor. Lace your nightclothes tight.
The window beckons.
Old Jack will take the very best care of you until the day when you are a littlesey no longer.