The first thing she became aware of, in the heinous dark, was a stabbing pain at the base of her spine. Lettie thought if this is what turning to dust felt like, then it certainly wasn’t very nice. She thought, briefly, that the Bedtime Man must be in quite astonishing pain to visit them night after night, but she couldn’t hold on to that thought for long. It seemed she couldn’t hold on to anything for long.
The aching ran up and down her rickety spine, traversing in cracks her broken back. The second thing she because aware of was the floor beneath that felt like melting ice. She felt the sleeves of her nightgown go all soggy around her, like the night was trying to suck her in.
And finally, the third thing she became aware of was someone, standing above her, staring down at the bony little child splayed out on its back.
‘You shouldn’t have come, Miss Tremont,’ the Bedtime Man said sternly. He didn’t sound angry, but then it was always so hard to tell.
‘I can’t move,’ Lettie said. She’d meant to say a lot more, though. In the time spent on the cold, hard floor, she’d told herself many times that if she ever did come face to face with the Bedtime Man again, then she would waste no time. She would tell him what she’d meant to, and then maybe she would be on her way again. But now that the time had come, she was too weak to speak any more. She clutched around herself, her eyes still blinked wide shut, in search of something to grab unto, to pull herself back up. But there was nothing.
‘I’m afraid your backbone was broken in the fall. One should not travel such great distances if one isn’t sure they’ll land on their feet.’
He gazed at her for one more second, bent down and enveloped her in his arms. In his touch, her clothes grew dry, but her spine remained broken. There were things not even the Bedtime Man could fix.
He carried her over through endless halls. She blinked, but saw nothing, not even the Bedtime Man’s face. And when there was nowhere left to go, he laid her down on the hard ground.
‘I’m sorry I can’t make you more comfortable. There are no beds here, I’m afraid,’ he said simply, gesturing around at the dimly lit room. It seemed there was nothing here at all, but Lettie wasn’t going to say anything. All she cared about was the Bedtime Man’s eyes, in the flickering darkness.
‘You’ve come because you feel you have a story to tell me,’ he said eventually. ‘You should not have come. You should have been wise enough to keep your story. But very well, since you sacrificed so much coming here, I will listen. Speak.’
‘Why didn’t you come?’ Her throat was dry, like a thick layer of dust had slid in and settled over every inch of it.
The Bedtime Man hesitated and Lettie thought she glimpsed the slightest trace of awkwardness in his eye. He was uncomfortable, which was something the Bedtime Man did not wear well.
‘I was held up in other places,’ he said simply and the girl suddenly felt something tar-hot rise up inside.
‘But we waited for you,’ she half-spat. She wasn’t sure why she was so angry or what the Bedtime Man had meant about sacrifices, but it seemed she couldn’t help herself. ‘You come every night, that’s the deal.’
The Bedtime Man nodded, his face looked thinner in the translucent dark, almost skeletal. ‘And yet, I could not, and so I let a night go by without giving you your story. I never prepared you for such occasion, because I never thought I would need to. And yet, that is not why you’ve come. You did not come for an owed story, valid though that may be. You came to tell me a story of your own, but now, you seem to have changed your mind. It’s understandable, your story is not supposed to be told and now that you’re outside the house, you feel that more than usual. Still, a story is what you’ve come for and it is a story that I’ll have. Tell me, Miss Tremont, what weighs your young soul?’
Lettie licked her lips and watched as one long hand held out a glass of water. The Bedtime Man sounded… strange out here, different, like something terrible weighed him down as well. Without really thinking about it, she began telling him about that day in the supermarket and about her grandfather and her mother, who loved her, even though her father had never quite seen it in his heart to do the same. A mother who would never abandon her, never let her think she was unwanted. She could hear herself trying, rounding out certain words the way the Bedtime Man would have. This was her story and she meant for it to sound right. The Bedtime Man listened, without a smile or a frown, without any reaction at all really. He kept his eyes closed and his forehead unwrinkled.
‘I came to tell you there was a mistake, that I shouldn’t be at the orphanage. I know all the other children say that as well, but it’s true this time. Surely you must see this is true. And I thought you could help me. Out of everyone I’ve ever known, you’re the only one who’d know what to do.’
‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you?’ the Bedtime Man murmured, eyes opening just a crack. Two ember slits burrowing into Lettie’s soul.
‘It is a sad story, Miss Tremont, but I’m sure you already knew that. And I’m afraid I don’t quite know how to help you, I’m afraid I don’t have all the answers, as I may have led you to believe. But now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you a story of my own.’
to be concluded