"What it is," said my neighbor Jeff, "is I'm going to get that Wee Willie Winkie."
The little voice had just faded from the keyhole in my front door. It was 8:01. When I went out in the morning, I'd see a fresh set of little dents in my front door. Willie Winkie might have been wee, but he had knuckles like chisel points.
Jeff came over to my house about 7:30 every night. Since Wee Willie had taken his daughter Jenna, he couldn't stay home. His wife Sharon stayed in the house doing God knew what while he sat on my couch tanking up on bourbon so he had a barrier between him and that little bastard who terrorized us every night. I never asked Jeff what Sharon did while he was out. I imagined her standing in the upstairs bathroom, on the floor I'd helped Jeff retile two years before, running the shower and counting her gray hairs so she wouldn't hear Wee Willie and think about Jenna. If I'd been married, I'd have asked my wife to go over there, do something, I don't know what. Nobody else was going to do it -- Wee Willie had made us all suspicious of each other. Standoffish. Which wasn't to say we didn't help each other, because we did. You picked up the paper when someone went on vacation, you jump-started dead batteries or held a ladder when it was time to clean the eaves. Neighborly things. None of that standard camaraderie included talking about Wee Willie.
I have a theory that this silence persisted because to talk about it we'd have had to come up with some kind of fairy tale, and we'd had quite enough of those.
That night, Jeff was a bit more loaded than usual. Or that might have been an illusion. Maybe he'd just come to the point where he couldn't take it any more: Sharon upstairs crying in front of the mirror, him crocked because he couldn't face her, his little girl gone. Everything slowly falling apart.
"I'm going to get that Wee Willie Winkie," he said again. "Tomorrow night. You with me?"
Was I with him? Lordy, I thought, how was I involved in this? Which was cowardly, yes. But it was my thought.
See, I don't have any kids. I get up in the morning, go to work, sizzle up something on the stove, and kick back with the tube until I fall asleep on the couch. Used to be I'd turn up the volume around eight so I wouldn't have to hear Wee Willie. Usually I heard him anyway, and more often than not I found myself catching an involuntary glimpse of him through one of my front windows. If I'd gotten married, I might have had kids, and then Wee Willie might have taken them. It's a risk I was never willing to take.
But was I with Jeff? I worked it over, and couldn't avoid the conclusion that Jeff spent every evening swilling bourbon on my couch because I was his only friend. Maybe it wasn't much of a friendship -- we drank, we pounded nails into each other's houses, turned some wrenches on each other's cars -- but it was all Jeff had. And truth be told, I was thirty-seven years old, with a job I forgot at five oh one every day and nothing else in the world that meant much.
Well, I do have fish. Tetras, mostly, with a couple of angelfish and a fungus-infested kuhli loach. I spend lots of time watching them, listening to the hum of the pump, wondering whether the kuhli would scratch at its fungus if it had hands. So if I was Jeff's only friend, it wasn't much of a stretch to say he was mine too.
"Sure, man," I said. "I'm with you. Let's go get him."
Next morning on the way to work I asked myself: Go get him? I got to the office, moved papers around on my desk, thought: Go get him? Went to a meeting, ate lunch in the cafeteria. Go get him? Chewed on the question all the way home. Never was quite sure what I meant by it, or what Jeff thought he had meant.
I cooked a big T-bone in case Jeff was planning some kind of siege of Citadel Winkie, and then as soon as it was gone I was sorry I'd eaten it. What if we had to run, and all that steak thumping back and forth in my gut slowed me down just enough to leave me in the clutches of whatever dark forces Wee Willie served?
And there were dark forces at work, make no mistake about it. Wee Willie came to your house at eight sharp, rapping at the windows and crying through the locks, and if your children weren't in bed, you could turn around and find one of them gone. It didn't matter if you'd gotten them in bed at seven-thirty; if little Johnny got up to get a glass of water and Wee Willie found out about it, that was it.
Lots of parents stood nervous sentry duty outside bedroom doors until eight o'clock had come and gone. An overwrought few strapped their kids down or gave them a little something to make them sleep. Still, anybody who has ever had kids knows that if you devise a security measure, they'll figure out how to get around it. And most people don't want to do things like straitjacket their children, and even if they were willing, it's hard to make yourself believe that something like Wee Willie can actually happen to you.
But it can. I said little Johnny, but what I meant was Jenna. That's how Jeff lost his little girl. He went to check on her at 8:01 and found the spilled glass in the hall outside her bedroom. She never made a sound.
Jeff showed up early the next night, right after seven. A shotgun dangled black and oily in the crook of his right arm.
"Ye gods," I said. "You aren't going to shoot Wee Willie."
"Not unless I have to," he said. I shut the door behind him and looked out the window. Did Wee Willie do reconnaissance? What load of shit would come down on my head if he knew Jeff was lying for him with a twelve-gauge?
The steak rolled over in my stomach. It rolled back when Jeff handed me a pistol.
"Jeff, I've never fired a gun in my life," I said.
"Here's hoping tonight won't bust your cherry," he said, and got the bourbon down from the mantel.
"You can't shoot Wee Willie," I said. "He's not a person, he's like a faerie or a sprite or something. You can't shoot them."
"The hell I can't," Jeff said. "I never read that sprites are bulletproof. Besides, he's real enough to crack your windows, isn't he?"
This was food for thought. I poured myself a drink to aid my consideration.
"Shouldn't go after Wee Willie crocked," Jeff said.
How else would you want to do it? I thought. "You just watch yourself."
"One for you is like four for me," Jeff said, which was true. I'm a terrible lightweight. I think that's one reason Jeff drinks around me. He knows I won't stay with him and spur some kind of hindbrain competitive streak, so he can sit on my couch, get a buzz, and tell himself he doesn't really have a problem.
Both of us could see the clock on the kitchen wall, but I was trying not to look at it. Jeff, though, he must have passed years of his life as the minute hand crept toward vertical. It was nearly time -- and I should mention that in this town we know time. It doesn't pay to have your clocks slow when Wee Willie is around.
Jeff hadn't told me his plan, and I hadn't asked because I didn't really want to know. If he'd told me, and I thought it sounded crazy, I would have let him down. I'm a coward. Cowards keep their mouths shut.
He shifted on the couch just before eight o'clock, and looking back I realize that he was facing the front door and limbering up the gun. At the time, though, I was slouched in a funk over my lack of courage, and I saw him move without registering what he was doing.
Wee Willie's voice would give a Viking the heebiest of jeebies. Every night I heard it, and every night it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Are the children all in bed? he cried, his reedy infantile voice crawling down my spine, and every night I looked up and saw his face at my window, the collar of his striped nightshirt hanging off one bony clavicle. On this night I didn't look, so I didn't see Jeff move as the kitchen clock struck eight.
Jeff's load of buckshot blew out most of the window nearest my front door, frame included. He chambered another shell and was across the living room in the time it took me to spill my drink on the rug. Then he was out the front door, and I was going after him. I bumped into him on the sidewalk, where he was stooping over something I couldn't see. I sidled around him to see what it was, the shock of the gunshot having sent my mind fleeing for the comfort of mundane complaints.
"Jeff, man, you owe me a window."
"Shut up a second," he said, and pointed.
There among the splinters of wood and streetlit shards of glass was a wooden block with painted letters on its faces. A child's toy. My breath caught and I forgot about the window and the whiskey seeping into my rug as I picked out other toys in the fan of wreckage on my lawn. There was a doll with one eye open, a bright yellow plastic rattle. A dreidel, a music box, a hobbyhorse with red ribbons tied in its mane.
"Holy shit," I said. "You blew the shit out of him." How come nobody had ever done this before, I was wondering. All those years of dreading eight o'clock.
"Maybe I did," Jeff said, "but the little son of a bitch is getting away." He pointed, and I saw the trail: children's toys in a weaving line to the end of my street and on into the woods beyond the last house.
I got a flashlight from my car and we went after Wee Willie. I knew the woods well enough that I took the lead, and Jeff bulled along after me through the underbrush, the two of us moving from toy to fallen toy with no other consideration in the world. Moonlight filtered down through the trees to speckle our path, but mostly what I remember is the way each successive toy jumped out in the beam of my flashlight. Every time, the absurdity of what we were doing jumped out at me -- my neighbor Jeff had shot Wee Willie Winkie, and we were running him to ground. I wondered if Sharon knew what we were up to.
We came out of the woods into the town's oldest cemetery, and I knew we were close. Wee Willie hadn't run here to go on through to the strip of pizza places and furniture stores on the other side. He was going home.
Toward the center of the cemetery, individual gravestones gave way to family crypts, stark monuments long forgotten by any living descendant. Groundskeepers made an effort here, but the layering of age was too thick: the trees grew close, dipping their branches down to erase names and dates from the weathered granite. The miniature teacups and finger puppets and other toys stood out in a way I can't explain. Jeff and I stopped when we'd taken a dozen steps without seeing a toy, and I played the flashlight around the cluster of anonymous memorials. He grabbed my wrist, pointed my arm toward a low, flat-roofed tomb leaning under the pressure of an ancient oak tree. The door was open a little.
He let go of my hand and we stepped toward it. I let him go first in case he opened up with the shotgun again. When we got to the door I saw what was holding it open: a teddy bear, patchy and eyeless, one of its ears chewed away by some long-dead puppy.
Jeff made a noise, like someone had reached inside him and taken the only secret he'd ever meant to keep. He squatted, shotgun across his knees, and with heartbreaking care worked the teddy bear loose. The door started to close, but I jammed the barrel of the flashlight into the opening before I could remember that the smart thing to do would be walk away. With its light shining on him, Jeff held the teddy bear in his beefy hands. He lifted it to his face and held it there until I felt ashamed to be watching him. I wanted to say something but didn't know what it would be, and like he usually did Jeff solved the problem. He stood, tucked the teddy bear into his jacket pocket, and got both hands on the edge of the door. Jeff's a big man, and even though the old hinges groaned, the door couldn't resist him. The flashlight fell into my hands as he hauled the door open far enough for us to squeeze in.
I aimed the flashlight inside and got a cold creep from the steak in my belly right down into my knees as I saw a staircase going down. Wee Willie must have paused inside the door; a small jumble of tops and rubber balls and army men lay on the first step. Jeff paused long enough to slide a shell into the shotgun, replacing the shot he'd fired through my window, and then he went down. I stayed right behind him, keeping the flashlight off to the side.
When we got to the bottom there were no crypts. No bodies on shelves, no sealed chambers, no ossuaries or urns. Just a big, much too big, stone-walled room with a pile of kids' toys in the middle of the floor like a dragon's hoard, and in the middle of the pile sat Wee Willie Winkie. He was muttering something to himself in that piping voice of his, and the wounded surprise in his voice brought home to me that he was just a child himself.
They were all in bed, he was saying. All in bed, all in bed.
He coughed, bending over with the force of it, and his nightcap fell off. His hair was brown, and a cowlick stood out from the crown of his head. With a retching noise he brought up a Barbie doll, and he held it up before his face for a moment before letting it fall among the other playthings that surrounded him.
"Wee Willie," I said. He looked at me, registered Jeff and the shotgun with glassy, unfocused eyes.
Past eight o'clock, he said. I'm home in bed. And incredibly, he yawned and fell asleep.
I guess I'd been proceeding on the subconscious assumption that nothing would surprise me after I'd followed a trail of exsanguinated toys to the lair of Wee Willie Winkie. Anyone might have assumed the same. Maybe Jeff did, but we never talked about it.
The sight of Big Bill Winkie, though, was the only thing I've ever experienced that made my heart stop. When he appeared, from where I'll never know, I could feel the air in the room compress to accommodate his bulk, and for no good reason I thought of Polyphemos rolling the stone across the entrance to his cave, with me and Jeff like the damn fool sailors who trusted Odysseus to get them home. It wasn't just that he was nine feet of blocky muscle and rocky bone, with fingers thick as my wrist and veins thick as my fingers tracking across his arms and his neck and even the sloped ledge of his forehead. I knew that when he opened his mouth, he was going to say Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of two dipshits who couldn't leave well enough alone.
Wee Willie woke up when his father came in. His face was drawn, and the pile of toys around him seemed to have grown. What would happen if he died didn't bear thinking about.
Hurt me, Daddy, he said, his voice taut with the uncomprehending loneliness of the child encountering for the first time the merciless truth that the world hurts. And Big Bill turned toward us.
Hurt my boy, he said.
I would have stayed rooted to the stone floor while Big Bill separated my limbs from my body and sucked the flesh from them until the tomb we were in at last had a real pile of bones in it. Jeff, though, Jeff snapped into action. While Big Bill was still coming to terms with the situation, Jeff closed the distance between us and Wee Willie, coming to rest knee-deep in the pile of toys with the shotgun's barrel resting against the side of Wee Willie's skinny neck. And in that moment all I wanted to do was take the gun away from my friend, to force the muzzle away from the fragile pulse that beat in the hollow of Wee Willie's throat. Even if it meant I would die.
Wee Willie began to cry, and the walls around us creaked as Big Bill shifted his weight. "I got five shells," Jeff said. "I might not get all of them off before you get me, but nobody in this town will have to worry about eight o'clock ever again."
Big Bill made tectonic sounds, but he didn't move. Jeff was right, I thought. Wee Willie could be killed.
Daddy, Daddy, Wee Willie said. I was coming apart. I wanted Jeff to kill him, just to answer for all of Sharon's lonely nights in front of bathroom mirrors; I wanted to live. I couldn't have both. We'd never get out if Jeff pulled the trigger.
"The kids," Jeff said.
Hurt my boy, Big Bill said again, and in the boom of his voice was a sadness that echoed, finding an emptiness in me and bringing me up hard against the knowledge that I loved nothing in the world as much as this gnarled and fearsome giant loved his child who stole other children. What fears sent Wee Willie running to his papa, and what pangs ran through Big Bill when he came up against this moment, when he couldn't protect his boy?
And then the catacomb filled with the voices of children. Boys and girls, the ecstatic wordless questions of ten-month-old infants and the cries of Mama, Mama from kids ten or eleven years old, before the clock turns and you lose them to a world beyond bedtime. They came in, the older kids carrying the little ones or leading them by the hand, and there's nothing sadder in the world than a two-year-old having to trust a ten-year-old stranger to lead her safely out of the dark. They came in, blinking at the beam of my flashlight, and gathered around Big Bill as if unsure how far they could go.
Tears stood on Jeff's face. "Jenna," he said. I couldn't see her in the crowd of pajama-clad bodies, but he could, and while he was looking Big Bill reached out and took the shotgun from Jeff's hands. I will grow old and die before I figure out whether Big Bill was really that fast or Jeff at that moment couldn't find it in himself to pull the trigger. Big Bill held the gun in one hand and snapped the barrel off with a squeeze of his thumb, and then he dropped the pieces at his feet and led the children up into the world.
Maybe he was afraid that we wouldn't be the last people to take a shot at his son, but I don't think so. What I think is that it was enough that we came, that when the people of a town come to the point where they would brave the haunted world to save their children, Big Bill takes his boy and moves on.
How long had it taken us? We're good with clocks, but somehow not so good with time.
And how many times had Wee Willie fled home ahead of humans driven to vengeance by the feral extremity of love?
By the time we were back under the moon, all of the children had disappeared except Jenna, who lay sleeping in Jeff's arms, her face resting on his shoulder. Her feet draped over his forearms, resting on the bulge of his belly. And before I'd crossed the cemetery, they were gone too. I never saw any of them go.
I see them around town, though. The sidewalks seem fuller. From my office window I see school groups going to the museum down the block, and I try to pick out faces from that night, but it seems like time has passed, and children change so quickly. Jenna is a teenager, and Jeff still tests the springs of my couch once in a while, complaining about her clothes or her playing time on the field hockey team. I think he remembers. He must, he helped me fix my window and lingered for a minute over the dimples Wee Willie's knuckles had left in a piece of the frame. Also he asked me for his gun back; I'd been so unused to the idea of having one that I forgot about it until it fell out of my pants halfway through the woods on the way home. But we don't talk about it.
Nobody does. We didn't talk about Wee Willie when he was around, and we don't talk about him now. I can't be the only person who thinks about him. I might be the only guy in town who worries about him, though. Once in a while I want to ask Jeff about it, just to see if he remembers things the same way I do, because after all of this I find myself thinking about Wee Willie every time I see a kid on my street or from my office window. I wonder if he'll grow up, or if he's just running through another town, crying out the words that we're learning to forget. Also I wonder about Big Bill. I sit at night watching my fish, and my thoughts return to him, knowing that some eight o'clock is always coming when his child must awaken to the brutality of the world so that we may learn what is worth saving.
Copyright © 2004 Alex Irvine
Illustration copyright © 2004 Arthur Broughton