Do watch eight-year-old Esme as she comes across a small house made of sticks in her backyard. It’s nested in a pile of damp leaves beneath the shady bur oak. The house is held together by strips of bark and knotted strands of animal hair. See the fly crawling in the shadow of the house’s rough-cut window.
Don’t allow Esme to see the rune carved into the gnarled bark at the base of the tree: a straight line with two bent arms sprouting from the right side. Imagine a fractured letter F. Since she doesn’t see the marking as she lifts the house from the clinging leaves; it’s OK to reveal that the rune symbolizes a mouth.
Do show Esme clearing off a spot on her bookshelf for the house of sticks. The front of the splintery house faces her bed.
Don’t continue reading this story.
Do stay alone in the room with the house of sticks as Esme’s mother calls her to get ready for bed.
Don’t worry. What could be more safe than a child’s bedroom? Toys and clothes litter the cream-colored carpet. A vibrant painting of a rabbit marching band covers an entire wall. There’s a wicker hamper wedged in the corner, pajamas hanging over the side like a panting tongue.
Do notice how quiet it’s gotten. Except for a faint buzzing sound. Get closer to the house of sticks. See the fly just inside the dark doorway, its wings shuddering as it steps out into the bedroom’s dim light.
Don’t ignore the maxillary palps twitching.
Do watch the spongy labellum pulse. Hunger is everything to the fly. It needs to eat.
Don’t get too close. It’s not safe.
Do hear the muffled sound of Esme and her mother talking as they approach the room.
“Don’t shut the door all the way,” Esme says. Her mother smiles, leaves the door open a crack.
Do watch Esme’s chest as it rises and falls. Outside, crickets chirp. Wind rattles the windowpane.
Don’t finish reading this story.
Do allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. See the silhouette of the crooked body looming over Esme’s bed. Multi-jointed arms stretch and crack as the torso elongates. The silhouette, somewhere between human and insect, tilts its wide head sideways like a hungry dog as it watches Esme sleep.
Don’t disregard the sound of sucking mouth parts and the wet shifting of chitin over membranous flesh.
Do smell the wormy tang of freshly churned soil and the baking bread reek of festering wounds clinging to the back of your throat.
Don’t forget about the sense of taste. The creature certainly won’t.
Do watch the creature lean over Esme’s body. It drags its long, lank hair across the sheets as it reaches out with spidery hands.
“Don’t struggle, little one,” says the creature in a grandmotherly tone, craggy and sickly sweet. It places a segmented foreleg over Esme’s mouth and lifts her against its emaciated thorax.
Do listen to the slow creaking footsteps as the creature lurches back to the house of sticks on the bookshelf. There is nothing that can be done now.
Don’t waste another second. Leave.
Do rush downstairs, through the kitchen, past the back door, toward the front entrance. Hear something scraping against the sliding glass door in the kitchen.
Don’t go back that way.
Do peer around the corner, down the narrow hallway which leads to the only way out. See the creature blocking the door, slouched against the wall and gibbering to itself. Flies form a cloud around the twitching forelegs as the creature scratches the rune into the baseboard with its spiny pretarsus. The creature notices you watching and spreads its complicated mouthparts into a grisly wet version of a smile.
Do catch your breath as something bangs against the back door as though trying to smash its way inside. Hear the deafening buzz of flies outside, surrounding the house.
Don’t dare go outside. Run back upstairs. Hear the clicking on the tile as the creature scuttles after you.
Do run past Esme’s bedroom to the another room at the far end of the hall. Block the door with the nearby dresser, pushing all your weight against the drawers. Behind you, on the floor, Esme’s mother slumps, dark hair obscuring her face. Something dark pools on the carpet where her head rests at an impossible angle.
Do call out to the mother. Get no response. She can’t help any longer.
Do smell the heavy bad breath stink of her dead body filling the bedroom. Listen. On the other side of the door, the creature slides its body against the cheap wood.
Do remember, you could have stopped reading at any time.
Do hear Esme call you by name. Her voice sounds pinched and angry. She’s on the other side of the door with the creature. Esme and the creature whisper to each other, shushing and snickering.
Do strain to hear what they’re saying. They go quiet. Hear the window slide open behind you.
Do hear Esme say your name again, this time the voice comes from inside the room. She isn’t laughing anymore, and she isn’t there alone. Something shuffles alongside Esme as though a parent guiding her first steps.
Don’t look back. Close your eyes. A fly lands in your ear. You slap it away, but the buzzing gets louder and louder. A voice as sweet as a grandmother’s but higher, a child’s voice, says, “Come along.”
Do notice how cold Esme’s small hands feel on the back of your neck.
Do feel long spidery fingers caress your throat as the creature joins Esme. Together, they wrap their arms around your chest and pull you away to their house of sticks.