Fantasy Horror Historical historical fantasy victorian london dark fiction

Thin Man

By Steven Harper
Mar 17, 2019 · 7,437 words · 28 minutes

Marion zimmer bradleys fantasy 1997win n34 1

 

From the author: Modern children fear the monster in the closet and the creature under the bed. Victorian climbing boys have no closets and no beds. What do they fear? This story originally appeared in MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY'S FANTASY MAGAZINE as the cover story. Year later, I wrote a sequel to it. "The Soul Jar" appeared in a steampunk anthology called THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY, and I'll post it next week. Click LIKE or SUBSCRIBE. I can't do this without my fantastic readers!


THIN MAN

by

Steven Harper Piziks

I wasn’t there when Kelsey died, but I saw it happen.  I saw him fall charred and black down the chimney, and I saw the Thin Man do the killing.  Even though I wasn’t there, I couldn’t help but see it.

Kelsey cost less than thirty shillings.  We knew because Nick sleeps next to an old pipe that leads upstairs and he heard Scar bragging about it to the foreman.  Kelsey’s family was from Ireland, Scar said, and that meant they were stupid.  I guess he was right.  They didn’t know that a boy as small as Kelsey is worth at least two pounds ten, maybe even three.

Nick had just enough time to tell us Scar had bought himself a new climbing boy before the door at the top of the stairs opened, dropping a dim rectangle of light on the black, sooty floor.

“Here’s a new one for ye,” Scar’s voice rasped.  “Treat ‘im nice, boys.  We got a big job come mornin’.”

The door slammed shut and the cellar went dark.  Uncertain feet shuffled on the staircase.

“Come on down, then,” Nick called.  Nick wasn’t the oldest--I was ten and Jim was eleven--but he was still leader because he was faster than Jim and his fists were harder.

Feet bumped softly to the bottom of the stairs as Kelsey descended into the soot-black cellar.  He was small, like all climbing boys, with blue eyes and a full head of white hair.  I was the only one who could see him.  I have six fingers on my left hand, so I can see in the dark.  Or maybe I can see in the dark, so I have six fingers on my left hand.

“It’s all right,” Nick’s voice said.  “We ain’t going to hurt you.  My name’s Nick.  What’s yours?”

“Kelsey.”  His voice was small and firm.  “I’m four.”

“You ever climb before, Kelsey?” Nick asked.

“No.”

“You’ll learn, and right quick,” Jim put in.  “Less’n you wants a fire underneath or hatpins in your arse.  And then there’s the Thin Man.”

“Shut it, Jim,” Nick snapped.  “Kelsey, there’s six of us down here--Dodd, Jim, Brick, Kit, Rafe, and me.  Say `hello’ boys.”

A chorus of “hello’s” and “evenin’s” filled the ash cellar, followed by a bout of coughing that echoed against the stone walls.  Scar’s cellar was cool in summer and cold in winter, but the soot kept us passably warm.  It made a soft blanket, almost like gray silk, unless you breathed too hard.  Then it turned on you and clotted the breath in your lungs.

“I’m the leader,” Nick continued, “and don’t you forget it.  How’d Scar bring you in?”

“Who’s Scar?” Kelsey asked.

“His name’s John Scarsdale,” Brick said.  There was a familiar clanking as he rearranged his poke.  “We calls him Scar ‘cause of his looks.  But don’t tell him that.”

“Mum tol’ me to go with Scar,” Kelsey said.  “She said Scar’d give me more food’n she could.”

Nick snorted.  “Well, find yourself a place on the floor and get some sleep.  We gets up early.”

A pause, then a rustling sound.  I coughed once or twice and settled back down into my soot pile, glad that Kelsey was one of the quiet ones.  New boys are usually scared or angry, especially if their parents sold them or they were orphans from the church.

The next morning when the foreman came downstairs with his lamp to shout us awake, Kelsey was lying curled up in a pile of ashes with his thumb in his mouth.  His face was already gray with soot but there were no tear tracks on his cheeks.

“Up with ye!” the foreman bellowed.  “Let’s move!”

We moved--the foreman always carried a carriage whip.  Little Kelsey scrambled to his feet along with us.  His hair was still white and I wondered why it wasn’t gray with soot like the rest of him.

The foreman herded us upstairs, burlap pokes clanking and thumping rough against our backs.  Scar waited in the chilly kitchen with a scissors.  Without a word he picked Kelsey up, dropped him into a chair, and started cutting off his hair.  Kelsey sat motionless for a moment, mouth open.  Then he screamed.  The foreman promptly smashed Kelsey’s face with a fist.  Kelsey slumped and his eyes slid half shut.

“Shut it, boy,” the foreman growled.  “None of our boys is lousy and you ain’t gonna be the first.”

Scar went back to his cutting.  Long hanks of white dropped to the floor and they gleamed in the dim lamplight.  I stared at them.  I didn’t know why, but those hanks of hair were the most beautiful things I had ever seen.  The others stood by, coughing and hoping it wouldn’t get worse for Kelsey.  There was nothing else to do.

When Scar was finished, Kelsey’s hair was so short he looked bald.  There were cuts and scratches all over his head and I winced.  They’d be red and dirty by the end of the day.

“All right, let’s go,” Scar said.  “No time for breakfast--we’re late enough.  Give the new one a poke, Harv, and we’ll be off.”

The foreman yanked Kelsey out of the chair and threw a sooty cap and one of the extra pokes at him.  As everyone headed outside, I glanced back at the soft silver lying on the floor by the chair and all of a sudden I couldn’t leave it in that cold, dark kitchen.  No one else was looking.  I dashed back and scooped up a handful.  It was soft and caught the ridges of my hands.  I had never felt anything like it.  I stuffed the hair in my pocket and had grabbed another handful when the foreman noticed I was missing.  He stomped back into the kitchen just as I shoved the second handful in with the first.

“What are ye waitin’ on?”  He thumped me on the ear and I saw stars.  “Slacking off?”

I stumbled out the door.  It was still dark outside.  My bare feet came down on cold, hard cobblestones, and a nip in the air said summer was over.  Scar was waiting impatiently with the horse and cart.

“Step lively, boys,” he said, snapping the reins.  “We’ve got a ways to go.”

We headed up the street, past crumbling houses stacked together like old boxes and around piles of stinking rubbish.  Nick cleared his throat.

 

“Sweep!” he yelled.  “Sweep!  Sweep!”

“Sweep!” the rest of us shouted.  “Sweep!  Sweep!”

Scar and the foreman ignored the noise and Kelsey trudged along beside Nick without joining it.  Eventually Nick laid off yelling and asked him what was wrong.

“Mr. Scar cut me hair off,” he said softly.  “I’m scared.”

“Scared?” Nick asked.  He sounded surprised.  I know I was.

“Mum said white hair like mine’s a gift from the angels,” Kelsey replied miserably.  “She said it’d be p’tecting me, but Mr. Scar cut it all off an’ now I’m scared.”

I fingered the soft hanks in my pocket.

(“Sweep!  Sweep!”)

Jim turned round, eyes glittering.  “Scared the Thin Man’s going to get ye?  He will, ye know.  He hides in the flues.  He’s got long bony fingers, he has, and he c’n get through the tightest places.  He’ll suck the livin’ breath right out of--”

“Shut it, Jim!” Nick ordered.

(“Sweep!  Sweep!”)

“There’s no such thing as the Thin Man,” Kit scoffed quickly.  Rafe coughed and nodded hard, like he could make his brother’s words more true.  Rafe believed in the Thin Man more than anyone.  Anyone, that is, but me.

Oh yes--the Thin Man is real.  I know.  I heard him chuckling in the dark when flames rushed up Pete’s flue and roasted him alive.  I saw the tail of his coat disappear up a fireplace just before Will reached his chimney pot and the mortar gave way, dropping him and the top of the chimney five stories to a stone courtyard.

(“Sweep!  Sweep!”)

Once I got stuck in a flue and felt bony fingers stroke my cheek.  My mouth went dry and I almost panicked.  I struggled for a second, then I was free, trying to catch my breath in the heavy black air of the flue.

I’ll let you go this time, little Dodd, whispered a dry voice.  But next time, I might not.  Remember that.

Oh, yes--the Thin Man is real.  I know.

I put my left hand in my pocket and stirred Kelsey’s silky hair with my sixth finger.  I barely remember an old woman--my granny?--holding me on her lap once and twiddling that finger.

“This extra finger means ye’ll be seein’ extra things, boy,” she said.  “An’ not only will ye see things, ye’ll be gettin’ extra attention from certain folk, and I don’t mean folk like what walks this earth.  They’ll tell ye things and give ye things and try to make ye do things, but remember--ye allus got a choice, to do or not do for y’rself.  Don’t forget now, eh?”

I wondered if Kelsey’s hair would protect me from the Thin Man.  My finger wouldn’t.

(“Sweep!  Sweep!”)

I thought about giving Kelsey’s hair back to him, but gave it up.  Scar or the foreman would see me if I tried it on the job, and they’d take Kelsey’s hair away.  Climbing boys never owned anything.  By law Scar had to pay us sixpence every year, but we always gave it to the foreman.  He’d beat us up if we didn’t.

We walked almost three miles before Scar halted the cart in front of a big white house with a lot of chimneys poking at the sky like brick fingers.  Smoke drifted from one of the chimneys and I bit my lip.  So did the others.

“Baker’s flue today, boys,” Scar said.

We went round to the back and knocked, but the maid who answered flung up her hands.

“No one said nothin’ to me ‘bout no sweeps coming today,” she huffed.  “I’ve already got a good fire goin’ in the washroom.”

“Ye’ll have to put it out,” Scar said, nodding at the smoking chimney.  “Can’t be sending my boys up a flue what’s got a fire going in it, can I?”

The maid looked like she wanted to argue, then she nodded abruptly and stomped back into the house, leaving the door open.

“House has twelve flues and nine chimneys,” Scar said.  “Let’s get moving.  Dodd, you’ll stay with Kelsey and teach ‘im what’s what.  Since the kitchen flues’re hot, we’ll start with the drawing room.”

Inside we realized someone had been expecting us--brown butcher paper was laid in pathways all through the house beyond the kitchen.  The washing girl was either stupid or never went into the main part of the house.  I sighed--the kitchen floor was made of smooth wood.  It was almost warm, much nicer than the cold stony street.  Scar gestured at us impatiently, and we followed him out of the kitchen, keeping carefully to the brown paths.  Paper crunched and crackled like little fires with every step.

 

The house was a nice one--big rooms with heavy carpets on the floors, paintings on the walls, and curved furniture with soft cushions and brightly-polished wood.  I wished I could work there forever, and I knew the others were thinking the same thing, though we tried to act unimpressed.  Kelsey, however, stared open-mouthed and I was afraid he would touch something--that would earn all of us a beating--but he kept his hands to himself.

We entered the drawing room, pokes in hand, where another woman was lighting a pair of lamps on the mantle.  More paper was laid all round the fireplace.

“Right on time,” the woman said briskly.  “Good.  I’m Mrs. Rutlidge.  See that you don’t stray from the paper and that--”

“Yes, mum,” Scar interrupted.  “We know what we’re about.  Just go about yer work and we’ll handle the flues.  The washer girl started a fire, though.”

The woman sighed and strode for the door.  “Fredricka.  I told her you were coming today.  I’ll go make sure she puts it out.”  And she left.

“Kit, you take this ‘un all the way to the top,” Scar ordered.  “Rafe, you take the drawing room ‘til it meets Kit’s flue.  The rest of you, come with me.”

“Dodd!” Kit called before we left, and I dashed over to take a quick look up the flue.  It was dark, of course, and it curved twice before ending in a round chimney pot.  I saw no bats or loose mortar or hidden embers.  It was safe.

“Nothin’,” I reported.  “Second turn’s real tight, though, so watch yourself.”

Kit nodded and disappeared up the flue with a middle-sized brush from his poke.  He coughed once or twice and the sound echoed eerily up the flue.  I trotted off to catch up with the others.

We followed paper paths throughout the first floor.  Brick got a flue to himself.  Nick and Jim got a double flue--two fireplaces that connected into a single chimney.  Nick asked me to check his for him, but I told him all the flues were curved, meaning he and Jim didn’t have to worry about corners.  Jim just snorted.  He never asked me to check his flues.  Jim didn’t believe I could see anything and he didn’t believe in the Thin Man, despite the tales he liked to tell.

 

Kelsey stayed quiet, watching everything through large blue eyes as we went through the house.  I found it unnerving--most climbing boys are either angry or scared on their first day, but I couldn’t tell what Kelsey was feeling.  He acted more like a doll than a boy.  It made me nervous.

“Kitchen and washroom flue oughta be cooled by now,” Scar said after Nick and Jim started climbing.  “The fire wasn’t going long.  Come on, the both of ye.”

The unease grew stronger.  I slipped my six-fingered hand into the pocket and stroked that soft white hair.  My eyes met Kelsey’s and suddenly I realized he knew what I had.  I glanced at Scar.  The foreman had already gone upstairs to climb the roof and wait for us to rattle the chimney pots, but Scar’d see if I tried to give Kelsey anything.  We both knew it.  But Kelsey just stared at me until I looked away.

The Thin Man’s waiting for me and my six fingers, I told myself.  He’s not watching Kelsey.  I need all the protection I can get.

“We’ve smothered the flames in the washroom fireplace,” Mrs. Rutlidge said in the kitchen.  “But Fredricka doesn’t want to put the coals out, and frankly I’m sick to the teeth of arguing with her.”

Scar frowned.  “Let’s have a look.”

The washroom smelled like steam and soap.  Its fireplace was surprisingly small, barely big enough to heat a decent-sized kettle.  Coals glowed redly in the grate.

“I ain’t puttin’ ‘em out,” Fredricka said, taking a defiant stand near a washtub.  “It’ll take a bucket o’ water for that, and I won’t have wet ashes all over my floor.”

“The sweep can’t send a boy up with coals burning, girl,” Mrs. Rutlidge retorted.

“Not a problem,” Scar said suddenly.  He took up a lid from the largest kettle and dropped it over the coals.  Soot puffed up in a gray cloud.  “There now.  The real danger, y’ see, is the fumes.  This here lid’ll put a stop to that, and your fire’ll even keep until my boy gets finished.  How’s that?”

Fredricka gave Mrs. Rutlidge a smug look.

“Well and good,” Mrs. Rutlidge said with a nod.  “That means Fredricka can give us a hand with the upstairs windows.”

The smug look fell away and they left the room.

“All right, ye lazy pigs,” Scar rasped.  “Get climbin’.  Dodd, you show the little ‘un how and get ‘im on this flue.  Then you start on the kitchen one.  I wants both o’ ye to take it to the top.  Got me?”

I nodded and took a stiff brush out of my poke.  It looked like a floor brush that had a short handle.  Kelsey looked at me for a moment, then dug round in his poke until he came up with one like it.

“All right, Kelsey,” I said.  “Here’s what ye do.  When ye go up the flue, hold the brush above your head in your right hand like this.  Got it?  Your left hand, it’s useless, so let it hang down like this.  Don’t never put both your arms up or both down or you’ll get stuck, right?”

Kelsey just nodded.  I could feel him not looking at my pocket.  I could also feel Scar’s eyes boring into the back of my neck.

“Right,” I said.  “The real work of climbin’ is in your knees an’ back.  Once you get in the flue, ye presses your knees against the bricks in front of ye and your back against the ones behind.  Then ye sort of ootch your way up, scrubbin’ with your right hand as ye go.  When ye get to the chimney pot at the top, ye rattles it with your brush to tell the foreman you’re done.  Then ye climbs back down.  Got it?”

Kelsey nodded again.  The silvery-white hair was heavy in my pocket.

“I’ll boost ye up, then,” I said, leading him toward the little fireplace.  The kettle lid was still covering the coals like an angry black hen sitting on her nest and there was barely enough room for us to stand without touching it.  Warmth from the ashes soaked into my bare feet.  The flue was narrow--seven by seven at most.

“Come on,” Scar growled.  “Ain’t got all mornin’.”

“I’ll be joining you when the flues connect up, Kelsey,” I said, lacing my hands together.  “Ready?”

“Ye checked flues for the others, Dodd,” Kelsey said softly.  “Are ye goin’ to be checkin’ mine?”

I automatically glanced up, and blinked.  The flue was dark.  I couldn’t see a thing.  Not safe emptiness.  Just black space.

“It’s . . . there’s nothing,” I almost whispered.  “Nothing.”

“If someone ain’t in that flue by the time I count three,” Scar warned, “ye’ll find out what `nothing’ is.  One . . . “

”It’s all right, Dodd,” Kelsey said.  “I’m not scared.”  He stepped into my hands.

“Remember--right hand up, left hand down.”  I boosted him into the flue, making sure his shoulders were set right and giving him support until he could brace himself against the chimney walls.  It was a tight squeeze, and a good thing Kelsey was small for his age.

“And see to it you scrub them bricks good,” Scar called, “or I’ll give ye the beatin’ of your short life.”

Kelsey’s feet vanished into the dark.  I peered up the chimney but still couldn’t see a thing.  It was confusing.

“You all right, Kelsey?” I asked.

Silence.  Then, “The walls is hot.”

Baker’s flue.  I winced.  “Just scrub ‘em.  Ye’ll get used to it.”

Silence again.  After a moment there was the familiar hiss of bristle on brick, and a fine shower of soot sifted into the fireplace.  I barely got out of the way.

“It’s gettin’ all over me,” Kelsey’s voice echoed from the flue.  Then he coughed and I felt better.  As long as you could hear the coughing, you knew everything was fine.

“Keep goin’,” Scar shouted.  “And don’t stop ‘til ye gets to the top.  Got me?”

No answer.  Just the hissing scrub of the brush and the coughing.  Muttering to himself, Scar hauled me into the kitchen, and practically threw me at the fireplace.  I caught my balance against the harsh brick.

“No more slackin’,” Scar snapped.  “Ye’ve got your job, too.”

Brush in hand, I stepped into the fireplace and looked up.  It was strange that I had seen nothing in Kelsey’s flue and I wondered what I’d see in mine, it being connected and all.

Nothing.  Confusion turned into uneasiness and my hands shook, just a little.  The moment I hauled myself into the flue the darkness above me flickered long enough to show a black, skinny figure hanging upside down.

Coming, Dodd? it whispered in a voice as dry as old sticks.  I’m waiting for you.  The Thin Man grinned at me for a horrible moment, then turned like a spider in the narrow flue and skittered upwards.

I lost my grip and dropped back into the fireplace.

“What’re ye waitin’ on?” Scar hissed in my ear, and I yelped.  He smacked me on the head.  “I told ye t’ move, boy!”

“I . . . I . . . “  My breath was coming short and fast and my heart was pounding.  “I can’t.”

Without a word Scar pulled a hatpin from his pocket and drove it downward.  Sharp pain pierced my foot.  I yelled and Scar stabbed me again.

“Climb, ye little bastard!” he bellowed.  “Or next time I’ll stab yer eye!”

I started to cry--I couldn’t help it--and Scar jabbed my other foot.  More sharp pain.

“CLIMB!”  He shoved the bloody pin in my face.  “Or do you want t’ be half blind like me?”

Pain and fear mixed with the tears on my face as I slowly hauled myself into the flue, five-fingered hand up, six-fingered hand down.  The Thin Man was waiting for me and I wouldn’t ever come out of that flue again.  I wondered how it’d happen.  Would I get stuck and suffocate?  Or would I lose my grip at the top and fall three stories?  Who would check the flues and tell the others what to look out for?

My feet ached as I scooted up the dark flue, carefully bracing knees and back against the rough walls.  I don’t know if any climbing boy gets used to the work.  Hard, unmoving brick surrounds you on four sides and there’s wood and plaster outside that.  There isn’t the tiniest scrap of light because your own body blocks it from below and the chimney pot keeps it out at the top.  The ash and soot you scrub from the walls falls down past you, making the air thick and hard to breathe.  You can feel the tiny bits being sucked into your lungs.  Almost everyone panics once in a while, but that only gets you stuck and makes the panic worse.  I was fighting fear already, even though I was barely ten feet up the flue.

“What’s going on in here?” came Mrs. Rutlidge’s voice from below.  “I heard screaming.”

“One o’ the boys was bein’ stubborn,” Scar replied.  “Had to show ‘im who’s boss.  They forgets if ye don’t remind ‘em.”

“Well keep it down.  It’s hard enough to keep everyone at task as it is.”

I’m here, Dodd, came the dark whisper.  I tried to scream, but the flue seemed to get narrower and it was hard to get any air.  A half-ton of brick and mortar pressed in on me and I did the one thing you can never do--I tried to run.  The rhythm of legs and back shattered and I slipped.  With a jolt, my knees jammed themselves almost up to my chin.  I was stuck.

You see, Dodd?  I’m always here.

I looked up without using my eyes and he was there, hanging upside-down, bony fingers reaching for me.  I tried to hit him with my brush, but could barely move my arm.

Don’t struggle, Dodd, he hissed.  Soon you’ll be with Pete and Will and Deke and John and Cory and all the others.  Wouldn’t you like that?

“Go away,” I whispered.  “Go away!”

The Thin Man chuckled, then rubbed himself against the flue, pouring soot and ash over me.  It piled higher and higher on my knees, rising toward my mouth and nose.  I coughed and struggled, but still couldn’t move.

Come to me, little Dodd.  The Thin Man reached down--

--and stopped.  He tried to touch my head, but his fingers quit just short of my cap.

“Go away,” I said, barely able to get the words out.  “Go away!”

Who protects you, Dodd? the Thin Man asked.  Who is it?

He skittered past me down the flue, somehow worming through the cracks and crevices round my body like a cold black spider.  I coughed and choked and tried to shrink away from the thin, icy flesh that slid past mine, but I still couldn’t move.  My legs were cramping up and I could hardly breathe.  The Thin Man stared at me from below.

You wear the protection of another.  Suddenly he was above me again, looking down with a yellow grin that was wider than a human face.  Well, little Dodd, if I can’t feed on you, I’ll find someone else, shall I?  Perhaps one who has no protection at all?

My heart almost stopped.  Kelsey!  He was going to take Kelsey--and it’d be my fault.  “No,” I croaked.  “Please.”

Good-bye, little Dodd.  One day I’ll be back, you may be sure.

“Please,” I whispered.  “Not Kelsey.  He’s little.”

But the Thin Man was gone.  I tried not to look, tried not to see, but I couldn’t help it.  I knew what was happening as if I was there.

Kelsey was in his flue, scrubbing with his little brush, coughing from the soot that sifted endlessly down the flue and into the fireplace grate.  It covered the iron kettle lid that lay over the deep red coals.  The Thin Man laughed to himself beneath the lid and he blew gently, ever so gently.  The coals glowed like anger.  The kettle lid was already warm, but now it grew hot.  More soot sifted down from Kelsey’s brush and the Thin Man blew harder.  A thread of smoke drifted up from the lid less than a second before the soot exploded into flame.  Fire roared up the chimney and a horrible scream echoed up and down the flue.  It went on and on and I couldn’t even put my hands over my ears to shut it out.  Kelsey stopped bracing himself against the bricks and his body fell, blackened and charred, until it landed on the kettle lid and burned some more.

And then I was free.  My legs somehow found the room to wiggle down and I could move again.  I knew I had to get out before the fire spread to my flue, but all I could do was gasp and sob.

A puff of heat moved against my cheek and I forced myself to move downward, careful and quick at the same time.  Servants were running frantically through the kitchen to the laundry room and no one noticed one grubby climbing boy drop down from the kitchen flue.  Fire fighters arrived and put out the flames before they did much damage to the house.  I just collapsed where I was and stayed there until Nick came and got me.  We weren’t going to finish the house, he said.  The owners were going to call another sweep.

I just nodded and pulled a tuft of hair from my pocket.  It was still silvery-white even though my fingers were as black as Kelsey’s little body.  We found out later the police put down that Kelsey had died in an accidental fire and Scar wouldn’t have to go to court.

The walk home was quiet.  No one shouted “Sweep!”

“You all right, Dodd?” Nick asked that night in the soot cellar.  The smell of damp stone mixed with burned wood, and the floor creaked overhead as Scar and the foreman paced and muttered to each other.

I shook my head, trying not to cry again.  Kelsey was dead because I had set the Thin Man on him and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

“He’s gonna cry about Kelsey,” Jim said.  “Dodd’s gonna cry like a girl.”

“You shut it, Jim,” Kit said.

“Girl, girl, girl,” Jim taunted.  “Dodd’s a little girl.”

“Shut it or me and Rafe’ll pound ye,” Kit threatened.

“That’s right, Dodd,” Jim sneered in the dark.  “Get someone else t’ fight for ye, just like a girl.”

And I got really mad.  I’ve never been very big--climbing boys never are--but I wanted to smash Jim’s sneering face, the one I could see so clearly in the dark.  Except if I did, he’d beat me up and the other boys wouldn’t be able to do anything because it’d be my fight.  No, I couldn’t win with my fists, but there were other ways to hurt him, and I wanted to hurt him.

“You ain’t worth a fight, Jim,” I said quietly.  “You’re just a coward.  You’re afraid of Nick, you’re afraid of climbin’, and you’re afraid your dad ain’t comin’ back to get ye like he promised.  Well he ain’t comin’, Jim.  Not ever.  I know.”

“You don’t know nothin’!” Jim said hoarsely.  “He got a job in--”

“There weren’t no job in Bolton,” I interrupted.  “That train ticket he showed you was a piece of paper he found on a dustheap.”

A scuffle as Jim came to his feet.  He was breathing hard.  “I never tol’ nobody ‘bout that ticket,” he snarled.  “How did--”

“He’s still livin’ in that rotten old flat and he’s got a woman what lives with ‘im and they do things all night long.  He don’t want you, Jim.  He don’t.”  I hawked and spat.  “I know.”

Dead silence.  Ash and soot hung in the black air.  Finally Jim crept away to a corner of the cellar with his poke.  I knew he was crying, even though he never made a sound.  It should’ve made me feel better, but I only felt worse.

The next morning two different inns wanted their chimneys swept at the same time.  Since Scar had twice as many climbing boys as any other sweep in town, he took both contracts and split us into two teams.  Scar headed off with me and Nick and Jim to do one while the foreman and the others took the other.  We had the horse and cart and I was glad of that--we wouldn’t have to carry the ashes away ourselves.

“Sweep!” we shouted behind the cart, Jim twice as loud as me and Nick.  Jim wouldn’t look at me.  “Sweep!  Sweep!”

“We got four flues what need sweepin’,” the innkeeper said when we arrived.  He was a solid-looking man with pale blond hair that made me think of Kelsey.  I looked away.  The main room of the inn was chilly--no fires heated it this morning--and it smelled of roasted meat and stale beer.  Sand covered the floor to soak up spills, and it felt gritty between my toes.

“Take about five hours,” Scar estimated.  “You got paper laid for us?”

I was only listening with half an ear--the main fireplace pulled at me.  It was huge and built of fieldstone.  I sidled over to it, wanting to look inside and not wanting to.  Not that I had anything to worry about.  I was protected.  Then flames crackled in my head and I heard Kelsey screaming again.  A hard lump of guilt came to my throat.

“Jim, you’ll start with the main flue out here,” Scar said.  “And be quick--the innkeeper’s losin’ business.”

I checked the flue--

--and saw absolutely nothing.  Just like before.  All the questions I hadn’t let myself think about crashed down on me.  Why had I seen nothing in both our flues before Kelsey died?  What did it mean?  Was it my fault he died like he did?  Why hadn’t I known what was going to happen?

“Get out o’ my way, Dodd,” Jim growled behind me.  “I don’ need ye t’ check my flue.  You don’t know nothin’.”

Then I did know.  The guilty lump rose in my throat again and I bit my thumb so I wouldn’t cry.  Kelsey’s flue had been blank because the Thin Man was supposed to come for me, but nothing had been certain until I had climbed into my own flue.  Until that moment, I could’ve given Kelsey the protection he needed, even if it meant running back to his flue and getting beaten for it.  Not even Scar and the foreman would’ve been able to take it all if I had tried to give him some.  I was just too afraid to make the choice to do it.  Like Jim was afraid.

A blank flue meant the Thin Man was going after someone, but what I did would decide who he’d get.

“I said, get out o’ my way,” Jim snapped.

I glanced over my shoulder.  Scar was talking to the innkeeper, not looking at us.  I pulled a soft lock of Kelsey’s hair from my pocket and it gleamed silver in the lamplight.

“Put this in your pocket, Jim,” I whispered.  “Quick!”

“I don’t want nothin’,” he said without looking at my hand.  “Especially not from a six-fingered freak like you.”

“Please, Jim,” I pleaded.  “I . . . I’m sorry about what I said last night about the train ticket an’ all.  I was just makin’ it up.  You’re dad’ll come.  I know he will.  Just take this.”

“Piss off,” Jim snarled, and he vanished up the flue.  I turned away from the fireplace, shaking and scared.

“What’s wrong?” Nick asked quietly, keeping a watchful eye on Scar.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the lock into Nick’s hand.  “Put this in your pocket.  It’s better’n me checkin’ your flue.”

Nick glanced at what I had given him and did as he was told before Scar could see.  “Done.  But what--?”

“Nick!” Scar snapped.  “I want you on the kitchen flue.  Dodd, you’re upstairs.  The innkeeper’ll show ye where t’ start.”

And we seperated before I could explain.  The innkeeper showed me the upstairs fireplace and left.  I put my hand in my pocket and stared up the chimney.  Empty.  Just a black, sooty passage straight up to the roof.  The Thin Man must have known I was still protected--he wasn’t even there.

On the floor below, I could see Jim scrubbing madly in his flue, coughing under the rain of soot his brush brought down.  Nick had just started in the kitchen, but he was coughing, too.  Maybe the Thin Man wasn’t here today.  I concentrated on Nick and Jim’s coughing, trying to make myself feel better.  As long as you could hear the coughing, you knew everything was fine.

Then I heard the Thin Man’s soft laugh, a sound like icy water down my back.  My chest got tight.  The Thin Man wanted me, but I had Kelsey’s hair.  He’d go for Jim now, and there was nothing I could do.  I wanted to cry and howl and throw myself against the wall.  I wanted someone to hold me in warm arms and stroke my head and tell me it was all right, that there was nothing I could’ve done for Kelsey or for Jim.

Eventually I pulled a brush out of my poke and hauled myself into the flue, right hand up, left hand down.  I didn’t know what else to do.

Bricks and darkness pressed in all round me.  Familiar soot showered from my brush as I scrubbed and suddenly I hated my life.  It surrounded me like these black bricks, and no matter how high I climbed, there was always something to stop me before I could reach the top and get out.  The best I could do was rattle the chimney pot.  Eventually I’d cough up black sludge and die in Scar’s soot cellar.  I knew.

What if I left?  Why didn’t I just throw down my brush and nip out the back door?  Scar wouldn’t notice I was gone for at least an hour and I’d never have to climb again.

But what then, little Dodd? whispered a dry voice.  I looked up and saw the Thin Man hanging above me, grinning his impossibly wide grin, but I wasn’t afraid.  Maybe it was because I knew I was protected or maybe I just didn’t care.

Would you beg for a living, little Dodd? the Thin Man said.  Or perhaps you could steal.  Burglars love climbing boys--they’re so good at getting into houses.  Or you could try the work houses, but they’re all full.  Poor little Dodd.  You’re so good at showing other people their fears.  What are you afraid of?  Are you afraid your parents didn’t love you because you’re a freak and that’s why they left you at the orphanage?

“No,” I whispered.

Come with me!  He reached down and stopped, just like before.  You still have Kelsey’s hair.  A nice boy, he was.  I wouldn’t have been able to touch him if thoughtful Scar hadn’t cut off his hair for me or if you hadn’t kept it for yourself.  Why did you let him die, little Dodd?  Why did you kill him?

“You killed him,” I said hoarsely.  “You an’ Scar.  Not me.”

Scar and his peers are the reason I exist.  Why were you so cruel?

“Go away,” I cried.

Of course, little Dodd.  There’s Jim to attend to.  And he was gone.

I tried not to see what came next, but I knew.  There was a loose bit of mortar in Jim’s flue.  The Thin Man slipped into the cracks and worked at it, making it looser and looser.  Jim scrubbed and coughed, scrubbed and coughed, climbing as he went.  His back pushed against the weakened spot and it gave unexpectedly.  Jim jolted downward and grunted with surprise as his knees mashed against his nose.  He struggled for a moment.  Then he panicked.  I heard every raw scream for help, felt the darkness crowding him.  The soot showered down and reached his chin, his mouth, his nose.

Breathe it in, Jim, the Thin Man whispered, and the screams died to a tiny sound in Jim’s throat.  I could feel his terror, and I whimpered too.

I twisted an arm and managed to get my six-fingered hand into my pocket as black soot rose higher round Jim’s nose and mouth.  It was my fault.  If I hadn’t said those awful things, Jim would’ve taken some of Kelsey’s hair and the Thin Man wouldn’t be able to touch him.

The Thin Man laughed as Jim struggled again and tried to cough, but he was getting weaker.  He was dying.  I hung there in the black flue, alone and scared, wondering what to do.

And then I knew what to do.  I had always known.  Tears tracked down my face and I tried to push the knowledge away, but it wouldn’t go.

I could choose between us.  Between me and Jim.  Not a real choice.  I couldn’t let Jim die, not when it was my fault that he was unprotected.  I had to give myself up to the Thin Man.  I had no choice.

“Remember,” the old woman said.  “Ye allus got a choice.”

“But I don’t,” I whispered.

Then I realized I did.  I had one.  Just one.

Jim stopped breathing.  As fast as I could, I yanked Kelsey’s hair out of my pocket and let it go.  It drifted down the flue, but I didn’t spend any time watching it.  I started to climb--knees and back, knees and back.

The Thin Man looked up.  He stared right through Jim’s flue, right through the walls and floor of the inn.  Right at me.

Well, Dodd, he whispered.  I’m glad you changed your mind.  And he left Jim’s flue.

The moment he did, another, larger piece of mortar crumbled away from Jim’s knees and shins.  He gave a gasping yelp and fell straight down to the fireplace, bruised and shaken, but coughing.  I felt better.  As long as you could hear the coughing, you knew everything was fine.  But I kept climbing--knees and back, knees and back.  Above me gleamed a tiny speck of light, the hole in the chimney pot.

Dodd.  The Thin Man looked down on me.  Are you ready?

“I’m not going with you,” I said, though the words caught in my throat.  It took every ounce of willpower I had, but I kept climbing toward him.

The Thin Man grinned.  You don’t have a choice, little Dodd.

A finger of doubt crept down my spine.  Then I shoved it aside with clenched teeth and kept climbing, knees and back, knees and back against the hard black brick.

The Thin Man pulverized a chunk of soot and sent it showering over me, but I knew it was coming and held my breath until I could climb past it.

Stop fighting, Dodd, the Thin Man said.  I always win.

Knees and back.  Knees and back.  Slow and steady was the key.  Panic, and you’re dead.  The speck of light grew closer.

The Thin Man found a loose brick and dropped it toward my head.  I trapped it against the flue with my cleaning brush and let it fall past me.  It crashed on the grating far below.  I kept climbing, knees and back, knees and back.  The speck of light was almost close enough to touch.  A desperate look crossed the Thin Man’s face.

Stop! he snarled.  Stop, or I’ll--

“Ye’ll what?  Kill me?” I asked, still climbing.  “I’m gonna die anyway.  I ain’t got nothin’ to lose, an’ that give me power.  You try t’ make us think we ain’t got choices, but we do.  You can’t touch me now.  I know.”

The Thin Man howled and reached for my face.  Spiders and bats and cockroaches crawled and flapped and skittered in swarms from his sleeves, but they weren’t real.  He just wanted me to panic.  I knew.  I climbed through them like smoke--

--and reached the chimney pot.  The Thin Man was curled up inside it, and he wasn’t smiling anymore.

I’m warning you, Dodd, he whispered.  You’re--

“Shut it!” I shouted.  “Just shut it, ye goddam bastard!  Ye hide in the dark and scare us and murder us.  But ye ain’t gonna touch me again!  Not never!”  I smashed at the Thin Man with my brush, but he was gone and I hit the chimney pot instead.  It shattered with a loud pop and suddenly I found myself in sunlight.  I blinked for a moment, then crawled out onto the roof and looked back down the flue.

It was empty.  The Thin Man was gone.

I stretched my arms, half expecting to hit unyielding brick.  But my arms went wide and met nothing--nothing round me, nothing above me.  Just the bright and flowing air.  I was free!

I laughed a wonderful laugh and threw my brush down the chimney.  I had a lot to do.  Maybe I’d beg or become a burglar or even go to school.  Or maybe something else’d come along.

I ran lightly to the gutter and leaped to the rooftop next door, still laughing, leaving Scar and the Thin Man further behind with every step.  A sweet-smelling breeze pulled me along.  The old woman was right.  I always had a choice.

Right now I chose to get some living done.

 

The Chimney Sweeper

by William Blake

(1789)

When my mother died I was very young,

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

Could scarcely cry “ ‘weep!  ‘weep!  ‘weep!  ‘weep!”

So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head

That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d, so I said,

“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,

You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet & that very night,

As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!

That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,

Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,

And he open’d the coffins & set them all free;

Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,

And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,

They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.

And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,

He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark

And got with our bags & our brushes to work.

Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

 

 

This story originally appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust.


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Steven Harper

Steven Harper is well-known for his fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk.

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  • Steven Harper Piziks
    March 17, 4:06pm

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