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Something slithered, the way slithering things do, from the open crack in the wardrobe door towards

the bed. Out in grown-up land, muddled TV voices mixed with the quiet murmur of the dishwasher and the hum of the heater. Sara knew her dad would be dozing off in front of the television, and her mom was probably reading a magazine or a book in the den, one of those books with a sexy cover, feet curled up under her and hair tied back in a bun. But her parents might as well have been on the moon, because Sara was too afraid to say a word. If she did, the slithering thing might notice her, and then Sara was dead meat for sure, deader than a dead dodo.

! !

Rules are Rules by Ragnar Trnquist

If anything, that was much, much worse than hearing it slither across the carpet, because now the slithering thing might be listening to Saras quickening breath, it might be looking up, down there in the dark, planning and schemingor maybe even now climbing up one of the bedposts and slipping under her cover. Sara made doubly sure that she was properly tucked in, and that the only part of her protruding from the duvet was her head (and even that half-covered, from her chin down). Her bed was big enough to guarantee that no feet or hands were hanging out, because then, well, duh, you only had yourself to blame when the slithering things slipped a slimy tentacle around you and pulled you down and ate you up.

! Besides, it was against the Rules to tell. And you didnt break the Rules, no sir, no way. ! The slithering thing slithered under her bed and went still. ! !

Out in grown-up land, the TV clicked off, and Sara heard her parents exchanging a few hushed words. Then they too shuffled off to bed, and all the lights in the house went off, and the slithering thing began to slither once more.

Please, star-people, who make everything right, dont let the slithery sliding things eat my heart and soul tonight. She opened her eyes again, and stared up at the greenish stars that filled her ceiling from one end to the other like an ocean of radiant starfish noodles. They didnt shimmer or move, but they were alive nonetheless, and up there was where the star-people lived.

! Sara squeezed her eyes shut and whispered a little prayer. ! !

After her Dad had helped put them up, shed been able to sleep better at night, but now the slithering thing had come after all and she hoped the star-people would hear her prayer.

The voice came from under her bed. It sounded like chalk on a blackboard, sharp and scratchy, but quiet, and also very, very wet. In fact, it was nothing like chalk on blackboard. It was like nothing in this world. Sara drew a sharp breath but she didnt reply. You didnt have to. That wasnt part of the Rules. But neither did you call for help, even though thats what Sara wanted to do more than anything in the world right now, because that was against the Rules, and you didnt break the Rules. After all, she knew, Rules are Rules. Theyre there for a reason. Do you know who I am? whispered the scratchy wet voice. Despite herself, Sara opened her mouth and said: Yes. And do you know why Im here? Sara nodded her head. She was too afraid to say the words. Have you broken any Rules, sweet thing? No! she shrieked, and then clamped her mouth shut, afraid that her parents had heard. The slithery slimy thing went quiet for a long time, and Sara pricked her ears, but she heard nothing from her parents room, and after a few minutes she let out a big sigh of reliefand then she remembered the terrible thing under her bed, and her eyes went wide again and her heart started clapping, clap-clap-clap, faster than ever. Sara had been told the Seven Rules, like everyone else. Shed learned them inside and out. She knew what happened when you didnt follow them to the letter, or when you neglected to take precautions, like not covering yourself properly, or letting bits and pieces, toes and fingers, elbows and knees, hang out over the sides. Shed heard all the stories, over and over again. About Simon Carter and Lavinia Marsh and George West, and all the othersall those children whod forgotten about the Rules or hadnt taken the necessary precautions, all those children whod been unlucky, forgetful, or just plain stupid. They were all gone now, every one of them. And now the slithering slimy thing had come to check on her, to see if shed followed the Rules to the letter, to see if shed made any silly mistakes. Sara was sure she hadnt. She was careful every night to have Mom or Dad tuck her in properly, to cover all her bits and pieces properly. And she repeated the Rules to herself every night when Mom said good-night, switched off the light, and shut the door until there was only the tiniest crack left open:

! Little girl. !

! !

Number one, never tell. Number two, dont call for help. Number three, leave the wardrobe door open a crack. Number four, no midnight light. Number five, no traps. Number six, no tricks. Number seven, asleep by eleven.

! !

Seven rules that couldnt be broken. The Seven Rules of Prosperity. The first was easy, because no one would believe her anyway, except they who already knew, and you could tell them, you could tell the other children. That was how shed learned the rules in the first place. The second one hadnt been difficult to follow until now, because shed never needed help before, but now she felt like screaming for Mommy, but if she did, shed break the rule and then Shed forgotten number three only once, and the moment she remembered she had jumped out of bed and flung the wardrobe door open and jumped back under the covers. That same night shed almost broken rule number seven asleep by eleven but only almost. The wide-open wardrobe door had given her terrible nightmares, but not once did a sliding slithering thing come to visit from the dark places. The fourth rule had been easy; even before she learned the Rules she had always preferred to sleep without a light, her only comfort the dim crack in the door leading to the grown-up world. Numbers five and six werent hard to follow at all, because she didnt know any traps or tricks, aside from mousetraps and card-tricks, and she didnt think those counted. So yes, Sara had followed the Rules, all of them, every night for the last four years, ever since theyd come to Prosperity, ever since the children had solemnly and patiently taught her the Rules, on that very first day in town. It wasnt a bad place to live, Prosperity. No, not a bad place at all. It was a good place to live. A very good place. The best shed ever lived in. It was warm and green and sunny all summer long, and summer was very long in Prosperity. There was a lake to swim in (and to ice-skate on in wintertime), lots of trees to climb, and she could go anywhere she wanted as long as she was back by dinnertime, because there were no bad people in Prosperity. In fall, all the leaves turned yellow, red and golden brown, and it was so pretty, like the world was on fire. At that time of the year, the air smelled so good in Prosperity, like all good smells put together, shaken up, and released. It got very cold in late November, just before Thanksgiving, and every Christmas there was lots of snow, and she could go sledding and skiing if she wanted, and the boys would

throw snowballs (which wasnt always nice but still sort of exciting, especially when she dared fight back, and especially when she hit someone back). And spring when the purple crocus pushed through the last snow, and a thousand streams clucked joyously in woods and fields was a promise of yet another year of discovery and adventure. School was nice, school was great, much better than her last one, because there were better chairs and better food and better books and nicer teachers and friendlier children, and the classes were a lot more fun. There were tons of children in the neighbourhood, and she had a lot of good friends, and even a black-and-white kitty cat named Spike who was an outside cat but still liked to be cuddled with. It was the perfect place to live, and her parents said so too. Everyone said so. Prosperity was the perfect town. But there were Rules. And there were slimy things that slid and slipped and slithered and spoke with voices like rusty nails. Things that ate children. Things that werent nice at all, not at all. Sara glanced over at her Garfield alarm clock with arms that glowed faintly in the dark and saw that it was almost ten oclock. The slimy thing under her bed had been quiet for a long while now, and Sara started believed it had gone away, satisfied that she hadnt broken a rule, that she wouldnt break any rules. Her eyes started drooping, she was getting sleepy, and the slithering thing was sliding away from her thoughts, replaced with the fuzzy clouds and chiming bells and sweet bubblegum smells of dreams

! Sarawake up, Sarawake up. ! ! ! ! ! !

Untrimmed fingernails on dirty windowpanes. Razor-sharp knives on wet concrete walls. A bag of rattling dry bones pulled across dry, hard mud. But moist and soggy, slippery and slithery, slimy and mean. Sara surfaced slowly from her dreams, rising through thick, black, foul smelling porridge. At first, she was disoriented, and then she saw the stars, and she knew the star-people hadnt heard her prayers after all, and the slithering thing was still under her bed. She turned left, and the shortest of Garfields arms was between ten and eleven, but closer to eleven, and the longer arm pointed to the number nine. (And his grin, Garfields grin, was so wide and toothy and hungry, it was like he wanted to eat her up.)

A quarter to eleven. Rules are Rules. Asleep by eleven, or

Sara felt her heart slide up her throat and into her mouth. It was pounding like her toy monkeys drum, boom-boom-boom, and she suddenly felt very hot and very cold at the same time. Goosebumps were breaking out all over her body, and she was shaking like a leaf.

! Little girl, little Sara, we havent finished our little talk. ! ! She was wide-awake, and it was a quarter to eleven! !

Sara. We know you can hear us. What do you want? Her voice like a mouse, tiny and scared. We want you. Ive followed the Rules! she squeaked. Youre not asleep, Sara. But you woke me up, you cheated! We can cheat. The rules dont say anything about cheating, do they? Number six, no tricks, said Sara, but even as she said it she knew that the Rules only applied to her, not to them. They could do anything they wanted. They could play tricks, set traps, call for help, and they could stay up much, much later than eleven. They could stay up all night, if they wanted to.

See, in this place, this perfect place, in Prosperity, things were perfect only because the slithering slimy things slept deep in the dark places beyond the wardrobe during the day, and they only came out at night. She checked Garfield again, and now his long arm had crept up on the number ten, which meant that she only had ten more minutes to fall asleep, and its hard to fall asleep when you absolutely have to. Please, she whispered to the thing under her bed, please leave me alone. Its not fair. Fair is fair, the thing grated, but food is food. And we want to eat. Sara felt tears threatening to flood her eyes, and the corners of her mouth turned down into a frown, anticipating a big, wet, frightened sob. But she fought against it, and instead she said: Im not very tasty! Really, Im not! There are tastier treats! The thing under the bed laughed; a rasping laugh, like a lawnmower running over a tin can in the yard. It laughed for a long time.

! They were in charge here, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it. ! ! !

Thats rich, it finally said, that really is rich. Too bad we have to eat you, because you are very amusing. Feeling panicky, Sara grasped at straws: I am funny! I can tell you jokes whenever you want, if only you dont eat me up. I promise I will. Justplease. Please. Pretty please. The thing snorted. All children are funny when they are scared. Five minutes to eleven, little Sara, and you are not sleeping. You are about to break rule number seven, asleep by eleven. And thats not good, not good at all. Sara couldnt hold back the tears anymore, and she started crying, but quietly, so no one would know. The thing knew, though. They always knew. Salty tears, salty meat, said the thing under the bed, salty meat, best meat there is. And if a slithering slimy thing could rub its hands, that is exactly what this slippery thing was doing right now. It rubbed its hands with glee and in anticipation, and it was probably licking its lips too, if it had lips and a tongue. No one had ever said anything about that. They just spoke about its mouth, and its many, many sharp white teeth. Grinning, hungry, Garfield moved his long and twisted arm from eleven to twelve, and its stunted broken arm pointed straight at eleven, and suddenly the dark and dreadful thing from inside the wardrobe slipped out from under the bed and rose up before Sara until its head reached the ceiling and the light from the stars was blacked out. And it was so big, bigger than her room, bigger than her house, bigger than all of Prosperity put together. And so, so hungry. Dinnertime, it said, and leaned closer until its steaming, rotten breath parted Saras hair like a hot wind from a sewer.

She screamed like shed never screamed before. She screamed until her lungs grew hot and began to ache. She shut her eyes and put her hands up and screamed and screamed and screamed. The dark and dreadful thing hissed, and then Saras door opened up, throwing light on the bed and the floor between the bed and the door, and the dark and dreadful thing slipped back under Saras bed and disappeared. Just like that. Mom and Dad stood in the doorway, black cardboard cut-outs silhouetted against the light from the grown-up world. Whats the matter, darling? asked Mom. Do you know what time it is? asked Dad. There are things under my bed and in the wardrobe! sobbed Sara. Her parents shared a look.

! She screamed. ! ! !

Their faces were in shadows, unreadable. Dont you know the Rules, Sara? said Mom eventually. She sounded disappointed. Dont you know the Rules? We didnt work as hard as we did and wait so long to come here only to have you ruin everything, said Dad. He sounded very, very angry. There are Rules, Sara, and the Rules must be followed. You dont tell. You never tell. Your father is right, said Mom. And look its after eleven. You know the Rules, Sara, we know you do. And with that, her mother shut the door to her room tight, cutting her off from the grown-up world and leaving her in a total pitch-blackness. There was silence, the kind of silence that usually means youve done something really, really bad, and everyones disappointed with you but want you to figure that out for yourself instead of yelling at you.

! !

Sara lay in bed like one of her dolls, stiff, pale and glassy-eyed, with only a slack and uncomprehending look on her face. Her heart felt heavy and bloated, like a rotten apple, putrid and worm-riddled. Betrayed. Forgotten. Abandoned. She looked up at the faintly glowing noodle-stars, and folded her hands under her chin until her knuckles went white, and she prayed out loud: Please, oh pretty, pretty please, star-people who make everything right, please dont let the slithery sliding slimy things take my heart and soul tonight! The stars above her winked out as though a stormy cloud had come and swallowed their light. She stared, puzzled. Had the star-people left the heavens above and were even now on their way down here to rescue her, to bring her with them back up to the sky above? But then hot rancid air the smell of rotten eggs and unflushed toilets and garbage bags left outside on hot summer days washed over her, and she knew that it was no stormy cloud that had extinguished her lucky stars, but a thing that had grown large and allencompassing.

! Or perhaps the kind of silence that means youre all alone in the world. ! It was probably a little of both. !

! ! ! ! !

You pray to the star-people, the thing growled, like a rickety old tumble-dryer loaded with nuts and bolts, but there are rules. No one will help the rule-breakers, it said. Not even the star-people. Sara shut her eyes and held her breath, and thought of snowball fights and sled rides and long walks in the deep snow under starry skies. Rules are rules, sweet thing, food is foodand we are hungry, said the slithery slippery slimy thing. Sara made herself little, as little as could be, but she knew it wouldnt help, that precautions were a thing of the past, because once youd left the straight and narrow path and wandered off into the dark places, you were lost, lost, lost, for all time to come.

Because, she thought at the very end, its only fair, and Rules are Rules.

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