I was browsing a local secondhand bookshop when I came across something very peculiar. The sleeve was leather, like an expensive diary or something. In gold leaf the title read, The Crooked. Like I usually do, I read the first few paragraphs while standing in front of the shelves.
It began by describing someone called Mary, who had been orphaned as a child and was sent to live with Mr Mallory. He lived in a large mansion and took care of six other children. I was about to put it down when I read the following.
Mr Mallory told Mary that the crooked man would take her away if she misbehaved. He showed her a painting of him, the one that hung above the fireplace. Mary cried, a wet patch grew in her drawers.
“The crooked man won’t like that,” Mr Mallory said.
Mary jumped as three laboured knocks rapped on the elegant front door.
“My dear Mary, one thinks you may be in trouble.”
The pages snapped, as I closed the book. I grinned. A man next to me pushed his reading glasses up the bridge of his nose and slowly turned in disgust.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
I put the book down on the counter. The clerk picked it up, searching for a barcode. Almost a minute passed as he turned it back and forth, completely confused.
“I’m going to have to get the manager.”
I flapped my hands and bounced on my heels, eager to snatch the book, sit down and read. It was early Saturday and I had the whole day in front of me.
The manager arrived, staring at the book, just as perplexed as the clerk.
“I’ll give you five. That’s more than enough, right?”
I thrust out my hand, holding the bill prominently.
The manager shrugged his shoulders, taking the money and handing over the book.
I was so excited to carry on reading. When I arrived at the coffee shop, I asked Steven to bring my drink to my table. He curtsied in response, as if I asked for him to shine my boots.
I devoured the first few pages before the coffee arrived. When it did, I startled, sending the book careering off onto the floor.
“Sorry,” Steven said.
In a daze, I didn’t respond, leaning over to pick it up. I returned it to the table to see a dog-eared piece of paper jut out from the middle of the book. I pulled it out. It was crumpled, as if it had been scrunched and unfolded many times. Something was written on it:
Do not read this book, lest you end up like me.
At first my mouth dropped, taken aback by the statement. I read it over and over again. Then I chuckled, before laughing hard out loud.
“You okay?” Steven asked from behind the counter.
“Yeah,” I replied, suddenly realising drool was running down my chin.
Embarrassed, I wiped it away.
I was a few chapters in when the story went even darker, Mary had stood up for one of the other orphans, Sammy, a stunted child who’d survived polio. Another kid, Charles had stolen his leg braces. Sammy was crying, and Mary shouted at Charles, hitting him in the face with a well-oiled slap. It was then Mr Mallory came in to see what the commotion was.
The door to the basement swung open. The children winced in response to the bright light. Mr Mallory, slowly but purposefully, took the stairs one at a time. Charles was on the floor. His hand shook as he pointed at Mary. The bruise on his cheek had purpled fast. Mary stood in fear as the tall frame of Mr Mallory towered down over her. His grizzled features appeared more ghastly up close. His foul breath, a combination of halitosis and pipe smoke caused her to choke.
“I think it’s time to get the crooked man”, he said, swiftly turning on his heels, out of the room, and up the stairs.
The older children began to cry. The door slammed shut. The next time it would open, the crooked man would be standing there.
“What are you reading?” Steven asked, picking up the empty cup.
“Jesus! You scared the shit out of me.”
Steven took a step back.
“You’re really into that book, can I get you another coffee?”
“Please,” I said, my gaze shifting straight back to the pages.
There he was, at the threshold of the basement, dressed in a hooded cloak. The light behind him was too bright to make out the features of his face. Hunched over, he awkwardly descended.
In the margins something caught my eye, written in the same fountain pen ink of the note I had found earlier.
I’ve SEEN him.
I slammed the book shut, and fell back into my chair.
“Here you go,” Steven said, placing the Latte on the table, “Are you okay?” he asked, seeing the petrified look on my face.
“Can… can I have it to go?” I asked.
I stared down at the leather cover and the gold lettering that glistened in the florescent light. Steve returned a few moments later and handed me a cardboard cup.
I rushed to my feet and raced to the door.
“Sarah?” I heard from behind me.
“You forgot something,” Steven stood holding the leather-bound book outstretched.
The rain began to pour and I was glad I had opted to take a taxi home. I raced along the path to my front door. I fumbled with the key, cursing myself as the cold rain drenched me. Inside, I placed my coat on the hook and threw my purse onto the armchair. I went to the kitchen, poured my coffee into a mug, and blitzed it in the microwave. I peered out the back window, feeling glad to be home.
I sipped on my coffee, cringing at the heat. I returned to the living room and stopped. On the coffee table sat the leather-bound book, open to the page I was on. I could swear I left it in my bag. I was simultaneously scared and intrigued. I really wanted to know what happened next.
I was still on edge from the writing in the book, I chose to turn the television on. I cycled through the channels, but nothing other than a black screen gazed back at me. The channel guide at the bottom was empty stating – waiting for signal. A thunderclap reverberated through the room and I assumed the weather was interfering. I looked down at the book, knowing my curiosity would win.
The coffee was tepid before I worked up the courage to continue reading.
I turned the page to see that the first few paragraphs had been scribbled out. My shoulders deflated, after all the anticipation, I wasn’t going to know what happened. In the margin was another note.
The crooked man is real.
I giggled at the obvious attempt of the author to scare me. I was glad of it to be honest. I continued on. Mary was sent to the room that she shared with the other kids. They were allowed to play as she lay in the dark.
Mary pressed on her arm, wincing at the pain. Bruises covered her young, delicate body. She decided against testing the others. And the wound in her stomach, she tried to forget that existed.
As I read that, I wondered what the crooked man had done to her. I felt bad for her.
Over the next few chapters I was told how, because they couldn’t find Sammy’s braces, he had dragged himself around the house. Mary tried her best to hold him up and move him around, but as soon as Mr Mallory approached, she would stop, not wanting to get in trouble. The last time she did that, Sammy fell, tumbling down the stairs and into the basement. She closed the door and ran away. She hid in the coal shed.
“Mary, are you in there?” Mr Mallory said from without the coal shed.
“I know you are there. I want to talk to you about Sammy. Come on out.”
“No,” Mary said.
Mr Mallory laughed.
“I think you want to, the crooked man is in there with you.”
Mary stood up straight, holding her breath. Her breathing stuttered as she felt the long tendril-like fingers caress her back. From outside she heard a bolt drive into place. Leaving her trapped with the crooked man.
Down the side of the page it said:
Don’t turn around
I put the book down, sitting rigid in my place. The living room was silent, except for the sound of rain drumming against the windows. I waited for minutes until I laughed again, feeling a complete idiot. I fell back into the chair, amazed by how much the book was getting to me.
My gaze wandered to the painting above the fireplace. It was of a snowy mountain landscape with little log cabins, blanketed in snow. This used to hang in my parent’s house, over their fireplace. I’d look at it for hours. I always wanted to stay in a mountain cabin. It seemed so cozy. The painting depicted the orange glow of the fire from within.
I leaned forward, noticing something I hadn’t before. I pushed myself up out of the couch and over to the mantelpiece. I squinted. In one of the windows, a hooded figure stared out into the night sky. In shock I reeled, feeling a small amount of warm liquid escape.
“Jesus, Sarah,” I scolded myself, I hadn’t done that since I was four.
Impotently I brushed at my jeans. A thunderclap lit up the room, making me jump further.
“Fucking hell!” I said to myself.
There was a knock at the door, followed in rhythm by two more.
“Shit,” I said to myself, seeing the dark blue patch in my crotch.
I stood in front of the door and peered around the corner as I opened it, trying my best to hide my pride. It was dark now and the rain hammered down in a chorus of white-noise.
No one was there. My eyes darted around the front yard, trying to locate a visitor.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
No one responded. I felt something brush my back, it sent a tingle up my spine.
Panicking, I shut the door, rotating the lock before pushing the deadbolts into place. I turned around, expecting to see someone standing close. My jeans were cold now so I went upstairs and showered, then dressed in clean clothes.
I poured the last of the coffee down the sink. I opened a bottle of wine, downing a glass and preparing another. As I sat on the couch, my face flushed, warming from the alcohol. I picked up the book.
“What?!?” I said to myself, seeing the next thirty pages or so scrawled out. In the margins read:
Do not read, do not read, do not read. He’s in my house, I can hear him. There’s footsteps upstairs.
I swivelled around, looking up my staircase, expecting to hear footsteps of my own, though there were none. I took a sip from my wine, continuing to flick through the redacted pages. Finally I found something I could read.
Mr Mallory was in the kitchen when she arrived. She stopped in the doorway. The other orphans were nowhere to be seen.
“Sit,” he said gesturing to the chair opposite him.
Reluctantly she did, shuffling her feet in an effort to delay the inevitable.
Mr Mallory reached down and with a clunk placed Sammy’s braces on the oaken table.
“Do you recognise these?” he asked, begging the question.
“Sammy was buried today and you didn’t say one wit. Have you something to say now?”
Mary shook her head.
“Damn you, you fucking stray!”
Mary’s lips quivered.
“Are you upset?” Mr Mallory said in a venomous tone.
Mary sat shaking.
“These were found under your bed. You sick little child. I should cut you,” he said, wiping spittle from his mouth.
Footsteps thumped out on the floorboards above.
“You hear that?” Mr Mallory said grinning.
“You know who that is, right?”
So engrossed in the story I could swear I heard footsteps above me too.
“That’s the crooked man. I’ve told him he can do whatever he wants with you. You’ll die tonight. Come on, follow me.”
Mr Mallory slowly rose from his chair and worked his way around the table, enjoying himself like a headteacher stroking his cane. He grabbed Mary’s hand so tight, she screamed.
“Not a word!”
Mary went silent.
Hand in hand they left the kitchen into the living room, walking past the five remaining children. There were tears in their eyes. It was as if they had been witness to this before. The footsteps upstairs paced in the bedroom. Mary gazed up, following them as she did.
I turned the page and nothing. The remaining pages had been torn out. Distracted, I leafed through the book, seeing if they had been misplaced. I heard a noise from above and I did my best to ignore it.
“Fuck!” I said to myself, pissed I wouldn’t know the ending.
I flicked to the end of the book and to the back cover. The noise from above was obvious now, there was someone there. I felt my pulse race, though I was too interested in the words that stared back at me in the same fountain pen ink the other notes had been written in.
I plead for your forgiveness. The crooked man wants to punish those that misbehave. I told you not to read this. Bless you. I’m sorry he’s now your burden.
I threw the book to the floor, hearing the footsteps get louder and quicker. I cannot go up there. I don’t want to meet the crooked man.
I panicked and drank all the wine, holding my hands to my ears. Even then I felt the horrific vibrations as he walked the rooms upstairs. I needed to do something. I needed to write this up.
I’m sorry I did this to you. You’ve misbehaved, you shouldn’t have read this.