The Paper Men

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I would remember always the fire crackling away in the hearth. It was a constant of the old cottage and Nan had a gift for it. She would set it as the cock crowd and would not have to feed it until later that evening. Granda had a gift as well, a gift for storytelling. 

Every second Saturday I would spend the night at my grandparents and I relished nothing more than cosying up with Granda in front of the roaring fire as he regaled me with tales of adventure. He would set each scene with copious amounts of detail and change his voice according to which character was speaking. His stories would capture my overactive imagination and plunge me into a surreal world of fantasy. One of my favourites and most vividly remembered was the tale of the Paper Men. It was a story I didn't hear often as nan felt it would give me nightmares and she'd be right in her thinking. However, terrifying dreams or not I always took the opportunity when I could to hear the story; until that fateful night when I taunted the Paper Men myself. After that, I never asked for the tale again.

I was all but eight years of age and feeling particularly brave on a clear and cold January night. Nan had gone out on a 'Women's Little Christmas' bingo night. With finger food and free wine flowing, I knew it would be late before she came home.

Nan had just added some fuel to the fire, as she didn't trust Granda to keep it going in her absence and Granda drove her the five minute journey to the local pub. I prepared for our entertaining evening ahead and had the tea and biscuits ready for when Granda returned.

   "What did your nan say about the kettle?" Granda asked as he barred the door closed, sealing off the howl of the wind.
   "I know how to not scald myself." I jeered as I stirred the saturated bags around the China teapot, splashing flecks of boiling water onto my hand.
   "So, young lady, what will it be tonight?" Granda sang as he spun around from the sealed door.
   "I think you already know." I replied with a mischievous grin.
   Granda adorned a knowing smile as he approached his armchair while I filled two mugs with the steaming amber tea from my spot on the sofa. 
   "The Paper Men?" Granda guessed with a raised eyebrow. 
   I responded with an eager nod.
   "Your nan will kill me." Granda sighed half exasperated and half amused, as he poured a splash of milk into his tea.
   "I swear I won't tell." I pleaded.
   Granda took a large slug from his ancient mug and cleared his throat. 

   "It was a long, dark, winter's night when little Ronald Lynch disappeared." Granda began. "Ronald was as mischievous and curious as they came, which would eventually lead to his detriment.He had an overwhelming fascination; borderline obsession with the world at night. He felt it frightfully unfair that he would have to spend his time in school all day and all his time in bed at night. He so desperately wanted to explore the enchanted realm and play with the leprechauns and fairies. 

"Ronald had his poor mother's heart and soul at their wits end. Despite bolting the doors and windows of the house shut every night, Ronald would always escape his home in search of mystical adventure. Mother's instincts would wake Mrs. Lynch from her slumber in the dead of the night and she would spend her time in search and in worry for her Ronald. Despite constant, dire warnings of the Paper Men out hunting for wayward children up past their bedtime, Ronald would always take his chances. 

"Now, it happened one night, that Ronald Lynch came across an injured pixie in the middle of a clearing, deep within an enchanted forest. She was huddled over and seemed to be in pain. The pixie's ears pricked to attention as Ronald cautiously approached in utter disbelief. There was no mistaking it, there it was, a full blown pixie in the flesh. Sensing that Ronald was of no threat, she explained that she had been attacked by a rabid fox and had sprained her ankle as she fled. Regardless of the fact that pixies were known as the tricksters of the fable realm, Ronald took the tiny creature at her word. She was roughly the size of a human toddler and Ronald carefully carried her with ease to her home deep within the forest. 

"However, as the night deepened and as they neared the patch of spotted toadstoles, a sudden feeling of unease overcame young Ronald. He didn't know why but every fibre of his being screamed for him to flee home. 
   "Just a small bit further, little Ronnie." The pixie croaked. 

"A chill ran up Ronald's spine, causing him to stop suddenly. The pixie released a wicked cackle before jumping from Ronald's arms and bounded off into the thick of the forest. Ronald tried to run but had become frozen to the spot. It was then he noticed that chirps and squeaks from the forest animals dulled until he became submerged in complete silence, not even the leaves made a sound as the wind swept past them. After a moment of complete and uneasy silence, Ronald heard it growing in the distance, the unmistakable and melodic march of the Paper Men. Ronald again tried to escape but his feet would not unstick themselves from the forests floor. From up in her perch on an overhanging branch, the wicked pixie cackled once more with delight. Ronald looked ahead in disbelief to find the trees to be uprooting themselves to clear a wide path. Mouth open in horror, the petrified boy gazed as the band of Paper Men approached.

"Born within the depths of hell by the hand of Lucifer himself, the Paper Men were forged from pages of the bible, once owned by hethins and sinners, who were tempted by the devil. He trust the pages into the lava pits of hell, burning all goodness from them and replaced it with the tortured souls that roamed the planes of hell. He then fished the sheets from the firey depths and molded them into an army of feckless hunters who would scour the earth for the young and innocent. Eight feet tall and sporting, gangly misshapen limbs, they travel only as a pack and their features are indistinguishable from their black, rotting, paper flesh, until, that is, they catch scent of your fear. Those firey, burning eyes will be the last thing you see; they were the last thing young Ronald Lynch saw before he was bundled into a burlap sack and carried off to only God knows where."

Granda finished his gloomy tale and rewarded himself with a large swig from his tea. Unbeknownst to myself, I had curled into a tiny ball in the corner of the sofa near Granda. I had been clutching my tea in both hands in front of my face and shielding my vision from some of the terrifying images. Sensing my disturbance, Granda switched on the cartoon chanel that aired late into the night.

Neither of us knew anything else until the shrill ring of the telephone almost launched our skeletons from our flesh hours later. The phone rang twice more and stopped.
   "That'll be your nan" Granda remarked as he stretched upward, turned on the light switch behind him and glanced at the clock on the mantle. "Off to bed with you now."
Granda took a worrying look at the now extinguished fire before setting off into the clear night. 

It was a rare occasion that I would see the smouldering ashes of the dying fire and the fluorescent light that Granda switched on sent a harsh and abrupt luminous across the room taking the usual dreamy haze from the cottage. A chill went up my spine as I scurried to the kitchen sink. 

As I reached across the draining board for a clean glass, I noticed a tiny bundle lying in the middle of the garden. I pressed my nose against the window and saw the little bundle twitch. I stared a moment longer until I heard the scared cry of a baby. I quickly abandoned my drink of water and sprinted out to the garden.

As I approached the sobbing child, she stopped and raised her head. A combination of fear and shock overcame me as I spied her pointed ears and I noticed the natural sounds of the usual nightscape dull around me until there was nothing but utter silence. When from a distance came a steady and rhythmic march. I scanned the horizon across the valley and saw, to my immense horror an impossible sight; the band of Paper Men were in search. Suddenly one of them caught my scent and though he was still miles across the valley, I could clearly make out two eyes, burning with fire stemming from the depths of hell. I stood transfixed and sensed them change course, directly towards me. The pixie convulsed with malisious laughter, snapping me from my trance. I hurriedly turned tail, tripping over the hysterical creature and retreated back to the cottage, bolting the door behind me; all the while the steady march grew louder.

I scurried to my room and took refuge under the heavy duvet and listened with intense apprehension until I heard the marching cease outside my window. I was helpless and could only whimper as my bedroom door slowly opened. 

I released a great, snotty sob as the duvet was pulled from my head and I rammed my eyes shut, I didn't want to see those burning fires again.
   "What's wrong, pet?" I heard a kindly and familiar voice ask.
   I let out a sob of relief as a clutched onto Nan.
   "They're outside the window." I managed to gurgle.
   "Who?" Nan questioned in alarm as she reached for the drapes.
   "No, don't." I pleaded as I took cover under the blankets once again. 
   "There's nothing there." Nan soothed as she pulled the covers back down. "Look."
   I took a tentative glance out the window next to my bed as I wiped the tears from my face. 

Suddenly Nan's eyes flashed dangerously as she diverted her attention to Granda.
  "You were telling her stories again, weren't you?" She fumed as she tucked me in and caressed my hair.
   "It's bad enough you let the fire go out but now you have the child in hysterics as well. I can't leave the house for one night without all hell breaking lose"

They returned to the living room and I drifted off to asleep as nan mumbled on about the dirty cups and the now soft biscuits.

Some late, sleepless nights I find myself recounting my encounter with the Paper Men and to this day it still sends a chill up my spine. I wonder always was it just my overactive imagination at work or did I in fact almost meet the same fate as little Ronald Lynch.

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© Sarah O’Regan

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