BlankCanvas’ Challenge

Name: Miss Mildred
Setting: Steam Train
Object: Harmonica
Emotion: Disgust

“Miss Mildred,” whined little Sarah from the bed in her family’s private train car.

Mildred, the girl’s nanny, rolled her eyes as she marked her place in her book and picked up the oil lamp by which she was reading. Mildred had made this trip with Sarah nearly a dozen times, but she could never get used to walking around on a quickly moving train.

Sliding open the small compartment door, Mildred sighed and raised the lamp above her head to light the small bedroom. “Sarah, you should be fast asleep by now. What’s the matter?”

“I can’t sleep because of the music!” Sarah cried.

“What music?” asked Mildred. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Can’t you hear it? Someone’s playing a harmonica!”

Mildred stood still and held her breath for a moment. She heard nothing over the sound of the train rolling along its rails, and told Sarah as much. “It’s simply your imagination, Sarah.”

Sarah began to argue with Miss Mildred, but the nanny shushed her one last time before demanding that she close her eyes and go to sleep.

Mildred closed the door to Sarah’s bedroom once more and returned to her seat. Setting the lamp back on the table, she picked up her book but, in truth, was no longer interested in reading. Mildred wanted to climb into her own bed for the night, but did not want to do so until she was certain Sarah was asleep.

Mildred had been working as Sarah’s nanny for nearly two years. In all that time, she had interacted with Sarah’s parents only when they made this bimonthly trip into the city from the countryside. Mr. Newman was a wealthy man with an important position, which required him and Mrs. Newman to spend all their time in the city. But they wanted their daughter, Sarah, to be raised far from the insanity that seemed to plague their professional lives. Mildred had no idea what Sarah’s parents really did to earn their vast wealth, but it was not her job to ask questions.

As Sarah’s primary caregiver, Mildred thoroughly enjoyed what she did. Sarah was an easygoing five year old, most of the time, and she minded Miss Mildred with very little trouble. Now that Sarah was getting closer to school age, Mildred was looking forward to spending their days together reviewing lessons in reading and math.

After about 15 minutes had passed, Mildred decided to check on Sarah once more. Upon opening the compartment door, she saw that the little girl’s bed was empty. Mildred’s heart dropped into her stomach.

In a panic, she threw the blankets and sheets back. She knelt down to look under the small bed but found empty space. The only way in and out of the small bedroom compartment was through the door she had just opened. There was no other door. There were no windows.

“Sarah!” Mildred yelled in a panic.

There was no answer. However, Mildred could faintly hear the sound of a harmonica over the rumble of the train. She turned quickly to scan the main part of the private car, thinking the music had originated behind her.

“Sarah?” she asked, speaking into the dimly lit room. Her hope was that, somehow, Sarah had managed to sneak out of her room unnoticed while she had been lost in thought. Maybe Sarah was the one playing the harmonica.

Hearing the music again, Mildred could have sworn it was now coming from outside of the train car. She moved to the door that connected to the next car. Peering through the window, she could make out nothing in the darkness.

Fear began to seize the poor nanny, but she steeled herself, grabbing her lamp once more and carrying it into the next train car. It was a passenger car, which she knew to be empty. Beyond that was coal storage and the steam locomotive itself.

The oil lamp did little to light the passenger car, save for the first few rows of seats in front of Mildred. “Sarah!” she called again, knowing full well that there was no way the child could have gotten into this car without her hearing the doors opening and closing.

As clear as a bell, Mildred heard the harmonica again. This time it was playing a sad tune, but it was directly in front of her. Whoever was playing it had to have been in this car. Whoever it was must have been there facing Mildred.

She rushed forward to confront the harmonica player. But she found no one.

Mildred could not explain it, but she felt a cold breeze that seemed to have passed right through her. And in that moment, the dim light of her lamp blew out. She turned back to face the way from which she had come and saw only darkness.

The passenger car was suddenly bathed in moonlight. As Mildred’s eyes adjusted, she could swear that she was seeing seats that were filled with people. But that would be impossible, she told herself. All of the seats had been empty when she ran to the front of the car.

When her eyes had fully adjusted to what little light the moon provided, the shock caused her to drop the lamp, which shattered at her feet. Her hand covered her mouth in an attempt to block a scream.

The people were staring at her, though they weren’t really people at all. The beings filling those passenger seats seemed more like the dead than the living. Skeletal figures with very few features that would still be considered human. Though, even without eyes filling their sockets, Mildred knew they were all looking directly at her, as if they were accusing her of some heinous crime.

Once again, the nanny was filled with panic. She exited the passenger car as quickly as she dared, knowing that the coal storage car was all that stood between her and the locomotive. Maybe the conductor could make sense of this nightmare.

Mildred chanced a look back into the passenger car. She was frightened that the living dead may have been leaving their seats to pursue her, but she saw nothing. Once again, the car was empty.

“What the devil is going on?!” she cried to herself.

She made her way along the narrow walking path that went around the coal storage car, careful to hold tightly to the hand rail. Once she reached the locomotive, she saw the old conductor. He was facing ahead, playing the harmonica.

“Conductor!” screamed Mildred, barely audible over the sound of the train.

The old man stopped playing his harmonica and turned, startled that anyone would be visiting him at this time of night.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” he yelled, roughly grabbing Mildred by the arm.

“I’m Sarah Newman’s nanny! She’s gone missing!”

“A fact I am well aware of, Miss Mildred!” said the conductor before using his teeth to pull the glove off his free hand.

Mildred was confused as to how the conductor could have known about the missing child. That feeling only deepened when the old man put the palm of his hand on her forehead and began mumbling some strange words.

Suddenly, everything was gone. Mildred found herself in silence, but surrounded by nothing but white light so dazzling that, at first, she had to shield her eyes.

“Welcome, Mildred,” said a male voice from somewhere behind her.

She turned, surprised to see her employer. “Mr. Newman?”

“I know things must feel very strange for you right now. I can’t imagine the kind of night you must have had before arriving here.”

“Sir! Sarah! She’s…”

“It’s all right, Miss Mildred,” said Mr. Newman, his voice calm and reassuring. “I’m sure you’re a little light headed. Why don’t you have a seat?”

“Have a seat?” she asked. Then, as if from nowhere, a chair appeared before her. Feeling as though her legs were about to give way, she had no choice but to sit down.

“This certainly is not how we had hoped things would have turned out,” began Mr. Newman, “but I hope you’ll allow me to explain.”

Mildred could only nod.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered what it is that Mrs. Newman and I do, spending all our time in the city, away from our little girl? While I am not at liberty to divulge all our secrets, what I can tell you is this: we are very powerful magic users. In fact, all of us in the ruling class have access to a certain amount of power and there are certain, shall we say, entities that must be appeased in order to maintain that power.

“Of course this is kept secret from most of the population. Why, can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if every average man, woman, and child discovered that all of life’s woes could be solved if only their leaders would say a few magic words?”

“Wait,” said Mildred, “You said that entities had to be appeased. How?”

“Sadly, that requires a great deal of sacrifice on our part, Miss Mildred. Now, as I said before, none of this has happened as we planned. You were meant to be asleep long before Sarah was to vanish from her bed.”

“What?”

“That’s right, little Sarah was going to disappear right out from under your nose. You would have woken to find her gone just as the train pulled into the station. Of course, this would have led to a scandal and you would have been disgraced, having lost Sarah Newman, only child of one of the most powerful and influential couples in our world,” he said, carrying on as if the plan wasn’t to ruin an innocent woman’s life.

“Why would you…?” began Mildred before Mr. Newman again cut her off.

“I said our power required a sacrifice. That sacrifice is our precious little girl. Why do you think we have her raised so far from us? It’s so we don’t form an attachment. In order for us to retain our power or, in this case, gain even more, young Sarah’s life has to be given before she reaches the age of six.”

“You’re a monster!” cried Mildred before she found herself magically bound to the chair with rope and gagged by a cloth that was tied tightly around her head.

“Let’s not resort to name calling, shall we?” said Newman as he continued. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes, poor Sarah. You know, you weren’t her first nanny. No, we had someone who was very good at her job for the first three years of Sarah’s doomed life. I’m sorry to say she was too good at her job. She discovered our little secret and had an unfortunate accident.

“The question now is, what do we do with you?”

Mildred tried to speak, managing only to mumble through the cloth covering her mouth.

“Now, if I remove this, can I trust you to remain civil, Miss Mildred?”

She nodded her head. Mr. Newman made a small motion with his finger and the cloth disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Mildred took a deep breath, trying to remain calm. “If you think I’m going to keep quiet about this, you are sorely mistaken.”

“Of course, you must do as your conscience sees fit. You are a good person, Miss Mildred. I would expect nothing less than for you to shout from the mountaintops that our society is run by a bunch of devil worshiping sorcerers. But ask yourself this: who would believe you? I mean, really, it’s crazy talk!”

Tears began to form in Mildred’s eyes. She knew he was right. Even if she believed that she would be set free, no one would believe her story. It was all too fantastic.

“You can’t do this to that little girl,” said Mildred, near sobs at this point. “She’s such a special child.”

Mr. Newman put a hand on Mildred’s shoulder and used that same soothing voice, “I know. She is quite special,” Then his tone changed. Serious and resolute, he stated, “That is why the deed has already been done.”

“No!”

“I’m afraid so. And I see no reason why our original plan cannot still come to fruition. A simple snap of my fingers will erase your memories of the last few hours. You’ll awaken on the train just as it pulls into the station. You’ll discover that my little girl has vanished and after a series of investigations you will be found negligent. You will be a disgrace.”

“Please,” she pleaded, “You can’t…”

“My dear, it’s already done,” said Mr. Newman as he snapped his fingers.

Well, that got disturbing. Let me know what you think down in the comments. Thanks to BlankCanvas for this week’s challenge. At this point, this is the last challenge I’ve been given, but I welcome more. If you’d like to go back to this original post, feel free to leave something in the comments. I’ve had a lot of fun writing these stories and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. Hopefully there will be more to come!

Feature Photo by Andrey Svistunov on Unsplash

9 thoughts on “BlankCanvas’ Challenge

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