‘Mr Leaves was here’.
Those were the first words out of my daughter’s mouth that morning. I dismissed the strange statement as the usual make-believe of a seven-year-old girl. It did not seem unusual to me that she would develop a new imaginary friend, especially under the circumstances. Change can do that to a kid, forcing them to create something to hold onto, an anchor which makes the world seem more secure.
My wife, Erin, and I had named our daughter Karen, after an Aunt, but we always called her ‘Kip’ instead. It was an old English word my Grandfather used when he was going to sleep - Karen loved to sleep more than most and so ‘Kip’ suited her just fine. We had moved away from the city to find somewhere less hectic, somewhere we could call home. As a doctor, I had to wait until an opportunity arose and was delighted when an opening appeared in the sleepy town of Windarm. It was a quiet place filled with pristine cottages, sun-baked streets, and lush hedgerows; not too big, not too small - perfect for the three of us.
Our new home on the outskirts of Windarm town was older than we were used to, a large farmhouse dating back 150 years or so. With a little bit of land thrown into the deal for good measure, we fell in love with the place immediately. When we first pulled up outside, Kip rushed up the rickety white stairs and through the wide front double doors and disappeared into the embrace of her new home. She was ecstatic roaming around the unexplored spaces inside. It was an adventure for her.
Even at such a fragile age, she understood the importance of the stories old places could tell. She didn’t mind the dust and cobwebs, the shaky banisters or the creaking floorboards. Within ten minutes, each of the three floors had been scouted out by her little seven-year-old feet. Of course, there were sure to be nooks and crannies not yet seen in the attic and cellar, but Kip was not interested in those places for now. She was only interested in where she could sleep and play. I naively told her she could choose any of the bedrooms as her own, and of course she did - the best one in the house.
Erin and I smiled at each other, watching happily as our daughter darted around her new room, excitedly. She loved the high ceiling because it felt grand and imposing like being a princess in a castle. She found the groans and squeaks that the floorboards made under her feet hilarious, pressing up and down on the loudest ones while giggling. Most of all she loved the window. It was wide and sprawling, though its flaking wooden frame would need to be painted. Looking out to the farmland which bobbed and weaved over flats and small hills below, the window revealed an old oak tree that towered alongside a vacant barn nearby.
The summer sky bleached the world in blues, whites, and yellows; and yet, it was something much closer which fascinated my daughter. A thick web of ivy roots had thrust out of the soil decades earlier, climbing a carefully constructed wooden frame attached to the house, which rose as high as the roof. The ivy had clawed and fingered its way across the wooden slats of the farmhouse, almost entirely covering that side of the building.
The surrounding land was in full bloom, everything vibrant and green. The fields were swathed in tall crops which poked out of the soil like a million city dwellers standing still in the sun. Everything was alive and vivid, that was, except for the climbing ivy. Its vines were spindly, yet clung to the wooden frame of the house with deceptive strength. A vast sea of leaves brown and withered reached up across the wooden wall, encircling Kip’s window, though never touching the glass. There was something troubling about those vines, clashing against, almost strangling the possibilities of summer. Kip didn’t mind, in fact she was enamoured by them, having me open the window so she could caress the ‘golden’ leaves, as she saw them, which touched the sill.
The first night in the house was like any spent in a new place - unfamiliar creaks and sounds echoing out through the darkness. I am often a deep sleeper, but the uncertainty of the old building left me checking each bump and movement I heard throughout the night. I switched the lights on, checked the doors, and then looked in on Kip. She slept soundly, but I noticed that the window was still open, letting in the night’s cool breeze. I tried to shut it, but it felt jammed, the old flaking paint and grime freezing it into position after years of little use. I told myself I’d fix it in the morning, after all, Kip was two floors up and we were a quarter of an hour by car from any other house. I felt she would be quite safe with the window open.
Kip loved to lie in, and, as it was Saturday and our first full day at our new home, I let her sleep until 10 in the morning. When I entered her room with a bowl of cereal and glass of orange juice, I noticed how cold that big old room could get, even in the summer. Kip lay on her bed still asleep. I gently woke her, and it was then that she spoke those bewildering words:
‘Mr Leaves was here’.
I found the phrase amusing at first, but she seemed frightened, so we talked about it.
‘He scares me, daddy’, she offered, but didn’t want to say more. I comforted her saying that it was probably just a bad dream and that moving to a new place could be pretty scary by itself, but she still seemed uneasy. It was obvious to me that she was speaking about an imaginary friend, but the conversation disturbed me enough that I talked it over with my wife, worried that our daughter might not be adjusting well to the move; it’s hard for a kid to leave their friends and school behind at any age.
That day, more of our things from our previous home arrived. Slowly the house began to feel like ours and I enjoyed wandering around it, taking in the glorious view of the crops fields which surrounded us. In the late afternoon, I went up to Kip’s room with my toolbox, determined to close the window to stop her from catching a summer cold. As I chipped away at the dirt and flaked paint which had jammed the window open, I looked down and could see that Kip was playing away from the house, sitting on an old rope swing which hung from the oak tree not too far from the barn. She looked happy. Finally, the window budged and I was able to close it.
On the second night I didn’t sleep well at all, and by the morning I felt tired and uncomfortable. Something had changed to me. The house did not feel as cosy as it had done when we first arrived. The air had become closer and stifled, but I attributed that to a change of weather, even though the summer continued fresh and boundless outside.
Again, I let Kip sleep in for a while before bringing her breakfast. She was already awake when I entered, and when I asked her how she had slept, she replied: ‘Not good, daddy’. When I enquired why, she whispered: ‘Mr Leaves was watching me from outside, through the glass’. I looked over at the window for a moment, a chill running up my back.
‘Can you tell him to go away?’, Kip asked.
Again, I reassured her with some gentle words and a big hug, as any father would. Soon, she was playing on the swing again by the barn, enjoying herself and seemingly untroubled by her imagination.
For most of that day I tried to put my files in order. I was not due to start my work at the doctor’s office in town for another two weeks, but I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Erin took care of some business at the bank while Kip continued to smile and giggle as she always did, running around the house playing games. Most kids get bored during the summer holidays, but she always had a way of engaging with the world which meant she never had a dull a moment.
Then the night came. I remember it being just after two in the morning. It was dark, but something had pulled me from a heavy sleep. Uncertain at first as I opened my eyes to the darkness, I finally realised what it was: Kip was talking. I did not want to disturb Erin, and I knew it was probably just my daughter talking in her sleep as she had done in the past, but as I walked barefoot across the creaking floor towards her room, I kept thinking about those words: ‘Mr Leaves was watching me’.
As quietly as possible, I reached the door and could still hear her talking loudly, her words muffled slightly. I knocked and entered. The window was once again open, and Kip was leaning out of it chatting away. On asking her what she was doing, she turned slowly towards me and said: ‘I’m talking to Mr Leaves’. I rushed over to the window and saw nothing but the cool summer night and the climbing ivy fluttering slightly at the presence of a sudden breeze.
‘He keeps looking at me, daddy’, said Kip, as I put her back into bed.
I closed the window and slept in an armchair next to her until morning.
The following day the sun roared and split the sky. It was perfect weather, so I decided that it would be good to get Kip to help me with some outdoor chores, hoping that keeping her active would help her sleep more soundly at night. In the morning we cut and raked the front and back lawns. We then dug out some weeds around a flower bed. Kip and Erin found it hysterical when they soaked me with a hose while watering the plants.
Finally, I decided that Kip and I should take a look at the old barn. It had been included in the sale of the house, but hadn’t been used for years. I had only been in it once when viewing the property months previously, and that was just a quick peek without going inside. It was the house I was really interested in. To tell you the truth, I was not sure what to do with the barn.
Kip had been helping her mum wash the car when I took her hand and said: ‘Fair maiden, are you ready for an adventure?’
‘Yes!’ she replied with delight.
Erin smiled approvingly.
‘There be dragons nearby,’ I said loudly in my best pirate voice, ‘and only the swashbuckling sword skills of the legendary Lady Kip can defeat them. Okay, let’s go!’ I grabbed her hand and led her around to the side of the house where her window looked out, high above. Picking her up and putting her on my shoulders she laughed loudly.
‘Go, daddy, go!’
I ran forward towards the old barn, but as we passed the oak tree on the way, she suddenly stopped laughing. At first she asked quietly ‘where are we going?’, but after another few footsteps she suddenly burst into tears, shouting and pleading for us to go back to the house. I stopped immediately, shocked by her response, and gave her a big hug as my wife came running.
‘What’s wrong, honey?’, asked Erin.
Through tears and a shaking voice, Kip replied: ‘Daddy was taking me to the barn’.
‘And why did that upset you?’.
‘Mr Leaves! Mr Leaves!’ she yelled, continuing to sob and cry.
Erin comforted our daughter as I marched inside. I was going to put a stop to this nonsense. Grabbing my toolbox I ran up the stairs and into Kip’s room. In a few minutes the job was done and the window had been nailed shut. There would be no more talking to ‘Mr Leaves’.
After making Kip her favourite supper and letting her stay up a little later than usual to watch a film with us, Erin and I tucked her into her bed back upstairs. She did not seem upset any longer, and when we brought up the idea of her moving rooms, she swore to us that everything was fine. She really did love that room. Erin read her a story, we kissed her goodnight and then we went to bed.
I woke to the sound of screaming.
No one should underestimate the power of a child’s cry for help on a parent. I leapt out of bed and tore across the hallway in the dark, bursting into Kip’s room. She lay in the middle of the floor, sobbing in fear. My eyes had yet to adapt to the darkness, but as I instinctively stepped forward to pick my daughter up from the ground, I knew that I was not alone. A sharp pain seared across the back of my head as something hit me. I fell to the floor, dazed.
‘Daddy!’ kip screamed, as she clutched onto me for dear life.
The sound of clambering feet quickly followed, and as I rolled over I saw Erin running through the doorway. I tried to warn her, but the strike to the back of my head had left me both bloodied and sluggish. As any loving mother would, Erin ran to her family’s aid. A tall darkened figure then reached out from behind the door, grabbing my wife’s throat with grizzled, dirt-ridden hands, and smashing her head straight into a wall. Her body crumpled to the ground.
I staggered to my feet and began swinging my arms as hard as I could at the beast, but in such a daze, the warm trickle of blood running down the back of my neck, it was easy to be outfought. I tried my best dammit, I tried! Something smashed against my jaw, then my nose, crushing it into my face. I gasped and fell to the ground.
Kip held onto me once more, screaming, crying; her world undone. There was no comfort I could give, no offer of protection. The blood from my shattered nose filled my mouth as I lay on my back. I tried to rise once more, only to be battered again by an unseen force. Kip sobbed, and in that moment I knew - I had failed her.
The tall figure stooped in the darkness, grabbing Kip by her long locks of beautiful brown hair, and yanking her head backwards. She would not let go of me. Again, the figure pulled sharply, this time wrenching my daughter straight out of my arms and lifting her up by her hair. Kip screamed in agony.
The room was then bathed in a shower of shattered glass. I looked up and finally saw the beast which had my daughter by the hair. The creature which had set out to destroy my family - it was a man. Just a man. But the thing which had smashed through the window was anything but human. In the darkness, I saw them struggle. The man was powerful, no doubt, but his opponent was big and quick. It was the shape of a person, but as it moved I could hear the loud rustling of its construction.
The man let out a cry. A pitiful, begging sound, pleading for mercy. He dropped Kip to the ground.
Silence. Nothing but the rustling of leaves in the night.
One last gasp was heard as our attacker was dragged through the open window to his death.
I do not know how long I had passed out, but it was Erin who woke me. The attack had left her unconscious for a time, but she was okay. Helped to my feet, we both staggered over to where Kip was standing. She was leaning out of the window, crying. But they were not tears of fear or physical pain. It was a different sound, one which I knew all too well. It was a cry of grief and loss. Looking down to the ground below, the still dead corpse of our attacker lay in the dirt, covered by a blanket of leaves which slowly blew away into the distance.
We hugged each other and consoled Kip as she stared out into the night. ‘Mr Leaves…’ she whispered, ‘Mr Leaves…’
When the police arrived they quickly identified the intruder as James Grek, a man who was wanted for questioning in connection with a series of child rape accusations. He had been hiding in the old barn for a while, probably because the house had been empty for a number of years and he saw it as a place to lay low without being caught. When he saw that a family had moved in with a young daughter, he couldn’t resist the opportunity.
We quickly moved from the old farmhouse to a new place across town, but even then we didn’t last long. The memory of that night, being so close to where it all took place, was too much for Erin and me, but most of all we wanted to protect our daughter. Within six months we had left the town of Windarm for good.
Kip is now 10 years old, she’s happy and continues to surprise us day by day. She says she wants to be an explorer, ‘there’s all sorts of stuff out there, waiting to be found’, she says. After that night, I tend to agree with her.
I often think about what happened, and what it was that we saw. What saved us. The only hint of an explanation was given to me a month before we left Windarm. I was drinking in a local bar in the early evening and started chatting to an off-duty police officer who had attended the scene the night we were attacked.
‘It’s a shame you left the old farm. That place deserves a nice family’, he said, downing his sixth beer.
‘How can a place deserve anything?’ I asked.
‘I s‘pose it’s silly. I knew the previous owners. Mr and Mrs Dimitra, nice folks. Lived there for years, cared for the place.’
‘And what does that have to do with a family living there?’
‘Well, they loved kids, but never had any of their own. Dunno why, I don’t think they could. What I do know is that everyone round here loved both of ‘em. They always did nice things for the kids, helping out an such.’
‘I still don’t understand...’
‘They were always doin’ stuff for the kids of the town. Halloween, Christmas, whenever. And I just think it would’ve been nice if their old farmhouse went to a family with kids, that’s all. They’d ’ave liked that.’
It was then that I plucked up the courage - whether it was the alcohol or the timing, I don’t know - to ask the question I needed answered most. The question I hadn’t dared ask anyone for fear of ridicule. But by then I was leaving, so it didn’t matter if people thought me mad. I just had to know.
‘Have you ever heard of Mr Leaves?’, I asked nervously.
The man laughed. ‘Of course I have!’
I was shocked. Someone actually knew about that thing.
He continued: ‘When Mrs Dimitra passed away, the old man was heartbroken ‘bout losing his wife. He threw himself into volunteering around the town afterwards. You know the Windarm park in the middle of town?’
‘That was Mr Dimitra that did that. Used to be all overgrown with weeds and thorns, but he got the community interested in chippin’ in. So, we all sorted it out together. The old man could move mountains’, he said smiling before taking another slug of beer. ‘Anyway, he just worked away at fixing the park and planting trees, as well as keeping his own garden going before he passed away a few years ago.’
‘What does this have to…’ I said before being interrupted.
‘Really loved his gardening did Mr Dimitra, or as the kids called him, “Old Mr Leaves”.’