Jack didn’t know what to call the nameless, skeletal creature that slunk into her house in the dead of night, stealing the very things she loved the most. So she named him The Toy Thief…
There’s something in Jack’s past that she doesn’t want to face, an evil presence that forever changed the trajectory of her family. It all began when The Toy Thief appeared, a being drawn by goodness and innocence, eager to feed on everything Jack holds dear. What began as a mystery spirals out of control when her brother, Andy, is taken away in the night, and Jack must venture into the dark place where the toys go to get him back. But even if she finds him, will he ever be the same?
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
His body of work includes dozens of short stories, such as ‘Man of the People’, ‘Drawn’ and ‘Heavy’. He’s been featured in many publications, both online and in print, and he’s the author of nine novels and counting, including Still Dark, Daylight Dims, The Tree Man and Circle of Mist.
He lives with his wife and two children in Tennessee.
D.W. Gillespie is currently working on a dark fantasy novel that digs into some of the uncomfortable history of America, specifically the south.
Read an Excerpt
You're probably wondering what it was like being a girl named Jack. Both my parents named me, but not in the usual way. Dad told me, years after the fact, that Mom wanted to call me Jacqueline. A sweet name. A girl's name. He agreed, but I always got the sense that my name was something of a loss for him, like his team got kicked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round. It didn't really matter in the long term. He ended up getting his way when I ripped my way out of her. Babies do that sometimes. You don't know me very well, but believe me when I say I didn't kill her on purpose. I was just a ... difficult pregnancy, which naturally led to a difficult adolescence and difficult adulthood.
Was it the name or the lack of a mom that made me who I am? That's the question of course, the big one, the one I've been trying to answer ever since I was old enough to ask the question. It was just before summer, the long summer with me and Andy, when all that awful shit went down in that dark hole in the ground. Everything changed that summer, and once the dust finally settled, I think that was when the question actually occurred to me.
Why am I me?
People always ask me about my brother too, the usual stuff like what was he like, did you suspect anything, did he ever hurt you? I won't deny that it pisses me off, but I don't really blame them. I can't. Not because it's just human nature doing its thing, the words behind their eyes clawing, twisting out, like something kept in a cage for too long. No, I can't blame them.
Of course he hurt me. I hurt him too.
Brothers and sisters are just like that, the best and the worst of relationships, the entire world rolled into one. I can still remember the way we'd go at each other, the ways that only we could hurt each other, simply because we knew how to hurt each other. Insert knife here and twist it like so. Oh, he could hurt, and I could hurt even worse, and we could both make promises with hands on a Bible that we would die hating each other. So why did I go after him after he came up missing? And why did he risk everything for me? To have a sibling, especially a close one, is to have a greatest enemy and a truest friend, but it's always been like that, hasn't it?
When people ask about Andy, I get ruffled around the edges, but I've learned to smooth out and shake my head in good nature. Of course Andy hurt me, but there was more than just that. There was the time Billy Callahan ripped my skirt off. I was only eight at the time, just old enough to have a sense of sex as a vague, far-off thing that grownups did in the dark with their clothes off. I was flirty with Billy in that way all eight-year-old tomboys were flirty. I called him names, kicked dirt on his shoes, told him to eat shit when he pushed me down.
I liked him. He was 11. I think he liked me too.
Then one day at the creek behind his house, he told me he wanted to see my panties, and I froze up, all of the silly flirting evaporating like a puddle in the middle of summer. I didn't know about sex, not really, but I got the sense that Billy did, and when I told him I didn't want him to see my panties, he grabbed a handful of my hair and started twisting it. I knew, just knew, that he was about to pull a clump of it out by the roots, skin and all. He didn't though. He just pulled me close and reached down for my skirt and ripped it clean off. I pulled away, stumbling down into the mud and grass, ass straight up in the air. He got a good enough look that day. One of his friends was laughing at the dirt stains on my underwear, sing-songing, "Jack shit her pa-ants."
I didn't even know Andy was there. He might have been hiding, watching it all unfold, waiting for the right moment. Or maybe he just walked up at the perfect time. I never knew for sure. He had a half-rotten stick as thick as a Coke can, and when he swung it into the side of Billy's head, it exploded in a shower of bark and termites. Billy's friend stopped laughing just long enough for Andy to raise it back up and catch him under the chin in another cascade of wormy wood.
Both looked up, saw Andy, and they knew. Without words between them, the boys crawled away and Andy stomped off toward the little clearing near the creek bed, his favorite hiding spot. He never even glanced back to see if I was okay, but I didn't expect him to. Andy never was much of a talker.
* * *
A while back we had a little baby shower for a girl at work, a sweet gal as round as she is tall, a plump face like a bullfrog. They dragged her husband in for the whole thing, him feigning a smile as they opened the presents one after another, a pile that grew like mushrooms after a week of rainstorms. I had never done the whole shower thing before that. Never had a reason to. I can still remember strolling into the baby toy store, printing off the registry, and just marveling at all of it. I was pushing 30 then, babyless, likely for good unless something drastic popped up. Whenever I met someone, I always felt like I was breaking bad news to them.
"That's right, not a single baby."
"Who knows why? Could be that I'm completely unfuckable. Maybe my pussy just don't know how to grow one."
People don't like a woman that jokes like that. Believe me, I've learned the hard way. So I'd smile, the fingers on my right hand itching, and somewhere, in some far-off place, God would start laughing.
Anyway, the whole baby industrial complex was new to me, and the sight of the place put my jaw on the floor, for more than one reason. One, because I had no clue that such a place even existed, that there was this hidden economy, an entire ecosystem that could keep this place, this shrine to the newly born, afloat.
And two ...
I've seen that many toys before, and the memory nearly put me on the floor. Toys, stacks of them, new and old, stretching as far as the eye could see in that subterranean place, that nightmare. And somewhere, hidden in the back, I could see him, the Toy Thief, tall and gaunt, crawling on the ceiling toward me like a pale spider. I couldn't do it, so I stumbled out of the baby store, back into the sunlight, to lean against the concrete wall and let the moment pass.
One breath in. One breath out.
Soon, the world returned. That dark place was gone. I saw the smoke rising from it. I set the fires myself. It was just a bad dream. Eventually, when I found the nerve, I ventured back into the aisles, staring with wide eyes at the rows of factory-produced rattles, dolls, and battery-powered things that spit out an endless prattle of nursery rhymes. Would these toys ever mean anything? Would Frog Face's child bond with them the way I did with my toy?
My only toy?
I tossed a few rubber duckies into the cart and followed them with a pack of diapers. After paying, I drove home and drank shitty vodka until I was woozy enough to sleep. It took a lot of vodka.
* * *
My memory is shit nowadays, but I've tried to think about Andy when we were at our youngest, delving deeper into my subconscious, trying to unearth the earliest memory I can. I do this from time to time in the hopes of uncovering something good, only to come up time and again with something horribly frustrating.
The mouse, for instance.
I don't know for sure if it's my earliest memory, but I've convinced myself that it must be. I mean, it shines brighter than its siblings, and it's not very hard to see why. Andy had started a little bonfire down by the creek – his hidey-hole we used to call it. The little flat spot was ringed with trees and shrubs and was surprisingly well hidden, even though it was maybe a hundred feet from the nearest house. Pissing distance as Dad used to say. The only thing was, no one could get in there without some serious effort. For a kid, that meant crawling through about 50 feet of drainage pipe or going hands and knees under a thorny wall of brush. Once inside, there was a good 10-yard square of patchy grass, smooth gravel, and slick creek bed. It was a wonderful place to smoke a stray cigarette or peruse a dirty magazine – a Playboy if you were lucky, an Easy Rider if you weren't.
I can remember seeing the smoke from the back porch, which wasn't really a porch in the literal sense, just red bricks in a stack with a metal pipe jammed in for a handrail. Dad was quite the homemaker. I had borrowed one of Dad's lighters, using it to melt crayons onto the porch, watching the colors swirl and blend like beautiful little starbursts. I think my original plan was to mix the colors together and make one big supercrayon, a brick of color that would leave kaleidoscopic comet tails across a blank piece of paper. Once the thick globs started to drip onto the bricks, the plan went out the window. I just couldn't stop myself. I held the lighter until my thumb nearly blistered because I wanted to watch the crayons all disappear, like that feeling you get as a kid when the bathtub drain makes a tornado. It's so small, but maybe, just maybe, it could suck you down into that lime-crusted darkness.
I looked down at the blob of color, like a pile of Halloween vomit, and when I glanced up, wisps of smoke were rising from the circle of bushes that hid Andy's secret spot. He had his own lighter, several to be honest, and he liked to burn just about anything he could get his hands on. Curious, I trotted down there, across the empty road on bare feet, the bottoms gone black with dirt.
He had a pile of sticks, trash, whatever he could find, all of it stacked in the center, a small pyre fueling a weak flame. A plastic drink bottle caught with a whoosh and a thread of black began to rise and vanish overhead. He had a sharpened stick, digging around in there like he always did, only more focused than usual. His back to me, he was fiddling with something, a gleaming piece of metal that shined just on top of the fire.
"What are you up to?" I asked, and he jumped half a foot off the gravel before turning on me with guilty eyes.
"You? Nothing. Just get back to the house," he said. Andy always did like to bark orders, but if he ever knew how much he sounded like Dad, he probably would have knocked it off. I ignored him, same as always, and peered into the fire. There was a tiny little can in there that probably held cat food or maybe dog food for the world's smallest mutt. Something was inside, and Andy was tipping it back and forth like a chef.
"What's in there?" I asked on my tiptoes.
"Nothing! I said get!"
But it was too late. I realized now why he was so mad. Not because he was embarrassed, but because he was scared. There was a mouse inside, a dead one to be sure. I never knew when or how it had died, but even then, I had my suspicions. The dawning realization seemed to instantly wake up the rest of my senses, and all at once, I could smell the fur, hear the crackle of juices dribbling onto the scalding tin.
I never said a word, but I just stood there, mouth open, wondering what sort of satisfaction he was getting out of this strange moment.
"I hate you," he blurted out, kicking at the fire and knocking the better part of it into the creek to fizzle out. He stormed off through the bushes and refused to talk to me for the rest of the night. That was the part I remembered: the stark, cold realization that the people you love might not be who you think they are.
I think I grew up a little that day, but there was something else. Something I had forgotten, or maybe chosen to forget. It came to me one night in my twenties, when I had a dream about a burned man lying in bed next to me. He drew back the sheets and showed me his sides, all charred and peeling, and he asked me to touch him. I did, and the tips of my fingers caused the skin to split and a wall of white fluid pressed out, spilling onto the bed like old milk.
It was an awful dream, but I've never been one to put much stock in dreams, to chop them up and sift through the pieces, trying to see what might be inside. No, it was just a bad dream, but it did trigger something. A memory of that day with the mouse. Andy had stormed away, leaving me alone with the remains of his fire. Despite his kick, the coals still burned red hot, and the tin can was resting on one side just next to them. I remembered picking up a stick and tilting the can onto its bottom. The mouse was still there, the singed fur stuck to the edge of the can. With the tip of the stick, I pressed it against the humped back, which split, spilling a ribbon of white ooze into the empty can.
It was awful, a truly horrific moment, like attending your first funeral once you're old enough to know just what it means.
I kept watching anyway.
* * *
Dad wasn't much of a talker either. Most nights, he'd plow in with a handful of sacks from KFC or McDonald's, or maybe even a stack of pizzas, drop them on the table, and say "Get it while it's hot." Then he'd load up, testing the structural integrity of his paper plate, bending it with the weight of his food. Construction work makes a man hungry, to hear him tell it. Then Andy and I would do the same, pouring ourselves plastic cups of too-red Kool-Aid, nuclear fallout in liquid form. Our stovetop gathered dust, and eventually we even started storing linens in the oven. It was clean, so why waste the space? I can't remember ever seeing him cook, but I do remember eating chicken noodle soup whenever I was sick – microwaved, I assume.
In the days before DVRs, we would watch whatever was on, occasionally popping in a VHS copy of Ghostbusters or ET or the handful of horror movies we'd taped. The TV remote was a piece of junk that sucked batteries dry in what felt like a few weeks. Dad would stomp around in the kitchen, sifting through the junk drawer, swearing up and down that he'd just bought a pack of double As.
"To hell with it," he'd inevitably say. "We're just watching a movie tonight."
If it was a TV night and Andy and I couldn't agree, the old man acted as judge and jury, dropping the gavel and declaring that he would pick tonight. That usually meant whatever sitcom was on the networks, and that was just that.
When he got too tired to hold open his eyes, he'd circle the room, kissing my forehead and scruffing Andy's hair before heading off to his room and leaving the rest to us. No bedtimes. No homework checks. Just one big roommate and two little ones. I can't remember him ever tucking me in, but I know he must have at some point. There were years there when I was too young to do anything for myself, and as far as I know, it was all him. I try to picture those wide, granite-cut fingers holding a bottle, and my imagination just fails me.
He did always, and I mean always, tell us he loved us before he retreated to his room. And I always believed him. Maybe it was because I was the youngest. Maybe it was because I was a girl, whatever that has to do with it. Regardless of the reason, I believed him when he said it. I think, in some small but essential way, that simple fact accounts for so much of the difference between Andy and me. Everything that's happened, every choice the two of us have made, has been shaded by the fact that I believed it and Andy maybe didn't.
There was always something sad about my father's bedroom, something that made me want to stay out of there as much as I could. It was musty and musky in equal parts, a mixture of undusted clutter and aftershave. It was always dark, the sheets over the windows in that room only, a yellowed glow peeking in around the sides like the edges of sun around an eclipse. That accounted for some of the melancholy, but mostly it was the bed. It was huge, bigger than mine and Andy's put together, wide enough to fit four easily. There was a hollow where he lay every night, a perfect mold of his tall, heavy frame. It wasn't in the center like you might imagine, but over to one side, so close to the edge he would have tumbled off if he rolled over in the night. Next to him, tucked messily under the blankets and sheets, was a line of pillows for him to drape an arm over. It wasn't the bed of a bachelor, a man who never shared a bed. No, my father had shared his bed for 10 years, and he was still sharing his bed long after his wife was gone, long after I, his sweet daughter, came into the world and took her away.
What a day that must have been. To gain and lose everything in the same, awful moment, your entire life cut into two. Before and after. And your daughter, your sweet little angel, was the knife that sliced your world in two. Whenever I worked up the courage to peek in that room, all I could see was all that I had taken away from him. I was the reason that bed was half empty, and for that reason alone, I stayed far away.
Despite all the reasons he had to hate me, my father was a good man. He didn't know what he was doing, and there were certainly times I hated him because of it, but I'm too old for that silly shit now. None of us know what we're doing. All I'm left with now is the question. Yes, he was a good man, but if my mom were still around, could he have been a great one?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Toy Thief"
Copyright © 2018 D.W. Gillespie.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Tell us about the book?
The Toy Thief is the story of a young girl named Jack and her brother, Andy. It’s a bit of an exploration into how we all end up the way we are, the whole nature vs nurture argument. In Jack’s case, she has grown up without her mother while Andy can still remember having her around. I go into the dynamics of how that has affected both of them and how those single moments can change the entire trajectory of a family.
Oh, and also, there’s a monster that sneaks into their house and steals toys.
What sort of monster?
I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a creature called The Toy Thief that plays heavily into the book. Do you ever wonder how things just seem to vanish from your house even though you knew where they were? Maybe a pack of batteries shows up missing, even though you knew exactly where you put them? It might have been The Toy Thief.
He’s a creature that comes and goes as he pleases, gliding in and out of houses without ever being seen. The reason? To feed a hunger for innocence and goodness that can never truly be sated, like a junkie looking for his next fix. His drug of choice? Children’s favorite toys.
Did you base your characters on anyone you knew?
Jack and Andy weren’t based on anyone per se, but they were inspired by an idea. My kids are young at the moment, a bit younger than the characters of the book, and as a father, I realize how delicate the balance of family is. How would they change if something rocked their lives off the track they’re on now? Would they even resemble the same people as adults?
So, to answer the original question, the characters have bits and pieces of me, my siblings, and my kids mixed in as well. None of it is exact, but I think that Jack in particular is one of the best characters I’ve written.
Any particular influences in this book?
Beyond my family, I’d say The Toy Thief in general definitely has a Guillermo Del Toro sort of feel to him. I’m not a visual designer myself, but I like to try to give just enough detail in all my books to let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves. I would love to see someone with a style and imagination like Del Toro bring The Toy Thief to life.
Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?
Find what works for you. Everyone has their own method, and the only way you find it is to get in there and practice. Read a few books about writing if you’re into it, but don’t overdo it. That time would better be spent doing your own writing, in my humble opinion.
Where do you write usually?
I have an office job along with two kids to take care of. When it’s all said and done, the main time I have to really sink into something and get lost in it is at lunch. Over the past decade, I’ve written about seven books, all of them in my car during my lunch break. It’s become a bit of a running joke at work…if you ask me to go eat lunch with you, you’ll probably be disappointed.
I do think there’s a good lesson in that for me. Even though I hope to write full time at some point in my life, writing has nothing to do with a nice office or a fancy desk. You can do it anywhere if you want to.
Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?
Occasionally, I’ll write to music, but never anything with lyrics. Usually, I write in silence so that I don’t get distracted. I do, however, have one tradition that I’ve kept up for the last four or five books I’ve written. I like to find a “theme song” for whatever book I’m working on, and I listen to it over and over again riding to and from work. It really helps me to visualize the book, almost like I’m watching a movie trailer for it in my head.
Which part of the writing process do you prefer? First drafts? Edits?
I think a big part of me maturing as a writer is getting out of the first draft mentality. I used to hate edits because it always felt like I was spinning my wheels. I always wanted to get on to the next thing.
On the past few books, a big change has hit me. Edits can still be tough, especially when you’ve already read through it multiple times, but now I’ve finally seen how vital a part of the process it is. A book that’s only half edited is completely throw away. All that potential is wasted just because I, or any author, didn’t want to put in the time to really make it shine. In other words, editing is writing.
How much planning do you do on your books?
It varies from project to project. I’ve written enough books that I now have a certain number of things nailed down. I generally know how long a draft should take, how long to wait before editing, things like that. What I do like to play around with is style and voice from project to project. Some books lend themselves to really well planned outlines, while others sort of bloom as I go.
What are you writing now?
I always have a few things in progress, but my next big project is a dark fantasy novel that digs into some of the uncomfortable history of America, specifically the south. I don’t want to go too far into it just yet, knowing how things can change, but I look forward to wrapping it up in the coming months.