A recent story one of my BFF’s and I wrote together. A publisher for an anthology passed on it (and my other ghost story, too. I finally found the email. which means I’ll be posting that one up eventually, too.) it’s written in two perspectives, Adelina and Vera, two single moms (and characters we used to role-play on journals in a World of Darkness setting, I TOLD YOU I WAS A NERD.) both first person. It’s about 15k words, so it’s kind of a commitment. It was partly inspired by a weird place in the hills of NJ.
And yes, it’s horror. Do you even know me?
Two single moms leave their lives behind
and start over, but …
We drove all night until I could barely keep my eyes open. We were driving to our new home. We were finally getting away from our old lives; lives we held onto for too long.
I envied the two heaps of children in the backseat, nestled comfortably in sleep in the rear view mirror anytime I’d glance up to peak at Miles and Sylvia. I did it more than I needed to, as if they’d vanish into the void of the back window, into the road beyond. My son was there safely tucked into his car seat every time, with his favorite fleece blanket splattered with outer space, goofy planets and the faces of stars. He had it gathered into the curl of his small hand, where there were a cluster of galaxies, probably dreaming of something I’ll never comprehend. He was surrounded by our lives– clear plastic totes on sale at Wal-Mart full of clothes and towels, garbage bags of my clothes and his, purses I’ve hardly ever used filled with socks I never wear–girl-potions and makeup. I smiled because the baby fat underneath his chin bunches up when he falls asleep, and back there with his head tilted faintly to the right to lean on the side of the car seats’ head-cushion, he looks like a glowing puddle of just a tiny face wedged in outer space by what looks like the wild nose of mars and the grey, pocked surface of the moon’s smile.
My caffeine level from whatever nowhere roadside gas stop we’d filled up at last time was dropping, and so I’d pulled in to refuel both the car and my brain, the latter with some semblance of sensibility. I went in and let Vera watch the cars and the kids, in with my knee-ripped leggings and t-shirt that said, “Satan is waitin’.” In this miniature bible-thumping town that either takes that too seriously, or could find some way to be offended by it, I remember thinking twice about going in with it, but I ended up doing it anyway.
There was French roast, hazelnut, decaf, and ‘dark delight.’ They were all stacked up in missile-shaped containers on the dirty counter, accidentally sprinkled with powdered creamer, and flecks of errant sugar and dried up nacho cheese. There was only one option for creamer aside from the powder, and that was the warm half-gallon of whole milk that had no cap on it, which had probably been sitting out all day. No thanks.
The odor of burnt coffee either excited me or made me want to heave. Something about how dirty this place was made me feel like I was doing something that I shouldn’t be or making a huge mistake. I liked that. I didn’t like how long it took to line the toilet seat with paper towels so I could sit to pee, but I liked the grimy stench of too-strong coffee.
On the wall of the bathroom were the usual vague declarations of life: Sarah sucks dick, love yourself, I love Tom, and an arrow pointing to Tom’s name with somebody else’s handwriting that said no thanks, I’m a lesbian! brief autobiographies on a yellowing wall, a place that probably still allows smoking indoors, a place time and the entire world forgot.
I was some dirty nobody after midnight getting dark delight coffee just like Tom might have been, once upon a time, coffee from a place run by a guy who looked like Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Usually, I’d be afraid to drink it, afraid I’d get dysentery and die like I always ended up doing on the Oregon Trail game as a kid, but not tonight. Not anymore. My boots stuck to the old floor I trundled on, hot-faced with lack of sleep, dry-eyed and sticking the two cups of coffee for me and Vera onto the counter by where Riff Raff sat on an old, splintering stool behind it like a creep show fortune teller with a bulbous red nose like the face of mars on my kids blanket. Long, filthy white hair lay limp on his shoulders like sheets. I followed his eyes to the words on my shirt, his lips mouthed quietly “Satan is waitin’” with a furrow of his goblin brows, which were like peppery caterpillars. I remember them jaundiced and bloodshot where his eyes may have used to be a healthy white. He took a moment to process what he’d read. And then he’d looked straight up at me, at first mutely and narrow eyed, and then all of a sudden he smiled, him and his one, singular tooth, and said as if in celebration: “Snow storm’s comin’ north soon.”
“Sounds like fun. Gives me a reason to stay inside and drink hot chocolate and vodka. Maybe cook old-timey food, like soup or something. Not from a can, from scratch.” I said, and handed him the money for the coffee, which was some change I’d took out for tolls, and because I’d expected places like this to be cash only. I wondered who else had had this change, or if it’d circulated here before, or if this is where it’d stay forever.
When I begin to leave, he makes sure to warn me: “Snow’s not fun for everybody.”
I envied the anonymity of the people living in that spilled powdered milk, coagulated nacho cheese, and sugar of a town, where no one’s ever heard of me and I’ve never heard of them. Not that i’m anybody.
It felt nice to leave it behind, to walk out of that store knowing that I’m going somewhere else that I have somewhere else to go. I think too much in places like that because there’s not much else to do but think. The land is barren.
“Dark delight. You’re not a hazelnut.” I said to Vera, handing her the coffee, and I realized that that guy probably had made it himself. Him and his one tooth dumbly smiling at nothing, filling the filter after it dropped on the floor a few times, using his hand to scoop it out. No, I assure myself. That’s not how it happened, and then I add, “I wouldn’t trust any of the creamer, it was warm whole milk left out who knows how long, and powdered something-gross, so…”
We left shortly thereafter.
The rest of the way was rough for me. I listened to “The Shining” on an Audiobook until my eyes watered from staring forward at a black road. The deep sound of the man reading it was soothing, too soothing, almost putting me in a trance. In fact, I think it did. I couldn’t keep my own thoughts from wandering to the isolated mountains that the Torrance Family had went to. I’d be too afraid to stay in a place like that, unless the money was impressive. And then, suddenly as they’re wont to do, thoughts of him, my ex, descended on me, like a spider web drifting down from a ceiling. The kind of guy you think will change, you think your conversations are special, the love could be real this time, unconditional, but there’s always a condition, there’s always a wager, and maybe I should’ve told him about Miles. Maybe I should now. I haven’t spoken to him in as long as Miles has been alive, which has been a few years. I never even told him that he’s a father. I want to have the courage to do that, someday.
I pulled up into my driveway around four A.M; our driveway now, the single mothers’ club and our cubs. It felt so surreal. A one-story Cape Cod with brick and dollhouse windows, it was perfect, even if the plants were dead and the yard unkempt, bright perennials were hiding for spring to pull them through. The lawn was overgrown, but it didn’t matter, more snow was coming anyway. I just wanted to be inside. I wanted to sleep and wake up and memorize the map of the house with my hands and my eyes. I wanted to know every corner and creak.
As I came out of the car to stretch on my tip-toes, reaching up as far as I could, breath tufts of winter dust and my arms losing the warmth of the heater in the car, I could’ve sworn I saw something behind the living room window. But I was tired. I was light-headed.
I thought it was only my imagination.
The coffee tasted black. I don’t mean that there was no creamer in it. Though that’s true. I mean that it tasted like an abyss. It was bitter and mean. It was grave black. It felt as if it were chewing holes inside of me while I sipped on it, but out of boredom or some sense of guilt, I continued to torture myself and my stomach by drinking it. I couldn’t stop sipping the black. It turned cold too. At one point, I’d wondered if it would ever cool down, but then there I was, drinking down an icy, black cup of mud. Cold black.
I was wide-awake, but it’s not the caffeine that was buzzing through me. It was impatience. It was sitting in the car. I hate sitting still. I am always in such a hurry to get where I am going and then once I get there I am in a hurry to leave. I have always been restless. That didn’t improve as I aged, or after I had Sylvia, and now that I am making a fresh start with Adelina, it doesn’t seem like it will settle down all at once either.
The audio book was lost on me. I stopped paying attention to it ages ago. I wouldn’t be able to recall what it was about or even the title. Sometimes I drifted back and heard the words, or caught a few sentences about this or that, but then I’d look out the window again and watched the dark smudge of the tree line animate beside me. I watched the bright white of the road border hitchhike along with us. Sometimes Adelina was distracted by something and ran the tires over the rumble strips. She always jerks the car back onto the smooth quiet pavement, and it’s always a jolt that I appreciated as much as I hated it.
Funny, how the kids sleep through things like that. They’d barely twitch. They were so lost in sleeping and growing. Right then, cells were splitting and extending inside of them. Their genesis is still not complete. They were still evolving. I’ve already crossed that border between growing up and growing old. Now, I’m just dying. And I’m not sure when uphill becomes downhill.
Then, suddenly we were headed off the highway, turning and rolling to a stop in a little driveway. I look back at the kids. When the car stops their eyes narrowly open, sensing the change, sensing the stillness, but then they’re right back in it. Miles lets a few vowels escape, but he was still sound asleep.
I got out of the car too. My legs felt like jelly. Pins and needles surged and I walked in a circle, trying to get the blood pumping. “Let’s get the stuff tomorrow.” I’d suggested. It was late and I was ready to collapse. I didn’t want to carry all our stuff in and then the two babies. We can do that later. What’s the rush?
I was not even in a rush to disturb Sylvia. She seemed peaceful and I knew that when I opened the door and took her out, there would be a chance that she’d cry. She doesn’t like to wake up. She wouldn’t have liked that we were in a strange place and for that I don’t blame her. There’s something startling about waking up in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s happened to me too often. Maybe that was symbiotically transmitted to her.
I didn’t bother about the coffee cup, but I did grab my purse and the small duffle bag that had some necessities for Sylvia and me. With a sigh, I’d opened the door and unstrapped her from the car seat. I plucked her out and wrapped her in my arms. She started like I thought she might, but she’d mumbled something incoherent and then settled her head against my shoulder.
“I have to pee.” I’d said, just so Ads would know that it’s impending and not to take too long getting her keys or getting Miles. Ever since I’ve had Sylvia my ability to hold my water like an iron trap has been diminished. When I have to go I have to go all at once. There is no warning. It’s now or never.
I remember how winter felt on my skin. It seemed to squeeze like winter always does, inundating me into the cold too quickly. It leaked slowly into my bones through the boots, up my sleeves, like water finding it’s way through a hole in a sinking ship. The then distant memory of the warm, temperature-controlled environment and the hypnotism of the audiobook withered like the flowers in our new front yard. I felt frozen on the nose, dry on the lips, but I smiled when she said that she had to pee, because I had to pee, too.
I privileged her with a sarcastic glower from over the insect graveyard stuck onto the roof of the unfortunately, usually pill-white car, which pronounced each unrecognizable homicide scene of bug like coffee stains on skirts. I imagined my gaze illustrated each of the blue crescent bags of my sleepless eyes; I can still remember how tired I felt, how tired it makes me feel now to remember.
“Same.” And my voice was a neon, alien sound to me, wispy, as if I hadn’t heard it outside of my own thoughts in centuries. There was the metallic clang of the four keys, two sets, all looped into my keychain as I swept them out of my pocket and searched for the one for the front door. One was a tabby cat, grinning like tabby cats do, the other was a skull with a pink bow at its temple. The others were a plain, dirty gold brass. I’m was in my head somewhere else when I heard the sound of keys.
I was alone in my apartment sitting next to the kitchen window, where I’ve ripped the screen and thrust my hand outside into the cold, reaching into the firmament of a clear, black night. Maple trees canopy and conceal the clusters of stars giggling behind them, and I am smoking an American spirit and drinking an espresso flavored vodka with some ice, in a fancy little Moroccan glass, pink and gold, if my memory serves me correctly. They given to me by the friend that Miles is named after, when he came back from one of his many excursions overseas. He called it his ‘gypsy gymnastics’ and never told me what he meant by that. I still have that set of glasses, and I could imagine that it meant accomplishing simple feats in an overly exaggerated, and therefore seemingly sophisticated, manner. Miles had a way of making mundane occurrences magical. That’s why I’d thought his friend would be exciting, and maybe even the one, too. Instead, he’s just my kid’s dad. And he doesn’t even know. I lied to Miles, my son, and tell him that he’ll be back someday, that he’s out doing gypsy gymnastics. If there’s a hell, I hope I rot there someday for the lies I’ve told. I deserve it. But someday, I promise I will make up for it.
And then I’m at a bar with his dad, memories, and dreaming while awake, having too much wine, spilling ranch dressing onto the thigh of my jeans and he’s sneaking his hand onto my leg. Not too far up, either. Just at the knee; just a hint, like a sip.
Then I’m there again where I belong, where I’m supposed to be, with Vera, my son, Sylvia. I’m outside of the car looking into the backseat, savoring the few seconds that I have to plan how to dismantle the bomb in the backseat, because I wanted him to continue sleeping instead of explode awake. I looked over at Vera and conveyed a significant, quiet message with just my eyes that I wanted her to wish me luck, because we’d all suffer if the kids woke up and we had to stay awake with them. It’s the unspoken hesitation that we share, that all mothers have in waking up their kid, which made me smile then.
I opened the door and Miles’ eyes fluttered, I know him well enough by now to know that he struggles to wake up, but loves to be awake. He loves being back with me, and I admit that I miss him when he’s gone, too. Him and his pool of planets and stars, and deep, fairy tale sleep that eludes all adults with age and at the onset of having your own worries. He was easy to unbuckle and I gathered him up.
I planned on ditching everything we don’t need in the car. It can freeze to death waiting for our naps to end. Our mascara and tweezers, tampons and collection of all the books we’re too sentimental to let go of, even if we’ve read them and probably never will again. The only thing that I leaned in to grab, as his eyes opened and he began to start pointing at things and babbling softly, was a bag of toiletries for he and I, food for when we all wake, and another small blanket.
“The pack ‘n’ plays.” I’d said, because I’d forgotten we had those to take in, and I’d sighed with wide eyes, making my eyes feel drier in the cold. With my hands full of stuff, I’d followed the pathway to the door, peeking at the evenness of the brick and listening to the early morning echo of my shoes thud against it. I unlocked the door so that I could dump all of the stuff down onto the hardwood floor inside, and get the bedding for the kids ready. I just wanted to sleep. Miles was leaning on my shoulder, trying to stay awake. Thankfully, he was failing.
Over to the right, the kitchen was clean and empty, and all the drawers were open. I could see that all the cabinets were opened as well, and the house was awfully cold. I wondered who would leave the kitchen opened like that, maybe letting it air out from being cleaned? Maybe to show that they were nice landlords, and that they’d had the courtesy to clean it at all? It was strange, but I easily overlooked it.
The movers would be there sometime in the afternoon with our furniture. The only things that we had there were one king sized bed, a few fold-up chairs, and some other little things. We had a friend drive it over from the old apartment. I smelled either lavender or wood cleaner, everything echoed.
“Go pee, I’ll watch the kids till you get back. Then I’ll get their pack ‘n’ plays. Then if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get 2 hours.”
“Fuck the pack ‘n’ plays.” I told her without hesitation. “We’ll all cuddle together in a bed. I bet they’ll sleep longer and we need the rest. We can retrain them tomorrow night.” For me it was worth a little bit of a headache to rest. I needed rest. I wanted rest.
When Sylvia is with me she sleeps longer. It’s the skin on skin sensation. If we’re all piled in together the kids will sleep longer. Maybe only an hour more, but we could get lucky. Two hours could’ve stretched into five.
The closer I got to a bathroom the heavier the feeling got. There’s a point where there’s no turning back and you have to act fast or piss your pants. So, I took Ads up on her offer, depositing Sylvia in my friends strong and capable grip and basically do a running shuffle into the bathroom, thighs tightened to stop anything from escaping, knees bent, cheeks flushed. My pants were pulled down and my ass hovered just in time. I had to groan, because it felt like such a relief to finally empty it all. Then I lingered. I was tired and I wasn’t in a hurry. We’d arrived and there was no need for me to put myself on fast forward. There was toilet paper, thankfully, but no soap at the sink. I ran my hands under the water. Better than nothing.
Then I saw myself in the mirror. I looked terrible. My eyes were underlined with two crescent smudges underneath. My face seemed puffy. My eyebrows had grown out like weeds. I put some cold water on my face and it felt better, but I didn’t look better. “Come on Pin.” I told myself. “You can do better than this. You haven’t gotten laid since… ”
Just like that there were memories. They were brief, because our time together was not long. It was over before it began. Now, I have Sylvia forever. But I want more. I want to be touched.
I thought that I saw the shower curtain move in the mirror and I had turned to it. It was definitely swaying a little, as if something had moved past it. I’d hitched my breath and took a peek in the tub. There was just a spider by the drain. It had paused, and it moved it’s front legs as if bowing at me. It was just cleaning itself. I thought about washing it down the drain, but in the end I’d just left it alone. Like us, it was just trying to survive.
But then the door had opened by itself. I expected to see Ads or one of the kids, but there was no one. I’d moved back out into the living room area where she’s waiting. “We’re going to have to make a nest for us all.” I reached for the kids. Holding both is harder than it looks.
They smelled fresh, sweet and sour, like candy left to swelter in a hot room, melting inside its wrapper. It’s a habit of mine to lean my nose onto the side of Miles’ head, then Sylvia’s, where the hair is soft and the skin is warm, and faintly kiss with a string of three pucker sounds. And in that kiss I am smeared by their scent. I have never known joy or heartache as deeply and at the levels I now experience until I had a child. It’s that scent that summons the idea of it at all. The heartache of knowing they’ll leave someday, and the joys of knowing you have them at least for now.
The kids have always been close; in a way they’re like siblings. They haven’t lived together until now, but they’ve been a part of each other through Vera and I’s friendship, and will continue to long after we’re six feet under or ashes in the eye of the moon. Or, at least I hope so.
My arms ached as much as my eyes did, and when I blink my eyelids felt sticky, heavy; they wanted to shut, to sleep. I peered down a hallway to inspect the paint, find any flecks of dust the kids can put into their mouths, thinking of where we could all sleep. I had no idea where Cillian had put the bed, but I’d told him it didn’t matter where he put it, because we could move it if we didn’t like where he’d put it anyway. I’d hoped that the king bed would comfortably fit us all. It was just a mattress on the ground with no box spring, some blankets but no pillows yet. Perfect for if the kids roll off on accident, but we’d create the best fortress possible with our bodies to keep them in the bed with us. The bed was the only thing there besides a few bowls, toilet paper, and one towel in the kitchen. It’d be like a camp out, I’d thought.
You ever go camping? He’d asked me once, I’m light and softer than petals from red wine, feeling better than I have in years because at the end of the long hours of my dead-end job, I can text him and he comes over. He never hesitated.
No, I told him, because I hadn’t and quite frankly the idea never appealed to me.
We’ll have to go camping, then. Out where all there is, are clusters of stars, fresh air, the sound of where we came from, he said, and sounding like a cult leader. What did it mean by ‘the sound of where we’re from’? Nature? I distinctly remember laughing when he’d said that, because I’d thought it was so nerdy.
Where we came from? I’d asked, and he was drunk, he had to be. He doesn’t talk like that unless he is, or unless there’s a crowd. Even then, it’s best to catch him after a few drinks, which is when the real talk comes out.
Where we came from and where we’re going, he’d said.
And then I was back here, in the house, and his child was smiling at me, and Sylvia was, too. The scent of them still smeared on me.
Suddenly, Miles had waved and said “Hey, sweetie!” which was something he’d learned from me, and in his own way of course which sounds a lot different, a lot smaller. He was not looking at me, or at Sylvia, or at Vera who had by then finished, flushed and began the fatigued trek back to the pack, the pack that should’ve perhaps always been together.
He was looking behind me when he said it, and then the front door opened, letting in a cool breeze. He doesn’t usually say that unless somebody is there. No one was there when I glanced back.
I shut and locked the door, again. This time making sure it was shut all the way. Must’ve been the wind, I’d thought.
We built our nest once she returned, once I’d handed over the kids and went to the bathroom myself, and we’d fell into the sort of sleep that is not unlike comfortably sinking beneath warm waves as sharks.
We woke up to the sound of laughing and banging against glass. How Miles had managed to get into the window is still beyond us.
“MILES!” As I tossed off piles of blankets and sprang up, I could see the beginning of the snow outside. We should’ve had enough food to last, especially for them, but now I wonder. I grabbed him, and noted that I’d have to go out soon and get some supplies.
Sleep was miraculous. I hate going to bed. I hate going to sleep. Like a petulant child, I always fight with it. I am afraid to close my eyes, to drift off into some unknown place. I have a phobia that I might not wake up. Sometimes I wonder if, when you are dreaming, there isn’t a membrane that keeps you from the other side. When you die, you break on through to the other side. I think that because I definitely have a world I visit when I sleep. I have common places, common themes. There are people that only visit me when I’m wrapped up in slumber. The scene might shift or change, but I can see through the illusion of memory. I know it’s the same. I can feel the familiarity.
As I hate going to sleep, I also hate waking. It’s hard for me to leave that city of thought behind. I fight to get up. I stave it off as long as possible until there is no other option. I will hold Sylvia tight, smothering her with a hug until she submits and gives me an extra five minutes, then another five minutes, then another five minutes. Twenty is the record.
This time the shout woke me and amazingly I’d launched from the mattress. I was standing barefoot on the cold floor with my eyes wide opened; my instincts and alarms were ringing. Not that I could see what had happened right away. It was dark and it was a strange place. Seconds seemed like minutes until I could focus, but then Sylvia started to cry, and I reached for her as I searched for Ads and Miles in the dark room. Finally, I saw her yank the little boy from the window. Sleep drenched and barely coherent I’d asked a stupid question, “What’s he doing up there?” as if she knew, and as if she was given a memo about his Five Thirty meeting in the window. What I meant to ask was ‘is he okay’ and Ads knew what I meant. She got that the strangeness of it lent itself out to stupid questions.
I carried Sylvia over to them, she was wrapped around me, still wailing, but I didn’t know why. The window was peeking open. I had to put my crying daughter down to force it shut. It took both hands and a lot of grunting to finally get the expanded wood to move down. I locked the latch and then looked at Ads with an eyebrow lit up in question. After scooping up Sylvia and sitting back onto the mattress, I cradled her, shushed her quietly. “It’s okay.” I’d said over and over again. But the question burned in me, even if I was conscious of the kids, of saying anything that might’ve spooked them.
The thing was, the window was NOT open when we’d went to bed. There was no way that little boy had the strength to push it open, either. There was no way.
Who was in there with us?
I wasn’t able to get back to sleep after what happened. Insomnia works like that, at least for me. My heart was too alert after having to get Miles out of the window, and then having to shut it. How did a kid open that thing? I didn’t want to think about it.
My heart just kept battering against the ramparts of my ribs and vigilance; eventually simmering down to the usual rhythm it is when I’m relaxed. It took so long for him to settle back down that I’d thought he never would. I thought we’d be up all night, again, with a mere few hours of rest.
I stared at the ceiling seeing static flitter around in dull sparks. I’ve read that this is called ‘visual snow’ and no one’s sure why some people have it, and some don’t. Shapes took form in the dark. Shapes of faces and fragments of my past, which having been shattered by new memories, fit poorly back together. And so my visions of them were jagged and at times borderless. Memories of before, before kids, that is, when Vera and I had went to a tea and cupcake house and the waitress had suggested we go look at the specials ourselves when we’d asked what they were, wasn’t that her job? She was young, multi-colored hair, perhaps a college student. I can’t recall her features, I can’t recall her clothes, only her posture. A wispy, faint posture relaxed in itself to go along with the suggestion that we wait ourselves. We left no tip.
Perhaps, I did manage to slip into the amniotic comfort of sleep, and only imagined being awake.
In the night, I could’ve sworn that I’d heard a child’s laughter, sometime when it was nearing dawn. I could tell, because a bruised light from underneath was slowly illuminating the windows. I’d heard the upbeat pitter-patter of skipping, running, on little feet, in little shoes. I’d even startled, thinking it was Miles, but he was still in my arms. I’d figured it was a dream.
We were all awake and in the kitchen, getting ready for coffee and bottles, nowhere to really sit yet. Not till noon when the rest of the furniture was going to come. I’d hunched onto the kitchen counter and extracted the powdered toddler crap from the piles of socks and crunchy kid snacks it lived under, thinking to get more real milk for the kids when I’d run out on an errand later for a little bit of food.
“I didn’t sleep. I was so tired that I heard things.” I didn’t elaborate at first, because I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to.
I had no problem going back to sleep. When everyone settled back down into the bed, I cuddled next to Sylvia and I drifted off. She followed my lead and fell into a deep sleep, too. I’d always been lucky with her. She takes after me in her inability to get up and greet the morning with any true conviction.
My dreams were of a moldering house. I wanted to explore it, but I was afraid to step too far or too hard. The most curious place was at the tippy top. This had the best things to look at; an attic wonderland with chests and picture albums. They keep telling me that I am not supposed to go up there, that it’s dangerous. I don’t listen. I need to explore. When I try to climb up the crumbling stairs they begin to disintegrate underneath my feet. The floor is rotten and it can’t support me.
When we’re all in the kitchen I am still thinking about it, about the fall. The way it felt on the way down. How I felt right before I woke up, right before I hit the floor.
Sylvia was on the floor. Ads was looking for the kids morning cure and I am looking for ours. I found it and blearily I got to concoct our potions. No milk. No sugar. It would have to be black. It was percolating and Ads speaks.
“Was the window open?” I asked. That’s the only thing that stands out to me as strange that actually happened. My dream was just an uneasy parenthesis after the fact. “What did you hear?”
“That might’ve been it, the window being open.”
I wasn’t thinking straight, not yet. I doubted my own experience now, as logic found itself easily replacing a mislead superstition. The world outside was a hazy Avalon-grey when I looked up for a moment and reconsidered what I’d heard. The cold was crawling up through the dirt, invisible hands pushing themselves out to open their palms up for receiving the snow. The world outside was preparing, it was getting ready to be covered. It was getting ready to sleep for a while, and so was I. But I was far from sleep.
I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d told Miles’ father about him as soon as I’d known. We all make stupid decisions, and then we rethink them, wondering why we ever even thought the way we had, or why we did whatever we eventually regretted. He’s a wanderer, his dad, and he’s nomadic and in poverty. He’s really no good, and he’s just the person you’d fear to end up with at the right age. It was young of me to love him, and with no love left, I wondered what I was thinking.
I somehow feel no guilt. His father is a vagrant and at times it’s to a point of being dangerous. At least to Miles’ emotions, it would’ve been a wreck. He wouldn’t have become someone else. He wouldn’t have suddenly morphed into a father. Some guys just aren’t meant for it. When Miles asks me about his father, which he only now has a vague sense of a missing familial piece, I tell him that he’s in the circus and that one day he’ll come home. That he sends us money. It’s all lies.
The milk had to be heated up just so, or else both kids would hate it. I wondered if this microwave would have the same timeframe for making it just the right amount of warm for them as the previous one. I also haven’t forgotten in my daydream to answer her. I’ve just been sidetracked. I felt outside of myself. The coffee would help, I’d hoped.
“I was awake all night. I couldn’t sleep. Might have dozed a little, but I’m sure not much at all. And at one point I distinctly remember being awake, but hearing little footsteps in the hall. Both kids were with us, though. And I heard laughing. Little laughing.”
Talking about unnerving things makes me uneasy, so I’d added something as if an afterthought. In my own superstitions, the more you speak of these things the more they’re invited.
“What else should I get at the store? I think I’ll just walk there; it’s only like, what, four blocks? I’m sick of driving.”
As a response I’d grunted at her. It wasn’t a dismissal per say, but my mind is skeptical despite all of the things we’ve seen, all of the situations we’ve happened upon. My mind is logical. My heart is whimsical. They’re always fighting with each other. But, even though my heart and mind are fighting I looked out into the empty house and really looked.
There were shadows that played with the streaming light busting in through the windows, but I didn’t see anything strange. Not until I’d turned my head to answer her and I swear in my peripheral I’d seen something move from the dark to the light, and then disappear into one of the rooms.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t trust that one vision and I didn’t want to upset Ads.
“Um.” I thought out loud, trying to pay attention to the words I said rather than the something I just saw. “Cream.” I prefer it to milk and maybe it’s a luxury, but coffee is going to be my main food group for most of the day today, and tomorrow and the next day.
To balance out the guilty feelings that arose, heeding all of those voices in my head telling me ‘if you haven’t your health you haven’t anything’ and it’s not just me anymore, I looked down at Sylvia. She was sucking on the nose of her stuffed cat. “Maybe some fruit?” I shrugged. I couldn’t have been more vague, but the flora part of my diet was some sort of fuzzy ideal I usually strived for, at the most, twice a week.
At last, the scent of coffee wafted through the air and I moved closer to the percolator. I was waiting to pounce, to pour two cups. I even readied my intentions by digging out two mugs and posing them near the bubbling, spitting metal canister.
“I’ll stay here with the kids.” I’d told her. We all needed time to get out and think. I didn’t mind hanging for a little while. I thought that maybe when it would stop snowing later on, we could all go out and play in it. Right then, though, the idea of stuffing them into their winter clothes and pushing them through the slushy sidewalks made me cringe.
It was 9:33am. I noted the time because I’d wanted to be back within an hour, because I hate leaving anyone with my kid. Vera may not be just anyone, but I still feel obligated to hurry.
I’d sunk my feet into warmer socks and slipped them into my warmest shoes; amid that care I took I still feel the chill of the approaching snow slither through to the tips of my toes. I’ve zipped up my coat and caught an odor I’m well acquainted with from every shift of season, feathers, feathers from inside of my parka, and second-hand smoke from last year when I was smoking. And I missed smoking. I reminisced about it by taking a deep breath, carefully, using my diaphragm, not my chest, like the therapist I’d used to go to said, and I’d watched the dragon smoke of my breath roll out in front of me, vanishing, when I exhaled and walked through it.
I stuffed my collar with a knit scarf, I’ve kissed Miles goodbye. I’ve vowed to tote home as much as my arms can carry, out of stubbornness for not wanting to drive. I could still feel the cramps in my knees and the lullaby of wind running its hands along the sides of the car, as if I’d hear the song of the highway forever.
I probably just needed sleep, but I was used to this. To not sleeping. I’ve always had trouble with sleeping, especially lately.
The world outside the house was quiet and pale, a ghost of itself, or is it the corpse of who it was, or who it became, readying itself to become. Everything was a husk. Everything was smooth and silent, dead, dying, or frozen. The disjointed limbs of trees are naked and tangled together, becoming, there was something beautiful about it. The pieces of snow that were collecting into the elbows and shoulders of the lanky maples lining the street, the snow had not yet become heavy, hardly sticking. It gave me time.
The automatic doors to the grocery store pulled open and the hot air worked on thawing my nose. I grabbed a cart, saw a man with his son, holding him up so that he can pick a bundle of bananas to take home. Do boys need that to feel complete, I’d thought, their father to love them as much as their mother, to hoist them up to pick banana? Or can a mother love her son so much that he doesn’t need the complete circle everyone says they do, the parental figures as a structural unit? His father and I were miserable. We should’ve never stayed together, but we did anyway. It was me who finally left. It was me who finally stopped talking to him first, and I did it without an explanation. I’d just stopped. I didn’t need to explain, but maybe I do now.
My phone vibrated: where r u guys? Read the text. It was Miles, the mutual friend my son’s named after. I’d answer it later, I’d thought.
I gathered soup, coffee, baby food packets, lots of milk, even formula just in case, and then I’d told myself that I didn’t care. That I was taking the cart with me on the way home like a crazy bag lady, and I’d return it later on. I got fruit. Pasta. Bread. I lost track. I was buying too much because I wanted to feel generous. Feeling generous makes up for feeling empty. And I love the sight of a full fridge.
“You just moved into the house down the lane, didn’t you?” A woman from behind me asked. I turned to face a kind enough smile, older woman with splatters of freckles and roots of gray overcoming her once strawberry blonde hair. She’d smiled and her semi-discolored teeth smiled with her. I smiled because it’s usually something people do when others smile at them; they just smile back out of habit.
“That would be me.” I’d said.
“I didn’t think anyone would ever move back in there after what happened,” she’d said, smug in her withheld knowledge, like dangling a carrot over a rabbit hole.
For a moment I was curious and perturbed, it showed on my face, I’m sure, because I paused and furrowed.
“Wow, I feel like I’m in a horror movie. Is this the part where I ask you what happened, and then you tell me that kids who hate their mothers performed a bunch of satanic rituals there. Or is it haunted by Ol’ Timmy No-Arms, who was working on his motorcycle in the garage one day and wham! Just… took his arm right off, and now he walks around armless. Carrying his arm with him,” I’d said, and she was giving me the look I’d wanted to get, the confused, unsure look, and then the feigned chuckle.
“Oh, no, nothing like that! The little boy died there, is all. He was very sick, so it was expected. Just very unfortunate.”
“That’s sad to hear, what was wrong with him?” I asked, interested because it was a little boy, and I’ve got one of those.
“They weren’t sure. He just kept getting sicker and sicker, some people say it was the mom, but they’d moved out so quickly, off to another state actually. Well, I best be on my way! I have this long list of groceries to get before the snow hits. My name’s Ellen, you are?”
“Adelina, and my roommate is Vera.”
“Roommate, I see. Beautiful names. Well, it was nice to meet you and enjoy your new home.” She’d said, and smiled and left, making me wonder what that look was when she’d said the word ‘roommate’. She must’ve thought we’re lesbians.
The cart rattled all the way home and it was so quiet out that I’d felt like I had an audience, even though I saw nobody. Nobody except the anonymous drivers of cars passing by, and even then it was merely a profile minding its own business.
I parked the cart next to the front door, unlocked it and put one of the bags next to the door to keep it ajar.
“Everyone thinks we’re lesbians already.” I’d yelled inside.
It wasn’t until the kids went down for their late morning nap that I’d realized how quiet the house was. At first it was fine. It was a delight after the kids were yelling, and I’d breathed in the silence. I took it in and at first I felt like I’d have superpowers. I could hear my own heartbeat. I could hear the snow tapping on the windows. I could hear the wood settling now that we’ve turned on the heat. The furnace below us groaned and struggled to consume.
I sat my bony ass down onto the floor, and I tried to get comfortable on the polished hardwood. I didn’t dare to try and squeeze in with the nappers. ‘Never wake a sleeping child’ is the old adage and I agree with it.
I just couldn’t get comfortable though. There just wasn’t a good angle to sit or hold my book. I slid around on the floor and tried on my stomach, on my back, on my side. Finally, I just gave up and made the schlep to get my phone. Maybe I could listen to some music, I’d thought. We didn’t have Internet yet, so I couldn’t watch something, but at least I could listen.
My phone was left on the counter in the kitchen to charge, and as I reached for it I saw the screen light up. It was our friend Miles asking where we were. I ignored it for the time being. Maybe I’d ignore it forever. At that moment, I didn’t know for sure if I’d ever want to talk to him again. I’d swiped ignore and then entered the passcode. I’d opened Spotify and I was looking through some playlists I’d made, trying to decide what I wanted to listen to when I heard music. It was coming from the bedroom at the very end of the house and it was loud! I didn’t even hesitate, I’d dropped my phone and rushed to the noise so that I could turn it the fuck off. My only thought was to stop it so that it wouldn’t rouse the sleeping beasts.
Imagine my surprise when I got to the room and it was empty.
There was nothing there. Not a piano, not a radio, not even a record player. The music had definitely sounded like it was coming from a piano, the high keys, icy notes tinkling against the silence and then a slam of all the notes. Then nothing.
I listened for the kids but there was no crying. There was nothing but the continuous wind outside pressing on the house. I looked around but there was nothing to see. The room was literally empty except for the closet door. I shrugged and took the few steps to open it. I pulled on the light string overhead and then heaved a sigh when the closet was almost as empty as the room. Left behind were a few wire hangers, and I stepped into the closet and turned. Sometimes there are shelves, and in this case my instincts prove correct.
There was a shelf and up there on top of it, waiting to be discovered, was a box. I reached up for it but I am short. I couldn’t quite reach it. All I managed to do was to poke at it with my fingertips and I nudged it back even further, making it impossible for me to reach. I tried to climb up the walls like a ten year old boy, but that didn’t work. When I slid down the third time, I gave up. I’ll wait for the furniture to get there, I’d thought, and then try again later. If I even remember later.
That’s when I’d moved to walk out of the closet, but the door slammed and the light bulb burst. I felt the glass rain down on me and the smell of ozone descended as the halogen dispersed. I tried the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried both hands, too, but all I managed to do was rattle the door. I tried ramming it but it just wouldn’t open. Then I was quiet. I was afraid that I’d wake up the children and then they’d be all alone. My only hope was that they’d stay asleep until Adelina got back home.
I was disappointed that the only ‘thing’ that greeted me when I got back was silence. Can silence be a thing? It’s surely an ‘it’, because I’d ask next, is it a thing? And because silence is a thing — an ‘it’ — than it can have its own essence, and it’s own entity, and this particular silence that greeted me that day did have it’s own essence, it’s own presence. It felt as if it could touch my shoulders, or breathe on my neck. It felt as if the silence were harboring something, the way that someone’s eyes can have a secret in them, but they don’t say a word. I just ignored it. I ignored the pulled-down feeling in my stomach, because it made sense for it to be quiet in there, the kids were probably napping, and Vera was probably reading somewhere. She could’ve even been napping with them in the bed.
It hadn’t been my favorite task, or my most non-embarrassing task to push that rattling cart the few blocks back to our little house. In my mind, I’d inserted a sitcom laugh track to make up for it, the silence, as if I were a character traipsing in from a misadventure, which in some ways I had been. It also made things less eerie for me to make them humorous. Besides, I didn’t have to start piling in all of the groceries until I found out if Vera was awake or not. It was colder outside than it was earlier in the morning, colder than the inside of the fridge, so the groceries would’ve been fine. I took the bag that was holding the door open into the house; don’t want to let the hot air out, and the cold in. And decided that I would go find Vera.
“Pin?” I called out, in that strained way people do when trying to keep quiet—a loud whisper, perhaps—but I was being loud enough to be heard. They could sleep through anything when napping. I called my friend Vera “Pin” because her last name is Pinrich. It’s a nickname that’s stuck. And although it was quiet for a moment while I snuck down into the creaky hardwood hallway, I began to hear humming.
The humming was also a thing like the silence had been, because it isn’t the humming of one of the kids, it isn’t Pin. Humming isn’t a common medium of communication. You might be thinking that I wouldn’t know one hum from another, that I couldn’t tell whose vibration was whose. You’d be wrong. And knowing that I was right chilled me, thrust my heart into my throat, until I had to breathe in to stop a palpitation. There had to be a logical explanation. Maybe I wasn’t so sure of my skills in recognizing the hum of those that I loved and lived with as I thought I was. It’s a tune I’ve heard before, one everybody has. I’ve been brainwashed by the kids’ shows that I’ve been forced to listen to countless times on repeat, sometimes all day so that they’d stay occupied long enough for me to get things done around the house with Pin. It’s ‘you are my sunshine.’ It was something that I used to sing to Miles before bed a long, long time ago. Sometimes it would even make me tear up realizing that I loved him so much when I would, his gummy smile, and his tiny nose.
That’s when the door to the closet groaned open, and there was Pin in the room across from me, coming out of it.
I really don’t know how long I was in there. When the door opened and Ads was there I’d basically fallen out. I may have been crying. I can’t remember. The relief I felt was like nothing I’ve ever known. I had been so afraid. Afraid that something was there with my babies. Then that fear turned on me. I was claustrophobic and I couldn’t breath. I was cold and shaking and when I think about it now, the sensation I remember is cold, black water.
For a long time I couldn’t breathe and I’d just stayed there on all fours, panting like an animal. My heart took minutes to slow. I’d been banging on the door. Punching it. Kicking it. At least that was what the bruises would later imply.
And then I could breathe and I smiled up at Adelina and I took a breath of relief because right then, I was all that I was thinking about. I was coming back into myself. There was no other thought than that I was safe, but then, I remembered.
Instead of saying anything, which would take too long, I was up and moving, running for the room. I was panicked all over again. I’d thought I might throw up. I’d skidded on the floor as I tried to turn into the room. I floundered like a gazelle trying to escape a lion and ended up spilled all over again. “The babies!” I yelled. I could already feel the cold breeze. I already knew what I was going to see. The window was open again and the kids were gone.
I’d been crouched, half-kneeling, watching her recover and watching the symptoms. She was in a little shock, something bad had happened in there, and although I was tired, although I am a logical human being, I am telling you that I saw something in there behind her. I don’t know if she saw it, too. I didn’t have time to ask. I saw something small and dark, like ink with eyes in the shape of skin. I saw something grin. I told myself it wasn’t there. I ran after her, because somehow, I knew what she was thinking; I knew where she was going.
I was running, my head the clearest its ever been because I was in pure fight or flight and I’d chosen fight, and when I’d caught up, I could see the opened window and something comes over me; I wasn’t sure, then, if it was just the cold air, the white smell of snow, the disfigured tree limbs sprouting up out of the ground like buried elbows poking out, or if it was the horror of not seeing the kids in there. Something felt off, and then all of sudden it felt gone; something left, something arrived.
I didn’t even think. I got to the window and I jumped out of it, just like they would’ve, just like they seemingly had. When I landed, my hands braced me in the few accumulated centimeters, soon to be inches, of snow. My fingers were near instantly a numbed red, throbbing. I saw small footprints leading on toward a cluster of trees.
Three sets of small footprints in the snow.
Why were there three? Who was with them?
“MILES!” I’d screamed his name. The earth broke underneath me as I ran, crunching, and I squinted against the bright snow, my breath a vapor. Somehow my chest felt like it’d been replaced with hot bricks, wired together by my barbed ribs, weighing me down, making me feel like I was going to fall apart. My throat was closing as I fought the urge to cry. I couldn’t cry then anyway. Instinct had kicked in. I had to find my baby. It was as if he was gone forever, and I was just chasing the cold air.
“MILES!” I’d screamed again, and then I’d screamed, Sylvia’s name, too. I’d shouted both of their names over and over, because they must’ve both been together, somewhere.
She was out the window. I watched her leap out and I hollered after her, but she didn’t hear me. The wind swallowed the name. It took it prisoner and there was nothing I could do but get out there with her. It was that instant. My going. I didn’t even think about it. One moment I was inside, and the next I was out there. I can’t see anything at first. The wind was blowing hard, but finally I could see a figure moving in the distance ahead of me. Not too far, but it seemed like Miles. I run after.
I didn’t have shoes on. It didn’t take long to remember that I didn’t. I wish I could say that in the throes of fear and desperation I didn’t feel a thing, but I did. The snow was angry and it bit down with every step. Ice is supposed to numb but the pain, it was exquisite. It radiated with each step I made. It thumped up, pulsing red and hatefully as I chased after my family.
“Adelina!” I called, “Wait… wait!” but she wasn’t going to slow down. She was on a mission. Her footprints had taken over theirs. She was all that I could pursue, and maybe I didn’t want to think about the rest. I was probably in denial. As long as Adelina kept going it would mean that she hadn’t found anything. Searching was better than stopping. I was terrified by what we’d find. What I knew we’d find. How long had I been in that closet? How long had they been out there?
Keep going dammit. Keep going, I’d told myself.
But then she wasn’t going any more. Adelina was stopped. I watched her and time started to slow down and I was outside of myself as it happened. I was outside of my mind, outside of this world. I watched her get to her knees.
How long had they been out here?
How long had I been in the closet?
How long had they been out here?
I had to force myself forward. I had to beat myself into submission. It was my fault. Whatever it was she had found, it was my fault.
When I reached them, I could see tiny hands and tiny feet. Adelina was holding Miles. She was holding him so tightly I was afraid he might break apart.
“Sylvia?” I stammered and then I heard her voice. I heard her voice answer.
“Mama.” and then I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything until the hospital. I was in a chair, next to the bed. Sylvia was lying there. I couldn’t remember getting there, what had happened. I’ve blocked it out. It’s too terrible and every time I start to remember I shut it out.
I’d stayed as long as they let me.
I wanted to be the cold winter wind outside, brushing up against his ear. I wanted to be the last thing he heard before he fell asleep, before we found him. That way he could hear me wherever he is now, and he’d know we were all waiting for him to wake up.
They said he must’ve been outside for several hours. That there was no way it was only an hour or so. I know for sure it was less than that. They say that his leg was broken and he’d struggled to come back from where he’d fallen, and in doing so he must’ve went into shock. It’s anybody’s guess how he got out there, and they all tried to indirectly blame us as if it were our fault, and I know now that it’s no one’s fault. Even when the snobby social worker kept asking us questions and scheduled a home visit for a month out, even when she scheduled a home visit for just Sylvia in a few days from then.
How had he been out there for ‘several hours’? I was in shock, too, I think. I remember leaving the house at 9:33am, I’d glanced at the clock because I feel obligated not to be out too long when someone is watching my kid.
I saw his little face in my mind, constantly. I saw the dried tears, the small eyes shut, the mucus that had drained out of his nose, and the little torn shirt. I’d felt how cold his skin was, how cold his hand. I saw him when they put him into the ambulance, when they put the oxygen mask on, and how they’d told me that I had to let go of him so that they could work. This isn’t my kid, I’d thought. This is some toy. Some mannequin. Where’s my son?
Something had left me, not just the threat of him leaving, a whole piece of me felt torn off after that. The warmth where he laid with me last night, right by my side, curled into me just like when he was a baby, would be gone that night. I’d be able to still smell him if I tried.
I stayed awake as long as I could, until my eyes vaulted shut involuntarily. In my dreams, I see Miles. I hear him. He’s with someone else, someone as small as he is. And they’re by that window. They’re together playing.
I wake up in a chair outside of where they’re keeping him. I don’t know how I slept in it, it’s steel and so am I.
I’d stood up and barely remembered the route to the room Sylvia and Vera were in. I was walking in a bad dream. And I was angry that they had us split up, but understood that they had space issues. Where would they have us all sleep?
I come into the empty waiting room with them and that numbness fell apart and swept away. I openly cried, and my face screwed up so much so that I could barely see.
“I don’t understand.” I said, “I was only gone an hour. They’re wrong. I don’t understand. What happened in the closet? It just locked on you? It’s not possible that could’ve happened in an hour. Am I losing my shit?”
He’ll be okay, I told myself, and it was true.
“He’ll be okay.” I’d said out loud.
I don’t know what to do. I can’t even fathom what she’d be feeling. I don’t want to understand it. Not in the way that Adelina is feeling it now.
Adelina was mumbling, asking questions and I tried my best to answer her. At first I was stunned, watching her across from me as if she were something I couldn’t for the life of me comprehend. When I finally got up, when I finally bridged the distance and embraced her and kept her held to me, I felt something again.
She was still ours. Miles was too. Sylvia and I are hers and Miles’ too. We didn’t know what happened. How it happened. Why it happened, but there was no way for us to know. There still isn’t.
Sylvia was released but Miles wasn’t, at least for a few more days. It was a struggle going back to the house without him. Adelina wouldn’t leave Sylvia’s side and I let her find comfort in that, for now. It was what she needed. I dealt with things differently. I detached. I found comfort in distance.
Adelina and Sylvia are sleeping. We’d moved the bed out of the bedroom and into the living room. The furniture and boxes had arrived and they were scattered everywhere. Neither one of us were in the mindset to deal with it. I think we felt better about it. I didn’t think we’d ever really feel good there again, but we’d feel better.
Our friend, the other Miles, was texting us again. I kept pressing ignore whenever a new message popped up. I was about to relent when I heard the icy notes of that piano again. I looked at the sleeping figures of my daughter and my best friend and they didn’t rouse at all. They did nothing, and I wondered if I was hearing things. I was afraid to go back into that room, near that closet, but I took my phone and I’d braved it again. I dragged a dining room chair in behind me and positioned it so that it would stop the door from being slammed and locked again. I precariously perched on the seat and reached for the box, my finger gripping it, and I pulled it down.
I blew a heavy layer of dust from it, but only after I was safely out of the closet.
I didn’t open it. At first, I’d just stared at it. It was made of wood and it seemed old, not very old, but definitely older than I am. I heard a rustling and looked up at the door. It was Adelina. She was awake.
“I was trying to get this down on that day.” I’d started, but I couldn’t finish.
I awoke from the same dream I’d had since I haven’t slept enough, since I’d seen what I’d thought was his lifeless face. It was me buried in mud, sinking like quicksand and he’s there too and I’m reaching, my fingers just graze his upper arm in that shirt with the comets and stars on it, before he sinks deeper, and it’s slow and it’s agonizing. He screams and soon his mouth is filled with soft, waxy dirt, his eyes growing wide with his last breaths and then he’s gone, forever. I watch it all and wake up with my heart punching, wondering how I could possibly be alive.
I was there, though, back in the room, without him and he was at the hospital and we’re here to gather ourselves. They said that he’d need to be observed for a few days, just in case, watch his temperature, and that thankfully before we came back here he’d woken up a little. I’d wanted to make sure that he saw that I was there, and that I was the first person he would see. I imagined that he’s resting, and here I am restless. After we’d slept, we’d planned on going back anyway to check on him.
I’d stood up almost as soon as I’d opened my eyes, feeling as if I weren’t even really there, feeling like he was here somewhere, maybe in the other room. I could just feel him around, somehow.
I reached down and stroked Sylvia’s shoulder, light as dust. I could’ve cried again looking down at her, but I’d held it back. I was projecting onto her, imagining how she’d miss him terribly until he was home with us again, and yet I was the one awake and she slept soundly.
I slipped out of the room quietly, keeping track of creaks, widening how I’d stepped to avoid the noise. That was when I’d heard someone small, toddling down the hall, but it couldn’t be what I thought it was, whom I thought it was. It couldn’t be what I wanted, whom I wished it was.
I saw Vera when I’d walked past the door on the way to use the bathroom. She was holding something that somehow made my stomach turn, and I’ve never had that happen to me before. Once I was done using the toilet, I came back to her. I’ve never looked at an object and felt uneasy, I’d thought of that when I’d glanced in the bathroom mirror, wondering if I were still myself.
“What’s inside of it?” I’d asked. Like anybody would’ve, even though I’d almost feared the answer. I was stubborn, and anything that intimidated me was usually just a catchy headline with an ultimately boring story.
That’s when the window began to open…
Slowly, slowly outward, until it was halfway, like it was the time we’d all woken up when Miles had gotten up there somehow yesterday morning. I ignored it for now, because I needed to know she saw it too, before I could’ve reacted.
“Let’s open it.” I’d said.
As a reply I’d given a solemn nod. I didn’t want to open it, but I’d felt like I had to. I knew there was an answer in there.
My fingers were clutching at it like forceps. I was touching it as little as I could while I was holding it.
Did we really want the answer?
It felt like Pandora’s box. It felt nasty in my hands. My palms were itchy just holding it. My mouth felt dry, but I took a deep breath through it and then began to rip at the cover of the box. It was tight, like it was forced on and it didn’t come off easily. I had to tug it off.
When I did the cover ricocheted and the box tumbled out of my hesitant fingers. Polaroid pictures and snapshots scattered all over the floor.
The box was a second thought when I’d dropped it, and I’d knelt down to snatch at random photographs. All of them were of children. All of them were lying down in the grass outside in the back. Some looked as if they were sleeping, but some of them had started to decompose. Their death was recorded and stuffed into this small rectangular box, like a treasure on the shelf.
I pushed photographs out of the way. I sifted through them and then my hand clasped onto my mouth as I found a very recent photograph of Miles, just outside window. Right before we’d found him.
At first, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I was staring at the photograph that Vera had in her hand, a shaky, small hand, and I was staring until everything around me was covered in a grain. My eyes went almost black, crossed, and then I’d snatched the photo from her as if it was mine and she’d stolen it. I’d snatched it as if I’d caught her red-handed, not thinking, it was too rough, it was rude. She’d even flinched. I was tired. I apologized much later, later on when we could think straight.
“It looks like Miles.” I remember saying, because I was in denial of it being him, but I knew that shape anywhere. Those knees, those elbows. I’ve memorized every strand of hair on his head; the baby joints in his little fingers, his chin. I could smell him just looking at this photograph.
“This is Miles.” I’d added, even though by then I could hardly see it. My eyes burned and there was one tear that fell onto Miles’ hip in the photo. I’d wiped my eyes, each one separately with the cuff of my sweater, and then, it hit me…
Have you ever had a feeling all the way from your chest, down to your ankles? As if you were submerged in it? As if you were wearing it? I couldn’t even say it out loud. I thought if I had, they would hear. Who ever they were, wherever they are.
“They’re here.” I’d said, barely a whisper, mostly with just my lips, slowly, so that she’d be able to read them. “Someone is here. We have to go.”
“Get the kid.” I told Adelina. “I’ll be right out.” She was focused on Miles’s picture, and I was focused on all of the other pictures. There were so many of them, all there scattered on the floor. They were all of children. Little children.
They were all photographs of their last moments. Taken. Recorded. Kept in a box.
I didn’t know what I’d do. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was that someone was here with us.
What the fuck am I doing?
I was squatting over the pictures. I wasn’t really looking at them, but I was looking for something. A clue. Some sign. Some part of fate or destiny that will point me in the right direction, and all I get were faces. Little faces. They were all in color. Some were film, some are Polaroid, and then… there it was.
It was so stupid. There was a picture of the house, this house, at Christmas time. There was someone dressed up like Santa. He was shushing the camera, descending the attic ladder. I knew it was this house because I could see the hallway, and I could see a piece of the bedroom, the bedroom where I was standing in. Back then it was a kids room. There were balloons painted on the wall. There was a stuffed bear peeking at the picture taker.
Are they still here? Are they hiding here? I didn’t hesitate. I went to the hallway and looked up at the latch where the attic was. It had never occurred to me that there’d be something up there but then, I knew there is. I needed a chair and a weapon, something. I had a Swiss army knife in my bag. I’d grabbed that and pulled out a fold-up chair under the drop ladder. I needed to climb up so that I could reach it, but when I’d pulled the cord nothing happened. It was stuck. I yanked. I cussed. I fought with it.
I needed help.
Nowhere was safe.
That’s what it felt like, that’s what I told myself. The paint was laced in invisible eyes, in each corner there was a camera with somebody watching on the other side, taking a picture. I’d imagined that the mirror in the bathroom hallway was the kind that leads to a large, empty room where someone watches with a cold coffee in their hand, sitting in a ratty old suit they’ve grown too long. Some slender ghost was all elbows and knees, with bubonic black eyes. I imagined all these things as I figured out where the kid was. I had been napping with her, but I was in such a hurry then that I’d momentarily lost focus. I could live without clothes. I could come back for them once one of us was in the car with Sylvia. I could pack up my entire life in twenty seconds if I needed to. I was down the hall like a gust of wind, or a wink behind glass.
Sylvia was playing now in the living room. I could see her perfectly down the hallway, where a scatter of blocks and toy cars laid. She was making a drawing for Miles, embarrassing renditions of sunflowers grinning, but to her they were works of art. She’d dropped her project and came for me. I’d scooped her up with little difficulty; she’d weighed little when anxiety made me feel light.
And then there was the other side of the hallway where I saw Vera struggling to open the attic, the attic! I’d thought they could be in there!
“Are you insane!” I’d shouted at her, loudly, and on purpose. If they’d heard, they could run now before I gutted them, leapt from one of the windows in broad daylight. Leaving tracks in the freshly fallen snow.
“What if they’re up there?” I’d asked I couldn’t help it, I knew then what we could use, what could help solve this. I’d marched out of the hallway. I’d walked into the kitchen, where on top of the fridge, I’d kept a compact Smith and Wesson locked up with a punch code in a tiny safe. It had been brought in from the glove box of the car when we’d gotten back from the hospital; I don’t even know what possessed me to remember to bring it in. It was like a small coffin just for the handgun, and I’d punched in one, one, three, seven quicker than I ever had, surprised that I’d remembered the code in the first place. I pulled it down and I’d hoped someone tried something, because I’d been waiting to use that gun forever.
I’d also grabbed a broom. I wasn’t thinking clearly, I was thinking quickly, and I was thinking about how I also had this kid in my arms, and what the hell was I going to do when I needed to get up there and help Vera? I was curious. I needed to know what was up there now, even if it was nothing but dust. And Sylvia would just have to come along. If I had to use the gun, it’d be because of life or death. People could get away with anything these days by pleading insanity, and they could’ve blamed me, painted me as the bad guy somehow for shooting a psychopath living in my attic. The gun burned my palm, I was sweating, and I was eager to use it, I won’t lie. It had only ever been used to shoot vague outlines of perpetrators at target practice during shooting range time. I’d love to hurt the person who hurt my boy, who hurt us all.
“Maybe I’m the one who’s insane.” I’d said to Vera, shrugging, showing her the gun. I didn’t even know if it was loaded, but I knew that if I had to, I could rip someone’s throat out with my own bared teeth, my own fingers curled into claws. I could put myself into frenzy like berserkers used to, with my red plaid, red for blood.
That day I wore my good leggings, I’d thought, I was ready to die. Put me on the cold table they slap the autopsies on, eat an egg salad sandwich and figure out what happened. Just a mom with a gun, they’d say. Ran through fire, ripped out livers.
I handed over the broom with a question mark over my head like a cartoon. I had Vera take Sylvia once she’d climbed down from the chair. I’d put the gun down onto the ground carefully, as if it were a glass full of wine on a white carpet. I took the broom back, thrust it as hard as I could onto the corner of the attic door above me. It didn’t work. I had to climb up and pry the corner with the Swiss army knife she’d tried earlier, digging upward, giving whoever might be up there time to leave. I even paused and looked down at Vera, when I’d thought I’d heard movement.
But there was nothing but that silence, that thing from earlier, silence that was like an essence.
“Good thing I’ve got a gun!” I’d said loudly. Could they hear me smiling? Could they hear how much I’d wanted to use it on them? The bullets of air and moth wings inside of an, in all likelihood, empty chamber? The bullets I didn’t think were even inside of it anyway. Who leaves a loaded gun locked up? Who has a gun these days, especially in this area, with two small kids? I was suddenly thankful that I’d held onto it. An old friend had given it to me years ago. If it’s free, it’s for me.
Finally, with a loud cracking sound and sediment crawling down toward me, settling onto my shoulders, onto the top of my head as I’d turned away, a little into one of my eyes, dust and paint, insulation, the door opened. I climbed off of the chair and let the stair, which was rotten, slam down and nearly break it’s back.
I peered up into the hole, waving dust away, only wooden beams were in view, and decrepit, mildewed wallpaper that looked as if it’d been ripped off in some spots intentionally.
I glanced down at the gun, and then backed up toward Vera.
It was a talisman, that gun. It was something that was making us braver, it was a guide and although it could be used as a weapon, in this case it is more of a symbol. I nodded at her, so she knew that I was with her, I supported her, and we have this. Then I began to ascend the decaying stairs toward the room.
I had Sylvia. I couldn’t give her up or put her down. She clung to me and went quiet. The tension wasn’t lost on her. She knew that something was happening.
The ladder rungs moaned and whined, threatening me while I climbed but as rotten as they were, they held up and I crawled inside. There was a tiny window. A window I thought had been merely decorative but it gave enough light for us to see what or who was up here.
No one was. I didn’t know if I was relieved or disappointed. The attic was swathed in green. There was this bright green paint on everything. There was a sun painted on the wall and opposite it a scrawled, painted script that reads: There are Doors.
There was an unmade bed. The indent of where someone’s head once lay is still sculpted into the pillow. Up there it smelled as if time had stood still.
There was a rack of clothes hanging against the sidewall. Carefully, I’d crept toward it, afraid to make any noise, or squeak against the attic floorboards. The clothes that were on the rack hung from tiny hangers, they were tiny clothes, children’s clothes.
I heard Adelina move in after me. Her hand was going for something she’d seen immediately. “Is that Miles’s?” I’d asked as she pulled it down to run it through her hands.
I knew it was. I’ve seen him in that outfit a few times a week. It was comfortable and easy. How did it get up here? We hadn’t even unpacked; the attic door was closed tight. The window was too small for an adult to crawl through; it was also the kind that didn’t open. It was round, decorative.
“I think we should go.”
There are doors, doors to where?
Different places the mind can enter, the doors of perception, the different realms we can go to in our imaginations. We can even open them into places we’d never think to look, into attics with faceless mannequin heads underneath racks of little clothes, where adult wigs rest like globs of oily fur. Over in the corner, apart from the unmade bed holding the phantom impression of somebody’s body and head, there was another mattress. It had no sheets. The center was soiled to the culmination of looking like an imploding galaxy, a sick black hole of mildew. Off to the side, a Santa costume that looked burned. There was a tiny toy piano, too. When I’d nudged it with my foot, the first notes of ‘you are my sunshine’ slithered out, warped.
And then, I’d felt like I was somewhere else. This couldn’t be my house. This couldn’t have been up here while I was sleeping. This couldn’t have existed while I’d dreamt. I would never be able to relax again, wondering what was going on above me, through a door.
I was holding Miles’ clothes, a long-sleeved shirt with a NASA logo. I laid it over the gun to inspect it, using the gun like a third hand. I was thinking, what if there were blood, or other stains? I could take it to the police. They could find out who did this. But there was nothing. It even still smelled like him, as if he’d just been wearing it, and when I was able to catch his scent, I could’ve wept again for how much I’d missed him. Like I did when we left him in the hospital. The photo of him that we’d found earlier still rested in my back pocket, I felt for it to make sure, and I could’ve sworn I’d felt it getting warm.
I didn’t even answer Vera at first, because I knew that she knows. We both knew. I was afraid to be up there any longer, as if I could inhale whatever sickness lingered here. Or, if we stayed too long, we’d be trapped here. The door would close. Whatever sickness kept children’s clothes, wigs, and filthy beds, I wanted away from it. Whatever sickness was locked in there could stay, and we could leave. How’d his shirt get in there? How…
I followed Pin out with the gun. I climbed out last, and tried to stare at all the pus-green, the sequins of dust falling slowly through fingers of light stretching out from the light. I’d thought that maybe if there were anyone up there, somehow, that they were blending in. Fooling us. But nothing moved, and my eyes burned with how long I kept them open.
I took the shirt, the photo, and everything that we needed. We weren’t as scared that somebody was there, but we still knew something was. We dipped into our savings because we needed to figure out what to do about the house, and see if we could break the lease early, because of everything that happened. I didn’t see why they’d force us to stay. And they didn’t.
We stayed in a hotel, took turns going back to the house, called the moving company to come store our stuff.
Miles was released from the hospital with a little cast on his leg. Sylvia drew a sunflower with a grin on it, a near mirror image of the drawing she’d made him back home. We talked to the nurse about what had happened, what we had found, asking for some guidance on if we should call the cops. She treated us like basket cases. And when I went to take the photo out of my pocket to prove it, it was gone. All I had was that clean NASA shirt and a story, and a room through a door that may or may not exist if I went back to it.
We were on the road to stay in a small town not too far away, till a place opened up to rent. We’d already found some options. We could rent a smaller place, end up in a more urban area. The friend of ours, which Miles is named after, kept calling. I finally answered, put it on speakerphone so that he could hear the kids babbling.
“What? We’re kind of busy.”
“Busy with what? I’ve been trying to call you guys forever.” He asked.
“Driving away from the creepiest thing that’s ever happened to us. Getting little Miles out of the hospital, having to move again because of the creepy thing.” I’d said.
“I’ve been trying to call you. You guys need to stay out of that place. Why haven’t you answered any of my texts? Some old Norn from a Slovak village visiting the carnival rigger told me to tell you to get outta that place.” He’d said, typical of Miles. But strangely, his carnival friends were usually right.
“Apparently, we should’ve joined the circus.” I’d said.
And so here we are in our new apartment. The stuff arrives soon, but we’ve got our beds. We took our time. We took the gun when we’d go back and move the small stuff. Miles and Vera (the other Miles, adult Miles who came to visit once we were settled) are in the other room, and baby Miles and I are waking up from a nap.
And the window by my bed slowly begins to open.