“Amy! Time to get up kiddo! Let’s go! Breakfast is almost ready!”
Amy, blonde hair matted from sleep, sat up in bed and rubbed her blue eyes. Mom expected her to be downstairs within ten minutes now and Amy knew not to make her mom yell twice. She flipped back her covers, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and put her bare, eight-year-old feet on the cold hardwood floor. She shivered. She was definitely wearing a sweater and socks today.
Downstairs at breakfast, Mom said, “I’ll be working late tonight, so Mrs. Sterling will make sure you get your homework done and have dinner, okay? I’ll come get you when I get home.”
“Sure,” Amy said, digging into her scrambled eggs and eyeing her turkey bacon. Turkey bacon was gross, but her mom thought it was better for her than regular bacon.
“Did you get all your homework done last night?”
“Mom. I’m in third grade. I can get third grade homework done in about a minute,” Amy said quite seriously.
“Of course,” her mother responded, smiling behind Amy’s back. “Finish your bacon. The bus will be here in a couple of minutes and you still have to brush your teeth and get your shoes on.”
“Yes mom.” Amy said wearily. It was the exact same thing every morning. Get up. Get dressed. Have eggs and turkey bacon. Talk about homework and Mrs. Sterling. Always Mrs. Sterling. Brush teeth and put on shoes. But Amy understood. Her mom worked long hours and any morning conversation was better than no conversation at all. Plus, her mom was a stickler for routine. She said it made things easier.
School was normal. Boring. Mary Kate was mean. Janie cried. Joey and his gang were dumb. Old Mrs. Hill tried hard to keep from having a breakdown and, as usual, Amy was denied an opportunity to go to the library. It was quiet there and she liked the smell of the books. Mrs. Hill should have retired, like, twenty years ago, Amy thought. I mean, who teaches third grade kids using a walker? At least with a cane, she could have used it to smack Joey. He deserved it.
When the bus dropped her off at home, she walked through the trees between her house and Mrs. Sterling’s house and knocked on the door. Mrs. Sterling was not quite as old as Mrs. Hill, but pretty close. She had gray hair she always wore back in a tight bun, flinty gray eyes, a long, thin nose and a face that always looked like she smelled something sour.
When the door opened, Amy could smell the familiar scent of…well, she didn’t really know what it was but it reminded her of old people and attics. It was dark inside and had wooden paneling on every wall and there was a plastic thing covering the carpet all the way from the front door to the kitchen. Amy always had to take her shoes off and leave them by the front door.
Mrs. Sterling had these little white snowflake things on the backs of each of her sitting room chairs. Some were on the tables, too. She called them doilies, whatever that meant. They were only interesting because they looked like snowflakes, but otherwise Amy could see no real use for them. Mrs. Sterling used them to display her collection of silly little porcelain mouse figurines. She loved those things even though half of their tails were broken. She said were sweet and she loved them like they were her children. To Amy, they didn’t look sweet, they all looked – in on way or another – like scared little mice.
Amy didn’t like them.
Immediately, Amy sat down to do her one page of math homework, which was useless, really. Amy already knew all these answers. But Old Mrs. Hill would turn purple if Amy didn’t complete her homework and place it in the homework basket tomorrow morning.
Mrs. Sterling gave her stale cookies and cold milk – the same snack every day – and they sat in the dark, stuffy living room with the white snowflakes and dumb porcelain mice and watched television. After a while Mrs. Sterling said impatiently, “Amy, you’re wigglin’ that leg again and makin’ the whole sofa shake. I can’t watch my show with all that movin’. Why don’t you grab a book and sit over there for a while?” She pointed at an ugly pink velvet chair with a white snowflake on it.
Dutifully, Amy walked over to the built-in bookshelves which were sagging under the weight of hundreds of hard-bound Reader’s Digest condensed books. Mrs. Sterling collected them and sometimes they were fun to read. At random, she selected a yellow one and tossed herself into the chair to see if there was anything interesting between the book’s covers.
After a while, Amy was lost in a story about a guy who kept hearing a voice calling him. Over and over again. Every night the voice got louder until finally, when the guy couldn’t stand it any more, he decided to try to find the voice. He followed the voice to a well deep within a forest near his house…
Suddenly, “Amy! Lord a’mighty girl, didja lose your ears? Your momma’s here,” Mrs. Sterling said impatiently.
“Oh, sorry. Okay. May I borrow this book, Mrs. Sterling?” Amy asked politely.
“No, hon. It’s gotta stay here with my collection. You can pick it up again when you come tomorrow,” Mrs. Sterling said. She was always kinder to her when Amy’s mother was around. She wasn’t really mean, but she wasn’t very nice, either. At least she didn’t make Amy do cleaning up work. Amy hated cleaning.
“Come on kiddo,” said her mom from the doorway. “Let’s go. It’s late, late, late and you’ve got school tomorrow.”
“Coming mom,” Amy said as she grabbed her backpack and said a quick goodbye to Mrs. Sterling.
Once they were outside her mom squeezed her shoulder and asked, “Good day?”
“Sure, if you call Mary Kate being mean a good day. I wish she’d leave me alone,” Amy reflected.
“You think I need to call her mother?” Amy’s mom asked.
“NO! Mo-om, that would just make things worse! I’m fine, really.”
“If you’re sure,” said her mom.
“I’m sure,” replied Amy.
“Okay. I’ll leave it alone. For now. But if it continues, or gets worse, I want you to tell me. Got it?”
The next day was very much the same. Wake up, eat stupid turkey bacon with her eggs, go to school, listen to Janie cry, try to avoid Mary Kate and Joey, plus make sure she stayed on Mrs. Hill’s good side. Mrs. Sterling was exactly the same. Amy got to finish the story she’d been reading the night before in the yellow-covered Reader’s Digest book, which she was happy about. It was creepy and Amy loved creepy stories. The guy died in the well after being lured there by that voice.
That night, Amy’s mom came hope pretty early. Since her mom worked some very long and unusual hours, it was good to spend that time together. Over an easy supper of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they talked about lots of stuff. Amy told her about the story she’d read and assured her mother she wouldn’t have nightmares. She talked about Mrs. Sterling and the stale cookies, though she’d told her mother that before. Her mother asked about Mary Kate and how she’d treated Amy that day. Then her mother shooed her upstairs to take a bath and get ready for bed. She would have time to read for a while before her mother came upstairs to tuck her in.
Later, sitting on her bed with her legs swung over the edge, Amy was reading yet another book. This one she’d read many times but she was so fascinated by the world it created in Amy’s head that she reread it frequently: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was her absolute favorite. She pictured herself like her favorite character: Hermione.
At first, her mother had been unsure about letting Amy read the book, thinking – because it was about a school for witches and wizards – that it was evil, or had bad things in it which Amy, at eight years old, might not be ready for. But Amy was far more advanced than her peers and so, after her mother gave the book a trial run, she decided Amy could read it.
Tonight, Amy was reading about Quidditch – her favorite sport in the whole world – and swinging her legs absently over the side of the bed while she thought how wonderful it would be to fly so fast on a broomstick in the air!
She was totally engrossed in her daydream when suddenly, she felt something tickle the bottom of her foot. She almost didn’t notice it, except, within a couple of seconds of feeling it the first time, she felt it a second time.
Putting the book aside, and bringing her head back down from the clouds, looked over the side of the bed to see what it could be. Nothing. There wasn’t anything there.
“Amy, bedtime! I’ll be up in a minute to tuck you in. Put that book away!” Her mother always knew. She thought no more about the tickle on her foot.
The next day was the same, too, but Mrs. Sterling seemed upset about something. Amy asked her what was wrong, but Mrs. Sterling just said, “Nothing you need to worry about,” and went back to watching television. It was an awkward afternoon. Mrs. Sterling barely said two words to Amy. Amy spent some time secretly watching Mrs. Sterling out of the corner of her eye. She looked…thinner, somehow. Like she was sick. Maybe that was it? But truthfully, Amy wondered if she’d done anything wrong to upset Mrs. Sterling and was happier than usual when her mother came to pick her up around five.
That evening, after bath time, Amy was back on her bed reading again, dreaming about being a Quidditch player and trying to figure out how she could convince Hermione that flying wasn’t all that bad when she felt that tickle on her feet again. This time, she got off the bed and looked under it. Nothing. What could it be? But the wonder was only a passing moment and soon, she was back in the air on a broomstick.
Several days later, Amy found herself in her room again, sitting cross-legged on the bed with lap-desk and homework on her knees. Her mother had a couple of scheduled days off so Amy didn’t have to go to Mrs. Sterling’s house after school, which was a relief. Mrs. Sterling’s mood hadn’t improved and she’d started being downright mean to Amy. Amy, who wasn’t scared of much, was beginning to be a little afraid of her babysitter.
Mrs. Sterling was definitely not well. She had started to get more wrinkles on her face, and her eyes had gotten stony. Her hair had begun to fall out in big patches and she’d started wearing a hat or a bandana even around the house. Her teeth looked longer and yellow. Amy wanted to be concerned for her, but truthfully, the more time she spent with Mrs. Sterling, the more she wished she were anywhere else.
Also, the smell in the house had gotten stronger. When Amy had commented on it, Mrs. Sterling said she’d just purchased a new batch of mothballs for the front hall closet so her coats and things wouldn’t get eaten up by moths. Amy thought it sounded like a lie, but she was only eight and knew better than to accuse her elders in such a way. Her mother had taught her manners. These were the thoughts which distracted her as she sat there, homework forgotten.
Unfocused, Amy began to hear scuttling noises in her room. A sound like she’d never heard before, but it seemed similar to when her cousin’s dog, Tippy, came over her nails tapped on the hardwood floors. Like that, only, smaller; not as loud.
Amy turned her attention to the sound, trying to pinpoint its location, but she was unable. It kept moving. Finally, she called her mother upstairs to listen.
“I don’t hear anything, Amy. Describe again what you heard?”
“Mom, remember when Aunt Bev came and brought Alex and Tippy? Remember how Tippy kept sliding around on the floor and her nails made that tapping sound?”
“Yes,” her mother replied, surprised Amy remembered. She’d only been three then.
“That, but not as loud,” said Amy. “Listen harder.”
They both were silent for a while, but no sound occurred. Amy felt disappointed.
“Maybe it was one of the trees scraping the outside of the house?” Amy’s mom suggested.
“No. It kept moving. Sometimes it was there,” she pointed to one side of the room, “and sometimes it was there,” pointing to the other. “There aren’t any trees on that side, Mom. Only the bathroom.”
“You’re right. Well, if you hear it again, let me know. You need to get into bed, kiddo. It’s a school night.”
“Can’t I take tomorrow off, too?” Amy almost begged.
“No sweetheart, you can’t. School is important and you need to go.”
It was the same answer mom gave every time Amy asked to stay home. Her mom was gone so often and Amy really loved spending time with her. Girl time, as mom called it. It was Amy’s favorite thing in the world besides Harry Potter.
After mom tucked her in, she lay there in the dark listening intently and was nearly asleep when she heard it again. A small scuttling, tapping sound from over in the corner by her closet.
Fearless, Amy flicked on her light, got out of bed, and went to the closet to see if she could find the source of the sound. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t find it. When she thought she had the sound cornered, it would suddenly start up on the other side of the room! Frustrated, she called for her mother again.
“Mom!” she whisper-yelled from the top of the stairs. “Mom! I hear the sound again. Can you come up?”
Her mother came right up and together they stood in the middle of Amy’s room, silent and still, as they both listened.
“Amy, I know you don’t want to go to school tomorrow, and I’d love to let you stay home, but you need to go. School is important,” she said again. “You’ve got to get a good education, sweetheart, and even though third grade might not be so much fun, you’ve go to pass it to get into fourth grade. And you’ve got to pass fourth grade to get into fifth. You see the pattern?”
“I know all that, Mom,” Amy said, almost whining with frustration. “I’m not trying to get out of school, okay? There really IS something in here.”
“Well, maybe it’s just a little mouse and if it is, it won’t hurt you. I’ll get some traps while you’re at school tomorrow and we’ll see what we get, okay? Now, get back in bed.”
That was that. Amy knew there would be no arguing with mom. She lay there in bed quietly thinking about the sound, about Mrs. Sterling and what could be wrong with her, about Mary Kate and why she was mean and about Joey and his gang. All they did was hang out and laugh at stupid jokes. Especially if they were fart jokes. Boys liked fart jokes, but Amy didn’t see the draw.
The sound was coming from under Amy’s bed this time, she was absolutely certain! She snagged her little green flashlight and got out of bed to look. The instant her bare feet hit the floor, something grabbed her by both ankles and yanked, hard. Amy fell forward with a thump as whatever had hold of her ankles dragged her quickly under the bed. It all happened so fast Amy barely had time to take a breath. She was never able to utter a scream.
The next morning, Amy’s mother hollered up the stairs, “Amy! Time to get up kiddo. Get your butt out of that bed and come down for breakfast.”
Ten minutes later, when Amy’s mother had heard no movement from upstairs, she went up to light a fire under her daughter and get her moving. It would not do to be late for school. So, when she found Amy’s room empty, the bathroom unoccupied, and all of Amy’s school things still in the same place as the night before, she not only was concerned, she was terrified.
She called Mrs. Sterling on the phone.
“Mrs. Sterling? This is Amy’s mom. I’m sorry to call so early but you don’t happen to have Amy over there with you? Or, do you know where she is? She’s not in her room and I can’t find her anywhere in the house!”
“No, dear,” replied Mrs. Sterling. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen her. If I do, I’ll be sure to send her home.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Sterling, you’re always such a help to me!” She hung up.
When the police got involved, they did a full investigation. Amy’s room was searched and fingerprinted but no prints were found except Amy’s and her mother’s. Amy’s mother was questioned mercilessly but eventually they understood she was only a distraught parent searching for her child.
When the investigators knocked on Mrs. Sterling’s door, she answered it looking fresh as a daisy with a beautiful white smile and blue eyes sparkling. Her hair was in its usual tight bun, but she looked younger, somehow, though the investigator’s would never know how different she’d looked just forty-eight hours earlier. The investigators would also never know there was now one new little porcelain mouse on a small doily on the sitting room table.
An hour later, after the investigators left, Mrs. Sterling picked up her newest little prize and, as she gently petted the porcelain head between the ears, she whispered to it, “I think I’ll call you Amy.”
Credit: Jennifer Shell