Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
It was the latest in a string of sweltering summer nights, where the air was thick with humidity and even the faintest breeze was an honest-to-God miracle. Outside, the lawn had withered to a sickly yellow, with earth showing through in intermittent patches like the branch of a tree peeking out from beneath its peeling bark. Although the clock above the sink read quarter of ten, the heat was still unbearable. The sun was winking out behind vistas of distant mountains, their jagged peaks silhouetted beautifully against the fiery red orb, yet its searing gaze still kept the residents of Los Alamos imprisoned within their homes. Peering outside was like viewing the world through an orange-tinted looking glass, dolls lay forgotten on dead grass, content to endure the sultry predations of Mother Nature with their plastic faces tightened in grimaces of silent displeasure. Shimmering waves of heat radiated above the deserted asphalt streets, daring any who were brave enough to come out, come out, and endure their blistering caress.
Wiping her forehead with the towel, Cara tossed it onto the draining board, turning away from the kitchen window and the view of the lifeless, washed-out landscape it offered.
Someone screamed from the living room, the sound soaring to a high-pitched crescendo before being abruptly cut off into an oppressive silence. Smiling to herself, Cara sauntered through the doorway, absent-mindedly twirling a single ashen ringlet of hair around her third finger. The white band where her wedding ring had been until last December still stood in stark contrast against her deeply tanned skin.
Dracula stood with his usual haughtiness and grace, a lithe young woman in his arms, her thin silk shift clinging to all the right places, accentuating the subtle curves of the female form with ease. Her head was tilted back, exposing the exquisite marble skin of her neck. The Prince of Darkness drew back his lips, revealing a pair of elongated canines; twins both sleek and deadly. Dracula bought his mouth down to the sweeping contour of her neck, baring those savage yet eloquent fangs in the moonlight-
‘Mum, no!’ Abby groaned, as the TV snapped off, shifting to an upright position on the sofa, ‘Turn it back on, turn it back on!’
‘You know the rule, Abs,’ Cara replied, ‘nine-thirty on a week night, no later.’
‘But Mary-Beth st-‘
‘Is your name Mary-Beth?’ Cara asked, continuing before Abby had a chance to reply, her voice soft but firm. ‘It’s on tape anyway, so you can watch the rest of it after school tomorrow.’ She shook her head. ‘I’ll never understand your fascination with those horrid films as long as I live.’
Forlorn and defeated, Abby jumped down from the sofa and headed for the foot of the stairs, before stopping to turn and look back at Cara. ‘Is he coming again tonight? Is he?’
Smiling, Cara hunkered down in front of her daughter, running a hand through Abby’s sandy curls. ‘I think, now that it’s finally out, he’ll come and take it straight away.’
Abby looked back at her with staunch defiance, that tell-tale glint of stubbornness beginning to show in her sapphire eyes. ‘I told you,’ she said, in an exasperated tone, ‘he came last night, but he didn’t stay. He’s angry with me now.’
Cara, although now a woman of thirty-two, remembered how it was being nine; old enough to know better, yet still clinging to the last vestiges of childhood magic, before they were swept away in the ensuing storm of teenage angst. Before she knew it, Abby would be more concerned with eye shadow and mini-skirts than Hammer horror and dolls. But for now, she was just Abs, her perfect princess.
‘Of course he isn’t sweetie,’ she said, ‘I’ve got a feeling he’s even more excited then you are.’
‘Promise. Now, give your mother a kiss goodnight,’ Cara looked down expectantly, and Abby dutifully obliged, kissing her on the cheek before throwing her arms around her, sending her mother tumbling onto her backside. Laughing together, mother and daughter, Cara hugged her tightly, sending her upstairs with a kiss on the nose and a reminder to brush her teeth.
Still smiling, Cara flopped down onto the sofa. Raising a child single-handedly was difficult, the long days at the factory hard, demanding work. But it was worth it for Abby, for her beautiful little girl. Give it half an hour and Abs would be asleep, then Cara would slip upstairs and replace the lost tooth with $5- from her conversations with the other mothers at work, she’d determined that this was the going rate for the first baby tooth. Lying down with her head on the armrest, Cara switched the TV back on, hoping to catch headlines on the ten o’clock news. She was asleep within minutes.
Upstairs, Abby finished brushing, flossed, changed into her pink My Pretty Pony pyjamas, and shut off the strip light above the cabinet. Now came the part she hated: turning off the bathroom light and dashing down the hall to her bedroom in the darkness.
Tonight, the sense of impending doom came not from the Frankenstein Monster, nor from the Mummy, raised from his tomb to lurk in the moonlit corridor beyond the door. No, this evening’s dread came courtesy of the Prince of Darkness himself. Surely he was waiting silently in the wings, to seize her as soon as she set foot out there, and steal her away to Castle Dracula, where she would be dragged down to the deepest depths of the yawning catacombs, or thrown to the salivating wolves that had menaced Mr Harker, their maws filled with razor-sharp teeth, ready to tear her to pieces and devour the remains.
Shuddering, Abby pulled the door open, took a deep breath, yanked the light switch off and ran. But there were no vampires, werewolves or bogeymen lying in wait tonight, and Abby threw herself into bed the second she crossed the threshold of her room, bundling herself under the covers even before the door slammed shut behind her. Fear immediately transmuted itself to safety. Here, in her own room, wrapped in her own duvet, she was safe from all the monsters on earth. She knew it, as surely as she knew who would visit her in her sanctuary later that night.
The Tooth Fairy.
He had been here last night, but Abby’s tooth had still been in her mouth then. Now, thanks to some subtle persuasion from her fingers, it lay beneath her pillow in a soft velvet pouch her mother had given her. Sliding one hand underneath to check, she was relieved to feel the soft material against her fingertips. Butterflies of excitement took flight in her stomach. But she had to sleep; after all, the Tooth Fairy only came once you were asleep- everyone knew that. With a perfunctory yawn, Abby flopped back onto her pillows, losing herself in the sweet, dreamless sleep with which the young are surely blessed.
It’s a beautiful summer day, the sun is warm and there is a gentle breeze drifting on the wind. Cara sits at the picnic bench, sorting through the food she packed for herself and Abby. She is just unwrapping some of the sandwiches -peanut butter and jelly, of course- when she hears Abby gasp.
Startled, Cara turns to look at her daughter. Abby, still with the string of her kite clenched firmly in one small fist, is just where Cara knew she would be. Only now, there is something else, standing at the edge of the tree line. Cara nearly screams, because for a second, she is sure that the shape in the foliage is humanoid: tall and thin, with an oversized head. But as soon as it steps out onto the verdant summer grass, she realises her mistake.
Standing less than five feet away from her daughter is an elk, its gnarled horns resplendent; its stance majestic and proud. Despite the natural grace of this creature, Cara feels that something isn’t right about it, that there is an underlying decay gnawing away at the flesh beneath that rugged fur. Abby takes a small step towards it, her scarlet summer dress standing in stark contrast to the elks deep brown hide, forming a surreal juxtaposition of man and nature. The elk raises its shaggy head, and Cara feels unreality wash over her in a crushing wave. Huge, empty black eyes stare back at her, absent of both emotion and warmth: twin pits of Stygian darkness.
It takes a step towards Abby; she in turn moves closer, letting the string of her kite slip through her fingers. Cara wants to shout at her, to pull her away from the not-elk, whatever it is. Instead, she finds her gaze drawn to the kite, drifting in lazy arcs across the pristine blue sky. Unable to tear her eyes away from its loops and swirls, she can do nothing except listen to her daughter scream, the dissonance carrying across the rolling hills surrounding them. The world around her begins to fade, colour and clarity blurring into an opaque darkness that enfolds her.
For several seconds Cara is disorientated. Where am I? She wonders. Why aren’t I at the park? There was something…an animal? Staring raptly around her, the murk of the living room begins to unfold, revealing all the old familiar faces: the television set her mother gave them for Christmas last year: the framed photos of Abby that adorn the walls: the bookcase in the corner crammed full of paperback romance novels.
It was just a dream. Of course it was just a dream.
Somewhere above her, a floorboard creaked ever-so-subtly.
Sitting upright, her hand steals unknowingly to the curls of her hair, wrapping them around slim, elegant fingers. Was Abby out of bed? Cara sits rigid in the gloom, straining her ears. Nothing. If Abby was out of bed, Cara knows she would have heard either the bedroom door open or the bathroom light. Instead, she hears only silence. Somewhere in Cara’s mind, a long-dormant warning siren begins to sound.
No, not silence: a slight, almost non-existent groan as the heat-warped floorboards shift against one another. Exactly as they would if someone were moving stealthily across them.
Now Cara understands: Abby is in danger. From what, or who, she doesn’t know. Only that her daughter, the most precious thing in the world, needs her. Without a second thought, Cara dashes to the kitchen, striking her hip on the counter in the semi-darkness. Stifling a grunt of pain, she flounders with the wooden block, her normally lithe digits fumbling against sleek metal handles. Without pausing for a split-second, she sprints to the foot of the stairs and hurtles upwards.
Abby opened her eyes, her mind shifting from sleeping to fully awake in a matter of seconds as she realised what had roused her from her slumber. Purple light filled her vision, and for a moment it was all Abby could see, before her eyes began to adjust. Now she could make out the tall figure, standing motionless beside the bureau. Swirling shapes of iridescence twirled gracefully around him like thin ribbons, and as the Tooth Fairy stepped forwards, Abby’s jaw dropped open in wonder.
Everything swam into focus with crystal clarity now: the ornate silver wand in his left hand, his right extended towards her in a gesture of grandeur: the way the air around him sparkled and shimmered: his regal attire, purple fit-for-a-king velvets complimented by a scarlet cloak trimmed with gold. He took another step towards her, bringing him almost to the edge of the bed. His aroma filled her nostrils now, calming and sweet; a meadow of flowers in full bloom, a forest floor on a breezeless summer eve. There was more, another taste that lingered subtly beneath the currents of air that eddied around him: the scent of Disneyland and new bikes; of puppies and ponies; of childhood dreams made reality. Although she was too young to fully appreciate it, he was darkly handsome, in an arrogant, aristocratic way, with deep auburn eyes to lose yourself in; able to melt the heart of any female foolish enough to gaze into them. He reminded Abby of the princes in the Disney cartoons her girlfriends liked so much: dashing and brave, always managing to rescue the imperilled princess in the nick of time, before sweeping her into his arms with a lingering kiss.
Sitting up in bed, Abby’s hand scrambled frantically under the pillow for her tooth, for a moment fearing it was lost, and that he would once more depart in anger. But no, her fingers closed around the familiar velvet pouch. Her heart beating a frantic tattoo against her ribcage, Abby leaned forward, pressing the hand holding the pouch gingerly into the Tooth Fairy’s palm. Only as his hand closed upon hers did their eyes meet, and for a fraction of a second beneath his brow were two open graves, yawning black abysses that loomed hollow and foreboding. Then the Tooth Fairy smiled, revealing perfect teeth whiter than sun-bleached bone. All was well again, and Abby squeezed his hand, smiling back.
With her heart somewhere in her throat, Cara took the last three stairs in a single stride. The door to Abby’s room was closed, and there was no immediate sign that anything was amiss. Yet Cara remained unconvinced as she covered the remaining distance of the landing: there was danger, no doubt about it, imminent and all too real. Her intuition screamed that it was so. Her mind swam with thoughts of home invasion, burglars or -God help her- sexual perverts. She grasped the brass handle, images of escaped mental patients and deranged psychopaths flitting before her eyes. Cara threw the bedroom door open, and the terror that had seeded itself in her breast unfurled in full, threatening to drag her down and drown her in unconsciousness.
The waxing moon hung low and pregnant in the sky and its baleful light streamed in through the picture-window, illuminating a grotesque scene no fear of sexual predators or prowlers could have prepared her for. Abby was sitting upright on the edge of the bed; duvet and sheets pushed roughly aside, her face was a blissful mask of appraisal. Cara’s gaze barely alighted on her daughter, however; it was the thing standing next to the bed which caused her breath to catch in her throat and her eyes to bulge in their sockets.
The grey man was tall even with a slight hunch; he -it- would have been forced to stoop had it entered through the door.
Of course, Cara already knew that it hadn’t.
It was naked and completely hairless; its skin, pockmarked and rough, unerringly similar to the hide of an elephant, was pulled taunt over an emaciated frame –Cara could see the grey man’s ribs, three on either side- and hideously concave chest. It had no genitalia that she could see, the area where its legs met simply curved upwards in a seamless continuation of the torso. In one hand it held a sinister metal rod, dull despite the moonlight that flooded the room. Several curved protrusions jutted diagonally from its length, revolving with a slow, menacing intent that made Cara’s blood run cold. In the other it held her daughters hand, its three fingers of such a length that they easily encircled the fragile limb, with several inches to spare.
The grey man’s inverted tear-drop shaped head swivelled like that of an owl to stare at her. Having a daughter like Abby, Cara had seen countless episodes of The X-Files and creature-features galore, yet none of those had come within a mile of portraying the stark emptiness of those huge, expressionless black eyes, so clinical, so emotionless and cold. Its nose was almost non-existent, the faintest hint of a triangular dent. Beneath it was a thin, rudimentary mouth, lipless and devoid of any discernible emotion. But its eyes- dear God, if she survived this, Cara knew that they would haunt her evermore.
Despite the sheer, undiluted horror she faced, one thought remained steadfast in her mind: Abby.
That thing is holding my daughters hand.
Holding the Forever-Sharp kitchen knife in front of her, she took a step towards the grey man, unsure of whether she could actually do anything, but knowing that she had to do something. It inclined its head to the right, assessing her as an inquisitive fox would an unlatched bin, and Cara fell to her knees. The stainless steel blade jumped from her hand and skittered away across the floor, coming to rest in the domain of shadows beneath the bed. There was something inside her head, crushing her mind with the force of hundreds, no, thousands of tons of pressure; the pain was unimaginable, and unbidden her hands flew to her face in a futile bid for release. Her daughter was forgotten and the grey man no longer mattered. There was nothing except the pain that flooded her, overwhelming her senses in a fusillade of suffering. She tore at her face, raking deep gashes that immediately welled with blood. Still the agony persisted, and her frantic digits turned their machinations to her eyes, gouging and tearing with the sheer ferocity of a rabid dog.
The last image to grace her retinas was that of her smiling daughter standing hand-in-hand with something straight from the set of a late night sci-fi flick. Then the world descended into blackness and her sight flickered out like a dying street light as the tips of two artificial nails tore through her visual cortex, and Cara’s world became nothing more than pain and darkness.
From the Los Alamos Herald, August 28th, 2001:
MISSING CHILD CONTINUES
Mother Held In Connection With Disappearance;
Police Fear Mental Instability
A thirty-two year old woman is facing scrutiny over the
disappearance of her nine-year-old daughter, after an
on-going FBI investigation revealed startling evidence of severe underlying mental disorders. Cara Moretz, a lifelong
resident of New Mexico, was hospitalized late Thursday night, after police entered her home in response to an anonymous 911 call. According to Richard Delbuana, a paramedic on-scene during the night, Moretz was found in a state of severe delirium and panic. ‘We -the attending officers, along with my partner and I- were forced to sedate her to prevent further self-mutilation; she was hysterical, raving about Martians, for Christ’s sake,’ said a shaken Delbuana, ‘there were empty red pits where her eyes should have been. Every time I close my eyes, I see that woman’s face without hers.’ The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived on scene Friday morning, and in less than forty-eight hours uncovered records indicating that Moretz may have suffered
from severe schizophrenia, paranoia and delusional episodes.
This raises difficult questions for the Los Alamos Department o-
Continued on Page 4
Credit To – Tom Farr