Estimated reading time — 19 minutes
Everyone knows that kid in school, the one who spends half the school year at home because their immune system can’t handle the massive amount of germs and viruses that tend to accumulate in an elementary school. I was that kid. I found myself getting sick every other week. Something in my body was always fighting off illness and fevers were more than common. My doctors didn’t know what was causing it, but since it never was serious enough to warrant a hospital trip, they concluded that I got the short end of the stick as far as my immune system went.
This did not make my mother’s life easy, given that she had recently divorced my father when I started first grade. She needed to be able to go to work and having a sick child made it very difficult. She reluctantly asked my grandfather for help. They had been estranged for years after a fight, but he agreed to take care of me and took us both in.
Moving into my grandfather’s house was a new experience that I had never encountered. It greatly outshone the small apartment my mother and father had lived in, a large Victorian home that had been in the family for generations. It stood three stories tall and had a large yard behind it, leading into a forest. It had fallen into some disrepair over the years as my grandfather had gotten older and with no other children to want the house, he’d stopped caring for it. The neighbors had offered him help fixing it up, but he’d rejected them multiple times vehemently, stating that he didn’t want people in his business.
From what my mother had told me, he’d always been a very cold and unfriendly man, including to her. It didn’t change even around me, always feeling as though he would rather be doing anything other than talking to me. That he even took us in though made me think that there had to be some good in this man, being an optomistic child.
It was shortly after we moved in that my fevers started up. My mother had to work and my grandfather was nowhere near as attentive as my mother was, so he left me to my own devices. They were mild, enough to remove me from school, but after a few hours sleeping past when I would have woken to leave for school, I’d get bored with laying in bed and wander. And for a six year old who spent most of their time alone and stuck in a bed, a huge house was the perfect place to explore.
My bedroom had been set on the second floor, next to the master bedroom so I was always near and able to hear my grandfather’s snoring. There were multiple bedrooms on the third floor, which made me wonder why my grandfather had bought the house when he’d only lived with my grandmother and mother. My first exploration would be of downstairs though.
The kitchen was large and made me wonder how much cooking my grandmother had done when she was still alive. The tiles were chipped in many corners and it was easy for me to hide in the large pantry, thinking that it would be a perfect place to jump out from if someone passed by. Even the oven seemed oversized, darkened with stains from meals past. My grandfather didn’t cook much, but he kept a steady supply of basic things to feed myself and my mother. I had never had much of a problem with foods with a few exceptions, which was surprising when you compared most of my classmates who spent most of their days living on chicken nuggets and sandwiches with the crusts cut off and only grape jelly.
The living room was a bit bare, the carpet worn down and rough to the touch. An old and torn couch stood in front of a television that barely functioned, looking archaic and rabbit ears bent in multiple directions. The scratches on the couch looked animalistic and I wondered if my grandparents had once owned animals and just never bothered to get it fixed. Outside of a set of dusty coffee tables, a flickering lamp and a grandfather clock that rang out with a distorted chime, nothing else interested me in this room. I didn’t imagine that it was used very often.
What was used often was the study. It was where my grandfather spent most of his time, looking over books and writing down words and numbers that were impossible for me to comprehend. Even as an adult, I still struggle with the cryptic poems and drawings that seemed to be his entire life’s work. He’d taken up most of the wall space with bookshelves and stocked them to the ceiling. The constant smell of pipe tobacco wafted out from this room and hung on his clothing. I learned very quickly not to bother him when he was in there. The look he cast to me when I knocked on the door was one of anger and disdain. When I asked what he was working on, he shooed me out of the room and told me to never go in there again, that it was not a room for children.
When the downstairs became boring, I made my way up the stairs and to the third floor. This one was even more empty, nothing but the doors to the bedrooms and a stained bathroom, along with a window that you could see the forest behind the house from. I struggled to see where the forest ended, looking like an endless sea of green and brown, darker as you tried to see further.
I checked the bathroom first. Again, everything seemed a bit oversized, but I was a rather small kid, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by it. The bathtub made me happy, I could practically swim in it. When I leaned in to look, it was stained dark on the bottom, darker than porcelain normally would be, but with how run down the house was, it seemed to fit. I turned on the water and the water came out reddish brown before slowly becoming clear. In older houses, the pipes still had a lot of minerals and rust in them, but it still looked a bit unnerving. Seeing the clear comforted my imagination though, especially when the sink did the same thing.
I did notice something a bit strange when I opened the cabinet under the sink. Far in the back, behind a few cleaning supplies, was a lone and dirty rubber duck. I found it odd because it didn’t seem at all like my grandfather to keep something this childish about, but concluded that it must have been my mother’s when she was younger and just abandoned. Feeling a sense of fondness, I took the duck from the cabinet and did my best to wash it off. The poor thing had been left there so long, when the grime came off from him, his yellow body was almost bleached white. His eyes, once black and shiny, looked grey and lifeless. I still liked the little duck though, and decided to take it with me as I explored.
The bedrooms disappointed me for the most part, looking long unused. There were three all together. The first was the most barren of the three, a long faded blue rug half crumpled on the floor and the bare frames of a twin bed in the corner of the room. The wooden slats on the bottom looked cracked and broken, as though someone had stepped on them or jumped violently on the mattress when it was still there.
The second had a bit more in it, barren bookshelves with a few thin books far too high for me to reach. Again, another abandoned bed frame sat in the corner of the room, missing its mattress as well and in just the same shape as the other bed. By now, I certainly wondered why my grandfather had multiple beds up here and who used to live in these rooms.
In the last bedroom, there was a dresser and eerily enough, a crib. My first thought was that this had been my mother’s when she was a baby. It was very small, a change from so much of the oversized objects in the house, just big enough for an infant. Off to the side of the room was what caught my attention. There was a door in the wall, a small square door that I guessed led to the attic. When I tried to pull the door, I found it was stuck closed fairly tightly. I pulled again and once more, but being out of bed and having been wandering up and down stairs had made me tired. I could feel my body begin to ache and decided that it would be an exploration for another day, dragging myself back down to my bedroom and laying down on my bed, falling asleep. The duck that I had kept in my hand stayed on the pillow beside me.
Someone had their hand on my head, feeling my forehead. There were whisperings above me, but they didn’t sound like my mother or my grandfather. They sounded like kids, people my age. I thought I felt a weight on my chest for a bit. Another hand touched my arm, a small hand. Having had many feverish nights, I thought I was dreaming until I could feel fingernails starting to dig into my arm. The whispers turned to snickers and laughs, something dark. I wanted to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. Something had me pressed down and whatever was laying on my chest was pressing to my throat.
It was quiet. The hands and whispers were gone. The weight on my throat and chest was gone. I could open my eyes again. When I did, I found the duck sitting on my chest, staring at my bedroom door. It was the evening now and I knew my mother would be getting home. A nightmare, I told myself. A fever dream. I’d had lots of them before, and knew none of them were real, this couldn’t have been real. I rubbed my arm where I had felt the nails, not bothering to see if they had been real or not.
My mother swooped me up when she came home, looking tired and worried, telling me how much she missed me. My grandfather had barely left the room all day and somewhere in my sleeping, he’d left me a sandwich and juice, not wanting to wake me. My stomach still was in a knot, but seeing them both in the house helped to ease my nerves.
I decided that night to take my rubber friend into the bath with me before I went to bed. My mother filled up the bathtub, making a comment of rust in the pipes as the reddish brown water flowed out and then faded into clear, and helping me in. It felt soothing and watching the little discolored duck float was amusing. It almost seemed to smile, being in use again. Remembering, I asked my mom when she got it. She looked confused at me.
“I wasn’t much for baths myself. I never had a rubber duck.”
I gave a small “oh” at her and looked back at it. It had been so dirty, it had to have been there from long before. In the middle of my thoughts, I could hear her cellphone ring.
“Ahh, sorry honey, Mommy will be right back.” She said apologetically, rushing off the get her cellphone and take the call.
Now it was just me and the rubber duck. All alone in the bathtub and not able to see my mother’s figure, the walls of the tub seemed higher and larger, almost growing. I felt like I was shrinking and brought the duck to my body, not wanting to lose him in the water that seemed to be expanding around me. I could hear the same noises from my dream earlier, the same snickers and whispers. The thought that I was still dreaming crossed my mind, or that I was getting sicker, but the sounds were getting clearer and clearer. I could make out two voices, a little boy’s and a girl’s, having a quiet conversation. The third made no sense. It sounded like a baby’s gurgle but it was much too…distorted and almost sounded like choking. They were getting louder. And closer to me. Until it felt like they were over the side of the tub. I felt as though if I brought my eyes up away from the duck in my hand, I would see them. As a hand touched my shoulder, I could contain my fear no longer and screamed for my mother.
Her footsteps stomped to the bathroom and she burst in, frightened and worried for me safety. When I looked up, there was nothing but her in the doorway. No children, no baby. Only me and the duck. I wrapped my arms around her and cried, scared and telling her that someone was there, that someone touched me. She held me and stroked my back, telling me that the fever was making me imagine things, that I was sick and she’d take care of me, make it better. I tried to argue with her, but she told me that crying would make my fever worse and to just breathe, that she was there.
She toweled me off and put me to bed, telling me how important it was that I get better, that she loved me and even though it was hard for her to be here, she always would be and if I really needed her, she’d come. I don’t know what drove me to, but I brought the rubber duck to bed with me. She didn’t seem bothered by it. She even patted its head and said it would be a good dream companion, keep me safe. It may have been my imagination, but when I looked at it before she turned out the light, it almost seemed to smile and its eyes darken a bit.
When my mother turned off the light and left me in the dark, fear gripped my heart for a bit. I had wondered if those strange whispers and creatures were going to come for me when I went to bed. I had heard them before, I was sure of it. Would they wait for me to sleep? Would they just come in the dark? What were they, were they human? I couldn’t close my eyes, I was too frightened. The noises never came though. I could hear my grandfather’s snoring on the other side of my wall and my mother’s softer sleeping sighs as well. I couldn’t stay awake forever, as hard as I tried. I set the duck on the dresser beside me and bid it goodnight before falling back to sleep.
I heard them again. I was sure of it. Footsteps heading towards my bed. I had awoken before they got to me and could hear them. My breath caught and my hand moved slowly over to my dresser, feeling the rubber of the duck and where its head was turned, facing me. I’m not sure what compelled me to do it, but as a kid, you get some crazy ideas of what might help and protect you. In a moment, I grabbed the toy from my dresser and pointed its gaze to the sound, yelling “Go away!”
To my surprise, I heard a pair of tiny shrieks and something move through the open door, small footsteps on the stairs. I panted, holding the toy tight. Someone was there. They were real, I wasn’t imagining it. I wasn’t going to waste any time. I jumped from my bed and dashed into the master bedroom, duck still in my hand.
“Mommy, Grandpa, there’s something upstairs!” I called out, shocking them both and my mother turning on the light. I ran into her arms and buried my face in her chest, telling her of the kids in my room, the talking, that I heard them run up the stairs. My mother tried to calm me down, but my grandfather seemed angry and ripped me from her arms, holding mine and telling me to stop this nonsense and go back to bed, stop telling lies. My mother looked cross at him and told him that I was frightened and should stay with them. He argued that there was no one in this house and I wasn’t going to learn to handle myself unless I stopped being coddled. Not wanting to keep an argument going that late at night, my mother got up and said she’d stay in my bed for the night and keep watch over me. Looking irritated, my grandfather grunted and curled back up in bed, telling her to turn off the damn light on her way out.
My mother held me all night in my small bed. I think she must have been uncomfortable, but she didn’t seem to mind at all. Her warmth was comforting and within minutes, I had fallen back to sleep.
She did this every night for the next three nights, particularly as my fever got worse. The whispers stayed away when she was there, and after the first day, I grew nervous about napping when she wasn’t home. It left me worn out and exhausted, aggravating my illness. I felt a heavy throbbing in my ears and the morning of the fourth day, I couldn’t hear at all.
The doctor had said I had a severe ear infection and needed a lot of rest and antibiotics. It was an unnerving thing, not being able to hear. You take it for granted when you can, all the little things you missed. I wasn’t able to hear the tea kettle in the kitchen, nor the creak of the floorboards as I walked up and down the stairs, nor the sound of birds in the forest out behind the backyard. During this time, the duck, who I had named Leonard, never left my side. Whatever those things were, they didn’t seem to like him. He seemed to like me though and as I carried him around, his eyes seemed to get darker and shinier.
My fever spiked in the night and I could barely move from my bed. My mother watched over me, worried. She wrote things down on a notepad so I could understand what she was saying. She talked to my grandfather a lot and even though I couldn’t hear, I could tell they were fighting by the looks on their faces. When he left, she looked defeated and wrote something down on the paper.
“Mommy will be sleeping in Grandpa’s room tonight. You just call if you need anything, okay?”
I nodded and she kissed my forehead, the little concerned wrinkle in her brow as she turned off the light. I was so tired, that once she left the door, my eyes closed into sleep.
It did not last long though. I realized shortly after I had fallen asleep. I couldn’t hear them! I couldn’t hear if they were coming into my room or not! My skin tingled and a cold sweat started up in my body. My hand scrambled about my dresser, but somehow, I had dropped the duck from its place beside me. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t there! Tears began to form in my eyes, thinking that I couldn’t hear the creatures that were coming in, that my friend, my only friend, was gone and couldn’t protect me. Even calling for my mother wouldn’t work, they’d get me before she got there.
My blood ran cold as I could feel hands, two hands on each arm touch me, hold me down. The pressure returned to my chest. They were here. They were here and there was nothing I could do about it. Tears dripped down the side of my face and something else did. Whatever was on my chest was looking down at me, its head over mine and dripping something thick and cold, putrid smelling. It smelled like the rusted water from the bathtub, but far worse. I could see it staring down at me, small head silhouetted in the darkness by what little light I could see. The ones on the sides were digging their hands into me, and I could feel how slimy their hands were, cold and disgusting. I was sure I was going to die. My throat was being constricted, tiny malformed hands pressing to my neck and choking me. Everything was feeling tighter and tighter around me. The pressure was growing stronger and stronger and their grip on my arms dug into my skin. A feeling of resignation and relief came over me as I began to pass out.
A bright light flashed before my eyes, two small screams could be heard and all at once, it was all gone. I sat up, gasping for breath and heard something fall to the floor. Quickly, I turned on my light and reached for it. It was Leonard. All his color had returned, but it looked as though someone had tried to burn him, black misshapen patches on his body. He looked happy though. I hugged the small toy to me and cried, cried harder than I ever had before. It woke up my mother. I told her I didn’t want to stay here anymore and begged her to go somewhere else, to move, anywhere. She held me close and cried with me and promised me that we’d go somewhere else. Maybe it was the way I was crying or when she saw what looked like dark dried blood on my cheeks and arms, she knew something was deeply wrong.
Thankfully, one of my mother’s coworkers had the kindness in her heart to take us in. We moved out of my grandfather’s house, who barely said a word to us when we left, walking back inside to his study, I imagined. I would not leave Leonard behind. He stayed with me on the move and still stays by my bedside, even as I have long grown into an adult. I did not hear any whispers or feel any more presence in the nights. After that night, my illnesses suddenly cleared. I was able to go to school and function as a normal kid.
When my grandfather died, I was a teenager in high school. My mother called me and asked if I would help move a few things out of the house, though she did ask rather gingerly. I said that I would.
When we returned to the house, close to ten years after we had left, it was in even worse shape than we had remembered. The windows were coming off the hinges, the roof had rotted and fallen in at places from heavy rains and the plant life was overgrown outside the house. We walked inside and the smell was horrendous, reeking of mildew and the vague scent of death. She cringed and asked me to look for anything that may be saved, otherwise to leave it. I don’t think she wanted anything from that house and would have burned it to the ground right then if she could.
I walked into the study and the smell of death was stronger than anywhere in the house. The chair where he had sat often was stained with something unmentionable. I imagined that was probably where he had died. A book lay open on his desk and I picked it up. The text was close to illegible, but I could read small words and dates, March 13th and April 2nd. They showed up repeatedly. I glanced through some of his other books and many were just the same, scattered drawings and journals everywhere. I picked up the ones that seemed the most important and left the room, happy to be out of the smell.
After disposing of the long rotted food in the fridge and pantry, I made my way upstairs, a sense of apprehension in my body. I’m not sure what I expected, it looked just the same as when I had briefly lived there ten years ago. The forest still expanded out into a sea of trees, and even as an adult, I could not see where they ended.
I remembered the second bedroom and the books that were on the shelf and went to see if they were still there. Indeed, they were and I reached up for them. They were photo albums and a journal. The photos seemed to go from the most recent to the older. I looked through and found pictures of my mother, going from a teenager to a child, to a toddler. When I got halfway through, I found other pictures that left me confused. They were pictures of children, a boy and a girl. They looked old and worn away, slightly distorted and black around the edges of it. They were mixed up, but the oldest they seemed to be was around 7 years old. In one particular picture, they were standing and waving to the camera with my grandmother in her younger years. She looked to be pregnant. In another picture was the boy in the bathtub smiling up at the camera. Holding Leonard.
My skin prickled as I stared at the photos. No one had said anything about other children. As far as I had known, my mother was their only child. Why would my grandfather hide this from her, from me, from…anyone? I closed the album and put it in the box with the journals, looking at the other book that had been on the shelf. When I opened it, a small envelope fell out. It had never been sealed shut. With a shaking hand, I opened it and pulled out the documents. They were birth and death certificates. The dates…1950 to 1957. 1951 to 1957. Causes of death, drowning. And…my grandmother’s. 1922 to 1957. Cause of death, suicide. Down in the doctor’s notes, it detailed her autopsy.
“The patient suffered multiple self inflicted wounds to the stomach and chest. The largest wound was created on the lower abdominal region and ruptured the uterus and small intestine. A brief blood sample and the expanded uterus lead to belief that the woman had been pregnant. Blood and amniotic fluid had been found around the woman’s mouth, as well as unknown flesh found in her teeth. No infant body was discovered with her and investigation is still in progress.”
This…was sickening. Was I reading this right? It was saying that…my grandmother had killed herself and tried to eat her own child? There was no death certificate for any infant in the bunch. Had they never found it? I looked through the book, searching for anything that would give me a clue about the children, what had really happened. There were places in the book where pages had been torn out. I searched the room desperately and found them having fallen behind the bookshelf. The writing was not my grandfather’s, it was far too neat and legible. The first page had the date of March 12th, 1957.
“They’re gone. I can’t…even believe it. My babies. He won’t even look at me. He thinks I did it. I turned my back for a minute. Just a minute….what a cruel world, to take ones so young. He keeps staring at me. Those eyes are burning holes in me, I can’t stand it. He’s looking at the young one in my stomach. He’s thinking I’ll drown it too. That man…he won’t hold me, won’t comfort me, won’t shed a tear for them.
What if he’s right though? The thought of my child coming into this world and losing them…no! No, I can’t let it happen! I can’t let them suffer, breathe in this foul air of the world, to be forced into existance just because I wanted another child…how selfish am I? I need…to help him. Save him from this world, but…I can’t bear losing another. What will I do?”
The second page seemed to be a letter. I was marked with the date of April 2nd. I tried to wipe off the dirt that seemed to be staining the page before I realized what the splotches and stains actually were: long dried blood. My body trembled and I feared what it would say. How long had my grandfather been hiding this? Against my better judgement, I carried on.
“my darling child,
i don’t have much time. i held you today, covered in my life and fluids, cut from my womb. you’re crying so quiet, i didn’t think you’d be so big, able to cry. i had hoped you’d be small enough to just sleep. even though you’re not ready, you look so beautiful. i made a mistake. don’t worry baby. i’ll put you back, then we’ll go together. i’ll bring you back in my body before we leave this world. then you won’t ever be alone. Mommy loves you so”
The letter seemed to cut off there and a trailing pen mark led off the paper, which made me guess that my grandmother had lost consciousness while writing it. My hands were shaking violently and tears had stared to form in my eyes. I dreaded the thought of showing this to my mother, finding out her mother was…No. I’d keep this to myself. She didn’t need to know. I put the letters back into the envelope and took the album and the book. I’d clear out the album when I got home, give her pictures and burn the others. They somewhat looked like someone had already tried.
The last room to inspect was the third bedroom. The roof had collapsed over this one and rotted wood and tiles lay scattered about. The crib that had been there before seemed to be missing. I was about to turn and leave, seeing nothing of value to take when I remembered and a chill went through my spine. The attic. I had never made it in as a kid. Given what I had found on the bookshelf, I thought of just leaving it be. I didn’t want to know. But…I knew I had to.
With a yell, I yanked open the door, feeling it snap at the top hinge. The smell of dust and dampness seeped out. I could barely see inside, but there was a light bulb hanging inside. My hand searched the side of the wall and found the switch when I crawled inside. What I found made me scream out loud.
The crib that had been in the room before had been put in there. The floorboards were stained all over underneath it. Inside the crib, the small mattress was covered with a red and black sludge, looking like it was slowly breathing, gasping for air. It moved and what looked like a misshapen and contorted face. It opened its mouth at me and let out that same gurgling cry I heard so many years ago.
I did not stay any longer. I scrambled out the small door, slammed the attic door shut and grabbed the box, running out of the house faster than I had ever moved. My mother caught me outside and asked what was the matter. I told her that something was living there, something that needed to die, that we needed to get away. She worked to calm me down and got me to the car, driving off as fast as she could to get us back home.
I never went back. I never stepped foot in the neighborhood again. My mother told me a few years after that, a storm had caught fire to the roof and the entire thing lit up and collapsed from poor care. I gave my mother the journals and took the photos of the children, my grandmother’s entries and the death certificates. I tried to burn them, but they would not catch fire, as hard as I tried, only blackening the edges. The documents and pictures are kept far away in a storage of mine, hidden there to be forgotten and abandoned when I die or for someone who knew nothing of her or our family to find one day, far off in the future.
I do not know or care if that thing…is still alive. What I know is that Leonard still remains by my bedside at night. His head is always, always turned to the door. My husband thinks I’m crazy, but tolerates it. I won’t let him turn on the radio at night. I can’t take the chance of not hearing the whispers again if they ever do return. He says he doesn’t like the silence at night.
He doesn’t know what the real silence is.
Credit: Ariane M.D.
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