By: Tina E. Anton
You hear the playful shriek of children on the beachfront. You could pull back the window drape and watch them romp while reminiscing on your own childhood, but you are old, and you know better. Knuckles that are gnarled and ache before the summer rains have turned white from your grip on the chair arms. You are old because you learned the lesson early.
Outside, the cheerful calls and high pitched words are joined by a familiar sound. The gray hardwood rumbles under your slippered feet. You pinch your eyes closed, afraid to see and be seen in return.
You know what comes next. What always comes next.
The children’s voices turn confused.
You rock back and forth in your chair. Pale, wrinkled hands slap against your ears in a futile attempt to block out the shrill screams that end in a delicate crunch of bones. The sound of a pencil gripped too tight.
The house stops shaking, but you do not. You know what you will see, but the all-consuming need to confirm is more potent than a decade’s old fear. You stand on trembling legs, back bent at a forty-five-degree angle, and shuffle over to the window. An unsteady hand unclips one of the barrettes that has kept guard against the outside world for fifty-six years and you pull the curtains apart just enough to peek one eye through. Your glasses snag on the fabric, and sunlight glints off them, giving you a vertigo moment before the world outside turns into familiar shapes.
The beach stretches out into infinity, rolling brown-green hills on one side and undulating blue on the other. You heave a relieved sigh. They left no remains behind. There are already enough barely buried children’s bones littering the shimmering sand.
A movement catches your gaze, and you squint until you can make out a yellow flag among the seashells and driftwood. Except it is not a flag. You recognize a child’s size yellow windbreaker. One arm is missing. The hood is caught on a brush pile, letting the wind pull and twist at it with greedy hands.
At that moment, you do something you have not done since the moment you learned the lesson. You hate Them.
Your toes feel the tremor before the rest of you. The curtain seems to close of its own accord as you back away from the window. The lesson you learned as a boy—the one that has kept you alive all of this time—hammers against the inside of your skull like a stormy wave.
Don’t draw their attention.
You do not even dare to picture Them in your thoughts. They might hear. Already you spent too long looking out at the evidence of Their latest kill. It might be the last thing you ever did—a single moment of weakness bringing an end to a lifetime of witnessing Their aftermath.
Your body is shaking so hard it takes twice as long to get back to the chair. When you finally sit, it is with a sense of relief. Your toes have stopped jiggling in their socks.
You picture that fluttering yellow windbreaker and then, unbidden, a memory of Them snaps across the front of your brain. Hatred flares in your belly and lights up your veins. You stare at your papery gray skin and wonder how it does not burst into flames with the heat of your righteous anger.
Something shifts beneath your seat. You tense moments before the world explodes into chunks of hardwood and cement. You stare in disbelief at the hole that has appeared so violently in your living room. There is something in the air. You can hear it, but you cannot seem to tear your gaze away from that gaping maw that was once your floor.
A sound whispers past your ear. On instinct, you cringe and look up. They stare back at you—all of Them with Their hideous eyes and mouths that host rows of razor-sharp teeth.
Peace settles over your heart like a numbing agent. You pull back your lips in a rebellious snarl and scream into Their void.
They smile in return, white picket teeth mocking the blazing heat that has now gone out of your blood. “You are old,” Their silence seems to squeal in your face. “You are old, and we will feast on your flesh and your marrow until there is nothing left.”
You close your eyes and listen to the snapping of jaws and feel needle-sharp pricks through your shirt as they tease your death.
You wonder who will find that you are missing. What will they think happened here? Will they see all the child bones outside and label you a killer? They would be right if they did. You listened for decades as lost children ran and begged and cried out for their mothers before being devoured by Them. You are a coward.
A cool tendril licks over your lips like a corpse kiss, and you shudder.
“Please, just get it over with,” you say, suddenly tired beyond your years. “Eat me, take me, break me. Whatever you are going to do, just do it.”
They do nothing. Your numb, iced over heart keeps beating. Hope rattles in your lungs as you swallow around a prayer.
There is a knock at the door, and your eyes flash open.
The floor is whole again. The windows are standing wide open, an easy sea breeze fingering through unfamiliar blinds.
You stare at the spot in front of you where They had been moments before. The pinpricks of their teeth are still hard against your skin. It must be a sense memory because when you run your freckled hands over your chest, there is nothing but fleece.
“Dad, are you there?” a woman’s voice calls from outside, followed by a more pronounced knock.
“Coming!” You reply, pushing yourself onto unsteady feet.
It takes several minutes to get down the hall to the door, but when you open it, a concerned middle-aged woman is standing there holding the hand of a young child who is wearing a yellow windbreaker.
“Grampa!” the child squeals in delight. He rushes forward to hug your knees.
“Dad, you okay?” the woman asks.
You blink back at her, unsure about what to say. Is she a crazy patient who escaped from a mental hospital? Did They eat you, and now you have died and been placed in some strange purgatory? Are you alive or dead?
“Dad?” she asks, moving forward slowly.
“I’m fine,” you settle on the easy answer. It is technically true even if you are not sure how you came to be here or where They have gone.
The woman’s face morphs into one of understanding and empathy. “Oh, dad. Are you having another one of your bad days?” she asks.
“Bad day?” the child at your feet asks, looking between you both with wide guileless eyes.
That was an accurate way to describe what you have experienced, but you do not trust this stranger who has inserted themselves into your home with the same disregard as Them.
“Why are you here?” you ask the woman standing in your front hall.
“Just the usual. Checking you took your meds, heating up dinner,” she recites it like an old line.
You watch with narrowed eyes as she skirts around you, pulling off the child’s yellow windbreaker and closing the door so that she can hang it on a coat rack in the corner. The child runs into the living room with a shriek of delight that freezes your bones. You wait for the rumble under your toes, but nothing happens.
“C’mon, dad. You need your meds,” she says.
An invisible thread pulls you after her, and you make your way through to the kitchen. The TV turns on in the living room.
“I wish you would agree to move in with me. I’d feel a lot better knowing you were somewhere we could keep you tethered to this side,” the woman says with a sad smile in her eyes.
Something sparks in your mind. The doe eyes and high cheekbones belong to someone you love.
“Wendy?” you ask breathlessly.
She gasps. The unopened pill bottle in her hand falls to the floor and rolls against the stove—her face twists in an attempt to hide deep anguish.
“No, dad. It’s me, Bella.” She breathes in through her nose several times before dipping to retrieve the pill bottle. “Mom died five years ago.”
There’s a brief stutter in your heart. Wendy was your wife, you remember with sudden clarity. She had been dimple smiles under the moonlight and giggles against your neck. Her voice was sweet as summer tea and full of soft passion that hid a will of iron. You ache to see her one last time.
“She kissed me under the Fort Tree,” you whisper, tapping a cold index finger against your lips as if the touch could bring you back to that moment or make her magically appear in your arms.
“A really bad day,” Bella mutters to herself as she pours a glass of water from the tap and hands it to you along with two green capsules. “Take your meds, dad. We need you to stay here. It’s not safe for you over there anymore.”
Your mind darkens with foggy confusion. “Over where, Bella, dear?” you ask your eldest daughter.
She sighs and leans her hip against the counter. You swallow down the medication and listen to your grandson, Piotr-John, watch cartoons in the other room. His delighted child voice sings along with the opening credits.
“Please, move in with me, dad. With your mental condition it’s just not safe for you to be alone anymore. What if you forget how to come back?” the strange woman pleads with you, pinching the bridge of her nose.
You feel the prickle of countless razor-sharp teeth against your chest, and you clutch at your shirt. She watches you silently. A wariness clings to her tense shoulders.
“I’m sorry, what was your name again?” you ask, as the world gains a shadow layer. The sounds in the other room take on an ominous note. “We should turn off the TV. They might hear,” you warn.
All of the blood leaves the strange woman’s face, and she strides past you. “Piotr-John,” she calls in a strangled voice, “we’re leaving.”
You listen to her drag a reluctant child out of your living room and to the front door.
“Wait!” the boy cries, “I gotta say bye to Grampa.”
There is the patter of running feet, and then a young boy is hugging your legs. You pat his head with an unfamiliar fond smile pasted onto your face.
A sharp sound makes you jump. The TV noise cuts off abruptly. The boy takes your hand and leads you toward the front door.
“Mom, you gotta say goodbye, too,” he says.
He pulls you past the living room, and you see the thick curtains, clipped closed to keep out thoughts of Them.
“There’s a hole in the floor,” the boy says, turning a confused frown on you. “What happened?”
Your feet feel a tremor that carries up to your shoulders. You hold the boy’s hand tighter in your weak grip.
“We need to be quiet,” you warn in a harsh whisper.
His frown morphs into a disconsolate scowl.
“Mom! Mom, where are you?” he cries.
Before you can slap a hand over his mouth, the boy squirms out of your hold and runs to the front hall.
There is a moment of confused murmuring and the shuffle of noisy fabric. Then the front door squeals from disuse when it opens, and you hold in a terrified scream. You know what happens next because you have heard it dozens of times. You learned the lesson early.
For a second, it is just you and the silence and your terror before a disorienting pull on your senses sends you stumbling further into the living room to perch on the edge of the pitch-black hole.
A cartoon dog laughs on the TV screen, and a woman is sobbing on the now whole living room floor.
“Piotr-John!” She yells into her hands, tears pouring through her fingers.
“Bella, what’s wrong with Piotr-John?” you ask your daughter, shuffling over to her side.
Her head snaps in your direction, and you have never seen a more horrifying pair of eyes. They beg for mercy and promise murder in the same glittering wells.
“Bring. Back. My. Son,” Bella commands you, snot slicking down her chin. “Now, dad! Go get him!”
You stumble a step back from the hurricane of unadulterated hatred and fear raging across your ever-patient daughter’s face. Something terrible has happened.
“Of course I wi-” you are mid-word when all conscious thoughts leave your mind like a murder of crows startling out of a tree. Quick, dark images darting around your mind’s eye before blank numbness settles over you.
Silence dulls the space. You blink into the numberless eyes of Them. Teeth sink into your flesh. You cry out in pain.
The smell of fresh blood and a memory of a yellow windbreaker fluttering in the sea breeze shakes you from your stupor. You fight.
Piotr-John is here somewhere. Outside, alone, and defenseless. You use all of your waning strength to tear away from Their bites, leaving bits of yourself and your clothing behind. They squeal in anger.
You run for the door. Adrenaline is able to boost your speed for a half dozen steps until you are practically falling down your front steps.
You know better than to make noise, but They have already targeted you, and there is so little time.
“Piotr-John! Come here, boy. I need to take you to your mother.” You can taste the echo of Bella’s words in your own when you add, “It isn’t safe!”
There is a scramble of yellow in your peripheral and the rumble of death under your feet. You turn, already reaching out, but are unprepared for the full force of a tiny body rocketing into your side. Both of you fall to the ground.
Your glasses remain on through some miracle, and you try to look beyond your own crumpled form to find the front stairs again. Tiny hands dig into your open wounds, sending fire down your arms and across your shoulders. It feels like it takes a small eternity to stand and move a few feet to return indoors, but They have not killed you yet.
“Hold on,” you say as you push the boy back inside.
You look up to find Bella standing in the living room doorway, her face ashen and covered in various disgusting fluids. Piotr-John flies into his mother’s arms. You watch them. A knot lodges in your throat, and you know then what you have to do before your mind leaves you again, and you no longer remember the stakes. These two precious people mean everything to you.
“Remember me, sweetheart,” you tell your daughter, smiling to her through the tears that are now clouding your vision.
“Dad, you’re hurt?” her voice is gruff and wet, “I’ll call an ambulance.” She’s already fumbling with her jean pocket.
You feel the edges of your smile soften to something impossibly gentle. The same smile you felt on your face when you told Piotr-John his pet hamster had died.
“Honey, nowhere is safe as long as the door between here and there stands open. That terrible, wonderful place where lost children never age. I spent so long there before your mother opened that door and brought me through—brought me here.” Your chest feels ready to burst with the chasm of need that breaks open within you. “I miss your mother, Bella. Let me go to her. It’s the only way I can guarantee my slip-ups will hurt no one else.”
“Oh, dad,” she sobs.
“Take care of Piotr-John. Never lose him, sweetheart,” you say.
She hugs her son tighter as if she could envelop him with her being and shield him from the world. You know that desperate feeling. It fuels you even now. You stare at them for one more moment and then focus on that other place.
You wonder who that stranger is in your front hall. She does not belong there. You frown and open your mouth to tell her to get out, but everything shifts around you like standing up too fast. Vertigo. You blink it away.
Where a woman once stood, there are now hundreds, thousands, millions of eyes watching you from within Their void. They seem to be shrieking a silent word in your face as they converge, cutting off the light from beyond the hall.