The agent claimed that it was a neighborhood on the rebound, and by the looks of things she was right. Two families had moved in over the past month and a lovely gay couple set up residence two houses down a day ago. Though more than half the houses on the street were abandoned, someone had gone through the trouble of trimming each lawn. Ribbons of ivy striped the faces of the still unoccupied homes, but the effect was charming.
Still, it was easy to deduce which of the houses had yet to find new owners. The empty houses sagged on their foundations as if in perpetual mourning for their lost occupants. They canted to the left or right, hiding their piebald exteriors behind overgrown trees. Charlotte always had a way of humanizing inanimate things. As a child she apologized to car doors if she slammed them too hard. She composed tiny obituaries in her head for shoes that no longer fit.
Though no longer voiced, she held many of the same feelings as a woman, now with a child of her own. The house was old and much larger than she required being a single mother, but somehow felt right.
“It’s a castle, Mommy,” Ethan said.
She swooped the child into her arms and perched him on her hip. In a year such a feat might be difficult, but on that day it wasn’t.
“If it’s a castle that must make you my little prince,” Charlotte said as the boy nuzzled his head into her neck.
He gasped, “Then you’re the queen!”
He held her cinnamon-colored cheeks in his similarly colored hands.
“Mommy is a queen,” he whispered.
Charlotte soon realized there was going to be a lot of empty space. She was leaving an 800 square foot apartment for a two-story home with quite a bit more space than that on its first level. There was also an unfinished basement and an attic she had yet to explore. And there was also a lot of work to be done. The only reason she was able to afford the house was because she agreed to buy it as is. There were no pressing repairs. The house was completely livable. But, she did envision many weekend trips to Home Depot.
She would need a lawnmower as well, sooner rather than later. The reliable August heat was accompanied by daily afternoon thunderstorms that lasted the duration of one of Ethan’s cartoons. The lawn was lush beneath clumps of recently cut grass, courtesy of some mystery neighbor. It would be at least six years before Evan would be up to the task. Yes, this was going to be a lot of work.
Charlotte scaled the steps, the supple wood creaking beneath her slippers. As she gripped the banister a single thought played in her mind on repeat, this is all mine. These were her steps leading to her second floor.
She stood in the doorway to her son’s bedroom daydreaming about sleepovers to come. Or, maybe another sibling. Her goal for the day was to have Ethan’s room in order before leaving to pick him up from preschool. She tackled the task of assembling his bed first thing in the morning, leaving only unpacking and organizing to be done.
The armoire was out of place in a little boy’s room, but there were no alternatives. The plastic shelves that had previously held Ethan’s clothes shattered during the move across town. It was one of several pieces of furniture that came with the house, a relic from the previous owners, who had apparently left in a hurry. He would grow into it, she believed. In addition to the odd rocking chair or piano, Charlotte had found various cans of soup in the pantry that the realtor had overlooked.
The house seemed recently lived-in, though at least six years had passed since the last official occupation. There was none of the expected decay for such a period of time. The wallpaper was not peeling off the walls. There were no rust rings in the toilet. Considering the state the neighborhood had probably been in during the housing market collapse of the past half-decade, it was not unlikely that a vagrant had used the house as a means of escape from the harsh winter. If so, he had been well-mannered.
Charlotte hummed Ethan’s favorite nursery rhymes as she sorted through some of his older toys, his first stuffed bear and a soft book about puppies. The bear rattled softly as she tucked it back into the box. She stood and wiped her hands on her jeans. For a minute she appeared to be confused, her eyes dancing across various features of the room.
She sniffed, her nose twitching like a rabbit’s. Ethan’s room smelled different than the rest of the house. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell and hardly noticeable. She wondered what purpose the room had served in its history. Perhaps previous owners had lodged their pets there, hamsters and the like. The smell was something similar, sawdust with just a hint of bitterness. She paced and sniffed, seeking a source of the odor. She paused in front of the armoire.
The smell was strongest here. She kneeled and peered into the three-inch gap between the bottom of the armoire and the floor. There was nothing more than the expected dust bunnies, little brown clouds huddled in one corner.
She stood and dusted her hands once more. Maybe she would swing by a store on the way to pick up Ethan and buy some air freshener.
It was the evening of the second night in the house. Most of Charlotte’s possessions had found homes, but there were still many boxes about. She reread the directions on the back of the package of tortellini, having been distracted once again by the sound of her son’s babbling coming over the monitor. When Ethan was alone he seemed to speak his own language, with dramatic variances in pitch and emphasis. It was mostly English, just spoken in a nonsensical manner.
“I go to sleep all night and time to get up and have pancakes. And, yeah, I like pancakes,” he said, the words so eager to leave his mouth they huddled together and formed one long, breathless sound.
Charlotte smiled and turned the burner on high. Tomorrow was the weekend, a couple more days to unpack, and then it was back to the grind.
“My mommy? She’s a queen. I don’t know but I can ask,” Ethan said.
There were a couple of gaps in his speech, an oddity for Ethan. There was soon a sound of thunder rumbling accompanied by delighted squeals. He arrived grinning with his little chest heaving, his almond eyes wide.
“Mommy, how old are you?” he asked.
“Babe, you never ask a woman her age. It’s not polite,” Charlotte answered with false conviction.
“I’m 28 years old,” she said, sauntering toward the still panting boy.
She tapped his nose and said, “Who wants to know?”
Ethan smiled again, “My new friend!”
He pivoted on his socks and ran in place for a second before gaining traction. Once again there was a sound of boulders rolling down a hill.
“She’s 28!” Ethan said in between gasps.
Charlotte smiled at the monitor and returned to her cooking.
Ethan pushed the food around the plate with his child-sized fork. He waited until his mother was focused on her own food and then quickly snatched a tortellini with his fingers and sucked it into his mouth. Charlotte was aware, of course, but saw no need for discipline.
“So, do you have any new friends at school?”
“Yeah,” Ethan said noncommittally.
A few seconds passed in silence.
“That’s a weird name, Ummmm,” Charlotte said.
Ethan giggled, “No I just forgot!”
Ethan’s eyes grew wide, “But my new friend here is named Little Boy! He’s my best friend!”
Charlotte cocked her head to the side and chewed for a moment.
“Little Boy? That’s an unusual name as well.”
“He told me to call him that. Mommy, can I share the rest of my food with Little Boy?”
“Is he hungry?”
Ethan nodded his head.
“Yeah, and he said the food smelled real good.”
“I suppose, as long as you bring your dish back and put it in the sink before bed.”
Ethan successfully lanced another tortellini and ate it. He smiled, showing two rows of teeth slathered in pesto sauce, and left the table with his bowl held in front of him. No thunder followed then but a series of calculated steps.
“I brought some!”
Silence for a few seconds.
“Her name is Charlotte but some of her friends call her Charlie. Wow, you were hungry!”
Charlotte was tempted to sneak up the stairs to spy on her son and his imaginary friend, but did not think she could manage it in silence considering the age of the house. The floorboards squeaked and popped randomly and often. Instead, she cleared the table, turned the volume of the monitor down slightly, and plugged a small radio into an electrical outlet to the left of the kitchen sink.
She enjoyed listening to talk radio while performing chores, finding that the time passed quickly. She twisted the dial for a moment, static hissing and distant voices coming through briefly.
“…it was a game for us, you know? We heard the rumors but didn’t take them seriously. How could we? We were teenagers. My challenge was to make it inside the house and take something as evidence. A spoon, a book, whatever. Since I was there alone I hoped I might just find something on the outside of the house. No one would know the difference. But there was nothing. I walked around that house three times.
I’m standing on the porch and peer through one of the windows. The only window with light coming through it. And there was…”
“It’s okay, take your time.”
“There was a man without skin pacing in the house. He was just muscles. He was dripping. He was just…”
Charlotte turned the dial and found another station playing big band music.
Charlotte turned on her side. It was so quiet in the house and on the street in general. So much quieter than the apartment, where she was privy to the nightly exaltations of her young, vigorous neighbors, and the endless babbling of the cat lady across the hall. Thankfully, Ethan was a deep sleeper and Charlotte was never forced to explain some of the language that seeped through the vents.
She stared at the wall and her dressers, and considered turning on the TV. The silence had a weight of its own, as if something was always on the verge of happening. It was so quiet her mind began to supply its own noise, a ringing in her ears that seemed to drown out all other sounds, such as the settling of the house.
She rolled onto her back and shifted her legs, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets on her bare skin. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, trying to focus her thoughts in a single direction instead of a thousand. The previous week had been a whirlwind, and at the end of it she felt both exhausted and gratified. Not yet thirty years old and she was educated, employed, a homeowner, and, most importantly a good mother.
Charlotte’s eyes fluttered as the tumbling images in her mind had begun to assemble into the prelude of a dream. A familiar glow on the nightstand to her left demanded her weary attention.
The lights of the monitor flashed from green to yellow to red. She leaned that direction and reached for the monitor, feeling with her fingers that the volume was on. Still, there was no sound coming from it. She was confused rather than panicked. Even at maximum volume she heard not a whisper. There was a bit of a hiss, normal interference to which Charlotte was quite accustomed.
She sat up and stretched, relieved to have an excuse to leave her bed for a moment. Charlotte touched her feet to the floor and seethed as the wood popped loudly as it accepted her weight. She took three paces and reached her door, opening it slowly to avert the whining of hinges.
To her left was an unoccupied bedroom. One door down was a bathroom and Ethan’s room was next to it. She walked on tiptoe, her hands tracing the textured paint of the wall. The dated wallpaper of the living room was thankfully not present in the rest of the house.
She dashed past the door of the unoccupied room, a childhood superstition to which she adhered without being fully aware. Wood popped beneath her feet and she gritted her teeth.
A bit of light leaked through the door to Ethan’s room. Though he did have a nightlight he rarely turned it on. The light was softer, most likely coming from a source outside.
Charlotte took three more steps, walking quickly now. The open space felt like a vacuum. It became more important to be near her son, to be near another person, than to investigate the anomaly with his monitor. She touched his door feeling at peace knowing Ethan was just on the other side.
She pressed her face to the crack and peered within. Warm purple light filtered through the blinds. Ethan’s back was to her, one leg dangling off the bed.
Charlotte smiled and eased the door open. Her intention was to tuck her son back in, but her eye was drawn to a black space to her right.
The doors to the armoire were ajar. Before long it would become a repository for Evan’s toys, especially after being instructed to clean his room. She angled that direction, took two steps and screamed.
The ceramic plate skidded a few inches and a fork clattered noisily off of it. She held her breath.
Ethan shifted in his sleep, his left arm flopping wildly for a moment before it settled behind his back. Charlotte clasped her hands over her mouth to stop from laughing. The doors to the armoire closed with only a mouse squeak. Charlotte gagged. The sweet, dank smell from earlier lodged in her throat like a piece of rotten fruit. She swallowed her saliva and bit the inside of her lips.
It was the air that issued from the armoire when she closed the doors. She shuddered, reminded of the smell of the van she once drove to deliver flowers for funeral homes. She gathered the plate and fork and took quick steps to her son’s bedside. She pulled the covers over his small body, her back stiff and her fingers uncoordinated.
She kissed his forehead and left the room, closing the door behind her.
“Shit!” Charlotte said as the grease from the bacon cooled on her wrist.
She turned the burner down and snatched the spatula off the counter.
“What does shit mean?” Ethan asked.
Charlotte kept her back to her son so he would not see her smile.
“I said ship, buddy. The bacon looks like a big old ship!”
“Wow!” Evan said and returned his attention to his toys.
The kitchen smelled like a dream, the sweet cream aroma of pancake batter with the salty accent of bacon. There were literally birds chirping on her windowsill. She was being serenaded by The Drifters while honey-colored morning sun, filtered through nearby trees and danced across the floor.
“What should we do after breakfast?” Charlotte asked.
She plopped a second pancake on Ethan’s child-sized plate.
“Uh…” Ethan said.
She squeezed syrup into a small glass bowl. Ethan preferred to dip his pancakes.
“What is that?” she asked as she set the plate down in front of him.
“It’s a comic about a superhero who can’t see! He’s like Batman but he wears red.”
“Not while you’re eating,” Charlotte said and exchanged the comic for pancakes.
She would likely have disregarded the comic, placing it somewhere out of reach until Ethan finished his breakfast, but something on its cover caught her eye.
“Twelve cents?” she whispered.
She gave the comic a more thorough inspection. It was definitely not a current issue. She flipped to the first page.
It was possible a friend from school had let Ethan borrow it, but that didn’t seem likely.
“Evan, where’d you get this?” she asked.
The boy licked syrup off of his wrist and said, “Little Boy let me read it. He has lots and lots. I can only read a coupla words, but Little Boy tells me the stories. He’s been reading them for years he says!”
It wouldn’t surprise Charlotte to learn there were secret or unexplored compartments in the house. It was older than her grandmother. Who knows how many families had called it home? It was not at all far-fetched to believe some boy in the 1960’s had taken to hoarding his beloved comic collection beneath a loose floorboard.
“That was nice of him,” Charlotte said.
From where she stood in the dining room she could see the door to the basement. It was smaller than the other doors in the house, with a latch lock on the outside. She hadn’t noticed it before.
That was strange, a lock on the outside of the basement door.
During the course of the day, Charlotte spread her rather meager belongings throughout the rest of the house. Some rooms contained only a chair or a small bookshelf, but none were empty any longer. That was important to her for reasons she could not articulate. There was something about empty space that made her clench her jaw until her teeth throbbed in their sockets.
There was no cable yet, just the few channels the old antenna received, but that mattered little to Ethan. He had his DVDs. Movies and cartoons he had seen fifty times still delighted him, and Charlotte appreciated the noise.
She let Ethan stay up an extra hour, mostly because she wanted the company. By 9 o’clock he was drooping over the armrest of the couch with a spider thread of saliva dangling from the corner of his mouth. Charlotte scooped the boy up in her arms and walked him up the stairs step by creaking step.
She nudged the light on with her nose and aimed for the bed. He would sleep just fine in his jeans.
She lowered him into bed and pulled the sheet up around his shoulders. He nearly always kicked his blankets off during the night. For a minute she just looked at him and smiled. My little man…
Charlotte’s attention was drawn to Ethan’s nightstand. Beneath the lamp that was made to resemble a small baseball bat were a few drawings. Intending to decorate the bare refrigerator with them, she grabbed the top three sheets.
The first was a picture of Ethan and a dog. The dog was smiling and holding a heart-shaped balloon. They had never owned a pet because it had never before been possible. What a Christmas that boy has coming to him.
The second picture was the outline of a small hand, Ethan’s, and that of a second, much larger hand. Charlotte frowned. It was too perfect a rendition to have been freeform. She placed her hand atop it and found that there was room on all sides.
Written beside it in a crude script she did not recognize were the words Little Boy.
Charlotte blinked and stared at the whirring ceiling fan overhead. She was awake and didn’t know why. Instinctually, she found the monitor and was relieved to see only a single green light.
If it wasn’t the monitor…
There was the sound of laughter in the house and it was not coming from Ethan’s room. She sat up in bed and felt a strip of cold terror rise from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat. For a moment she thought she was back in her old apartment, she heard gunshots only frequently enough that she never got used to them.
She had no defenses other than a phone. But it was laughter, not gunshots. She wiggled into pajama bottoms and at the same time removed her socks. If she needed to run for any reason it would be beneficial to be barefoot.
Charlotte cracked her door open an inch and pressed her eye into the crevice. Blue light flickered downstairs, most likely in the living room. She heard laughter again, muffled as if emitted through a palm cupped over the mouth.
The door screeched as she opened it a few inches further. It had never previously made a sound. The laughter stopped at once and there was a clattering of something falling on the floor.
Charlotte moved quickly on padded feet. She took the steps two at a time and landed on the carpet at the base of the staircase with a thud that rattled the pictures on the walls.
She galloped toward the living room, elbows flailing as if trying to break free from unseen assailants. Her heart ached from the stress. The adrenaline coursing through her had the opposite of its intended effect. Her muscles were stiff rather than loose and limber.
The living room was empty save for furniture and the television, which broadcast the ending credits to I Love Lucy. There was no place for a person to hide and no exits available. The screen flickered and for a moment the entire room was dark, the only light coming from outside.
Charlotte walked on wooden legs like a marionette guided by a drunken puppeteer. She kneeled and retrieved the remote, which was lying facedown a few feet from the overstuffed chair. She pressed power and stood in darkness. She sniffed the air and chewed her lower lip. The sillage reminded her of the sawdust and urine smell from Ethan’s room.
Though she heard it from a considerable distance, the laughter was unusual, and not just that it was muffled.
It was a careless sort of laughter. It was the sort of laughter she might hear emanating from Ethan’s room as he read one of his books of funny poetry. It was short of a guffaw but just as uninhibited.
“Little Boy?” she asked the empty room.
She thought she heard the sound of someone walking above her. That would have been either Ethan’s room or the room next to it. When she checked on her son a minute later she found him sleeping in the position in which she had left him, his exposed cheek sparkling with saliva.
Charlotte sat in bed with her arms propped behind her head for the better part of an hour. She fell asleep just before sunrise and dreamed of a little boy with oversized hands.
They went to the city on Sunday. Ethan mercifully slept until 9 AM, which made Charlotte’s interrupted sleep less painful. She had not planned on a trip to the city, but felt the need to get out of the house. And, unlike her new suburb, the city didn’t shut down on Sunday.
They had brunch at their favorite restaurant. Ethan asked for a to-go box for Little Boy. Charlotte obliged, but did so with a simple nod of the head.
As they drove out of the city Ethan began to sing in as high pitched a voice as he could manage, “Cheeeerry, cherry baby, cheeeeerry…”
Charlotte recognized the song but knew, also, that the words were wrong. It was possible the song had come on during one of her pancake jam sessions. It was likely, in fact. But why would Ethan be singing it now?
“Hey, buddy, where’d you learn that song?”
She met eyes with her son in the rearview mirror. He flashed a smile, tiny square teeth showing brightly. He didn’t answer but sang the song louder.
“Mommy, can we get a movie?” he asked
They were closer to home than the video rental store at that moment, but Charlotte dutifully whipped the car around. She had a feeling of things crawling around her insides, slipping between organs. Nothing in Ethan’s demeanor had changed. Conversely, he was flourishing in his new setting. Still, she was glad for the excuse not to go home.
Charlotte paced the aisles, her eyes scanning over the titles without reading any of them. She peered over the racks every ten seconds or so to lay eyes on her little boy.
Her son. Not little boy.
Ethan was fascinated by everything, but his excitement reached a fever pitch and he scampered from one aisle to the next until he found his mother.
“It’s Little Boy!” he shouted, and held out a DVD case of the movie The Goonies for Charlotte’s inspection.
She took it from him.
“Turn it around,” he said impatiently.
She looked at the images and her eyes settled on one in particular. She recalled the character’s name at once, Sloth.
Ethan fell asleep less than a minute after leaving the parking lot. Charlotte unbuckled the car seat and hoisted the boy, his limp body feeling much heavier than his size suggested. She stood inside the entryway and stared at the steps. The couch was to the right, just fifteen feet away.
She placed Ethan on the couch and he shifted, his eyes opening for two seconds. The version of Ethan whose nap has been interrupted was not her favorite. His eyelids fluttered and then he was asleep.
Charlotte stood before the armoire, her nostrils flaring as she inhaled.
“Who are you?” she said.
She waited for an answer and fully expected it to come.
“Little Boy?” she asked.
Charlotte grasped the handle of the front door to her new home and already knew there was something different about it. It was warm, as if another person had held it seconds before. The door swiveled open and a rush of heat and unfamiliar smells rushed forth.
The texture of the air was different. It shimmered like heat waves dancing over desert sands. There were sounds as well, and they did not belong to her home.
The décor was also not hers. Family pictures ascended the wall along the staircase. They were blurred and she could not see them clearly. The shag rug at her feet was burnt orange, a revolting contradiction to the mustard yellow rug of the same shape she glimpsed in the living room. The television in that room was the size of a small refrigerator.
“If you can’t eat with a fork then you can’t eat at my dinner table!” a shrill voice shrieked.
Without realizing she had taken a single step Charlotte stood in the dining room. The woman’s hair was cartoonish in its redness. Her makeup was severe, with half-dollar pockets of mottled rouge in the hollows of her cheeks. She bared her teeth as if trying to intimidate a much larger predator, and revealed in her anger streaks of vermillion lipstick on her yellowed fangs. Her eyes vibrated within their sockets.
The boy looked through the folds of excess skin that sagged over his eyes at his guilty hands. One hand was frozen, the plump fingers twisted. The other hand was mottled with marinara sauce.
“You’ve got one good hand!” the woman screamed, spittle flying from her lips.
She rubbed her dishwater-wrinkled hands over her apron throughout the ordeal, as if by stopping she might find a more nefarious use for them.
“You stupid little boy! You stupid little boy! You stupid little boy!” she screamed, mascara crawling down her cheeks.
The boy covered his misshapen face and began to whimper, a stray spaghetti noodle dangling from his wobbling lips.
At once she was standing in the room that would later become Ethan’s. It was night but there was a soft glow of light within the blanket tent on the bed. She heard whispered words of someone struggling to read. There was a sudden gasp at an unexpected plot turn.
The room was flooded with light and a banshee cry invaded the air.
“What are you doing up you stupid little boy?” she screamed.
In this vision she wore a robe. Her hair was enveloped within a tightly packed pink towel. She crossed the room in three great strides and began to pummel the tent with her small fists.
“If you can’t turn the light off when I tell you then you can go to your hole!” she sobbed as the beating relented.
He fell off the bed, landing on his back with a thud. He remained there for a moment, his curved legs stabbing at the air like a helpless beetle. The woman sat on the bed, still weeping. She began to wail through her tears, holding her robe closed with one hand while the other shielded her eyes.
“Get in your hole, little boy,” she said, quieter but with none of the venom missing.
“You don’t get to call me that!” she screamed
He crawled across the floor, his bulb-shaped head swinging loosely. The arm with the gnarled hand was shorter than the other. This caused his whole body to jolt each time the weight passed from his weight was redistributed. He reached the opposite side of the room and hoisted his head over his shoulder to look at his mother.
Her gaze was that of a gardener confronted again by some resilient weed, one that had been previously saturated with herbicide.
“Get in your hole.”
His good hand grasped the tiny knob Charlotte had not previously seen. The hidden door swiveled outward. It was about two feet tall and wide. The boy wriggled inside like a snake returning to its burrow. The woman stood and crossed the room with her quick, deliberate strides.
“Mommy please don’t close-“
The door slammed shut.
Charlotte was in complete darkness. It smelled thickly of urine and sweat, of unwashed skin. There was a sound of movement and metal dragging across the floor.
“Mommy are you there?”
The voice was paper-thin, as if its source was seldom-used to speaking.
There was a series of timid knocks.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.”
The tiny door popped open and a sliver of blue light was visible. He prodded the door open a few more inches and reached his good hand out. It fumbled blindly for a moment and then he dragged the bowl inside. There was a sound of footsteps walking away followed by a door closing. He huddled by the dim light, dipping his finger into the mush and sucking it noisily.
When he finished eating he pushed his bowl through the opening and retrieved the comic that had been left for him.
It was night and Charlotte was downstairs in the living room. The boy was as tall as a man. He was naked except for a small blanket. He sat on the couch and watched the television, a color model now, with his good eye. The other eye was completely obscured by hanging flesh. She could smell him. It was the odor of her son’s bedroom but pungent.
He smiled showing teeth that looked like caramel corn. He held his good hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. Charlotte recalled watching the cartoon in her youth, but by then the episodes were only reruns.
She swallowed hard, the scent of him activating her salivary glands. He looked in her direction and she at once considered the possibility that he could see her. To that moment there had been only the dream logic that what she saw was real. Traveling through time. Being invisible. Yet as his good eye landed on her she turned to her right as if to run.
Charlotte saw her in her peripheral vision. She wore only underwear, her narrow breasts hanging freely.
In a voice so strained she might have passed out from the effort to not scream, the woman spoke.
“What are you doing out of your hole?”
The man-boy lifted the blanket so that it covered most of his face. What remained visible looked like melted candle wax.
“What are you doing out of your hole?” she spit.
“Mommy, it’s so dark in there. My flashlight went out. I just wanted to watch cartoons.”
“What happens to little boys who leave their holes without permission?” she asked almost kindly.
He peeked over the blanket.
“Mommy, I miss you,” he said, his good eye glistening.
Veins pulsed across her forehead blue and green.
“YOU DON’T GET TO CALL ME THAT! HE LEFT BECAUSE OF YOU!” she cried and fell to the floor.
He eased off the couch, pulling the blanket tight around his shoulders. He lurched a step at a time until he stood over his mother. He reached one hand out, the bad hand, and pulled it back. He could not secure the blanket to his body with his bad hand and so he allowed it to fall to the floor.
Charlotte retreated, sure something terrible was about to happen. On some level she understood that what she saw was either entirely generated by her own mind, or an echo of the past. The tension was real. And, her pity for the creature, who was still a boy beneath the folds and knots of skin, was physically painful inside her chest.
She looked up at him, revolted by his nakedness. His oversized, good hand trembled inches from her face.
“Get in your hole,” she whispered.
It was daytime.
The woman, her red hair salted with white, sat in a rocking chair in the living room. She held a book out with one hand while the other held aloft a wine glass that was almost empty. She hummed to herself.
Though it appeared she had no intention of leaving the house she was dressed as if she expected company. Judging by the updates to the room, a thinner television and VCR, new paint on the walls, and absence of shag rugs, much time had passed since the previous scene.
There was a sound from upstairs and the woman glanced in that direction for a moment. The walls vibrated as the drumming resumed. It was soon accompanied by a voice, reedy and quavering.
“Mommy, I’m hungry…”
The woman smiled, darted a whitish tongue between blood-red lips, and licked her finger. She turned the page, humming louder now and dangling a high-heeled shoe from toes.
“Mommy, I can’t get out. Mommy, I’m too big I can’t get out.”
She hummed louder.
The day had not changed but the room was dark as the sun’s light drained toward the horizon. The woman sat on the couch, now in full makeup. Though it was obvious she had applied the various elements with great care, the cumulative impression was that of a corpse painted to resemble the living. There was a glass of water on the coffee table and next to it a bottle of pills.
Charlotte cupped her hand over her mouth as the woman shook thirty or more of the pills into her hand. Her lips moved as she counted them. Satisfied, she nodded her head and returned the pill bottle to the table.
She laughed and revealed teeth yellowed by time.
She downed the pills one at a time, gulping the last of the water with the last of the pills. She smoothed the wrinkles of her dress, a black and white floral pattern, and lied down on the couch. She rested her hands at her sides, the three-quarter length sleeves of her accessorized, coral colored sweater pulled back to reveal a network of veins along her forearms.
Charlotte turned her back on the woman, snoring then through her narrow, brittle nose. She rushed toward the stairs but they disappeared before she could reach them.
She was back in Ethan’s room at some point in the near past. There were voices from downstairs.
“It doesn’t even really smell,” a man said.
“Randy says she might have been here a year or more. No family. No friends,” a second man said.
“Wasn’t she supposed to have had a son?”
“I believe so. Must have been a shit son to never check on his mother. Not even a letter. Would never have found her if the collections guy hadn’t come around.”
Charlotte stared at the armoire.
Ethan is at school and Charlotte had requested the day off of work. She stands in her son’s room with her hands on her hips.
I could leave, but where would I go? Where could my money go as far?
“Little Boy?” she asks the empty room.
She scans silver dollar eyes over the wall in front of her, imagining the other side of it. She imagines a boy in the dark, the batteries to his flashlight drained. The small room reeks of his waste. The boy strains to hear life happening in the house but hears nothing. His hands have no strength as he knocks on the door again.
He opens his mouth to call for her again but does not. He crawls to the small, damp mattress and curls into a ball, waiting for the night to end.
She presses her shoulder into the armoire and grunts. It slides an inch and stops. She repeats the process ten, fifteen, twenty times.
Charlotte dabs the sweat on her brow. The small door is there as she’d seen it. She squats and rests her head against the wall. Tears spilled onto the floorboards.
The little door resists at first. When it does open it screams. The reverse side of the door is scored by fingernail scratches and blemished with the brown streaks of old blood.
The smell of moldering things is stronger than ever, but not exactly putrid. She imagines a paleontologist leaning over a newly uncovered mummy, resting a gloved hand ever so softly on its chest. The pressure disturbs the leathered lungs and the ancient air is expressed through black lips.
She retrieves a small flashlight from her pocket and squats. In order to see further she has to lean to the side and she uses the door to support herself. The flashlight roams across the dusty floorboards.
There is a glint of metal. It is a bowl, most likely purchased at a pet store. There are comics stacked in neat piles, probably a few hundred in all. Beyond the comics is a thin mattress, its deflated occupant mercifully veiled by a threadbare blanket.
She sobs and turns away. She rests her back against the wall and slides until she is seated. She recalls the comic Ethan found about the blind superhero. She thinks about his last few minutes. Hunger pangs have relented to a primal ache that is his whole form. As his mother’s body begins to shrivel one floor below he reaches out a sticklike arm. The flashlight no longer functions, but he finds solace in the feeling of the comic beneath his fingertips. He has memorized it anyway. There is no need for light anymore.