The corpses of children are heavier than you’d expect. The people who know this don’t tell you. They hide the details. Nobody wants them. Cross that bridge when you come to it and pray that you never do.
Melissa knew the details.
She knew that skin could pull taught overnight, thinning the lips. She knew the surfaces of eyes could go dry and gummy. She knew fingers and toes could curl up like dead spiders.
She wished she didn’t know these things. She sometimes wondered if she could induce her own amnesia by injuring her head, or by using drugs. She never went past wondering though. She was too afraid. There was no way she could ever be sure that when these terrible truths left her mind they wouldn’t take the good memories of Victoria with them. Those well-worn thoughts were all she had left.
For a while, for such a long while, it was only pain and loss and emptiness. And then…
The floor creaked as Melissa moved across the moon washed hardwood.
“Are you doing it again?” asked Jon. His voice was deeply tired.
“I… I’m just going to get some water.” He was silent. Melissa left the bedroom. Who was she kidding? They both knew where she was going. Since she’d already been caught, she didn’t bother with the facade of a drink and went straight to Victoria’s room.
They kept her door shut. Their marriage counselor said that wasn’t a good idea, but Jon claimed he wasn’t ready. He told them that he couldn’t bear to see her things, as if she still lived in the house. He avoided the room like the plague. He’d never even gone into it when they found her, just stood in the doorway, gaping. He hadn’t set a foot in it since. At first it had bothered Melissa, but not anymore. Now, she was glad he stayed out. It helped.
She stood in the dark, fingertips on the doorknob; her forehead rested on the wood as she breathed slowly. A full minute passed before she turned the handle, entered, and gently shut the door behind her.
She couldn’t see anything, but she didn’t need to. The contents were etched into her brain; the framed pages of illustrations from old childrens books on the walls, vintage copper lamp, light oak dresser with nightstand, and the matching antique wooden toy-box from her own youth. The box had been in her family for generations and had come over from Norway with her great-grandmother. The top and sides were hand-carved with swirling curls like waves or wind. The edges had writing in what Melissa could only assume was some old form of Norwegian. Jon hadn’t wanted to pass it on as a toy-box. He thought the old battered thing would clash in a child’s room. But Melissa had managed to work an old world theme into the decorating. Instead of the bright pastels of most kid’s room, Victoria’s room was lush with warm browns, copper, and the deep grey-greens of the sea.
She navigated the furniture deftly and got into bed. There was no mattress anymore, just a box spring. They’d taken the mattress. She’d heard one of the policemen give an estimate on how much blood was in it. It was more than she’d thought. Well over a quart. Once, when she was two, Victoria had dropped a fresh quart of milk on the floor. The plastic jug had split and exploded all over the kitchen. It was an enormous mess and the milk flowed into everything. That was only one quart. Melissa couldn’t imagine her daughter even having more than that inside her.
But she had, and she’d lost it, right where Melissa was lying. She put it out of her mind. It didn’t matter anymore. She stretched out on the box spring, her feet extending off the end of the bed, and waited.
In the weeks that followed Victoria’s death Melissa had hounded the police, pressed for answers, and translated her grief into a hunt for the truth. There had been boot prints left in the yard, but no dirt inside. No forced entry, but her window had been unlocked. One deadly cut, but no molestation. The authorities toyed with the idea of Melissa and Jon as suspects, but like the other evidence, nothing could be proven.
Jon hadn’t focused on the question of how it happened. He attempted to absorb the harsh reality without details. She was gone, that was all. He refused to think about how.
Neither of them had gone back to work yet. Jon spent his days out of the house on long walks. Aimless walks in the woods behind the house. He’d get home and follow dinner with a desert of sleeping pills and vodka. In his drunken state he’d stand in the hallway outside her room, muttering about throwing her things out, tossing them into the fire pit, or giving them away. It never lasted and he’d stagger off to bed. He didn’t have the courage to enter the room. To face what had happened. If he spent one hour awake in the house on any given day Melissa would have been surprised.
For her part, Melissa had barely slept in weeks. A cat nap on the couch here and there, but not much else.
She had better things to do with her nights.
A wave of goose bumps washed over her as she heard it. That sound she’d become addicted to. From the dark corner of the room came a quiet scraping; fingernails on wood. It scratched in the darkness and was followed by the slow creak of a hinge. The toy box was opening.
Melissa didn’t speak. She didn’t breathe. She didn’t move a muscle. She knew from experience that if she moved it would stop. That she would go away and leave her alone again.
There was a quiet thud as the lid came to rest on the wall. A moment later there was a wet slap, like a raw steak dropped on the floor. Melissa couldn’t see anything in the shadowy gloom, but she heard something dragging itself across the room. It wheezed, laboring with its efforts. It pulled itself up into the rocking chair by the window. She could see a silhouette against the deep blue outline of the night; an oblong head, with wispy hair, on a misshapen lump of shoulders. She would never have guessed it was her daughter from the shape. But it wasn’t what she looked like that convinced her. With its head turned to the sky, in a tiny broken voice, the malformed thing began to sing.
“Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.”
Her voice was perfect. It was Victoria. Melissa clutched her mouth with both hands, holding back any sound, as tears ran down the sides of her face.
“Up above the world so high, like a diama in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.”
The urge to rush to her daughter was almost too much to bear, but Melissa restrained herself. It wasn’t time. After weeks of these tortuous nights, she thought she’d finally figured out what was happening.
On the first night Victoria came back Melissa had heard noises from her room; guttural humming, barely human. When she opened the door there was a wail, followed by the slamming toy box lid. She was terrified, but the cry had sounded familiar. Looking into the room she’d found an opaque gel smeared on the floor, some gobs of what looked like uncooked fat, and a child’s hand-print on the window glass.
And the toy box wouldn’t open.
When she had pried at it, she couldn’t open it more than an inch. Peering into the slender crack she could see a strange, veiny membrane. It had stretched a bit, then flexed, and jerked the top down tight, like a clam.
The morning after, she’d tried to talk to Jon but it sounded too ridiculous to voice. Somehow, sharing it would make it more true than she wanted it to be. You didn’t talk about things like this unless you were certain and Melissa was far from sure what was happening. So she held her secret.
The next nights she’d stood at the door, listening. After a week she could make out the tune. Another week and there were words. Once she was convinced it was Victoria she snuck in. Night by night she watched as her three year old came back to her. Somehow re-forming from inside the old box.
With her song finished, the thing that was growing into Victoria climbed back down from the chair. It was seized by a coughing fit and spit something lumpy onto the floor. Dragging its lower half it went back to the toy box, climbed in, and the lid shut.
Melissa got up from her place on the bed and rushed to the antique. She collapsed on it, hugging and caressing the strange patterns in the wood with her hands.
“You’re so close, sweetie. Mommy’s so proud of you. Just a few more days. Mommy’s waiting right here.”
Melissa awoke to Jon looking down at her on the floor where she was curled up next to the toy box. He didn’t speak. He just stood there, glowering.
“Jon, what are you doing in here?”
“I can’t take this anymore, Melissa. It’s bad enough that we lost her, but you… you can’t…”
“I can’t what?”
Jon waved his arm to indicate the room. He didn’t look at the box spring. “All of this. I need it gone. Gone forever. And we need to move out of this house. I can’t live with this… this… shrine you worship in.”
Melissa pulled herself into a sitting position, looked up at her husband. Was now the time to tell him? She could show him, right here. Just try to lift the lid, and he could see what was happening inside. He’d know that they didn’t have to move. Their daughter was coming back. She’d want her room. She’d want everything to be the same.
But she couldn’t show him.
“Jon, you don’t understand…”
“I understand just fine. You’re obsessed. These things are your connection. You’re refusing to face reality.”
Melissa got up off the floor. She went to the window and looked out at the yard. The field Victoria played in, bordering the woods, the shed, and the garden. It was every bit full of memories. She never wanted to leave. She touched the tiny finger smears on the glass. It wasn’t much longer until Victoria was home. Maybe there was another way. If she could just handle it properly.
“If you gave me time, and if we looked slowly, I think we could move.”
He folded his arms. “You’re not serious.”
She shrugged and faced him. “Think what you want. I’m not ready now, but I know it has to happen. You can start looking.”
“I’ve asked for this for months. Why now?”
Melissa walked over and took his hand. “Not now. I want you to take this slow, recognize this is hard for me, and not push.”
“I don’t want this stuff in here. I don’t want you in here. I don’t want to be here at all.”
She slid her arms around him. “Can you be just a little more patient? For me?”
His body didn’t relax. “I don’t think so.”
She held him like that, rubbing his shoulder. “We’ve fallen so far apart. I miss you.”
Jon choked out a laugh. “Do you? Because every night I lie in bed alone while you’re in here.”
“I’m sorry.” Over his shoulder, Melissa looked at the toy box.
“Are you? People who are really sorry don’t keep doing the things they apologize for.”
“Nights are hard for me. We lost her at night. And you’re never around during the day.”
“I can’t take it in here. I’ve told you that.”
She pulled back, looked him in the eye. “But I’m here. You stay with me during the day, I’ll stay with you at night.”
He started to protest. “But this stuff…”
She interrupted him. “Can we compromise? Can we be there for each other? Please, Jon?”
He looked at her, frustration in his face. In his mind, he came to some decision and nodded. “I think I know how to make it work.”
“I love you, Jon.”
Her lips found his and together they moved back to their own bedroom. It was tender, slow, and Melissa hoped it hid her lies well enough.
Melissa ran her hands through her hair and felt the scalding flow of the shower run down her back. It was good to connect with Jon. Melissa could honestly say she was more relaxed than she’d managed since the murder. She’d pulled it off and bought the time Victoria needed. She luxuriated under the water, taking her time and savoring this new secure sentiment. Sure, she regretted her deception, but Jon would understand soon enough, as soon as their little girl was back. She ran a soapy hand down her stomach. They might even consider another child. It would all work out fine. She rinsed, turned off the tap, and slid the window open to clear out the steam.
She’d barely slipped into her towel before she noticed the smell of smoke. Not barbeque smoke; fire. She opened the bathroom door.
“Jon? Do you smell that?”
There was no response. She padded down the stairs and stopped. Victoria’s door was open. She approached it with a growing sense of dread. Her fears were confirmed. She hadn’t been playing Jon in the bedroom for time; he’d been playing her.
The room was empty.
Melissa ran for the back door. She burst through the kitchen and out. In the center of the field was a pile of all Victoria’s things; books, the box spring, her dressers, the rocking chair, her dolls. It was burning. The fire hadn’t caught everything yet, but still, the tallest flames were higher than her waist. Despite wearing only a towel, she didn’t hesitate. She was crossing the grass when Jon caught her.
“Melissa, stop! I have to do this! It needs to end!”
She struggled against him, trying to squirm free. “She’s in there! You don’t understand, she’s in there!”
Jon held her tight, clamping two hands around her upper arms. “No, Melissa! She’s gone! She’s gone and she’s not coming back.”
“Listen! Just listen and you can hear her!”
Jon’s brow furrowed. There was a sound, mingled with the crackling paper. A sound like muffled screaming. He’d assumed it was the hiss of melting plastic toys.
“But, that… that’s impossible…”
Melissa balled up her fist, swung, and connected with the dead center of Jon’s nose. He staggered back, put one hand to his bloody face, but didn’t release her. She grabbed his forearm and dug in with her nails, gouging into his skin, and pulled. His grip faltered and she was loose.
She did not give the bonfire’s heat a moment’s thought as she ran to it. The toy box was clearly visible. Half of it was on fire, one corner already glowing with orange cinders. Melissa took off her towel, wrapped it around her arm, and reached into the pyre. It was excruciating. She had to step on coals as she got close. The flames licked her breasts and tummy as she leaned in to grab the box handle. She couldn’t manage to get a grip. Her skin was roasting and her hair ignited. She pushed in further. Desperate fingers caught the handle the same moment Jon wrapped his arms around her blistering waist and dragged her back.
Her hold was true and the box came out of the fire with her. Half of her body was a burnt blotchy red, black around her feet, bubbles in her flesh already rising. Her scalp showed where her hair had burned away. She collapsed on the lawn, trembling.
“My god! Melissa!” Tom pulled off his shirt and tried to cover her nakedness. The light touch of the fabric stung like wasps. “I’m going to call 911! Don’t move! Just don’t move!”
He sprinted for the house. Melissa could still feel the heat emanating from the pile on her legs. She looked to the toy box. The noises that had been coming from it, the horrible screaming, had stopped. Did that mean she’d saved her? Or had she been too late? The old carvings had been filled with soot and looked much darker. Filled in with black she could see that the patterns on the lid weren’t so much like wind or water, as they were like tentacles, spiraling and braiding around each other. They had no beginning or end and seemed to pulsate slowly.
Slowly, despite the daylight, the lid opened, stretching red membranes and tissue. What she’d assumed was Victoria began to climb out using her tiny new claws. Her eyes, dark as pitch, looked at her mother, lying prone and burnt on the ground. Her smile was wide and serrated, dripping bile down her chin.
It wasn’t her daughter. Melissa knew that now. As the abomination from the box dragged itself closer, smoldering with malice, the same thing kept running through her mind, sung in the voice of an angel.
“Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are…”
Jude Mire is a creative fiction author from Chicago specializing in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and surreal writing. He is a two time DeathScribe Horror Radio Play finalist, has worked with both the Twilight Tales and Cult Fiction live reading genre fiction series, and had several stories published online. Currently, he writes superhero stories for Griot Enterprises. His website is www.judemire.com
Header image created using stock provided by jaded-reflection