“Thomas, come eat your lunch.”
“I’m busy,” Thomas’s squeaky voice answered from the living room, followed by a suspicious crash.
“What in Heaven’s name are you doing in here?” I rounded the wall that separated rooms and walked smack into a tower of furniture. My grandmother’s glass side table straining under the weight of a dining room chair and two lamps. “Thomas!”
He appeared, covered in a thick layer of dust and dog hair, from beneath the half-overturned sofa. “Shh, mama! You’ll scare it away!”
“Thomas!” I stamped my foot in frustration, catching a teetering lamp and placing it lightly on the carpet. “Look at this room! Look at you! Your new church clothes are absolutely filthy!” He had the nerve to shrug his seven-year-old shoulders as if he saw nothing wrong with the situation. “Go upstairs, wash up, and come eat your lunch!”
Thomas stomped off toward the stairway, his head thrown back and arms dangling limply at his sides in protest. “Damn kid,” I whispered under my breath as I slowly began dismantling whatever this creation was and turning it back into a living room.
Thomas appeared not ten seconds later, wet and half naked. “Don’t take it apart, mama!”
He dropped to his knees and put his hands together in prayer position, slapping a puppy dog pout across his face and widening those baby blues. “Pleeeeeeaaaaasssseeee!”
I sighed, and let go of the sofa cushion, allowing it to fall back into place. “Fine. But go get cleaned up before I change my mind.” He flashed me a gap-toothed grin and disappeared up the stairs in a blur of Spiderman underoos.
I stood and watched him go, a mirroring grin splitting my lips. Little devil. Every time I saw that smile, I remembered the first time I held him in my arms at the hospital. How small and frail he was. Hooked up to a spider web of tubes and wires.
My cell rang, and the smile instantly dropped from my face. “Shit.” Here we go.
“Rob,” I grunted as I placed the phone against my ear.
“Casey,” he answered. “Hey. Hi. So I’ve had a major breakthrough here.”
“Yeah, Rob. We’re fine. Thanks for asking.”
I could hear his shoes slapping excitedly against the floor of his lab as he paced on the other end of the line. “Yeah. Good. Fine is good. They want me to stay another two weeks.”
“Two weeks! You were supposed to be on a plane an hour ago. Thomas misses you.”
The phone crackled, and I didn’t need to see to recognize the motion. He’d speared his fingers back through his wiry red hair as he did every time he was confronted with undesirable emotion. “I know. I know. But we’re really onto something this time.”
“Rob,” I huffed, “How many times have you been ‘really onto something’?”
“This time it’s serious. This could be the one, Case!”
“Right.” I hung up without saying goodbye. He wouldn’t care. He’d probably be grateful for the extra thirty seconds to spend in the lab.
“Was that daddy?” Thomas bounded into the kitchen wearing jeans, a striped sweater, and one of Rob’s old lab coats. A shaggy mop of auburn hair flopping in his eyes and freckles sprinkled across his fair skin. He looked like a carbon copy of his father. It hurt my heart to look at him sometimes.
His face fell. “How long this time?”
“Just another two weeks. He thinks he’s really got something this time.” He nodded, sliding onto one of the stools at the breakfast bar. “Hey. It’s okay. We can have fun by ourselves, right?” He nodded again, propping his little head up on his hands. I set his favorite crustless PB&J down in front of him. Even that didn’t garner a smile. “How about after lunch I help you finish building your fort?”
“It’s not a fort,” he grumbled. “It’s a monster trap.”
“Right. Well, we can get some blankets…”
“Mama, how do you expect to catch a monster with blankets?” He had a point there, I guess. “I’ll finish it on my own.”
He took a few lackluster bites and dropped the sandwich back onto his plate. “Can I be excused?”
I grabbed the plate and dropped the sandwich outside for the dog to finish. Rupert gladly gobbled up every last crumb. Life must be so easy for dogs.
With a sigh, I ventured into the laundry room. Throwing my hair up in a ponytail before I went about the next few hours washing and drying and folding the mountain of laundry one little boy seemed to make in a week.
Thomas worked tirelessly on the monster trap, only coming out twice to retrieve a spool of ribbon and a wooden spoon, which he’d dubbed a magic wand. Soon the entire living room was converted into a maze of couch cushions and furniture. A cage of dining room chairs sat just between the living room and dining room, the thick oak slats woven together with ribbons.
I peeked my head around the corner. “Dinner time.”
“Already?” He huffed. “I’m almost done.”
“Thomas, you barely ate any lunch. Go wash your hands and come eat.” I hated using my mom voice on him. But sometimes being a parent meant being the bad guy.
We ate quietly, side by side at the breakfast bar since the dining room was now monster prison. “So did you get all your homework done for school tomorrow?”
“Well then, I think you better let the monster trap go and work on that after dinner.”
“Sure.” He nodded halfheartedly. “Can I be excused?”
“Don’t you want to eat a little bit more?” He shook his head, and I placed a palm against his brow. He didn’t seem to have a fever. “You feeling okay?”
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
“Okay. Go finish your homework, and I’ll be up in a little bit to tuck you in.”
I tried to clatter the dishes together as little as possible as I loaded them into the dishwasher. Thomas didn’t do well with distractions. He was like his father that way. Rob had never handled fatherhood well. Hell, he didn’t handle life well. At some point I’d gotten it in my head that I could change him. Fix him. I shut my eyes and shook my head. “Yeah. Good one, Case.”
After I had finished with the dishes and had wrapped up the leftovers, I checked in on my little man who was already in bed, sleeping soundly. Maybe he was sick. I made a mental note to call Dr. Aman’s office in the morning just in case and flicked off the light.
My lips split wide in a yawn as I got to my bedroom…our bedroom…though I couldn’t remember how long it’d been since Rob and I had last shared a bed. Even when he was home, he slept at his desk more often than not. Work was everything to him. Always chasing that next big breakthrough. The one that would put his name on the map.
I laid down on the soft mattress, still fully clothed. I had a drawer full of expensive lingerie and sleepwear, but no use making more laundry for myself. Who was I trying to impress anyway?
A thump from downstairs had me sitting up at attention. “What the hell?” I think I was asleep before I’d even turned off the lights because when I woke up, the bulb was still burning brightly in the lamp by the bed. My alarm clock clicked over the next minute. 3:16 AM.
I grabbed the baseball bat I kept hidden behind the headboard and reached for my cell phone, but quickly realized I’d left it in the kitchen. Stupid. Slowly. Quietly. I started inching my way toward the stairs, peeking into Thomas’s room on my way down the hall.
His bed was empty.
“Thomas!” I screamed and sped down the stairs, losing the baseball bat in the process. “Thomas!” Kidnapper, my mind tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. “No!”
“Quiet, mama!” Thomas whisper shouted at me from behind the overturned sofa. “You’ll scare it away!”
“Thomas!” Aggravation and relief warred within me. Aggravation won out. “You scared the shit out of me! What are you doing down here?”
“Mama. Shh! You’re scaring it!”
“You’re the one who should be scared! You are grounded young man! No TV. No video games. Nothing for two weeks!” My fists dug into my hips and I imagined, at that moment, I probably looked exactly like my mother.
“But nothing! You get upstairs right now! It’s late, and you have school in the morning!” When he didn’t budge, my mother finger came out and pointed up the stairway. “March!” Still, he didn’t move. And if Mohammad won’t go to the mountain… “Thomas Robert Adams, you get your butt up those stairs!”
The pain was sudden but fleeting. Like a paper cut. My side burned. My T-shirt grew damp. Sticky. Somewhere between the hardwood of the foyer and the carpeted living room, I stumbled. “Thomas?” I dropped to one knee, but something grabbed me under the arms and flung me forward.
I crashed into the tower of dining chairs, my left cheek taking the brunt of the force. I tried to open my eyes, but everything blurred together. The white of the living room ceiling. Brown of the carpet. A shock of bright red in the corner that had to be Thomas. And between us a roiling mass of black shadows. “Thomas! What the hell is that thing!?”
The dark figure bent over me and coiled a mass of smoke around my throat, cutting off my air. “Thomas,” I whispered on a ragged breath, “Run!” He didn’t move. “Rrr…run!”`
I kicked and clawed, but I might as well have been punching stone. I grunted and reached around me, pulling at lamp cords and draperies, trying to make as much noise as possible, hoping the neighbors would hear. Help! I shouted in my mind. Help! But I couldn’t make the sound come out.
The thing pushed me farther backward. I collided with a maze of furniture and ribbons, but it was unfazed, toppling the obstacles in its scramble to get closer to me. It followed, shoving me in front of itself across the floor. Carpet burned up my back where my shirt was now tangled behind me. We moved together for what seemed like miles, it gliding forward, me crab-crawling backward to avoid being caught up in that amorphous black mass.
Drops of thick ichor spattered across my belly, mixing with blood leaking out of the long gash the creature had cut across my side. The carpet was smeared crimson. My head swam from blood loss. Thomas. I tried to force the word up my throat, but no sound rattled past my compressed vocal chords. The thing’s grip was too strong.
We careened backward again. Smashing into the wall that separated the living room and dining room. “Ugh,” both I and the creature grunted in unison. My vision blacked out momentarily as my head hit with a sickening crunch. The creature roared and tightened its coiled grip on me, wrapping another sinuous tendril around my waist and lowering its gaping maw toward me. Hot breath, rank and foul, heaved against my cheeks. Drops of spittle splattered my face and chest.
Then suddenly, as if an invisible wall had been erected, the thing stopped. The room around us dimmed and the spider web of ribbons Thomas had woven between chairs glowed as if imbued with some sort of power. What the hell? The creature let out a keening wail like the howl of a captured wolf. Its form became less solid. Hazy, like thick fog on a moonlit night.
“It works!” Thomas cried, whooping and hollering and dancing in the corner of the room. His little freckle-studded cheeks were flushed with delight.
“Thomas,” I gritted through my raw throat, finally able to get a breath through now that the creature had relaxed its hold. Tears streamed down my face, blurring my vision. “Thomas?” He came closer to the cage, peering in through the ribbon bars. “Thomas. Oh God! What… what is that thing? Let me out of here.”
He stared ahead at the thing, which was now regaining consciousness and rounding on me. “Thomas! Quickly! Get me out of here!”
Thomas flashed that big angelic smile. “I can’t, mama.”
“Thomas!” I cried as he turned and walked to the stairway. “Thomas! Dear God, let me out of here!”
“It’s late, and I have school tomorrow.” He didn’t turn back in my direction. Didn’t cast me so much as a glance. “Daddy’s gonna be so proud.”
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a girl was born who was just a little strange around the edges. One thing led to another, and now you’re reading her stories.
Lu J Whitley is a full-time writer and self-professed oddball who lives a quiet life in the mid-Midwest with her geeky, roboticist husband and four-legged children.
Connect with her on her website, Facebook, or Twitter and check out her debut novel BloodMarked on Amazon.