Seven Years Ago
“Mom! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” ten year old Koren Fellows chanted while racing into the kitchen. The girl’s tight brown braid bounced wildly with her motion as she came skidding to a stop at the sight of who her mother was talking to. Ew, Mrs. Núñez. She was old, smelled weird, and always hogged the big television whenever she babysat so she could watch those stupid Mexican soap operas that Koren couldn’t even understand because they didn’t speak English. If she was here, that meant…
“I wanna go with you!” Koren declared abruptly. True, she had absolutely no idea where her mother was going, but given the choice between staying with smelly Mrs. Núñez while the woman alternately cried and shouted at her Mexican soap opera, or hanging around while her mother went grocery shopping or whatever she was doing, the girl knew exactly which one she’d prefer. “I can help!”
Her mother smiled while reaching out to brush her daughter’s hair with fondness, but shook her head regretfully. “Sorry, sweetie. I’ve got a meeting and they don’t allow children in the building.”
Crap. It wasn’t errands, it was a meeting. New tactic. “I can stay home alone,” Koren declared. “I don’t need a babysitter. Maybe you forgot, but I’m two numbers now.” She held up two fingers to illustrate.
Chuckling, her mother caught her fingers and squeezed. “Oh, two numbers now, huh? Well, we’ll have to see about letting you stay by yourself sometime. But today, your dad and I are both gonna be gone until really late, Koren. We won’t be home until after you’re asleep. So Mrs. Núñez will stay with you.”
But… but… Koren frowned inwardly before adjusting her tactic. Arguing with her mother on the point clearly wouldn’t work. Time to try something else. If she had to stay with the smelly old woman, maybe she could at least stop her from taking over the television all night long. “Can I order a movie?”
“Order a movie?” Her mother paused, seeming to consider that for a moment before nodding. “I think that would be okay. Yeah, you can order a movie tonight, after dinner. Mrs. Núñez can help you.”
“I don’t need any help. I know how to do it,” Koren grumbled a little. “Daddy let me do the whole thing all by myself when we ordered Toy Story.” Besides, the woman would probably mess it all up.
But her mother wasn’t really paying attention by that point. She was giving last minute instructions about bed time and her updated cell phone number while the old woman made noises of agreement. Stooping then, she kissed Koren’s cheek, made her promise to be good, and then headed out the door.
After waving to her mom from the window, Koren turned to find Mrs. Núñez scowling. Her wrinkled, leathery face was twisted into a frown. “Spoiled girl. You don’t need television. You need work.”
“I do chores!” the little girl insisted. “I clean my room, and I put stuff in the dishwasher, and I help my mom fold the clothes. I get an allowance and everything. I’m not spoiled. And,” she added, feeling huffy and annoyed, “At least I can watch TV without crying about it like a big smelly baby.”
Letting out a long string of angry words in Spanish, the old woman ended by taking up the remote. She flipped on the television, turned to one of those dumb soap operas, and planted herself on the couch.
It didn’t matter what her mother had said, Koren realized. Mrs. Núñez wasn’t going to give up the big television. Not now, not after dinner, not at all. She was going to fill the house with her stink and start crying and screaming at the people on the screen any minute now. And that would continue all night.
Turning on her heel, she all-but stomped out of the room. This wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t her parents see that they didn’t need to leave Mrs. Núñez with her? She always took care of herself while the woman was supposed to be watching her anyway. She made her own food, cleaned herself up, even put herself in bed (Okay, usually later than she was supposed to, but still). She didn’t need the old stinky woman.
Tonight was obviously going to be the dumbest, most boring night ever.
Koren’s eyes opened. The young girl blinked once before her vision adjusted enough to see the clock on her nearby nightstand. One in the morning. Why was she awake? Did she have to pee? No. Was she thirsty? Sort of, but not enough to wake up. She wasn’t too cold, and she didn’t have a tummy ache.
Her window. There was a noise coming from the window behind her. It sounded like something scratching against the glass. Koren rolled over in bed, peering that way. Thick curtains were drawn in front of the window, leaving it impossible to see what was brushing up against it. Maybe a tree had fallen over? A storm had knocked over a tree in her friend Leanna’s yard in the middle of the night once, and it had put a branch through Leanna’s window. There had been glass everywhere, and the other girl’s mother had taken the furniture out so she could wash and vacuum the whole room to make sure there weren’t any more pieces. Koren and Leanna had made a fort out of her toys in the hallway.
The noise came again, slightly longer that time. It sounded almost deliberate, and Koren wondered if it could be an animal. Oh, oh, like a kitty. What if there was a kitty out there, scratching on the glass? She’d been asking her parents for a cat for a long time, but they always said it would have to wait.
Picturing a kitten perched on the windowsill, cold and hungry, Koren slid her way out of bed and walked to the window. Halfway there, she stopped, an uneasy feeling settling into the pit of her stomach. For a moment, she simply stood there, staring at the now silent, somehow expectant window.
Uncertain now, the girl whispered, her soft voice nonetheless surprisingly loud against the otherwise silent air. “K-kitty? Is that a kitty?” Straining her ears to listen, she took another step, hand raising to touch the curtain. Her throat felt much drier than it had when she first woke up, and the hairs on the back of her neck were raised. For some reason, her fingers wouldn’t stop shaking as if she was cold.
Brave. Brave. She wasn’t a baby. She wasn’t. She was ten years old. Two numbers. She didn’t have to run into her mother and father’s room like some little nine year old. It was probably just a cat anyway. Or a tree branch. Or a squirrel. Yeah, that was probably it. It was probably just a cute little squirrel.
Stepping forward, Koren gathered herself, taking in one long and deep breath before letting it out again. Then she shoved the curtain open while simultaneously clamping her eyes tightly shut, her unexplained and unwanted fear winning out against the prospect of actually seeing what was out there.
For a handful of seconds, the young girl stood there in front of the open window, eyes shut tightly. There was no sound other than her own heavy breathing, which grew louder in her own mind as she slowly lifted her hand away from the curtain. Swallowing, she kept her eyes closed while moving her hand over to press against the glass. Her grasping fingers moved forward… forward… and into open air.
Eyes snapping open, Koren stared in confusion. Her window was wide open. But she knew she’d heard something scratching against the glass. How could it be open? For a moment, she just stood there, hand partway out the window, confused and uncertain. Did she really hear it? Maybe she was wrong.
Another step put her right against the side of the open window, and Koren leaned out, peering first one way, then another. The backyard was silent and empty, her trampoline taking up more than half of the area. She strained her eyes to see as far as possible, peering into the dark corners of the yard to no avail.
Nothing. There was nothing there. Shaking her head, the girl pulled back into her room, reaching up to take hold of the window before sliding it down into place as quietly as she could. It squeaked a little, and she flinched guiltily, glancing over her shoulder at the door before hurriedly locking the window.
Letting the curtain fall back into place, Koren passed her open closet, stuffed full of games and toys that seemed somehow sinister now that it was dark. Except for her favorite old stuffed turtle, Da Vinci. He was lying half in the closet, and she reached down to grab the toy. Holding him under one arm, she padded her way in her pajamas out of her room and into the hall. She was really thirsty now. Her throat hurt, almost like she’d been yelling really loudly for an awful long time or something.
Rubbing her eyes, Koren blinked at her hand. It was wet. Her eyes were wet. Why? She wasn’t crying. Why would she be crying? Frowning in confusion, she looked at her hand, then back toward her bedroom. A weird, unexplained sense of dread settled over her, and she remained rooted to the spot. She stared at the open doorway as if expecting something to come through it any moment. Which was dumb. It was her room. There wasn’t anything scary in her room. Stop it, Koren, don’t be a dumb baby.
Drink. Her throat hurt. Taking one step backward, then another one, strangely unwilling to take her eyes off her own bedroom doorway, the girl made her way to bathroom. She stood there for a moment, working up the courage simply to turn around, step into the bathroom, and turn on the light. Finally managing it, she set her stuffed turtle down before picking her little blue cup up off the counter and filled it with water. She started to gulp it down while lifting her gaze look into the mirror. What she saw then almost made the girl yelp. She dropped the cup, spilling the last of her water over the floor while the cup itself bounced noisily against the tile, making her flinch. Still, she didn’t take her eyes off the mirror. Her eyes, they were deep red, as if she’d been sobbing for a really long time. And her face looked… dirty. There was dirt on her cheeks and forehead, like she’d been rolling around outside.
But she hadn’t. She took a long shower before bed, so she’d been clean before laying down. And her bed wasn’t dirty at all. So how… why would her… face be dirty? Why had she been crying so much?
Belatedly realizing that no one had come to investigate the noise, Koren quickly picked up the cup, wiped up the water with one of her towels, and washed her face. Grabbing Da Vinci, the girl moved back into the hallway with the stuffed animal clutched tightly against her chest. She looked the other way, toward her parents’ room, and found their door standing open. A quick walk that way revealed an empty room, the bed still made from that morning. They still weren’t home from their meeting yet.
For almost a minute, Koren stood there in the hallway, chewing her lip indecisively. If her parents weren’t home, that meant that Mrs. Núñez was still there. She pictured the woman sleeping downstairs on the couch and shuddered at the thought of waking her up for comfort. No, the grouchy old witch wouldn’t be any help. She’d probably just yell at her and call her a spoiled brat again.
Mouth set, telling herself she wasn’t a baby, Koren marched back to her room. She hesitated by the doorway, biting her lip before slowly stepping inside. Her gaze passed over the bed, the open window, and her closed closet door before she was satisfied that the room was empty. Good. She was good. See? She was a brave girl. She didn’t have to run crying to her mean, grouchy old babysitter just because of some noise. Proud of herself, she flicked the light off and jumped into her bed, bouncing once before pulling the blanket to her chin. Rolling over, she settled in, eyes closing with a noise of contentment.
Her eyes opened, staring at the wall. Ever so slowly, the girl turned her head. Her gaze found the window. Open. It was standing open, the curtains pulled to either side to reveal the dark sky beyond.
But she closed it. Didn’t she? She’d closed the window and the curtains before going to get a drink. Didn’t she? Koren’s brow furrowed, trying to remember. Yes. She knew she did. She’d closed the window just before leaving, and on the way, she’d picked up Da Vinci from the floor of her… closet…
Forgetting the window briefly, the girl’s eyes shot toward the closet, where she’d picked up her stuffed toy. The closet door was closed. But it had been open. It had been, she knew it. The turtle had been halfway in the closet, and she hadn’t closed the door after getting him… had she? Slowly, Koren sat up in her bed. Her gaze moved from the closed closet door, to the open window, and back again.
A noise came then, and it took the girl a few seconds to realize that she was the one making it. An almost inaudible whine had risen in her as she continued to stare at that closet door. Her mouth opened to shout for Mrs. Núñez , but no words emerged. She was too scared to speak, let alone shout. The fear that a single word would make that closet door swing open once more, revealing far worse than a few old toys and games. The door was closed. It had been open. Someone had closed it. She hadn’t. Someone had. Someone had opened the window and closed the closet. Someone else. Not her. Not her.
Slowly, still whimpering as quietly as possible, Koren slid back out of her bed. She held Da Vinci as tight as she could, staring at the closet door. One step, then another, she closed the distance. There was no one there. It was her imagination. It was just her imagination. She was remembering things wrong. Don’t be a baby, Koren. Don’t be a dumb little baby. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Just open the door, see that nothing’s there, and then go back to bed. Open the door, see that nothing’s there, go back to bed. Open the door, see nothing, bed. Door. Nothing. Bed. Do it. Open it. Open the door. Open the door.
Very gradually, the girl lifted her shaking, uncertain hand. Her fingers neared the doorknob, even as her whimpers grew more audible even to her own ears. Other than that, the room was silent. Everything was silent, like the night itself was waiting expectantly for her to open that door.
Her eyes lifted, fingers barely brushing the doorknob before her gaze settled onto one spot of the door at about where a man’s head would be. Her entire body was physically shaking by that point. The door. She saw the wood of the door, but knew somewhere deep inside that if she could see beyond that wood, she would be staring at the most horrifying face she’d ever seen, the face of a man who had made her cry so much already. The face of a man who had made her scream until her throat hurt. The face of the man behind the door. Wood separated them. Wood that she was about to remove. The man in the closet. The man in the window. The man in the window. The man who had been in the window. Except no one had been in the window. It was open when she parted the curtains, but no one was there. Were they?
The man in the closet. The man in the window. The man. The man. The ugly, evil man.
Open the door. Prove it was wrong. Open the door. Be brave. Be a big girl. Open the door and see that nothing was there. Open it. Open it. Open it.
Squeezing her eyes shut, then opening them again, Koren moved her hand from the knob to the door itself. Very quietly, she rapped her knuckles against it. One knock. Two knocks. Three. Gentle, barely audible over the sound of her own heavy breathing. She knocked on her own closet door.
A noise from within the closet, a scratch against the door. The slightest sound.
Koren screamed. Pivoting on her heel, she raced not for her own bedroom door, but for the window. Screaming at the top of her lungs, she ran, practically throwing herself out the open window. Air rushed up around her, and then she hit the trampoline hard on her side, bouncing once with a startlingly loud noise from the springs. The impact hurt, knocking the girl’s breath away even as she forced herself to rollover onto her back. Her eyes locked onto her open window, heart hammering its way through her chest.
Something was in her window. A shape. A person. A man. He stood there, features indecipherable through the darkness, staring down at Koren as she lay on the trampoline. She was petrified from fear that the man standing in her bedroom window was going to jump down after her. But he just stood there, watching with his face entirely obscured. For several long moments, neither of them moved. Koren could hear her own panting breaths while she stared up at the figure, too terrified to risk blinking.
His hand moved, and she saw something fly through the air. Gasping, the girl jerked to roll onto her side, just as the object fell onto the trampoline beside her.
A flower. A black rose. It lay there on the trampoline beside Koren. When she raised her gaze from the dark rose to the window, the figure was gone.
She didn’t trust it. Koren moved her gaze from the window to the backdoor and then back again. She was tense, ready to spring to her feet and run the second that figure showed itself once more. Door, window, door, window, door… she stared, watching fearfully while her heart seemed to hammer its way through her chest. Watching… watching… staring… waiting… ready… waiting… watching…
Slowly, the girl’s eyes drifted shut… opened quickly to stare around with a panicked gasp, then closed again for just a few seconds. As scared as she was, her exhaustion was slowly starting to win out. Each time her eyes closed, it took longer for them to open again. There was nothing there. No one. She was alone. She was alone again… alone…
Her eyes shut, and didn’t open until morning. When that morning came, Koren’s parents would convince her that she had dreamed most of it, that her bad, terrible nightmare had driven her all the way outside, and that what she thought she saw wasn’t actually real.
She let herself pretend to believe them. After all, the flower was gone when her father woke her up. There was no evidence, nothing to suggest that what she had seen had actually happened. It wasn’t real.
Except… when she asked what happened to Mrs. Núñez… her parents had no idea who she was talking about.