I finished it sooner than I thought I would, or else I wouldn’t have posted that preview. Oh well.
Warnings: It’s a horror story, so…
Mother was always the secretive type.
She was for shit at hiding presents or keeping her opinions to herself, and if she was angry at Father, everybody heard about it, but Mother kept her secrets just fine.
Mother used to teach preschool, but had gotten married and twice pregnant in the span of four years, and became a stay-at-home mom instead. This was supposed to mean that childrearing was her new job, but unlike her stint as a preschool teacher, Mother didn’t seem to take this job seriously.
Still, the house was kept, the children fed, the dogs maintained, and because her moods were usually intolerable, her company wasn’t exactly missed when she took to her room and didn’t come out for hours at a time.
Nor did anyone complain when she left the house in the early afternoon without so much as a goodbye, only turning up again at dinner time, each hand clutching a greasy paper bag filled with cold food.
The kids – two of them, ages 7 and 8, both girls and neither possessing of any true fondness for the other – rarely even noticed her absences. They had their toys, TVs, books, dogs, and imaginations to keep them busy. Since they didn’t much care for each other, they kept to themselves, and so neither was able to engage the other in any speculation in regards to Mother’s whereabouts, or bond over their shared disdain for the woman who had, for whatever reason, given birth to them.
After a while, Mother became a concept, really, just a formality. Someone to heat the frozen dinners and sign the permission slips.
It was a perfectly fine arrangement, until Father fucked it up.
One day, without warning or provocation, Father decided that Mother’s behavior was no longer acceptable. He demanded that Mother begin to act as a parent, and spend time with the children.
Children, he said, need their Mother.
So, in an effort to shut Father up, Mother began to “parent”.
Their bedrooms changed overnight as they suddenly acquired new furniture. The ceiling had to be scrubbed once a day to get the demons out. Clothing was worn once, stuffed into a garbage bag, and thrown away. Dinner went from frozen trays to cellophane wrapping, provided by Chef Little Debbie and Chef Hostess. The vacuum was quickly broken – clearly not an outdoor model, which meant the cement patio in the backyard had to wait to be cleaned properly. Pesticides and other poisons accumulated in the garbage. Lice treatments were administered weekly regardless of lice status. Mother began to monitor their feet constantly, insisting that socks be worn at all times “for protection”.
The children adjusted.
Until one day, the dogs began to die.
One by one, the children lost their only companions. Mother greeted them with the news of each passing as she picked them up from school. She’d march to the car with the devastated children sobbing into her sides, absently petting their heads.
It’s better this way, she’d say. They’re not in pain anymore.
Gradually, the house became quiet.
The children struggled to adjust.
Still, Father complained: Mother left them home alone far too much.
Children need their fucking mother, he’d scream. What do you even do all day?
In an effort to silence Father, Mother began taking the children with her when she left the house.
After school, she’d drag them all over town, from the various grocers, to thrift stores, to home improvement stores, to buildings where they had to sit quietly in the waiting room while Mother disappeared down the hall. Once Mother stopped sleeping, she sometimes found that she needed plastic tarps at 3am, and so the children would find themselves at Walmart, tiredly browsing the book section while they waited for Mother to finally retrieve them.
These were the trips they hated the most.
After purchasing their books and Mother’s “supplies”, they would climb back into the car and Mother would drive around for a while, seeming to select roads at random. She’d try to distract them, asking them to locate a particular CD, or to unwrap a ding-dong for her.
Despite these erratic journeys, the destination was always the same: Cindy’s place.
Cindy C, but never C.C., Mother’s dearest childhood friend, her most trusted confidante.
They always knew it would be Cindy’s when the scenery changed. Neighborhoods became increasingly rundown and distressed, lawns composed mostly of weeds and rocks; windows boarded up; large, angry dogs barking from behind low, flimsy fences, the white foam striking against their sharp, yellow teeth; gutters lined with trash and cigarette butts. They knew they were getting close when the streetlights began to dwindle and eventually disappear altogether.
Their stomachs would drop as the roads gave way to gravel, crunching like little bones beneath the tires of Father’s old black TransAm, and Mother would cut the lights, finishing the drive in complete darkness, turning automatically into the cramped cement parking lot.
Cindy had three young boys of similar age to the two girls, but the girls weren’t allowed to play with them. Instead, Mother would park the car outside of Cindy’s little apartment, kill the engine, tell the girls not to unlock the doors for anyone, and leave them to their books they had no light to read, and sweet little dinner cakes they were sick of.
An hour would pass, then two. The children would squirm and twist in their seats, reluctantly unwrap their little frosted and sprinkled meals, and flip hopelessly through the pages of their books, unable to make out the words no matter how hard they squinted.
Poor things. They tried so hard not to look out the windows.
Shortly after their abandonment, the once prevalent chorus of perpetually furious canines would taper off, becoming frightened yelps, then whimpers, then silence as darkened apartments would light up, one window at a time. Glowing yellow like the dog teeth that gnashed and chomped at them as they had driven in.
Every building, except Cindy’s.
Curtains would shift, doors would open, and people would appear.
Every building, except Cindy’s.
People would pass the car, where the girls sat with their unreadable books and their increasingly inedible Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos, and the doors dutifully locked, shuffling by without so much as a glance into the windows.
Occasionally, someone would bump into the car, which was older than both of the girls combined, and the damned thing would rock and shudder like a tugboat on turbulent water. Still, nobody looked down, or stopped, or apologized. They just trundled along, adults mostly, but for a few glassy-eyed children, nobody saying a word as they walked the gravel road until the darkness enveloped them, obscuring them so that the girls could no longer see, no matter how hard they squinted.
Once that was done, they’d sit quietly in the car, waiting for Mother to return, praying that once, just once, she would do so before the people came back.
But God, if there was one, didn’t seem to be listening to their station.
Mother would still be inside of Cindy’s dark apartment when the people would slowly re-emerge from the darkness, shrugging it off like a heavy cloak. Once more, they would pass the car containing two small children without a glance, return to their brightly lit apartments, where one-by-one, the lights would go out.
Every building, just like Cindy’s.
They no longer tried to share this information with Mother. At best, Mother found them imaginative and lauded them for their creativity; at worst, she figured them for liars. Either way, she was careful to remind them not to tell Father where they’d been.
Father, she assured them, would be very upset.
They knew how Father got when he was upset.
Without recourse, the children continued to accompany Mother on her increasingly frequent visits to Cindy’s.
The children adjusted, or else.
One night, just as Mother pulled onto the gravel road, the younger child made a startling observation.
It was quiet; all of the dogs were gone.
“It’s cold out,” reasoned Mother. “Their owners probably brought them inside.”
The children accepted Mother’s explanation without argument, although they didn’t quite believe it, and Mother continued along the gravel road.
Outside of Cindy’s place, Mother gave them the usual order not to unlock the doors for anyone, and quickly made her escape.
The children toyed with their books, ate their little donuts and washed them down with cherry Kool-Aid from the thermos Mother had prepared for them, and waited.
It didn’t take long for the ritual to begin – lights, curtains, action. The people blundered by without sparing them even a moment of interest, and disappeared into the deeper pockets of darkness that seemed to swallow up the gravel road.
From the backseat, the younger child implored her sister to look at Cindy’s building.
One of the windows was aglow with jaundiced light.
They waited for someone to come out, but the door remained stubbornly shut.
Time crawled by in no big hurry. The children grew tired and fell asleep.
They were still heavily exhausted and sleep-staggered when the insistent knocking on the passenger side window awoke them.
Rubbing their eyes and yawning, they turned toward the glass, expecting to see Mother peering in at them – perhaps she’d finally come to invite them in – and finding instead the crinkled, sun-spotted face of Cindy.
“Open the door,” said Cindy. “Come outside. Your mother is waiting for you.”
The girls hadn’t been raised to defy adults; to do so would upset Father, and they knew how Father got when he was upset. Even if Mother had told them earlier not to open the door, it seemed that now she had sent Cindy, her oldest friend and trusted confidante, to fetch them and bring them to her.
Cindy smiled, nodded, gesticulated and praised them as they unlocked the doors and climbed out.
Gravel crunched beneath their shoes. Cindy’s building, and all of it’s decrepit little clones, were gone. Cindy’s hands were hot and leathery as she took hold of each girl and began to lead them across what had once been a field of some sort, but had since been burnt and blackened into an ashen wasteland. The car keys in her right hand cut into the soft flesh of the older girl’s palm.
The children began to sniffle as they approached a terrible, boxy house with all the windows boarded up and obscene creations spray painted on every surface. Cindy pulled them along, squeezing tighter, her hands like bear traps around their wrists. A thin trickle of blood ran down the older girl’s arm where the pointed bottom of the heart-shaped key chain they’d gotten Mother for her birthday two years earlier had scratched through the skin.
The children began to cry as they passed tall, leafless trees. They recognized the dogs that hanged from the branches. Dogs that used to bark at them as they drove past. Dogs that used to sleep next to them at night.
The front door of the house was open. The distinct scent of bleach assaulted them as they drew nearer.
“Take your shoes off, but keep your socks on,” said Cindy, dragging them up the porch stairs. “They get in through the feet, you know.”
Mother was waiting for them in the living room.
At least they assumed it was Mother – the body was wearing the same outfit Mother had put on that morning. Everybody else was wearing long red robes with hoods over their faces.
Adults, mostly. The children, presumably just as glassy-eyed as before, were lying face down on the floor at Mother’s feet. Their little shaved heads had been adorned with some kind of symbol smeared on with Mother’s blood.
“You girls look so tired,” said Cindy. “Why don’t you lie down?”