Casey-Linn cleans her home, starting in one corner and working her way to the next. She wants to have the place clean when the love of her life, Doctor John-Michael Fern, gets there. She wants to see the look on his face when he walks in, looks around and sees just how clean the place can be. She knows how proud it will make him. How impressed he will be.
“One who maintains cleanliness keeps away diseases,” Doctor Fern likes to say.
He has lots of little sayings like that. His favorite saying is: “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Doctor Fern talks to Casey-Linn about health a lot, but he’s usually just saying the same thing in different ways. A sound mind in a sound body, he might say. Or mens sana in corpore sano. As if saying it again in a different language will make the message stick.
Casey-Linn finishes one corner of her home and moves towards the next, only to pause at the nightstand, where a picture of her and Doctor Fern, standing side by side, sits. Doctor Fern’s wearing his white coat and scrubs, of course, but if she squints, she can imagine him in a tuxedo and her in a ballgown, standing on some red carpet or coming out of some fancy charity dinner. She can imagine Doctor Fern complaining – not really complaining, but half complaining and half joking – about having to attend so many fancy events while she listens with an indulgent smile.
Casey-Linn holds the picture, tenderly, like a baby. She caresses Doctor Fern’s forehead with her thumb and smiles. She puts the picture back in its place on the nightstand when she hears something. The voice of a young boy. Her son. Only he isn’t calling out to her. Instead, he’s whispering, careful to keep his voice low and hushed. As if he’s trying not to be heard.
Casey-Linn puts the picture back, careful not to make a sound, and takes a deep breath. She listens intently. Her son’s whispers have the ebb and flow of pauses that come with a normal conversation, but she only hears one voice.
Turning, she wonders who he’s talking to and moves towards the sound of the voice.
Casey-Linn’s footsteps are light and barely audible but, clinging to some childhood superstition, she holds her breath and closes her eyes, although she knows the latter won’t make her any less visible. Eyes closed, she inches closer and closer to the sound of her son’s voice, until she knows she’s standing close enough that she can reach out and touch him, then she balls her fists and rubs them in her eyes, hard enough that the darkness behind her eyelids flickers and the shadows twist.
Casey-Linn opens her eyes and there’s her son, crouched on the ground and facing away from her. The blue blazer and red trousers of his schoolboy uniform are wrinkled and the curly brown hair he refuses to comb sticks out at all angles.
Casey-Linn’s body goes rigid, her jaw clenches, her shoulders tense, and her hands slowly close into fists. She works so hard to keep the home clean. Doctor Fern works so hard to put a roof over their heads. Everyone works so hard because everything is so hard.
Except for her son. Her son, who has everything. Her son, who can do anything. Who can be anyone. And who instead sits here. Alone.
“We can’t go outside. It’s against the rules,” he whispers. He waits for an answer only he can hear, then he shakes his head. “I did ask. She said no. I can’t ask again. She’ll get angry.”
Her nails dig into her palms. She can’t have him acting like this, talking to shadows under the bed or cracks in the floor or whatever it is this week. Doctor Fern will be here soon. She can’t have him embarrassing her. She won’t let him embarrass her. Not again. Not in front of Doctor Fern.
Before she knows it, Casey-Linn marches across the room, clearing it in a few seconds, barely giving the boy time to turn and look, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes. He squirms at first, then goes limp, like a mouse in a bird’s talons, resigned to its fate.
“Who are you talking to?” she says. When he won’t answer, she screams, “Who are you talking to?”
She shakes him like a child would shake a piggy bank, lightly, then, excited by the sound of something rattling inside, harder. When nothing comes out, she shakes harder.
“There’s no one there! So whoare you talking to?”
She keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, but nothing changes. She knows what Doctor Fern would say. He would say you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, but she doesn’t know what else to do, and she has to do something. So, she keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, and nothing happens.
“Casey-Linn,” the sound of Doctor Fern’s voice cuts through the air with such force that the lights in the tiny hospital room almost flicker. “Who are you talking to?”
Doctor Fern stands in the doorway. Knowing his eyes are hidden behind opaque glasses, he lets them scan the small room. It’s mostly barren save for a generic bed and nightstand with a book and an empty picture frame. Nothing, and certainly no one,for Casey-Linn to be speaking to.
He takes a breath and slowly stretches out one hand towards Casey-Linn. He has his palm out, the same way someone would approach a wild animal.
“Casey-Linn,” he says again, his voice softer. “Who are you talking to?”
Harold Hoss is a former entertainment attorney who enjoys reading horror, watching horror, and writing horror – always with a cup of coffee in his hands. When he isn’t reading, watching, or writing he can be found running with his dog Margot.