She chose green for the baby’s room to feel natural and soothing, but by night it looked sickly. The entire room – and the entire house – was chosen with the child in mind. She moved away from the city, her work, her friendships, the restaurants she knew; all in order to give her child a life in the country. When she first saw the house, nestled in a blanket of vibrant green, it was exactly what she wanted for her child. Days running in the lawn, picking flowers, walking down to the river. It was the best any parent could offer.
The first morning after she moved in, she looked out as the fog retreated from the valley and imagined telling her son or daughter how it had kissed the grass with dew. Now that the child was here, the fog seemed to creep in on them at night, cutting them off from the green surroundings, and the open air. Cast in the shadow of night, it seemed impossible this catacomb could be the same house. The fog pressed in on her, making it hard to breathe. The barren walls became an echo chamber for the shrill screams of the creature in her arms. And the sour green of the nursery walls made Katherine nauseous every night.
Tonight, with the cries of her child bouncing off the walls, the entire room seemed to collapse in on her with rot. The putrid green, the fog pressing in the glass, it turned the open modern space into the cavers of a tomb. The gaping windows conspired to mock by mimicking another wall of thick, tumbling grey. Everything in the house pushed in on her. Just like her wailing child. And the cried never seemed to stop. They bored into her brain as they ricocheted off the walls, forced inward on her by the pressing grey of the fog that pressed against the window panes. In the first week she felt she was an animal in a cage. That was normal for nursing mothers, wasn’t it? But after a month, she dared to wonder if there was something inhuman about her child.
It didn’t have cholic. The doctor had told her so on every visit she made. Each time he said the same thing: the baby was healthy; the baby was happy. The doctor had the gall to tell her “it’s normal for babies to cry” as though she was a scared teenager who found herself accidentally caring for something completely alien. She was nearly forty. She knew babies cried. She’d read every parenting book they published – in the two languages she spoke. She read the blogs and did mommy-baby yoga. She was an intelligent, capable, responsible adult. And she knew this behaviour wasn’t normal. Children didn’t cry every time you tried to feed them. Maybe it wasn’t cholic – that was only her best guess – but something was wrong. Of course, the medical profession didn’t agree. Instead, they sent her home with pamphlets on postnatal depression, websites on insomnia and no option but to endure hours of whimpering screams and refusal to feed. Alone.
How long had it been, she mused, since she brought home the pink mass with its fragile egg-shaped head and its tiny pink mouth? How long had it been since the baby seemed so quiet or so peaceful? On the island of maternity, there was no way to mark the weeks and months. Even the last feeding was something of a mystery. The “ideal baby schedule” torn from a book was lost somewhere in the house, long since memorized by Katherine and rejected by the baby. The child had melted time into a single unified blob. It was never, and it was always, feeding time. It was perpetually just after naptime, or maybe just before. The crying would last for hours. Longer than was natural. Or healthy. Or humanly possible.
Her mind seemed to be filled with fog. Or maybe it was the room? Could the night air be seeping in at the window seems? She reached for the light and the room came into sharp focus. Shadows sprung up on the walls around her to form prison bars. She nearly laughed in agreement with the image. Until she noticed the state of the floor.
Paralysed by the sight, her eyes took in the scattered debris of toys, books, and diapers. A ring of baby powder puffed onto the rug where the bottle had fallen, nearly five feet from the changing table. A cold sick clutched her chest. It had happened again. Her mouth went sour. The jagged angles of books spiked up from the carpet reminded her of the glass shattered before. This was not haphazard or chaotic. Every object felt like a boobytrap laid out for her.
A week ago – or maybe a few nights ago – she had come into the room to feed the baby. By some miracle, the room was quiet and still. She crept over to the crib and tripped over a stuffed horse that was usually up on a shelf. She staggered forward and knocked her ribs into the changing table. Had she not caught herself she could have cracked her head. When she blinked though the pain, her eyes were foggy and blurred. She struggled to see around her until finally, in a moment that still froze her spine, she noticed the bedlam. A warzone of bears and blankets made the floor impassable. Amid the debris only the lamp’s bulb was broken. Picking the glass out of the rug had taken twenty minutes, and she still managed to lodge a piece in her knee. There was a scar to remind her it was real.
This time she refused to clean up the mess. She had done enough, cleaned enough. If her house was being invaded she didn’t have the energy or the will to fight it. And the child was screaming. And her eyes ached with the pain of exhaustion. As she felt tears and snot of her baby against her breast she looked up to heaven, not really praying. What was there to pray for? Every person she had gone to for advice or help had told her nothing was wrong. That it was all in her head. And maybe some of it was.
Maybe she was too tired to remember the last feeding. And maybe she was always tripping over things because she was half-asleep and disoriented. Maybe she had thrown the child’s toys around the room and forgot why. Twice. No, three times. Although that could have been a dream. She thought she saw in the hall mirror a tendril of fog slip over the walls and shake the changing table as it passed behind, casting the diapers and towels and powder to the floor.
It must have been a dream. She lived in the constant company of nightmares ever since she came home from the hospital. One nightmare: the fog pressing in at the windows until her lungs, and the house, exploded. She remembered waking up screaming.
The nightmares made Katherine more open to the idea that she was depressed. It made sense. She was on her own all day. The only one to care for the baby, mummified by maternity leave that left her stranded from the real world except the occasional call. Exhausted and aching, she barely slept anymore. Anyone would be upset, even lost. But if she took that for granted, she still couldn’t ignore that something else was going on too. Even in her muddled mind, she was certain.
If you explained away everything else, you couldn’t explain the baby. It only cried when she held it. This wasn’t a matter of opinion; no matter what her friends said. The child never cried until she touched it. She tried once to leave the baby completely alone, ignoring feeding schedules and playtime until it cried. Her plan was to pretend the baby wasn’t even there. She had dinner, watched something for a while, and took herself to bed. She turned off each feeding alarm on her phone (even the act of sliding that glowing circle felt liberating), although it didn’t stop her from waking up at three in the morning.
In the pitch black of the night, she started to think. She last fed the baby before dinner, at seven. Usually, she would try another feed before bed, although it never seemed interested. Now would normally be her next attempt. How long could a child go without food? In her exhaustion, she had to count the hours out loud. Eight. No baby could go eight hours without food. An adult would be fussy after eight hours without food – unless they were asleep. A sudden sick swell of anxiety shot her bolt upright on the bed. It wasn’t possible. She must have tuned out the cries.
She tried to steady her mind. She took a breath in, but it made her dizzy. She needed to check on the baby. It must be crying. But as she got closer, she heard no noise from the nursery. She crossed the threshold and the room smelt sickly sweet. Any minute the baby would cry, she told herself. But, still, there was no noise. Her stomach started to turn sour. She thought she could smell burning (was that the sign of a stroke? Or was that anxiety?). She looked at the crib from the door, frozen. Terror hit her in the spine and rose into a cold heat that snapped like a rubber-band. What if the baby was dead? What would they say if she starved her child? How could you explain that to your boss? To your friends? To the police?
She stood there for too long. The green walls turned hallucinogenic in the sunrise. Her head spun – had she hit it? – and she stumbled to the crib. Her vision clouded with tears she stared at the silent bundle of sheets, completely still in the middle of the crib. She couldn’t see even the tiniest movement of breath. She fell to her knees. She’d done it. She’d killed her child. She reached out to touch the small corpse. Tears ran down her face as her fingers gently for that tiny little hand. She felt the warmth of its skin at the moment the scream pitched into the air. It was alive. But how could it be alive?
There was no question after that horrible night that something was wrong. For hours the child was silent. Until she touched it. When she told the doctor he dismissed it as a dream. Elisabeth, her best friend, called it pregnancy brain. They both used that saccharine phrase: “I’m sure it seems that way.” The way you talk to a child or an invalid. Yes, it had been a nightmare, but she had been awake for it. It isn’t my fault she mentally screamed at them. The child was possessed. It had to be. How could you explain the long hours without feeding? The hatred of her touch? How could you explain…
But that may have been a dream too. It couldn’t have really happened. She had been burping the baby, nestled in the crook of her shoulder, head lulling on the handmade burp cloth as it screamed into her ear. The pats and jostling finally seemed to produce some kind of results as she felt the warmth trickle on her shoulder. But she pulled the baby away and there was no sign of spit around its mouth, face still scrunched in discomfort. And a lock of long, brown hair in its clutched fist, clotted and red at the ends. The burping cloth stained with a blossom of blood.
She’d thrown the cloth away, so there was no way now to check if it had been real. She didn’t want it to be, even at the time. The baby could barely close a fist around her finger, it couldn’t have pulled out her hair. And it hadn’t even hurt. She should have felt the pain of it. Still, she had no other explanation for the scab buried in the hairline just behind her ear. She never told the doctor about that. Every time she thought about it heat of anger and shame flooded her body. She wasn’t sure who she blamed: herself or the baby.
Suddenly, something caught at the edge of her mind. A sound. A muffling. She looked down to see her hands red with pressure, forcing the child against her chest, screams muffled breathlessly into her. In a flash she pulled her hands away, nearly losing her grip on the infant. Its screams at least showed it was breathing. She nearly suffocated it. Just as quickly as it came, the sharp stab of fear in her chest rotted into anger.
“Why won’t you feed?” She screamed at the child. The immediate silence cut through the air. Large watery green eyes looked up at her, mouth open in a miniature gasp. At the sight of the fragile little face, guilt crept in. Katherine had waited for ages for the child to be silent in her arms, and now it was silent because it was afraid.
Suddenly she couldn’t get enough air. She was pulling gulps of it through her mouth, but it didn’t make it to her lungs. Tears burnt in her eyes and the image of her child blurred. She needed to put it down before she did something else. Something awful. She lay the baby in the crib (had it fed?) and she ran out to the bathroom. Without the light, she stumbled toward the sink. The tiles were so cold it was painful. It did something to slow the tears, but not enough to clearly see the taps when she turned them on. She could tell by the sound the rush of water was in front of her and she dove her hands in and splashed the water against her hot face. The second she felt it against her skin she regained her breath.
She wasn’t sure how long she smoothed water over her face, but each splash helped. She remembered talking to the doctor.
“Most mothers have no idea what they are doing… You may feel like you are failing but you are just learning… As a single mother you may feel more pressure, but you are just as capable.” She willed herself to believe it, and to repeat her overused chant: Everything is fine. Being a mother may be frustrating, but it will all turn out fine.
As the heat in her face cooled and the air returned to her lungs, she turned the taps off. She let the water drip down her face onto the cotton shirt of her pyjamas. She would try again. And this time it the baby would suckle. She patted off the water on her face with the towel and glanced at the mirror to see how badly her eyes were swollen. She was relieved to find it was barely noticeable.
But something caught her eye. A fleck on her chin. She leaned forward to look closer in the shadows of the night. There was barely any light in the bathroom save the slivers that leaked in from the nursery, but she could just see a little something hanging off her chin. Like a crumb. She brushed at it with her hand, but it didn’t budge.
A flick of the switch revealed the flake of dried skin at the point of her chin. She gently took it between her nails and pulled. As she did the fleck expanded out, unraveling a smooth, transparent sheet taking on the shape of her jaw. She stared at the shred of her own skin, like a fine sliver of mica or a delicate lace. Her fingers parted and she watched it float to the white surface of the counter, where it crumpled.
Her eyes went back to the mirror She leaned in closer to find the next edge, just below the pout of her lip. The thin layer of skin drew away, following the curve of her lip in an ethereal smile. Where it broke another flap lifted and her fingers followed instinctively. This time tracing her nostrils along the bridge of her nose and flaring in a triangle at the arch of her eyebrow. Strip by strip, her skin piled on the counter, building its ghostly layers. Each one a large section, marked with fingered veins showing the lines and plates of her skin. Before long Katherine peeled back the surface of her face. Staring back at her was a mottled web of blue, purple, and red veins.
She didn’t scream.
She ran out into the night. Into the fog. Her eyes clouded with mist as she stumbled into the ground. She registered the cold dew against her hands and the grass spiking into her knees, melting her body into the dirt. She begged the fog to wash over her, to rinse her away; for every inch of her skin to fade into moonlight. To dissolve completely. She was nothing anyway.
She had been too long a shell, a husk. A dead thing walking and living; forced to be alive. Forced to breathe. Forced to feed. Forced to care for something else. And how could she when there was nothing to her? She needed it: the fog. Breathing it into her nostrils, she urged it to sweep over every inch of the skin lining her lungs and pull it out from her. She willed it to seep into her blood, dissolving every cell until she could evaporate into complete and blissful nothingness. Her breath stopped taking control as the fog poured into her, flitting under her fingernails beneath the skin; peacefully spreading her out into a million tiny fragments until she could completely fall into air.
As she waited for it to come – for that bliss of becoming air – she realized she could still feel the cold dew on her skin. Her all too solid surface had not cracked. Goosebumps appeared in response to the chilled air. Nothing could save her now.
And she dragged herself back into the house.
Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear.
The child’s rhyme kept appearing in her head as she made her rings of paper. The baby was in a rocker beside her, gently swaying with the tap of her foot. The kitchen table was covered in papers. Newspaper sheets, pastel pages from picture books, glossy strips from magazines; all were torn into strips strewn over the kitchen table. It reminded her of childhood. Her mother taught her to take each strip and bring the ends together to form a little circle. Each circle was connected inside the one before to make a paper chain. You could make them as long as you wanted, as long as you had the paper.
Her mother had never told her so, but you could do the same with dish towels by tying the ends together. They sat in the sink soaking in the acrid liquid, which made Katherine dizzy. But it was only a pint or two. And she got used to the scent.
Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step, two step, tickle you everywhere.
It was too simple a song to leave her head, and too repetitive to keep there. But it got her through the daylight. She was nearly ready as the sun began to slip from the sky. An energy made Katherine’s entire body seem light.
The kitchen ran with strings of these chains in every color. It could have been a birthday party. They hung from the ceiling, draped over the counter, and snaked their way to the pine chairs, each with its own paper chain coiled around it like a snake. The rags made their sodden chain from the kitchen to the stairs. A less buoyant but equally impressive sight.
Katherine filled a pan with oil and placed it on the cold hob. She went upstairs to dress, adding a layer of long-johns under her clothing, and a second onesie over the crying child. She settled it down on her bed in the hopes it would get a small amount of sleep. Looking through the window she could see the last yellow rays of sunlight. The day had passed so quickly.
Light on her feet she shoved her phone, laptop, and a few small pieces in her purse. She didn’t want it to be too suspicious. She double-checked the diaper bag and added a quilted blanket. Shadows spread into the house making it harder to see, but she only wanted to turn on the kitchen light. She put the bags by the door. Looking around the house, it seemed to be covered in slithering creatures as the shadows poured in. But she wouldn’t be there long.
The hob ignited with its usual click and she carefully steered a chain of paper just below the pan. It caught in a brilliant glow of orange, but she waited until the next chain caught. The rags finally ignited. Then it began to spread. The oil sputtered out of the pan and caught. She didn’t have much time. She ran upstairs and grabbed the small bundle from the crib, nestling it in the nook of her arm. For once the child didn’t scream. It was the sign of hope Katherine didn’t realize she was looking for. They were finally connected. Her baby knew she was being saved by a loving mother. She jumped down the stairs to a surprising billow of smoke. She ducked below the surface and ran to the bags. She hooked both on her arm and pushed through the door into the open air. The fresh cold smell mixed with the growing scent of smoke.
She needed to get clear of the house. Wrapping the blankets to hold her daughter against her Katherine ran, the other bags banging into her legs as she fled into the fog. The glow behind her grew large but faint as she tore away into the fog. At last, she dropped them to look back and the glowing house. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Her breath stabbed in her lungs. The cold hit her neck and she stared. The house she loved. The house in the countryside she chose for her family. The green lawns and rainy days she dreamed about. It all slowly burnt. She saw part of the roof fall in and a shutter of orange parks cascade into the air like fireworks. Within the clouds of grey, a single column of black smoke swirled upward. It stood out even from this distance like a snake leaving its hovel, Draining bile from the house, and escaping into the sky. The sight of it unlocked her heart. She broke into a laugh edged with tears. They were free. The tears on her cheek felt pleasant. In a flood of love and warmth she looked to the fragile body in her arms, and into the moon-tinted brown eyes of her daughter’s teddy bear.
Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. Her first non-fiction book, Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror, is coming out with Strange Attractor Press in October 2021.