Constance would not tell anyone who the father was. Not when her mother cried nor when her father yelled. Not even when her older sister, Emily, sat on her bed and held her in her arms – rocking her gently.
Constance was four-months pregnant when she told her family, and was already beginning to show. Emily was furious at herself for not picking up on the signs earlier – the baggy clothes Constance was preferencing over her usual tailored look, her out-of-control appetite, her strange secretiveness. It all seemed so obvious, now.
Still, how could anyone have been expected to guess this? This was Constance, after all. Constance the meekly obedient. Constance the prim and proper. Constance the chronically shy. She was supposed to be the good daughter!
And then, of course, there was that other thing.
“But I thought you didn’t even like boys.” Emily pressed. Constance wrinkled her nose in distaste, “I don’t” she replied emphatically. “…But I wouldn’t exactly call them a ‘boy’.” she added with a sly smile.
Emily jerked away in shock, “What!?” she cried.
Constance lifted a hand up to her mouth to stifle a giggle.
“How old is this guy?” Emily asked, unable to keep the stern edge out of her voice.
“I – I don’t know.” Constance confessed and, her smile suddenly fading, began to wring her hands. “Pretty old, I think.”
“No!” Constance yelled so suddenly and so loud that Emily gave a startled jump. Constance reached out and clasped Emily’s hands tightly in her own, “Emily,” she pleaded, “Don’t ask me that. Please. I swore I’d never tell.”
Emily snatched her hands away. She could feel anger rising in her throat like bile. “Connie, if you’re protecting some creep-”
Constance laughed. Emily didn’t see what was so funny.
“It’s not like that.” she insisted when her fit of giggles subsided, “It’s more like…” she paused and stared off somewhere into the middle-distance over Emily’s shoulder, “It’s like… have you ever had a secret that you didn’t want to tell anyone because it would make it less… special? Less ‘yours’?”
Emily nodded slowly, although she wasn’t at all sure that she had. Wasn’t part of the fun of having a secret in telling it to somebody?
“It’s like that.” Constance continued, “This belongs to me, and I don’t want to share it with anybody.”
“Not even me?” Emily wheedled, but Constance just continued to stare at nothing, a soft smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
The last few months leading up to Constance’s confinement were tense, to say the least. Constance’s condition could not be kept a secret for long and, in the way of small towns, once one person found out, the news spread like a virus – persistent and insidious. Rumours abounded about the identity of the father and it seemed that no male with any link to Constance was exempt from having gleefully accusatory fingers pointed in his direction – her schoolmates, her teachers, and even her doctor.
One particularly malicious gossip suggested that the reason Constance would not talk about the father was that it was her own father. When Emily heard this rumour she tracked it back to its source – a pimply little boy in year 8 – and delivered one devastating punch to his blemished features, earning herself a week’s suspension and the boy a bloodied nose and split lip.
Things were even more strained at home. Dinners had become a silent affair with neither of their parents so much as glancing up from their plates to look at Constance. Emily had to grit her teeth in rage that the familial bond that linked parents and daughters could have proven to be so weak.
What surprised Emily more than anything, though, was how unfazed Constance seemed to be by all of this. Where every whispered slur or raised eyebrow caused Emily to bristle, Constance breezed through her days with her head held high as though completely oblivious to the shame that her family felt. That people expected her to feel. Amidst all the murk and mire and casual cruelty, Constance… glowed. Emily had never loved her sister more.
When the child arrived and Emily was finally allowed in to visit, she was dumbstruck. There was Constance – sweaty and tired-eyed but beaming – and in her arms a tiny, wrinkled form. Constance’s son. “James.” Constance informed her without looking up.
The fact that her little sister, her own Connie, had created this tiny person as though from nothing filled Emily with a quiet awe.
When Constance finally tore her love-struck gaze from her new baby and looked up, Emily saw that her sister’s eyes were filmed with tears and she felt a lump rise in her own throat. The sisters’ eyes locked and they were both overcome with a joy so bright and intense that it seemed like it would last forever.
It did not.
‘Failure to thrive’ was the term the paediatrician used, and what it amounted to was that, despite apparently feeding normally, James was not putting on any weight. In fact, over the next twelve weeks James dropped down to almost two hundred grams below his birth weight.
They ran all kinds of tests. Emily accompanied her sister and nephew to what seemed like an endless cycle of doctor’s offices and waiting rooms and consulting suites, where sympathetic people with stethoscopes about their necks spoke in hushed tones of things like ‘caloric retention’ and ‘metabolic demand’. All Constance ever seemed able to say in response was, “Oh.”
As days passed, all Emily could do was watch as her sister grew paler and more anxious. As James lost weight Constance, too, seemed to diminish. She became absent-minded and vague – forgetting tasks part way through and often trailing off mid-sentence. She drew in on herself until she had little more substance than her own shadow. Emily wanted to help Constance, but it was like she could no longer reach her. With every day Constance sank deeper and deeper into some dark pit and, however hard she tried, Emily just couldn’t follow her.
All the tests came back negative, and with every result Emily saw relief fighting with anxiety in her sister’s drawn face. So James didn’t have cystic fibrosis or diabetes or hyperthyroidism… but what was wrong with him?
Emily was not sure what had woken her up. She lay there for some time in the early morning chill, staring blankly at the ceiling while a sense of dread slowly crept up on her, starting as a feeling of discomfort in her belly and culminating in a dull thudding in her breast.
It was then that she noticed the sickly yellow light seeping in under her bedroom door. She rolled over to face the glow and noticed, as she did, that her alarm clock displayed 2.15am. Too late for her parents, and too early for Constance, surely.
Reluctantly, Emily dragged her sleep-heavy body out of bed and shuffled toward her bedroom door. When she opened it she saw that the source of the light was not one of the other bedrooms but, rather, the kitchen across the hallway. Grumbling to herself, Emily made her shambling progress towards the kitchen where she found the fridge door wide open and humming slightly. Still groggy, she vaguely noticed that the fridge’s contents were in a greater state of disarray than usual, before closing the door and making her way back to her bedroom.
Halfway down the hallway, Emily halted as she heard a noise coming from Constance’s room – a soft susurration. She recognised her sister’s voice, but the pitch was too low for her to make out the words. Emily began to move again, but something in the tone of the voice emanating from the darkness of Constance’s room stayed her – a wheedling note edged with a quiet urgency – and brought back that creeping dread that first dragged her from her slumber.
“Connie?” Emily asked anxiously as she opened the door. When she heard no response – just a continuation of Constance’s hushed whispers – Emily flicked on the light.
Constance was bent over James’ crib and it took several moments before she straightened up and, blinking at the light, turned to face her sister.
Emily stifled her own cry of surprise when she saw Constance’s face. The young girl’s eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep and dark rings hung below them. It was not this that took Emily aback, however, but the expression in those strained eyes. A startled, trapped look almost feral in its intensity flickered across Constance’s eyes, rendering the familiar features alien to Emily.
It was Constance who broke the silence. “He won’t eat.” she said to Emily, her tone desperate. “I don’t know what he eats!”
Emily’s eyes darted down, and she saw that her sister was clutching something tightly in her right hand – a lumpy mass that dripped on the rug. So incongruous was the sight that Emily did not immediately register what it was… a raw steak. Emily stared in mute shock while her mind reeled. What was Constance doing with that meat? What was she thinking?
Emily swallowed a lump in her throat and then began, slowly and with soothing noises, to advance on Constance. “Shh, Connie.” she crooned gently, “Shh…”
When Emily reached her younger sister, she took her hands, which she saw then were trembling violently, in her own, surreptitiously removing the slab of meat and placing it on the changing table. She glanced down into the crib and noted that James seemed to be sleeping soundly.
Gently, she guided Constance back to her bed and persuaded her to lie down. Once she was beneath the covers, Constance began to weep softly. “I don’t know what he eats,” she choked out between sobs.
Emily stayed seated on the edge of her sister’s bed and stroked her long, dark hair until she fell asleep.
That feeling of uneasiness stayed with Emily all through the next day. It was Saturday and her friends wanted to go to the movies, but she blew them off. Her parents were both away for the weekend and the idea of sitting there in the dark while Constance stayed home alone with James was intolerable to Emily.
Instead, she spent the entire day just hanging around the house, unable to commit herself to any activity for more than a few minutes. She found herself hovering around Constance and watching her critically. She couldn’t seem to get out of her head that image of Constance standing over James’ crib with the lights out clutching a chunk of meat.
For her part, Constance behaved as if the previous night had not happened at all. She changed James and bathed him. She gave him his formula and even played with him on the lounge room floor – tickling his feet and blowing raspberries on his too-flat tummy. She would lift him up in the air and kiss his middle almost as if, for a moment, at least, she did not notice the worrying concave of her son’s belly.
As Emily watched Constance, however, she could not keep herself from thinking that her sister’s smile looked strangely painted on and that there was something more than just fatigue behind her red-rimmed eyes.
Emily slept fitfully that night. Her sleep was disturbed by strange nightmares that, although she forgot their content almost immediately after she awoke, left her feeling shaky and disoriented.
When a sudden wail from James pierced the night, Emily immediately sat bolt upright, then propelled herself out of bed almost before she had registered what the sound was. She had heard James' cries often enough to be familiar with them, could even tune them out most nights, but they were different this time. These cries were much, much louder than normal, but also strangely… wet. It was as though the infant were choking on some sort of fluid.
Emily threw the door to Constance’s room open. “Connie, what’s wrong?” she gasped, feeling with each breath that she may choke on her own heart. She was in such a rush she forgot to switch on the light as she charged through the door and towards her sister “I heard–”
“Oh!” came Constance’s startled cry as she dropped something to the floor. A bloody kitchen knife.
“What… what have you done?” Emily whispered. She took a step toward Constance, then turned and ran up to the crib, where James had suddenly stopped his piercing wails. Emily, shaking now, stared down at her nephew.
There was a red jagged line that ran along the child’s belly – starting at the base of his throat and running all the way down below his navel. To Emily’s horror the gash began to gape, exposing a bloody, red interior out of which protruded the shattered remnants of James’ rib cage – now just jagged fragments of bone.
“Oh my god, Connie! What have you done?”
Emily braced herself against the side of the crib as she fought off waves of nausea and disbelief.
She felt her head spin and her vision begin to blur as her breath caught in her throat, but still she could not tear her eyes away from her nephew’s twisted form.
After what seemed an interminable time, Emily’s breath returned to her, though it was shallow and ragged. As her vision cleared and adjusted to the faint light that filtered in from the open curtain, she realized that she had made a mistake. In her initial shock Emily had thought the white shards in James’ split torso to be ribs, but now she saw that this was not the case at all. They were teeth.
Great, jagged teeth set in a crooked, sideways mouth that ran most of the length of James’ tiny body. As Emily watched, that terrible nether-mouth began to gape again, wider this time, and from out of its impossible depths snaked a black, slimy tendril that could only be a tongue.
Letting out a strangled cry, Emily stumbled backward then watched as the tongue rose up and out of the crib, flailing back and forth as though tasting the air. The tongue reached all the way to the changing table and began to tap on its surface – exploring.
It was only then that Emily saw the rat – a fuzzy mound lying on the changing table, its head crudely cut off.
As Emily watched, the tongue slowly slid towards the inert rodent and then, with horrible deftness, wrapped around it and lifted it off the table, pulling it back towards the crib and the terrible, waiting maw. The tongue made a wet, slurping noise as it retreated back behind the crooked fangs.
From somewhere behind Emily came a weak cry of “Oh!” Emily had forgotten Constance was even there.
Emily turned and saw Constance standing there, her hands clasped so tightly together that the knuckles were white. Her moist, febrile eyes glittered in the dim light. Emily saw that there was no fear in those eyes. Only wonder.
“Oh, Emily!” Constance sighed again, then continued rapturously, “He looks just like his father!”