Everyone’s bullied. School wasn’t any harder on me than anyone else. Life is not like the movies; people rarely stand up to their bullies. It’s not that I was weaker or a coward. People talk about the flight or fight response. They rarely talk about the third option, which is to freeze. I’m freezer.
One beating sticks with me. I’m not sure why he pushed me off my bike. My body became weighted, too heavy to move. His foot struck my ribs. Thud. The damp grass brushed my cheek. Thud. I could smell leaves rotting. Thud. The cold hard ground beneath it all. Thud. I never told anyone who did it. Not even when he started bragging about how he “earned” my bike.
My first wife’s father was a cop. I’m not sure why she married me.
It was the kind of night where the wind cuts to the bone, making it feel much colder than the mercury would suggest. As we moved beyond the cool glow of a street lamp a man emerged from the alley. The heaviness was upon me again. Stomach in knots. Body frozen in place. A small pocket knife. A gnarled voice. He had my wallet. A struggle for her purse.
“That was stupid.” I pleaded, regaining my sense of time and space, “He had a knife. He could have killed us.”
She replied, “That thing? It probably wasn’t even sharp. Have you ever taken a risk in your life?”
No, I hadn’t.
Asymptomatic balanced chromosome translocation, even for doctors it’s a mouthful. The world seemed to fall away in that cold exam room. Did someone turn up the AC? Any fetus I father will miscarry, as we had already experienced.
The heaviness. Sinking into the couch, as my wife’s voice would rise. Bile spit from her lips. How could I blame her?
She had a new husband and baby less than a year after our divorce.
Heather and I met in a support group for people who couldn’t have children. As she walked into the room warm bugs danced across my body in waves. I could almost taste her lip, feel her soft skin.
I’d crinkle my brow at her assertiveness. Like the time that our group leader dinged Heather’s car in the parking lot.
“Come on Heather,” he exclaimed, “It’s only a small ding. Let me just pay to get it fixed.”
“I’m not taking the risk, Aaron.” Heather’s voice was resolute, “I want to make sure my car gets fixed properly. I’m sorry, but we are going to do this right.”
Our first date was at a steakhouse. I got so sick right before and almost canceled. As I waited for her at her door I was almost sick a second time.
I took a drink of wine between dry bites. With a disapproving grimace, Heather said, “Didn’t you order that steak medium rare?”
“It’s fine,” I said with a smile. I figured I’d eat what I could and hit a drive-through on the way home.
“No, it’s not” Heather insisted, “That thing isn’t even edible. Waiter…”
It was at that same steak house. The waitress brought out a large plate of petits fours with “Marry me” written in thick raspberry sauce. I got down on one knee. When she said yes, the room erupted. Red-faced, I retook my seat.
Heather came home looking distracted and stern, “I want to ask you something.” She said pausing to gauge my mood.
“Sure, what’s wrong?” I stumbled out. The heaviness was right there on the edges.
“I want to have a baby.” She exclaimed.
I look at her for a moment unblinking. The weight was taking my body. Why would she say such a thing? Was she trying to hurt me?
Her smile reassured me as she explained, “I mean I think we should adopt. I’ve been running through the numbers and I think…”
I cut her off, “I think we’ll make wonderful parents.”
Adoption is difficult, but you can never realize the pressure of it without going through it. The agencies poke into every aspect of your life. We spent months talking to one birth mother. As she entered the third trimester, voicemail. I sat on the edge of our bed eyes closed. Was she hurt? Does she not like us?
It was almost a month later that the agency told Heather that the birth mother had changed her mind. We wept together, the same tears I had wept when my ex miscarried.
I felt the raised letters on the business card. Amens Adoption Agency. Heather explained, “They don’t allow the birth parents to meet the adopted parents. They acted like a matchmaker and only contact the adoptive parents once the birth mother is ready to sign. They want us to adopt a baby named Samantha.”
I couldn’t believe it was happening. Heather smiled at me with her vague, mysterious smile.
The first time I held my daughter was mesmerizing. Years of miscarriages and failed adoptions collided in a moment. As I looked into her face I could swear I saw the perfect blend of me and Heather. It was a silly thought, but it comforted me.
Heather seemed less enthusiastic. “Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” I asked.
Heather scowled, “She’s a baby. They all look the same.”
“But she’s our baby,” I replied.
“You have no idea how much work this is going to be. You shut down. It’s going to be work for me.”
I stared at her. Weight drifted over me. Heather had rarely been so harsh before.
“I’m sorry.” Heather said, “It’s just been a lot. I… I think I need to lay down.”
Movement out of the corner of my eye. A fluid blur somewhere in the shadowy edges of my bedroom. I froze, but it was already gone.
I tried to control my breathing to push back the nervousness bubbling inside. I told myself it was nothing, all in my head.
When babies start to laugh it’s a joyous milestone. It’s often the first sign that they are interacting with the world. Samantha laughed from her throat, like an old smoker, too gruff and deep for a baby.
“Heather come hear this!” I shouted, “She’s laughing.”
Heather crinkled her forehead. “That’s not a baby laugh.” She announced, “That’s a demon laugh.”
I chuckled and asked Samantha, “Are you a demon coming to get us?”
Heather did everything a mother should do. She fed Samantha, changed her, held her. Something was still off. There was a lack of awareness, a lack of doting, a coldness about Heather’s mothering. There was no denying it, Heather was disinterested in our child. There was that weight again.
I started to see the thing in the shadows clearer. I could make out a human shape. But uncomfortably thin, with a long neck, narrow head. Now it was there almost any time I was alone. Playing coy, a grey, decrepit face peering from around a corner, or a body slightly beyond my eye’s focus. I could never quite make it out before it was gone.
Samantha had no problems falling asleep. She’d go out right after eating, while we held her, in the car, in her crib, almost anywhere. The second I would hit that space between sleeping and awake she would start screaming. Not crying, screaming. Blood-curdling screams of terror. I’d rush into room finding silence as soon as I crossed the threshold.
I had put Samantha to sleep for what I hoped would be the night and was in the kitchen for a drink of water. There it was staring at me from across the kitchen island.
Her vaguely human face wrinkled yet to taunt. With barely distinguishable slit eyes. There was no nose, no ears, and tufts of patchy hair protruding from her head. An immovable mouth appeared painted on leathery skin. The creature looked so frail almost harmless, except for thick claws on the ends of its long fingers.
My chest heaved. Every muscle in my body tense. Heavy. Stiff. I struggled to find my breath. The world began to spin. I froze. She was gone.
“Look at her eyes,” Heather demanded.
“What about them?” I asked.
“They aren’t right,” Heather explained. “Always shifting, never making eye contact. When you can catch her gaze there is no love behind them. She’s empty.”
I took Samantha from Heather and held our baby in my arms. The baby’s eyes darted around almost nervous. Why hadn’t I noticed before? Finally, I caught those darting eyes, only for a movement; like catching a glimpse of a shooting star in the night’s sky. They were normal eyes, light brown, full, but for a spare moment, they were dark caverns. Empty voids in my mind.
“You see it!” Heather exclaimed, “I can tell you see it.”
“She’s an infant,” I replied, “She probably doesn’t even see us yet.”
Heather spoke almost to herself, “I thought this would make us happy. I think I made a huge mistake.”
“Huh?” I asked through a fogged mind.
Heather stared at Samantha in my arms. I nodded, “You didn’t make that decision alone.”
“I’m just tired,” Heather said, “Lack of sleep is catching up to me.”
I answered my office phone, “Hey Hun, you never call me on my office line. Is everything okay?”
It was Heather’s phone but a man’s voice on the other end. “Mr. Racki?”
“This is Matt Racki, who is this?” I asked more annoyed than concerned.
“I’m with the fire department. Heather fell down the stairs. She’s okay, but I think she broke her legs. You should meet her at the hospital.” The voice explained.
When I got to the hospital the police were already there.
“Someone was in my house,” Heather insisted, “They pushed me down the stairs.”
“Did you get a good look at them?” The officer asked.
Heather shook her head.
“There was no one in the house when we got there. No sign of forced entry. What about your husband, where was he?”
My jaw dropped. Was this officer really accusing me of pushing my wife down the stairs?
“He was at work” Heather explained as I walked up. The officers glanced at me. I could feel the accusations through his glaze.
With Heather in the hospital, life was a blur. Driving for visits. Taking care of Samantha. Moving furniture in preparation for a wheelchair. Rush. Rush. Rush. My head would hit the pillow my last bit of energy spent and the screaming would come.
The world began to slow down. It was like moving through murky water. Every vision slightly out of focus, every movement took a lifetime. At least I had stopped seeing that woman. Maybe I was too tired to notice her.
In my grogginess, Samantha’s laugh stopped being amusing. She would start laughing at the strangest times. While taking a bottle. While alone in her crib. For no reason at all. That laugh began to chill me to the bone.
By the time I was back at work, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I felt myself nodding off everywhere. While in the bathroom, in meetings, driving. I always felt a little sick to my stomach. My hands shook and I felt sharp pricks all over my body.
I don’t even remember exactly what set me off. A presentation? Then a question? I do remember yelling, every eye in the room fixed on me. You don’t talk to a VP that way and keep your job.
I didn’t tell Heather. I was far too ashamed to say it out loud. I started getting up in the morning as I would for work. I'd attend job fairs or networking events. I called every lead. The interviews were a montage of questions, blank expressions, and intense bleakness.
I was in the living room. I think the TV might have been on but I don’t remember watching it. She was there in an instant, crouched on the end of our couch. As I glared into that grotesque face a sound began to rise in her throat. Something like an ethereal scream mixed with a growl. It grew louder and louder. I closed my eyes and breathed in through my teeth. A sudden burning on my arm. Samantha screaming from the nursery.
I opened my eyes to see my wife blinking at me from the doorway. “Please, hold it together.” Heather hissed.
Gasping for air, I ran my finger over the two distinct claw marks on my arm.
Samantha’s screams became louder with time, as she slept less and less. We were sleeping in ten-minute breaths between demanding shrieks. As we rushed to her side the laughing would start. Uncontrollable. Mocking. Unrelenting. We tried every sleep training program we could find. None made a difference.
“I swear,” I told Heather one night, “She’s running a sleep deprivation experiment on us.”
My joke fell flat as my wife glared at me.
The attacks became a daily occurrence. Blink. There she is on the edge of my vision. Blink. She would close the space between us. Blink. I’d be alone with new, deep scratches. How could something so worn move so fast? Howls from the nursery.
Hag. That’s how started to think of her. I don’t remember anyone else ever being around when she sunk her claws into me.
I fell into a rhythm this way. Faceless interviewers. Screams. Laughs. Cuts. Somewhere, I lost a sense of time. The only evidence I had that time passed at all was the new scars on my body.
I started seeing the Hag in the daylight. Following me around the city. Always at a distance in my peripheral. Perched on a park bench, walking on a crowded street, peering at me through a window. Always watching. Whenever I turned my focus she was gone.
Somewhere in the space between the stress Heather and I stopped talking. I’m not sure if she was ever around, leaving me with Samantha and the Hag. Our dwindling savings filled me with guilt. Perhaps the evenings alone were my penance. The scars a reminder of some well-earned purgatory.
I could hear that otherworldly throat sound even when the Hag wasn’t around. Even Samantha’s fits had become relief from that incessant noise.
I woke in our bed, the Hag sitting on my chest. The sound emanated from her throat, in the far off distance I could hear Samantha’s faint screams. The Hag reached up one bonny finger and dug her claw into my forehead. She pulled down drawing a line of blood as my flesh tore, savoring my torment. Down the bridge of my nose, to the very tip. She was gone and Samantha’s screams grow louder. I swallowed the pain to take care of my daughter.
The next morning, I was so tired everything had taken on a hazy veneer. I don’t remember leaving the house. At the convention hall, a woman gasped. Everyone turned to look at me. One man approached. “Sir,” he crooked, “What happened to your face?”
I only grunted.
A crowd was forming around as he continued, “That cut is bad. I’m calling 911. You need to see a doctor.”
That was the first time someone had recognized one of my wounds. I collapsed into a heap of tears and released tension.
My face throbbed, radiating out to the rest of my body. I should have stayed at the hospital as the doctor suggested, but I could not. I could smell the decomposing leaves, hear every insult, feel every cut, every strike. Where was Heather? I knew what I would do, I knew what I had to do.
I stood beside the bed, wanting the Hag to come. I would not let the weight overtake me, would not freeze. My mind was spinning when I saw her in the doorway. The earth begging me to stay in place. Pushing the feeling away, I refused to blink as she rushed towards me, claws baring down. One claw caught the side of my neck as I grabbed her with a twisted. She fell onto the bed, me on top of her pinning her frail arms with my legs. She clawed at my shins as I wrapped my fingers around her narrow neck and squeezed. The Hag struggled. I felt a pop as something inside her broke. It only made me squeeze harder.
As her slit eyes looked up at me, I could hear Samantha’s distant laugh. Then sleep. Sweet relieving sleep.
When I awoke I was in a strange place. Something hard and cold around my wrist. I tried to sit up but whatever was around my wrist pulled me back to the bed. The bed. It was a hospital bed and I was handcuffed to it. “Get me out of here!” I shouted as people flooded my room.
At the precinct, they begin to explain things to me. “A neighbor called us,” the detective said, “When we entered your house you were on the living room floor. Heather was next to you, strangled. You had been there for at least a few days.”
That couldn’t be, Heather and Samantha were out that night. How did I end up in the living room? I couldn’t breathe.
He continued, “We couldn’t wake you. That cut on your face was very infected. You could have died.”
“How long did I sleep?” I managed to ask.
“Two days in the hospital, before that who knows.” the detective replied with a shrug.
“Samantha, our baby.”
“Sir, there were no babies in that house only that sick doll.”
I told my lawyers everything as I have told you here. They argued that sleep deprivation, stress, and infection had driven me temporarily psychotic. The DA argued that Heather’s fall, the incident at work and my scars suggested a pattern of violence and abuse. In their narrative, I resented Heather because she didn’t want to adopt a child with me. Our defense may have been effective if we could prove that Samantha or Amens exited.
It was at the trial that I saw the doll. I recognized it right away. Filled with straw and covered in stitched human skin. Her vaguely human face wrinkled yet to taunt. With barely distinguishable slit eyes. There was no nose, no ears, and tufts of patchy hair protruding from her head. An immovable mouth appeared painted on leathery skin. They found it in the crib in our nursery.
This is the best I can do with my hazy, fragmented memory. I’m not sure who drove those events, Samantha, Heather, The Hag or me. It doesn’t matter anymore, at least not to me. Sleep is the only thing that matters now, and all I have is time.