Martha used to be able to turn up the radio, turn it up so loud it made the floorboards shake, and she would not be able to hear it anymore.
But her ears rang with the beat of music she could not stand, and she could still hear the steady thumping from the floor above her. She did not realize how tightly she was holding her mug until the handle broke in her palm, but no tea splashed out, and the ceramic did not cut her skin. She remained unscathed, as the thumping continued.
Outside the night was too quiet, and she fought the urge to walk into the darkness. Whatever horrors waited out there were nothing compared to what she hid inside, but she knew that it would be wrong. It was important to be right, if she was not right what was she doing? It was important to do the right thing. And the right thing was to make sure everything was okay, to check on it. To check on her. Martha put the pieces of the mug on the counter top and turned off the radio, and the silence was so loud she could scream.
She was screaming.
Martha closed her mouth and the noise stopped. Some horrible things, horrible sounds, were easy to clam up, to hide. She closed her mouth, and it was like the sound never happened. No one needed to know. She could go upstairs, open the door and check in, and when she closed the door, it would be hidden once more, like nothing was there at all.
Martha closed her eyes and let her hand slide against the wall, through the archway into the hall, and on the bannister lead her up the stairs. She pretended that if she opened her eyes, she would see Anna, not as she was now, but as a little girl, pulling herself up the steps, so cute and small and innocent. She would see the soft pink onesie, and the dimples, and a mouth with a few pearl teeth in it, still a very gummy smile with no bite. She just wanted to protect her baby, but Anna was not this baby anymore.
She was imagining a ghost of her daughter, while her daughter still breathed.
If she still breathed. What if she had stopped breathing, and this was a ghost playing on the back of her eyelids? A baby ghost of a grown woman, grown up so big, far too grown up.
It was obscene, so she kept her eyes shut, she kept her eyes shut until she opened the door to her daughter’s room at the end of the hall, at the edge of the house, bulging out into the night sky. Her daughter slept in a tower, an anachronistic bit of architecture that made her baby giggle with joy, and Martha used to think she could keep her safe up there, locked away like a princess. Anna may have no longer been her baby, or her princess, but Martha could still keep her locked away.
Before Martha opened her eyes, she imagined the shadows of the four-post bed, the intricate floral designs on Anna’s white dresser, the crème curtains that framed the large bay window overlooking the night that used to terrify her little girl. It would not be so terrifying now, or maybe it was, maybe Anna was beset on all sides…
It did not help to think that way. It did not help to see her as the little girl, the little princess, safe tucked under her covers, as safe as if she was painted inside the pages of a storybook. Instead of ripped out. Ripped out, and crumbled, and she was not a leaf that could be pressed flat again with a heavy enough book, slipped between the pages, and left to hide until she was smooth again. Her daughter would never be smooth again, she was a wad, a crumpled wad, like the crumpled piece of paper Sister Lucy had the students pass around the class when Martha was in junior high. She remembered Sister Lucy telling them to try to smooth out the paper, but it was impossible, it was too late, the damage was done, and the paper was not just crumbled but moist with the sweat of twenty teenage palms and sticky with whatever they had just eaten at lunch. The piece of paper was torn from a notebook, just a plain lined piece of paper, but Martha’s memory turned the paper into a crumbled photograph of a little girl tucked safely away in her princess bed. That photo, that girl, moist with sweat, sticky, and the photo was ruined, and the daughter in the picture was gone.
The thought was painful, but Martha needed the pain. The pain told her that she was right. Martha opened her eyes.
For a moment Martha thought she was still stuck in the past immortalized behind her eyelids, that the ghost had materialized and taken the grown woman’s place, because her daughter looked so small, she looked like that doll Martha remembered. But there was no dead ghost haunting the bedroom, and it was not the thick posts of the bed or the heavy silk sheets that made her look so small. It was that the other thing in the room was so big, it had grown, and Anna was wrapped up in the coils of the-
“Help me, Mom.”
Anna’s mouth was hidden, and her voice was muffled, but the words were clear to Martha. Her daughter’s voice reached out to her from somewhere under the snaking pile of flesh.
Martha could not even see where it latched on to her daughter’s body anymore. It undulated, and she wondered if it was eating, and what was it eating, if it was still on milk or if it had moved on to other matter. Though the idea of what “other matter” entailed should have pressed all other thoughts from her mind, Martha was more concerned about its size, because if it was eating did that mean it was still going to grow? Its length covered the floor already, piling on top of itself in the corners, piling on top of her daughter’s legs and chest, around her hips, over her neck.
It was not painted with flowers, not decorated like Anna’s wardrobe, but its skin was covered in circling grooves that seemed to shine as it moved, seemed to tell a story written in a swirling cursive script. It should not have belonged anywhere, it should not have fit anywhere, but it almost fit in Anna’s room, and maybe that meant it fit with Anna. It definitely belonged to Anna. It came from her.
“Get it off me,” Anna said. “Get rid of it.”
If she didn’t want it, she could have stopped it from happening, her daughter could have taken precautions before it started. These things did not just appear. It was always a sin, a sin always was the start, but the end was usually much more… precious. That was wrong. It was wrong to think a life was not precious just because it was… unique. Martha did not know anyone else hiding this thing inside their home, with their daughters. But if they were hiding their daughters with their issues, she would not know, would she? Maybe this was normal. Maybe every little girl had abandoned their safe towers and were wading through-
“It hurts, mom, it hurts.”
“Of course, it hurts,” said Martha. “But you’ll get used to it. You have to get used to it.”
Anna used to nip. It hurt Martha, too. Your children always end up hurting you, one way or another. Martha stared at the corner of the ceiling and tried not to faint.
It seemed like it wouldn’t be this bad, when it was still inside Anna. And when it was small, it did not seem like it would grow, even though it ate so much. Martha did not think that it would wrap around her daughter and just keep eating, and eating. Her daughter thought it would hurt, Anna said that to her over and over as she banged on the door to her room, shouting over the thumping of the radio, that it would hurt, it would hurt and never stop hurting. But neither of them could have known, Martha did not know she should believe her.
Her daughter wanted to get rid of it, like it was that easy, like it didn’t come to her for a reason. Like something could not be evil and precious, horrible and sacred.
“It’s going to be okay,” said Martha.
And she knew she was lying.
But it came to her daughter, it came from her daughter, and her daughter needed to take responsibility for her mistakes. She needed to own her sins.
A rolling coil of gray flesh wrapped around a post of the bed and fell against the sheets with a familiar thump, rising and falling, a steady thump thump thump, an unending rhythm, always reaching, always more-
Did it just grow? Did it just become larger? Martha backed out of the room. She hoped she could still close the door, and she could, just barely now, struggling where she had never struggled before. Which meant it was still growing.
A part of her wondered if her daughter did not make a mistake, if she wasn’t responsible, if this thing just happened, not as a punishment, but as a curse. Sometimes princesses were cursed, almost always. And not just because they were beautiful, but because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because of bad luck. But that was worse, that was too horrible, that meant it could happen to anyone’s daughter, everyone’s daughter.
It meant could happen to Martha.
It was better to believe that Anna did something wrong, even if it was something horrible, even if it was something ungodly, because then Martha could almost understand where this thing came from. She could not remove it from her daughter, but she could remove it from herself.
Martha could hear Anna crying, but the door was shut, and if the door was shut, she might not be able to pretend it was not there, but she could pretend that it did not hurt. She could pretend that everything was going to be fine, that if her daughter could just accept it and take care of it and own up to it that everything would eventually be fine. Women had been living with their mistakes for centuries. Martha had lived with hers. Anna was no different.
But if it was…
If it was…
If Martha was wrong…
It didn’t matter what it looked like, what her daughter said, what Martha’s mind screamed to her heart, what every nerve in her body wanted to do, to kill it, to tear it apart, to tear it off her daughter, her princess her –
She could not do it. It didn’t matter what she wanted, what she felt, what it was doing to Anna.
She needed to protect it. Keep it locked in its tower. Keep it safe, like a princess. She had to do it, because it was the right thing to do, and there were no other options.
Martha walked back to the kitchen, and she could not remember what happened to the mug, but it was not important, the only important thing in the world was up in that bedroom. The darkness outside still seemed so inviting, but devils hid in the darkness, monsters waiting to get inside, and Martha could not protect Anna from the monsters anymore, but she could still protect the-
Yes, she could protect the baby.
It was just a baby.
Alexandra Grunberg is a Glasgow based author, poet, and screenwriter. Her work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including Daily Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Flash Fiction Online. You can learn more at her website, alexandragrunberg.weebly.com.