LittleHorrors

Jessie stared into the tiny wire cage, unable to pull her eyes away. The cedar shavings that lined the bottom of the cage were, as always, fragrant, but also alarmingly free of rodent clutter. The tiny silver wheel, which had become background music in Jessie’s bedroom, sat still, quiet, and clean. Speedy was curled in a ball, in his favorite corner, behind his wheel. He also sat still, quiet, and clean.

Jessie pushed back the sliding door at the top of the cage, her small, pale hand appearing ghostlike between the bars of the cage as she reached inside. It was not until she gently scooped Speedy into her palm that she realized she was screaming. Her throat was tight and raw, as it had been the time she choked on one of the horse pills her dad sometimes made her take.

The sound of her own keening in her ears was a fist on a red button and panic carried her voice away in a series of howling sobs. Jessie dashed from her bedroom, Speedy’s body tucked against her narrow chest, her feet stuttering on the staircase as she plunged down its length. Mom, busy in the kitchen below, finally heard her coming.

“Jessie, you’re going to fall,” Mom called in her best obey-me voice. Then, with even more concern, “What’s wrong? What happened?”

Jessie rushed into the kitchen, nearly colliding in her teary blindness with her mother. Mom took it all in at a glance—Speedy held protectively against Jessie’s green t-shirt, no movement, her six-year-old daughter’s face ancient with terror and horror and shame.

“Did you feed him?” Mom asked softly.

Jessie’s face churned as she thought over the question. She was furious with herself for the first time, at her inability to remember important details, at her brain’s refusal to notice important changes. Jessie was pissed at her innocence, and was unable to say or even conceive it. Instead, her mouth opened in an awful grimace and she simply said, “No, I forgot.”

Mom, her eyes uncharacteristically soft, said, “You have to feed him, Jessie.” She could not bring herself to say what she must, the “D” word. She could not explain the “D” word to this child before her, this little girl who already bore an invisible yoke of weight. She could not say to Jessie, “It’s not your fault.” For Mom, that would be akin to accepting responsibility of her own. Mom had never been a diplomat, had never tried. She repeated, her voice as kind as Jessie had ever heard it. “You have to remember to feed him, honey.”

Jessie misunderstood.

Still blubbering, she trudged back up the stairs to her bedroom. Speedy still slept in the cup of her hand and chest. She avoided the cage, couldn’t look at its eerie spotlessness. Jessie reached her hand into the bag of feed standing behind her bedroom door, watching her arm disappear to the shoulder into the ripped, gaping mouth of the bag. When her fingers plunged into a pool of cold seeds, she grasped a small handful and left her room, descending the stairs once again.

Jessie sat on the couch in the family room and dropped the seeds on the cushion next to her. She took Speedy in both hands. Be careful with him, her mind whispered. She held him out in front of her, his golden fur soft and warm as she stroked it with one finger. His pink nose didn’t twitch and his diminutive lower jaw hung slightly away from his formidable Bugs Bunny teeth. Jessie respected those teeth; they had got her once or twice when she had tried to make Speedy do something stupid or cruel. Speedy’s teeth had taught her about kindness and love. Now, they were agape because she had forgotten to feed him.

Jessie sobbed again and grabbed a sunflower kernel from the pile beside her. “Speedy, it’s my fault you’re hungry and sleeping. If you eat this, you’ll feel better, okay? You have to eat this.” While she spoke, Jessie grasped the seed between her still chubby thumb and forefinger and prodded Speedy’s mouth and nose with it. When he didn’t respond, she poked the tip of seed into the gap between his tiny jaws. “Don’t you want to eat, Speedy?” A fresh string of sobs obscured her words to nonsense. Hoping he would start to chew any moment, back from an unnatural sleep like a fairy tale princess, Jessie tucked the seed farther into Speedy’s mouth. He did not chew, and now only looked silly and disfigured, a white wad propping his teeth askew.

“Jessie!” Mom, still in the kitchen, gazed out on the pathetic scene unfolding in the family room. Jessie, her shoulders hunched in misery, turned her head to listen. “Honey, it’s too late, now,” Mom said, her voice sounding strange and reedy, as it did right before she lost her temper. Mom wore a queer, scary expression. Jessie couldn’t ponder, could only witness the worms writhing just beneath the skin of Mom’s cheeks and brow.

Had Jessie possessed the vocabulary to speculate on her mother’s face, she would have called the look gruesome horror. Had Jessie born an adult’s understanding of biology, which by some divine kindness she did not, she would have known that Speedy was only moments dead when she found him. Despite lack of language and experience, the weight of empathy and conscience mutated Jessie’s sweet features, transformed her into a haggard crone. “Can I have a box and a blanket for him, Mom?” Jessie’s tears were almost gone, now only an occasional hitch in the voice or deep, shaky gasp.

Mom’s Halloween mask disappeared, melting into her more natural disaster-averted expression. “Back on walkin’ ground,” this new expression said, and Jessie felt something new twist in her guts, a ball of barbed wire she would identify later in life as disappointment. “Of course I will, honey,” Mom said, relief clear in her voice, then vanished to fulfill the request.

Mom returned with a shoebox and some rags, Dad’s old skivvies, and that rock turned over in Jessie’s stomach again. She helped her daughter tuck Speedy gently into his final resting place. Before they affixed the lid, Jessie gazed in at her friend, almost invisible amongst the folds of dingy underwear. She said, “I’ll see you soon, Speedy,” five words that chilled Mom’s blood, scared her enough that she didn’t ask after them. Jessie closed the box and carried it toward the back door and the garden beyond.

Mom started to follow her, to dig the hole and offer a little service in which Jessie could participate. Such things were supposed to afford kids some closure when they lost a pet. Jessie stopped walking and spoke words so old they nearly took Mom’s breath away. “Mom, I want to be alone with Speedy. Is that okay?”

Jessie hadn’t turned when she spoke, so Mom answered to her daughter’s ebony hair, loving intently the back of that tiny, huge head. “Sure, yeah, I guess that’s okay. There’s a small shovel in the bin next to the garden.”

Jessie nodded, hiding her confusion about the shovel from her mother, and scurried out the back door.

 

 

Jessie entered her bedroom, something she had taken care not to do since she’d found Speedy earlier that day. The room was quiet, which made her feel like crying all over again, so she put a record on the tiny, toy 45 on her desk. Seconds later, sounds of her Dad’s favorite band filled the room, popping the breathless bubble Jessie imagined had taken up residence.

Jessie sat on her bed covered with yellow blankets, her eyes moving automatically to the cage. She had found Speedy’s antics mesmerizing, had passed many hours perched on her bed watching him scurry about his little planet, burying and gathering. Now, the cage was empty and clean. The food bowl was immaculate. Not even the husk of a sunflower seed remained.

Jessie moved closer to the cage, looking in at the cedar shavings. She reached in and pawed through the bedding, looking for the little black pellets she despised cleaning every Sunday. She found none. Apparently, a desperate hamster would eat anything.

Jessie’s stomach sank. Even the cheerful sounds of Dad’s music could not stop her from imagining Speedy eating his own poops to survive. Because she had forgotten about him. Because she was bad. Jessie, overcome, threw herself on her bed and wailed into her pillow. By the time the record finished playing its three songs, Jessie cried herself into a deep sleep.

 

 

Jessie arose violently, careening roughly from the bed and taking her first shambling steps toward the door before she was completely awake. A fierce energy burned in her muscles and her stomach felt cool and grumbly as if she’s just gulped ice water. She felt happy, as she would on Christmas morning, and certain, as when she knew what waited for her under the tree.

Jessie snuck down the hallway, carefully avoiding the squeakier boards. It would not do to be caught, her mind whispered. More awake and nimble now, she quickly descended the stairs to the family room and kitchen. She bypassed the back door and its ear-splitting squall, swinging instead around the corner where the family room and kitchen met, and descending more stairs into the basement.

When she reached the bottom, she paused, gazing through the patio doors to her left onto the shadowy expanse of the back yard. The full moon backlit the familiar space, exsanguinating what she knew, turning it starkly, thrillingly beautiful. Nervousness joined the excitement cartwheeling in Jessie’s chest, the combination an undeniable siren, and she slid the door open.

            She emerged into the dark and chill of the intoxicating evening, gazed at the stars like alien jewelry, giggled as frigid dew tickled her toes. The night was hers, made for her and Speedy, and the certainty with which she awoke returned. She sprinted around the corner of the house and across the yard toward the garden, her footsteps like an umbilicus trailing after her in the dew.

The night swelled around Jessie as she ran. Every cricket became a violin, every drop of moisture, a wave, every star, a sun. Jessie knew the night was special, felt strangely alive from the tips of her toenails to the ends of her hair. She was so completely present and part of the world that every breath felt charged, as if she would start glowing like a giant firefly.

She reached the rock wall bordering the garden and stumbled to a stop, gasping huge lungfuls of air. She walked about halfway down, steadying herself on the jutting chunks of limestone as she went. When she reached the right spot, Jessie plunked to the ground with her legs crossed beneath her. Her fingers were numb from excitement and exertion, her feet felt numb from the icy dew. She reached forward and grasped one of the stones, second from the bottom, and started jimmying it out of place.

It was a big stone, taking time and patience to pull and replace. Jessie didn’t mind. This spot had been her secret treasure trove since she discovered it six months ago. She had hidden money here, candy (which had turned into a sticky, buggy mess that had made her cry), even a naughty picture pilfered from her teenage brother’s room. Now, she kept Speedy here. The magic of the night was such that when she pulled this stone, Speedy would come bounding out into her hands, hungry but playful, ready to go in and eat dinner. She knew. She was certain.

The rock came free in Jessie’s hands, its weight like an anchor pulling her from her thoughts. Finally, the certitude wavered, but it was too late now. She had come all this way; she had to look.

Jessie dropped the rock on the ground, careful not to mash her toes, and lay on her belly in the wet grass. Despite the full moon, Speedy’s hole was a pocket of darkness. Jessie reached into the cubby, slowly, until her cold fingertips brushed cool cotton. She pulled delicately, wanting to preserve Speedy’s comfortable bed, since space had forced her to discard the box.

Jessie carefully lifted the cloth from the hole and pulled back the folds. Before placing him here, she had wrapped Speedy in a towel she had found in the garage. The idea of keeping Speedy in poop-stained rags had deeply unsettled her. Even now, as she negotiated the layers of tattered terry cloth, she still hoped she would find Speedy awake, if not exuberantly as she previously imagined, then at least weakly. The towel unwrapped, Speedy’s body laid bare in the moonlight, Jessie discovered only disappointment, deep and complete as the earth beneath her.

She cried and rocked, holding the towel before her like an offering to a heartless god. Speedy’s eyes no longer shown like beads; they were matte and slightly shrunken. Even in the moonlight, Jessie could still see the seed jammed rudely in Speedy’s jaws, and she shuddered.

Jessie tried to remove the seed, wanting Speedy to look as she remembered, not this cruel, crooked parody. He jaws were stiff, his body a fur-covered statue, and Jessie managed only to jam the seed in farther. After an infuriating moment, Jessie gave up. She sobbed and stared at the tiny body through an obscurity of tears. She heard herself saying, “Bad Speedy! You have to listen to me, now,” and didn’t know why she scolded, only that she was angrier at him than she had ever before been. She was mad at him for not spitting out the seed, for laying there while she tried to help him. She was mad at him for eating his own poops—how horribly disgusting. She was mad at him for not asking for food, though even she knew this was silly. It’s my fault, her mind whispered, moaned.

“It’s all your fault, Speedy!” Jessie cried, slapping the tiny body on the towel with all her might, sending Speedy into the grass a few feet away. Tortured with guilt, disgusted with what she had just done and how Speedy’s body had felt—cold and dense, as if he were full of wet sand—Jessie jumped after him immediately, picking him up with the towel and replacing his shroud. She tucked him back in the cubby and sat down, letting herself bawl.

“I’m sorry, Speedy. I’m sorry I hit you. If you wake up, I promise I’ll never do it again. I’ll never forget to feed you again.” Jessie paused, the enormity in her words forming in her mind some vague mountain that would cast its shadow for years to come. “I’ll take good care of you from now on.” Jessie blew a kiss at the hole, then struggled the rock back into place.

She returned to the house, following her dewy footprints back to the basement door, then creating new ones as she crept to her bedroom. She peeled off her wet pajamas and underwear, feeling immediately warmer, and crawled into bed. She did not sleep until the sky outside her window turned pink.

 

 

Jessie awoke the next day when the sun was already high over the house. She went about her little girl life nearly unchanged. She played, nagged until her Mom hollered, pretended, and read. These activities should have felt perfectly natural to Jessie, as they had every day prior to that one, but they didn’t. They felt forced, false, and pointless. She was just filling in the hours, wasting time.

If Mom had asked about Speedy that second day, Jessie was sure she would have broken down, telling Mom everything, even at the expense of her own secret treasure trove, just to get the mess out in the air where it couldn’t make her feel shaky and oogy, as when she would pilfer a half cup of her Dad’s syrupy brown coffee. Mom never asked about Speedy.

Therefore, Jessie had a promise to keep. Her confused, frightened mind never considered betraying it. She waited.

 

 

Planning to wait a week, Jessie lasted three days before her impatience got the best of her. That night, after the house fell quiet and the moon crested the trees, spilling gray light like water onto her face and bed, Jessie sat up. She showed none of the enthusiasm of the first night, only a grim willfulness that looked both queer and at home on her delicate features.

She threw back her covers and swung her legs, already clad in jeans and tennies, out of the bed. With Mom and Dad sleeping, the house dark and creaky, Jessie headed back toward the basement, nervous but determined. Either Speedy would take her deal or he wouldn’t, but she had to find out, one way or the other.

Jessie crept down the stairs and through the kitchen, grimacing when her sneaks squeaked on the linoleum, and stopped just inside the basement patio door. She stared at the moon, huge and swollen in the sky, thick August humidity like smog obscuring the comforting lines of the face on that now-gray orb. Jessie pulled her gaze from the moon, afraid of drowning in its magnificent pallor, and took in the backyard. What four nights ago had glimmered and danced—the blades of grass, the petals on Mom’s flowers, the Army tree with camouflage skin and sappy pocks that looked like bullet holes—tonight, appeared lifeless and devastated in the swampy, gray light that seemed to permeate the very air like a cloud of poison.

Jessie flipped the lock on the patio door, the loud chunk! making her jump. She took a deep breath. She was scared, mostly at how drastically things had changed since she last stood here, but she swallowed it down as she would bitter medicine. She had promised to take care of Speedy, and she could not do that if she could not first propel herself through this doorway.

Jessie slid the door open, a wall of thick moisture suddenly pawing her face. With none of the chill of four nights ago, Jessie peeled off her sweatshirt and dropped it on the floor, stepping out into the backyard.

Before her trepidation could delay her further, Jessie swung around the corner of the house and crossed the expanse of the yard in slow, determined strides. The night swirled like smoke around her warm body. The blades of grass yielded like conquered soldiers beneath her feet. Jessie’s eyes remain ahead.

Out of the shifting gloom rose the head of the stone wall, its familiar dimensions stretched and contorted, its elements like shattered teeth in the gaseous light. Jessie slowed as she approached the garden, her imagination producing countless reasons to abandon her charge. She ignored the fear twisting in her belly and pressed forward without pause.

She reached the chosen rock in what seemed like a blink of her eye. She squatted in front of the wall, staring at the bulky white guard to her secret treasure trove, unable to recall the steps that had carried her here, as if her feet had grown wings that propelled her to the proper place. Jessie watched her fingers and hands, looking mummified in the moonlight, drift into view and pry carefully at the limestone.

Her belly jumped with nervous exhilaration and flipped in utter terror. She hung her head between her bent knees and vomited silently into the grass, gasping for breath when she finished, watching the tendrils of steam from her body’s refuse mingle with the luminous vapors strangling the grass. All the while, her fingers mindlessly worked, worked.

Then the rock was free, its unforgiving weight the very embodiment of dread in Jessie’s hands. Her head still hung sightlessly between her knees, but her nose worked very well and detected a new perfume in the air; a scent as heavy and consuming as tonight’s moon. What she caught was not a gray smell, but a brown one, and Jessie’s young mind didn’t make sense of the new monster bombarding her nose. An unconscious moan escaped her lips, sending goose bumps up her warm body. She fought and won a brief struggle with her still willful bladder and dropped the stone, now heavy as the world in her baby’s hands. The rock narrowly missed her toes, landing upon the earth with an empty thump that filled her with pale terror. Jessie didn’t want to go on.

She must go on.

Still with her head down, her eyes cast safely between her feet, Jessie reached one trembling hand into the dark throat that had been one of her favorite spots on Earth, a spot that she would soon avoid, though she doesn’t know it now. Her fingers brushed the terry cloth, rough as burlap to her tangled nerves. She pinched the edge of the fabric with her thumb and forefinger, pulling it gingerly out toward the light of the moon, that alien odor growing stronger as she did. She still couldn’t look, only hearing as the almost nonexistent bulk of the package slid free of the cubby and dropped the few inches to the muggy Earth.

Jessie breathed. The quiet whisper of Speedy’s towel slipping over the rock still hung in the night air. She reached out blindly and pulled back the fold of the towel, the finger of stink stabbing cruelly into her nose when she did. Jessie gathered her will and stole a peek at the tiny blob on the white of the towel. Just a glimpse, then eyes turned safely into the misty grass, but her heart leapt just the same. Jessie had spied movement in that stolen peek. Had Speedy taken her deal?

Jessie stared into the shadows of the towel. Speedy was surely moving, his arms and legs shifting sluggishly, his eyes rolling slowly, and Jessie cursed the moon its laziness. She grabbed the towel, loosing a strangled moan when she nearly toppled Speedy’s body to the dank ground, and brought it toward her face. The smell made her eyes gush and her throat close, but she must see, and the towel inched closer.

In the vampire moonlight, Speedy’s body and eyes indeed moved, but not because Speedy had accepted Jessie’s bargain. Fat white larvae, shiny and obscene in the ghostly gloom, shimmied and twisted in Speedy’s eyes and throughout his moon bleached fur, animating his body. His stomach bulged grotesquely, his jaw now completely askew and jutting bizarrely to one side. Even through the writhing worms, the rot, the protruding bones and joints, Jessie could still see the seed she had shoved into Speedy’s mouth. The small but visible bit of food reminded her cruelly of her desperation and what now appeared to be mad hope. Her heart anguished in guilt and sadness.

  Another moan, this one low and shuddering, crawled from the depths of Jessie’s gut and out of her throat, drifting dumbly from her gaping mouth. Suddenly wanting to be rid of her promise, of all it required her to sacrifice, Jessie flung her hands before her. Speedy’s body sprang toward her face, one larva flying free of its meal and plopping coldly against Jessie’s cheek before she could duck out of its path. Jessie shrieked, her strangled throat allowing only a whistle to escape, and rubbed furiously at her cheek. She raked her hands through the grass, then against the rough seat of her denim until her fingertips sang with heat and tenderness. She held her hands out before her, not recognizing them, afraid of them and all they had done.

Jessie struggled to her feet and stumbled back to the house, returning to her bed in a daze so complete she would have no memory of returning to her bed tomorrow.

 

 

Jessie slept fitfully until shortly after sunrise, then woke from an amazing dream in which she was outside on a beautiful Spring day, sitting in a bed of flowers and feeding sunflower seeds to Speedy between the bars of his cage. The vision was so sweet that Jessie found it painful as it dissolved into morning, heavy and pallid as the night before.

She sat on the edge of her bed, nursing a sadness so absolute she could understand it only as feeling sick. She walked from her room, still wearing the same clothes from the night before. She avoided the mirror on the way out for fear the face looking back would not belong to her. She made her way through the house, lifeless and somehow shrunken in the early morning light. She emerged from the basement patio door and headed toward the garden, her tracks oddly elongated in the thick dew. In her numbness, she never considered pausing along the way.

Jessie searched the expanse of yard beside the garden for Speedy, feeling terrible for casting him aside as she did, uncertain what she would do if she found him. She did not. Both he and the towel, probably carried off due to its particular perfume, had vanished.

Jessie had searched for nearly two hours when her mother called her in for breakfast. Jessie walked from the garden, never looking back, another new feeling, relief, flooding her dry inner hollows.

 

 

Two decades later, Jessie emerges from her front door onto her massive deck with an ancient pine growing right through the floor, a cigarette cocked lazily in the corner of her mouth. She flicks her lighter, her eyes scanning the bird feeders along the deck railing. In the corner of the deck stands her husband’s makeshift birdbath, a large stainless steel bowl on a stand, which remains unused to her knowledge. The water in the bowl appears peculiarly dark, and Jessie steps closer, her afternoon smoke temporarily forgotten.

She reaches the birdbath, which sits directly below the largest of the feeders, a mesh, octagon basket that holds the seed but drops the husks. As her vision crests the lip of the bowl, Jessie first understands the dark shape in the water to be discarded seed and shell that some enthusiastic feaster had thrown from above. Her mind niggles, however. Her gut tells her something in that shadow, lurking just out of clear view, obscured by sunny, shifting water, something there is off.

Jessie removes the cigarette from her opening lips, her feet taking another step forward despite the alarm clanging in her subconscious. Another step and the sun hides behind the tree, revealing the contents of the bird bath to her straining eyes. Something resembling algae floats gracefully in the warm water, rising from that inscrutable shadow and swaying smoothly.

Jessie gazes raptly at those tiny tendrils waltzing in the water, her mind horrified but unable to make sense of the scene before it. She pans out, with her eyes and her imagination, and registers gold and black stripes, a black bead gleaming amidst the shadow, and the rough shape of a small body. Jessie shrivels in horror when she realizes the tendrils that elude her conceptual grasp are the hairs rising off a drowned chipmunk’s corpse.

Knowing immediately that it is too late, but unable to keep herself from trying, Jessie dumps the birdbath right onto the planks of the deck. She harbors the wild hope that the little critter will spit a comic stream of water and skitter away, shaking drops from its hide as it goes. Of course, it does not move, and Jessie’s disappointment is cotton in her throat.

Jessie stumbles to the patio chair, her knees unhinging as she drops to a seat. She lights the cigarette, her shaky lips and hands at first hell bent on preventing this small comfort. As she smokes, a litany of regret rockets through her brain. “It wasn’t in there a half-hour ago and if I had only come out earlier. Who uses a metal bowl for the animals anyway? The sides are slick. They can’t get out once they get in.” And, of course, in her most bitter mental voice, “I should have known better. This is my fault.”

Jessie drags on her cigarette, drawing smoke into her mouth even as the previous inhalation still snakes from her nostrils. The hot smoke punishes her throat and lungs. She relishes the discomfort, grasps it like an oh-shit handle in an off-road Jeep. She smokes the cigarette down to a glowing filter, which she crushes between her shoe and the wood now soaked with the thief of innocent life and her self-respect. Jessie takes a deep breath, preparing to turn around and remove the tiny corpse from her deck. She stands on unreliable legs and sighs, murmuring, “I am still six years old.”

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Comments
  1. Mart says:

    In horror, little children are one of those tropes that never fails to make my skin creep. I think that’s because the genre always brings out their resemblance to mindless animals or little psychopaths xD. Jessie isn’t quite either, but you’ve done a good job at making her creep me out with the whole ‘i let you starve to death, now i’ll take care of you’ thing. Ew! xD Realistic scenarios can be so much more horrifying than supernatural ones!
    Now, I really liked this story, but it looks like I can’t “Like” unless I have an account… not fair xD

    • themadmack says:

      Well you liked it verbally and that’s enough for me! I’m glad you enjoy this brand of realistic horror. It’s my name-brand, really. I always say for my horror writing, “There’s enough horror in humankind that I don’t need the supernatural for my stories.” Not to say I don’t play with it, because I do. “At the Seams” (which you can find on Wattpad; see my About page for a link) as you know is a detailed exploration of what might be waiting for is after death. That’s very hocus pocus. But, here we are. With a horrified child. And it’s scary as sh*t. Because, as (mostly) adult readers, we have the benefit of understanding. What is just an everyday occurrence, the death of an animal, to us is a conceptual mountain to a child. Those images and experiences we encounter in childhood burn into our brains and become the traveled path forever on whenever we encounter a similar stimuli. Death is arresting. Death in it’s purest form loses it’s hypnotic power in adulthood, when we have systems for explaining away our anxieties. But remind a reader about how death felt in childhood– that’s scary stuff. Thank you as always for your support, Mart!

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