Clara awoke screaming into the darkness of her bedroom, gasping for breath between frightened sobs as she wiped her trembling hands uselessly over her tear-sodden face, trying vainly to stem the fountains that trickled down and soaked her pillow.
A dream. She forced that thought through her mind over and over again until her consciousness was finally able to accept it. She was terribly scared, but more than anything now she was sad.
The door to her bedroom creaked; Mommy had come. “Hush, Clara sweetie. It was just a dream.”
“It was her,” whimpered the girl as she curled in her mother’s soft arms. “Mommy?”
“Do you love me?”
Not again, thought Melissa as she instinctively squeezed her daughter tight. “Like a monkey loves bananas, of course I do.”
“You said that in my dream,” the young girl shuddered. “She said you were lying.”
“I can’t…I c-can’t…feel my hands.”
Melissa opened her eyes to the darkness of the early morning. A heavy weight was pressing down on her stomach. Mabel? She brushed her hand along her nightgown to dislodge the cat, but the weight had already lifted.
Fine, Melissa thought grumpily as she dragged herself out of bed. Breakfast time for the kitty. She knew all too well that if Mabel wasn’t fed when she asked, she would just keep waking them.
Not bothering to put on her glasses, Melissa followed the soft scuffle of paws out into the hall. She could just make out Mabel’s blurry shadow as the cat scurried down the stairs to find her food bowl.
With another frustrated sigh, Melissa turned the corner to follow her down, then gasped as her toe caught on something.
For a brief, sickening second, Melissa teetered over the brink of the staircase, the height of her impending fall exaggerated by the darkness below, and then she was dropping. With a startled squeak her hand shot out, catching the banister before her head could smash into the corner of the stair.
Once she had caught her breath, Melissa looked scornfully up at Mabel, perched statuesque on the top step. “You almost killed me!” Melissa hissed. “Forget it. No breakfast for you.” She stomped back to her room and threw herself angrily onto the bed.
“Wha…” muttered Joe as the mattress shook.
“Mabel tried to kill me.”
“Did you feed her?”
“That’s why.” And Joe rolled over and fell back asleep.
Melissa tossed and turned, unable to shake the unsettled feeling that gripped her chest. She hadn’t noticed it at the time because of the imminent danger she was in, but now as the experience on the stairs looped through her mind over and over, there was a memory of something smooth beneath her foot, something cold, something…wet?
Clara stumbled sleepily down the stairs, guided by the sweet smell of bacon sizzling on the stove, her arm raised to guard her eyes from the morning sunlight.
“Morning, sweetie,” cooed Melissa as she set a steaming plate on the table. “How’d you…” Her question went unfinished, answered by the bruise-like rings around her daughter’s red, puffy eyes. “Rough night?”
Clara nodded as she began picking at her breakfast. “There were noises all night,” she muttered. “Something was crawling around in the hallway.”
“That would’ve been Mabel,” answered Melissa. “She woke me up, too.”
Clara shook her head. “Mabel was in my bed all night.”
“You were probably asleep when she left,” Melissa said as she began helping herself to some eggs.
“I c-can’t…can’t feel…my legs.”
Melissa awoke with a soft gasp, faintly aware of a muffled thumping coming from the hallway. Why do cats have to be nocturnal? she wondered as she rolled over to try and block out the sound.
The bedroom door creaked, and a second later the mattress shook as Mabel mounted the bed. With a sigh Melissa reached over the covers to run her fingers through Mabel’s fur, hoping that the contact would be enough to calm the cat down so that she could go back to sleep.
But there was no fur. Instead, her fingers encountered something smooth, cold, wet.
With a groan of revulsion, Melissa snatched her hand away. “Ugh…Mabel, what did you get into?” She staggered up out of bed and made for the bathroom, cringing as she felt something dripping down her hand. Disgusting. She flipped on the bathroom light and looked down.
Her hand was covered in blood.
Melissa watched as Clara sat on the living room floor, scribbling something with her crayons while stroking Mabel’s spotless coat.
“She slept with me all night,” Clara said as she drew. “But it didn’t help. I still had nightmares.”
Oh no, thought Melissa. Here it comes…
“I had an older sister,” Clara continued, “and she looked sick. She said you didn’t love us.”
“It was just a bad dream, sweetie,” Melissa sighed. “You know I love you.”
“Like a monkey loves bananas?” asked Clara.
Melissa smiled down at her daughter. “Of course I do.” Trying to change the subject, she asked “What are you drawing?”
Clara put a few finishing strokes on the paper and gave Mabel one last squeeze before jumping up to show off her artwork. “It’s me and my sister from my dream.”
Melissa put on a fake smile when she saw the picture. “I thought you said she was older. This looks like a baby.”
“She only looks like a baby, but she’s actually older. She told me so.”
“Really? When’s her birthday?”
“Um…” Clara thought about it for a moment. “August twelfth, I think.”
Melissa’s smile faltered a little. “Oh.”
“Joe,” asked Melissa as she settled into bed next to her husband, “did you tell Clara about…”
“Oh. No, I didn’t.”
“But she was telling me about her nightmares, and it just seemed so…I mean…she knew the date!”
“Just a coincidence. There’s no way she could know.”
“I can’t…I c-can’t…breathe…”
Melissa woke with a start. Someone was screaming…Clara?
Melissa dragged herself out into the hall, dodging out of Mabel’s path as the cat sped out of Clara’s room, just a dark blur to Melissa’s weak eyes.
“Hush, hush…” Melissa tried to wrap her arms around her daughter, but Clara scrambled away, burying herself under her covers.
“Stay away from me!” she sobbed.
“Clara, sweetie, you were having a bad dream. It’s me. Mommy’s here.”
“NO!” Clara screamed so loud that Melissa jumped, startled by the unexpected outburst.
Joe came stumbling into the room, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “What’s going on?” he grunted.
“Nightmare,” answered Melissa. “I think maybe she’s still asleep.”
“No!” shrieked Clara. “No I’m not! Get out! Go away, both of you!”
Melissa knelt over the trembling lump that was her daughter, whispering, “It’s just us, Mommy and D—”
“I don’t want Mommy! I want my sister! Where is my sister?”
Joe placed a hand on Melissa’s shoulder. “We’re only making it worse. Come on, leave her be. She’ll settle down after a while.”
Melissa trailed after her husband back to the master bedroom, and Joe quickly climbed back under the covers. Melissa was about to follow suit when she noticed a dark lump on her pillow. “Mabel…” she sighed, remembering how the cat had shot out of Clara’s room earlier. She went to move Mabel out of the way, but when her hands wrapped around the soft body, she froze. Smooth, cold, wet.
Joe was at work. Clara was still in bed. Melissa sat by herself, staring down at her clean hands, free of the barest hint of blood. Just like her pillow after they turned the lights on that night.
She reached for the phone and dialed.
“This is Joe.”
“Hi, honey,” Melissa began, “sorry to bother you at work, but I just can’t relax.”
Joe sighed on the other end, allowing his wife to continue.
“Are you sure you never mentioned…it to her before? Let something slip maybe while she was in earshot?”
“I’m sure I didn’t. Maybe you did?”
“No. Until lately I never even thought about it.” Pause. “Joe, are you sure we made the right choice back then?”
“We discussed this—”
“I know, I know, but now I just don’t—”
“We couldn’t afford it back then. And what would our parents have thought? Anyway, it’s done and over with. Besides, we have Clara now.”
Melissa remained silent.
“Listen, honey,” Joe went on, “I’ve got to get back to work.”
Clara woke up with the sun streaming through her window blinds. She could hear Mommy moving around downstairs. Closer by she could hear Mabel’s contented purring. Somewhere in between there was a shuffling, like something crawling along the carpet in the hallway.
Mommy doesn’t love you.
“Yes she does. She tells me, like monkeys love bananas.”
Monkeys eat bananas.
Melissa had dozed off on the couch, and now awoke with a start to find Clara standing over her.
“You were talking in your sleep,” said the girl.
“Oh.” Melissa sat up and asked “Are you hungry?”
Clara’s eyes got wide, and she took a quick step back as she shook her head.
“What’s wrong?” asked Melissa.
“I’m not hungry.” And she scampered back upstairs to her room.
Melissa drooped her head with a frustrated sigh. When will she grow up? she wondered.
Her thoughts were interrupted suddenly by a crash from the stairs, followed by a frightened squeak.
“I didn’t do it!” exclaimed Clara when Melissa came running to see what had happened. The screws that held the banister to the wall had come loose, and the banister itself had tumbled down onto the steps.
“I didn’t do it,” Clara kept whimpering.
“Don’t worry, I believe you,” said Melissa as she moved the fallen railing out of the way. “I’ll just have Daddy fix it when he comes home.”
Clara watched the shadows of her bedroom as she listened to Mommy and Daddy talking downstairs. They thought she was asleep.
“Did you take a look at the banister?”
“Yeah, I’ll have to get some new screws. I’ll pick them up on the way home from work tomorrow.”
“I’m worried about Clara. She has nightmares every night, she acts nervous around us—when the banister fell, she looked like she thought I was going to kill her.”
“What do you want to do about—what’s that smell?”
“I don’t know,” Mommy sighed. “I’m so sick of it all. Between Mabel and Clara’s nightmares, I can’t sleep anymore—What is it?”
“That smell. You don’t smell it? It’s awful.”
“No…wait a minute…”
“You see what I mean?”
“It smells like something…died. Maybe the garbage?”
“No, I already emptied it. Maybe a mouse or something got in the vents.”
“Guess that’s another thing I’ve got to look into tomorrow.”
“W-why am I…d-de…?”
Melissa awoke to Mabel’s soft face rubbing up against her cheeck. At first Melissa started, but the cat was soft and warm. “Alright, alright…” She climbed out of bed and followed Mabel to the stairs, listening to her meow in grattitude as she descended into the darkness. Melissa put her foot on the first step.
She seemed to sink into something smooth and cold and wet, and then she was falling. She reached out for the banister to catch her balance, but with a chill she remembered, Not fixed yet.
She felt the air rush up, felt the shadows of the staircase spin around her, and then with a sickening crunch she hit the landing.
Melissa lay there at the bottom of the stairs, feeling her body go numb, watching a dark shape above her come crawling slowly down.
Tiny hands, cold and wet, latched onto her face as a weight settled down on her chest, and the air reeked of decay. Melissa tried to take a breath so she could call for help, but it hurt too much.
“Mommy…why did you kill me?”
Those tiny, bloody hands, impossibly strong, took hold of her throat and squeezed.