“We’re going now,” Mother called from the front door. “Be good you two. Remember, the babysitter’s downstairs if you misbehave.”
“Got it,” I answered, never taking my eyes from the computer screen. My finger danced on the mouse, annihilating digital monsters with every click.
“Robby?” Mother called again.
My little brother yelled back from his bedroom, “I heard you. We’ll be good.”
That seemed to satisfy Mother and Father; the front door shut, and seconds later the car pulled out of the driveway. A few seconds after that, Robby came up behind me. I could tell his approach by the slide of his socks against the hardwood floor.
“You’ve been playing all afternoon,” he said. “I want to play.”
I ignored him. I’d just reached the boss of the current level, and needed to concentrate. My finger clicked faster.
“Come on,” Robby whined. “It’s my turn.”
“Not now,” I growled as I whittled away at the boss’s health bar.
Robby ejected a gurgling sigh—he’d been sick all day and had stayed home from school. Presumably, he’d had plenty of time to play on the computer before I got home.
“Stop breathing on me,” I said. “I don’t want to catch whatever you’ve got.”
He leaned closer and blew on my ear, making me flinch and miss an attack. The game boss countered and sent me flying across the arena. “If you don’t let me have a turn,” Robby hissed, “I’ll tell the babysitter.”
I paused the game. Even without turning around, I could feel Robby’s smile. I could smell his triumph. I almost stood up from the desk, but then I realized how stupid I was being. Robby was bluffing; he’d never talk to her. I let myself settle back down in the chair.
Robby made an angry noise, phlegm rattling in his throat. He began to stomp away. I refined my focus and quickly reached the final phase of the boss fight. Just a few more hits and I’d win—
By the time I registered the return of Robby’s pounding footsteps, it was too late. He swiped the mouse from underneath my hand and yanked my chair backward. He was too small to knock me over, but in the brief loss of control the game’s boss landed several blows. The computer screen went red and taunted me with the words “Game Over”.
Robby was a little brat, but I guess he wasn’t an idiot because he’d already retreated far enough that I couldn’t reach him from where I was sitting. I jumped from the chair, knocking it over, and ran at him. Robby looked panicked for a second, then darted down the hall toward his bedroom. Knowing I’d never get him if he managed to lock his door, I dove and grabbed hold of his ankles. He fell and I scrambled on top of him, my fist raised—
There was a noise.
I froze in that position and Robby stopped struggling. We both turned our heads toward the kitchen, toward the door that led down to the basement. We were absolutely quiet, save for our breathing. Mine was slow and deep, drawn and released through my mouth to dampen the noise. Robby’s wasn’t quite so well-controlled thanks to his sickness.
“She’s not coming up,” I said after a minute had passed without another sound. “She never does.”
I spent the rest of the evening in my room. I didn’t know if Robby got on the computer after I left or not, but I didn’t care anymore. My thoughts were devoured by that noise from below.
I was four when we moved into the house. Robby was just a baby. Mother would take us out to the backyard to play while Father did a lot of the heavy work needed to get things ready. After Robby and I were in bed, Mother would help him.
The house had a finished basement, complete with a small bedroom and bathroom. Mother and Father had prepared it as a play area, but we didn’t ever end up using it. Well, not for playing at least.
The basement remained mostly empty. Even now, as I lay on my bed and listened, it was empty. An old couch and some chairs, toys Robby had outgrown, all gathering dust. Sometimes I wondered, as I did now, if the weight of the dust was enough to shift some of the objects down there and knock them together.
I heard Mother and Father pull into the driveway. It was dark out. The headlights raised shadows, animated them, let them fall again. Car doors slammed, and my parents were home. 10:30. A typical Friday night.
They whispered to each other. I caught snippets of their conversation: “Both in bed, it seems.”
“I’ll check on them.”
Robby’s door creaked open. I heard Father’s hushed tones, interspersed with Robby’s higher whisper. I couldn’t understand words. After a while it faded from my ears, and my thoughts returned to the space below, to the abandoned playroom and the tiny, ever-darkened bedroom.
Footsteps paused outside my door. I waited for Father to enter, but he didn’t. I could see the shadow of his legs as they blocked the hallway light, I could just barely sense his breathing. Why was he just standing there? What was he waiting for?
The doorknob clicked as it received the weight of his hand. Still the door remained shut. Why? I was half-tempted to get out of bed and open the door myself, but I knew the rules: bed by 9:30, stay there until dawn. I remained where I was, hanging in the tense air between my blankets and my mattress, hanging there until at last the door opened and allowed me to fall.
“Robby told me what you did.”
My insides shriveled.
“He said you pushed him over. He said you hit him.”
“He’s lying,” I said.
“He showed me the bruises.” Father let the words float there for a bit. Allowed his tone of voice and steady stare to settle over me and forbid further argument. “Your mother told you to behave. You know what you have to do.”
And that was his last word on the subject. He walked away, but left my door open.
I could feel the floor dropping away beneath the bed, and the bed itself falling away next. My blankets were the last to go, and I was up, walking toward the open door into the hallway.
Mother and Father were in the living room with the television playing softly. They smiled at the screen, didn’t even glance at me as I walked by.
Then I was in the kitchen. The dark kitchen, staring down into the dark basement where no one went anymore. My body carried me down without so much as a pause on the top step. My mind, however, clawed at the back of my skull, desperate for the clean air upstairs. But down, down, down I went. Down into that darkness where the dust settled over everything and orphaned noises drifted without cause.
In the basement, the rest of the house was muted. All I could hear was my own breathing, my bare feet against the carpet. There were no working lights down there, just the moon- and lamplight from outside through the glass block windows. All I could see was the space in front of me. Everything else was a black funnel directing me forward, toward the door that we always kept shut.
I reached that door and placed my hand on the knob. Now even my body rebelled. My joints locked up. My hand felt like lead, my veins like tangles of rusty wire. I knew what waited in that empty bedroom; I wasn’t sure I could take seeing it one more time.
But I knew the rules, and my fear could only keep me paralyzed for so long.
I went inside.
The spare bedroom was the brightest part of the basement, even at night. Two windows flanking the front corner of the foundation made sure I could see everything: the half-collapsed bookcase against the wall, the sagging bed that came with the house, that other thing standing in the far corner, oriented so she had a full view of the room. Nothing could come or go without her seeing, despite the fact that she had no head.
I felt her eyeless gaze on me as I shut myself in. It tracked me as I went to the center of the floor and sat down—I wouldn’t dare use the bed. I sat with my back to her; facing her throughout the night required more courage than I possessed. She’d never done anything, never even moved, but her still, breathless form seemed to push my eyes away. I wouldn’t sleep. Tomorrow was Saturday; I could sleep then, in the safety of my own room. Until then…
I tried to forget her inanimate figure. Wood, cloth, and metal bound together and left down there by some previous homeowner. Or perhaps she’d always been there, a part of the house since it was first constructed, waiting for someone.
My ears adjusted to the silence of the room, and then it wasn’t nearly quiet enough. Just wood, cloth, and metal, I thought, but I couldn’t shake the image of her slowly turning on her stand, inching across the carpet by subtle movements, closing the distance between us. I wanted to look so badly, but what if I did and she was right there behind me?
Ridiculous. But then what were those noises? Could my own blood be so loud as it rushed through me, or was there some external source?
I was a statue. The choice to look or not wasn’t mine to make anymore. I was at her mercy. Her charge for the long night. She must have moved, for as ridiculous as it seemed I could feel the softness of the carpet sloping downward behind me with the weight of something that wasn’t there before. Sloping away, steeper and steeper until I was on the edge of a precipice and the pull of gravity drew me closer to her. I fought it. I fought so hard, my back aching as I crouched forward and hugged my knees too tightly. I leaned forward until I fell face-first to the floor and choked on the dusty carpet. Then I began to crawl. Toward the opposite corner of the room. Away from her. I kept my face down, dragging it against the synthetic fibers, occasionally encountering a dead insect with my nose but not caring. I crawled until I bumped my head on the wall, and there I stayed. I stayed until the pain in my back turned numb. I stayed until daylight finally reached me. I stayed until Mother came down to get me.
My eyes remained closed until we were out of the bedroom and the door was shut behind us.
On our way through the kitchen, we passed Robby eating breakfast. He flashed me a nasty smirk as I shuffled by, a smirk that quickly died when he saw my face. I knew I should’ve been angry at him, but I was too tired. Besides, he’d been down there himself; he knew what he’d put me through, and perhaps the guilt would be enough. Perhaps, the next night, he’d dream of the babysitter.