10
Jan
18

Believe Me – Fiction Snippet

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Carole stood by the side of the bed, running her fingers over the chilly forehead of the child she thought of as her daughter. She looked very out of place, a paradox that shouldn’t exist; in sharp contrast to her solidly built frame, smart sport coat, sensibly long – but not too long – skirt, and authoritarian hair bun, the room was small, brilliant pink, festooned with rainbow streamers and had the added attraction of an audience: a set of mock bleachers crammed with stuffed animals of every description, their glass eyes fixated on the princess-style bed and its occupant.

Sarai was half tucked in, having insisted that the covers not be pulled up completely. Carole had fought with her on it, especially given the chill the girl was giving off, but had finally relented when it became apparent that Sarai was only going to fuss more and toss them off the second Carole left the room anyway. When they’d gotten home, Sarai still sniveling and fitful but at least willing to be led to her room, Amanda had knelt down in front of the girl and told her that she needed to have a little discussion with someone, then had left the rest to Carole.

“Somebody who needs his hide tanned,” was the explanation Amanda had given her wife, and while Carole didn’t disagree that Gabe was in need of a fresh reminder of his responsibilities, she still felt that tending to their daughter was the more immediate issue. Amanda hadn’t quite seen it the same way, and had blown out of the house to hunt down her ex-husband.

Carole didn’t really mind; it was probably better this way. Lord knows, Sarai had been jumpy and more than a little fragile of late, and might take her mother’s anger as a sign that she’d done something wrong.

Thus Carole stood the vigil, having been the one to shrug Sarai out of the little black dress, so grown-up and carefully chosen, and into her soft squirrel jammies. She had cleaned the makeup from Sarai’s face, had used the polish remover and cotton balls to strip the already-chewed gloss off her fingers, had given her hair a hundred strokes with the brush and then a dozen more for good measure, pulling back the costume of the woman Sarai would be and once again revealing the child she was.

Then it had been off to bed, with a cup of hot cocoa and a Benadryl to help her sleep. Sarai was fighting it, though, every few minutes forcing her eyes open and staring at Carole in a way that was far too intense for a child and made her skin feel like it was attempting to crawl off her bones.

Carole hadn’t been aware that she was halfway to dozing until she was jerked to full wakefulness by Sarai’s voice. It was thick with sleepmud and the effects of the pills, slightly slurred and deeper than usual, but perfectly understandable.

“Is momma gonna hurt daddy?”

In her distress, Sarai seemed to have regressed to her younger language; she’d been using “mom” and “dad” for over a year, occasionally dipping a toe into the waters where “mother” was an acceptable term – though she typically saved that for when she was upset or exasperated. Carole’s lips pursed in a scowl, as she reached down to brush an errant lock of her daughter’s thick black hair from her brow. Rather than the chill that had been present previously, she now felt hot to the touch, causing Carole’s frown to deepen.

“Why would you say that, honey?”

She asked in as flat and calm a tone as she was capable, but between the scare she’d been given by jerking awake to that voice and her own worries, Carole thought she could hear a faint tremor in it. She just hoped Sarai hadn’t caught it.

The girl rolled over, pulling back from Carole’s touch. She scrunched herself almost into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest.

“Dunno,” she mumbled. “Dreamed it.”

Carole took a deep breath before speaking, trying to steady herself. It helped, as when she responded her voice was solid, with none of the shakes or fear she felt breaking through. Now she was once again the no-nonsense librarian, completely in control of the situation.

“Just a dream, love. Mom wouldn’t hurt anyone, especially not you, or me, or your daddy.”

Silence. Carole saw Sarai’s back moving, slow and steady. She thought that Sarai must have fallen back asleep, and probably wouldn’t even remember this in the morning. Just when she’d managed to convince herself of the idea, and was reaching for the light switch, intending to head to her own room and begin the wait for Amanda to get back home, Sarai spoke again.

“She might. If someone hurt me. She told me so. And daddy hurt me.”

“Oh, honey…”

Carole came more fully to the bed, pulling Sarai up into a sitting position and wrapping her arms around her. The girl was shaking, and Carole was expecting another crying fit. Her body was giving off an unholy amount of heat.

“You’re burning up!”

Sarai pulled her head away from Carole’s chest and stared up at her with eyes that seemed to be nothing but pupil. In those black depths, Carole saw nothingness. An absolute void that seemed to be calling to her, pleading with her, begging her to jump on in as it promised the water was just fine.

An involuntary shriek tore its way out of her chest, leaving her gasping and struggling to take in a fresh breath. Not knowing what else to do, she swept Sarai off the bed and made a dash for the bathroom, holding the girl close with one arm while her free hand sped over the handles and switches of the tub to get it running with fresh, cold water.

Once the water was running, Carole set Sarai down. The girl stood, still just staring at her with those empty eyes, while Carole shucked off the pajamas and tried to coax her into the tub.

“C’mon, honey. You need to cool down a little, alright? You’re scaring me.”

Sarai didn’t seem to have heard. Didn’t even blink. Carole found herself wondering if she’d seen Sarai blink at all since picking her up off the bed, and wasn’t certain that she had. Still, the immediate situation needed to be dealt with. When it became apparent that words weren’t going to be enough, she hefted Sarai again, and dunked her into the water. It would probably ruin her sport coat, but Carole wasn’t concerned about that right now.

The effect of the water was immediate; Sarai began screaming as though she’d been dunked in burning gasoline. She started to thrash and claw at Carole, her teeth clenched and guttural snarls slipping out between her cries. Between the flailing arms obstructing her view, and her own attempts to grab hold of Sarai’s wrists so she wouldn’t put a hand through the shower door and cut herself, Carole swore she could see the girl’s eyes dilating rapidly, caught in flux between that black stare and a puzzled, but at least human-looking, blue.

Carole didn’t let it deter her; she did her best to maintain the upper hand, keeping Sarai in the tub while her mouth worked, chewing out the air and spitting out prayers she wasn’t aware she was offering. After a time – Carole wasn’t certain how long, only that it had felt like aeons had come and gone but probably only the space of a few seconds – Sarai quieted, and Carole was able to loosen her grip and sit back.

Without looking as though there was anything odd about the situation at all, Sarai scrunched herself up, scooting to the back of the tub and a natural sitting position, before staring up at her. Her eyes were a clear, blameless blue; tears were pooled at the corners, but appeared to be from the tantrum rather than any present source of pain.

“Momma? Why’m I in the tub? Did I have an accident?”

The question was asked in such a genuine, confused way, such a goddamn normal way, that for a moment Carole was unable to process it. When it sank all the way in, a harsh laugh that didn’t sound at all like her burst from her throat. It took her a moment to respond, time which Sarai gave her. The whole time she was staring at Carole, head slightly cocked and with one corner of her mouth tweaked in a confused smile that suggested Carole might be the crazy one, and that she had certainly done nothing out of the ordinary.

When she could finally answer, she found that most of the shaking fear had faded from her voice, leaving – mostly – the stern confidence of the librarian she knew her daughter frequently compared her to as the only tone.

“No, honey. You’re sick. You were burning up. I had to cool you off. Sit tight, okay? I need to make a phone call.”

Sarai nodded, her expression not changing. Unlike before, where the lack of change had troubled her, this seemed natural enough to Carole; it was the “parents are crazy” face that so many children seemed to wear when the actions of the adults around them were incomprehensible or stupid. Carole could live with that.

She stepped back from the tub, backing into the hallway and pulling out her phone. She left the door open, so she could watch the girl while she called, but wanted to be far enough away that she couldn’t hear what was being said; she’d had enough trouble for today, and would probably only get worse if she realized how much of a fright she had given Carole.

Button three on the speed dial was Dr. Najeeri’s after-hours emergency number; Carole’s finger danced over it for a moment. On the one hand, Sarai seemed better, now; bothering the doctor if it was nothing would be embarrassing both for herself and her daughter. On the other hand, better safe than sorry… and there was the matter of what her eyes had been doing. What if Sarai’d had a stroke or something?

Thinking about a stroke decided her. Her father had suffered one ten years ago, though he’d acted like he was fine at the time. Found dead in bed hours later. Silly and overprotective or not, Carole didn’t want to have to deal with that scenario all over again with Sarai.

She pressed the button and hit “Call.”

KA Spiral no signature

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