She was there again.
Jimmy Greer had made it a bedtime habit to creep out of his bed, tiptoe across the hardwood floor of his bedroom with as much stealth as his seven year old body was capable of, slowly pull the edge of one Adventure Time curtain back, and peer through the small gap at the world beyond. He’d been doing it for three weeks now, and out of those twenty one days, seventeen of them, he’d seen her.
The first time had been an accident. He had thought he’d heard a dog barking or a car backfiring or some other noise that had roused him from sleep and made him double check to be sure zombies weren’t invading the neighborhood. He’d seen no zombies, merely one old (maybe) woman standing under the street light at the corner. Nothing particularly odd, even if it was late at night; lots of the people in his parent’s apartment building worked nights or kept weird schedules for some other reason. But his skin had been crawling just the same, rippling with gooseflesh at the sight of her.
Just a woman in loose green slacks and a black sweatshirt, deep creases in her face that might have been old age, stress or a generally nasty disposition. The kind of person you saw standing in the corner at the market, glaring at you like she just knew you were there to steal something, break something, or both. Not friendly looking, especially since he couldn’t see her mouth – she was holding her hand in front of it, for some reason – but nothing that should be making him feel like he had to pee, or that he was in mortal danger. But that’s how he felt just the same.
He’d tried to break his gaze from her, to let the curtain go and just go back to bed and not think about it, but he’d been frozen. Then she’d tilted her head and looked up, locking her weird gray eyes on his, and he knew, just knew, that she’d seen him. How that could be, he wasn’t sure; he was in a dark room and the only lighting on this part of the street was coming from behind her, but some part of his brain – probably the part that his dad would call a “lizard-brain” – was certain she wasn’t just looking at a dark window in a building full of them, but was looking right at him.
He’d seen her cheeks twitch, and even though her hand was still in the way, Jimmy was pretty sure she’d smiled at him. Not the nice smile, the kind that says “Yeah, I may look old and mean, but I might have a cookie somewhere in my pocket,” but the kind that says “I have the bones of six or seven other little boys in my basement.”
That first time, Jimmy hadn’t been able to stop it. He’d made water in his pants. The rush of wet heat, followed by cold as the air hit the spreading, foul smelling spot, had broken his paralysis. He could have screamed for his parents, could have run to the bathroom, but did neither. He had leapt back into bed, and had stayed there, shivering, for hours. Until the sun had finally come up he had been somehow certain that if he looked at the window, he’d see her peeking back in at him, waiting for him to let her in so she could do something to him.
The night after, he’d checked the window. Almost against his will. She hadn’t been there. His relief had been greater than anything he’d known in his seven – almost eight! – years on this earth. But the night after that, he’d checked again – chiding himself the whole while, that it was silly, that there was no ax-murdering old woman watching him – and she’d been there again. Only instead of at the corner down the road, she had been a few steps closer. And instead of turning up to look at him when he’d opened the window, she had already been staring. As though she’d been there for hours, just waiting for him to look out.
Since then, every time he saw her, she was a little closer. Always staring up at him, and always that little cheek twitch when he peeked out, even though he was sure the small movements of his curtains weren’t really enough to give him away.
Tonight she was directly below the building, looking straight up at him. Jimmy could see, now that she was close enough, that her mouth was moving constantly behind that obscuring hand. He thought she might be talking, but he couldn’t hear her if she was. The thick glass, the distance, and the wet, heavy air of the October night made sure of that. Jimmy wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what she might be saying. It was probably something that would only make her behavior even worse. “I’m going to eat you, Jimmy,” maybe. Or “I know about the rabbit, Jimmy!”
He hadn’t thought about the rabbit in a long time, until now. At least, that’s what he told himself. The rabbit was actually never far in his thoughts, casting it’s maggot-eaten and still somehow sad gaze over everything he said and did, not that he’d ever admit to it.
Why he was thinking about it now – actually thinking about it, instead of pretending not to – he didn’t know. Why he thought the woman would know anything about it was also a mystery to him. But somehow he was sure of it. After all, scary things like crazy women who crept a little closer to you every night only happened to bad people. He knew that from the movies he watched and the things his parents told him, when they bothered to talk to him at all. It was the only bad thing he’d ever done.
It wasn’t really that bad, he tried to tell himself, but it did no good. The woman standing on the sidewalk below, muttering to herself and smiling up at him said otherwise. In her eyes there was the sum of all bad things, the worst possible things, and she was here for him. There wasn’t any doubt of that. That meant the rabbit had been a very bad thing, too.
He crawled away from the window – somehow, keeping his body below the level of the sill, creeping towards his bed on his belly, made him feel better – and crawled under the covers, pulling them over his head. The air quickly grew stale and muggy, but it was better under there. Safer. If he couldn’t see the bad things, the bad things couldn’t see him.
But he could still see the rabbit. The way it’s paws had looked, battered and torn and covered with blood. The way the the eyes were still moving, like they were watching him, until he realized they were actually maggots and the poor thing’s eyes – big, brown orbs that glimmered and promised all the good things in the world – had been eaten away. The red stains on its nose, probably gained while it battered itself fruitlessly against the cage door in a last attempt to escape.
Jimmy didn’t know he was crying until snot and tears started dripping into his lap and his sinuses sealed up. To find that he still could cry for the rabbit left him feeling somewhat relieved. He’d cried plenty when he found it, of course. Any child would have. But, like most children, it had passed quickly from the sharp cut of recent experience to the dull throb of memory, burying itself deep within and not bobbing to the surface again for months at a time. When he told himself he didn’t remember the rabbit – who hadn’t even been his long enough to get a good name – he didn’t cry, didn’t even feel bad. Not on top, anyway. The idea that he could still cry for his lost pet, in his mind, somehow made it okay, was proof that it wasn’t a bad thing, that he wasn’t a bad kid, didn’t deserve whatever nasty trick the old woman was trying to play on him.
It didn’t help much, though. It still left him with the question of what to do about it. He’d tried talking to his mother, but she had brushed it off. Told him there were no old women in the neighborhood except for Mrs. Misha, and she never left her house because there was something wrong with her legs. She had a helper, a teenage girl named Alison, who came by sometimes and tossed her hair about while she stared with pursed lips at the older boys in the building. But the woman who Jimmy’d seen under the streetlight that first night definitely wasn’t Mrs. Misha – who was fat and in a motorized chair when she left the house – and she definitely wasn’t Alison, who was young and pretty and wore bright colored shirts that barely covered anything at all.
He’d tried to explain those things to his mother, but she’d just started nodding and “uh-hunh”ing before he’d gotten even halfway through, then held up a finger when her phone started buzzing. By the time she was off the line with her assistant, she’d forgotten all about Jimmy’s problem and was focused on her own.
He’d thought about trying to talk to his dad, but that was an even worse idea than his mother. Dad only had two moods, and neither of them was good for important communication. In one, he was sullen, quiet, and responded to almost any question with “Go ask your mother.” In the other, he was erratic and silly, acting more like a kid himself than the grownup he was supposed to be, and asking questions then was liable to set off a chain reaction of bodily noises and yo mama jokes.
Jimmy didn’t have any friends at school – he stuck to himself at recess, usually sitting in the corner of the yard with a PB&J in one hand and a filched Batman in the other, and even the teachers barely knew he was alive unless he had his hand up for the hall pass to use the bathroom.
As he lay in bed, going over his options for what wasn’t the first – or the hundredth – time and coming up with the same net result of “none at all,” Jimmy suddenly had a thought. It made him bolt straight up in bed, his heavy Spongebob comforter puddling around him, granting him a large breath of cold, fresh air that shocked him into full wakefulness.
She couldn’t get in. She could stand below his window all night, every night, if that’s what she wanted to do, but that was all. Sure, that was scary, and it’d probably take some getting used to, knowing there was a crazy woman down there muttering to herself, but that’s all she was. His parents’ apartment was on the fourth floor. The fire escape was on the other side of the building. All the windows had little iron cages around them, keeping the pigeons away. Unless she could fly – and if she could fly, why would she be waiting out there all night, every night, when she could be using her superpowers to make money or bother someone else? – there was no way up to his room, let alone actually into it.
The idea, the simple logic of it, entranced him. It didn’t even matter if she knew about the rabbit or how it must have suffered. The idea that if she did know about it somehow, she probably did have superpowers didn’t come to him. The deeply held notion of only an hour before, that she was some form of malignant Santa Claus, here to punish him for his misdeeds – even if they had only been accidental – was forgotten in his exultant pleasure over knowing she had no power over him, no way to enforce whatever punishment she might have wanted to lay upon him.
Laughing to himself – quietly, so as not to either wake his parents or be audible to the woman below – Jimmy lay down again, flipping his pillow over to the side that hadn’t been soaked with nervous nightsweats. His lips were parted in a broad smile that exposed his three missing teeth, one of which he’d swallowed last month. He laughed again, remembering that he had been worried that the tooth fairy would come for her prize and have to cut it out of him. At the time, the idea had been every bit as real and traumatizing as the idea that the woman below was somehow going to hurt him… and every bit as completely, patently, false. Somehow the two ideas together became an equation in his head that said no harm could come to him.
Thinking of equations reminded him that there was a math exam tomorrow, and if he didn’t want to get detention for failing another one, he had best get some rest. Knowing that he was safe from the woman meant he could. As his eyes started to slip shut, Jimmy was still smiling. It was over. No harm, no foul.
* * *
After his math test – which he did not ace, but at least passed – and the remainder of the school day, Jimmy made his way home, endured a near-silent dinner nestled in the taller chair between his parents, and retired to his room as he always did. When his mother called out to him that it was bedtime and he should put his things away and get washed up, he did without complaint, not even a single peep of “Just five more minutes, mom?” He was still floating on his newfound freedom, still satisfied that all was well and the world would now be returning to its regularly scheduled programming. “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel,” like the announcer on Batman said, when he could convince his parents to let him stay up an extra half hour and watch it on Nick-At-Nite.
Once he was ready for bed, the lights turned off, his comics stacked on his desk, the air conditioner making its bubbling noises as it drowsed in the energy saver mode, Jimmy glanced at the window, feeling a single bright pulse of fear twist through him.
Oh, stop it, he told himself. it doesn’t matter anymore. The thought pushed the fear back, brought his smile out. Without bothering to peek beyond the curtains, he slid into bed, pulled the covers up, and closed his eyes.
His eyes snapped open an uncountable period of time later. He wasn’t sure when he’d fallen asleep – something that had always bothered him. He could never tell the moment when he fell asleep, and like worrying about the light in the fridge and when it was turning itself off and on, it seemed like a tremendously important question, made all the more important by the fact that he was unable to discover the answer through any means he had available. But he had been sleeping, the puddle of drool at the corner of his mouth and the way the hall light, shining with an aura of absolute normalcy through the cracked bedroom door, lanced at his eyeballs said it was so. He didn’t have the urge to pee, didn’t see his father’s bear-like shadow drifting across that small oasis of light, didn’t hear his mother’s television or any sirens, so he didn’t know why he was awake. At first.
“…in a cage. Just like your rabbit.”
The voice was gravel, the way people talked on television if they had been screaming a lot or trapped in a fire with too much smoke or something. When he heard it, his balls drew up into his body, his arms became pebbled leather, and his hair pulled itself into a cock’s comb on his head. It was coming from directly outside his window. He was sure of it.
“Just a bunch of garbage. Watching old Mary every night, laughing at old Mary, like she doesn’t know. But she knows. She saw. Saw how it beat itself against the bars, how it was drowning in the filthy garbage and shit you left in there, nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep. She knows.”
He didn’t notice when his pants were soaked through. He’d pissed himself, again, but his entire body was locked, unable to process anything except that horrible voice and what it was talking about. His throat was locked, and while he wanted to scream, nothing came out, not even the breath he had first taken when he awoke. Total vapor-lock.
“Thinks he can do what he wants, just go along without anything ever happening. But old Mary knows better. Old Mary sees everything, knows about the garbage that builds up, how that’s all anybody really is. Just garbage and shit that walks around and laughs and screams and how she loves the screams, especially the ones that don’t come out, because if they came out they’d scare away the maggots and we don’t want that.”
Jimmy’s body wasn’t his anymore. In between his mind flashing images of his last glimpse of the rabbit that he had oohed and awwed over for a week before forgetting to feed it for too long and the soul-rending fear he had of the woman, made all the worse because he had been certain that there was nothing there to fear at all, he wondered if Pinocchio had felt this way. His body got out of bed, fat yellow droplets oozing off his pants leg to dribble on the floor, and walked towards the window. His hand reached up, bunching Jake’s smiling face on the curtain into his tiny fist. He knew in another moment that fist would yank the curtain wide, and knew what he would see when it did… but was completely powerless to stop it.
“Yes, he comes to old Mary, they always do, because they want to go to her basement and see the rest of the garbage, be with the rest of the garbage, because that’s what they all are, and they know it.”
The gravel was leaving the voice. It was changing somehow, turning soft and seductive, making him quiver in ways he didn’t really understand. Had Jimmy been older, he might have even been aroused by it, but he only knew it reminded him of the way Alison sometimes sounded when she was talking to one of the boys she liked, and how he sometimes wondered if she’d talk to him that way.
His hand yanked the curtain back, and he saw just what he had expected. But it was oh-so-much worse.
The woman was floating in front of his window. Her hands – both of them – were wrapped around the bars of the pigeon-protecting cage, and her feet were braced against the wall below the window sill. She looked like some kind of human spider, and he might have laughed at the idea except that this was no comic book. This was real. Her mouth was moving, and without her hand to cover it, to hide the things it was saying, her voice was very loud and becoming something inhuman. The words were no longer the smoky gravel, or the flirty teenager’s sing-song, but had become something like the hiss you heard when the TV was tuned to an empty channel or the way a wasps’ nest sounded if they were riled up. But he could still hear the words in it.
“There he is, our boy. Don’t worry, old Mary will take good care of you, my little garbage heap. So much shit in the world, filling it up with nothing but, but Mary will take care of it, clean it up.”
Her mouth wasn’t human. Where lips should have been, there were thin strips of silky brown fur. Rabbit-fur. His rabbit’s fur, he was certain. She had no teeth. Instead of pearly whites, black, spindly things that looked like grotesquely sharpened fingers twitched and waggled at him. Every time her tongue popped out on an explosive consonant, he saw it was covered in pale green scales and split at the end, forking into two small snake heads that moved their mouths in conjunction with the words she was saying. They too had heads on their tongues, and those had heads on their tongues, world without end, amen.
He was still the puppet, still Pinocchio being run with someone else’s string. His arm dropped the curtain, and disengaged the latch. His arm went taut as he pushed the window open, his eyes locked on those of the smallest snake-tongue he could see.
Hissing with triumph, her teeth-legs pointing straight forward and lengthening further, the thing that wasn’t an old woman bunched the muscles in its arms, and squeezed through the gaps between the bars. Jimmy was no longer concerned with things that were impossible, though he knew this certainly fit in that category; the bars were no more than eight inches apart. He couldn’t even fit through them, and he was small for his age. He’d tried, once, when his mom had taken away a He-Man figure he’d found in the trash. Decided he was going to show her by running away. The attempt had failed, but it proved that no person could fit through those bars.
But somehow she had. His body politely stepped backwards, giving her room, as she poured herself through his window and onto his floor. Jimmy saw her clothes were rippling, bulging in places they had no business bulging, and that he could hear other voices coming from inside it. He didn’t move. Couldn’t. Circuits in his brain were turning off one by one, leaving him unable to do anything except stare at her and shiver in terror.
She rose to her full height, looming over him, and he noticed that her shadow had extra arms and legs, springing from her back and curving over her head or bracing her on the floor.
“Garbage day, darling,” she hiss/whispered/shrieked as her head came up to pin him with her eyes.
Gone were the gray chips of ice that he’d first seen three weeks ago. The sockets were ragged, ringed with more of that soft brown fur, with bloody tears running down the furrows in her face. Maggots squirmed around the diseased flesh, feasting with slurps and chomps that would have sounded silly and cartoonish to him if he’d seen them in a movie.
But there was nothing silly or cartoonish about the way she was looking at him now, through his dead rabbit’s eyes.
She reached out, lightning quick, and grabbed him by the wrists. He saw that her hands weren’t precisely hands, anymore; they were covered by some kind of black, icy-feeling scales, and the fingers were merging and elongating into spines. He heard one of his wrists pop, ground into powder by the strength of that grip, and would have screamed if he were able.
She drew him close, leaning into his face and blowing breath that reeked of rabbit shit and dead animal directly at him. His throat clenched, trying to gag, and a rancid burp leaked out from between his own lips, but nothing else.
“Old Mary knows just what to do. Take out the trash.”
She lunged, those horrendous mouths-upon-mouths latching onto his eyes, his cheeks, his own flapping tongue, and Jimmy learned what the rabbit had felt like.