THE CHILD by Laura van den Berg
10/23/2013
 
                


In the new house, we hear strange noises downstairs. It sounds like someone is running circles in the dining room. In bed, we listen to the rush of footsteps, the squeaking floorboards. This house is surrounded by large, hunched trees. We have accepted that things are going to be different out here.

Beyond the trees, there is a field and a river. Now that it is winter and the leaves are disappearing, I stand at our bedroom window and try to find the silver glint of water in the night.  

Soon the river will be frozen. What then? 

One night, it sounds like footsteps are moving up the stairs. They come all the way to our bedroom door, which is locked tight, and then vanish. 

"Fuck this," my husband says. When he flips back the blankets and gets out of bed, I feel I have no choice but to follow him.   

We creep down the stairs, barefoot and trembling. The sounds have moved into the kitchen. We turn on a light. The white refrigerator is shaking. Our magnets in the shapes of lobsters and lighthouses, our postcards and vacation photos, have been scattered across the floor. We open the refrigerator door and find a child sitting on a shelf, picking through a small box of tomatoes. The child is not eating them, but holding the little red globes up to the light, like a jeweler inspecting a stone. The child's face is clear, but the boundaries of its body are pale and indistinct, as though made of smoke.  

"Hello there," I say, leaning in, toward the light. "Aren't you cold?" 

The child's feet bang against the crisper drawer. 

"Does this child look familiar to you?" I ask my husband.  

"No," he says, closing the door, the blue of his eyes darkening.

Now that we understand what's going on, we try to stop worrying about the noises at night. It's just a child! we tell ourselves. But then the child starts hanging around in the daytime too. From the couch, we look up and see a large white blotch, vaguely human-shaped, on the ceiling. From the dining room table, we notice the child standing on the credenza, or nestling inside the fruit bowl, displacing tangerines.

One night, my husband and I are fucking in the bedroom and over his shoulder I see that the closet door is cracked open. The child is standing in the closet, its white breath hovering like a cloud. It is watching us, enthralled.

I close my eyes until we're done.

The river freezes. The child is everywhere, all the time. We've tried to be patient, but this is not what we signed up for, my husband and I agree. On the internet, we read about how to get rid of unwanted visitors in FOUR EASY STEPS. We burn green bundles of sage. We sprinkle salt along the windowsills. We ring a brass bell in every room of the house. We hold hands and ask it to leave us alone, even though, on that day, the child is nowhere to be found.

"Go away," we say after each chime of the bell, our hands clasped. My husband's skin is dry and cold. "We don't want you here anymore."

At night, we get into bed and listen. We keep the lights on. We don't hear anything, not even the winter wind blowing outside, not even the creaking pipes, not even the rattle of heat rising from the floorboards.

"Finally," my husband says. "We're alone."

He goes to turn off the light, but I have a funny feeling.

"Look at me," I say. He turns and I see a strangeness in his eyes, little gold flecks in the blue pools of his irises.

"What have you done with my husband?" I demand.

"I'm right here," he says, reaching for my hair.

--

Laura van den Berg's debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November. A Florida native, she currently lives in the Boston area. 

Art: Keepsakes (2010) by Katy Horan. Katy Horan lives in Austin and her website is http://www.katyart.com    

 
 
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