By: The Earthotic Way
Sabrina always slept fitfully. In thirty years she hadn’t slept a night through, and there wasn’t a creak or a shiver in her house that wouldn’t wake her. She was here alone and had been since her husband slipped away into the night, unable to stand the place a minute longer. But no house is ever silent. Even air has a way of moving.
Tonight, her phone began to trill at midnight. Sabrina never got calls; she kept the smartphone by the bed because four or five times a night she’d turn on its blue light to see the slowly passing hours and possibly to ensure that she was still alone in the dank bedroom. If another figure had appeared, it would not have surprised her much.
So, the phone trilled and Sabrina, shaking with the shock of it, took several seconds to understand what she was hearing. A few more seconds to figure out how to answer. The screen was lit brightly, a green phone button would answer the call and the red one would send it to voicemail. Did she even have voicemail? The phone’s noise was painfully shrill. Finally, the skin of her fingertip convinced the screen that she wanted to answer and the call connected. Catching her breath, she held the phone toward her ear. She didn’t speak because the words that wanted to come weren’t polite, or even sensible.
“Mom?” asked a child’s voice, obscured by static as if a storm raged outside.
The night was clear and quiet. Despite a row of chills marching up her back, a phrase came to Sabrina, from back when she used to speak regularly to other human beings, before she had shut herself off. “I’m afraid you have the wrong number.”
“No,” the child replied. “I’m calling for you, Mom.”
Sabrina sighed, and heard the inevitability in her own sigh.
“I’m your little boy. Your Tony-Balogney. Don’t you remember me?”
Sabrina shook her head, a date falling into place in her mind. “Of course I remember my Tony-Balogney. It’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
“Yes!” Even through the static, she could hear the child’s glee. “It’s my birthday and it’s time for my party.”
Sabrina sat up in bed, turned, slid her feet into her slippers. One thing about personal condemnation was that, if you were angry enough at yourself, if you felt your doom was your own fault, there was not much that others could do to make it worse.
Was it really possible that her son was actually calling her – twenty-three years – after his disappearance? A brief surge of hope, because she had missed being a mother. She had loved being a mother, when she thought she was a mother to a normal child.
“Anthony,” she said, testing the name, a little surprised that she could say it aloud. She and her husband, before he had fled, had stopped saying it.
“You never call me that unless I’m in trouble!” teased the voice.
Sabrina stood. Her nightgown fell like a wrinkled shroud around her, so old it was threadbare. She’d bought nothing new for herself since…well, since Tony.
“No,” Sabrina corrected the child. “That’s not true. I never called you anything but Tony – it was only Anthony on the dotted line.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” asked the child’s voice.
“But Tony was a liar,” she retorted. “And that wasn’t even the worst of it.”
“Oh I remember,” the child confirmed. “Come down, Mom. Are you ready to come to my party?”
“All right. I’m coming.” She kept the phone to her ear, moving from her bedroom into the hallway, drifting toward the farmhouse’s staircase. “If this is Tony, tell me where you’ve been. I was sure you were dead.”
“That’s a very mean thing to think!”
“The last time I saw my Tony, he was sixteen years old. He had finally gotten so bad we couldn’t hide him anymore. The school had noticed, and there were so many complaints. I yelled at him.”
“Yelled at me, you mean.”
Dizzy, Sabrina leaned on the staircase for a moment. The horror of memories had sapped her strength and balance. “Yelled…no, it worse than that. I screamed at him. I called him a monster, a sick mutant freak, something that shouldn’t ever have been born. Tony broke his father’s nose that night and laughed about it. And I told Tony that I should have killed him myself, after what happened to Amy Bates.”
“You didn’t have the guts. Hurting Amy was so much fun. More fun than the animals because she could cry and tell me how bad it was. You ruined all my fun when you plugged up the well.”
Sabrina barked out a laugh. “As if that stopped anything.”
“That was my favorite place because no one knew about the well except for me, and you, and Daddy, and all my projects I put down there.”
Sabrina had made it to kitchen. She didn’t quite remember how. It hadn’t occurred to her to turn on a light or hang up the call or to do any other sensible thing. She was committed to knowing what lay on the other side of this phone call. She announced, “I’m downstairs. Where is the party?”
“At the well, silly Mom. That’s where we always have my birthday party.”
“Are you really here, Tony?” she asked. “How could you have lived? Without your parents to cover for you – someone braver than me would have caught you and done you in. Every day I watched the news, thinking I’d see your face. Every day I thought the police would come to my door, to report that they’d found your body, or to arrest me. I was an accessory to a murder.”
A thought occurred to her – almost ridiculous in its logic. “Is this the police now? Are you recording me? I’ll confess. I’m done with pretending. I know my son killed another child when he was only ten, and I helped hide the well where he put her body, and I lied for him because at the time, I thought that’s what a mother should do. I protected him for another six years after that until I realized that it wasn’t a phase. He was never going to stop hurting other people or things. I confess everything. So are you coming for me now?”
The child’s voice leapt up in laughter, and the phone static sparked loudly, hurting Sabrina’s ears.
“The police,” said the child. “You’re so funny. When you come to the well, will you bring me a present? Will you bring a cake?”
“There are no presents. There is no cake.”
“You’re a bad mom.”
Why argue? Sabrina paused at the countertop in her kitchen and selected the largest knife from her butcher block. If Tony were standing outside talking to her in a child’s voice, almost forty years old, and possibly guilty of everything a monster could accomplish in twenty years on his own – would she defend herself?
No. She put down the knife and instead retrieved her flashlight from the junk drawer. There was a flashlight function on her smartphone but she didn’t know how to use it. She knew only how to check the time and to play solitaire.
“Hello, hello? You’re taking forever!” whined the child’s voice. “Come on, Mom!”
Sabrina unlocked the back door and stepped out into the darkness. In the country, the only lights burning were the moon and the flickering bulb above the barn door. Beyond the barn, there was a sod patch on the ground where nothing grew. Once it had been a trapdoor-covered well, until Sabrina had learned it was a graveyard of her son’s violence. No one from town had remembered it, it was so old, or else certainly it would have been searched when Amy Bates disappeared.
She and her husband had torn up the boards, fixed the hole with bars and cemented it over. The chore had taken days. Their son wailed in his room that they were unfair and mean parents, and that he would never speak to them again for taking away his favorite hiding place. On top of the cement they had put down sod. Sabrina didn’t know about her husband, but she’d never set foot on that ground again.
Sabrina went across the barren yard to the barn, her light waving back and forth. She was looking for a man, a ghost, maybe a cop. What she saw was a hole. It gaped next to the barn, larger than the well’s hole had ever been, as if the earth had opened a gaping mouth.
The child’s voice said, “Come closer. The party is at the bottom of the well.”
Fear had finally crawled into Sabrina. Yes, she deserved this, but the unknown was such a big place. The earth was loamy and unsteady, almost slippery. Was the hole bigger now, reaching for her?
Sabrina steeled herself and aimed the flashlight into the hole. Years, floods and erosion had changed the landscape. She no longer could distinguish bones from the hundreds of rocks, but she did see two things that had not been there before. It was their rotting clothing that she recognized. It was the body of her son, wearing the clothing she’d last seen him in and next to him the body of her husband, less decomposed. As if both of them had walked out the back door and straight into the ground, her son twenty-three years ago, her husband a few years later.
“Oh,” she said in strange cold shock. So they had not left her, after all. She asked the phone, “How did they get down there? We covered the well.”
“I know a special way in,” said the child’s voice, free of static.
Sabrina looked toward her left hand but saw nothing – maybe there had never been a call. Her phone slept on, obliviously, beside her bed.
The little girl’s voice had come from behind her. Sabrina turned to face it. “Amy. I’m so sorry.”
Of course, it no longer looked like Amy, or anything like a little girl. Sabrina recognized Amy by her rage. This creature, molded of mud, water, branches and bones, shoved Sabrina backwards into the well. Twenty-five feet down and Sabrina landed hard between her husband’s and son’s skeletons, pain cracking up through her body as it took the impact. All these years, she had assumed her son and husband left on their own, her son when she had refused to protect him anymore and her husband, years later, when the remorse for their actions had overwhelmed him. It had always been this vengeful wraith of Amy, collecting a debt, slowly. Because wasn’t revenge best served cold?
The terrible dark of the well closed over the top of them all once more. Something down there was moving closer.
Sabrina somehow still held the flashlight, but switched it off. She couldn’t bear to watch.