HOLY DREAD

By John Thomas Tuft

(Part of a character study for the next novel, The Nightcrosser. TRIGGER WARNING: UNSETTLING IMAGES.)

The first time Sophia heard it she was trying to get the baby to bed. The bath water temperature was just right. Charlie, Jr. didn’t fight too much getting into his pajama onesie. She was rocking him, singing a lullaby, when a loud scraping sound echoed through the house. Sophia stopped rocking and the baby started fussing, sensing her fear. It went on for a full minute, an insistent and intense sound like a brontosaurus was rubbing its tough skin along the entire outside walls of the house. At first, Sophia thought the house was shaking until she realized it was her legs, trembling in fear at the same rate as her pounding heart. She didn’t know whether to put the baby down and go see what was going on or carry him with her to a hiding place. Sophia fretted a moment, finally laid Charlie, Jr. in the crib and dashed to the front door and looked out. Nothing to see out there. She quickly returned to the baby’s room, but when she leaned over the crib, to her horror, it was empty.

Naturally, the whole town turned out to search for Charlie, Jr. Sophia told them repeatedly about the scary noise that preceded the disappearance. But no one else reported hearing any such sounds that night. Suspicion began to fall on Sophia, that she had done something to harm the baby. Long days and even longer nights of unimaginable desperation, dread and despair followed.

One night Sophia fell into a fitful sleep. As she slept, she dreamed that she was lying on the bed sleeping. In the dead of the night, the sound returned. A sound like a great beast breathing smoke and fire approaching the house, then rubbing along its walls. She could hear the joists groaning, the glass in the windows rattling, the timbers of the deck screeching as the nails were pulled by sheer force, and the scraping of scales against the rough bricks. She went to the window and looked out. At the end of the sidewalk, she spotted a small figure under the streetlamp. Somehow, in her heart, she knew that it was Charlie, Jr., looking to be about ten years old. She gave a great cry of relief and joy, running from the house to catch him up in her arms. She reached the pool of light, swept the boy in her arms, and turned back to take him inside. But the house was gone. There was nothing there. Only dead silence.

Sophia started, wide awake, in her bed. A sound, faint at first, entered her consciousness. She lay there listening hard, barely daring to breathe. It sounded again. The whimpering cry of a baby. Shaken to her core, she slipped off the bed and made her way down the hallway. The crying continued, drawing her faster and faster toward the bedroom at the end. She pushed the door open. There in the crib lay Charlie, Jr., crying for her as though he’d never gone.

The last time Sophia heard the sound, again it is night, and she is sitting in her easy chair. Her eyes are heavy, but sleep eludes her. Outside her door, she hears the sounds of nurses and aides settling their charges in for the night. Wheeled carts and plastic bags of soiled linen moving across the floor are restless whispers of worry and wonder. As she contemplates the events of the day, the visit from that fine young man she calls Charlie, Jr. is high on the list. He left something with her, a special ring. Gold with a Burma Blue Sapphire. She picks it up, feels the weight in her hand. It is then that the noise returns. It is like a black storm cloud laying siege to the building. Roll after roll of deep thunder, filling the hallways and rooms. Threatening to unmoor her, pursuing her like a Leviathan of dread.

She uses every ounce of will and strength to rise from the chair. Sophia stumbles across the room, her hands outstretched as though she can force her way through this sound. How did it know where she was, she wonders? Why can she not escape it, once and for all? In the name of all that is holy, why does it pursue her? She fumbles with the ring, slips it onto her right thumb. The sound grows louder, brute force of decibels washing over her. She is in the bathroom, weeping. She splashes water into the sink, then pats it onto her cheeks. She looks in the mirror. She begins to scream, but no sound comes out. She hits at the glass with her hand, to no avail. It is useless. Her reflection is not there. She is gone.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.