Walls - A Short Story by Kylyssa Shay
The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real events, situations, or persons living or dead is purely coincidental and incredibly sad.
Max wasn't aware that the child he heard crying was outside his own head until he jammed the sliver through the palm of his hand while wiggling through a tight spot inside the wall. The electric arc and shiver of pain as the spike of shattered two-by-four rammed through the nerve-rich flesh made him realize the sobbing wasn't his own, hadn't been his own since he'd moved into his new home. Pain silenced his inner child, just as it had in his real childhood.
He came to welcome the beatings because they'd helped him to quiet his self-hating inner dialogue. He could direct rage outside of his own body, its burning, invisible rays tearing into the bodies and souls of his tormentors. He was sure he'd killed his father, simply by wanting him dead. It took almost a decade and didn't weaken the big man's belt-wielding hand or his closed fists one bit until near the very end when he was too feeble to even sit up on his own.
By then, he'd perfected his ability to leave Max bruised and bleeding inside with words alone.
Max had directed his scrawny, slow-acting forty-one pounds of fury at his father for the first time when he was seven. Each assault on his small body added more to the poisonous hatred. He thought of it like the mercury that grandpa said tainted the fish of the Great Lakes and slowly killed the animals that preyed on them because, while they used up the energy inside the fish and dumped out the rest, the heavy metal from each fish stayed inside them. It took time to accumulate enough to kill.
The throbbing and sticky wetness of his hand brought him back into the present. Unthinking, he grabbed the pencil-thick piece of wood and pulled it loose.
He didn't know how he could teach the crying child how to send out beams of hate to ever-so-slowly destroy her own father, but he'd try to figure it out after he cleaned and bandaged his hand. If only he could remember.
Max slid back through the narrow, itchy, dusty passage to the crawlspace he was squatting in where he could stretch out and turn on a light to take a better look at his injury. Once he'd sat and sworn and poured rubbing alcohol over far more than just his puncture wounds, he remembered. I'd better write it down, he thought.
Dipping his finger in the still-wet blood on the dusty rough wood floor, he wrote," I'll teach her" on the light pine side wall. He pondered a moment trying to remember who he intended to teach what and added "child."
He drank a slug of cherry-flavored cough syrup from the bottle he'd pilfered from the family's medicine cabinet and soon he fell asleep curled on his side, a worried frown creasing his face and a line of drool trekking across his chin.
Emma knew there was something living in the walls. In her imagination, it was a giant squirrel, massive and deadly, that accepted tribute from lesser squirrels because he was too big to leave through whatever tiny hole he'd come in through as a baby. One day he'd burst free, but only when he'd grown big enough.
She wasn't afraid of him because she knew squirrels didn't eat little girls and they weren't interested in them in the dreadful way men were. After she heard him in the wall beside her bed a few times, she decided to start leaving food for him, to help him grow and escape sooner.
Kneeling by the wall with a flat head screwdriver, Emma carefully removed the vent cover. She slowly pried at the side of the duct-work inside until there was a little gap between it and the vent opening. She kept starting and stopping because it was a lot louder than she'd expected, but eventually, she'd made a hole as big as her two fists put together. Satisfied, she put the vent cover back on and went to tidy herself up. Father got very angry when she wasn't looking pretty for him.
She washed her face and brushed out her fine honey blond hair, braiding it as neatly as she could and pinning it up into a bun covered by a small, light blue cap. Her dull grey skirt was a bit wrinkled from crawling around on her hands and knees to mess with the vent, but a few passes over it with a damp washcloth got the worst out.
Ever since her mother left and the strange woman had moved in to home-school her, Emma's life had gone completely to shit.
Before, there had been joy in her house. There had been brightly colored clothes, blue jeans, and sparkle nail polish. There had been television, school, and going outside to play, not just to work. But most sadly lost, most missed of all was Emma's mother.
Cecily Parker wasn't pretty and she wasn't thin like the rest of the moms in the neighborhood but she was the mom all the other kids loved. Their moms didn't take them out camping in the middle of the summer in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers and drink hot, sweet coffee from a thermos. Their moms never showed them where to pick morels or wild strawberries and never taught them how to swear in German. Their moms never let them take off their shoes outside or dance around in the rain throwing mud pies at one another. Emma felt sorry for those kids and generously shared her mother with those less fortunate children.
So when Cecily Parker went missing, the whole neighborhood came out in support. People Emma didn't know hugged her and handed casseroles wrapped in aluminum foil to her dad. She later saw that the TV camera had caught her crying silently and staring off into space when he made a statement asking someone to please bring his CeeCee back to him and their little daughter.
After about two weeks, when things had settled down, dad interviewed a number of people to be Emma's tutors and to instruct her how to dress properly. All the pretty things she'd ever owned went into black plastic garbage bags as if they were all trash. The pink and silver hair bows she'd bought with her mom in the mall the afternoon they got pistachio ice cream were tossed in the same bag with the polka-dot lime green sundress they bought the same day. A stern-faced woman dressed in dark blue cotton from crown to heels dumped the bathroom trash right in on top of them and tied off the bag with a twist-tie.
Room by room, Emma's father had the house gutted, removing all evidence of her mom's presence. There was a lot of it. Everything beautiful in Emma's house had been brought in by her mom. Every day, her father found something new that reminded him of her mother. That's how he named her, too, "your mother," never "Cecily" or "CeeCee" or even "your mom." He kept it very formal, except in front of the press.
He told second-string grocery tabloid reporters that he was sure his dear CeeCee was still alive. At night he told Emma he was sure her mother was dead, that she had abandoned them to go screw a pimp and shoot up heroine. He said she got herself killed hitchhiking somewhere like California. He said she was under the ground, that someone had torn her skin and covered her face with dirt and piled branches over her so the raccoons who found her body would have somewhere to hide during dinner.
Miss Anna moved in as soon as the guest bedroom was completely redone, the daisies Cecily had painted all around it painted over in four coats of eggshell, and the last of Emma's old clothes were thrown away. Her new clothes were dull and rough and didn't fit well. She didn't go out to buy them with Miss Anna; Miss Anna just took her father's credit card out somewhere and came back with bags and bundles of clothes and shoes. She pointed to the lace on the collars and cuffs of the dresses when Emma complained that they were sad-looking, as if gray lace on a pinkish-gray dress or pinkish-gray lace on a gray dress were cheerful.
Worse than the clothes were the classes. Miss Anna made Emma sit in front of her in a chair and read from a very old textbook about health and hygiene, then spend about an hour doing math of a type she'd already mastered, the same set of problems all week long. Then she'd be given a cheese sandwich with mustard on it and move on to etiquette and deportment lessons until 3 pm. She was given free time during which she could wash dishes, sweep, dust, or read the Bible from just after 3 pm until it was time to set the table for dinner at 5:45.
By the third week Emma was absolutely sure her mom was dead. If she wasn't dead, then where was she? She knew her mom would never leave her. And she remembered the way her parents argued the night her mom disappeared. She couldn't quite make out what they were saying but his voice was sharp and savage and hers spaced with sobs and small cries punctuated by thumps and crashes. The few words that made it through the walls, the floors, and Emma's memory foam pillow were horrible. There were words like 'bitch' and 'I'll teach you' and 'get back here or else.' There were other words she didn't know the meaning of but she was sure they were dangerous and foul just from the way they sounded coming from her father's mouth.
"Please don't," were the last words Emma ever heard her mom speak, just before the awful sound, the sound almost like a laugh, a child-pitched, "eh, eh, eh, eh," that faded into a squawk that ended the noises coming from her parent's bedroom.
But that had been three years ago and she wasn't sure what she'd heard that night anymore.
The next time Max heard the child crying, it was much louder, as if she were inside the walls with him. Slowly, he crept toward the awful sound, memory stirring inside him.
Halfway to the remembered place, the crying stopped, but Max kept on going. When he was almost there, he noticed something odd; light was streaming in through some kind of hole about level with his ankles. He shut off his flashlight and squinted at the patch of light. There was some kind of a ragged hole in the duct-work and a light was on in the room beyond.
Max could hear the child breathing raggedly and sniffing back snot. He knew that sound too well, the sound of trying not to cry, and it brought tears to his eyes and a cold, knotted pain to his chest. Then he heard the door opening and a man speaking.
"Why is your light still on, Emma?"
"I fell asleep and left it on," a small, high voice replied as heavy footsteps moved across the floor.
Max heard a click and the light cut off, then the man said, "Move over," and the bed creaked as he got into it with the child.
Though it was completely dark in the wall where Max hunched awkwardly sideways, he squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he could reach up and plug his ears. But the space was too tight and he was balanced with one hand against the wall, the other holding his flashlight. There was more space between the walls of this house than any he'd ever seen but not enough to move freely.
The sounds and words and cries came through the hole in the duct-work, and they were even worse than Max expected. Eventually he freed a hand and used it, not to plug his ears, but to shove into his mouth where he bit it, muffling the sounds that tried to come out as tears like tiny, hot rivers washed grooves in the dust on his face. The hand flared with pain, already too warm and throbbing from his earlier splinter injury, and he tried to welcome it in with the hope it would let him stop hearing somehow.
It didn't work and Max began to panic, biting harder and harder until he lost all fear of being found out and fled through the narrow space, his skin and clothes catching on rough edges, blood trailing wherever his wounded hand touched. He had no idea where he was going. He squirmed between the walls, moving as quickly as possible. He had to get out, had to help Emma somehow. Her father would never die soon enough from waves of hatred alone.
Max stopped, took deep breaths, and pulled out his backup flashlight when he hit a dead end where his usual exit should have been. The cold air return in the basement that he'd used to get into the house from inside the walls was missing and appeared to have been boarded over.
Max backed out of the dead-end and started toward his exit under the back deck, panicking again when his piece of loose siding over an old basement window hole refused to budge. Something must have been nailed over it to reinforce the mend. Backtracking, he found a section of wall that was only drywall and started kicking it, not caring how much noise he was making. He focused his rage into the drywall, fueling it with the sick, horrible words he'd heard the man saying to Emma. Dust plumed back in his face and dust filled the space he crouched in kicking with all his might. Closing his eyes tightly against it and pulling his shirt up over his face, he turned around and started shoving the drywall into the hole he'd made, ripping at the edges to make it bigger. Reaching in, he realized he couldn't exit through the hole, it only opened to a pocket of space with some kind of rubble in it.
Shining his flashlight into the space, he tried to scream as he saw the dry, dead body covered in a thick, white dust under his searching hand. Instead, he coughed, the dust burning his eyes and stinging in his lungs.
Racked with coughs, he backed out of the space and worked his way back to the cold air return in the basement. A few frantic kicks popped the board loose and he dropped down into the dark room, searching desperately for the laundry sink where he washed his face and eyes clear of the burning white dust. Eyes swollen and dripping, hands wet and bleeding, Max ran up the basement stairs, stumbling like a drunk.
He ran through the house and up the stairs, ripping open the first door he came to, shouting, "Leave her alone!"
A woman in a long frumpy nightgown the color of dirty storm clouds screamed and turned on her bedside lamp as Max charged in. He stood staring as the woman's shrieks shut down his brain for a few seconds and then ran out, realizing his mistake. He tripped over his fear and adrenaline, catching himself on the wall just before a man came charging out the door at the other end of the hallway.
The man in the striped boxer shorts was huge. Max was not; malnutrition had stunted his growth. In the right lighting, he could pass for a child of twelve or thirteen instead of eighteen. The man screamed something at Max that he couldn't understand and ran toward him, still yelling. Max ran at the screaming man, dodging to the side as he passed him. Like a charging bull fooled by a matador, the larger man kept going on his own momentum and stumbled against the railing to the stairs.
Max ran straight into the room the man had come from, slamming the door shut behind him. Searching for a latch in vain, he grabbed a dresser and knocked it over across the doorway, pinning the door shut.
The child huddled on the bed whimpered and Max said, "Don't be afraid, I'll get you outta here." He turned on the light as her father's blows to the door shook the room.
Emma didn't understand what was happening at first when the screaming started and her father tumbled off the bed, pulled up his shorts, and growled at her to stay put. The next thing she knew there was more screaming and crashing and a dirty, bloody black boy was turning on her bedside light.
"Don't be afraid," he said, "I'll get you outta here."
She looked at him doubtfully and pulled the blankets up over herself. Looking nervously at the door, he said, "Get pants, get shoes, I mean get dressed, we getting outta here."
"C'mon, move it, girl! We gotta go!"
Emma grabbed clothes from her drawers as the walls shook her father's punches and kicks on the door and hurriedly dressed as the stranger started smashing at the wall beside her bed with a dresser drawer.
He ripped at the drywall, leaving streaks of blood and dirt behind. Finished dressing, she asked, "How is that gonna get us out?"
Looking up at her, he stopped tearing at the wall for a moment.
"Oh, no, no, no," the boy cried, weepy eyes wild, "pants, gotta get on some pants or you get all cut up!"
The door buckled in at the top and splintered pieces of wood poked into the room.
"Going out through the walls, gotta make a bigger hole," he said.
Grabbing her screwdriver from under her mattress, Emma started punching holes in the wall near the opening Max had already created. More wood splinters came from the door and the dresser blocking it started moving.
Max said, "Keep making the hole bigger. Second you can fit you get inside and go left far as you can," and he grabbed the nightstand, hurriedly hefting it up on top of the dresser blocking the doorway. Max pushed against it as hard as he could, now crying openly as he realized he wasn't getting out.
Emma worked frantically, widening the hole as fast as she could and Max screamed at her to get in before it seemed big enough. As her father shoved his way through the piled furniture and the broken door, she struggled into the hole in the wall, ripping her dress.
"Keep going till you get to the chimney," Max yelled, "he can't fit..."
Emma ripped her dress loose and pulled herself the rest of the way in between the walls as Max's voice cut off, replaced by grunting and smashing. She sidled blindly, freezing in fear then moving again as the her hands hit into unseen things and then sounds of violence spurred her on again. The darkness would never be as terrifying as her father and the strange boy said it was a way out.
She heard the stranger trying to yell something but the sounds became muffled as something fell across the hole in the wall. Sobbing and shaking, she wriggled and shuffled sideways until she felt bricks behind her under her searching hands. She started to sidle past the bricks until she realized it must be the chimney the boy told her about. He was right, it would take her father a long time to break through the chimney to get to her. She made herself as comfortable as possible and waited. It grew quiet but Emma's thoughts grew louder and louder.
After what seemed like forever, Emma started moving again, having decided that waiting for the strange boy was pointless. Her father would stop him from coming to her, if the boy wasn't already dead. She knew her father's strength, had been pinned like a bug to her bed with just one of those hard, sweaty hands almost effortlessly. She knew her rescuer was no match for the monster she called father. She felt like it was time to accept it and try to get out without him.
She kept moving slowly through the stifling darkness until she fell down through a gap underfoot. Stopped by the narrowness of the space, she didn't keep falling. She found herself stuck in the wall, her left arm squeezed painfully behind her back and her legs stinging from scrapes as they dangled below her. No matter how she moved, it hurt and she couldn't budge up or down. Her butt, small as it was, was stuck and tensing anything to move just wedged her in tighter. She heard noises inside her home but she couldn't tell what they were.
As she started hearing crashing noises, like someone was chopping something with an ax, she panicked. Her father was coming for her. She renewed her struggles with the space she was pinched in, hyperventilating in fear until she passed out. As she came to, swallowing vomit and gasping, she discovered her butt had slipped down enough for her to squirm the rest of her body down.
Gaining more scrapes and scratches, she made her way down until she came out into an open space almost big enough for her to stand up in. Feeling around, she found what felt like a lantern and turned it on, illuminating the crawlspace. Emma didn't care that the sleeping bag she found was dirty or that the bottled water was warm, she just huddled inside the one and drank the other, thankful she'd found somewhere to hide.
The bashing noises stopped and were replaced by some kind of power tool noise Emma didn't really recognize. She hid inside the sleeping bag and cried until she fell asleep.
The sound of someone prying at the wall outside woke her with a start. She kicked off the sleeping bag and started making her way through the narrow gap she'd noticed in the lamplight before she fell asleep. As the sounds grew louder, light streamed into the little space and a female voice called into the space, "Don't be afraid, we're here to get you out."
After a bit of coaxing, the female police officer convinced Emma to stay where she was as they cut into the thin layer of siding that covered one wall of the space. Hands pulled pieces of the siding away and the woman said gently, "It's all right, now. Do you think you can crawl out through the hole here?"
Emma replied, "I, yes," and scuttled forward, words forgotten.
Gentle hands clasped hers firmly and helped her out into the daylight and fresh air. A lady cop wrapped her in a blanket and scooped her up, carrying her to an ambulance parked front yard, right up on the grass.
Emma told her, "Please, I have to get away."
"It's OK," the woman murmured, "You aren't going back."
"My father..." Emma started.
"You might be able to see him later..." the woman began, turning her body to shield Emma from seeing the stretcher two young men were pulling out through the front door of her house. She couldn't, however, shield Emma from their unthinking words.
"You need help with that?" asked a male voice, calling across the yard.
"Nope," another man replied, "Dried right up like beef jerky with all that quicklime, barely weighs anything at all."
"Who do you think it is?" asked a third voice as the policewoman laid Emma down on a stretcher and started talking loudly to the paramedics manning it, clearly trying to drown out the conversation going on all too close.
"Tracy," the female EMT said as the policewoman looked at her.
"John and Tracy here will take good care of you, see that you get all those cuts checked out."
The paramedics caught on and hurried into the ambulance with Emma, closing the door right behind them.
As they made the trip to the hospital, they asked Emma all sorts of questions about her birth date and what day it was, distracting her mind from whatever she'd been trying to think of. But when they made it to the hospital and the paramedics started talking to other people, her eyes welled with tears and she asked, "Is the boy OK? Did he make it?"
More Fiction by Kylyssa Shay
- Sometimes I Get a Little Short with Flash Fiction
Three short stories written for flash fiction contests. Two could be considered dystopian stories and the third is more like a faux Native American myth.
- Gift of the Gruldak, a Serialized Science Fiction Novel by Kylyssa Shay
Do you like tiny robots, bizarre aliens, monsters, and misfits? Why not read the first installment of Gruldak? This serialized science fiction novel is free to read online.
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© 2015 Kylyssa Shay