When everything sleeps at night, clock and heartbeat give battle to silence, and sometimes, they dominate. At midnight, Ilona’s sleep dissolved prematurely into the lightless reality of her room. She could hear them well: out of phase and relatively shrill, dialoguing with their respective ticks, creating improvised Morse codes. Waking up, she rubbed her eyes and instantly knew that nothing about that particular instant in her life was different, except everything.
She first monitored the tell-tale rhythm of her heart; it galloped, warning of knowledge she had already acquired, but not yet fathomed. Realisation came within seconds. As her eyes adjusted to the weak exterior light, not only the chest contractions of Joseph who slept beside her, not only the diminutive outline of her baby daughter sleeping safely in her cot, not only the carcasses of toys and dirty laundry, but, also, an unknown shadow, revealed itself. It stood motionless in a hidden corner of their bedroom. The projection, Ilona noted, had a texture which could pertain to no item of furniture. It was not the kind of shadow that loiters on your walls when a vehicle moves outside your house; nor the kind that one is likely to see when the wind seduces a leave and makes it dance for it at night. It was, surely, of the human kind. The shadow remained still, its source hidden between wall and wardrobe just opposite Ilona’s wide-eyed gaze.
“Joseph? Joseph, wake up.”
Nothing: her whisper crashed against his unconsciousness like waves against cliffs. Her breathing slowed and she savoured every gulp of it, with her hands holding her face which shook uncontrollably with palpitations.
She started shaking him, only to make him shift to a more comfortable position. Trembling, she found the courage to address the blackness in front of her.
“Who are you?”
Alas, on that rainy evening of December, clock and heartbeat stood as her only companions. She started crying. Not the kind of tears she had shed during that terrible week, when, her husband had that accident at work and her now sleeping baby was diagnosed with severe autism. These tears were different. She looked at Joseph; she thought of her baby.
The shadow moved forward, pulling its deliverer behind it and shattering with its every step all notions of privacy and safety. The silhouette-blacker than the very shadow that had promoted it-sauntered into her den and in doing so, trampled over Joseph's clothes, trampled over her daughter's toys. Devoid of smell or any other recognizable trait, it demonized expectations. Ilona watched and listened as the soft brushing of its footsteps on the carpet blended with the baby's breathing. First it moved close to Joseph who still rested oblivious to it all. With features hidden behind a curtain of hair, it regarded him from its height with a hint of derision. Ilona raised her hand as if hope were tangible.
“Please… don't hurt him, please.”
She could see herself waking up and attacking the intruder. She could see herself saving him, only she was paralysed. Tears resumed their course down her face. Again, they were not the same tears she had shed a month earlier, when she got the bill from her daughter's specialist, nor were they the same tears which trickled after her husband got fired because of his new disability. These, she could sense, were bittersweet, much more bittersweet.
She could see better now. The sound of violent regurgitations emanated from what she could sense as the most corrupt of throats. The trespasser’s figure claimed no particular sexuality as a large black coat enveloped well its identity. Monstrous in demeanour yet human in its gait, it carved a paradox into the night.
“Who the hell are you? What do you want from us, from them?”
Her command over her own voice was gone. She forced more menace out of her.
“I am talking to you! Who are you? I want you to get out now!”
From the depths of her bed, beneath the warmth of her bedding, she trembled without acknowledgement. The figure seemed to be interested only in Joseph and, the baby of course.
Her daughter moaned and moved a little bit. The intruder moved accordingly. Ilona's hysteria intensified, gathering itself in lumps inside her throat.
“Joseph, wake up now!”
Cruelty and Innocence met. Their contrasting sizes stood out in the darkness: she sleeping, it staring. For a second Ilona waited, anticipating the horror which made promises, like a tempest on the horizon. Then it happened.
It was no whisper now: it was the most heart-breaking of screams.
Out from his sleep he came and reality divulged its contents mercilessly. Before both could react, the baby was raised from her cot and taken for a ride in the neighbourhoods of death. The baby lost her sleep and started crying. Joseph understood.
“Jesus Christ! The baby, Ilona!”
They first saw an index finger, then, it disappeared. The finger, which wasn't fit to caress the most infected of rodents, entered the baby's mouth and tested her toothless interior, perhaps enjoying the wetness of it.
“I can't look, Joseph! My God! I can't look. Please do something!”
With a second finger, it played with the baby's earlobe, perhaps, amusing itself with the charm of its flexibility. And as with Joseph, so with the baby: it was somehow mockery which fuelled its intentions.
Joseph tore from his bed and attacked the impostor. Ilona: Mother and lover, did nothing. ‘Nothing’: it was a word that echoed provocatively in every corner of her mind.
She turned and buried her face in the pillow. Thereafter, just a couple of feet behind her back, the massacre started.
She could hear the baby being dropped back, thank God, in her cot. She could hear Joseph kicking to no avail and, from time to time, his head hitting the ground. She could hear him paint agony with the coarse brushes of his screams.
“I can't feel my eyes, Ilona! My eyes!”
On the soft fibres of her pillow, tears formed a new puddle. It was then that she finally understood. These were the tears she had cried every night after cheating on her incapacitated husband of ten years, with Joseph. These were the tears she had shed every morning during that last month, every time she had packed her bags and looking at her sleeping baby, resolved on abandoning her crumbling family.
These were, undoubtedly, the bittersweet tears of guilt.
But no, she would not help him; she would let him die, of course. It was better that way. His existence meant guilt; the lack of it, relief. To see Joseph dying was to feel herself lighter.
It was his last scream, then, she heard no more. Her husband, Michael, will now, never know.
She knew of course what was going to happen next. Every limb of her selfish body anticipated it. The evitable, as it so often does, became inevitable. The baby resumed its crying and a faint smell of her breast-milk befell the room. What were once soft, baby-lungs fuelled whimpers became shrieks. Ilona's eyes pressed against the guilt-drenched pillow. Behind her, suggestive sounds brought complete information. Yes the baby would die very soon. She could hear her child being raised and shaken and bitten and beaten and dropped; this time not in her cot. To pray to her fallen God felt fake and thus, she screamed faithlessly.
She could hear the baby's crying becoming progressively quieter; slower; weaker.
“Leave! Leave! Leave!”
Ilona pleaded. But only part of her did so. The other part shone with hope. To think of her daughter perishing was to think of her freedom. To see her daughter dying was to see herself being born again.
“Leave her! Please, leave her!”
Think about how refreshing it would be, Ilona, she told herself stubbornly, to start all over again in life, to find a new husband, have a new baby. No disabilities, no bills to pay on pills and disease and pain. The unlocking, yes, the unlocking of the suffocating chains of a routine riddled with disability. The perpetual erosion of joy; the deflowering of simplicity, all would end when everyone was gone because yes, because this family had gone rotten and it needed changing.
Then, the baby's crying stopped. It was over.
In the lightless reality of her room, the man or beast or none or both walked away. Its presence faded, and with it, although still shivering in her bed between night and dawn, so did her crying, which slowly melted into sobs. And, as she had desired for quite some time, she was now lonely. No, she thought, not lonely but alone. She smiled appreciating the difference. Alone, she repeated, laying comfortably her head on the pillow again. She had always thought of herself as mother and a wife first, and only secondly as Ilona. But doesn’t being Ilona come before everything else?
It was a reasonable question to ask.
Alone, yes, she liked the sound of that. This meant that nothing would dare define her anymore; she’d finally earned the freedom to define herself. All it took was courage, a desire to keep hoping, and, something sharp.
At exactly five minutes past midnight. Sleep returned and with arms wide open, she welcomed it. Closing her eyes, she slept and her sleep would have been serene, dreamless and perhaps most of all in complete silence, if it wasn’t for the gentle din, of clock, and heartbeat.
If you liked this taster story and would like to read more, you can follow the link to the book here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009NZG606