Jake yelped with fright when his friend first spoke. He thought he was alone when he heard that disembodied voice from the darkness. It wasn’t the Whisper Man or the Thing From Below that filled his mind with dread in the darkened basement, but his own mother. He thought for a terrible moment she had caught him down there after forbidding he should ever set foot in that “snake pit” of a basement. He wasn’t afraid of the neighborhood boogeyman and he wasn’t afraid of snakes, at least not in the basement, but he was terrified of his mother’s wrath. At least, that’s how it was since they moved into the new place. She had changed.
“Don’t be scared,” the voice said, gently. She seemed to materialize from within the gloom that surrounded him, a young girl in pigtails and a vibrant romper. She looked to have been about Jake’s age or even younger, though she was taller than him. She was also very small, but Jake thought her eyes made her look smarter. Older somehow. She was pale and pretty, but she was also stick thin and covered in dirt. Her hair was so blonde and dingy that it was really no color at all. She grinned at him and right away she lost the ancient look in her eyes. Just a regular girl.
“Who are you?” Jake said, suppressing a quaver in his voice. His heart was still pounding, although he was already beginning to feel ashamed. Imagine, being so frightened of a kid half his size, for cripes sake. Not to mention a girl!
The girl’s smile faded and she said nothing for a second, like she had to stop and remember her own name. Funny. Maybe she was shy?
“Ashe,” she said at last, “With an e.”
“I’m Jake,” Jake told her, extending his hand to shake. He noticed adults always shook hands when they first met people, and so he figured he should do the same. “Also with an e, I guess.”
“Oh yeah,” Ashe said, laughing, “I guess that’s right.”
“What are you doing down here?” Jake asked, as if he himself had any more right to the place just because he had found it unlocked.
“I live down here,” Ashe said, “Among the boxes. I’m a pirate!”
“Bull-oney!” Jake said. It was his catchphrase. “No one lives down here except bugs and people’s old junk. And snakes, maybe. Anyways, pirates have a ship. You just have a sword.”
“I’ve got a ship! I do!” Ashe insisted, Gesturing with her right hand, curled into the shape of a pirates hook, “and a treasure!”
“If you’ve got a ship,” Jake said, simultaneously calling Ashe’s bluff and falling into the rhythm of the game she had begun, “prove it. Where is it?”
“Oh no, me hearty!” Ashe cried, swinging a cardboard cutlass, “Me ship and me treasure are known only to me loyal crew. None else, says I!”
“Says who?” Jake retorted, swinging his plastic machete in response. He hadn’t been playing pirate before, He was playing campground killer. He saw a movie recently on late night TV, which left him both terrified and fascinated.
“Tis I,” Ashe exclaimed, “Captain Ashe Crossbones of the pirate ship The Heartless Wench! They also call me The Heartless Wench, because I run my blade through the heart of every man who ever dares to love me! And who be ye?”
“I be Scurvy… Lurvy!” Jake growled, slashing at the air with his machete, “And I loves nothing and no one, for I be the scurviest Lurvey thar be!”
So it went, that endless first day of their friendship, one endless swashbuckling battle after another, sacking cities, searching for treasure, and sailing the seven seas. Ashe’s pirate ship turned out to be an elaborate construction of scavenged cardboard and busted furniture nestled deep in the depths of the basement beyond the warren of resident storage cages. It was a wonder no one had found it and forced her to take it down.
By the time it had occurred to Jake to check his watch, it was already alarmingly late. If she didn’t miss the four o’clock bus his mother could be home in as few as ten minutes. His heart began to pound in his chest again. What if she came home and he wasn’t there? What if she refused to let him back in?
“I gotta go!” He exclaimed, already turning to find the stairs, “My mom’s gonna be home any minute!”
“Wait!” Ashe said, grabbing him by the shoulder. He turned back to her and she crowed, “You forgot your share of the booty, me hearty!”
She ran into the ship and rustled around for a moment, finally emerging with a small package. She thrust it into his hands.
“You earned it, lad!” She told him, “Keep it up and I’ll have you promoted to first mate.”
He gave her his best “Yo ho!” before dashing up the stairs, past the man at the desk (who was too busy frowning at his computer to pay attention to the likes of Jake “Scurvy Lurvy” Adams), and back into his apartment. The Old Bald Guy saw him and told him to quit running in the goddamn hall, but he didn’t answer. He was the sort of person his mom would call “an effing creep,” and Jake was inclined to agree.
Jake headed immediately to the bathroom sink, to scrub away the accumulated basement grime and change into clean clothes. He was a smart enough kid to know to cover his tracks.
He glanced around to ensure nothing was out of place. Satisfied, it finally occurred to him to see what was his cut of the pirate booty. He peered into the paper bag and found it to be full of snacks. A pack of peanut butter cups, a bag of spicy cheese curls, and a stick of jerky. They all seemed to be the same brand as the vending machine in the lobby, and they were all expired. He ate them anyway. It was the first thing he had eaten since his lunch at school on Friday.
When his mother finally came home more than an hour later, she did so with a wobble in her step and red rimmed eyes. She stood at the kitchen sink and drank two glasses of water back to back. Halfway through the second glass she jerked upright and set the glass down hard enough to make an audible “klunk!” She cocked her head to the side as though she were trying to hear something Jake could not. She then turned sharply to Jake, gave him a strange look, and stormed off into her room without saying so much as a single word.
He did not see her again until sundown the next day. By then it had begun to feel like a good thing. Or it would have, if not for the terrible knot in his stomach. A bag of junk food wasn’t much of a replacement for real food, he was surprised to learn.
Whatever change came over his mother seemed to coincide with her big breakup. They had been living with her boyfriend, Shawn, for several months prior to moving to The Lyndon. Jake didn’t think much of Shaun. Shaun mostly ignored him and his mother in favor of his X-Box, which he played whenever he was not at work. Jake didn’t even have his own room at Shawn’s place. They just made him sleep on the couch.
One night his mother and Chris closed the door to their bedroom and didn’t open it up again for hours. He could hear them in there screaming at one another and throwing things, but he couldn’t understand what they were yelling about. It terrified him, nonetheless. A few tense days passed and Jake found himself a third party to several more hushed and angry conversations. Finally his mother emerged from her bedroom like an exiled queen and told him they would be moving into their own place.
Jake was excited, initially. It was a two bedroom apartment! And sure, his bedroom turned out to be smaller than some closets, but he still had a door and a bed. Or a mattress at least. The best part, as far as Jake was concerned, was how little Shawn the new apartment contained.
It didn’t take long for his excitement to curdle into dread.
When they first moved into The Lyndon (and it had only been two weeks!) she mostly cried a lot. He never saw her do it, but he could hear her sometimes through the walls. That was okay. Jake had seen enough girly movies living with his mother to know that ladies always cried a lot when they split up with their boyfriends.
The screaming, though, that wasn’t okay. It woke him up from a dead sleep, a long and anguished moan, followed by a sharp shrill shriek and a thump. His first thoughts were of Shawn, or rather his first thought was that he was still asleep. He had been having a nightmare that Shawn had returned to (kill) do something bad to his mother.
Jake jumped up from his covers to see what had happened, the cobwebs of his own half-forgotten nightmares still falling from his mind’s eye, a half-forgotten pastiche of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He was still young enough to wish to be the hero of such a story.
He crossed the narrow hall trailing his fingertips along the wall to find his way. The lights were out and it was terribly dark. Shawn’s place had more windows. As his eyes adjusted he could see his mother’s bedroom door standing open, her room faintly illuminated by the sick orange glow of the street lamp outside. He could hear her before he could see her, panting fast and sharp, with a ragged whine in the middle of every breath. His feet felt as if they were sticking to the nasty green carpet, but he forced himself to step into her room.
She lay in her bed gasping with the covers tossed aside in the summer heat. Her satin nightgown had hitched up in her struggles, revealing her underclothes and a puff of coarse pubic hair. He gasped, mostly in embarrassment, but it caused his mother to snap her gaze upon him. She stared at him in stark terror, as though his presence was the last thing she might have expected. He opened his mind mouth to speak, but she cut him off.
“Get out of here, dammit!” She said, raggedly, making terrible little sounds in her throat. Gagging, he realized. She pulled down at the hem of her gown but made no move otherwise. Abruptly she snapped her eyes back up to Jake’s and shouted, “Get out! Get out! Can’t you understand I don’t want to see you? Out! Damn- Damn THING!”
He fled, choking on his own tears but too frightened and confused to cry out. His mother had never refused him so utterly before. Writhing, miserable in his bed, afraid and alone for the first time in his life, Jake wept and moaned long into the night. He had heard of people crying themselves to sleep, but by the time he had finally drifted into a broken, exhausted sleep, his tears had already run themselves dry.
The next morning Jake awoke to the sound of the bathroom door slamming shut. He scowled. His mother had always scolded him for slamming doors, and he wondered why she should be allowed to do so herself. It seemed unfair. He felt terrible from lack of sleep and his face was still raw from all the crying. Rubbing the crust from his eyes, he looked at his clock. It was digital, which was good because he still had trouble reading analog clocks. He was alarmed to see it was already after nine. He had missed the bus and a feeling of panic bloomed in his chest.
He threw open his dresser, grabbed an outfit mostly at random, and got himself dressed. He had never been so late for school and assumed the consequences of doing so would be dire indeed. His only comfort at the time was the knowledge that his mother would know what to do.
When he caught up with his mother, she was standing at the kitchen counter trying to remember how to make coffee. She had the decanter in one hand and a bag of grounds in the other, and her face was screwed up in frustration.
“Mom?” He said, blearily, “I missed the bus.”
She only looked at him, her face distorted and ugly. Expressions of grief and disgust mixed and mingled and vied for control.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, moving to reach for her arm.
She recoiled from his touch as though fearing the bite of a snake.
“Don’t touch me!” She snarled, stumbling back against the counter. She knocked over the bag of instant coffee crystals, spilling the contents onto the floor. “Get out of here, you filthy little shit! You’re not him!”
“What?” Jake bawled, and took a tentative step forward.
She only shrieked in response and threw her coffee cup at him. It bounced off his cheek and he shrieked too, in surprise and pain rather than fear.
“Get out! Get out! Get out of here!” She screamed, throwing everything she could get her hands on. Though he was quite incapable of appreciating his luck, her aim was not nearly as great on these subsequent missiles. A spatula bounced off his calf mostly unnoticed, but a hurled kitchen knife whizzed past his neck and buried itself into the drywall. He did not see this, however, as he had already dashed out the front door.
When he finally made it to school, he had invented an elaborate lie to explain his absence and bruised face. As most young boys are, however, Jake was a terrible liar. He thought at the time he had gotten away scot-free. Instead, he had only set in motion the ponderous wheels of bureaucracy. Eventually they would send child protective services to his door, but it was too late to have made any difference.
When he returned home from school, he did so with great trepidation. The entire day, once he learned he would not be drawn and quartered for missing an hour and a half of school, he thought about nothing but the coffee cup that bounced off his and his eventual and inevitable return home. When that time had finally arrived, he found mother had returned to some measure of her old self. She actually smiled when she saw him. Actually hugged him! The fear and anxiety sloughed off him almost like a physical thing, a snake skin.
“Heya, kiddo!” she said, smiling still, “Sorry I was a bit of a crank this morning. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, I guess. Haha! I’m sorry. I guess it’s just been a tough time for both of us.”
“It’s okay,” Jake said, on the verge of relieved tears. Perhaps she did not hate him after all!
“Pizza for dinner?” She asked, reaching for her phone.
“Sure!” He said, and that was that. For a short while. Perhaps in time he would fully trust his mother again, or perhaps even forget the whole thing had happened. Maybe, he dared to think, he dreamed the whole thing. He rubbed his cheek as he lied to himself, nursing the red weal made by the coffee cup’s impact. He told his teacher and the school nurse that someone had thrown a rock at him on the playground. He didn’t see who.
For the next couple of days he believed the bad times to be over. When she looked at him, she looked at him as a mother should look at her son, not as if he were a stranger or a monster. She welcomed his presence, his touch. She did not shrink away. It puzzled him. He knew he had not just dreamed her attack, so what had come over her? Would it come over him again?
On the third day following the coffee cup incident, Jake woke from a sound sleep to see his mother standing at the side of his bed, looking down on him. She did not seem to realize he had awoken and so her expression remained unchanged. It was one of clear repulsion and of stark terror.
“Mom?” He said, murky with sleep, “What is-”
Before he could finish speaking she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. His head bounced off the wall, dazing him.
“What have you done!” She screamed, “What did you do with him?”
He began to scream, fighting and scrabbling at his strange turncoat mother, ripping at her with his sharp nails, even as she dug her own nails deep into the tender flesh of his throat. For a time he was certain she meant to kill him, to strangle him dead. He gasped and struggled and plead for release with his eyes. Eventually she did, and fell back to the floor, her head hanging between her knees. She began to sob.
“What have you done? Give him back. Give him back.” She repeated this over and over again as Jake moaned and cocooned himself inside his blankets.
After a time, she left, unheeded. Jake had already drifted back into a troubled sleep, and when he awoke in the morning she was gone. This began a strange cycle of neglect and abuse followed by ever shortening periods of relative normality. Relative being the operative term. Young as he was, Jake could see the mask slipping from his mother’s face in these times of peace. There was a desperation and a mad fear underneath that he could not begin to understand.
The ever lengthening bad times drove him to fend for himself, ill equipped though he was. Scrounging through the refrigerator and cabinets for anything edible saw him through for a while, until those supplies dwindled and were never replaced. After that he was forced to grow more creative, and his lunches as school protected him from total starvation.
Nothing, however, could protect Jake from the complete dismantling of his support system. He needed his mother on a fundamental level, but he was terrified she would hurt him again. He was quickly heading for a hopeless collapse when he met Ashe.
Ashe changed everything. Ashe was special. She knew things. The second time he met Ashe, she showed him a miracle. The second time he met Ashe, he needed a miracle more than anything.
Jake was downstairs that day because a short time ago he learned of the downstairs resident’s lounge. Sometimes the other people living at The Lyndon would gather to play cards there, or watch a ball game on the big screen. Things like that. They never seemed to welcome his presence, which did not surprise him. For one reason or another, adults did not trust an unaccompanied minor.
He wasn’t interested in spending time with them, of course. He was after their leavings. Any time any of them spent any length of time in the common room they would invariably have snacks. They were never very good about cleaning up after themselves, and even when they were, it made no difference. He was not above sneaking half a bag of chips or the last Oreo out of the trash.
This time his search proved uncharacteristically fruitless. Pretzel-less for that matter. By then he was used to disappointment, but this small defeat proved to be Jake’s breaking point. His mother was still in a better phase, but young as he was he could still tell the better phases were getting worse and shorter all the time. It would not be long before they disappeared entirely. He had no idea what he’d do then.
Perhaps, at that point, Jake might have given in to the flood of his despair, had not an outside force intervened. It was her, peeking through the doorway, hissing surreptitiously for his attention. It was Ashe. Again, her extreme thinness stunned him. Her eyes and her cheeks were both hollow and pale. Her limbs were long and dirty, but so delicate. Frail? Somehow he didn’t think so. She was like an elf, he thought. She was like the elves from that old movie about the ring.
“Jake with an E,” She whispered, beckoning. He couldn’t quite understand why she wouldn’t just come into the common room, but it hardly mattered as he was already crossing the room toward her. She took his wrist and with her other hand she touched a finger to her lips, although Jake felt it was her eyes that said “Be Quiet!”
So it was a spy game. Jake liked that sort of thing. Being a small and quiet child, he was excellent at going unnoticed. As Ashe scanned the hall left and right, Jake began to craft his super spy persona. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought it should be a color and an animal. Silver Fox? The Gold Scorpion? Not bad. Red Hawk? He looked down at his shirt as Ashe pulled him down the hallway. It was Red. That settled it.
They crept toward the small alcove leading to the basement door, pointing out tripwires, traps, and surveillance cameras. A sentry had to be subdued with a knockout dart. They had reached the most dangerous phase, where it was possible to attract the notice of anyone who happened to glance down the main hall. Until they reached the checkpoint, they were sitting ducks. At the alcove, just large enough to conceal two slight children, Ashe told Jake to keep watch while she picked the lock. She thrust a cap gun into his hand and soberly advised him to shoot to kill.
No one came down the hall as she did whatever it was she needed to do to pick the lock. It seemed like she was just jamming an old gift card into the space between the door and the wall. There was a click and she darted her eyes at him, seeking the all-clear. He took a final glance down the hall and was disappointed to find no reason to shoot the cap gun. He nodded back to Ashe and she opened the door, pulling him down into the basement safe zone.
By then he had already forgotten about his hunger and other nebulous fears. For hours he joined Ashe in an endless world of intrigue and espionage in the tangled back alleys of a sinister city. He finally got his shootout, as his partner Agent Ashe-X turned out to be a deep cover double agent! That’s when the game turned cat and mouse, with the price being a priceless objet d’art known as The Emerald Bearloom.
In the end, Jake emerged victorious, although he would have had to admit the actual terms of his victory were Pyrrhic at best. The shootout ended with them both riddled with bullets, the prized Emerald Bearloom resting in his palm. Ashe insisted he should have it, and he insisted they should share. Jake felt terrible taking the massive gummy bear away from her. He had never seen one so big, and it fairly boggled his mind. It came in a box all by itself.
In the end she relented and agreed to share, and he was glad. She was so skinny, Jake figured she must be the only kid hungrier than he was. The gummy bear was juicy and good, as all gummy bears should be, and so large he could barely finish his half.
He went to bed that night with a rare smile, especially after coming home to his mother in a better phase and a home cooked meal. He ate all of that, too. Perhaps it could be blamed on all the sugar, but he had a terrible nightmare that night. He was eating the gummy bear again, only this time the candy was alive, wriggling in his grasping hands and dripping viscous runnels of sticky fluid. It mewled and snapped at him as he tore at the sweet, cloying flesh. It snapped at him, but he did not stop. He ate it, bones and all.
Ashe was in the nightmare, too, but it wasn’t Ashe. It was a cruel copy that grinned and goaded at him all throughout his gruesome repast. The fake Ashe’s skin was gray and wrinkled, its limbs were impossibly long and tipped in ragged nails, and its eyes were nothing like hers. Its eyes were empty black holes. They were the last thing he saw before he woke up.
The next day and night, nothing much happened.
Two nights later, his mother had one of her own nightmares. That’s not what woke Jake up, however. He only had to pee. Her door was shut this time, but he thought he could her her talking in the other room, a low murmur that went on and on. He thought that’s what he heard, but she sounded strange. Was she talking on the phone? It wasn’t like her to be awake this late.
He decided not to worry about it. She finally bought food! By then another week had begun and by hook or by crook he was getting enough to eat, but the simple security a few bags of groceries brought was undeniable. So was the expression on her face when she looked at him. Love was there. He could ignore the lingering fear seeping into the edges. Almost.
He touched the knob to the bathroom door and for a brief moment he thought he could feel a strange, staticky feeling. A kind of sick, green static. No, it was a vibration. That’s what Jake thought. Just a momentary vibration, and then it was gone. He entered the bathroom and set to his business. It was a vibration and it wasn’t green at all.
All the while, through the wall he could hear the nightmare taking hold in his mother. He could hear her thrash about in her bed, and a shameful image of her exposed pubis entered his mind. He banished the thought as quickly as he could. He felt sick to his stomach, and when he blinked he could see the green static behind his eyelids. Everything felt wrong and bad, like the air was full of poison.
Abruptly, his mother’s moans and refusals ceased, and all was quiet again. The last few stubborn drops of urine finally passed, and he pulled up his pajamas. He was standing at the sink washing his hands when the bathroom door flew open.
His mother stared down at him, her initial expression of alarm twisted into one of loathing. And fury.
Nothing happened for five endless seconds, and then: Chaos.
“You fucking THING!” his mother screamed down at him, thrusting something round into his chest. It knocked the wind out of him and propelled him roughly into the bathtub.
He snatched at the curtain and it broke his fall to some extent, but it did not save him from banking his head on the tile. He saw a blinding light that faded into green static until fading into terrible clarity.
His mother was holding a kitchen knife in her right hand, though not the way she showed him to use it. She held it with the point down like a ninja dagger. In her other hand, she had a heavy pot lid. She was creeping back into the bathroom when he finally regained enough of his senses to start pulling himself out of the tub. She froze, her lips curling back and her knuckles whitening around the handle of the weapon.
“Mom, stop!” He shouted. The words felt trapped in his throat, and forcing them out required great effort.
“NO!” She screeched, lunging at him with the knife raised for a killing stroke.
It should have been a killing stroke, too. Would have been, had he been less diligent about washing his hands or more careful about where he splashed the soapy water. The bathroom tiles were without a rug and extremely slick. She went down, hard, slamming her wrist against the edge of the bathtub. The knife skittered into the tub with him, and he scrambled away like it was (a snake) alive.
His mother writhed on the floor, clutching her wrist and crying out loud. He jumped past her and dashed into the living room. His plan did not take shape until he heard her in the bathroom climbing back to her feet. He needed to get out of there.
As he ran for the door she came stomping after him, screaming her agreement, “Get the fuck out of here! Get out! You fucking thing! Bring him back! Bring him back to me, you filthy little bastard!”
He ran out the door with nothing but his pajamas, flame retardant flannel patterned with howling Chewbaccas. In the hallway, all was still and dark. The Old Bald Man had finally shut his door, having retired from a long day of yelling across the hallway. That was lucky, at least. Effing creep.
Not knowing where else to turn, sick with grief and lingering fear, Jake decided to pass the night in the basement, where at least she wouldn’t find him. Another stroke of luck, he observed, the basement was unlocked again. He had some abstract plan to pick the lock, but it had little hope of success. He didn’t even have a gift card.
At the foot of the stairs, Jake passed by the washing machine. It was quiet now in the middle of the night, but it appeared to watch him with its unblinking, shocked expression. He avoided its gaze and set forth through the storage warren and into the parts beyond. The pirate ship would serve as a makeshift bed. He would spend the night down there and perhaps in the morning he would find answers.
Bring him back. That’s what she said to him. You’re not him. She must have blamed him for her breakup with Shawn. Maybe Shawn didn’t want to be stuck with someone else’s kid. That must have been why she hated him. She wanted to get rid of him so she could have Shawn back. He meditated on this miserably, following his feet through the dusty basement. Soon he reached that forgotten corner of the basement where the Pirate Ship sailed, except it was gone.
Something better had replaced it. When Jake looked up at Ashe’s new creation, his jaw dropped and for a moment he forgot his miseries. If it wasn’t a miracle, it was a marvel. A marvel of kid engineering.
To call it a pillow fort would have been a disservice. To call it a treehouse would have been close but fundamentally inaccurate. How she could have gathered all the junk and furnishings to construct this magnificent elevated stronghold, he could not imagine. It was beautiful. She had even threaded Christmas lights through the structure, so that it emitted an ethereal, particolored glow.
The only way he could see to actually enter the fortress, aside from ripping the entire thing apart, was a ladder constructed of knotted together clothes and bedsheets. He could climb inside and pull up the ladder, and be safe there. The very thought seemed to lift a weight off his shoulders, and so he set to climbing the makeshift ladder immediately.
At the top was a sort of pillow-filled clubhouse, warm and welcoming. His eyes grew heavy at the sight of it. Climbing inside, he scanned the room for Ashe, though to his surprise she was nowhere to be found. He was too tired to be bothered, however. He merely pulled the ladder up, knowing he could lower it again if she called out, and then curled into a protective burrow of scavenged pillows and blankets. In moments, he was asleep.
When he awoke he thought he had begun dreaming, because Ashe was there, peering out the window of her dream palace awash in an ethereal Christmas colored glow. Jake thought again that she looked like an Elf. She was beautiful, but it was a sad beauty. It was a strange thought, but strange thoughts came in dreams, didn’t they?
She must have known he had awakened, because she said, “It’s not right, what they do. Parents. I hate them. Don’t you?”
Jake didn’t know what to say. He tried to conceptualize hating his mother, and immediately a hot ball formed in his throat.
“I can’t,” he choked out at last.
“You have to,” She said, turning to him. Her eyes blazed, cutting through the mellow glow like fog lamps. “You can’t make that mistake. If you let them hurt you, if you don’t fight back, they’ll know they can hurt you again and again.”
Jake didn’t say anything for a long time. He pulled his knees up to his chest watched all the moments flash through his mind. More than anything he saw his mother’s lip curl with all the hate boiling inside her mind. Hating him.
She really would have killed him. If she hadn’t slipped she would have cut him to bits with that cheap steak knife. He could never go back there.
“Why does she hate me?” he moaned. The tears stung and he screwed his fists into his eyes. He felt hands on his shoulders. Hers. He opened his eyes again and through the murky haze of his tears, Ashe looked down on him with her blazing eyes.
“It’s going to be okay, Jake with an E,” she told him, and because it was her, he believed. He sniffed, and wiped his eyes away.
“What do we do now?” Jake asked. Somehow he could feel hope stir in his breast.
She grinned at him, and with it that strange energy that surrounded her seemed to blaze brighter. She was just a little homeless girl, but she was also a magical being. In his heart, he knew this.
“We go on a quest!” She declared.
“To strange lands?” He suggested.
“The strangest!” she concurred, “We seek the land forgotten by time and lost to hunger and woe. We seek the highest zenith. We seek Seventh Heaven! There we shall both be safe forevermore, and only you have the power to gain ingress!”
“You mean my apartment?” He said, dumbstruck. The other kids called his apartment Seventh Heaven. He didn’t know why, except that it was number seven.
“Close,” She told him, winking slyly. “The real Seventh Heaven is above. It’s a secret. They think no one knows, but I know.”
“Who are you really, Ashe?” He asked her in a hushed voice.
She smiled at him and said, “Me? I am Lady Ashtara, Queen of the Elves! And you are my Champion, charged to deliver me to that paradise safely, to defend me from all the beasts and orcs that might try to stop us. Can you do it?”
He nodded, and together in the wee hours of the morning they set off for the strange lands above his apartment, number seven. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, terrible and constant. Even as they fought imaginary orcs and other Tolkienesque beasties, he fantasized about that land lost to hunger and woe. Seventh Heaven. He believed it was real because she told him it was real. She pretended to be a queen, but she was Jake’s queen for real. He just decided.
They stopped at his front door. He remembered he was only in his pajamas, and his house key was hanging from the hook in his room. Or so he thought.
He turned to Ashe and found her smiling again, with the key in her hand.
“How?” he whispered.
She grinned enigmatically and whispered, simply, “Magic!”
Ashe turned the key over to Jake, and Jake used it immediately to enter the apartment. Every light in the house was on and all the doors and cabinets stood wide open. The place was torn apart. His mother was nowhere to be seen. His heart was pounding.
“How do we get there?” Jake asked, his voice still hushed for fear that a loud enough noise would summon his knife-wielding mother. It dawned on him that he knew the answer. “Oh! Mom’s Closet.”
So much had happened since that time a few scant weeks ago since they had moved into apartment seven that he had forgotten. At the time he was fascinated by the door on the ceiling. It was inside the closet in his mother’s bedroom, and instead of a knob, a string hung from the door far out of his reach.
What could be up there? His mother told him that under no uncertain terms did she want him messing with that door. She said it must have been some kind of utility access and it wasn’t for them as renters to interfere with. Now he knew, it was the way to Seventh Heaven. When they got there, everything would be okay.
Mother’s room was silent and the overhead light chased all the shadows away. Ashe held his hand and led him there as if she had always known the way. Who was this girl, Ashe, really? He kept asking her and she would always tell him. But she never told him anything real. He knew there was something special about her, something magical. He knew the answer would be in Seventh Heaven as well.
She stood on his shoulders, though she was almost a head taller than him. She seemed to weigh almost nothing. Together they were just tall enough to reach the pull string. She yanked at it and told him to step back. A ladder slowly descended from above. A light shone through the portal, brilliant and blazing. The sight of it did not hurt his eyes. He began to climb, up and up. He could hear the music and it, too, was beautiful.
Jake emerged into Seventh Heaven amid a vast banquet held in his honor. All around him were other children just like Ashe, with that same glorious energy and warmth. They welcomed him, and all partook in the feast. Jake ate his fill, ate near to bursting. After which he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
In a way, his story ended there and if it could provide any comfort to anyone, he never again knew the reality of his circumstances. He truly thought himself in paradise, even to the end.
When the police found him in that tiny attic crawlspace, he was like a withered and ancient mummy. That he had starved to death was plain to see. It had happened slowly, over a space of weeks, until he finally succumbed. The skin of his face had drawn back so that it almost seemed the boy was smiling, even in death.
His mother escaped the justice of the law only by meeting a far more violent fate. It was the smell of her decay that first alerted her neighbor, the effing creep whose real name was Derek Garton. They found what was left of her in bed, black and red and putrid. She looked like a Halloween Decoration left in poor taste. Her flesh was nearly gone, it had been all but chewed away.
It was the new apartment manager, Chris Flanagan, who found the letter she would never send to her sister living in Osage City. The letter had been crumpled into a loose ball and thrown into the wastebasket.
The cleaning crew had already disposed of her body and the corrupted mattress on which it lay, but he had heard much of the fate which had befallen Jake and Monica Adams. Morbid curiosity led him to read the letter.
It’s me, Monica. Don’t you recognize my shitty handwriting? Hahaha… yeah. Sorry for the weird paper email. Like, what year is it? I don’t think I’ll send this to you. I think I just have to write my thoughts so I can get them out of my head. Know what I mean? Of course you don’t.
I’m freaking out, Kait. Like big time. It’s Jakey. No, not Jakey. Jake. He wanted to be called Jake from now on because he’s eight. Big Boy. I think that was really him that said that. I think it was. That was before (here the the word she scribbled could still be read: the whisper)
No, I better stop rambling and get to the point. Stop beating around the bush. Just come out and say it.
Fuck! Why is this so hard?
OK, so let me explain. So either I’ve lost my mind entirely, and I can’t rule that out, or… That thing in the bedroom wearing Jake’s Star War pajamas is not Jake. It still looks like him. Most of the time it looks just like him. That’s what really scares me, because I might have to (scribbled out).
I don’t mean that. Or maybe? But it’s not him, Kait. Sometimes it looks at me with this awful expression. Like we’re sharing a secret, but isn’t it so fun? Sometimes it looks at me and its eyes are just empty black holes. Gone.
Other times I can tell it’s almost like Jake’s back, and I can almost believe I had imagined everything. It’s worse, somehow, knowing that he could seem normal one moment, feral the next. But when he’s back I always make myself believe it’s for good. It just never really is.
I know you’re reading this and you’ve already decided to call the loony bin on me. Maybe you should. I want to be crazy, I wish I was crazy. If it means Jake is okay, I’d rather be crazy. But I’m so scared. I’m scared I’m not crazy. I’m scared I’m going to have to hurt it. Before it decides to hurt me again. It’s gone now, but I know it will come back.
See, I think I know the secret it thinks we share. It knows I know it’s a fake. It knows there’s nothing I can do about it, that no one would believe me. That’s why I’m trapped. It can look just like Jake again and so no one will believe me that it’s not. Do you believe me, sister? You have to believe me. Remember the summer of the frogs? Think about that summer and maybe give your big sister the benefit of the doubt.
I think everything was fine when I broke up with that idiot, Shawn. He was happy to move into the new place, The Lyndon. Then one night I woke up and he’s just staring at me at the foot of the bed, not moving. I put him to bed but I already knew there was something wrong with him. It just got worse from there. He, my boy, my Jake, he became a thing. An It.
It eats things. Trash mostly. I’ve given up trying to pull that shit out of its teeth. It eats all the time, like it can’t ever get enough to eat. It ate everything in the cupboard, and I am flat broke for the rest of the week! When it thinks I’m not looking, it’ll eat a cockroach right off the ground. That’s not the worst, either.
Kait, this is the truth. I found him one night after he had finally returned from one of his little jaunts. Did I tell you that? He has his own key and he just disappears for hours. I have no idea where he goes. I found him in the bathroom with blood running down his mouth and splattered all over his shirt. I thought he was dying until I found his dinner cast aside on the floor.
It was a RAT! Kait. It was a goddamn, stinking, sewer rat. It looked like he had torn it open with his fingers. It made me puke, Kait. All over my work shoes. The sound woke him up of some trance and he just kind of snapped his eyes up at me. They were empty black again. They were darker than the darkness of the room. He lunged at me, all dirty fingernails and teeth, snarling. I would have had to fight for my life, I think, but he slipped on the wet floor.
I ran, Kait. I know what you must think, I know. I just couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be in there with it any more, so I ran. For an hour I just sat on the curb in front of Casey’s, sobbing and holding myself, until a cop found me and made me take him home. Jake was gone. Another one of his jaunts. We turned the whole apartment upside down, got all the neighbors involved, searched the place top to bottom. He was gone. He’s gone and I have a whole lot of questions I can’t answer and I just don’t know what I’m going to do. Please help me.
I’ve been having bad dreams (the letter ends with a scratch of ink across the page)