David’s mother must’ve heard him wrong when he asked, “Where do the kids come from?” She probably thought he said Where do kids come from because she fell into an uncomfortable silence, as if assuming he wanted her to explain the mechanics of baby-making, something David knew well enough, he thought—but fortunately she began speaking again, explaining that Mama Marie brought in foster kids from everywhere and from all walks of life.
David nodded before realizing that his mom couldn’t see it, her eyes fixed on the road. She hadn’t come back to this neighborhood for years, not since turning eighteen and becoming what she termed emancipated and earning the right to leave Mama Marie’s foster home.
But not before the shame of pregnancy.
“Feel lucky you made it,” she said to David. “I slept on the beach more than once, took some drugs I never should’ve touched, got involved with some strangers I should’ve avoided. All before I met Jesus in that dream.”
David watched the houses pass. He knew the dream’s details well enough after several narrations—how Jesus pulled his hands and feet out from the cross and stumbled forth, bleeding and barely able to walk, as if learning to take steps for the first time, to where she lay huddled and broken. To take his mind off the image of the crucified man taking his mother into his arms and urging her to accept him finally–something Mama Marie never could convince her to do—David studied the houses. Many of them remained boarded up because of the last storm that raged through this section of Vissaria County, and he wondered how people could still live in them and come and go as they needed to. Maybe people still hunkered down inside, waiting for the storm to pass, not knowing it did so months ago.
He knew the rest of what his mother wanted to say—how she never turned a trick, not even once, no matter how desperate she became, though that insistence made him uncomfortable for reasons he couldn’t put into words. He also suspected that if the trip lasted much longer, she would also say how she stopped drinking completely because of that dream, though David knew a bottle of Wild Turkey remained hidden under the kitchen sink, behind the cleaning supplies.
Fortunately, they arrived at a small house—no storm panels, he saw with relief. Mama Marie met them at the door.
Mama Marie looked smaller than the imposing woman he expected to meet. Her skin and hair were almost completely white, but not gray, and her skin looked young and free of wrinkles, not all marked by the ravages of age he expected. Maybe she owed her youthful appearance to the fact that, despite the appellation of “Mama,” she had no kids of her own, just the foster children she took in.
David stiffened when, after first hugging his mother, she hugged him and led them both into a small, pale green living room, dominated by a Christmas tree, lightless and resolutely standing despite the holiday season passing weeks ago, and an enormous television that belied the poverty his mother prepared him to see. A large crucifix hung over the television, but the size of the television made it seem comparatively small.
A man in a complex wheelchair sat in the middle of the room, the chair festooned with feeding tubes and bags marked with the words, Medical Waste.
“Meet Adam,” said his mother, adding in a cheerful voice that David knew as fake, “Hello Adam.”
The man in the chair didn’t look at them. His eyes remained fixed on the television, where black and white cartoon characters in sailor suits bobbed and bounced, singing some old-time song David didn’t recognize, pausing occasionally to smack each other in ways that caused their necks to grotesquely contract and elongate.
Mama Marie said, “Adam, Bonnie’s come back. You remember Bonnie. And here’s your nephew, David.”
David looked at his mother, then at the man in the wheelchair, expecting an explanation. The smile on his mother’s face remained static, but uncomfortable lines appeared around her eyes, and though she said nothing, he saw signs of pained recognition.
The man’s head twisted around, his neck seeming to stretch like those of the cartoon characters. His eyes rolled back as if to compensate for the uncontrollable neck. They looked dully at his mother, but when they found David, they became fixed and knowing. The right corner of his mouth opened into a grin, though the left stayed closed and straight. His gaze held David’s for a moment until he felt Mama Marie’s hand on his shoulder.
“He says hi. He says he shaved just for you,” said Mama Marie. “Or really, I shaved him. He says you can stay and watch cartoons with him while your mother and I catch up. Isn’t that right, Adam? David can stay and watch Popeye with you?”
Adam’s neck twisted back to the television, and David remained frozen and unsure. Mama Marie and his mother stared at him, awaiting a reply.
But he didn’t have to say anything because the cartoon suddenly ended.
At that, Adam screamed, low and hoarse, like a sick crow. His arms flailed. One of his hands struck David’s cheek, causing him to flinch.
Mama Marie said, “Drat,” and she calmly walked over to an ancient looking VCR sitting beneath the television. She bent over, exposing a fat rump and the outline of panties beneath thin shorts. The sound of a tape rewinding joined Adam’s screams for several moments until something mechanical clicked and the tape began playing again. At that, the screaming ceased.
“If that happens again, just hit rewind,” Mama Marie said, adding in a sing-song way, “Be kind, rewind.” She beckoned Bonnie to follow her to the dining room at the back of the house. Before leaving, Bonnie shot David an apologetic glance that also seemed to contain some kind of warning. I won’t be long, her eyes said, and at that David found himself alone with the man in the wheelchair. He took a seat on the couch, doing his best to sit as far as possible from Adam, and he rubbed the sore spot on his cheek, trying to focus on the cartoon.
He didn’t need to try for long. A girl looking slightly older than him emerged from the hallway. She wore a dress that looked two-sizes too small for the breasts that swelled far fuller than they should for someone her age. Her stomach didn’t fit her frame, pressing the dress out too far.
“Hey,” she said. “You don’t have to sit here if you don’t want to. Come back with the rest of us. We’re in the nursery.”
“The nursery?” David pictured a room full of babies.
“That’s just what Mama Marie calls it. It’s just a regular room.”
“I said I’d watch cartoons with my–.” He almost said uncle, though he thought it foolish to claim kinship with the man in the wheelchair. Besides he never had an uncle before, so he didn’t know what responsibilities went with that.
The girl smirked. “Come on,” she said, so David got off the couch and began to follow.
Detecting the intent to leave, Adam began screaming again. The girl sighed and did something that shocked David.
She pinched the man’s nose until screams became muffled, and he eventually stopped. The girl removed her fingers and glared at Adam.
From the other room, Mama Marie called out and asked what was wrong.
“Nothing,” the girl called back. “The tape got jammed, but I fixed it.” She looked at David with a conspiratorial smile.
“Did you give Adam his medicine?” called Mama Marie.
The girl picked a container of tablets off a side table, rattled them around, and put them back without dispensing anything. “Yes,” she said.
“If you’re taking David to the nursery, take Adam with you,” said Mama Marie.
“Ok,” the girl said, but she walked down the hallway alone, beckoning David to follow without the man in the wheelchair. “Those pills,” she said without looking back, “are supposed to calm him, make him cured or something. I know for a fact they do the opposite. He’s more interesting without them. He can do more. And besides, can you imagine the money Mama Marie would lose if he could just walk out on her?”
The same pale green color marked the nursery, where a group of kids huddled on the floor. Once David passed through the doorway, the girl closed the door and locked it.
“I’m Samantha,” she said. “That one is Ryan and that one is Juan. That one in the middle is Fredricka.”
“Freddie,” said the girl between the two boys. “I’m a monster.” Neither of the other kids said anything or looked up. They all appeared focused on a Scrabble game board where a number of lettered tiles were scattered about. Samantha took a seat next to one of the boys and gestured for David to join her.
But David stayed put. “You playing a game?” he said.
“No, we’re trying to contact Fredricka’s mother, but we reached someone else instead.”
“A different ghost,” said the other girl, “and it’s Freddie. It’s not working right. I need a proper Ouija board, but that bitch in there won’t let me have one. So you’re new. Is your mother dead, too?”
David blinked. “No, she’s out there. We’re going to leave soon.”
All the faces turned to David now, suddenly interested.
“Then where’s your father?” said Freddie. “We’ll contact him instead.”
“My dad’s not dead,” said David. “Or I don’t think he is. I don’t know.” Samantha beckoned him again to sit, so he complied, curious as to what they were doing.
“First, let’s find out about the boy,” said Samantha. “I want to know where he died.”
“We did that while you were out there,” said the one called Ryan. “He died right here in this room.”
“In the closet,” said Juan. About the same age as David, Juan’s face bore a wispy black mustache.
“Ok, then let’s find out how. I have to know,” said Samantha.
Freddie nodded and picked up a handful of tiles. She cupped them in her hand, shook them, and let them fall onto the Scrabble board. With her eyes closed, her hands passed over the random mass of letters, rearranging them. The others, David included, leaned in to see the results.
David estimated that Freddie had to be younger than the rest of them—about ten, he supposed, small, flat-chested, and dark-skinned. Still, her hands and eyes moved with the practiced wisdom of an adult’s. After scanning the board, her fingers point to where four letters lined up perfectly.
B L E D
“He bled to death?” Samantha said. “In the closet?”
“How’d that happen?” said Juan.
“Let’s do it again and find out.” Freddie began to pick up the tiles when the awful screaming ensued again from the other room.
“Shit,” said Samantha, “I’ll be right back. Don’t do anything—ANYTHING—until I get back. David, you watch them. I only trust you.” She gave him a peck on the cheek before she stood. Blushing, David watched her stand up. When she did so, he realized that she wore no underwear. She unlocked the door and before disappearing into the hallway, she shot them all a threatening glance.
“Give him his pills,” Freddie called after her. Then to David, “I swear he walks around at night. Keeps me up. Samantha’s a slut, you know. You better watch out for her. Once she has that baby, she’s gone.”
Now David understood why she didn’t fit properly into the dress. “Gone where?”
“Just gone. And then we’ll have the brat to take care of. Let’s find out about you now.” She stood up to go a shelf set between two trundle beds. Two other beds sat on the other side of the room, a large crucifix between them. They all sleep here, David realized. Together.
She came back with a deck of cards. Sitting on the floor again, she began to shuffle them. “Do you want to know where your father is?”
David nodded. Again, he marveled at how Freddie’s hands moved. “I don’t have a proper Tarot deck either. I used to, but they took all that away from me before they brought me here. Just as well since the bitch would’ve just sold them.” She set the shuffled deck down in front of David. “Ok, draw.”
David drew a card, looking at it before holding it against his chest.
“This ain’t a magic trick,” said Ryan. “Put it down so we can see it.”
David placed it where Freddie pointed. She turned it sideways and they all craned their necks to see.
It was a one-eyed Jack.
Freddie giggled, the first time she did anything that made her seem like a ten-year old girl.
“What’s it mean?” said Ryan. “Can you read it?” He looked at David. “Fredricka says there are special cards for this, but Mama Marie won’t let her have them.”
Freddie stopped giggling. “It’s Freddie.”
“But Fredricka,” Ryan said, and Juan let out a barking laugh at the name, “says that she can use these cards to tell the past and the future, only it’s just a little harder…”
“Call me by my real name!” shouted Freddie.
“…only Fredricka, Fredricka, Fredricka…”
With that, Freddie snarled and leaped upon Ryan. Juan and David crawled clear as she lunged and fell upon the boy. For an instant, David thought he could see something red in Freddie’s eyes, like flame, and her mouth seemed to widen into something elongated with too many teeth, though later David reasoned he must’ve imagined it.
Ryan did his best to fight her off, but her mouth found his wrist, and she began to bite—hard it seemed because Ryan began to wail and bleed, until Samantha appeared in the doorway, shouting, “Goddammit, Freddie, stop it, stop it.” She pulled Freddie off the boy, who stayed on the floor, wailing and crying.
Freddie looked normal again. She wiped the blood off her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked at David and giggled. “I told you I’m a monster.”
“You’re a fucking psycho, is what,” said Samantha.
“And you’re a slut,” Freddie said. But Samantha ignored that. She went to the same shelf where Freddie found the cards and came back with a roll of bandages that she wrapped around Ryan’s wrist. When she finished she kissed the wrist and then she kissed him on the mouth. Whimpering, Ryan accepted the kiss.
Then she kissed Juan and then she kissed David, briefly pushing her tongue past his lips and grazing his teeth. Finally, she looked long and hard at Freddie.
“You ok now?”
“I’m a monster,” Freddie said with another giggle, but David noticed a tear at the corner of her eye.
“I know,” said Samantha, “we all know. But do you want a turn?”
Freddie nodded. Samantha crawled over to where she sat, exposing her naked rear to David, and she kissed Freddie on the mouth. Watching, David felt a pang of jealousy when he saw how her kiss lasted longer than his. On the thighs just below her naked rear, he saw what looked like scratches.
“Ok, now that everyone’s better, continue. I want to know about this boy.”
Freddie nodded, shook the tiles, and let them fall again.
She pointed out the word that formed.
T O N G E
Juan laughed. “Tong?”
Freddie said, “It’s not funny. It means ‘tongue.’ He bit through his tongue and he bled to death. Right over there.” She pointed toward the louvered closet door opposite the shelf and the beds, and they all shivered.
“What did he see?” said Juan.
“I don’t know. And I’m tired now.” Freddie went over to one of the beds where she plopped down and pretended to go to sleep.
They watched her.
When Freddie made no indication of moving again, David looked down at the playing card he drew. He went over to where Freddie lay in the bed and held it up in front of her closed eyes.
“What’s this mean?” he said, but Freddie let out a fake snore.
“Leave her alone,” said Samantha. “She needs to rest, or she won’t be able to do it again later.”
David continued to hold the card in front of Freddie. “I can tell you’re faking,” he said. “Just tell me what it means and I’ll leave you alone.”
“Later,” Samantha said. “We can only solve one mystery at a time. We need to find out what the boy saw that scared him so badly that he bit his tongue and bled to death.” She regarded David. “Or there might be another way. David, I want you to get in the closet with me.”
Juan laughed. Ryan forgot his injury and laughed too. Even Freddie giggled before she remembered she was supposed to be asleep.
“I should go back out there,” David said. “I’m supposed to be watching cartoons or something with my uncle.”
Samantha, Ryan, and Juan regarded him, disbelief apparent in their expressions. Giving up her ruse, Freddie sat upright and said. “He’s not your uncle. The card says so.”
“He’s not even watching cartoons anymore,” said Samantha. “I moved him into the hallway. He’s right outside the door. He’s listening to us. We’re more interesting to him. If I’d let him, he would happily come in here. He likes it in here. A lot.” She opened the closet door and beckoned him toward it.
“What’s wrong with him?” said David.
“What?” Samantha said.
“With Adam. What happened to him to make him the way he is?”
“He’s the Hanged Man,” Freddie said, but David didn’t know what that meant.
“What do you think happened to him?” Juan said. “His mom got fucked up on drugs and made him come out that way, and then she died. She was a whore who used drugs. Just like my mom. And I’m not afraid to admit it.”
“I’m not either,” said Ryan.
“Me, too,” Samantha said. “What about you Fredricka?”
Freddie lay on the bed with one of her arms folded over her eyes. “I’m still trying to reach my mom to find out.”
“Give it up. You know what she’ll tell you,” said Samantha.
With her arm still folded so they couldn’t see her eyes, Freddie said, very quietly, “I’m going to bite you next. When you’re sleeping. Because I’m a monster.”
“Oh, Fredricka,” said Samantha, smirking at David.
“Freddie.” The word came out very softly
“Come into the closet, David. We’re going to try an experiment. We’re going to recreate the conditions where the boy in the closet died. To find out why. Come on, you’re one of us now.”
David moved to where Samantha stood by the closet, her hand on the door, her eyebrows raised. He said, “I’m not one of you. My mom’s not dead. And she’s not a whore.”
“You are, and she is. I heard her talking to Mama Marie when I was out there. I heard all about you. And then she left. She left you so you can live here with us.” From the open closet came the odor of mothballs and stale urine. “Go on, get in so we can do the experiment.”
“I’m not getting in there.” Clothes filled half of the closet, leaving part of the wall visible, and on it, David could see another cross, only this one, unlike the ones that hung in the bedroom and the living room, hung upside down, as if it had fallen.
Samantha studied him. Her breathing grew fierce. She held up one arm with three fingers raised, and one by one she lowered them, as if counting off seconds, and when no more fingers remained, she shouted, “Now!”
At the signal, the other three kids sprung up and rushed toward David, even Freddie who now looked animated and fierce, a monster again, and together the four of them pushed him into the closet and forced the hinges closed. David tried to louver the door open, but it wouldn’t budge, and through the slats he could see Samantha’s eye peering upon him.
“Now, we’re going to leave, but you stay in there and you report back to us about what you find out. Ryan!”
“I got it,” Ryan said.
The eye disappeared. David struggled with the door, but it wouldn’t budge, and from outside he could hear them all breathing hard.
Samantha’s eye reappeared. “There. Now we’re going to leave and turn off the lights. You keep watching. And David?”
David gasped, feeling the tightness of the closet around him. He couldn’t answer.
“Don’t bite your tongue. Remember, we love you.” The eye receded and the light went out and he could hear the lock on the door release just before clicked close again.
David heard himself pant and wheeze. Something held the door firmly, though what, he didn’t know. Behind him he could feel the presence of the upside down cross. In his hand, he realized, he held something, and he looked down to see what.
It was the one-eyed Jack, crumpled now. He forgot about it and still didn’t know what it meant. From the room emerged the sound of someone breathing, but he didn’t know who that would be. They all left, didn’t they? The sound of breathing grew in volume, building, growing desperate, as if about to culminate in a scream. He wanted to look through the slats to make sure they left him alone, but he felt afraid of what he might see. If he looked and saw Adam walking around, he would go mad. Please don’t let me bite my tongue, he thought. He imagined himself bleeding to death inside this little closet, his mother never coming back, and he realized that she must know—know that a boy died in here. She took him here knowing, and she must know the terrible thing he saw that caused him to bite through his own tongue.
When the breathing sound refused to let up, he reasoned that it must come from him. He was hearing himself. With his eyes closed lest he see something, he pushed on the door again. Then he threw his body against it until he heard something crack, and it finally gave.
Inside the dark room, he found himself alone.
Relieved, he discovered that the bedroom door opened unimpeded.
But just outside the door, blocking the way to the hallway, sat the wheelchair with Adam in it.
Seeing David, Adam’s arms began to wave.
David couldn’t decide what to do, whether to squeeze around the wheelchair or to climb over it and the man sitting in it. One of the arms struck him, nearly in the same spot as before, and David recoiled. As the man’s mouth opened and closed, letting out sharp, shrill caws like a crow, David saw something he wished he didn’t see.
He squeezed his eyes shut and began pushing past the wheelchair, willing his body to grow smaller, feeling the unyielding wall press against his chest and genitals as the man’s arms continued to wave, the hands and elbows striking him, bruising him, the untrimmed fingernails scratching him, the caws growing louder, more urgent, but David refused to open his eyes and see, until finally he felt the pressure give, and he knew he made it past the wheelchair.
What he didn’t want to see was that the man had no tongue.
On the way home, David and his mother said little to each other, and they continued to say little even when the stopped at a restaurant for dinner. Bonnie ordered a glass of beer with her meal, and David held back any comment when that glass turned into two more before his mother paid the check so they could finally leave.
Back on the car, her voice loosened by the alcohol, his mother swerved and swore. She couldn’t believe he broke a closet door, and even though Mama Marie said she didn’t have to pay for it, she would, and where would that money come from?
David didn’t answer. The scene just before they left stayed with him, how at Mama Marie’s insistence they all had to gather in a circle in the living room and say a prayer. They held hands and prayed for Adam’s recovery. The crumpled card remained in David’s hand, and he held on to it as he found himself impelled to take Freddie’s hand, the card pressed between their palms. Mama Marie commanded them all to bow their heads, but Freddie held her chin upright, her eyes open, as were his. With her chin, she gestured over to where Bonnie held Adam’s hand, as if trying to communicate something without words. He struggled to understand the message as Mama Marie continued to pray, holding the other hand of the man in the wheelchair, and she called upon healing forces to visit Adam and allow the stricken man to walk again.
In the car, his mother wouldn’t allow his silence to continue. She shot him a look.
“What’s that in your hand?”
David looked down at the crumpled card. He nearly formed the words “the hanged man,” but he replied, “Nothing.” He thought of the revelation it contained and he thought he knew what the boy in the closet saw.
“Why can’t Adam walk? What happened to him?”
He watched her hands grip the steering wheel and couldn’t tolerate her silence.
“Those kids said he was born that way because of the drugs his mom took. But the prayer we said for him—we prayed for him to walk again.”
Her breathing became audible. It sounded like the breathing he heard from the other side of the closet door, and that told him all he needed to know: what the boy in the closet saw and what forced the boy in there.
“Who’s my father?” he said.
“No one important,” she finally said.
Douglas Ford writes dark fiction while living on the west coast of Florida, just off an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story. His work has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Infernal Ink, The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, as well as other publications. He lives with a Hovawart who fiercely protects him from night creatures, along with four cats who merely tolerate him.