The Haunting

1

Across the street lives a woman with snakes in her hair. She watches me from between the rotting drapes that keep the sun from melting her living room furniture. Her eyes glow in the dark, and she thinks I can't see her, but I am not as stupid as she thinks.

I sit at the breakfast table and wonder if she has to feed each snake head individually, or if they're really like hair, and just need a shampooing, now and then. I imagine her dipping her entire head into a cage full of frightened rats, the snakes in her hair darting this way and that, tangling around each other in their haste to catch the fat ones, the ones with the least demented testicles. Tiny bones crunch in my head as I close my own teeth on a spoonful of raw bran, orange juice instead of milk because milk always makes me sleepy.

She is still staring at me from across the street. I have flung my own drapes wide open, wide, wide open, and moved the breakfast table into the front room so she can see everything I do, so that she won't have to guess about me the way I have to about her. I wave at the glowing eyes heartily and smile. When I close my own eyes, I suddenly feel him inside of me, twisting and turning like an angry, caged rat, fluttering like butterfly wings against my stretched-out ribcage.

2

Trolls do not always kill and eat their victims. A woman that falls in with a troll is dragged to its cave by her hair and then forced into slavery, trapped forever in its small, dark den and forced to cook the bones of children down into paste for the troll to spread over toast and eat with coffee. Worse, the troll might take a real shine to her and make her into its wife. After months of abuse, of pinching and tugging, merciless beration, sometimes full-body force-massages of stinging ointments and strange potions, she begins to lose her human features. Her skin grows coarse and dull, her hair mats into greasy clumps, her voice shrinks into an unintelligible grunt. She will never again feel sunlight or know what it's like to be loved by another person. Eventually, she will forget what it was like to be human and dismiss all memories of her previous life as nothing but dreams full of too much color.

The crossing guard waits until the children are out of sight before removing his head. His eyes close as he does so, lips going slack and paling significantly. I can never tell if he can see anything without his head — he doesn't seem completely unaware of the world around him, but he doesn't seem to care much about it, either. I wave to him from my window seat, just in case.

The last crossing guard chewed gum incessantly, spit great pink wads of it into the carefully trimmed hedges lining the walk. One of the neighbors passed around a petition to make him stop, or just go away, and a week later, this crossing guard arrived. He doesn't chew gum at all.

I feel the familiar wave of envy sweep through me as I watch his morning ritual. I think I could be happy if I could remove my head. All of my troubles seem to stem from there, from my sad, heavy brain, savaged by electricity and silly little pills.

Sometimes I still dream about kittens and puppies stuffed under my shirt, feel tiny, pointed teeth against my flesh, hungry lies that deny me peace. It's all for the best, I know. My whole life has led to the point I am at now, and knowing that, knowing myself and who I am, those kittens would have died a long time ago anyway, even if they had made it to the outside world.

3

She has made drapes out of the children's skin, I have decided. The fabric is just too thick, too heavy, to be anything else. Actually, come to think of it, the woman with the snakes in her hair could have recovered her entire living room ensemble by now, considering all the children that have disappeared just this past year. That's the whole reason for all the different types of milk out today — Vitamin A, Whole Milk, Vitamin D, 2%, 1%, Skim, not to mention all the designer brands for the lactose intolerant and the vegans. There was no way they could display all those missing children's photographs with just one or two types of milk in the supermarket.

In Scotland, off the coast of a peninsula known as the Black Isle, they still speak of a creature that stalked infants in their sleep. This creature was particularly sinister because it appeared as a pale-skinned woman with long, blonde hair, clutching a wizened infant with small, sharp teeth to her chest. She wore a long, green robe and her eyes glowed red in the dark. In houses where newborn infants lived, the creature would wait, hidden in a dark corner or in the shadows beneath the baby's crib, until the adults all fell asleep. Then she would come out of her hiding place with her own child, lowering the creature she held into the human baby's crib, and let it feed until it was sated. Afterwards, she would pick both infants up and carry them over to the baby's bathtub, holding the human child upside down over the porcelain basin until all of its blood had drained out. She would then bathe her own infant in this blood and drink whatever was left.

I smile at the small boy with the large eyes and the dark hair that lives in my refrigerator this week, make sure the cardboard quart is turned so that he's staring out of the refrigerator when I open the door and not at the plain back wall. His name is Timothy, but I just call him Tab, because he looks like a Tab for some reason. "It's been nice having you here, Tab," I say as I shake the container. There is just about enough milk left for one more day of coffee. "I hope you've enjoyed your stay."

I gather up the rest of the breakfast things and move the small table back into the kitchen. The woman with the snakes in her hair left her post while I was in the kitchen — perhaps she went out of the house to catch more children. The crossing guard is napping in a lawn chair on the corner, head in his lap, hands crossed over the bald spot on top. Somehow, I don't think he'd let the woman with the snakes in her hair out of his sight for a moment, not in the daylight hours — he cares about the children too much. I feel safer with him sitting there myself, even though I'm in no danger of being captured and skinned. My hide's too old and stiff to make much of anything with.

4

Noon rolls around and brings with it an irate postman, fists beating holes in my front door. "Ms. Cary?" he shouts, pausing in his knocking. "I have another package here for you. I need you to sign for it, okay? Come on, I know you're in there. I can see you standing by the front window."

I stand by the window for a few minutes longer, sulking, before going to the door and opening it. The woman with the snakes in her hair is watching me from her own window — I wonder if the package is from her. "I'm sorry," I say to the postman, smiling sweetly. "I didn't hear you. I guess I got lost in my thoughts or something."

"Well, that's all right, I suppose," he amends, and hands me a clipboard. "Just sign right there, right where I've printed out your name." He points at the spot with his finger, as if I'm stupid or something, as if I wouldn't suspect that the only blank spot left on the page was where I was supposed to sign. I snatch the pen from his shaky hand impatiently and scribble a couple of letters into the blank.

After he is gone, I haul the curious package into the living room. It's about waist-high, with no return address, and is awfully light for something of its size. I haven't been expecting any package.

The crossing guard has put his head back on and is standing now. He glances over at my window, almost expectantly. Suddenly, I know what is in the package. It's another piece of child, sent to drive me crazy. The package is just the right size to hold either a bunch of little bits or one big piece, a torso, perhaps, a well-cushioned head. I gently pick the package up and put it in the spare bedroom with the rest of the packages that have come in this week, the tiny finger-sized boxes, the still-sealed shoeboxes that must certainly conceal bare, uncalloused feet, the strangely-light, larger packages that fill the back of the room and are starting to take over the room and spill out into the hallway.

The rest of the mail sits waiting to be sorted through on the kitchen table. I flip through pizza coupons, form invitations to local beheadings, a flyer advertising the opening of a new Baptist church in my neighborhood. At the very bottom of the stack is a large manila envelope, thick with paperwork. I open it curiously, not recognizing the handwriting, and watch in confusion as photographs of people I don't know pour out onto the floor.

5

A man's voice in the other room speaks of impeaching the President as dust settles on the sill around my hand, making a perfect imprint on the termite-gnawed wood. I remove my hand and look at the shadow left behind, the five thin lines that my fingers left behind, radiating like the spires of a crown around the thicker pulp of my hand. A woman's voice speaks now of the weather: fair with a chance of rain later on, highs in the seventies for the rest of the week. Now I only hear rustling coming from the back room, and wonder if maybe one the children was packaged still alive and is only now trying to get free, drawn to the obvious peace and sanctuary the very air of my house promises.

A child packaged with a television, I decide, realizing the strange canned voices are not coming from my kitchen, where the TV actually is, but from the back room. Cautiously, I make my way towards the voices and find myself standing in front of the newest box in the pile. "Now a word from our sponsors," says the box, and suddenly begins singing about dish soap and deodorant. Carefully, I begin opening the box, pulling the brown wrapping paper off from around the package in long strips, letting them curl into my hand before dropping them to the floor.

It's actually a radio in the box, not a television. A piece of Styrofoam is wedged between the on/off switch, I decide it probably got caught in there when I dropped it on the ground. It's a nice piece of equipment, I suppose — I don't really know anything about these things, except that if it doesn't break in the first five minutes after I touch it, it must be made pretty well.

I pull the radio out of the box and silence it by pulling out the small piece of foam. I can't tell if there is anything else in the box, there are so many little white Styrofoam peanuts in it. I close my eyes and overturn the box quickly, kicking it with my foot to make sure everything that's going to come out, does. I open my eyes and see the floor covered with little white peanuts and nothing else.

"What are you doing to me?" I ask aloud, quietly. The window at the far end of the room is wide open, the curtains undulating as the thin wind outside picks up a bit. I suddenly know why the snake lady left her post in front of her window — while I was spying on her, she was back here, in my house, stealing the packages the child-killer sent me and replacing them with boxes of random junk. I pick another package up off the floor, a shoebox-sized one, and find it full of brightly-colored potholders. A smaller one contains an enameled lipstick case. Yet another contains an afghan, a small bottle of perfume, a cheap necklace and ring set with similar stones.

The phone rings just before I get to the last package. I run to answer it and drag it into the living room, as far as the cord will stretch, and peer through the drapes at the Auschwitz across the street. The lady with the snakes in her hair is back at her post, and she is smiling. "Hello?" I force myself to say, voice shaky, afraid to do anything but breathe heavy into the receiver. "Hello? Who's there?"

"Mother?" says a young man's voice, and his voice sends sharp pains through my abdomen. Ghost feet kick against the other side of flesh, ghost hands beat against my rib cage, balled in little fists. "Hello, Mother?"

I slam the receiver down and quickly unplug the telephone. The snake lady has left her post again — I run to the back room and pull the window closed, locking the frame on both sides. Outside, the streets are filling with children — is it that time already? Where has my day gone? The crossing guard has firmly placed his head back on his shoulders and is standing at attention at his post, red stop sign dangling deceptively nonchalantly at his side, only to be whipped up quickly and smartly as the first group of children pause at his corner. He reaches out without even looking and catches one little boy by the arm before he can run out into the street. His lips form warning-words, but I've never been good enough at reading lips to know what he's saying. Somewhere in my head is a memory of being at the other side of this window, in a place where the sound of his voice can actually reach my ears.

I draw the drapes tightly shut and retreat to the kitchen. The large envelope from the day before, or this morning, or just some time in the past that doesn't really matter anymore, sits on the flat wood top of the table. I gather the pile of loose photographs up from the floor and study them again. Three children, all with the same eyes, same hair. Two adults, a man and a woman, that are too different from each other to be related. I pick up the children's photographs and still don't know who they are. There's a card inside the envelope, as well as a very long letter from someone named Tim. The card is pink and blue with pictures of flowers painted on it — it's a Manet, I know this for sure. I don't read the inside of the card — the "Happy Birthday, Grandma" on the outside is all I can deal with right now.

Tab stares back at me from inside the refrigerator. The children in the photographs don't look anything like him — strange how I thought they would. "Hello, Tab," I say to the lost little boy. "Would you like some company?" I get the roll of magic tape down from the top of the refrigerator and begin taping the strangers' photographs to the face of the carton, surrounding Tab in a halo. "This is Julie, Dana, Bill, Sandy, and Timmy," I say, pausing at the very last photo as I say the name out loud. The man in the photograph is much too old to be a Timmy, but once upon a time, there was no other name that fit quite so perfectly. "Timmy?" I say, but I'm not so far gone I actually expect an answer. There are memories that go with those eyes, and I get up and shut the refrigerator door before they have a chance to come back.


Holly Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, Minnesota who teaches needlepoint classes in the Minneapolis school district. Her poetry and fiction has recently appeared in Hawai'i Pacific Review, The Oxford American, and Slipstream, and she is a recent recipient of the Sam Ragan Poetry Prize from Barton College. Her book publications include Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar-All-in-One for Dummies, and Music Theory for Dummies, which has recently been translated into French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.