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Maria woke suddenly, her green eyes fluttering open to reveal the bleak details of the downstairs parlor. Offset by the subdued orange glow of the lamp, flashes of unruly lightning squeezed through the gaps and cracks of the boarded-over windows and illuminated the room in unpredictable bursts. With each deep breath, her nostrils filled with the earthy scent of the damp blanket lain across her supine body.
“Paul?” she called out into the dimly lit room, her voice still groggy with sleep. When there was no reply, she tried again, louder this time. “Paul? Where’d you go?”
As Maria’s words echoed throughout the cavernous parlor, the only response was a distant rumbling of thunder that rattled the glass in the downstairs windows. Groaning to herself as she sat upright, she was quickly forced to close her eyes again—her skull felt as if it had been split down the middle with an axe, the shooting pain behind her forehead throbbing just below the surface. Reaching up carefully, her fingertips found the angry welt beneath her raven colored hair from hitting the floor earlier.
As she searched her memory, Maria could recall the storm gathering as her and Paul had been driving home. They had decided—Paul had decided, she reminded herself—to take the shortcut through the swamp on the desolate State Road, which is when they wrecked the car and sought shelter at the abandoned orphanage. Moving chronologically through the night’s events in her mind, she came to the wall of old photographs, and then to the matron hanging by her neck from the balcony. A jolt of fear surged up her spine only to evaporate at the blink of her eyes.
I must have been out of my mind, she thought to herself. That couldn’t have been real. Paul probably thinks that I’m insane. Heck, maybe I am.
As Maria listened to the rain splash against the side of the house in heavy sheets, she realized just how badly she needed to use the bathroom. Where on earth did Paul go? He was supposed to stay here with me. She wanted to wait for him to return before seeking out a toilet, but when a few minutes passed with still no sign of him however, she decided that it was too urgent to delay.
Getting up from the sofa, her body felt achy and stiff. After stretching to get her blood flowing again, she took the oil lamp from the table and looked around the parlor while wondering which direction might lead to the nearest toilet. The hallway on the other side of the room—where Paul had disappeared earlier to find the old quilted blanket—seemed like the best place to start, and so she deftly wove her way through the scattered furniture as she crossed the room at a quick shuffle.
“Paul?” she called again, peering down the long hallway before listening carefully for a reply. But the darkness merely gazed back in cryptic silence. Along the wall, the first door that she opened only contained several shelves that had at one time been used to store the cutlery and linen for the dining room. Presently, generations of mice and other vermin had chewed away at the brittle fabrics, building elaborate nests and leaving behind their tell-tale droppings. Promptly closing the door and moving further down the hallway to the next, her heart leapt when she saw the lamp’s flame reflecting off the porcelain toilet of a half-bathroom.
Quickly stepping inside with the lamp, she closed the door and warily looked around the little room. Besides the toilet, only a sink and tall cupboard occupied the bathroom—all three of which were blanketed in a grimy coat of dust-soaked mildew. Covering her mouth and nose to avoid the smell, Maria carefully lifted the lid of the toilet with her foot.
Surprisingly, but for a small pile of dead leaves at the bottom, the inside of the toilet was empty. Without stopping to consider the possibility of any further unsavoriness, Maria hiked up her dress and crouched down to urinate. When she finished, she didn’t bother looking around for bathroom tissue—knowing she wouldn’t dare to use it even if she had found any. Instead, she tore a long, jagged strip of fabric from the hem of her dress to use as improvised toilet paper. At the very least, Paul’s little shortcut cost him a new dress, she thought sardonically.
Afterwards, as she stood in front of the tarnished mirror to compose herself, she felt as if she’d aged ten years in a single night. The dark bags beneath her bloodshot eyes only alluded to the sheer exhaustion that she felt throughout her entire body. Slowly turning the handle on the sink faucet, she grimaced as a trickle of dark brown water splashed into the basin. Then, from somewhere on the other side of the bathroom door, she suddenly heard a noise that sounded eerily similar to a child crying.
Staring into the mirror at her own distorted reflection, Maria’s heart began to race. Maybe it was the wind, she told herself, or just Paul, goofing around as usual. Then, as if in response to her flimsy attempt at brushing off her fears, another loud sob arose from somewhere in the house’s darkened downstairs before fading away, lost in the deep bass of another passing thunderbolt.
No. I don’t know what that is, but it’s not what it sounds like, she told herself, again and again. Aside from her pounding heartbeat, the bathroom was unnervingly silent, and Maria strained to listen for any clues beyond the thick, wooden door.
She stood quietly for a moment longer until it appeared the crying had stopped—if it had even been there at all. See, she encouraged herself, what’d I tell you? You have to keep it together, Maria. She picked up the lamp and slowly opened the bathroom door. Out in the hallway, her slender shadow danced along the walls and ceiling, flickering in rhythm with the tiny flame. She briefly considered calling out to Paul again, but—for reasons that she couldn’t explain—she felt it best not to draw any undue attention to herself. With no other choice, she decided to go back to the parlor and wait for him to return from wherever he had gone off exploring this time.
Just as Maria walked around the corner back into the parlor, she stopped abruptly with a sharp cry. On the opposite side of the room, a little boy was sitting with his back to her in front of the fireplace, sobbing to himself. Lying on the floor beside him, a stuffed teddy bear glared at Maria with a single button-eye and a lopsided half-smile. Herself a third grade schoolteacher, she immediately guessed the boy to be around eight or nine years old, though it was impossible to be certain in the poorly lit room.
Dressed in a long, shabby sleeping gown, he sat cross-legged with his head bowed while his tiny shoulders pitched and heaved with each fresh sob. To her ears, the cries weren’t the kind that came from accidently stubbing your toe or banging your elbow against the table. Despite his youthful appearance, the haunting moans were deep and mournful; the sort that spring forth from even a short lifetime of senseless hurt or profound sorrow.
Maria was no longer certain of what was real and what was becoming her unbridled imagination. She’d never before felt so powerless and impotent over her own mind. With a sense of resignation that felt like slipping beneath the surface of a deep pool, she decided to confront her delusions head-on.
“Hello?” she called timidly from the other side of the parlor. “Hi. What’s your name? Excuse me, little boy—do you live here? Are your parent’s home?”
If the boy heard anything however, he chose to ignore it, his pitiful sobs continuing to emanate from afar. Where the hell is Paul? she thought angrily as she looked around the room.
“Hello? Are you okay? Do you need me to get your parents?”
The boy abruptly stopped crying. Without turning to face her, he said “Miss Celia says I don’t have parents anymore. She says the world didn’t want me, and so now she has to take care of me.” His voice was fragile and weak, barely audible over the heavy winds buffeting the house.
At the mention of the name “Miss Celia,” Maria immediately thought of the woman in the photographs, and then of her hanging from… No! That wasn’t real—it didn’t happen… But, if that wasn’t real, then what was this?
Not knowing what else to do, Maria decided to keep talking in the hopes that Paul would return at any moment. “So, you live here with Miss Celia then? And the other boys?” She tried to keep her voice light and airy, but there was no hiding the steely tension behind the words.
Still facing the derelict fireplace, the little boy said meekly, “For now.”
Maria was confused, and she asked sincerely, “’For now’? Are you going to live at another home soon?”
With his back to her, the little boy sniffled loudly and said, “Some do. But Miss Celia says I can maybe stay here if I’m good.”
“I see. Well that’d be nice. Do you like it here?”
“No,” he said matter-of-factly, “but it’s better than where the others go.”
“Oh? Why’s that?” asked Maria.
The little boy suddenly tensed, and his voice sounded incredibly small and frightened. “We’re not supposed to tell.”
Hearing those words, the hair on the back of Maria’s neck stood up in a chill. Swallowing hard, she asked, “Hey little buddy, where’s Miss Celia now?”
The boy hesitated, as if deciding what he should or should not say. Finally, he simply quipped, “She’s in the attic.”
Maria’s heart began to beat loudly inside her chest, the blood rushing through her ears like the water pouring from the roof of the house. “What’s she doing up there?”
The little boy turned around slowly and Maria gasped in shock. In addition to fat chunks of his lips, the pallid skin around his eyes appeared to have rotted completely away, the gaping sockets and torn flesh exposing shiny bits of adolescent teeth and muscle. Where lively eyeballs had once absorbed the awe and wonder of the world, now empty caverns of putrid flesh glowered over at Maria. In a low and menacing voice, he said, “Disciplining Paul. You guys aren’t supposed to be here.”
Then, before Maria could respond, she heard Paul yell from somewhere upstairs, accompanied by a loud crash. She turned to look up towards the second floor landing, but the little lamp couldn’t penetrate the darkness. “Paul?” she yelled up to the balcony. She was just about to ask the ghoulish-looking boy what the matron had done, but when she turned back he was gone. Where he had just sat crying in front of the fireplace, only the dirty little brown teddy bear remained, peering up at the ceiling with its steadfast button-eye.
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