by Sandy Tritt
the bottom of the stairs and listened.
Nothing. Just her imagination.
She pulled her sweater around her and made
another tour of the
century-old house. Each door was latched
securely. Everything was fine.
She looked at
the clock. 11:40. The Rouschs promised
they'd be home shortly after
midnight. Jessica wouldn't mind if they were
early. She hated this job.
Hated it. But the Rouschs paid premium
rates, and not everyone trusted
a thirteen-year-old to babysit.
If only old
Mrs. Lattimer next door hadn't told her
about the Peterson baby. "I
wouldn't stay in that house," Mrs. Lattimer
hissed, her breath smelling
of stale gin and her teeth the color of
algae. "They murdered that
baby." She pointed her arthritic finger at
Jessica. "Murdered him, I
tell you. Right at midnight." She settled
back on her haunches, nodding
her head as she spoke. "It was summer, hot
and muggy, so of course all
the windows was open. I heard that baby cry
and looked out my window
and I saw `em. Plain as day. Right there."
She pointed her crooked
finger at the front bedroom. "They
suffocated that poor little fellow,
they did. Held a pillow over his face until
he stopped crying. They
did. Right at the stroke of midnight."
shivered and looked at the clock again.
A shrill cry
pierced the stillness, sending chills of
terror down her arms. It's
only Zachary, she told herself. But
four times in the last hour she
had heard crying, only to find Zachary
sleeping soundly. She stood at
the bottom of the stairs, struggling to hear
over the blood pulsating
in her ears.
louder than the first, continued for a long
time, the tone changing to
a high-pitched moan that reverberated
through her nervous system.
resisted the temptation to race out the door
and down the street to her
own safe home. She was responsible for
Zachary, and it was her job to
see to him now. She flattened herself
against the wall and edged up the
dark stairs, then inched her way through the
nursery was the last room at the end of the
hall. Her knees grew heavy
and she struggled against gravity to move
her legs past the front
bedroom. Icy tremors ran through her every
time she passed that door.
She knew the Rouschs didn't use it—their bedroom
was the large one on the right. Earlier in
the summer, she'd tried to
open the door, but it was locked. Not only
that, but cold air blew
through the keyhole. In the summer.
With one more
shiver, Jessica forced her leaden legs to
move on. The nearer the
nursery, the lighter her walk became. She
slipped into Zachary's room,
the clown light throwing eerie shadows
against the walls. But Zachary
slept, his knees tucked under him, his thumb
resting in his mouth.
The baby was fine.
And then the
cry, softer than before, yet closer, too.
The pitch wobbled, then
heightened, growing louder, shriller, more
hand held her heart in place while she
gasped for air. Before her mind
began working, her legs took her from the
room, down the hall, and
deposited her outside the locked bedroom.
hand touched the knob. She didn't mean to
turn it, but it swung open
with great force. Cold air rushed from the
room, taking her breath
away. Gray sheers, illuminated by the street
light, flapped in the open
And then the
clock chimed. Twelve long, slow, resonant
times, each sound raising her
gooseflesh, each pause straightening her
hard to keep her heart from crawling up her
A cat, a long,
thin, black cat, jumped on the windowsill.
It hunched, its back a
perfect arc, its scraggly hairs on end. It
looked at Jessica with
hungry yellow eyes.
The cat's head
straightened, forming a silhouette. Its
mouth opened, stretched wide,
and a forlorn cry filled the room.
pounded back to life. She breathed heavily.
Her body shook. A cat. All
that noise from a cat. All that moaning from
a cat. All that—
out of the doorway and closed the door as
quietly as she could.
were closer now, at the bottom of the
straightened her ponytail and forced her
shoulders back. She met the
Rouschs at the top step.
Jessica said. "Just checking on Zac."
need you tomorrow night."
For a moment,
Jessica was sure Mrs. Rousch's overbite had
lengthened into vampire
teeth. She blinked twice. "Sure," she
answered. "See you then." She
stepped back and made a broad circle around
Mrs. Rousch, then bolted
down the stairs.
Rousch called after her. "I haven't paid
care. She ran out the front door and down
the street, not stopping
until she was safe in her own home, her own
And then she
saw the shadows on the ceiling. They moved...
© 1997. Sandy