Silence haunted Eliza’s house each night. Gone was the clackety-clack of toys against the wooden floor. No more voices hollering down the hallways. No laughing. No crying. Nothing. She’d hadn’t seen a single other person since she’d arrived at the abandoned shack in the woods a couple of days ago. The emptiness suffocated her. But she dealt with it. This was how it was.
She’d experienced life—real life—before. Two sons and a husband. He’d been good once. The times they’d had. Parties. Game nights. Conversations about the future.
Eliza often wondered if she should try to forget these memories—if the glimpses into her past might halt the beckoning of her future. She sat in bed with the soft glow of lamplight against her face. The deserted covers messily piled on top of her. The corners untucked and loose. A memory of her boys ran through her mind. Her two sons, with their round faces, running shirtless in a summer rainstorm. Their legs barely strong enough to hold their rollicking bodies. Their voices still unhurt. Their small bellies pudgy and soft.
She giggled, but the unfamiliar sound of her laughter startled her. She fell quiet again.
Eliza extended her arm to the wooden nightstand and felt her way up to the lamp’s switch and turned it slowly until it popped and the room fell dark. She scooted her body to the center of her bed, nestling down further into her warm cocoon. She closed her eyes.
But it wasn’t the promise of dreams that came to her. Instead, it was another memory.
When it was over, another filled its void. Then, another. And, soon, there was another.
Rapidly, they came. No longer were they an escape from her empty life. They were something else entirely.
Cries. Pain. Despair. Recollections of pain flashed through her mind. All familiar, even if not entirely known.
She saw their eyes often. They watched her leave.
Her stomach grew tight, and her nightgown stuck to her sweaty body.
Eliza picked nervously at her eyebrows.
The past clung to her mind as if it were a parasite—unwilling to let go until it sucked out all of the life that remained.
Trapped in her own private prison, stuck in a hellish sentence lost somewhere between innocence and guilt, Eliza closed her eyes and begged the silence to find its way back.
But it wasn’t to be.
A mumbling of voices interrupted Eliza’s parade of guilt.
She reached for her lamp, but she quickly withdrew her hand back to her side. The darkness would hide her. She slowly got up from her bed and tossed on her ratty robe that she’d worn the day she left. As she walked, she carefully dodged the creaky planks along the floor. She tiptoed to the front door, where she held her head against the cool wood.
She stood motionless, trying to make out the words from beyond her door, but the sounds collided with the wind so that all that existed was the softness of a wisp.
Eliza peeked from behind the window shades to see if she could see the faces—even if only enough for a brief description for the police. Balding heads. Angular jaws. Button noses. Anything. The outside bulb was shot, so she saw nothing except the blackness of night.
She imagined what she would say when she dialed the police. They’d been no help earlier. When she’d called the authorities to check on her kids—to save them—the officer had hung up on her. “Fools,” he’d said, clicking the line off. Now, she imagined how she might sound on the phone. Help me. There are voices beyond my door, she thought.
And, then, she laughed at herself—at her own imagination and curiosity. Perhaps she was a fool.
Loneliness was already getting to her. The voices weren’t voices at all, she convinced herself. Instead, they were hallucinations—imagined tales from her own mind.
She walked back to her bedroom, where she removed her robe and crawled back into bed.
Her spot was already cool.
Eliza waited for the memories to come back, but they didn’t. She floated off into nothingness.
When the doorbell woke Eliza, she thought that it was her alarm, but, soon, reality came back to her. The need for waking up at sunrise wasn’t a part of her life any longer.
She shook her head and closed her eyes. A trick, she told herself. A trick.
The doorbell sounded again. This time the echo rang throughout the house so intensely that the walls shook. Luckily, there were no mirrors to shatter on the floor.
She clutched her chest and frantically turned to the floor. Dangling off the edge of her bed, she heaved and spit. Only exhausted, broken breaths came.
“Give me a minute,” she called. But her voice was too weak for anyone to hear.
Eliza wondered who could be at her door. Unruly children playing tricks. Some drunk looking for trouble. She flipped the switch on the bedside lamp, and she got out of bed again. She reached for her robe this time, too, but she decided against putting it on. She held it tucked under her arm, with the long belt dragging behind her. Whoever stood on the other side of her door knew nothing of decency. Why should she?
As she stood at the door once again, she placed her hand on the lock. Her body froze. Images raced through her mind. Fresh slashes. Wild fists. Piercing cries. These pictures were vaguely familiar.
Eliza’s body shook.
She removed her hand and gasped.
She stepped back from the door and turned to go back into her room, but the visitors were relentless.
The doorbell rang again.
Eliza didn’t even think about it this time. She walked to her door, turned the lock, and twisted the knob.
“What do you—”
Her voice stopped.
It was her boys.
“Thomas. Harry,” she said. “Come in, my beloved sons.” Before they had a chance to take even the smallest of steps, she went toward them on her porch.
She stepped onto the cold concrete steps and put her arms around her boys. She held them tightly—so firm that the muscles in her arm quivered.
They had changed since she’d last seen them. Even in the dark and seeing only their hazily colored silhouettes, she realized that their bodies were somehow different now.
Eliza rubbed her hands across her sons’ heads. “Boys,” she said softly. “I’ve missed you boys more than you will ever know. I’ve been so alone without you.”
Thomas was the first to retreat from the doorway and back into the darkness. Harry soon followed his brother’s lead.
“Boys,” she called again. “What’s wrong? Come back to your mommy.”
Eliza followed Thomas and Harry. She matched each step they took in the direction opposite of the house. “Boys,” she pleaded. “Boys, come on. Come inside.”
Eliza’s bare feet crunched leaves, and jagged rocks cut the soles of her feet. Still, she cried for her sons to come inside.
“Come on. Come back. I can hardly see you two. It’s too dark out here. Let’s go inside,” she begged.
“No, Mommy,” Thomas said. “Will you take us home?”
Eliza got on her knees and grabbed Thomas’ hand. “You are home,” she said. “You are finally where you belong.”
“No. Will you give us a ride back to our real home, Mommy?” Harry said. He stood beside Eliza and poked her shoulder.
“But you boys just arrived. You must’ve come for a reason.”
“We want you to take us home now,” Thomas said. “Please, Mommy.”
“Yeah. Please, Mommy,” Harry said.
“Okay, sweeties. Let me get my keys.”
Eliza stepped inside her house, leaving the door cracked, hoping that Thomas and Harry would follow behind her and want to stay. But her house remained silent.
“I don’t understand why you boys don’t want to stay at my place. It looks different in the daylight. It’s actually kind of nice. Yeah, it’s a little bare—well, totally bare—and too quiet, but it could be really great with some work. It could be our home—our new home,” Eliza said, glancing up at her dark rearview mirror to see the shapes of her two sons in the back seat. The boys looked out the side windows, silent.
“Really,” she continued. “I have three bedrooms. It’s just me, so you two could have your own rooms. We could decorate them like you want. Thomas, you love trains. We could put up a track that goes all around your room—the biggest one you’ve ever seen. And Harry. Harry, we could put ships everywhere in your room. We could build them ourselves. Your room would be like your own sea. You could be the captain everyday.”
She glanced back at her sons, but they remained unmoved. Thomas and Harry didn’t say a word.
Eliza sighed. “Let’s listen to some music. What radio station do you want to listen to?”
“Is there a game we can play? Anything?”
“Come on, boys,” she said. “Talk to me. Surely you didn’t track me down in the middle of the night just to have me take you back to your father.”
A soft sound stirred in the car. It was a giggle. Thomas bent over in his seat, with his hand up to his mouth. His laughter growing louder and louder.
Harry followed his brother’s lead.
The boys rocked backward and then forward.
Eliza, herself, joined in, with a gentle yet distant laugh.
“What is it? What’s so funny, boys?” she asked.
“She doesn’t know,” Harry whispered to Thomas.
She slowly pushed down on her brakes as she approached the stoplight. A safety light lit the intersection. She turned around to look at her boys—to see what was the cause of their sudden commotion.
For the first time, she saw their eyes. Her heart jumped.
Their once beautiful and ocean-blue eyes were gone—replaced with something else entirely. Blackness—pure and empty blackness.
“Boys?” she asked quietly, holding her hand to her face. “Thomas? Harry?”
“Hurry, Mommy,” Thomas said. “We want to show you something.”
“Yeah, Mommy,” Harry followed. “Hurry. We have to hurry before it’s too late.”
Their laughter didn’t fade.
That unpleasant feeling she’d had earlier was back. Eliza hushed and drove to the old house to which she hoped she’d never have to return.
She pulled into the rocky driveway. Her hands gripped the steering wheel, and the engine still hummed.
“Okay, boys,” she said. “Don’t run off anymore. You know your father will get upset.”
As she spoke, tears streamed down her cheeks. She wiped her face and opened her door. She stepped to the back of her Oldsmobile and helped Thomas and Harry out of their seats.
She held Thomas’ hand, and, then, she grabbed Harry’s and did the same. “I don’t know what he’s done to you, but I’m sorry.”
She tried to say more, but Thomas stopped her. He moved his tiny hand to her mouth and gently covered it. More tears came. Her head shook fiercely, holding back the flood that existed inside her.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” he said.
Harry giggled and hugged Eliza. “Thank you for protecting us,” he said into her ear.
“What are you talking about, baby? I didn’t. I didn’t protect you. I left.”
Harry let go of his mother and pointed to the house. “Come inside,” he said.
Eliza shook her head. No. No, no, no. She promised herself that she’d never go back.
She sat still on the ground.
“Come inside, Mommy,” Harry repeated. He pulled her arm. Then, Thomas grabbed her other arm and pulled. “You have to, Mommy. You need to come back before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what? What are you talking about?”
The boys pulled harder and harder. “Hurry,” Thomas said. “Please, Mommy. Hurry.”
Thomas and Harry ran toward the door, and Eliza followed closely behind them.
Thomas swung open the door and pointed to the corner. Eliza screamed.
The images she’d seen flooded her mind. She stepped back and gripped the frame of the door.
There was her body, bruised and bloody, covering her two sons.
“What’s going on?” she asked, breathlessly.
At the door, the boys with empty eyes grabbed their mother’s hands and held her tightly.
“We wanted to bring you back before it was too late.” Thomas said.
“Too late for what?” Eliza asked.
“To live in your body,” he said.
Eliza shook. She looked at her reflection in the glass door, and her own pair of black
eyes stared back at her. She began to cry.
“You never really left us, Mommy,” Harry said. “A part of you has been protecting us every day.”
Eliza looked at her broken body and then at her two sons beneath her. “They weren’t memories,” she whispered.
Thomas and Harry looked at their mother and rolled their shoulders.
“Where is he? Where is your father?”
Thomas and Harry pointed to the far side of the room. A knife rested in his skull. “It was all of us,” Thomas said proudly.
The boys smiled, and Eliza giggled. “We really did that?” she asked. Thomas and Harry nodded. “Let’s leave him then,” she said.
Eliza, Thomas, and Harry slowly walked over to their bodies, and they crawled back inside their wounded vessels.
The process didn’t take long.
“Let’s go home,” Eliza said, finding her footing.
Thomas and Harry ran to the door and waited for their mother. “Hurry, Mom,” Thomas said. “Yeah, Mom, hurry,” Harry added.
Eliza joined her boys. When she saw their reflection, she didn’t flinch. Instead, she laughed. Then, her boys joined in.
Silence wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. He is a frequent contributor at Electric Literature. His works also appears at Drunk Monkeys, Fiction Southeast, Five:2:One, Literary Orphans, Rose Red Review, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife.