When the Chains Snap
Amanda Leanne (2017)
Found in Shadows Through the Fog
The porcelain tile was ice under her feet. The plastic toilet seat was almost as cold as she felt it through the thin fabric of the threadbare nightgown. Fake silk, itchy lace, and straps a light yank away from completely ripping. She should have left the light off, but then he would have come to see what she was doing. With it on, he could assume she was using the bathroom. If it took a bit, maybe he would think she was going number two and he would be even more reluctant to walk in. She hoped. She wished. If she was religious, she would have prayed.
Her elbows rested in her palms, arms crossed over her chest. Goosebumps had broken out across her skin, giving it a grainy feel. Her hair hung in front of her face, blurry clumps of brown beyond her tear filled eyes. Her teeth bit into her lip, as she choked back the sobs. Another wave of shivers raced down her neck and the length of her spine. Her eyes would be red, puffy, bloodshot. He would know she had been crying. If he didn’t walk in and witness it himself, that is.
In the distance, beyond the closed door and down the hall, the muffled giggles of the toddler. The deep baritone of her husband’s voice seemed to vibrate through the walls. The giggles increased, changed and morphed into squeals of laughter. As comforting as the sound should have been, a new wave of despair crashed over her. She shoved her fist into her mouth, biting down on her knuckles as her body jerked with the near soundless sobs. The ground rumbled as her husband roared in laughter. A growl bubbled in her throat, thick and viscous as it maneuvered through the sobs and into her throat.
She began rocking, back and forth, the pain in her bones and muscles and blood sizzled through her body. The tiles melted under her feet, the walls began to crumble. Her eyes focused on the mirror, the reflection of the framed cheap flower painting taking center stage. The gaudy gold trim and contrasting jewel and pastel tones swirled into themselves, spinning into a puddle reminiscent of vomit. The puddle didn’t drip, it clung to the ugly peach paint. The mirror began to warp and buckle, distorting the image further. The sharp corners, dull and spotted from age, began to curl in under the invisible flames of the room. The paint on the walls began to bubble, darkness creeping in as the heat burned through.
Darkness. She squeezed her eyes shut, embracing the black behind her lids. The static roar of the fire died down, faded. Sucking in her breath, she slowly opened one eye, and saw the hideous painting was whole and still hanging above the toilet, behind her on the wall. The mirror was flat and still, and the walls were not burning. The tiles were no longer cold, but not hot either. Her body heat had warmed them under her unmoving feet.
As she pulled her fist away from her mouth, she saw trails of red where her teeth had broken the skin. Her body shook as she pulled in one ragged breath after another. The room felt small, the walls were too close. She barely had time to stand, spin around and open the lid of the toilet as she fell to her knees, heaving what little she had eaten into the clean, white bowl. Her chest ached and her stomach cramped as her body convulsed, emptying her stomach completely. She almost feared feeling her insides being shoved up and out as the dry heaves finally began to taper off.
Her sweaty head dropped onto the cool plastic of the seat. She took some comfort in knowing she had cleaned the toilet only a few hours earlier. The world faded into grays and back to jarring color as a sharp pain started behind her eyes. Her ears rang and buzzed. She braced herself on the flimsy seat, trying to keep from falling over onto the floor, although that had been cleaned as well. Cleanliness didn’t make the tile much softer for her head if she did fall, though.
Exhaustion poured through her. She wondered if she would be able to stand. Her legs felt like warm jelly. Muffled footsteps came from the distance, getting louder as they approached the bathroom. Her eyes darted to the crack under the door. The bedroom was dark, so she couldn’t see his shadow. He was standing there, she knew he was. He was listening, waiting to hear the sounds of splashes from the toilet or the spray of a shower head.
“Jennifer?” The knob wiggled as he attempted to open the door. “Jennifer, are you okay?”
Her throat was sore, dry and burning. She tried swallowing the acrid taste that enveloped her tongue.
“Jennifer!” The knob jiggled ferociously, the door vibrated as his fist banged into the hollow wood.
“I…” she coughed, wincing in pain, “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Are you okay?” He was trying to sound concerned. He wanted her to open the door.
“Yeah, um,” coughing, she tried to clear the hoarseness from her voice, “I must have eaten something that didn’t sit well.”
“At dinner? Jack and I had the same thing you did. Are you sure?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a bug or something. I’m fine, I’ll be out in a minute.” Her words were rushed, almost frantic.
“Okay. I’m gonna lay Jack down for the night. I’ll come check on you when I’m done. You want some water or something?” He was convinced. He was suspicious.
“No.” Her voice broke slightly. He was still standing there, waiting.
After a moment, the thumps of him heading away from the bathroom gave her a sigh of relief. Reaching up with her leaden arm, she pushed down on the chrome handle, ignoring the tiny flecks of icy water and vomit that misted from below her. She turned over, on her hands and knees, and crawled the short distance to the sink, grabbing the edge of the Formica counter to pull herself up. She stared at her reflection. Her eyes were wild, red rimmed and glassy. Turning on the faucet, she scooped cold water into her hand and splashed it into her mouth. Swishing and spitting she repeated a few times before leaning over, bending at a painful angle, and gulped the cool liquid down her burning throat.
The freshly laundered blue rag was soaked through and then rubbed vigorously on her face. Strength was easing back into her muscles, her legs still weak but no longer rubbery. She ringed out the rag and draped it over the front of the sink. Looking into her own eyes, she took deep breaths in, slowly releasing and then back in again. Pulling in the calm, is how she pictured it. She ignored the flames flickering at the bottom of the mirror. She refused to look at the painting as it began to blur. Deep breaths.
She jumped. She hadn’t heard him coming back. He could be like that, when he wanted too. Stealthy and sneaky. Her eyes darted to the dark green shower curtain. Something moved behind it. Her mouth tightened as she frowned, watching carefully for the next flicker. There it was, a ripple from the back. It wasn’t enough to rattle the hooks hanging on the rod above, subtle but she saw it.
“Jennifer? You’re kinda of worrying me. Unlock the door.”
Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the sheet of plastic, the shadowy dips between the waves as it fluttered again.
“Goddamnit Jennifer!” He wasn’t yelling, but he was angry. His voice low and deep, growling at her. “I will break the damn door down.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be out shortly.”
“What the hell?” The knob jerked and jiggled, the door vibrating as he banged against it.
“Please, please just go away. I’m a mess. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Jennifer, what is going on?” The sound of his fist hitting the door caused her to jump back.
“Please!” Her voice came out a hoarse yell, not quite a scream. “Go away!”
The walls bubbled as if they had liquefied. The mirror softly creaked as hairline cracks began racing across its surface. The tiles wobbled in loose grout.
Her sobs came out loud and thick as she hugged herself, sinking down to the floor. The ceiling bowed above her as if she was the source of gravity. The shower curtain shook and jerked on the plastic rings. Once again she shoved a raw fist into her mouth, biting down on the knuckles and sending a trickle of coppery flavor into her gasping mouth.
The door exploded inwards, the toddler cried from his room, and her husband stood above her, his breath heaving in and out as he stared at her. His eyes were unnaturally wide, seeming to get bigger the longer she watched. His teeth elongated, poking out of his parted lips as yellow stained spears. The hair on his body was thick, disgustingly so. His hands gnarled claws.
“Jeeennnnifeerrr!” His mouth opened to reveal the full rows of shark-like teeth as he roared her name.
She screamed into her fist, her body shaking uncontrollably, tears streamed down her face in torrents blurring the room around her as it continued to deteriorate. They would both die if it kept going.
His words garbled into unintelligible growls and snarls. She pulled herself backward, the knobs of the cabinet poking painfully into her spine. She dropped her hands to her side to push against the floor, wanting to push straight through the thin wooden doors, into the cabinet, through the wall, out into the world and away from the hell that was encapsulating her.
His hands came up, reaching for her as he came closer. The bloody cloven hooves cracking the tiles with each step. Jennifer continued to scream as the world pulsed in and out, the colors getting brighter and dimmer as it all swam together. And then finally, the black rolled in and coated her vision, muffled her ears, and pulled her away from the demon.
Before his hands could grab her shoulders, she seized up, her body jerking hard twice, and then collapsed onto her side. He screamed her name as he fell to her knees, pulling her into his lap as he tried to feel for her pulse. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone and called an ambulance.
He couldn’t find a pulse. He didn’t think she was breathing. He didn’t know what happened. She seemed really scared and was screaming, biting on her hand and crying and then the collapse.
The ambulance was on its way.
Her face was sodden, mouth matching her fist in a mix of saliva and blood, snot from her nose and tears from her eyes blended with the film sheen of sweat covering her skin. He was baffled, confused, and frightened. The operator was trying to tell him how to do CPR, but he couldn’t get the image of her staring at him like he was a stranger, like he was going to hurt her, out of his head.
The ambulance came. They used the emergency access code to enter the locked door. A large man in the police uniform pulled him back as two blue clad medics began working on his wife. He saw the brief glance they shared, the tightening of the mouths. She was dead.
“What happened?” He barely recognized his own voice.
“Sir, we would like you to tell us.” Officer Mark Gallows, or so his name tag stated, looked straight into his eyes. “Perhaps we could attend to your child while I get a statement from you?”
He led the officer out of the bedroom and across the hall. The toddler was standing in his crib, grabbing the rails in his tiny fists as he hiccuped through tears. Reaching down, he picked up his son and hugged him close. The world seemed so small and empty.
“How about we go into the kitchen?”
He nodded and followed the officer out and down to the white tiled room. He automatically went to work making a warm bottle for the baby as the officer took a seat at the bar.
“So what happened tonight?”
“I’m not really sure. She was in the bathroom for awhile and I went to check on her. She sounded off but said she was just feeling sick and maybe it was something she ate. We all ate the same thing though. After a bit longer, I was starting to get worried and tried to check on her again. She kept wanting me to go away and was crying and even screaming sometimes. The door was locked and she wouldn’t open it. I started to get really scared and as she got more frantic I panicked and kicked the door in. And….and she just stared at me in horror. She was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. Then she went all rigid and sort of fell over and I called 911.”
“Is there any history of domestic abuse?”
“What?! No. Never.” His look of shock seemed convincing to the officer, who nodded and moved on.
“What about psychological issues with Jennifer? She have depression or psychotic episodes?”
“No. Nothing like that. She’s been so happy since the baby came along. She’s writing a book and loves staying home with him. She’s always smiling and seemed to be glowing. If there was, she hid it so well.” He shook his head, staring at the little boy in his arms. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks.
Officer Gallows watched the man. He used his wife’s name in the present tense, suggesting he hadn’t processed her death and making it less likely he was responsible. He was concerned the man was going into shock. Turning to the side, he radioed for a second medical team. If anything, the man and baby should be checked to make sure it wasn’t something environmental.
“Is there anyone I can call for you, sir?” Officer Gallows glanced at the man who had stopped rocking his son back and forth and stood staring at the little boy.
“Sir? Are you okay?” The officer stood and walked around the bar, his hands poised to grab the baby out of the man’s arms if something suddenly happened.
Commotion from the hall caused the officer to turn and watch as the medics rolled the covered body toward the front door. When he turned back around, the kitchen was empty.
“Officer Gallows. Dispatch confirming need of a secondary medic vehicle. Is there information on the patients?”
“Um,” He turned a circle in the room and stepped back toward the hall, the acrid odor that had struck him when he came in was stronger. “The patients husband and child.”
“Repeat that please.”
“The husband and child of the original patient. Just for a check-up and to watch the husband for potential shock.”
“Sir, I believe you may be mistaken.”
Officer Gallows walked back down the hall. For the first time, he noticed the soot stains on the ceiling. The smell of burned garbage and wet charcoal grew stronger.
“The patient is in route to the hospital. It’s suggested you and whoever is remaining at the scene exit the building due to structural compromise from last weeks fire damage.”
His mouth dropped open as he stared into the baby’s room. The paint on the walls was bubbled and black, the floor and ceilings were black. The crib was but a skeleton of ebony. The smell of the burned debris was nearly unbearable.
Officer Gallows spun on his heels and went into the master bedroom. The room was a mess. Items of clothing were everywhere. Minor fire damage around the door frame was nothing compared to the water damage from the fire hoses. The bathroom was a mess. Everything charred, burnt, broken and destroyed.
Back in the hall, he walked down the blackened carpets, glancing into the shell of a kitchen. Absently he rubbed the butt of his pants, not surprised to see the smears of ash when he looked at his hand. The wall behind the stove, the wall that was shared with the nursery, was open, with the blackened studs the only barrier.
“What happened to the husband and child?” Gallows spoke into his radio, his voice wavering.
“The died in a fire last week. It’s believed the patient may have had some involvement. She’s been missing since then.”
Walking blindly, Officer Gallows exited the house. He refused to look back as he walked to his car. Once inside, he pulled out his cell phone and looked up the address. A picture of the man and the toddler was shown with an article about the fire and their deaths. It was believed the woman had looped the gas lines from the stove back into the wall and ignited the fuel. She hadn’t let the fumes build up enough or the house would have been in much worse condition.
Looking into the police report, he discovered the man had still been alive, breathing in the black smoke as the fire burned him and the child. The window’s electronic fail safe had been turned off and the bedroom door locked. Marks on the other side of the door suggested the man had tried to kick it down. Jennifer Copen was consider a dangerous psychiatric patient who had left the hospital against doctor’s orders after her husband admitted her with postpartum depression. There was a warrant for her arrest in connection with the fire.
Officer Matthew Gallows stared at the phone in his hands a while before finally lifting his head to look at the house. A man holding a child waved at him from the door. They were barely recognizable. The skin was black in the places it still hung onto the bones. Their eyes seemed too big and bright. Teeth poked out of the shriveled mouths as they stretched into grotesque grins. The man held up his hand, bones poking out a vibrant white against the charred flesh as he gave a salute.
The officer slowly raised his hand in return. He pushed the button to begin the ignition sequence on the car. He entered the address for the nearest mental health check-up clinic and laid back as the car began its short journey. He wasn’t sure if he even dared to close his eyes.