Darkness was rapidly falling. House and porch lights flickered on, casting shadows left and right. Light posts came to life all along the quiet, tree lined street, illuminating all that lay beneath them.
The light pooling in the street streamed through the windows of a little girl’s room, where the girl sat on the floor, back to the windows, playing with a handful of stuffed animals.
Four-year-old Corey Fallon sat in the dark, her auburn curls falling just past her shoulders, shining in the faint light coming through her windows. Her small, pale hands toyed with the arms of a large stuffed bear while a white rabbit rested in her lap. Her wide dark eyes, though, were staring at a wall. She patted the bear’s head and murmured softly to it.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Bear,” she whispered, “they won’t hurt you. No one will hurt you.” She hugged the bear close, knocking the rabbit from her lap. “I’ll protect you. No one will hurt you.”
Tears filled her eyes as her parents’ voices once again rose. They were arguing again, about her. They always seemed to be arguing about her these days. Her mother wanted to protect her; Corey had always been a sickly child, more susceptible to illnesses than any other child she had ever known. She didn’t want her only child to go to preschool and catch a cold. Her father, though, wanted Corey to be socialized, to play with children her own age. As it was, their little girl’s only playmate was her mother; her father never wanted to play with her. He was too tired when he got home from work. So he said.
“I’m telling you, Annie, that girl has to go to school eventually!” Don Fallon roared.
“She’s not ‘that girl,'” Annie snapped back. “She’s your daughter.”
“No daughter of mine it going to sit at home, swaddled in cloth by her mother until she’s fifty,” Corey’s father threatened.
“No one said she will be,” came her mother’s sharp reply. “I just don’t want her to catch her death. You know she’s always been a sickly child, coming down with this and that every other week! I will not have my daughter exposed to all the germs than can hurt her.”
“You’re being unreasonable, Annie. She’s not as fragile as you think she is.”
“Listen here, Don,” Annie hissed before her voice lowered and Corey could no longer make out what they were saying again.
Corey looked down at the fuzzy head of her teddy bear. A door slammed closed, telling Corey her parents had shut the kitchen door and she was unlikely to hear anything more. The little girl clasped her teddy bear, rabbit, yellow duck, and gray mouse to her chest and cautiously got to her feet. Still clutching them, she scrambled into her bed and settled her friends around her. Pulling the covers up to her chin, she turned her head to stare out at the night sky.
It was nearly nine at night. She was supposed to be asleep, but her parents’ words still rang in her ears. She wouldn’t mind going to school. She wanted to have people to play with. She wanted friends. She had spent every day of the past year kneeling on her bed while her mother cleaned the house, staring out at the street. She would watch other children get in cars and onto buses to go to school. She could hear friends squealing when they caught sight of each other or if someone got a new hairstyle or new shoes or a pretty bracelet. In the afternoons, those same children would come home, run for their front door, and vanish inside where the smell of fresh baked cookies originated. Then Corey would watch the children playing in front yards and on the street, their happy cries reaching her sad ears. She wanted more than anything to be one of those kids.
Her mother never made cookies. Her father never played with her. Corey could only feel like a failure of a child. It pained her heart. Sometimes her father even denied Corey was his daughter, claiming no daughter of his would be sickly. His family only bred strong, healthy children. Corey’s mother’s genes must have screwed their daughter up, a daughter he didn’t even consider as being his.
Closing her eyes tightly and listening to the slamming of more doors, Corey turned over, snuggling down into the fluffy comforter. She hugged her teddy bear close and willed sleep to come.
“You do this every night,” came her father’s voice, interrupting Corey’s attempts to finally fall asleep.
“Do what?” her mother asked, her voice sounding irritated.
“This. Argue. You always start it. Always about that girl.”
“For your information, Don, ‘that girl’ is as much yours as she is mine!”
“Quiet, Annie! You don’t want to wake her up, now do you?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” her mother’s sarcastic reply came a moment later. “You’ve probably woken her already with all your yelling and door slamming. Poor thing. I should probably go check on her.”
Corey heard her door creak open. It was never fully closed; always left partially ajar until her parents went to bed. But the door creeked slightly, the only clue Corey ever got about the door being opened or closed.
“Leave her alone,” her father hissed as she heard her mother’s soft footsteps on the plush carpet.
“Shh!” came her mother’s reply.
Corey closed her eyes tightly and burrowed her face into her pillow as her mother continued to approach her bed. She could imagine her father standing impatiently in the doorway, tapping his foot with his arms crossed.
Corey felt her bed shift as her mother sat on the edge. Her mother’s long, cool fingers gently caressed her warm cheek and swept back a few curls from her forehead.
“Good night, Princess,” Annie whispered as she leaned over her daughter and gently kissed her cheek.
As usual, Corey stirred slightly, but didn’t open her eyes. Instead, she gave a soft sigh and let her breathing even out.
“Come on, Annie,” her father whispered impatiently. “I have to be up early tomorrow.”
“Then go to bed,” her mother hissed back.
Corey’s father didn’t reply, but Corey knew he was still there, still waiting for Annie to finish her nightly routine. Annie gently ran a hand over Corey’s hair, gently toying with a curl. She gave her daughter a final kiss to her forehead and got off the bed. She pulled the covers up a little more and tucked her daughter in tightly before tiptoeing out of the room.
“You coddle her too much, Annie,” her father admonished as her mother gently closed the creaking door.
Corey turned over in her bed, opening her eyes and staring up at the ceiling. She couldn’t hear her parents’ voices anymore, but she was sure the arguing wasn’t going to stop any time soon. Corey only wished she could remember a time when her parents hadn’t argued, when her father used to play with her.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember any of that.
Corey was a little surprised the following morning when her mother didn’t come waltzing in with a breakfast tray and a forced smile. She looked at the digital clock her father had placed on her nightstand the year before, when he thought she should learn how to tell time. It had taken months, but Corey had finally learned. And now she could see it was well past nine in the morning. Her mother was nearly an hour late. Not that Corey minded, but she did wonder what had happened the night before. Come to think of it, she hadn’t even heard her father leave for work two hours before.
Curious, Corey pushed back her covers and swung her legs around. She grabbed her teddy bear and jumped down, her bare feet meeting the warm plush carpet where the morning sun was bathing it. She let her nightgown straighten itself out, letting gravity do its job, but she did adjust the three-quarter length sleeves so they weren’t twisted around her arms.
Clutching the bear to her chest, she opened the door and walked out onto the cool, wood floor. She walked down the hall towards her parents’ closed door. That was a little odd. Her mother always insisted the door stay open just in case Corey had a nightmare and wanted to sleep with them, which had never happened. Corey never had nightmares or even mildly bad dreams. As a matter of fact, she had never dreamed.
She could remember the horrendous argument a year and a half ago when her mother had wanted to keep the door open. Her parents hadn’t spoken to each other for two weeks during that time. Her father never wanted to look at his daughter and her mother was constantly hugging and showering her with attention. That was what had been the tipping point for her father. He’d had enough of his wife’s coddling of their daughter and complete inattention to him. He had reluctantly agreed to keep the door open.
Now the door was closed and Corey felt, rather than a dash of fear, a streak of curiosity and excitement. She knew something had happened, something monumental. She just had to open the door and see what it was. And she didn’t have much time. Mrs. Appleton, their neighbor who had breakfast with her mother every Thursday, would be arriving soon.
Corey reached for the doorknob of her parents’ door and turned it. Pushing the door open, she went in with it and quietly walked over to the large bed. She could see two lumps on it and knew them to be her parents. She thought it odd that her father was home instead of at work, but there was always an excuse. Her father was great at coming up with excuses.
She made her way to the mother’s side of the bed and stopped short. She blinked a few times at her mother’s unblinking blue eyes. Corey tilted her head to the side and walked closer. She held out a hand and rested it on her mother’s cheek. It was stone cold. She drew back her hand and climbed on top of the bed to settle herself between her parents.
Her parents were faced away from each other, lying on their sides. Their white sheets had been drenched in crimson and she could see her mother’s exposed arm had been violently slashed nearly to the bone. Both of her parents’ throats had been viciously slashed and her father’s wrist lay at an awkward angle as his hand emerged from beneath the covers. Claw marks scored their faces and had run with blood that was now dried.
Corey looked from one to the other and then sat facing the door, settling her teddy bear in front of her. Her face was placid and her eyes calm. She didn’t seem surprised or scared that her parents were dead. Somehow, she knew they would be and she had been expecting this for a long time.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting on the bed, hugging her teddy bear to her chest, between the corpses. Her father hadn’t yet taught her how to read a twelve hour clock, which was all they had hanging on their wall. But she assumed it must be around nine-thirty or so because she heard knocking at the door. Mrs. Appleton always came at around nine-thirty. Yes, that must be her at the door. And Mrs. Appleton had a key, so she would be letting herself in soon, entering with a basket of yummy muffins. Corey hoped they were banana nut muffins, her favorite.
“Hello?” Mrs. Appleton’s sing-song voice came. “Annie? Are you here? Hello? Don? I saw your car parked out front. Where are you guys? Corey? Oh, Corey dear, I have banana nut muffins!”
Corey stayed put, waiting for Mrs. Appleton to get to the bedroom so she could do something about the dead bodies. Corey was getting a little tired of sitting and waiting. She was getting hungry, too.
“Annie?” came Mrs. Appleton’s voice once again. “Where are you?”
Corey waited as Mrs. Appleton’s voice grew closer and closer. She was almost impatient for the woman to get to the bedroom. She would know what to do about these two bodies, because Corey sure didn’t.
“Sleeping in, Annie?” Mrs. Appleton said, chuckling to herself. “My, my. Corey must still be sleeping too, then. Time to wake up, dear. I’m sure Corey must be hungry, too.”
Mrs. Appleton’s voice was much louder now and Corey could now hear her shuffling footsteps on the wooden floor. She could almost swear she could smell the banana nut muffins. Her stomach growled and she glanced down at it forlornly. The worst thing about her mother being dead was having no way of getting something to eat. Her stomach was going to be hurting for a while. She just knew it.
A hand reached out to push the bedroom door open all the way. A smiling middle-aged woman with dirty blond hair stepped in. She turned her head to look at the bed and Corey studied her face.
In a split second, Mrs. Appleton’s smile was wiped away and replaced with a look of sheer horror.
Her scream pierced through Corey’s skull a second later.
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