The Stay Over
Short Story by Carrie Martin
My aunt and uncle wave heartily from the lit porch.
Mom gives a quick wave in return then rests her hand on my shoulder. "It's just one night, Sarah. I'll be back to get you before lunch tomorrow. Okay?"
"Whatever." I shrug her hand away, and hear her sigh as I slam the door behind me.
It's always 'just one night' since she met George. I don't know how many times I have to tell her—this place gives me the creeps, and I do not need a babysitter.
Arms folded over my chest, I watch her car rattle down the drive, into darkness.
And then she's gone.
"How is my little niece doing?" asks Aunt Doris, her curly purple hairdo bobbing in the wind.
I wish she'd stop calling me little; I'm thirteen now and taller than she is. "Not bad," I mumble, climbing the crooked steps.
Uncle Albert sweeps his chubby arm around me and leads us inside. The aroma of oven-baked pie saturates the cluttered country kitchen. At home, everything we eat comes in frozen packages, zapped by the microwave. My aunt's home cooking is the best part about coming here.
I drop my belongings and run to the counter. "Is that apple?"
"Your favorite," says Aunt Doris with a sparkling smile. She cuts the pie into slices and hands me a wedge bigger than my head.
I guess it's not so bad getting dumped at the farmhouse again—even with the strange night noises I've been hearing here lately. For a while, the fear is distant, unreal.
We hang out in the living room for the rest of the night, before the swirling flames of the log fire. Me and my uncle sit cross-legged on the matted rug, draped over the coffee table, bickering over a stack of board games.
Aunt Doris rocks in her favourite chair, shrieking with laughter and slapping her thigh each time I catch Uncle Albert cheating.
The fire fades as midnight draws close, and I stab the delicate shrivelled logs with a metal poker, smashing and separating the charred remains. In silent awe we watch the flames flicker, dwindle and die, leaving vibrant red embers on a bed of dusty black ash.
"Well, looks like the fire's done and I'm about done too," says Uncle Albert releasing a mighty yawn. "Time to hit the sack, Mrs.?"
Aunt Doris nods and covers her mouth to suppress a sympathy yawn. "The spare room's all set up for you, Sarah. I left a lamp on in case you want to read. See you in the morning, dear."
"Night." I wave them off with a tired smile, grab my backpack from the kitchen, and creep up the stairs. Already a snoring symphony escapes from behind their bedroom door.
Now it's just me and the house, and the fear begins to prickle under my skin.
I scurry to the bathroom, dig in my backpack for a toothbrush and pajamas, then get ready for bed. A final glance in the mirror reveals a cloudy tint to the glass surface. Colors and shapes stare back at me, nothing more.
Down the dark hall the spare room emits a faint glow, and I dash towards it. Clutching my book, I leap into bed and tug the duvet snug to my neck; then absorb myself in the pages before me, until my eyelids grow heavy.
Slowly, I slip into blackness.
Then I hear it: footsteps, creaking through the hall; the squeak of the bathroom door; the gurgling flush of the toilet. I bolt upright and grip the covers tight. Fear throbs through my veins.
It's not my aunt or uncle, they have a bathroom of their own; their door never opens. It never does. Not when the night noises are here.
A part of me feels ridiculous for being scared over a flushing toilet. How bad can it be? I tell myself to get a grip and end this mystery once and for all. After several deep breaths, I slide out of bed, tiptoe towards the door, and peek round the corner.
There's a light coming from the bathroom. I enter the hall, floorboards groaning beneath my step. The entire house fills with silence then, as if it has detected me. It. Maybe this is a bad idea. I should go back to bed and hide under the duvet.
But the bathroom door swings open that very second; small tender fingers clasp the wood. My body goes stiff with fright. All I can do is gasp and watch helplessly as a young boy with messy hair and striped pajamas steps out. His bare feet scuff the floor as he walks in a sleepy daze toward me. Then, as if striking an invisible wall, he stops abruptly, and stares up at me with absurd round eyes.
"Hello," he says, scratching his ear. "I like the stars on your pajamas. Are you staying over?"
"Thanks, and yeah, I'm staying over. My name's Sarah. What's yours?"
"Barry," he says, then thrusts a haggard-looking teddy-bear in my face. "And this is Gobbler. He likes to eat all the cookies. Can I tell you a secret?"
"Gobbler doesn't really eat the cookies. It's me! That's just what I tell mommy and daddy." He snickers and covers his mouth with the bear.
I smile back at him, despite the angst I feel inside. "That's very clever, Barry. Where are your mommy and daddy?"
He peers down the hall, toward the room where my aunt and uncle are still snoring. "Sleeping."
My throat constricts then, sandpaper dry; there's a stabbing pain in my brain. This doesn't make any sense. "But Aunt Doris and Uncle Albert never had any children. Do you live somewhere nearby?"
"I live here, silly. We moved this summer, from town. Who never had children? That's my room down there." He wiggles his teddy in the direction of the spare room. "Want to see?"
I feel hot and shaky, and my voice cracks when I speak. "Yes, I'd l-ike that."
Timidly, I follow. He jumps ahead and flings open the door; then smiles up at me, fidgeting on his feet as he waits for approval.
Perfectly pasted wallpaper with colorful cars and trucks has replaced the faded pink and green flowers I once knew. In a breathless panic, I wander into the room and step on a plastic toy train. The furniture is all white—it looks brand new. The old oak dresser and night table are gone. Squiggly red and blue paint lines hang from an easel. Even the floor has changed. The pale loose planks have become tightly fitted dark-stained boards. Am I dreaming?
"What happened to the room?" I say more to myself.
"Don't you like it?" Barry asks, concern in his eyes. "I picked out the wallpaper all by myself. Mommy says the whole house was black. It needed help."
"Black? What do you mean it was black?" I try desperately to comprehend what he is telling me.
"I think, a long time ago—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of days—there was a big fire."
Suddenly, I am choking. Flames taunt and roar amid a haze of suffocating smoke. Only, I feel disconnected from my body, a million miles away. All the visions I thought were dreams burn through my brain... fire engine, police, sale sign on the lawn, construction crew, family with a small boy, moving truck, white furniture, toys. All the nights, all the noises—I've been here all along, through it all.
"Are you okay?" Barry asks, alarm in his voice.
Like an ice cold slap, I am jolted back to the present moment. The boy; he is the night noise. He is the life. I am the one who shouldn't be here.
"I have to go," I say at last. "I really like your room, by-the-way."
His face lights up in a small-toothed grin. "You can have a sleep over with me if you want."
"That's very kind, but I really need to go home now. My mom will be worried." I never said goodbye. "Good night, Barry."
"Bye! Maybe we can play some time?"
I leave him then. I leave my aunt and uncle, and whisper goodbye.
Not a sound creaks underfoot, not even as I descend the stairs. The door to the living room—where the fireplace once burned bright—is closed shut. I continue through the silver moonlit kitchen and out the door into the frigid night; then glide down the winding path, and disappear into the blanket of fog seeping forth from the bare-limbed autumn trees.
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