Debbie and Rick moved to the town of Amon Heights a little over two years ago. Rick took a job at the Beauchamp Soup factory in Cooperton and Debbie found work as a lunch lady at the local grade school. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment above a florist on Westfield Avenue where they made plans to turn the second bedroom into a nursery, but after two years of trying started to give up hope of ever needing it. After a while the room became a storage space for all of Rick’s abandoned hobbies. It housed a used CB radio, various types of tools, and multiple musical instruments that he swore he would learn to play eventually. Debbie’s mother, Laura, called it “Rick’s Colossal Junk Pile”. Laura never gave their union her blessing and only showed up at the wedding after much pleading from Debbie. Now, a couple years had passed and Debbie had yet to provide a grandchild so she and her mother began to drift apart.
Rick began working later and later shifts at the factory until it seemed like he and Debbie scarcely saw one another. If one of them wasn’t working the other was and soon Debbie’s life became one of solitude outside of her job.
One night after falling asleep to Johnny Carson on the tiny black and white set they kept in the bedroom Debbie awoke to the glow of a test pattern on the screen. She turned the tv off and shuffled toward the bathroom. In the hall she noticed a bright light leaking into the hallway through the junk room, the door slightly ajar.
Entering the room to investigate, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light. There stood Rick gently holding a bundle of...something in his arms.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Rick was a short man with sandy brown hair and a short, scraggly bit of fuzz that could hardly be called a beard. He beamed at his wife and said, “Relax, hon. I’m perfectly capable of feeding him without causing him any harm.”
Her eyes were on him like headlights and the world beneath her feet seemed to sway.
“You were asleep, so I figured I’d give you a break for a change. The little fella was just SOOO hungry!”
“Rick,” Debbie said, “Where the hell did this baby come from?”
“What. didn’t your mom teach you that? You were there as I recall.”
Debbie stepped toward her husband and glanced at the baby in his arms. She dared not get too close. Just enough to verify that it was, in fact, an actual infant and not a doll or something. No. That would make sense. But this did not. It was a real live baby, its chubby little body entirely swaddled in a tiny powder-blue blanket. It moved in Rick’s arms and she could hear it breathing.
“Why is it HERE? Why is there a baby in OUR house?”
Rick blinked at her and said, “Where else would our kid be?”
Debbie felt the floor collapse beneath her. Looking around the brightly lit room she took in her surroundings for the first time. Instead of the detritus of Rick’s myriad fleeting interests her gaze was met with what was clearly an infant’s nursery room. A changing table sat next to a large comfy chair. Rick stood beside a wicker bassinet with a mobile hanging above it that depicted a tiny blue doghouse, small dog, and several bones. On the wall was a mural of a small child playing with a puppy beside a blue doghouse. Every object in the room was a combination of chalk-white and a soft baby-blue color.
Debbie was nearly frantic when she said, “Rick! What is all this? How the fuck did you get all this in here? What sick prank are you playing on me?
“Honey,” Rick started to say, but Debbie erupted in tears. He rested the baby on his shoulder and wrapped his free arm around her.
“Don’t touch me!” she spat, as she swatted him away. “I can’t handle this. I don’t know why you would do this to me!”
Debbie threw on her jacket and shoes and headed out the door.
“Where are you going?” called Rick, as she ran down the stairs and out the of the building..
Debbie got to the car before realizing she had forgotten her keys. She looked back at the apartment above the florist. The living room light was on. It was a quiet night and there wasn’t a single moving car for several blocks around. Even though it was on the second floor she could hear the sound of a rotary being dialed through the open window. Rick was calling someone. Debbie ran. Later she couldn’t even recall which direction. She just ran.
In nothing but a nightgown, her shoes, and a light jacket she sprinted down Westfield avenue into the darkness. After several blocks she stopped, out of breath. There was an old oak tree in the center of the sidewalk with a big plaque on it that read:
PLANTED BY NATHANIEL AMON
Above the plaque the tree had formed a large burl. The growth resembled a distorted yet oddly cherubic face. Debbie remembered reading up on tree burls after a student had asked her about them. Kids did stuff like that, asked questions about whatever was on their minds to whichever adult was closest. She had been handing out milk cartons when a second-grader said, “Why does the tree by my house look like King Kong?” Debbie was taken aback at first, but then realized that the boy must have seen a strange growth on the tree. She said she didn’t know and the boy walked away with his milk, a little disappointed. Later that day she stopped by the school library to find a book on trees and that was where she learned the word, “burl”. She found that they are most likely formed when a tree was undergoing stress caused by injury, virus, or a parasite. The next day she was actually excited to go to work and inform the boy about what she had learned, but she didn’t see him. She never saw him again.
The burl on the tree in front of her did not look like King Kong. It grew partially over the plaque, the placing of which was the likely cause of the growth in the first place. Debbie found the round and smiling “face” on the tree very unnerving.
Exhausted from her sprint, Debbie couldn’t bear to take another step. She sat down on a bench near the tree. The cool night breeze tickled her skin, but it felt good to sit. The burning in her calves began to subside.. She decided to rest her crying eyes for a moment. Before a minute had passed she was asleep sitting up on the bench.
When Debbie awoke she was in the passenger seat of her car. It was pitch black outside and she couldn't discern which road they were on, but it looked to be somewhere in the pines. Rick was driving. His face was calm and pleasant as if everything were perfectly normal and they were just enjoying a drive through the pine barrens. Debbie pretended to sleep. She had no clue where they could be going and wanted to make him think he was in control for now. The second he stopped the car she would bolt into the woods if she had to. Just as far away from him as possible.
“Whaaa!” came a cry from the back seat. Debbie shot upright at the sound.
Did he bring that fucking baby with him? She thought to herself. What the hell was he planning on doing? Maybe whoever he got the baby from needed it back. That would make sense. But who the hell in their right mind lends someone a baby? For a sick prank no less? What had gotten into Rick? This is not like him at all. He hates pranks. He can’t even watch Candid Camera on tv because he always felt bad for the poor suckers on that show.
“Oh hon, you’re up.” said Rick. “That’s good. We’re almost at your mom’s..”
“My mom’s?” she croaked.
“Yeah. I called her as soon as you ran out into the street. I thought maybe you were having another episode and figured she would know what to do.”
“Rick, she hates your guts. I’m surprised she didn’t hang up on you.”
“Aww hon. I know we got off on the wrong foot, but she eventually came around.” said Rick, “She didn’t think I was good enough for you and I can’t say I blame her. I was a listless dreamer when we met. But she saw how I took care of you. How I handled the depression that came when you were unable to...you know...unable to conceive. But we pulled it off, didn’t we? We showed those doctors! They don’t know everything!”
“Wahhh-wah. Wah.” cried the baby once more.
“Rick. This has to stop.” said Debbie, “Where did you even get that thing? It’s crying. It probably wants its mother.”
“Hon,” said Rick. “That’s his hungry cry. Even I know that. We still have another thirty minutes until we get there. Maybe we should pull over.”
Rick pulled into a small lot beside the road that housed the remnants of a gas station. The pumps had been torn out of the ground, but the ramshackle kiosk and ruins of a repair shop still stood.
The baby in the backseat continued to cry. Rick sat still for a moment as if expecting Debbie to act.
“What are we supposed to do now?” she asked him, “That thing won’t shut up.”
“The little guy is hungry, honey. We should feed him.” said Rick.
“OK. You go do that then.”
“Honey. I’m a modern man and all, but shouldn’t you try to be a little more...nurturing?”
Debbie opened her door and got out of the car. “I need to take a piss. Maybe this run down shack still has a working toilet.” she said as she put some distance between herself and the car.
Around the side of the service station she saw a door which she hoped would be a restroom. It was bolted tight. In desperation Debbie walked to the back of the building. The brush had more or less taken over back there, but there was a large enough clearing shrouded in bushes where she could squat in peace. Not ideal, but she would have to make do. She had some clean tissues in her jacket pocket at least.
As Debbie did her business she saw a small wooden structure hidden in the brush. It looked like a crumbling doghouse. Most of the paint peeled off ages ago, but she could see that it was once a brilliant blue color.
After cleaning off the best she could Debbie returned to the car. The baby had stopped crying. Rick was sitting in the driver's seat patiently waiting for her. When she got into the passenger side he was scratching his neck awkwardly. With his right hand he picked at the left side where she couldn’t see.
“Are you ok?” she asked him.
“I’m fine. I think I just have a little skin rash. No big deal.”
“So the kid is ok now?”
“Yeah. I fed him. Sorry for acting like a chauvinist. The little fella gets SO hungry sometimes. I just want what’s best for him, you know?”
“Whatever,” said Debbie, “I’m sorry for snapping at you. I’m just irritated. This whole night has been crazy.”
“It’s ok.” he said, “They say the first year is the hardest.”
“The first year?”
“Holy shit! Is that what’s going on here? You stole a baby or something? Rick. Honey. Oh god. Oh fuck. We can’t do this. They’ll lock us up.”
“Honey,” he said, “You really don’t remember, do you? At first I thought you were just in a mood or something. But this is real, isn’t it? You do not remember having a baby?”
“How could I remember a thing that never happened? We don’t have a baby. Look at me. Do I look like a woman who recently gave birth?”
“Well, you always look good to me, love.” said Rick. “I know you were feeling self conscious during the pregnancy, but we got through it. We have a beautiful little boy now. And we’ll get through...this. Whatever this is.”
Debbie hid her face in her hands. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I really don’t” she said. “I guess just take me to my mother’s. Maybe she can set it all straight. I just. I just can’t process all of this right now.”
Soon they arrived at Laura's place. It was once an old farmhouse that Laura moved into with Debbie after Debbie’s father passed away. The house was secluded and that suited Laura well.
“We’re here!” chirped Rick as he started up the long driveway. “Your mom sure does like to live out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah,” said Debbie, “she said it was better for me to grow up away from the hustle of modern life. It was pretty lonely though. I didn’t really have any friends except...except...”
“The dog.” she muttered, “I had a big black lab. His name was Muffins. I forgot. How did I forget about Muffins?”
“I dunno,” said Rick, “But speaking of muffins I hope she made those corn muffins for breakfast, I’m famished!”
At this point Debbie was tired of asking Rick how he managed to act as if everything was perfectly normal. She wasn’t getting any coherent answers from him. She would have to talk to Laura. Mom will explain everything, she thought. Somehow they’re in on this weird little stunt together. Mom could be distant, but she isn’t the type of woman to let a twisted joke like this go on forever.
When Laura answered the door she was a different person than the one Debbie had known her entire life.
“Welcome home, hon! Let me see that beautiful little baby boy!”, declared Laura, radiating joy.
This was not her mother. Sure, she had Laura’s face and clothes, but Debbie’s mother did not smile like this.
Laura ushered them into the foyer and whisked the baby out of Rick’s arms.
“Who’s the best grandson in the world?” she cooed at him. Cooed! Debbie’s mother DID NOT COO.
Dumbfounded, Debbie stared at “Laura” who seemed to just notice her.
“What ARE you wearing, dear?” said the older woman. “You’re going to catch pneumonia going out like that. Come, sit. I made coffee.”
They sat in the parlor where Laura would entertain guests. Rather, she always said that’s what it was for. Debbie didn’t recall having many visitors growing up. Nevertheless, Laura always kept the parlor spotless and filled with nice furniture that little girls were never ever allowed to use.
Following her mother’s lead Debbie sat down in front of the coffee table. As promised there was coffee and a tray of corn muffins.
“Now what seems to be the matter, dearest?” asked Laura.
Debbie recounted her version of events from the time she woke up to the moment that they arrived at Laura’s door. Neither Rick nor Laura interrupted.
When she was done there was a long silence that Laura eventually broke.
“Debbie dear,” she said, “ I had hoped you were cured. You really don’t remember, do you?”
“When you were a little girl you were very sick. The seizures were almost constant. The doctors performed a risky surgical procedure on your brain. It was successful. The seizures stopped.”
“Mom. I honestly don’t recall any of this.”
“There were side effects,” said Laura. “You started school again. You were so shy back then and had trouble fitting in. That was when the delusions started. “
“At first the doctors said it was normal. They said you were adjusting to the new world that life without seizures had opened up for you. They said that it would be fine after a little bit of therapy.”
“What kind of delusions did I have?”
“Imaginary friends mostly,” said Laura. “That isn’t so strange. Most kids have them. But your imagination was so...vivid. Then there were the night terrors.”
“What are you talking about, mom?” said Debbie. “How come I don’t remember it then? Seizures, doctors, night terrors...you have to be kidding me. Brain surgery leaves a SCAR, mom. I don’t have a frigging scar on my head anywhere, now do I? And what does it have to do with this weird frigging baby?”
“Do you remember Muffins?”
“My dog? Of course. He used to sleep out back in that little blue doghouse.”
“We never had a dog, hon. Muffins was your big brother. Matthew. Muffins was his nickname ever since he was a baby. Your dad called him that and it just stuck”
“Mom. What the ever loving fuck? I definitely do not and did not ever have a brother.”
“Oh honey,” Laura said, “I know this is hard for you. He was my son. You have to understand. It was hard on me too. I shouldn’t have left you kids alone. I only went to the store for a minute. I swear.”
Debbie looked at Rick who was holding that damn baby, sitting wide-eyed and silent.
“Can you believe this bullshit?” she asked him. But her husband didn’t respond. She assumed he was in as much shock as her.
Laura continued, “You were the one who found him. In the old shed out back. The blue one. I eventually had it razed and replaced with the pretty pink one. I just couldn’t stand to be reminded. When I got back from the store you came running up to the car shouting and crying about what had happened. I’m so sorry, love. I should have been there. What he did to himself might have been inevitable, but I should have been the one to find him. Not you.”
“You’re telling me that I had a brother and what? He hung himself?”
“Hanged.” said Rick.
“Shut the FUCK up!” Debbie spat at her useless husband. “None of this is true. NONE OF IT.”
Debbie stood up and pointed a finger at her mother. “I didn’t have a fucking brother. I never had fucking BRAIN SURGERY and I sure as hell don’t have a fucking baby. I thought this was a sick prank, but no. You’re insane. You both are. YOU’RE the one who’s delusional, mom. YOU.”
That was when she saw it on the wall behind Laura, a family portrait. She remembered it clearly from her childhood. It depicted her parents and her smiling for the camera. But next to her dad and behind her childhood self stood a teenage boy. He was about fourteen or so and his face was roundish and beaming a sweet smile. He sported a thick head of curly chestnut colored hair and the most innocent brown eyes. That was Muffins. Matthew. Her brother. It had to be. She still couldn’t picture him. Couldn’t conjure his voice in her mind, but she knew. Debbie knew that he was there in the photo and the photo was real. Pictures don’t lie.
In tears, Debbie ran up the stairs to her old room.
“Debbie!” called Rick.
“Let her go.” said Laura, “Let her process this on her own. She’ll come down when she’s ready.”
Her childhood bedroom looked the same as it did when she moved out. Posters of the Beatles and the Stones covered the walls. Her old dollhouse still sat in the corner, untouched for decades. Debbie dashed under the bed to retrieve her old box of photos. She rifled through it until she found what she wanted at the bottom of the box - a picture of her as a kid. Her and Muffins. She took the picture herself with her dad’s polaroid. It was blurry and the angle was awkward, but she could make it out clear enough. A dark-haired little girl and a black lab with a big stupid dog smile, tongue lolling. Behind them was a bright blue dog house.
I knew it. Debbie thought. They’re lying. I don’t know how she changed the photo in the living room, but she missed this one. I hid it away right after I took it because I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch daddy’s camera. Mom didn’t like me touching his old things. But I loved that dumb dog so much. I snuck it out back to get a picture of us together.
Debbie didn’t know what Laura and Rick were up to. She didn’t know who the hell that boy in the picture was, but she knew they were lying to her. They were trying to make HER feel crazy. It wasn’t going to work. She would march downstairs and take the keys from Rick and just leave. Maybe she would go home. Maybe she would just...leave. Who knows where she would go. Let Rick keep the stupid baby or go to jail for kidnapping or whatever the hell he was up to. Debbie was done with this mess. She wanted out of the whole thing.
With the polaroid in hand she strode down the stairs. Her mother was sitting slack in her armchair as if she had nodded off. Rick was standing in front of her holding the baby up on his chest, its head rested on his shoulder.
“Give me the keys.” she said to him. “I don’t want any argument. I’m leaving and you aren’t stopping me.”
“Hate to see you go, hon.” he responded, “They’re on the table.”
“You aren’t even going to try and stop me?”
“Honey. You don’t want to be here. I can’t force you. I can always call a cab to take me home. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Rick. I’m leaving. LEAVING leaving.” I need to get as far away from you as-” she stopped when she noticed a trickle of blood running down his neck.
“Rick, you’re bleeding!”
“Shucks, am I?” he said blankly. “Well, waste not, want not. I’m sure he’ll get it all.”
Debbie put her hand on her mother’s shoulder from behind the armchair.
“Mom,” she said, “are you awake?”
Laura’s limp head tilted oddly downward, revealing a bloody mark on her neck. It was then that Debbie realized how pale her mother looked.
“I’m sorry, hon.” said Rick. “The little guy...he was just SO HUNGRY. Your mom fed him, but it wasn’t enough. He ate it all up and still wanted more. So now I’m feeding him. Poor little guy!”
Debbie’s muscles froze in place as she gazed back at her husband and that strange child. She had yet to really look at the thing before now. The baby was bald and smooth and chubby-cheeked. Its plump little arms spilled out of the swaddling blanket it wore.They were white and shiny like the flesh of a maggot. Its fat, eyeless face nuzzled at his neck making a suckling noise like a piglet feeding on its mother. It was drinking up the blood that flowed from Rick’s neck.
Rick looked her in the eye and smiled as the life drained out of him.
“He’s just so hungry. So hungry!”
Intro and outro theme
Music Provided By Mediacharger
Artist: Darren Curtis
Track: Demented Nightmare
Background Music Provided By Mediacharger
Music Created By : Myuu
Song Title: Growing Shadows