“Thanks so much for this, Rachael,” her Aunt Carol said, slipping in her left earring as they stood in the hallway of her Upper East Side apartment.
“No problem,” Rachael answered. “Really. I had the night off work anyhow.”
“Still–” Carol looked at her niece. “It’s a help. You’ve no idea how long since I’ve been on a date. Single parenting. Not overly recommended.”
“It’ll be fun, Aunt Carol.”
Carol eyed her again, grabbing her coat from the hook and pulling it on.
“Well,” she said, “he’s not got much energy tonight; that’s one bonus. I think he might be coming down with something, but he shouldn’t be much of a handful.”
“Don’t even worry about it,” Rachael assured her. “Just you concentrate on your date.”
“I’ll try. Thanks again. You’re a lifesaver. See you later.”
The two women hugged and Carol opened up the apartment door, leaving quickly, and then closing it behind her.
The apartment was deadly still after Carol was gone, and the kid, Rachael’s cousin, was making no sound at all in the other room. Weird, she remembered thinking. Aren’t five-year-olds supposed to make noise?
Rachael walked into the open plan living room and found the child.
He was sitting cross-legged on the large curved sofa staring at the blank TV screen, as though intent on his own reflection in the dark glass. Carol hadn’t been kidding when she said the kid was sick. His skin looked pale and his eyes were slightly sunken. Must’ve been a bad dose of childhood flu.
“Hey, sport,” she said. “You okay?”
The child didn’t answer. He just stared ahead into blank space.
“You know, you should say hey when people are talking to you. Makes them like you better.”
Rachael sat down. The kid didn’t move. The room temperature had plummeted.
“Hey, kid.” She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.
The kid lunged at her, causing her heart to skip a beat as he desperately threw his arms around her waist, holding her tight and pressing his cold, little face into her chest.
“What’s the matter?”
The child was shaking and whimpering.
“I don’t want it to be like this anymore.” His voice was a throaty croak.
“Like what?” Rachael put her hand protectively on the boy’s back. “You mean being sick?”
The child stopped making noise; his body went rigid, and then he pulled back, slow and deliberate. His eyes fixed themselves on Rachael’s. Deep, black, unhealthy eyes.
“Are you scared?” he said.
Rachael didn’t like the way the kid was looking at her, and the question was more than terrifying in the empty apartment.
“No,” she lied, though the kink in her voice said differently.
“You will be.” The little boy’s voice was sad and hopeless. “Everyone is when they find out.”
Rachael was weak with fright by the time Carol arrived back home. So much so that she could barely ask how the date went, let alone wait to hear that it had sucked big time.
All the route back on the subway Rachael couldn’t help but think about the child: his stark, haunting eyes; his spidery fingers tight on her skin.
When she reached the door of her own apartment the phone inside was ringing violently.
She quickly opened up and came inside, flicking on the light to banish the boy-shaped shadows that hunkered down in every corner.
She answered the call.
It was Aunt Carol.
“Hi,” she said, disconcerted as ever. “Everything okay?”
“Listen, Rachael,” Carol said. “Tonight really scared Sammy and I’m a little worried…”
“I know,” Rachael said. “He was really frightened all night. I tried to talk to him, but…”
“No, Rachael, you don’t understand.” Carol sounded adamant. “Sammy was in his bedroom. He said when you came into the apartment you sat down on the sofa and…he said he heard you talking to another kid…a kid that wasn’t even in the room.”