Jessica stood at the bottom of the stairs and listened. Nothing. Just her imagination. She pulled her sweater around her and made another tour of the century-old house. Each door was latched securely. Everything was fine.
She looked at the clock. 11:40. The Rouschs promised they’d be home shortly after midnight. Jessica wouldn’t mind if they were early. She hated this job. Hated it. But the Rouschs paid premium rates, and not everyone trusted a thirteen-year-old to babysit.
If only old Mrs. Lattimer next door hadn’t told her about the Peterson baby. “I wouldn’t stay in that house,” Mrs. Lattimer hissed, her breath smelling of stale gin and her teeth the color of algae. “They murdered that baby.” She pointed her arthritic finger at Jessica. “Murdered him, I tell you. Right at midnight.” She settled back on her haunches, nodding her head as she spoke. “It was summer, hot and muggy, so of course all the windows was open. I heard that baby cry and looked out my window and I saw `em. Plain as day. Right there.” She pointed her crooked finger at the front bedroom. “They suffocated that poor little fellow, they did. Held a pillow over his face until he stopped crying. They did. Right at the stroke of midnight.”
Jessica shivered and looked at the clock again. 11:48.
A shrill cry pierced the stillness, sending chills of terror down her arms. It’s only Zachary, she told herself. But four times in the last hour she had heard crying, only to find Zachary sleeping soundly. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, struggling to hear over the blood pulsating in her ears.
Another cry, louder than the first, continued for a long time, the tone changing to a high-pitched moan that reverberated through her nervous system.
Jessica resisted the temptation to race out the door and down the street to her own safe home. She was responsible for Zachary, and it was her job to see to him now. She flattened herself against the wall and edged up the dark stairs, then inched her way through the massive hallway.
Zachary’s nursery was the last room at the end of the hall. Her knees grew heavy and she struggled against gravity to move her legs past the front bedroom. Icy tremors ran through her every time she passed that door. She knew the Rouschs didn’t use it—their bedroom was the large one on the right. Earlier in the summer, she’d tried to open the door, but it was locked. Not only that, but cold air blew through the keyhole. In the summer.
With one more shiver, Jessica forced her leaden legs to move on. The nearer the nursery, the lighter her walk became. She slipped into Zachary’s room, the clown light throwing eerie shadows against the walls. But Zachary slept, his knees tucked under him, his thumb resting in his mouth.
She relaxed. The baby was fine.
And then the cry, softer than before, yet closer, too. The pitch wobbled, then heightened, growing louder, shriller, more urgent.
Jessica’s right hand held her heart in place while she gasped for air. Before her mind began working, her legs took her from the room, down the hall, and deposited her outside the locked bedroom.
The crying stopped.
Trembling, her hand touched the knob. She didn’t mean to turn it, but it swung open with great force. Cold air rushed from the room, taking her breath away. Gray sheers, illuminated by the street light, flapped in the open window.
And then the clock chimed. Twelve long, slow, resonant times, each sound raising her gooseflesh, each pause straightening her hairs.
She swallowed hard to keep her heart from crawling up her throat.
A cat, a long, thin, black cat, jumped on the windowsill. It hunched, its back a perfect arc, its scraggly hairs on end. It looked at Jessica with hungry yellow eyes.
She stared back, paralyzed.
The cat’s head straightened, forming a silhouette. Its mouth opened, stretched wide, and a forlorn cry filled the room.
Jessica’s heart pounded back to life. She breathed heavily. Her body shook. A cat. All that noise from a cat. All that moaning from a cat. All that—
The Rouschs were home!
Jessica stepped out of the doorway and closed the door as quietly as she could.
“Jessica?” They were closer now, at the bottom of the stairs.
Jessica straightened her ponytail and forced her shoulders back. She met the Rouschs at the top step.
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jessica said. “Just checking on Zac.”
“Remember, we need you tomorrow night.”
For a moment, Jessica was sure Mrs. Rousch’s overbite had lengthened into vampire teeth. She blinked twice. “Sure,” she answered. “See you then.” She stepped back and made a broad circle around Mrs. Rousch, then bolted down the stairs.
“Jessica!” Mrs. Rousch called after her. “I haven’t paid you.”
Jessica didn’t care. She ran out the front door and down the street, not stopping until she was safe in her own home, her own room.
And then she saw the shadows on the ceiling. They moved…
© 1997. Sandy Tritt.