Repost of an older short story.
The screams sounded like they were being flayed off of her little brother’s lungs.
Nausea clawed its way up Lucille’s throat, her heart quickening.
It was the type of scream that provoked worried neighbours to call the police. The type of scream that had wrenched her from her sleep every night for the last two months, as if things weren’t bad enough already. The type of scream that meant they would take her brother away — take them both away — if they found out that their mum hadn’t been home in a month.
Lucille lurched to her feet, tripping over her chemistry textbooks, swearing as pain throbbed through her toe. She sprinted down the hallway and slammed open Alexander’s bedroom door.
The stench of urine assaulted her.
The battery on the nightlight must have broken again. It always broke, no matter how often she changed it.
She surged forwards after a split second of hesitation.
Alex trembled in his favourite fire-engine pyjamas in the gloom. Twisted, howling in the soiled sheets, eyes bulging white pinpricks of terror. Each breath ripped ragged on a cry.
Too loud. It probably echoed all the way to Mrs Cordon’s house two doors down.
“Hey – hey – shh – shhh.” She dragged him away from the sodden bed, carding her fingers through his sweat-drenched hair. “Stop crying. You’re okay, we’re okay. It’s just a bad dream.”
“It’s not!” He hiccupped around his sobs. “It’s not. I saw it this time!”
His gaze darted around the room, feverish with fear, lingering on every shadowy corner and the wardrobe door.
Lucille clamped a hand over his mouth to muffle his cries, feeling like her intestines had begun to rot.
He screamed even harder against her palm, writhing and kicking in her hold. Face bloodless in the moonlight.
“Sorry.” Tears stung her eyes as she tightened her grip, burying her face into the cornstarch-colour of his hair so she didn’t have to look at him thrashing. His nails clawed at her arms, joining countless scratches and bruises from last night and the night before that. She wore long-sleeves all the time at school now. Nobody asked.
“Shh. I’ve got you. It’s okay,” she said. “Shh. Just be quiet.”
It did nothing to calm him. Of course, it didn’t. Nothing she did seemed to work, and she’d tried everything! She put on the nightlight that their mum had got him. She made him ‘Monster Spray’ out of water, salt and lemon juice, and disinfected his bedroom every evening just like mum used to. She checked under the bed for him. She checked the closet.
He didn’t want her.
“It’s me – it’s Lucille. I’m not going to hurt you. Just breathe…just…stop crying. Please.”
It felt like forever had passed before he slackened in her grip, exhausted. Alex’s cheeks were wet with tears as she peeled her hand away.
“It has teeth!”
“It’s just a dream!” she said.
“Why won’t you believe me? Don’t you feel it?”
The back of her neck prickled, and she shoved the chill away furiously. For a second, she imagined breath looming behind her, cold raising goose-bumps on her skin. “Shut up Alex.”
“I want mum,” he said.
“Shut up.” Lucille’s chest ached.
Alex crumpled to the floor and Lucille wished that she had the same luxury. She swallowed, concentrating on breathing in and out deeply for him to copy.
A light flickered at Mr Boyd’s house across the street, but he could have just been going to the bathroom again.
Her fists clenched.
“Is she coming back?” Alex asked.
The switch from ‘when’ to ‘is’ felt like a punch in the throat. Lucille wanted to slap him for it, hard. Give him something worse than a six year old’s bad dreams to scream about.
“Of course she is, she wouldn’t just leave us.” She gritted her teeth. “I said shut up. Haven’t you done enough?” Maybe if he’d cried less, screamed less in the night, their mother wouldn’t have left.
His lip wobbled and Lucille’s eyes widened.
“No — no don’t. Alex, please,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
Alex sniffled, wiping another tear from his face. He nearly choked as he swallowed back another sob for her.
The guilt squirmed in the pit of her belly. Maybe it had been her, maybe if she’d been a better daughter, argued back less, helped more around the house…
Lucille shoved herself onto her feet, hauling Alex up by the back of his shirt. Her nose wrinkled. His urine had smeared all over her pyjamas. The tears burned behind her eyes again. She sucked in another deep breath, and exhaled.
“Let’s get you clean,” she muttered.