THE CHILDREN THAT WEREN'T THERE
© Wayne Summers
Laughter. A little girl's laughter. Carol Dawson's eyes darted across the unpacked room towards the streaky glass of the window. She got up out of her chair and walked tentatively towards the sound. Could it be her darling Amanda come home?
She hardly dared to draw breath lest the grenade in her chest went off.
By the time she arrived at the window she was misty-eyed. There was a flutter in her stomach. But as she scanned the backyard she found that it was as empty as her heart, and her tears spilled over onto her cheeks and traced a silvery line towards her jaw.
As days turned into weeks her house began to resemble a home. The boxes had been unpacked, the floors polished and the curtains washed. She'd even mended the flywire on the porch door. Soon there was nothing left for her to do but the everyday household chores, and they weren't nearly enough to distract her from the memories she'd tried so hard to bury.
One mid-morning she languished on a banana lounge, her face tilted towards the warm rays of an early spring sun. Her eyes were closed. She reached for the glass of wine she'd set down on the glass-topped table beside her only to discover it wasn't where she'd left it. Her eyes sprang open and immediately she saw it on the far side of the table. Her brow wrinkled. “How had it got all the way over there?” Yet before she could ponder the strange occurrence any further the sound of a child giggling broke into her thoughts and snatched her attention away.
“Amanda?” she mumbled absent-mindedly.
“Not Amanda. Molly!”
Carol gasped. Her head spun around to face the owner of the voice.
“Oh my God, you scared me,” she said, forcing a smile for the benefit of the little girl. “Where on Earth did you come from?”
The little girl pointed towards the forest.
“You live on the other side of the forest?” asked Carol.
Molly shook her head.
“Where's your Mummy?”
Molly hooked a finger over her bottom lip and began to twist her body.
“Is she nearby?” Carol continued.
“No, she isn't,” replied the voice of an older girl who was approaching from the edge of the forest. “She's with me and she shouldn't be disturbing you. I'm very sorry. Molly, come here!”
Carol watched as Molly removed the finger from her mouth and looked up at her. She smiled at the little girl but before she could reassure her that she hadn't done anything wrong, Molly was running across the grass towards the older girl.
“I thought I told you never to talk to strangers,” Carol heard the older girl hiss.
“I'm sorry Alexandwa,” Molly apologised.
Carol watched the two girls disappear into the forest and decided that she'd had enough sun that day. She picked up the glass of wine, swallowed the contents down in one gulp and returned to the house.
That night she lay awake in bed staring into the shadows created by the faint beams of a half moon. Her husband, Gavin, rolled over and placed an arm tenderly across her waist. It had been a long time since they'd been intimate. He'd tried to be understanding. He'd been hurting too. But he couldn't see any reason why they couldn't seek solace in each other's arms. He knew Carol saw things differently.
At first Carol bristled. It had become a habit to tell him ‘no'. But she resisted the temptation to elbow his arm away. Tonight she wanted to feel close to him; to feel secure. His lips on her shoulder made her shudder. His warm breath on her skin made her tingle. A small moan escaped her throat and she turned to meet his lips, though as she turned over she caught sight of a small group of children standing just inside the door.
She gasped. Gavin mistook her shock for passion. He leaned across her body and planted a kiss on her neck, and another behind her ear.
“No!” growled Carol, pushing him away.
He flopped back onto the mattress and sighed, exasperated.
Carol peered into the shadows but the children were no longer where they had been. She sat up in bed, examining the dark room more carefully but still could find no trace of them; if they'd been there at all.
She turned her attention once more to her husband. Her hand went to touch his arm but he rolled over, turning his back to her. Her hand paused in mid air and a tear ran down her cheek. For a moment she sat in silence, kept company by her thoughts and the shadows. “Is my life ever going to return to how it once was?” she asked herself.
The following morning she woke up early to cook Gavin's breakfast. Mid-way through she heard someone humming “Ring-A-Ring-A-Rosy”. She spun around and saw Molly skipping on the spot with an old rope and humming the nursery rhyme she had often sung to Amanda. Behind her, watching in close-lipped silence was Alexandra.
“Why are you singing that song?” she asked, her eyes searching the little girl's face.
Molly stopped skipping and looked over her shoulder at Alexandra, who nodded.
“You used to sing it,” she replied, looking down at her scuffed black shoes as though she were about to be scolded.
“I know that,” snapped Carol, “but how do you know that?”
“I don't know,” Molly replied, her top lip quivering. “I just do.”
Carol looked from Molly to Alexandra.
“How does she know that it was the nursery rhyme I used to sing my daughter?” she asked again. “Tell me, Alexandra!”
“Alex,” the older girl replied. “And she's telling you the truth. I knew you used to sing it too, but I don't know how. We know a lot of things about you.”
Carol blinked back her ever-present tears.
“Come with us,” said Alex suddenly. “We want you to meet someone.'
Carol paused for a moment, processing the request, and then scanned the kitchen to check that everything was turned off. She followed the girls outside.
Standing a few metres from the back porch was a small group of children who all appeared to be between 8 and 12 years old.
“This is Carol,” Alex announced.
“Hi Carol,” the children chorused.
“This is Matthew. He's 11. Kevin, who's 11...”
“Eleven and a half,” Kevin chimed.
“Eleven and a half,” repeated Alex, rolling her eyes. “Then there's Tony. He's 12. And Pauline, who is 11. I am Alex and this is Molly. She's the baby. She's 8.”
“Am not a baby,” Molly countered.
“Well it's lovely to meet you,” she said. “Where do you all live? Surely you're not all brothers and sisters.”
“No, we're not,” said Alex, “although Molly and I are sisters. We used to go to the same school. We come from just over there.”
Alex pointed in the direction of the forest.
“Hey, who wants to play a game?” Alex asked.
“We do!” the children cheered.
“Do you Mum…I mean Carol?”
Had Alex been about to call her Mummy? It had felt strange to be referred to as ‘Mummy' after so long, but she wasn't entirely uncomfortable with it.
“Why not?” she replied. “What would you like to play?”
“Catch,” said Tony. “I'll be it because I'm the fastest runner.”
“Okay. What's ‘home'?” asked Kevin.
“How about that tree with the swing?” suggested Matthew.
“All right, the tree is home. You can't be tagged if you're touching the tree,” decreed Kevin.
The children scattered across the grass leaving Carol to fend for herself. Little Molly, knowing that her age and little legs worked against her, ran towards the tree with the tyre swing attached to it. She knew that if she hovered around the safety of ‘home' she would be safe.
All Gavin saw when he looked through kitchen window was his wife running madly about the backyard. He furrowed his brow while tying his tie. “She's really losing it.”
Finally Carol had had enough. Realising the time she called for a break.
“Children, I'm sorry but I have to go and prepare my husband's breakfast.”
The children groaned.
“Can you come out and play with us again?” asked Pauline, wrapping her arms around Carol's hips.
“Sure I can,” Carol smiled. “Perhaps not today, though. Another day.”
The children groaned again as Carol turned around and walked towards the house.
“Come on guys,” said Alex. “We can come back later.”
Carol grinned as she listened to Alex get the children organised and realised that she didn't know how old the girl was. She did seem much older than the others.
“Been having fun?” Gavin asked as he buttered a slice of toast.
“Oh, you're up,” Carol remarked. “Sorry darling. I was fixing your breakfast.”
“What were you doing in the backyard?”
She could feel his eyes boring into her.
“I was playing with the children. I'm sorry I forgot the time. I meant to have your breakfast ready.”
Carol picked up the frying pan. It was not too late to cook some bacon and eggs.
“What children?” Gavin asked.
“The ones from the other side of the forest. I think they've taken a liking to me.”
“Darling, I didn't see any children,” said Gavin. “You were out there running around by yourself and I have to say you're beginning to worry me. Maybe we should find you a doctor.”
His final words were like a slap across her cheek. Her face suddenly felt as though it were on fire.
“I don't need a doctor,” she replied indignantly. “I was merely having some fun. Is that so bad? For the first time since Amanda…, since that day, I was having some fun. Don't you think I'm entitled to just a bit of fun?”
“Of course I do,” replied Gavin. “It's just the thing with the children worries me. Darling, you were out there alone. There were no children. There is no Amanda.”
“I know there's no Amanda!” Carol snapped as she threw the pan violently to the floor. “I know she's gone! I was there when she died. Remember?”
Carol stormed past Gavin, her vision blurred by tears.
“You can cook your own fucking breakfast!”
“Well if you're going to be like that, I'll get my ‘fucking' breakfast in town,” Gavin retaliated, “where I can enjoy it!”
He grabbed his suit jacket from the back of his chair and stomped out of the house through the back door, which he slammed shut. There was a screech of tyres and then silence fell upon the house.
The dark cloud remained over them for days. Gavin began to leave for work earlier in the morning and come home later at night, and Carol began to spend more time with the children.
“It doesn't sound like he loves you very much,” Alex said one day as they were lying on their backs watching clouds floating by. “I'd never treat someone I loved like that.”
“You're too young to understand,” Carol replied. “Adult relationships are complicated. He does love me. It's because he loves me that we're having these problems. It's my fault too.”
There was a brief pause.
“Some of the children have asked if they can call you Mummy,” Alex said.
Carol rolled her head towards the girl, noticing how smooth and creamy her skin was.
“Why?” asked Carol. “I mean don't you have Mummy's of your own?”
Alex swallowed hard. “That is not such an easy question to answer. We had Mummy's of our own, but we don't any more.”
Alex didn't answer immediately. She searched the clouds for a way out, but she had been caught off guard. And it was all her own fault.
“It's complicated,” she said. “Can we leave it at that?'
Carol nodded. “I guess we'll have to.”
“Anyway, can they?” Alex asked again.
“Can the children call you Mummy?”
“If they want to,” Carol replied. “It seems harmless enough.”
“Thank you,” said Alex beaming. “They'll be so happy. I can't wait to tell them.”
The following day the children ran towards Carol as she was hanging some washing on the line.
“Mummy! Mummy!” they called.
It sounded odd at first, but the more she heard it the more natural it sounded; the more real.
“Play with us, Mummy,” said Tony, taking Carol's hand.
“Just let me hang out the washing first,” she said.
“We can help,” he said. “Come on everyone. Let's help Mummy hang the washing out.”
“How are things with your husband?” asked Alex as she sauntered up behind the children.
Carol looked at her. There was something about the way she said ‘your husband' that disturbed her.
“You mean Gavin?” she said.
“Yeah, him. ”
“We're still not really talking, if that's what you're referring to.”
“That's a pity.”
“Because you're such a nice person, with so much to give. We all love you so much and it's upsetting to see the way he treats you.”
Carol knew that the children often visited her when they thought she couldn't see them, even when Gavin was at home. She caught glimpses of them in the shadows, watching. At first it had been unsettling, uncomfortable, but she'd become used to it and soon found that there was a certain comfort in knowing they were with her.
“You'll have to come and visit us one day,” said Alex.
“That would be nice,” Carol replied.
“How about now?” Alex asked, her voice turning saccharine.
“Tomorrow,” Carol replied.
“Why not now?”
The other children had stopped what they were doing and stood motionless, watching her and waiting for her reply. For the first time she felt uncomfortable in their presence.
“Because I've got too much work to do today. We spent all day yesterday playing and I have to catch up on some chores. If I don't, I'll be in even more trouble with Gavin.”
“I don't like Gavin,” Alex admitted.
“I know,” said Carol.
“He shouldn't treat you the way he does. You're a kind, loving person and you need to be with people who care about you.”
Carol nodded. “Tomorrow then.”
A smile flickered on her lips as she stooped to pick up the wicker laundry basket.
“Thank you all for helping me with the washing,” she said, hoping they hadn't noticed the crack in her voice.
The children didn't reply, but remained standing where they were as she disappeared into the house.
Later that evening as Carol was preparing dinner she noticed the children standing by the clothesline. She watched them for a few minutes then wiped her hands on a tea towel.
“What are you still doing here?” she asked as she hurried down the back steps.
“Waiting for you, Mummy,” said Kevin.
“But I told you that I couldn't come with you until tomorrow.”
“We know,” said Tony. “We're waiting for you ‘til tomorrow.”
A shiver ran down Carol's spine.
“But shouldn't you already be at home? Won't your parents be worried?”
At the mention of ‘parents' the children looked at each other, turned and started walking towards the forest.
“I'll see you tomorrow,” Carol called out.
Only Alex turned around, though she did so in silence.
The following morning the air was crisp. Carol made breakfast for herself and Gavin. The silence between them had become a habit and neither of them seemed perturbed by it. However, as Gavin left for work he kissed Carol on the head and was gone before Carol had thought of anything to say.
She took a sip of her orange juice.
“Are you ready?”
It was Alex.
“The children are so excited,” she continued.
“It's twue,” little Molly confirmed. “We want you to come with us. Maybe you will come and live with us.”
Alex shot the little girl a look which made her promptly button her lips.
“But where would I sleep?” asked Carol innocently.
“You can sleep in my bed,” the little girl replied. “I don't mind.”
“We'll see,” she said. “Now I just have to go and clean my teeth and fetch my coat then I'll be right with you.”
Five minutes later Carol was locking the back door and had all the children clambering to take her hand.
“Children, I only have two hands. Molly you can have one and Kevin, you take the other one.”
And with that they began walking towards the forest, the children forming a line behind Carol, Molly and Kevin, while Alex took up the rear.
“Let's sing a song,” Molly suggested looking up at Carol.
“That sounds like a good idea. What would you like to sing?”
“Wing-A-Wing-A-Wosey,” Molly said.
The boys groaned.
“Not again,” said Kevin, looking up at Carol. “It's the only song she knows.
As they were approaching the forest, Gavin's car pulled into the driveway. He'd left the report he'd been working on in the desk in the study. He came around the corner of the house just as the children started singing and noticed immediately his wife skipping across the backyard towards the forest. And she wasn't alone.
“Carol!” he called out.
But Carol was singing “Ring-A-Ring-A-Rosey” at the top of her voice. Only Alex heard someone shouting. She turned and regarded him coldly.
“Hello,” he called out noticing that one of the children had turned around.
But Alex remained silent.
“Come on guys,” said the wily teen, hurrying by the line of children, “we don't want to be late.”
The children let go of Carol's hands when they entered the forest because it no longer possible to walk together. As they climbed over fallen logs and wound their way around trees and bushes, the children chattered and laughed.
Carol joined in whole-heartedly; in fact she couldn't remember a time when she'd laughed so much.
Gavin called out again but none of them could hear him any more. He began walking towards the forest.
Alex could sense him coming and pushed the group to go faster.
“Okay, last one there is a rotten egg,” she said.
“Yay,” cheered the children. “Come on Carol, you too.”
Tony took her hand and pulled her along.
Little Molly did her best to keep up.
Alex could see the edge of the cliff and far below it on the other side, on the rocks by the small river, the rusted wreck of the school bus they'd been travelling in on that fateful day five years ago.
“We're nearly there,” Alex said. “Come on Molly. Don't be such a slow coach!”
Tony ran faster and faster, dragging Carol along behind him. But Carol felt bad about leaving Molly behind, as Alex
knew she would, and she turned to see how the little girl was faring.
“Come on, Sweetheart,” said Carol. “Would you like me to carry you?”
Gavin burst into the clearing by the edge of the cliff.
“Carol!” he screamed. “Watch out!”
But in the time it took Carol to look from Molly to Gavin and to comprehend what Gavin meant by ‘watch out', she had stepped over the cliff. Screaming, she hurtled towards the rocky ground below.
“Does this mean she can stay with us forever?” Pauline asked Alex as she peered down at Carol's broken and bleeding body.
Alex smiled at the hopeful expression on Pauline's freckled face.
“Yes, Pauline, it does.”