Category: Short Story
Genre: Horror short story
Approximately 19 printed pages (or about 16 minutes to read).
When Emily Stillman babysits for a new family she discovers a horrific secret that causes her to doubt her sanity.
This story is available for free on this web site for a short time.
I couldn’t take my eyes away from the weird wooden masks on the Jellstout’s living room walls. They looked tribal and creepy.
“The restaurant number is on the fridge under the banana magnet,” Mrs. Jellstout said.
I nodded at her, but my eyes kept darting back to the masks.
She noticed where I looked. “Those are my husband’s pride and joy. West African.”
“They’re … interesting,” I said.
“Yes. Jonathan spent six months traveling from Benin to Togo while working on his doctorate. My cell’s on there too. I should get yours.”
She had a pen poised over a small pad of paper. I told her my number. She scribbled it down and stuck the paper in her purse.
“Oh dear,” she said. “I don’t know about this. It’ll be the first time we’ve left him since …” She trailed off. As she spoke she rubbed the gem of her necklace, a large red ruby I think.
“What a beautiful necklace,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not real.” She wrapped her fist around the gemstone, hiding it.
“Oh dear,” she said again.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Jack and I will have lots of fun playing games and coloring until bedtime.”
The car honked from the garage. Mr. Jellstout was getting impatient with this long goodbye.
“Come here Jack.” The six year old ran to her side. She squatted down and hugged him. “You be good. Mind Emily.”
The car honked again.
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Jellstout said. “If I think of something I’ll call.”
I put my hand on Jack’s shoulder, smiled and waited for her to leave.
She started toward the door to the garage, stopped, spun around and waved. “Bye.”
“Bye,” I said and squatted down next to Jack. “Wave bye Jack.”
He raised his hand but instead of waving, opened and closed his little fist several times. “Bye Mommy.”
Mrs. Jellstout smiled at her son, eyes glistening.
The car honked for the third time and Mrs. Jellstout turned and disappeared into the garage. Jack and I waited there until we heard the garage door close.
“I miss my Mommy.”
I suppressed the urge to laugh. “I know sweetie, but think of all the fun we’re going to have.” I got onto all fours. “Now, partner, why don’t you hop onto my back and I’ll give you a ride to the living room.”
He climbed onto my back, his little hands holding my shirt in bunches. I moved across the kitchen floor, whinnying like a horse. Then I blew a huge raspberry. “Excuse me.”
Little Jack giggled. One thing about little kids, you make fart noises and they think you’re a comic genius.
I lumbered to the living room and bucked him off onto the couch. He tried scrambling back onto my back, but I stood. “We’ll play more in a bit, but I have some things to show you. Sit down and I’ll give you a surprise.”
He sat back on the couch, watching me with wide eyes.
I fetched my backpack from the kitchen and sat next to him on the couch. “Now, I wonder what we have in here.” I pulled the zipper back and removed a large crayon box and two coloring books and sat them on the coffee table.
“Dinosaurs,” he said, seeing the coloring books. He reached for them.
“No, not yet. Look at this.” I pulled a sheet of stickers from my backpack. There were cars and rockets and, of course, dinosaurs. All kids love dinosaurs. I held the sheet up for him to see, but when he reached for it I jerked it away. “No, these are mine.”
His grin flipped to a frown.
“But,” I said. “Every time you do something good, or win a game, you get a sticker. Since you’ve been such a good boy sitting on the couch, you can have one now.” I held the sheet out to him. “Point to which one you want.”
He pointed to the center at the large T-Rex.
“Okay, now where do you want to put the sticker?”
He looked confused for a moment and then pointed to his forehead.
“On your face?”
He giggled. “Yeah.”
I shook my head. “That’s not a good place. How about in your room.”
He shot from the couch like he had been fired from a gun, running to his room.
I followed, looking at the clock and sighing. Just past six. Two hours playing with the kid before bedtime. Then, if Jack was like most kids, an hour making him stay in bed until I could watch TV.
In his room he touched his bed’s headboard. “Here. Put it here.”
“No. I’m not going to put it there, but you can. Here.” I peeled off the sticker and handed it to him.
He took the sticker with great care, as if it were a precious treasure. He put it on his headboard and smoothed it out.
“It’s upside down,” I said.
He flopped onto back, head on pillow, and rolled his head backward to look at the sticker. “Nuh-uh.”
“Okay Jack. What next? Coloring?”
He jumped out of the bed. “Ice cream!”
I crossed my arms over my chest and looked at him with a stern eye. “Your mom didn’t mention ice cream. You sure it’s okay?”
He jumped up and down. “Yes. Ice cream.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You absolutely, 100% sure?”
I sighed, acting like getting ice cream was a huge inconvenience, but I was only teasing. “I guess we can have some ice cream.”
“Yay.” He took off, running toward the kitchen.
I followed and opened the freezer. “Doesn’t look like there’s any here.”
His shoulders slumped and it looked like he was about to cry.
Kneeling down next to him, I lifted his chin to look at me “I’m sorry, but there’s no ice cream.”
His eyes opened wide. “The big freezer.”
It’s amazing how fast little kids can go from happy to sad or sad to happy. It’s like their emotions flip from one extreme to another instantaneously. I stood up, grabbed his hand. “Show me.”
He pulled me to the garage and I flicked on the switch and a single dim bulb came on in the middle of the garage, barely lighting the place. Even in the faint light I could see this was the cleanest garage I had ever been in. Various lawn tools hung on the walls, several dozen boxes were stacked against one wall and next to them, a riding mower. A small workbench was built into another wall with a row of cabinets on one side. Two freezers, an upright and a chest freezer, were on the other side of the workbench. Jack released my hand and ran over to the upright freezer and tugged on the handle.
Packages of meat and frozen vegetables, neatly stacked and labeled, filled the freezer. In the door were two half gallons of ice cream.
“Looks like we have vanilla or Rocky Road,” I said. “Which one?”
I grabbed the ice cream, shut the freezer door and notice the chest freezer had a large padlock on it.
“What’s in there?” I pointed to the chest freezer.
His eyes were serious. “I’m not supposed to talk bout it.”
I knelt down, eye level to Jack. “Your mom left me in charge, remember? It’s okay to tell me”
“No.” He ran back into the house.
Weird. I went back into the kitchen, turning the light off behind me, and put the ice cream on the kitchen counter. Jack wasn’t there.
“Jack. Where are you?” I called out.
In his bedroom, I looked in the closet and under the bed. “Jack. This isn’t funny. Where are you?”
Next, I checked the master bedroom. He wasn’t anywhere. “Jack, seriously, we can play hide and seek later.”
I went back down the hallway toward the kitchen, and checked the hall closet as I went. I heard muffled sobbing in the bathroom.
“Jack? You okay?” I opened the bathroom door, afraid it’d be locked but it wasn’t. The crying came from the bathtub. I pulled the shower curtain back and there he was, curled up in a fetal position, sucking his fingers—not his thumb, but two fingers from one hand.
“Oh sweetie. It’s okay.” I pulled him to me hugging him.
“I can-can’t talk about it.”
“You don’t have to.” I squeezed him tight. “I’m sorry I asked you and I promise we won’t talk about it. Ready for ice cream?”
His face was still buried in my shoulder but he nodded his head.
“Okay. Ice cream it is.” I scooped him up and carried him to the kitchen.
I pulled out a kitchen chair with my foot and set him in it. The instant I released him he scrambled from the chair and into a different one.
“Don’t you like that chair?” I asked, trying to sound like it was no big deal.
“It’s Daddy’s chair.”
“He’s not here now.”
“But he … he would know if I sat in it and I’m not supposed to.” He looked on the verge of tears again.
The boy was terrified of doing the wrong thing. Was there some sort of abuse going on in this house? I didn’t know the Jellstouts. Never babysat for them before. My mom knew Mrs. Jellstout from a mutual friend and got me the babysitting gig. Maybe Mom’d know if there was anything hinky going on here.
One thing for sure, I needed to calm little Jack down.
“It’s okay Jack. You sit where you want. Now, you want a lot of ice cream or just a little bit?”
He looked up at me, almost shyly. “A lot.”
“Okay, one big bowl of Rocky Road coming up.” I found the bowls and spoons and dished out a good size helping and put it in front of him. He eagerly started eating it, getting chocolate smeared on his face. I retrieved a glass and filled it up with tap water and put it on the table next to him. “I don’t know about you, but eating ice cream always makes me thirsty.”
He looked at the water glass for a moment, then pushed it away, knocking the glass over, spilling water over the table.
“Jack, that wasn’t very nice.”
He sprang from the chair and disappeared back down the hallway, whimpering as he went.
I let out a heavy sigh and followed him. The masks on the living room wall seemed to be smiling at me as I passed by. He was in the bathroom again, hiding in the tub. I pulled back the shower curtain and sat on the tub’s edge. “What’s wrong?”
He covered his face with his hands and shook his head wildly.
“I’m sorry. Come on Jack. It’s okay.”
He lowered his hands and examined me as if trying to judge if I could be trusted.
“I’m sorry, Jackie. I didn’t know you don’t like water.”
“I—I—” he took a sharp intake of breath, a final sob, before continuing. “That’s bad water.”
“Your tap water is bad?”
He nodded solemnly.
“Why’s it bad?” I asked.
“I’ll get sick if I drink it.”
How bizarre. “Okay, you don’t have to drink it. Come on, let’s finish the ice cream.”
He looked at me, lower lip quivering.
“Let’s go. Want me to carry you?”
I scooped him up and carried him back into the kitchen and sat him at his seat. “Go ahead and eat the ice cream and I’ll clean up this bad water.” I grabbed a dish towel, wiped up the spilled water, and put the glass in the sink. Then I pulled out the chair next to him. “Okay if I sit here?”
He nodded, while spooning ice cream into his mouth.
I studied the kid, chewing my lip. What was wrong with him? He was as skittish as a jack rabbit. Happy one second and terrified the next. Afraid of water? Sheesh. He didn’t seem slow or autistic, just frightened.
“You have any not bad water?” I asked.
He pointed to the refrigerator.
“Want a glass?”
He didn’t say anything, just kept shoveling in the ice cream.
“Jack, sweetie, would you like a glass of good water?
I got up, opened the fridge, and found a large green Tupperware pitcher. I showed him the pitcher. “This?”
I poured him a cup. The water had a reddish tint. I hesitated, not sure what was in the water. I sniffed it. It smelled weird, like copper. I put the cup on the table. “You sure you want this?”
He grabbed the cup and gulped the water.
“Why is the other water not good?” I asked.
He finished draining the cup and let out a small burp. He covered his mouth, stifling a giggle.
When I laughed he stopped trying to hide his giggle and laughed full out as if it were the funniest thing in the world.
“I burped,” he said.
“Yes you did. It’s funny. Why is the other water bad?”
“Floor ice? What is?—Oh, fluoride?”
Wow. His parents were scaring him about the fluoride in the drinking water. I knew there were some weird fluoride conspiracy theories but had never known anyone who actually believed them.
I wanted to ask more about the locked freezer, but didn’t want Jack to freak out again.
“Ready to play a game?” I asked.
“Okay. Hide and seek. You go hide. How high should I count to?”
I laughed. “How about 100?”
His head bobbed up and down.
“Okay. Go hide. I’m counting. One. Two.”
He zoomed down the hallway. No doubt to hide in the bathtub since that seemed to be his safe place. I continued counting while tidying up the kitchen. Then I went to the living room, kicked back on the couch, counting loudly but slowly. The idea was to make this game drag out as long a possible.
The back of my neck tingled. I looked at the creepy African masks on the wall and shuddered.
If the freezer was padlocked, then there’d have to be a key. I could look for the key while acting like I was trying to find Jack. I rushed through the final numbers up to 100 and yelled. “Ready or not, here I come.”
First stop kitchen. I talked loud enough for Jack to hear me. “I bet you snuck into the kitchen when I wasn’t looking. Are you hiding in the drawers?” I rummaged through the kitchen drawers and cabinets. There was a junk drawer filled with odds and ends such as glue and scissors and coupons and papers and pens. No keys though.
I pushed a chair to the refrigerator. “Are you hiding on top of the fridge?” No keys up there. The pantry wasn’t large, the size of a coat closet. Canned food, boxes of rice and cereal, and other foodstuffs were stacked on the shelves. On the top shelf, behind rolls of paper towels, I discovered something horrible.
A row of clear jars, like the ones my grandma uses for canning, but these jars didn’t hold strawberry preserves or canned green beans. They contained body parts.
I saw several ears in one jar and a nose in another. A couple jars were filled with eyes—disgusting looking yellowish, bloodshot eyes. What really got me was the tongue. I hadn’t realized how large and gross looking a tongue is.
I shuddered and replaced the paper towels, hiding my discovery. What type of people were the Jellstouts? I mean, who had weird crap like this in their kitchen pantry?
I stood in the kitchen, not knowing what to do. Should I report this? If so, to whom? Storing bits and pieces of people in jars couldn’t be legal.
My biggest question was why. What possible reason did the Jellstouts have for those jars? Did he pick them up in Africa? Like the masks.
Oh my God. What if Mr. Jellstout was a cannibal? I mean, weren’t some tribes still cannibalistic? If he was then what would I find in the locked freezer? I had to get into the freezer.
I went down the hallway to the bathroom. I didn’t think the freezer key would be in there, but I wanted to check on Jack. “Are you in the toilet?” I lifted the toilet lid and heard a giggle from down the hall. So he wasn’t in the bathroom.
“I know where you are,” I said, going to his bedroom. “You’re hiding on the ceiling.”
Again I heard a giggle from down the hall. He must be in the master bedroom. There was no way his parents would keep a key in his bedroom, if they even had one in the house. With my luck the Jellstouts would have the freezer key with them.
My cell phone rang. It was Mrs. Jellstout. Talk about overprotective parents.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. One part of me wanted to go on, to explain we were having fun and put any worries she may have to rest, but another part of me was still weirded out by the body parts in the kitchen pantry.
“You sure everything’s fine?” she said.
“Yes. Jack’s been no trouble at all.” I didn’t mention the trauma in the bathtub.
“Good. Call me if anything strange happens.”
You mean like finding a tongue in a jar? “Strange how?”
“I mean if there are any questions. Don’t hesitate to call.”
“Okay,” I said.
She hung up. I checked the time on my cell phone. Just after seven. I still had an hour to kill before I could put the kid to bed.
I turned on the lights in the master bedroom. “Oh no. I think Jack’s disappeared.”
A giggle came from the closet.
“Maybe he’s under the bed.” I knelt down to look under the bed while scoping out the room. Small nightstands stood on either side of the bed and against one wall was a large dresser.
I pulled open a nightstand drawer. “Aha, you’re in here.” No keys. I tried the other nightstand but it was locked.
Now I had a freezer and a locked nightstand to get into.
I put my hand on the closet door’s handle. “Maybe you’re in the closet.” I opened it just an inch. “No, that’s silly. Boys don’t go into closets, clothes go in closets.” I shut the closet door.
Loud giggling came from the closet.
I put my hands to my cheeks. “Oh no. Where could Jack be? I think he’s disappeared. I sure hope I don’t have to call the police.”
The closet door flew open. “Here I am.” His grin couldn’t have been wider.
“You win,” I said. “Want to play again?”
“Yeah,” he flew from the room.
“Wait, Jack. Don’t I get to hide?”
He came back. “I can count to eight.”
“Okay, you count to eight and I’ll hide. Then it’ll be your turn to hide again.”
“One. Two. Three.”
I left the bedroom, went to the bathroom, and stepped into the tub, closing the shower curtain halfway. Shortly, Jack came down the hall, directly to the bathroom.
He pulled the shower curtain aside. “Found you.”
“Wow,” I said. “You’re good at this. Now I’ll count again. Go hide.”
He ran off again. Why do little kids run everywhere? I counted aloud as I headed to the living room and noticed, just inside the front door, a small shelf. Above the shelf was a hook with a ring of keys hanging on it.
Could I have been any less observant?
I grabbed the keys and stuck them in my pocket and quickly finished counting before yelling “Ready or not here I come.”
I followed the same routine as earlier, checking the bathroom, speaking loudly so Jack could hear me, and checking his bedroom. This time I heard no giggling.
“Hmmm,” I said loudly. “I wonder if Jack hid in the closet again.”
In the master bedroom I was tempted to try unlocking the nightstand but wanted to check on Jack first. Something felt wrong. I opened the closet door. No Jack.
Where could he be?
I did a quick check in the closet, looked under the bed, and went back to the hallway.
“Wow Jack. You’re a really good hider.”
I listened. No giggling. Where was he?
I opened the hall closet, but he wasn’t in there either. In his bedroom I checked the closet and under the bed.
Where was the little bugger?
I had checked the bathtub earlier, but not under the bathroom sink. He was neither there nor in the laundry hamper.
Back in the hallway I yelled for him. “Okay Jack. I give up. You win.”
My cell phone rang. I pulled it from my pocket. “Hello?”
“Where’s Jack?” It was Mrs. Jellstout.
“We’re playing hide and seek. He’s hiding.”
“Did you give him any water?” she asked.
“Emily! Listen very carefully. Did you give him any water?”
“He was thirsty but didn’t want tap water so I gave him a glass from the pitcher in the fridge.”
“Oh my God. We’re on our way. Wait for us. Don’t go outside and don’t call the police.”
“Why would I call—” but she had already hung up.
Did I poison him with the water? And how did Mrs. Jellstout know?
“Jack! This isn’t funny. Where are you?”
I ran back down the hall to the master bedroom and looked again. “Jack! Are you in here?”
I rushed though the hall closet again and his bedroom and the bathroom, all the while calling his name.
Where did he go? Maybe he slipped past me and was back in the kitchen.
I ran to the living room. The masks on the wall seemed to be judging me. I rushed into the kitchen, checked every cabinet and the pantry.
“Jack! Come on! You want more ice cream?”
Maybe he slipped past me into the garage when I wasn’t looking. I headed across the kitchen to the garage door and opened it. The lights were still off from earlier. I doubted Jack would be in the dark garage, but I flipped on the dim light anyway.
There weren’t many hiding places in the garage. “Jack, you out here?”
I stared at the padlocked chest freezer, indecisive. Should I check it out or continue trying to find Jack.
I was tempted, but what was more important? Satisfying my curiosity or finding the missing kid?
I hadn’t checked the doors and windows. I rushed back into the house, leaving the garage door open behind me, and ran to the front door. It was locked and the deadbolt was set. He couldn’t have gone out the front door.
“Jack! You’re mom and dad are coming home and they’re going to be very angry with you.”
I checked his bedroom window. It was closed and for some reason had bars on it. He couldn’t have gotten out there.
I ran to the master bedroom. Neither of the windows there had bars, but they were both closed.
“Jack. I’ll give you all the dinosaur stickers you want if you come here right now.”
I ran back into the hallway. Where else were there windows?
The living room windows didn’t open. Above the bathtub was a small window. Maybe it was small enough for a little boy to climb through but how would he reach it? He couldn’t have gotten out.
In the hallway I screamed. “Jack! Come here now!” The neighbors probably heard me screaming but I didn’t care.
Where’d he go? Why did Mrs. Jellstout tell me not to go outside? And how had she known he was gone?
What if Jack wasn’t Mr. Jellstouts real son and the biological father had kidnapped him?
I ran to the garage again and checked the walk-in door. It was locked, but he could have went outside and pulled it shut behind him.
The Jellstouts would be home any minute. I rushed over to the chest freezer, fished the keys from my pocket and tried different keys in the padlock. The third one fit. I unlocked it and opened the freezer.
Jack was inside the freezer. He lay flat on his back, eyes closed. A quarter inch of frost covered him.
I heard a shriek. It sounded far off in the distance. After several seconds I realized it was me screaming.
Darkness shrouded the edge of my vision and I felt lightheaded. I reached out, grabbed the freezer for support, trying not to crumple to the ground. But I couldn’t look away from Jack. How did he get in there?
The motor on the garage door whirred to life and the garage door started rolling up. What could I do? I hadn’t put him in the freezer but the Jellstouts would think I had.
Their car came halfway into the garage. Both doors opened and Mr. and Mrs. Jellstout rushed to me.
I laughed—I don’t know why. Laughter was not appropriate. Nothing seemed real. Was I stuck in a crazy dream?
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Jellstout said, putting her arm around me. “It’s okay. It’s all okay.”
I pulled away from her. “No it’s not. He’s in there.”
“I know dear. It’s okay.”
Mr. Jellstout grabbed me from behind.
I tried to slip from his grip, but he was too strong.
“Bring her,” Mrs. Jellstout told her husband. She walked past me, into the house and I noticed her necklace. The gem was no longer red. It was gray and it pulsed. Bright-dim, bright-dim, reminding me of a beating heart.
Mr. Jellstout pushed me forward. I started to scream but his hand clamped around my mouth.
He whispered in my ear. “You be quiet if you want to live through this.”
He pushed me into the kitchen and into his chair—the one Jack had been afraid to sit in—and stood behind me. Mrs. Jellstout was searching for something in the junk drawer.
“Whyaht?” I said, a combination of why and what. I couldn’t even form the questions I had. There were too many.
Mrs. Jellstout found what she was looking for in the drawer. She came toward me, holding a hand behind her back and speaking. “I’m sorry Emily. I thought it would be okay, but we were gone too long. See, Jack drowned almost a year ago.”
She was crazy. Jack wasn’t dead. Yet he was in the freezer. Impossible. I didn’t understand.
“It was the worst day of my life, but Jonathan knew just what to do. We froze poor little Jack’s body and he contacted a shaman friend he had in West Africa.”
I just stared at her.
“Three weeks later they were able to give Jack’s spirit form. I had my little Jack back.” She looked at her husband. “Hold her.”
He held my shoulders.
“It’ll all be fine, Emily. You won’t remember a thing, but I’m afraid we won’t need a babysitter again for quite a while.”
She brought the needle out from behind her back.