Gabrielle Rocha Rios
A few days after my cousin assaulted me, a boy appeared in the empty space beneath my bed. Try trauma, try anguish, try grief for lost innocence. No attempt to understand why these things happened when they did succeeds. I’ve thought of everything. Even when the thinking would have been better banished or indefinitely deferred.
But the bed. The wooden frame lofted my mattress more than three feet in the air, shallow drawers built into one side, and the opposite face pressed against the wall. The wooden platform beneath the mattress slid backwards and forwards, revealing a rectangular hole with nothing below it. I never knew what this cavity was for, extra storage perhaps, but my parents never put anything there and neither did I. All hiding places are meant to be coveted, so I suppose part of the appeal was the joy in having a place to hide at all. There were many instances where I fell asleep under there, a cool space in the summer. The small slit between my bed and the wall let in enough light to read, which is often how I fell asleep in the first place. Then my mom’s panicked movements downstairs would wake me, slamming doors and calling my name outside, the whole time prompting me to hide out even longer for fear of the reprimand I would receive for scaring her.
A few years went by like this, hiding down there from my parents and then later, their tantrums, plus the bullies who chased me home from the bus even though I knew they would never try and break into the house. Whenever I slid the platform away from the wall so I could step down into the cavity, it was like returning to an empty coffin. At the beginning, I had to use both hands to seal it shut. Later, I could do it with two fingers. Soon I was growing in earnest, becoming too large for the bed to say nothing of the space beneath it, my toes hitting the boards in my sleep, my body instinctively curling into a ball so that I’d wake up cramped and sore.
One day, my mom and I went to visit our grandparents in Orlando and he had been there, my cousin, along with my aunt and uncles, everyone on the floor in sleeping bags in the stuffy living room because there weren’t enough beds in the house. The horror, such as it was, didn’t occur to me in the moment. In the haze of drowsiness and the darkness of the room, amidst the sounds of my relatives snoring or shifting about in their sleep beside, I could feel eyes on me. For a brief moment, I turned my head towards the hallway leading off to my grandparents’ room and the garage. I confess I expected to see something standing there looking back at me. It would not have been the first time in that house.
Those odd Christmases, those Thanksgiving gatherings in the wake of a storm, platters upon platters of homemade food and the golden lights strung all around the outsides of the house and shining crystal glasses full of red liquid, and just outside, in the backyard, a shape like a person, less a shadow than a kind of translucent outline, and this shape would follow you as soon as you noticed it, walk alongside you in the night, lurking in the fronds with only a wall and a window to separate you.
So I expected to see something in the hallway there because that thought was better than allowing myself to be surprised, even though the shape had never before come inside the house. But no. Nothing there, not even a sinister chill, just darkness. I knew whatever was hiding was not waiting for me. Then I felt a hand on my thigh and a weight shifted just above my hips on either side and there he was, a finger to his lips, his children sound asleep behind us.
After, when mom and I went home, everything felt too small. You don’t really know what to do with your body afterwards. In the car, I tried stretching out, chair back, feet under the glove compartment in the front seat, nothing on top of me but air. I opened the windows, stuck my head out, tried in vain to imagine the wind prying open the tunnel vision that seemed to constrict me until it occluded everything. I was young, not naive. People who have been through these situations can often berate themselves, say “I should have known better,” as if to reaffirm that what happened to them was only out of the ordinary because they let it happen. I’m not sure. I just remember thinking everything was too close, too close and not, and even now, the thought of a sleeping bag sends me into a fit of shaking and sweats. I would rather have danced with whatever it was that lived out in my grandparents’ yard. But you don’t get to choose. So I pushed myself out of the car when we got home, empty bags of chips and a crushed water bottle in one hand, my weekend bag in the other, and went upstairs to my room. I pulled on the shallow lip of the platform, the mattress board sliding away from the wall until there was just enough room for me to slip between. Normally I never pulled the top of the bed all the way over my head but that time I needed a proper barrier, a physical shell, and when the incomplete darkness fell over me, musty air in the box like a new woodshop project, I locked eyes with something that shouldn’t have been there.
I once heard a story about a woman with sleep paralysis who felt a strange presence in her room every night for a month. It was a different manifestation than the sort a person with night terrors would be used to. She said it was like the gravity in the room shifted, like something was well and truly there, breathing the same air, something invisible, patient, inscrutable.
The boy beneath my bed did not flinch when I hunched down. He did not move at all. His hair was thin and dark, clumped together with what looked like clay. His legs were crossed, elbows resting on his knees, his head hanging onto his chest as if he were an automaton and someone had switched him off. His eyes turned at an impossible angle, looking at me from beneath the severe tilt of his head. He was dirty and barely covered, streaks of that claylike substance all over his chest and arms and a ripped t-shirt that hung off him like a broken sausage casing. He didn’t smell, which was confusing. How could he not smell like anything? Then the darkness registered along with the ruckus my mom was making as she ran the washing machine downstairs and began cooking dinner so that I knew there was very little chance she would hear me scream.
I leaned over to one side as an experiment. The boy’s eyes followed, irises sliding like wheels on a track. I guess I should be honest and say that I’m not quite sure it was a boy after all. They seemed young enough to lack pubescent breasts and the length of their hair wasn’t going to tell me anything. A child then. Seemingly just a child.
We sat in silence, my palms gripping my knees, my back bent from ducking my head. The person across from me didn’t blink, though this could have merely been a trick of the light. But I could feel their body on the wooden floor. Their breathing was soft, came through their nostrils, and everything was so still and quiet I began to question their existence, hoping I could think them away.
“Is he coming for you too?”
They spoke so suddenly and so clearly that I flinched and hit my head on the wood above. It was barely more than a whisper.
“He? Who is that?” I managed to ask, stuttering.
The child shook their head.
I tried again. “Why-”
Another shake. Wrong question. A piece of clay fell off their face.
Maybe something less direct, I thought.
“Is your neck okay?”
At this, their eyes widened. They looked down, one blackened hand coming up to their clavicle. Soft breath turned to a strained wheeze, but only for a moment.
“This is how I died.” Still the same whisper. Something about this admittance put me at ease immediately. There was nothing I had to fear from a ghost. They were already dead, tragic as it might be. It was the living on my mind at that moment.
“Did…he do it?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“No,” they said. “You didn’t answer my question. You have to answer my question so I know I can trust you.”
“I don’t think he is after me. I don’t know who he is.”
“But he’s touched you.”
I recoiled. The cold miasma of numbness left my body, replaced with a rage that I could feel draining me immediately. The child must have noticed because they drew their hands up, open palmed. What they’d said was less a statement than a faltering accusation. More like, “But didn’t he touch you?” Then it came, the sensation of hands on my waist, the foregrounding of size against size when suddenly you understand just how small you are, just how much stronger he is, and how long this is going to take. Kuya Lee, good with kids, easy to please. The child shifted and I refocused my eyes on them. The rage became a wisp. This child had been murdered. Maybe worse before that, but I was still alive, cloyingly so. I couldn’t be angry at them for that. Then my foolishness dawned on me because maybe it did matter after all and who would know better than me? If it happened once, it could happen again.
“He didn’t touch me,” I said, too calmly, each word enunciated the same way I had heard my mom do when she spoke to dad. “I’ve never met him.”
“So you’re still alive. That’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. Can I have this?”
From their lap they pulled out a burnt orange silk scarf that had been stuffed at the bottom of one of my drawers after a particularly dismal birthday. How long had they been hiding under here? Enough time to rifle through my things. Against the child’s fingers, the scarf had never looked brighter or cleaner. I nodded and they began to wrap the fabric around their neck, lifting their chin just so at first, then higher and higher like a Pez dispenser. There was no way to see what kind of wound they were hiding, and when they finally sat up straight, their neck looked unnaturally long.
“Thanks,” they said.
Downstairs, a crash of something like a plate or a bowl followed by my mom yelling, “Fuck!”
The child turned their attention in the direction of the door.
“Is she with you?”
What an odd question, I thought.
“Yeah, that’s my mom.” I pointed to the scarf. “I thought ghosts couldn’t touch real things.”
The child smiled.
“I have to go,” they said. “I only needed to ask you about him. And the scarf.” They touched their throat. “Can you go out and check for me?”
“To make sure it’s safe.”
“But aren’t you already dead?”
The child grabbed my hand. It was icy but soft and all of the sudden I could smell them, like petrichor, like a worm wriggling into the moss underneath a rock, like something that should never have been disturbed.
“Some things won’t stop until there’s nothing left of you,” they said. “Some things don’t know how.”
The warmth of my hand melted against theirs until all I could feel was water. They let go and I flexed my fingers, droplets of condensation running down my thigh.
“Please check,” they whispered again, their eyes down in their lap.
For a moment, I held my breath. My hips ached. I felt ashamed for not trusting them sooner. I nodded, though they weren’t looking.
“I’ll…give you a thumbs up from the driveway, okay?”
They remained still and whatever dubious permission I had been granted to leave felt as if it was quickly expiring. I wrapped one hand around the lip of the bed’s wooden frame and pushed until I could stand freely. Evening light came as fire through the slats of my window, yellow and red. The shadow beneath the bed was impenetrable. Only the top of the child’s head could be seen, and that clay, which seemed to be completely white in the light. I backed out of my room and raced into the bathroom. Lights on, curtains swished back, nothing there. The same with the den and my mom’s room, nothing under the bed, then downstairs. As I ran around the house, I felt emboldened with purpose. A task, a secret, a reason not to speak with my mom, who I assumed could never understand. The garage door leading into the laundry room was still propped open. Across the hall, in the kitchen, I could smell rice in the cooker and chicken in the oven.
Who was this man? How was I to know it was safe? It’s true that I could only picture my cousin in that moment, my cousin but with a yawning mouth instead of a face and veiny hands and an unsettling, unyielding patience. The front door was locked and so was the side gate that led into the backyard. I crawled behind the bushes, checked the shed, even picked up the coiled water hose before I knew what I was doing. I made my way back along the house through the side gate and onto the driveway. A car passed on its way out of the neighborhood, an elderly woman in a red cardigan behind the wheel. It was a Sunday. Our neighborhood seemed quiet, sleepy.
I turned around, looked up at my bedroom window, gave a thumbs up like I’d promised but I couldn’t see inside for the glare of the setting sun.
I keep thinking about that even now, how sure I was that what I was doing was real, how easily I believed, in a way only a child could. Children helping children. In a world of parents who held each other’s confidence, why shouldn’t we look out for ourselves too, the dead ones and those waiting for death to come?
From inside the house, my mom shouted, “Mike! Come clean up your mess!”
The footprints were white and dusty like the child had stepped in chalk. They came all the way down the stairs, passed through the kitchen, and out into the backyard, door ajar. Little white soles. They must have been right behind me. My mom stood near the stove with her back to me, stirring something, metal scraping metal. I placed my bare foot next to the closest print. Surely she had noticed they were a few sizes too small. I looked up at the ceiling, tried to see through the floor and imagine the child scurrying down the stairs, avoiding my mom, who had probably been in the bathroom and wouldn’t think twice about the sound of feet slapping around the house.
“Dinner’s on soon. Please clean up first,” mom said.
I leaned back to look out through the garage. Just like that night in Orlando, I expected to see something. Just like that night, nothing was there.
Eventually, that one woman with sleep paralysis was able to get back to her normal nightmares, with nothing so unsettling as the shadow that sank its gravity into the room as if to hold her down and watch her sleep at the foot of her bed. A week after the shadow stopped appearing, a friend of hers came by, had a look around. Bits of broken plaster fallen from the ceiling had been pushed beneath the dresser opposite the woman’s bed and the hatch leading into the attic directly above it was slightly out of place, bootprints still visible on the floor. Someone had actually been there watching her.
I don’t mean anything by that story. Well, maybe I do. I’ve just never been able to decide which reality is more terrifying, the tangible one or the ethereal. They’re both true. They both happened.