“I always like to say that there’s nothing more terrifying than the human heart.”
Tessa Told Me
by Rob Kotecki
Julie only half listened to Mr. Garland as he ran through the emergency numbers on the fridge, distracted by why Liam hadn’t texted her back. It had been forty-five minutes. They’d agreed to break up when she moved, but spent more time talking now than they ever did living ten minutes away from each other.
“I mean it,” Mr. Garland said, bringing her back to her babysitting gig. “Don’t forget to have fun… just wait until Noah goes to bed,” and he pinched his fingers and brought them to his lips.
As if. She had no idea where to buy yet. The stay at home Dads were always the worst, as they were either OCD about their kid’s every move, or desperate to prove they stayed home because they were so chill. Really.
“If all goes well, I’ll be home around one. If it goes great, I won’t be home at all.” Julie mustered a smile that fell just shy of condescending. He seemed to want something from her. “Don’t worry. Noah and I are going to be fine.”
That did the trick, and he grabbed his guitar case. He was off to play in some sad cover band at the sports bar that seemed like an off-brand TGI Friday’s from the outside. But as soon as he left, there was nothing to distract her from checking her phone and refusing to send a second text, until Liam responded to her last one.
Noah was lost in some stupid video game that seemed set in World War II. He was cute now, even a little shy, but she saw the inner frat boy Noah would grow up to be. She tried to do her calculus, but her attention never drifted far from her phone. Fine. “Busy?” she texted Liam, feeling so cavalier about it right until it was sent, at which point she realized how sad and desperate she was.
She decided to shut her phone off before she did even more damage to her self-respect and offered to play with the kid. Noah wagged his head.
“Tessa says no.”
“She’s nice. She likes you, but she thinks you should go home.”
“Well, too bad for Tessa.” But he merely shrugged and went back to the game.
“She says too bad for you.”
Imaginary friend. Fine. At least the kid’s quiet.
She shrugged and went through the house, gathering clues about the Garlands. Spotless… no doubt from a maid. Framed degrees from colleges she’d never get into even if she could afford them, and photos with politicians she recognized from her parents’ cable news habit, but no real celebrities. Mrs. Garland looked just like Julie imagined her — prim, beautiful, probably a bitch. At least to Mr. Garland. Probably with good reason.
When it was time for his bath, Noah went without even being asked. But after a half hour or so, the bathroom door remained closed. “Everything okay in there?”
She heard a splashing, a gasp. The door was locked.
“Open up, Noah. Noah?” What’s the worst thing that could happen?
“Suit yourself. But I’ll just tell your Dad.” But there was no response. And she knew exactly what the worst thing was.
“I mean it. Open up. Just tell me you’re okay and you can stay in there forever.” Another splash. Another gasp.
She didn’t know how long she’d been banging on the door when it finally gave way, revealing Noah.
Nude. Soaking wet. A puddle at his feet. “Tessa bet me I couldn’t hold my breath longer than her, and she was right.”
Julie swaddled him in a towel, worried and a little pissed that Mr. Garland didn’t warn her how weird Noah was.
“Why wouldn’t you open the door when I told you?”
“Tessa told me not to.”
“Well, Tessa isn’t in charge. I am. Understand?” Noah was smart enough to know not to argue. “How come I can’t hear her?”
He shrugged. “She says there’s still time for you to go.”
“Do you see her right now?”
“She stays in the basement but she can see everything.” Noah said it without the relish of make-believe, like he was showing her where the peanut butter was.
“Well, you don’t have to do everything Tessa says, understand?”
“Dad said I did.”
And that’s when Julie decided she’d never babysit here again. She got him fresh pajamas and let him dress himself.
“It’s time for bed.”
“But you said I could stay up till 9…” She was almost grateful to see him whining like an ordinary twerp.
“That was only if you behaved.”
“Tessa says you’ll be sorry.”
“No locking the door, understand? Sleep tight.” She closed Noah’s door and slipped down the stairs, grateful to have him down for the night. Now if only Liam would get back to her. No such luck. The door to the basement was open, just a crack, but she shut and locked it. Feeling foolish, but relieved.
She flipped through channels, settling for a marathon of the Big Bang Theory even though she’d seen most of them. Outside, a storm gathered, starting with a rain that tap danced on the windows and the porch, swelling to a rickety sleet that seemed to leave the house whimpering beneath its blows.
There was a sense she should check on Noah, but deeper than that, she wanted to assure herself that she wasn’t truly alone. She knows dark, stormy nights with strange children never end well for the babysitter.
Cut. That. Out. She felt like Gretchen, and immediately snapped back to good ole sensible Julie. But a cold pebble dropped in her stomach when she discovered Noah wasn’t in bed.
Or the bathroom. Or any other room. Or closet.
The rain had intensified into hail and it was too loud now to hear the house, or anything else, settle. That stone in her stomach went soft and oozed into a full panic, one that blew past any hesitation she had about checking the attic.
The attic was nothing more than boxes of decorations, toys Noah grew out of, paraphernalia from hobbies long since abandoned. Later, she wondered what drew her to the octagon window. But when she peered out, there was Noah.
Atop the roof, at its very edge, his pajamas soaked dark and calm as can be, his hands outstretched as if he had summoned the storm himself. He was only foot away, but the window couldn’t open. How’d he get up there?
She banged the window, but soon gathered that was useless.
Julie plunged down the steps. Out the front door, off the porch, she didn’t know when she started to scream at him. To get down. To stay there. She didn’t know what to tell him. Up there, any move seemed doomed.
“Tessa told me I could fly! She told me! See?”
And with that, he leapt.
Julie screamed as if her words could somehow catch him, but in the leaping, fell towards her, enough that she didn’t so much catch him, as break his fall. His elbow or his knee, she couldn’t tell, clipped her face.
He tumbled off her and on to the rain-drenched lawn. Noah seemed to have twisted an ankle or bruised something. When he moaned and rolled over, she had never been so fond of a kid before. Unsure if she should move him, she watched as he simply stood up and limped to the front door, still wide open from her dash to save him. How she wanted to grab hold of that tiny weirdo and never let go.
She called Mr. Garland immediately, who was slow to respond, no doubt wailing on some song that was never that good. But when he got one or all of her frantic messages, he raced home, pissed that she had not called an ambulance and livid she’d allowed Noah to fall asleep with a possible concussion.
“Don’t you fucking know that much?”
After the hospital, in the car ride home, Mr. Garland had ceased to sulk or glare or sigh in her direction. Something had shifted now that Noah was in the clear. Back at the house, with Noah tucked in bed, he even cracked a joke and noted her bruised lip.
Mr. Garland walked out of Noah’s room, and after he left and headed downstairs, she heard Noah say something in his sleep. But it made no sense. He said it three or four times:
“We don’t need to tell Mrs. Garland about this,” he said cracking open a pair of beers in the kitchen.
“I’m so glad he’s okay. I mean, nothing like this…”
“I can keep a secret,” he winked, and leaned in to kiss her.
She flinched, took a step back.
“Better get home.”
“No need to rush,” and he cradled her head in hands and before she could pull away his tongue was already inside her mouth, less awkward than when Ethan Hollins tried that in middle school but the effect was the same: an overwhelming urge to spit it out.
“This isn’t wrong.” And his hands began to undo her buttons.
“Mr. Garland- NO…”
And she yanked free of him. He didn’t seem remotely upset. Instead, a smile split open on his face. “I understand, I do. But Julie, part of growing up is learning what you like, and you’d be surprised just what you want. Maybe you’re scared. Maybe it makes you feel dirty, but it’s beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
“I want to go home.”
“Absolutely. Let’s at least get you cleaned up.”
“What’s your Mom going to say when you show up looking like that?”
She couldn’t think of an answer though she knew one was around, like when she misplaced her phone. The house was still. The rain had stopped. And it was now quiet enough to hear Mr. Garland lock the door in the distance.
Back door. That’s what she needed, but could she make it in time? She’d have to run. Run now. Undo those two-
Mr. Garland came back with the first aid kid, but she was no longer in the kitchen. “Julie? Julie. Let’s not be a tease.”
She could hear him from the bottom of the stairs of the basement where she hid. Crouched low, jutting her hand out to the sky so her cell could catch a signal, but nothing came back down. On her hands and knees she retreated further into the darkness, tucking herself in the crawlspace beneath the stairs, packed with garbage bags. She dry heaved from the stench of a perfume that reminded her of rotten fruit doused with gasoline.
Her thoughts scrambled- how could she be so stupid? What if all he wanted was a kiss? Blow it off. Or don’t. Let him do what he’ll do and handle it later. But don’t get trapped like the babysitter on a rainy night with a strange fucking kid and his even stranger Dad.
Windows. Basements have windows. There. A slit of glass, cobwebbed and caked with dust, came into view, but as soon as she lurched in that direction- the basement door squealed open, the basement light flicked on, and Mr. Garland made his way down, but patiently. Why so patient, Mr. Garland?
She pressed even harder into the pile of garbage bags, deeper into that foul fruity smell and held her breath as Mr. Garland reached the bottom of the stairs. She finally pressed deep enough that she hit something inside a garbage bag that wouldn’t budge. She peered just below her armpit, and noticed something poking out of the black plastic.
Skin. Human skin. Couldn’t be. Was that a knee?
She blanked it out, trying to bury herself deeper behind the bags without so much as a rustle, or much of one. She kept her eyes closed, praying to wake up back in her bedroom. Then she heard Mr. Garland return up the stairs, step by step by step.
And she began plotting how to crawl through that window and all the way…
An electronic whoosh blared from her phone. To announce she’d gotten a text. Loud. How loud? It was in her back pocket, but it bleated AGAIN before she could reach it.
It was from Liam: “Hardly. Missing you tho. Still up?”
How she wanted to scream at it, for help, for the love of God, why-
Mr. Garland ripped it from her hands.
“I called my parents!”
But he already scanned the screen to know she was lying.
“Come on out, Julie. I’m not mad. We’ll laugh about this tomorrow.” What struck her was how much she wanted him to be angry. She crawled out from beneath the stairs and there, while standing up before him, she considered that she’d been foolish. Perhaps he was going to simply clean her up and take her home, and would apologize for creeping her out.
And a moment later she discovered just how foolish.
“So you met Tessa.” He gestured to the pile of garbage bags, packed with bundles of potpourri. One of which clearly had a mane of dark hair erupting from its top. “Now she was a gem. Noah just loved her. And you know what? A part of me did too.” He stepped towards her, grabbing hold of her arms.
“But she couldn’t keep a secret. Can you?”
And later, her mouth stuffed with her own underwear, her nose clamped shut in his hands, her body would go still and as soon as it did, she heard a voice, a girl’s voice.
“I told you to run.”
About the Author
Rob Kotecki is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. His recent horror short, TILLY played at a number of major film festivals and won the Audience Award at the Brooklyn Horror Fest this past year. Later this year, Rob will publish UNCLE GRIMM’S GRAVEYARD RHYMES, a series of sick and twisted nursery rhymes for adults. He can be found on Medium and on Twitter, @arthousepunch. Feel free to visit his production company at Volatile Media.