Penance


I was nine years old when the voice first spoke to me.

At first I didn’t notice it. Walking home from school on a balmy August afternoon there were a dozen clashing sounds: traffic buzzing on the sidewalk, other kids shrieking with laughter as they shoved by me, the saccharine, jaunty melody of an icecream truck passing by a block a way. I could barely hear my own thoughts, let alone a strange voice amongst them. The little concentration I could spare was given to holding onto a blue popsicle at such an angle that it didn’t drip down my sleeve or fly out of my hand every time some screaming middle schooler barged my elbow.

Now, whenever a day like comes along I can still taste the artificial blueberry sweetness, feel an icy pit in the middle of my tongue, and hear that voice, crooning at the back of my mind.

“Bite your tongue. Bite your tongue or something bad is going to happen.”

I could tell the voice had come from inside my head from the way that I could feel the words rather than hear them, but it wasn’t one I recognised. Not my own accentless inner voice that narrated every step of my life, nor those of any of my friends or cartoon characters I sometimes summoned to entertained myself. This voice was high and sing-song, thrumming almost, the way I’d imagine an insect to talk, if it could. It crooned again and again, as if it thought the more it repeated itself the more willing I’d become to obey.

Of course I just shook my head and kept walking, wriggling the tip of my tongue through a hole in the popsicle. I wasn’t a stranger to impulsive thought- the pull of the drop beneath a high window, the urge to touch the undeveloped, fluttering soft-spot of a newborn’s skull, awful things that occur in the moment, things I would never dream of following through. Yet this was no offhand impulse but a persistent, cruel demand- no, a threat, promising some undisclosed punishment if I didn’t do as it asked.

I slowed my pace slightly, frowning, trying to focus on the voice despite the jovial chaos around me. It was still talking, the same sensless words, again and again.

“Bite your tongue or something bad is going to happen.”

It was stupid, I knew that, but knowing it didn’t make me feel any better about it. Hurting myself couldn’t prevent some catastrophe, wouldn’t do anything except give me a sore mouth for the end of the day. There no was no logic there at all, but as I listened to that bitter little chant I remembered every superstition and Old Wive’s tale I’d ever heard and wondered if there was any truth to them.

After all, I never could resist saluting magpies or avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. It always seemed like tempting fate to defy them, although the one time I slipped and brought my sneaker down on a shattered flagstone my mother’s back remained thankfully unbroken. Perhaps it would make equal sense to obey the voice, just in case.

But even at that age I knew hearing voices was for crazy people, and doing what they said even nuttier still. So I shook my head, crunched the last of my popsicle and hurried on towards home, barely noticing as the voice dwindled away.

Half an hour later I burst through the front door of my house and tossed my school bag down in the hallway, yelling to my Mom that I was home safe and no creepazoid had snatched me off the streets. She didn’t like me walking to and from school alone, but I would have died rather than get picked up at the gates like a baby. I slouched through into the living room, surprised that her usual shout back hadn’t come.

“Hello? Didn’t you hear, I made it another day, Mom!”

Silence- weird, because I knew from the car in the driveway that Mom was home, but while the TV or radio was usually blasting and I could hear my mother bustling around making dinner there was only quiet, still, unfamiliar. Beginning to feel alarmed I rounded into the kitchen and-

And there she was, my mother, slumped over the counter with her head on her arms, and her shoulder shaking with sobs. A telephone receiver lay on the countertop, and unpacked grocery bags were scattered around the kitchen floor, abandoned.

“Mom? Are you okay?”

I hated it my mother cried, and she cried at a lot of thing: Christmas movies, photographs of other people’s babies, sometimes because when her meds ran out and her back hurt. I never knew what to say, how to squash down that guilty feeling of revulsion. Cautiously I approached, repeating my question until Mom’s head lifted from her arms and I saw her eyes, so red with tears that for one heart-stopping moment I thought that they were bleeding.

“Mom, what’s going on? Are you sick?”

“It’s… it’s Dad,” she said, her voice raw and strained, like a cat’s cry. “He… he had an accident at work. One of the factory machines malfunctioned and he… he got stuck in it. A freak accident, that’s what they kept saying, and…”

Whatever words were meant to come next choked on a strangled sob. With hands still sticky from the popsicle I patted her on the back, trying to swallow down my own rising panic.

“It’s gonna be okay, Mom. We can go visit him at the hospital, right?”

I remembered the voice, the grim warning, and was glad that my mother couldn’t hear my thoughts or read the regret in my expression. As senseless as it was I wished that I’d appeased it, hated that I’d been cocky enough to ignore its suggestion. My patting on my mother’s back increased. She flinched away.

“He’s not in the hospital. He… he died. They said it was the shock, it was so sudden, his arms, they were-“

My mother made a sickening, helpless gesture, as if wiping clean a filthy window, and I understood. I wish that I hadn’t. In my mind I saw the anthropomorphised jaw of a machine crush my father into a pulp of bone, the way my teeth should have crushed my tongue, if I’d listened. If I had listened.

I ran upstairs to my room and threw myself on my bed, butting my skull against the mattress, biting my tongue again and again until the muscle was swollen and my mouth was full of blood. Part of me hoped that if I did it enough times whatever had whispered to me in that creaking, insectoid buzz would relent and give my father back to me, make my mother realise the call had been a mistake and that he was alright. But when I woke up the next day, wired with sleep deprivation and still tasting the copper penny tang of blood, my father was still dead, and it was my fault, at least partially.

After all, even if I hadn’t directly killed him the voice had given me plenty of time to save his life. It had tried to help me. One second of pain for myself and I could have kept my Dad alive, I was certain of it. How else could the voice have known a disaster was coming, whatever or whoever it was?

I didn’t dare to think what it actually was. Even then I didn’t believe in God, and it seemed unlikely that angels would try intervene with such a strange suggestion. Perhaps a demon had taken pity on me, exchanging pain for a life. Maybe even Death itself. I didn’t know, and didn’t particularly want to. The following weeks were a fog of grief, self-blame and fear, fear of myself, of hearing the voice again, my heart a constantly palpatating mass.

The funeral, when it came, was awful. It was a church service, something my staunchly atheist father would have rolled his eyes at, the building small and stuffy and somehow cheap feeling. I kept looking at the dusty stained glass windows and sun bleached pewter pillows, my stomach souring, wishing I could just get up and leave. The priest mumbled so badly that I barely registered a word he was saying, and halfway through the service my mother stumbled up out of her seat and lay in the aisle, sobbing openly. All I could do was stare at her in rigid horror, not knowing how to help her, feeling almost as if I had no right to.

The thing that struck me hardest in the time afterwards was how quickly life returned to a relative normality, barely stilling for a moment. I’d never experienced death before, and I was appalled that I would have return to school and to my routine as if every cell of my being wasn’t screaming for my father back.

More than once I was removed from classes because I couldn’t stop shaking, chattering my plastic chair against the desk. Being sent home was almost worse because of the silence, the machine oil scent of my father still clinging to the furniture. The wrongness of the house without him.

My Mom was barely home; the financial strain of single parenting had forced her to pick up more shifts caring for an elderly lady who lived two blocks away. She never resented me for it- after all, she couldn’t know my part in Dad’s accident, wouldn’t have believed it if she did- but she hated the job with a passion or, more specifically, she hated Mrs Kritch.

The old woman was apparently a coarse-mouthed, difficult eccentric who had seared every relationship she’d ever had into ashes, satisfied with no one, not even her own children. Now in her seventies and riddled with a plethora of cancers and chronic illnesses she had no one but my mother to care for her, continuing to live year after year apparently by the tenacious force of her own will alone.

“The old witch barely has a larynx left and she still smokes like a fucking chimney,” my mother said, after a particularly long shift.

I stared at her, mouth hanging open. My sweet-tempered Mom rarely spoke ill of anyone, let along enough to curse. She didn’t even wince and apologise the way she usually did if an F bomb slipped in my presence, only rubbed her temples with red-knuckled hands.

“If you could just see her sitting there and puffing away, like she doesn’t have a dozen wires coming out of her for a reason. Like I’m there for the fun if it. Just makes you wonder why people like her get to live while your Dad…”

Slapping my hands over my ears I left the room. I couldn’t even hear my father’s name without being overwhelmed with nauseating shame, thick and bitter and all-consuming. School had arranged counselling for me, but I endured it all closed-lipped and feeling worse than before. I couldn’t tell the nice, bespectacled therapist lady that I condemned my father to death, ignored a warning that couldn’t have been any clearer. With my head bowed I’d only pretend to listen to her talking, probing my scarred tongue across the roof of my mouth.

I didn’t hear the voice again until a year later, although I hadn’t stopped anticipating it, not even for a moment. When it came again I was lying on my back on my bedroom floor, idly watching the door ease gently back and forth. A September breeze was blowing through my open window, and I hadn’t the energy to get up and close it.

It was one of my heavier days, the weight of my sadness making the rest of me leaden and still. I wondered if this was how it felt to be dead, if souls lay helpless in the prisons of corpses, forever staring at the underside of a coffin lid through eyes no more than worm-eaten holes.

It was as I was thinking this that I heard the voice, scratching at the back of my skull in an unmistakable hiss.

“Trap your finger in that door or something bad will happen. Trap your finger in the door.”

I sat up so quickly that my head swam and sparks flew before my eyes. This time I didn’t even question the demand; I knew that refusing it would cause misery and agony far worse than I would suffer. I crawled towards the door, placed the forefinger of my left hand between the hinge and the wall and let it swing.

There was a snap of gristle and bone as my finger folded inwards, and pain exploded in my knuckle as suddenly as a gunshot. I was so frightened by the crooning voice that I didn’t even have breath to scream, only emit a faint, whistling gasp.

When the door moved again I pulled my hand away from the wall and cradled it to my chest, trying not to look at the blood guttering from my broken finger. My whole body was shaking, not with pain but with relief. The voice had quieted, and I felt a sense of- of gratification, as if whatever being had reached out was allowing me to know that it was pleased.

Bathed with sweat I stumbled downstairs to find my mother. She had just returned home from attending to Mrs Kritch, and was slowly draping her jacket over the back of a dining room chair with a look of utter exhaustion.

“What a day,” she said, without turning to face me. “Two of the old hag’s daughters turned up at the house to have a screaming match with her- God knows what about, and it’s not like she can scream back, but she doesn’t have to. She just whispers, and I swear there’s just something about it that gets to you. I thought one of them would get violent. The daughters certainly didn’t want me there; they seemed to think I should leave the old woman to her own devices. And you know what, Angie? I was this close to doing it. I haven’t been scared like that in a long while. I-“

“Mom,” I whispered.

Finally she turned and saw me, and for a second I thought she was about to faint. I can only imagine what went through her mind when she saw me, wan-faced and gripping a digit more exposed bone than finger, blood trailing the carpet. She bundled me into the car and got me to hospital in under half an hour. Having a compound fracture reset is one of the purest pains I’ve experienced in my life, but I sat and endured it with an almost monk-like resolve.

I wasnt sure what would have happened to my mother if I hadn’t appeased the voice- of course I couldn’t be certain anything would have happened at all -but the sense of power, control and release I felt in having prevented a tragedy was indescribable. It seemed as if I’d felt nothing but misery and anxiety since the day my Dad died, and now I was elated. I couldn’t undo the past, but I could prevent any future threats; the voice, it seemed, was helping me, and extreme though its measures were I resolved to obey, no matter the cost.

The voice returned to me only a few times a year after that, always with a new grisly suggestion. I’d cut my arm to later find out my mother had narrowly avoided hitting a snow drift when driving on an icy road, strike my face against a mirror to find that I hadn’t failed an exam I’d lacked the capacity to study for. Quickly I began to yearn for that voice as much as I feared it, desperately wanting to anticipate every one of life’s horrors before it came.

In the gaping months between its visitations I took it upon myself to inflict little injuries, seizing upon the chance that the same rules of exchange applied even if the voice didn’t present itself to me. Each hurt brought that same blissful relief, the same certainty that I and the ones I loved were safe. It brought me a sense of clarity I’d never known before, grounding me, drawing me out of my sombre shell.

Slowly the friends I’d alienated with my impenetrable grief returned to me, my grades improved. A part of me knew how wrong it was that I had to suffer to be happy, but I never questioned it; I was only glad.

Mom, however, saw through it all. One night over dinner she grasped my arm and turned it over, her tired eyes scanning the raised scars knotting the skin, new and old.

“Why don’t you talk to me instead of doing this?” she asked, her voice dull with exhaustion. “It makes me so sad. I’ll get you a better therapist, whatever you want. You don’t have sit in your room alone and… and do that.”

“You don’t get it,” I said, tugging my arm back.

“The words of every long-suffering teenager that ever lived,” my mother replied. “Listen, I know you miss Dad. I miss him so badly I could scream for hours and hours. And I blame myself all the time, somehow, even though there would have been nothing I could do if I’d been there. Nothing at all.”

I felt tears on my face before I even knew I was crying. My Mom’s eyes were similarly gleaming.

“I can’t keep doing that,” she said. “And you can’t keep hurting yourself. Soon you’ll be leaving school and going to college and I won’t be able to look out for you then the way I can now. Please let me help you. You’re my baby.”

I stood up, moving away from the table. My mouth was too dry to answer, for as my mother spoke another voice hissed at me, the voice I’d been waiting for.

Helpless to resist it I backed against the nearest wall and struck my forehead against it, one, two, three times, striking hard enough to draw blood. The voice often compelled me to do things odd numbers, three slashes here, nine bruises there, and although I didn’t understand the reason I didn’t dare end on an even number.

My mother watched me, her jaw hanging, her eyes flicking from me to the wall.

The anguish and repulsion in her expression broke something in me. I hit the wall again, raising the number to nine, to fifteen, for although the voice had fallen silent I needed to carry on, to scrape the residue of shame away.

“What is wrong with you?” my Mom asked, quietly.

I stood, smiling, blood dripping from my forehead. My whole body quivered with adrenaline.

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing. It’s alright.”

It was only later when the high of obeying the voice faded away that I realised what a terrible thing I’d done. I lay in bed, wide-eyed and sleepless as the image of my mother’s pale, disbelieving face replayed on a terrible loop. In the early hours of the morning I got up and went downstairs to find my Mom still sitting at the dining table, draining coffee, her face haggard and tear-stained. Without speaking I sat opposite her and took her hand, holding it until I felt her squeeze back.

“Well,” she said, eventually. “I’d better go freshen up. I’ve got to go get Mrs Kritch ready. Not that she’ll be particularly happy to see me.”

“She still being a bitch after all these years, huh?” I said, laughing shakily.

“You bet. People like her live to make other folks miserable. Like I said, I’m the last person standing who can tolerate her. She might not like me much but she’ll cling on for all she’s worth. Not like she’s got long left, after all.”

“Want me to come with?” I offered. “I… I don’t think I’m gonna go to school today. Might as well help out, take a load off, you know?”

My mother gave me an odd look, her gaze crossing my bandage hairline, then nodded.

“Sure. If it’ll keep you out of trouble.”

It was the first real conversation we’d had in a long time, a conversation that didn’t dance around Dad. As much as I loved him I needed it, and hadn’t realised exactly how much I’d needed it until then. We kept talking the entire drive over to Mrs Kritch’s house, discussing everything from a boy I kind-of-sort-of liked, TV drama, the banality so bittersweet I felt tears pricking the corners of my eyes. It was only as we got out of the car that the conversation sobered up again.

“Listen, Ange, I should warn you beforehand that she is not in good shape,” my mother said, nodding towards a second storey window I could assume looked out of Miss Kritch’s bedroom. “Like I said, she can’t have more than a month or so left in her, and it’s..  well, it’s taken a toll. She’s a little frightening.”

“I can manage that.”

I honestly thought I could. Entering the house I immediately caught the powdery smell of old age and on top of that the acrid honk of disease. My Mom didn’t even flinch, bustling up a gloomy flight of stairs with businesslike familiarity. With trepidation I followed, looking around with bemused interest.

It wasn’t much like an old lady’s home, except for the smell, dark walls and hangings befitting of a funeral parlour cropping up at every turn. I wondered if it had always been this way or if Mrs Kritch’s maligned daughters had redecorated out of spite before flying the nest.

“Mrs Kritch,” my Mom said, in a falsely cheery tone. “I’ve brought my daughter with me today to help out. I’ve told you a lot about her, remember? Angie, this is Mrs Kritch.”

Stepping into a vast bedroom I quickly affixed a polite smile to my face, feeling it strain as I set eyes on the figure on the bed. Having heard so little positive about the woman I was already prepared to dislike her, but the sensation of utter malignancy that fermented in that room crushed the air in my lungs.

The figure propped up against so many pillows was barely recognisable as human, let alone female. Her skin was stretched in papery swathes over her bones, sores and holes gaping in flesh many forms of cancer had eaten away. The fingers gripping a dwindling cigarette were yellow as old wood, the nails themselves split and peeling.

Any other person in her condition would have filled me with sympathy, not disgust, but the eyes buried in her face were as wet and black as urchins, and just as inhuman. The feelings I got gazing into them was oddly familiar, flaring panic inside me.

“Hello, Mrs Kritch,” I said, cautiously. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

The old woman brough the tiny stub of her cigarette to her ruined lips and pulled, the inhalation rattling phlegm like dried peas in a can. Then she spoke, and the voice- it was malformed, ruined with age and disease and toxicity, burning out of her with a vitriol that seemed impossible for someone so frail. It stirred a terrifying, helpless Pavolvian response in me for I knew it, knew it, had only heard it myself in my own head, only it had been louder and more awful there.

For a minute I thought about hurting myself, tearing at my face or arms to stave off inevitable trauma. But I felt my mother’s eyes on me and forced myself to breathe, to comprehend what the old woman had said.

“Are you?” she asked, softly. “Are you pleased to see me?”

The question should have been taunting, threatening, but I heard the quiver in it. I knew fear when I heard it; it had governed my life, after all.

A bubble of laughter rose in my chest, butting against a scream. This creature had been the voice in my head- not a God, not the Devil, just a wretched old woman who had lost everything due to her own fault and couldn’t resist pushing another to lose, too.

To think I had obeyed her, had feared her, believed that she was capable of anything more than an echo, perhaps the last strength she’d ever put out into the world.

Wasted energy. Wasted life.

I leaned forward, watching the woman shrink even further back into her den of pillows and smoke. I thought about saying something cruel, or asking her why she’d done what she had for so long, a dozen pointless things.

Instead I only said, “Yes. Yes. I’m really glad.

Published by theladyruthless

I'm a 25 year old horror writer!

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