Grace rubbed the sole of her right foot against her left.
She forced a smile.
I smiled back.
“You had some rather tough weeks.”
“Tough is an understatement,” she said.
“It is normal that you are not feeling well after losing a child.”
“Not just a child,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did something else happen?”
“Cody died too.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You didn’t mention it the last time.”
“He was still alive then. He died a week ago.”
“I’m sorry –“
“And Max died two days ago.”
“Your husband died too?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. I won’t suffer for long.”
“I know you are going through a hard time and it might sound absurd to you, but suicide is not the answer. You can be happy again, even if –“
“I am serious,” I said.
“Oh, it’s nice of you to try.”
“Okay,” I said. “Would you like to talk about the events? Did Cody and Max have an accident?”
“No,” Grace said. “None of this is an accident. And my death won’t be an accident either.”
“Grace, please –“
“You didn’t believe me when I said it was those toys we bought. A nice, big box of toys from a yard sale. What can go wrong, huh? What can go wrong?”
“I’m sorry if you got the impression that I didn’t believe you.”
“Oh, come on Mister Skeptic! You don’t give a rats ass about me and this thing. But that’s why I’m here. I’m going to take you down with me.”
My eyes rushed to her hands and arms. Grace sat calm, except for the feet that still rubbed against one another.
I got up.
“Okay Grace,” I said. “I will hand your case to one of my colleagues. I apologize if I hurt you or made your situation worse.”
“Sit down,” Grace said. “I’m not going to attack you. But it will get you. This thing that killed Hannah and Cody and Max and that will soon kill me – well, I think you are next. And if you send a colleague then it will be him instead. I’m here because I figured that you guys deserve more to die than some doctor or police officer that finds my corpse.”
I sat back down but I stopped myself short of scooting the chair closer to the table.
“So you still think that an entity that came with a box of used toys attacked your daughter?”
“Not just her. All of us.”
“Okay, but you still believe that some entity caused all this?”
“Not a doubt. You will see.”
“Was there a diagnosis for Cody and Max?”
“No, just like for Hannah there was none. For Hannah and then for Cody they said it was just ‘child death,’ which apparently is doctor language for ‘we don’t know what went wrong.’ But for Max they couldn’t even say that. They said it must have been some sort of virus.”
“That would explain the infection rate from Hannah to –“
Grace slammed her hand on the table.
“We should consider all possible options.”
“Fine, you go and consider. Get a mask if you are scared that it’s a virus. But it’s not. I know it’s an entity, some ghost or spirit or demon or whatever you want to call it.”
“No virus does what happened to my family!”
“Okay, Grace. If you don’t mind I will really get a mask and advice the nurses to wear protective clothing when they interact with you.”
“Fine,” Grace said. “But it won’t help.”
When I came back into the room Grace sat in the same position as before, her feet rubbing against each other.
“Grace, the pain in your feet could be psychosomatic – that means your brain expects to feel pain and thus –“
“Not pain. My feet are itching.”
“It works with itching too.”
“You should start to believe. You will soon feel it too. That’s how it started with Hannah. She said her feet were tickling. And we ignored it. We put her to bed. And in the morning, when Max came to wake her up, she began to scream. She began to scream and didn’t stop. Have you ever heard a child scream Mister Psychologist? Have you ever heard a child scream for three hours straight? And it wasn’t just a scream, I could see the fear and pain in her eyes. Fear and pain in my daughter’s eyes and there was nothing I could do.”
“The hos –“
“Of course we brought her to the hospital. I told you that already but you probably don’t even care enough to remember that. She kept screaming at the hospital. They pumped her full of pain killers and she kept screaming. They gave her a drug that supposedly would make her muscles relax and she kept screaming. They gave her a sleep-inducing drug – and guess what? She closed her eyes but she kept screaming. My daughter was asleep and still screamed from fear and pain. Can you imagine what that is like, to sit there, next to your child and you can’t do anything at all while she screams her lungs dry?”
“I’m sorry that you had to –“
“Of course you are! You are sorry for everything. You should be. You tried fine to convince me that it was all over and that we could get over her death.”
“My apo –“
“Stop fucking apologizing!”
“Okay.” I said.
“You don’t even know how relieved we were when Hannah stopped screaming. For a few moments she was just quietly lying on this horrible white bed and Max and I just cried. I was just glad that our neighbor had picked Cody up, but he still saw too much of that. Nobody should see and hear what we heard.”
“But then she began whispering. Her voice was hoarse from all the screaming, and still she kept whispering, over and over again: ‘I am sorry mommy. I am sorry mommy. I am sorry mommy.’ My daughter was sleeping and apologizing to me, over and over again. I thought she apologized for screaming. I thought somehow I had made her feel as if she had done something wrong. I thought that I had made Hannah feel horrible and worse.”
“I’m sure you did care well for your daughter.”
“Of course I did. But that’s not what I thought when I heard her apologizing. Especially not after the first hour and not after the third and the sixth hour of my six year old daughter whispering apologies. They had to put an IV in here because they were worries that her vocal chords might not get enough moisture and could crack.”
Grace shook her head.
“You can’t believe how many doctors and nurses came in that room and glared at me. I tried everything to make her feel better; the doctors even tried to wake her in order to stop what they thought was some horrible nightmare. Nothing. Nothing worked. She opened her eyes again and with her staring at me and whispering ‘I am sorry mommy.’ It was even worse. Her voice seemed louder too.”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think I did? I begged her to stop apologizing and I told her that whatever it was I forgave her for it. Max too said that she didn’t need to feel sorry for anything. We too said it over and over. I felt my own mouth dry; I don’t know how dry and painful Hannah’s must have been. And then the screams again.”
“She screamed again?”
“For another six hours. She screamed. After an hour or so Max left the room because he couldn’t take it. And I must have fainted. They put her to sleep again while I was unconscious – and still her screams continued. I was told people on the street still heard her scream. And finally Hannah just stopped. After six hours she stopped.”
“You mean that she died?”
“No, not like that. She was quiet for a while and the doctors were debating to wake her up or not – and finally we decided that they should wake her in order to figure out what the problem was. But she didn’t speak; she only woke up and stared at me and sometimes at Max. We even brought Cody in because we hoped that seeing her brother would help.”
“Oh,” I said. “I remember that you said Hannah smiled at him.”
“Yes, she did. I thought that was a good thing. Thought!”
“No. Hannah smiled at Cody for a moment and then made a mouth as if she wanted to kiss him. But when Cody came closer turned her head back to me. And she said it, with a shaking and cold voice ‘I am sorry mommy.’ A second later she fell back on the bed and all the machines began to beep. Every single one.”
“I am so –“
I caught myself before I finished the sentence.
“That must have been hard.”
“I still see that expression on Hannah’s face, and then that expression on Cody’s face, this pain that he felt and that I felt too. He thought that it was his fault; Cody thought his sister died because he came to see her. You know, I think he never forgot that. That’s why he didn’t talk much after her death. He didn’t even talk at the funeral.”
“During our first assessment you said that you wanted to find someone that Cody could talk to?”
“There was a child psychiatrist, but he was useless. We brought Cody there twice, once after the funeral and then another two days later. Cody didn’t say a word with the guy. And then, after the second time, Cody finally spoke to me in the car. That’s when he mentioned that his feet had been tickling the whole day.”
“Like his sister?”
“That’s what I thought too. I brought him to the hospital straight away but the doctors didn’t find anything wrong with him. Cody was scared and he kept asking whether he too would die. And he asked whether he too would feel as much pain as Hannah. I told him he wouldn’t die. I promised him he wouldn’t feel pain.”
Grace sank her head into her arms and cried. Her body shook with every sob.
“I lied,” she whispered. “I hoped so much that he would be fine.”
I watched while Grace’s body rose and sank. She refused the tissues I offered.
“Grace,” I said finally. “You think that the same thing happened with Cody as with Hannah?”
“Think?” she whispered.
“Think?” she screamed. “I know it was the same thing. This same entity that must have come from the toys. Cody slept the night while we sat next to his horribly white bed. And then he woke up and screamed even worse than Hannah. Even worse. So many times worse. I still hear him. I can still hear him right now, in my head, screaming in agony of fear and pain.”
“His disease took the same turn as Hannah’s?”
Grace shook her head.
“You should stop doubting. You will see me scream too. And then you yourself will scream.”
“Okay,” I said. “What would you like to call it?”
“I don’t know what. I don’t care. But it’s not a disease; it’s a thing, an entity that went from Hannah into him. And then he too screamed for three hours. And then he too whispered ‘I am sorry mommy.’ for hours. He whispered it for nearly half a day while I sat next to him, crying my eyes as dry as his throat.”
Grace looked at me.
“How much I just wish it had stopped. I just hoped that he would be okay, not with so much pain again. But he started screaming again. This incredibly loud screaming. They drove us in a special room just so that the other patients wouldn’t need to hear him scream, but still people heard it on the corridor.”
She rubbed her eyes.
“I wasn’t even there when he died. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went out a few times for a minute or two, but after half a day of screaming my whole body felt as if it would break into pieces. I went outside to get food and Max stayed inside the room with Cody. Even in the cafeteria I still heard his screams in my ears.”
“Did you get some sleep?”
“Sleep?” Grace said. “I was in the cafeteria for maybe twenty minutes when the nurse came running. She said that Cody stopped screaming and I rushed upstairs with her. But by the time we arrived he was already dead. Max sat on the bed with Cody pressed to his chest and I knew what happened. I just knew.”
“I can’t imagine how you must have felt.”
“At that point I was sure that it were those toys. Max brought them to the incineration, but still that wasn’t enough.”
Grace rubbed her neck.
“Max’s feet began tickling on the day of Cody’s funeral. He thought it was this psycho thing that you keep mentioning –“
“Yes, that. Max said that it was psychosomatic and that it would all be fine. But I knew that it wouldn’t be. I just knew. We went to the funeral and afterwards drove to the private hospital. I asked a friend to buy ear plugs for me. I know that sounds cruel, but you can’t understand it if you haven’t been there. Even Max understood. I’ve never seen him scared like that; he just wanted to hug me and hold my hand.”
“You were at the hospital at that point?”
“Yes. I wanted them to at least try to save him. Max went through all the tests they could think of but they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. They said his white blood cell count was high but they also found a lump that they said might be harmful. Max actually laughed when he heard about the cancer. He laughed because he knew it didn’t matter. Cancer takes time to kill you, but this thing doesn’t leave you any time.”
“And there was nothing that could be done for Max?”
“No. They gave him painkillers preemptively, but Max got drowsy from those. He fell asleep and I just cuddled up to him because I knew it would be the last time. And in the morning, at five, this nurse came to ask me to leave the bed; she said that it was against the rules. Max woke up because of her. And then he screamed.”
“He screamed for hours?”
“For nearly the whole day. Without break.”
Grace chuckled with a bitter tone.
“I think I actually heard the moment when his vocal chords snapped. And still he kept screaming. The doctors said they had never had any such case. They put him in a comma and still he kept screaming.”
“That must have been horrifying.”
“It was worse than that. Worse than everything. I lost my children to those screams and I just sat there with wax in my ears and still heard the last screams of the love of my life. His body was stiff and hot and, after putting him in a coma, they tried to cool him down but it didn’t help. They thought it did when he stopped screaming, but I knew it didn’t because he started whispering instead.”
“Oh. Like your Hannah and Cody.”
“Like them. But he whispered for nearly a day. I actually tried to hold his mouth shut, but he was too strong and just kept whispering. I fell asleep from exhaustion, with my head on his chest. I only woke up when his started screaming again.”
Grace scratched the table with her fingernails.
“I just sat there, you know? I just sat there, next to him, with his glowing hot hand in mine, and watched him scream. A few times I tried to kiss or hug him, but nothing worked. I only heard his screams louder like that. I thought about killing myself just so that I wouldn’t have to listen, but somehow I hoped that he was still in there, that he still knew that I was with him and that my presence somehow helped him get through his last day.”
“That is a big sacrifice,” I said.
“It was still easier to sit next to him than to know what came after. Those screams, my ears just got deaf and I still heard him but I also didn’t hear anymore. For a day he screamed and I didn’t know whether to hope that he would stop or to hope that he continued forever, just so that he wouldn’t die, just so that he wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“But he –“
“Yes,” Grace said. “He died. After more than thirty hours of screaming he just stopped. And then, even as he was supposedly in a coma, he opened his eyes. And he looked at me. And he smiled for a moment. And it looked as if he was trying to kiss me. I kissed him back, but while I kissed him his lips began to move. He just whispered it, but I knew anyway what it would be. The same thing that he whispered for a whole day. The same thing both of our children whispered before this thing murdered them. ‘I am sorry mommy.’”
“Oh,” I said.
“I blamed myself for the wrong thing, you know? Because I believed idiots like you. Because I so desperately wanted to believe that it was some sort of disease and that it could maybe be cured. I blamed myself for everything. I blamed myself for making Hannah and Cody feel sorry. But they weren’t sorry. It wasn’t them that was screaming and whispering. It was something else, something that came from this stupid box of used toys that I bought on a whim.”
“This thing wasn’t speaking to me,” Grace said. “There is some other mother it was speaking to. Some other mother that made them scream.”
“It sounds like it,” I said.
“You still doubt it, don’t you? I guess that’s your job. You try to find sanity where there is none. But you will see it soon, when I start whispering and screaming, and then maybe you.”
“I hope that doesn’t happen,” I said. “We have some of the best care in the world in this building.”
“Oh,” Grace said. “I think it’s too late for care.”
Her face looked grim, but it felt as if, hidden underneath the skin of her face, was a smile.
“My feet,” Grace said. “Have been tickling all day.”