Nola

Stijn scrambled out of his room into the living room and then behind the couch that I was sitting on. I noticed he had something in his hand when he came in, but he’s five now and I thought that it wouldn’t be anything dangerous. I heard him playing and laughing behind me while some soap opera played on.

“Don’t move,” he said.

That made me curious. I just wanted to see what he was playing with.

I leaned over the back of the sofa and he was sitting there with something white in his hand. It took me a moment to understand what was in front of him on the carpet; that there were the bones of a complete human leg and that he was just putting the last toe in place.

I don’t remember what I screamed, but I grabbed his arm and pulled him away. The police came soon after and they searched his room. They had an expert come in and he said that it was real bone; likely from a child. Later they brought a search dog.

Stijn didn’t want to say where he found the bones. I promised sweets. I promised a trip to the zoo. The officers even offered him a ride-along in a real police car and that he could use the siren. When my husband came home he threatened that Stijn couldn’t get any more sweets until he would tell. That wasn’t any more effective, it just made him cry.

Every time we asked Stijn kept saying that he couldn’t tell. And whenever we asked why he couldn’t tell he just pressed his lips together and shook his head.

I was sure that he had come from his room. The police took his room apart, then the rest of the apartment. Even the dog found nothing.

Stijn cried a lot that evening, even after the police left. He said he didn’t understand why everyone was so mean to him and why the police were hurting his furniture. That he was just helping Nola.

I’m not sure if he didn’t want to say who Nola was, or if he himself really didn’t know.

The police said we could stay, but that we should probably keep Stijn with us and not allow him to enter his room – not as if I would have done that.

Stijn was between us, cuddled up against me and with his father’s arm on top of both of us. George and Stijn were both fast asleep, but I remember staring at them for hours. It felt like a waking nightmare, but at some point I must have drifted off.

George’s shouting woke me up.

George shouting, and then Stijn crying.

When I sat up Stijn was just pressing his body against the bedroom wall near the foot of our bed. George pulled Stijn away.

“Where did you get those?” George screamed.

The panic in George’s face was even greater than the panic in Stijn’s face.

The door was open. We had definitely locked it.

And on the floor, right between our bed and the wall, were another leg and a hipbone and the lower vertebrae of a spine.

George shouted at me to watch Stijn and call the police. He threw Stijn in my arms and then he ran into the living room. I saw him check the front door; then he returned and ran into Stijn’s room.

Stijn cried next to me. I just looked at the bones on the floor. They were so perfectly arranged; the way you would see a skeleton in a museum. It took a while before I managed to finally grab my mobile, pull Stijn close and dial the number.

George found the front door and all the windows locked. He even checked whether somebody might have gotten in through the former fireplace.

But he found Stijn’s room open; we had definitely locked that too. Open, just like the bedroom door, but not broken into – just unlocked. The only key we have for those doors, the one that fits all the internal doors, was still in George’s nightstand.

George said he woke up because Stijn was giggling and talking to himself. So he got up, walked around the bed – and there he was, arranging the bones.

Stijn is usually happy and very open to friendly adults, but he was scared of the police. He didn’t want to be in the same room as the officers. They organized a child psychologist, a young woman dressed in normal clothes. She offered Stijn sweets and a book; she was very nice to him, but the whole time she was there Stijn just tried to hide behind my legs – and screamed whenever she got too close.

We wanted to go to a hotel, but the upstairs neighbors were awake and took us in for the night. When the police finally left us alone and the neighbors had retreated to their bedroom, Stijn spoke again. He said that the police are bad people; that they hurt Nola very much and stole her leg. Still, when we asked questions about Nola or the bones, he just shook his head.

Stijn fell asleep on the neighbors’ armchair. We decided that at least one of us should keep watch for the remainder of the night. I told George to nap first; he always gets grim and grumpy when he’s tired. Then I couldn’t get myself to wake him and I just stayed awake until morning.

For those three hours I sat and watched Stijn. There was nothing specific to watch, just his calm breathing and the occasional smile that hushed over his lips – until he turned so that I couldn’t see his face. Despite all the commotion I felt warm and relaxed, seeing him like that.

At 7 the neighbors got up. I heard their alarm, a muffled conversation, then they disappeared in the bathroom. At around 7:30 they came into the living room – and George too woke up. George went to the bathroom. The neighbors asked me whether we were hungry. I was numb from the tiredness and was craving more for coffee than food. I went to the kitchen to help.

It cannot have been more than five minutes. I walked back into the living room with the plates in my hand. I saw the empty armchair and looked around the room. I called for Stijn and nearly in the same moment I saw the open front door. The plates nearly fell on the table.

Our apartment door was open. I heard Stijn speaking to someone.

Then I made the turn and he sat there, on the living room floor, with a heap of bones.

I grabbed his arms to pull him away, but he screamed and fought back and when I kept pulling he bit my arm. I screamed and pulled back and within a fraction of a second he had turned back to the bones; to arranging them.

He was so incredibly quick; he just picked a bone from the heap and within a moment it was on the floor, in the right place, and another bone in his other hand. Not ten seconds and he had nearly arranged a whole hand. Then I finally managed to pull him away, even as he was screaming and trying to wiggle free or bite. George came running in, grabbed Stijn from my hands and carried him out of the room.

Stijn was still screaming and howling out on the corridor and on the floor, right in front of me, next to the heap and already arranged, were vertebrae, ribs, a few bones from both arms and a nearly completed hand.

I think if not for the neighbors’ testimony the police wouldn’t have believed us a single word.

The officers searched our place a third time, even with a new dog, and again they found nothing.

At least a dozen officers were going in and out of the apartment, but this time Stijn didn’t want to hide, instead he wanted to pat the dog. He was with us on the corridor, running his hands through the dog’s fur, while we were talking to an officer about how to proceed. I looked at the officer’s face. A moment later I turned back around and Stijn was gone.

There were a lot of people searching him and shouting his name. The dog was running wild through the apartment. I was pure, shivering panic, running in and out of Stijn’s room.

I was in the living room. It was just a flash, a moment between all the noise, that I heard his voice. His giggling.

I screamed “Quiet!” – and everybody stopped in their tracks. Even the dog obeyed.

And there he was again, giggling. Then he spoke. His voice was faint, as if from far away.

“Don’t worry Nola. They won’t find us here.”

Within a few minutes they had ripped open the fireplace – only to find nothing.

George was holding me, but seeing the bare pipe and stones down there made my chest clench together. George stopped breathing too.

Then there he was again. Giggling; louder than before.

I called his name.

“Oh no,” he whispered. “Mom found us.”

The dog’s head twitched.

In that moment I knew.

I told them to break through the floor, right in front of the chimney. Within a few minute they broke through a layer of wood and stone, right into an empty space; a tight tunnel.

After that we heard him coughing.

I called him again.

“I’m not finished playing,” he said. George told him that he would have to come out, that we were waiting for him.

And a minute later he came crawling through the tunnel. He was carrying a skull that he carefully set down. We hugged him. After a few moments he shook himself free. Then he went to pet the dog.

They didn’t find much else down there. The tunnel ended abruptly at the end of the house and at the end were a few more small bones from the same body and some of Stijn’s toys.

We still don’t know how he got down there. He always just said that Nola let him in.

My husband thinks that’s crazy; that there must have been a hidden entrance somewhere.

But I know Stijn isn’t lying.

Because the others didn’t hear when Stijn whispered “Oh no, mom found us.”

And a girl’s voice replied “Don’t worry, they never look down here.”

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