Henry folded up the packing box and looked around the kitchen. He couldn’t help a little pride showing on his face at having finally finished. That was the last box. They were finally all moved into their first house as a family.
Teresa had gone out to pick up some dinner, Chinese, from a take-out place that one of their new neighbors had mentioned, and some celebratory wine for later that evening. Henry imagined how, once their daughter Gabriella was asleep, that the wine might lead to Teresa and he revisiting the conversation they’d started that morning, about christening their new home; surface by surface and in varying degrees of undress.
Henry was pulled out of his daydreaming revelry by the sound of Gabriella’s voice coming from down the hall. Gabriella was precocious, as four-year-olds can be. Teresa had mentioned that their little one had seemingly entered into the imaginary friend stage of childhood that some kids do, as she had heard Gabriella talking to an empty room on more than one occasion since they moved in.
Henry smiled and walked down the hall toward his daughter’s room, wishing to see such a precious moment for himself. Gabriella’s imagination astounded him sometimes, with the stories she would make up and the questions she would ask. He paused at Gabriella’s closed bedroom door and listened.
“I don’t have toys like that,” she said, matter-of-factly, “but I have a dragon named Hocus that you can play with.”
Henry’s smile widened.
Henry thought maybe he could hear some rustling papers, like Gabriella was coloring with her new friend. “The girl’s my mom and the boy is my dad.”
Henry suppressed a giggle at the cuteness of the situation.
“No, they’re nice. They wouldn’t do something like that.”
Henry’s smile slightly faded.
Gabriella’s bedroom beyond the closed door went quiet. Henry began to smell a strange scent and he quickly opened Gabriella’s door.
His little girl looked up at Henry from a small pile of papers surrounding her and smiled at him.
“Hi, Daddy, are you done?” She got up and walked over to Henry, hugging his leg, “Can we play a board game now?”
Henry carefully took a small step back so that he could look down at her. “Gabriella, what is that smell? Did you get into your mother’s perfumes again?”
Gabriella’s smile folded up into a look that showed she remembered once getting into trouble for playing in her mother’s things without permission and she gave Henry a quick “No.” Then she tilted her little head to the left and sniffed, followed by a tilt to the right and sniff. “What smell, Daddy?”
Henry sniffed the room but the smell was gone.
“I –” he sniffed again to be sure, “never mind. I heard you talking to someone, though, and thought –” Henry stopped himself. He actually didn’t know what he’d been thinking or why he’d gotten so unnerved.
“Oh,” Gabriella said, “that’s the boy who lives here. He plays with me sometimes.”
“Gabriella, you know that it’s just you, me and Mommy living here.” Imaginary friends, to Henry, had suddenly become less precocious than, say, scary. The idea now made him feel that Gabriella was unsafe.
Gabriella seemed to weigh this statement for a second, her little girl’s mind allowing the truth of the situation.
“Well, he used to live here before we did, I guess. Maybe he still has a key?”
Henry didn’t respond. He was the adult, after all. No need to frighten his daughter with what he felt, particularly since he couldn’t explain these sudden scared feelings.
“He lives in our house with his mom. He said his dad used to be here, too, but now he can’t find him.” Gabriella continued as she dug out the Candy Land box from beneath a stack of books and toys, “He told me his mom has bad dreams in the daytime.” The feeling of fear crept back over Henry as he looked down at the pages on the floor where Gabriella had been sitting. They were awful images of dead bodies taken from countless magazines and newspapers. All of the terrible things that humans can do to one another, splayed on the floor like a mosaic of horror amidst his daughter’s Elmo and favorite Barbie.
“Daddy,” Gabriella asked, her face scrunched up quizzically as Henry felt the panic overwhelm him, “how come boys can turn blue?”
* * * * *
Teresa poured the wine again, refilling first Henry’s glass and then her own. Their Chinese food sat untouched on the dining room table, where she’d placed it upon returning home to Henry’s stack of death and gore pages.
She sipped her wine. All thoughts of a night of carnal pleasure with her husband, the night’s previous intent, had disappeared – the images of death had taken care of that – but seeing Henry so scared when she got home, the story he was telling, had caused her to drink the first glass too quickly. Her nerves were settling now and she wanted to keep a clear head.
“Gabriella had these?” Teresa asked as Henry returned from getting their daughter to sleep in their bed. Somehow their room had felt safer.
“It’s like I said,” Henry began, taking a healthy swig from his wine glass as well, “I heard her talking to someone and went into her room. She was looking at these on the floor when I came in.”
“Did she – I mean, is it possible she found them stuffed into one of the closets? Someplace we must’ve missed when we bought the house?”
Henry took a deep breath and exhaled. He finished his second glass of wine with a gulp. “I dunno. Maybe.”
Teresa took another sip of wine, letting her better logic overtake her wilder imaginings. Her rational mind slowly explaining away the This Is What You Should Do rules of every crappy horror movie she’d ever seen as nonsense. Henry seemed to be calming down, too.
“Gabriella was just so . . . creepy! The way she nonchalantly asked me about this kid being blue,” Henry shivered.
“I thought about that part, too,” Teresa said, “and I’d bet you anything it’s because we let her watch Avatar with us. Our last night in the apartment, remember?”
Henry smiled and cocked his head back in a sigh. “Avatar! I hadn’t even thought of the connection.” He finished off the wine bottle into his glass as he and Teresa gave over to giggles of relief.
“Kids do that,” Teresa laughed, “make those kinds of weird connections in the stories they make up. Pulling stuff from all over the place. If you’d asked her, I bet the boy had a tail.” Henry continued to laugh, albeit quietly so as to not wake Gabriella. “I mean, I don’t blame you,” Teresa continued, “for freaking out. Those pictures are awful and we should pitch them in the trash right now, but I think she just found them somewhere and didn’t understand them. We’ll talk to her about them in the –”
It was right then that an odor, the smell that Henry had first smelled in Gabriella’s room, overwhelmed the dining room.
“Oh, God,” Teresa said, covering her nose from the strong scent, “what is –“
Then, from their bedroom down the hall, from the master bath, they could hear the water blast on from the bathtub faucet. The sounds as if it were filling came down the hallway and it hit Henry, what the smell was.
What he’d smelled in Gabriella’s room earlier.
The overpowering scent now.
It was bubble bath soap.
The kind you use for a child’s bath.
“Mommy!” Gabriella screamed at the exact moment that the doors began opening and slamming shut all around the house.
Teresa toppled her chair over, hopping out of it. Henry knocked the table aside as both parents raced down the hall toward their bedroom.
The door was closed. The sound of the bathtub filling up was the only sound from behind it.
“Gabriella!” Teresa screamed as Henry kicked at the door to open.
“Teresa,” Henry kicked again and again, “it won’t – Gabriella!” he pounded on the door.
The bedroom door opened.
The room was turned topsy-turvy; anything in it scattered or broken. Henry and Teresa ran in, scouring for any sign of Gabriella amidst the strewn clothes, bedclothes and broken lamps, only to come up empty-handed.
“Henry,” Teresa said, pointing to the closed bathroom door.
They couple went over to the door and turned the handle.
The bathroom was filled with steam, but they could each make out Gabriella sitting on the toilet with her legs drawn up to her chest. She was staring toward the bathtub. The shower curtain was drawn closed.
“His mommy was so scared, but,” Gabriella said, turning wide-eyed to her parents as Henry ran to her, “he can’t breathe.” Her eyes brimmed with tears.
Teresa let her hand fall gently from the top of her daughter’s head as her eyes looked toward the shower curtain.
Legs shaking, Teresa walked toward the bathtub.
She drew back the curtain.