MUD AND TWIGS
Fiction by Alexander Kautz
It wasn't that he didn't love the child, because he truly did and with all of his heart. He had carried and rocked little Amanda through the night, prepared food and changed countless diapers without so much as a single complaint. So great was his love for the little girl, that when his wife began cheating on him, he hadn't said a single word. It was obvious just within the cold manner to which she treated him. The way that she expected things rather than appreciated them. And there were also those extra hours that she had worked, unable to explain why she hadn't been paid for them? Oh, he knew all too well, but wouldn't risk losing his daughter.
It was during one of those evenings, as Clarisse worked late and little Amanda slept soundly in her crib, that Bill had pondered life. He had sat before that old roll-top desk, staring out the second-story window of his home office, alone and utterly destitute. He had made every attempt to offer Clarisse as much support as possible with life and the baby but had been told that he was doing "too much", even smothering her. So, frustrated, he had left her alone to give her space and in doing so, accidentally become estranged. Her family had insisted that all would be fine and that all couples with very young children experience this type of confusion. In fact, her behavior had even been excused as "postpartum depression." Poor thing, she was so confused that she had to sneak around with some other guy because "she" needed attention. Bill had never been more alone or lost in his life, but the sadness and fear of losing his daughter in an ugly divorce kept him hanging on.
"Eight years together--," he sipped at a cup of tea, leaning back in his chair and gazing out into the dark heavens.
"Eight good years and now this. I don't know what to do, say or even feel anymore. What did I do, what did the baby do to deserve to get caught in this mess? Bill Collingswood--you're a fool... Oh God--I'm losing my mind here..."
The phone rang and he jumped, grabbing at it before the sound would awaken the baby in the next room. He had always left the door open so that he could hear her. Answering, he recognized the somber toned female voice. It was Clarisse's mother and she'd had a few too many again. She wasn't a bad woman but used alcohol in an attempt to hide from her own broken life.
"Bill--," She coughed, lighting a cigarette, "is Clarisse home?"
"No--," he sighed deeply, speaking softly so that the baby wouldn't hear him, "she's um--working late tonight, again."
"I see--," she paused, taking a sip from a glass of wine.
"I called her office--and Bill--they are closed after five. So what's with this--late shift crap?"
"Donna--," he fought the urge to just put out all his grief.
"When she comes home, I'll make sure to get her to give you a call."
"How's my little grand-baby?" Donna made conversation, "have I ever thanked you for giving us such a precious little baby girl?"
"That's very kind of you--." he sniffled, rubbing at his eyes as tears of frustration within the thought of losing the child, now caused an ache in his heart.
"She means the world to me too."
"Everyone can see that dear--," she paused in thought while taking another sip of wine. “How are you doing, are you okay, really?"
It was obvious that she had her own suspicions and her concern was sincere. After his own mother had passed away from lung cancer a few years ago, he had felt very alone.
"I'm, managing--," he forced a laugh, "you know how it is with babies. Just when they start settling in at night, they start teething and well, it's been a lot of long nights."
‘"You're a good man Bill--," the tone of her voice carried certain remorse, "and a wonderful husband and father. Clarisse is lucky to have you."
He struggled to avoid sarcasm. After all, this was still her mother and he could not afford to make things even worse.
"You really are too good to me Donna--," he sipped at his tea, wiping the tears from his eyes, "I'm doing a barbecue this weekend--will you be coming?"
"Of course I am dear--," she laughed, "I wouldn't miss a chance to see little Mandy."
"That's fabulous--," he looked around his little home office.
"I'd better get going, I have to check on her and tidy up around here a little. There are baby toys and goldfish crackers all over the place. I keep finding new hiding places.”
"The terrible two's are only a few weeks away--," Donna chuckled. "You take it easy Bill. If you ever need to talk, you know that I'm here for you?"
"You're the best, thanks--," he hesitated, "I'll get Clarisse to call you as soon as she gets in tonight."
"Thanks so much--," Donna sighed deeply, 'have a good night and kiss Mandy for me."
"I will. Good night and thanks for calling." he hung up the phone, instinctively wandering out of his office and standing in the doorway to the baby's room, looked in on her. As always, she slept on her back with arms outstretched, head tilted to the side and within the glow of her little night-light, he could see the peaceful expression on her face. There was a warm calm in the room and as little Amanda pulled at the top button of her pink onesies, he smiled to himself. Dear God, how he loved her. It hurt to even think about what might happen if he brought anything up with Clarisse about her recent activities. He had been so disgusted that even the last time she tried to start something romantic, he had declined. Not due to lack of interest, but loathing for what she had become. Did he love her anymore? She was the mother of his child, how could he avoid it?
A sound caused him to turn, listening as he moved into the living-room. The house was rather large and creaked and groaned as it settled. He was used to every sound as he kept the place quiet so that he could hear the baby. But this was different? It wasn't a creak, groan or rumble of the pipes as the furnace kicked in. It was the slight but definite sound of movement. As though someone or something, had shuffled across the rug?
"We don't own any pets--," he talked to himself in a whisper, switching on a lamp and pausing to look around the dimly lit room.
"And Clarisse's free-loading cousin hasn't been climbing in any windows lately?"
He spoke more out of nervous tension than intending to make any actual sense. The strange shuffling sound came again, except now, it was in the dark and adjoining kitchen, behind him.
"What is that?" He cautiously moved into the hall and pausing in the doorway, switched on the kitchen light. Nothing but shiny, brand new appliances. The water cooler gurgled and he jumped back a step. His nerves were shot.
The sound came again. A distinct shuffling sound like that which might be made if someone wore a long over-coat and walked through tall grass. But this time, it was in the hall behind him and moving toward the baby's room... Without a second thought, he spun and rushing down the dark hall, raced into Amanda's room.
The baby remained sound asleep as caught within the rainbow hues of the night-light, she was unaware of the thing that now stood at the foot end of the crib. It was utterly black and comprised entirely of thick mud and twigs, bore a faint semblance to the form of a hunched and withered hag.
Bill stared in horror, hurrying into the room and immediately pulling the baby from the crib, slowly backed away without removing his gaze from the creature. Its long fingers extended into the crib, the shadow of which blackened and fouled the covered mattress. It made no sound as its long and clawed fingers pulled a stuffed bear from the crib and the toy withered, completely rotted within the thing's grasp.
"Who are you---," he choked out the words, "and what do you want here?"
The thing turned toward him and without so much as an uttered sound, raised a long and hooked claw, pointing toward the now rousing baby within his arms.
"No--," he understood immediately, "please--not her, anything, but not her."
The room became deathly cold, the chill numbing him to the bone and causing his breath to become vapor. The hideous thing slowly moved from the foot end of the crib and shuffled toward him with outstretched arms. At first he had questioned his own sanity, but then little Amanda awakened, screaming as she saw the thing and looked up at him with big blue, terror-stricken and tear-filled eyes. The toddler tore at his shirt, crying and hugging him close as she sensed and struggled to escape the danger!
And still, it came, leaving a thick trail of oozing and putrid mud as it slowly followed him.
"Please--wait--," He backed out into the hallway, making his way into the living room and standing with his back against the wall, "anything--just not her--please, not her!"
As though re-considering, the shadowy mass of mud and twigs paused before the trembling man. Bill could only stare as defensively cradling the baby in his arms, he pleaded, "Whoever--or whatever you may be--," he swallowed hard, licking at fear parched lips, "if you are death, and for whatever reason, have come for my daughter---I beg you---take me instead--but please, please--not her..."
The shadows seemed to grow deeper all about them as the thing just stood and silently stared.
The cold was so intense that Bill could feel it gripping his heart, tightening within his chest! His breath came in short gasps as holding the baby close, he struggled to keep the panicking and terrified child warm. Blackness, all-consuming and bitter cold! Blinded and holding the baby so close that he could feel her breath against his cheek, he cried out, "For the love of God, someone help us!"
A light suddenly shone within that darkness. It was just a pinpoint at first, but then, like a beacon, it cut through the night. Bill looked as Donna, switching on the hallway light, screamed, dropping her purse as she ran to where he sat on the floor with his back against the wall, still cradling the baby.
"Mr. Collingswood?" A female doctor gently wiped his brow with a damp cloth.
Bill squinted beneath the dull neon glow, his first thoughts returning to the baby as he panicked.
"It's okay Bill--may I call you Bill? She's just fine--," the doctor gently forced him back down as a nurse administered a light sedative.
"I'm Doctor Miriam Walsh. Don't worry--," she turned, motioning toward Donna who stood in a far corner of the room holding the baby.
"Little Amanda is right over there. Your mother-in-law found you. You collapsed?"
"Collapsed? But I've never had any health issues in my life?" He couldn't believe his own ears, "what happened?"
"Bill--please--," Donna's eyes were filled with tears as she moved closer to the bed, handing the baby toward him.
"You're going to be just fine--," the doctor patted his shoulder, her face twisting with grief as she looked toward Donna and said, "I'll leave you folks to talk."
"Donna?" He accepted the child, hugging her close and gently rocking her, "what's going on? Where's Clarisse?"
Taking a seat upon the edge of the bed, she gently rested a hand upon his shoulder, looking deeply into his eyes, "Bill--I don't know how to tell you this. But Clarisse was involved in a car accident this evening. She and her employer were coming back from some function this evening when they went off the road into a ditch." Donna covered her mouth with a trembling hand, "it was full of mud and old twigs, branches and well--Bill, we're alone with the baby now. I'm so sorry..."
"Mud--and twigs--," he shuddered, an icy chill racing the length of his spine as he gently hugged little Amanda closer. The child was calm again, wrapping her arms tightly about his neck and pressing her cheek against his. He closed his eyes, a silent prayer of thanks.
"Death is never fair--," Donna now wept for the loss of her daughter, "it just comes and it takes..."
Bill gently rocked his daughter as quietly gazing out the hospital room window into the night, somewhere between death and the dead, he knew different...