The source of a young girl's phobia goes far deeper than her parents and doctors fear...
|Katherine Graves washed down two Vicodin with her morning coffee, black. The pills were a holdover from a past dental-visit. They’d been prescribed for pain, though Kathryn seemed to recall they had some calming value as well.
The past year had been a nightmare, of sorts--these past two weeks, a waking hell.
Out of long-established habit, she glanced at the clock on the stove. It told her nothing. She and her husband had covered the digital display with black duct-tape almost, what... four months ago now? With an effort of will she managed to keep from turning to check the clock above the kitchen sink--they’d taken that down as well.
She located her cell-phone, saw that it was nine-thirty. Usually, Alexa would be wide awake and looking for breakfast by now. Usually--but never after a visit from Fifty-six. No one in the Graves household got much sleep when Fifty-six came around.
It could have been worse, she reminded herself, it could have been Seventy-six.
Katherine cringed. Even thinking that number frightened her now. She suspected that what the doctors called Alexa’s “extreme numerophobia” was rubbing off on her. And how could it not, when numbers in general, and that one in particular, had become the focal point of the Graves household, lo these past thirteen months? How, when the little girl who’d always had an affinity for numbers, had so suddenly and unexpectedly become terrified by them?
Over the past year, Katherine had gotten to know some of her daughter’s imaginary tormentors. That was how it felt, at any rate.
According to Alexa, Fifty-six could be scary, and sometimes naughty. Once, when pressed (and when her father had been at work,) the frightened girl had explained that Fifty-six liked for her to take off her pajamas. He pressured her to play games she didn’t understand, or necessarily want to play.
When asked about Seventy-six, Alexa would close her mouth hard enough that her little jaw muscles flexed. When pressed, she would only ever say, “Seventy-six is bad.”
“Good morning, mommy.”
Startled, Katherine turned to find her daughter standing at the foot of the stairs. A wave of emotion welled within the young mother, one she struggled not to acknowledge. She would not be afraid of her little girl--she simply would not. And yet her arms and shoulders bristled with gooseflesh, and the small hairs below her lazy pony-tail stood at attention. With an effort, she smiled--as cheery a smile as she could muster. “Morning baby.”
Alexa looked down at her slippers. “I’m sorry.”
Katherine went to her daughter. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for, baby.”
“I’m afraid, mommy.”
“Oh, baby…,” Katherine pulled Alexa into a hug. She wanted desperately to reassure her daughter--to say You don’t have anything to be afraid of either, baby-girl, but the words caught in her throat. She tried something more closely resembling the truth: “I’ll protect you, Lexi. I will, and daddy will too. We wouldn’t ever let anything happen to you.”
Alexa acknowledged her mother with a nod of the head. Katherine didn’t blame the girl for being less than convinced. How could anyone, after all, defend someone from their own imagination?
“Mr. and Mrs. Graves, I still believe that your daughter is a bright young girl who’s likely suffering with a sleep-disorder, coupled with extreme arithmophobia.” Doctor Martin folded his hands on his desk.
Katherine and Michael Graves shared a skeptical look. Neither spoke.
“You disagree?” This a question, not a challenge.
Michael looked to his wife, and then back at the doctor.
Doctor Martin nodded. “I can see that you’re both pretty shaken. Look, some sleep disorders- sleep paralysis among them- can be horrifying experiences. Sufferers report dreams that make night-terrors seem like a stroll through the park. Alexa is a little girl, and I’m sure this is all terribly frightening to her.”
“What can we do for her?” Katherine’s own voice sounded distant in her ears. She wondered, for an instant, if she herself might be stuck in a year-long nightmare.
The doc leaned forward, all business now. “There are a number of things we can try. I know of several medications that have been successful in treating sleep-paralysis…”
“But are we sure it is sleep paralysis? I mean, she gets these visits when she’s awake, too.”
“The imagination extending the nightmare.”
Katherine felt like crying. She refused. “Couldn’t you observe her for a night or two? Please? Check her into the hospital again?”
Martin leaned back in his chair. He studied the young couple, recognized the desperation in their eyes, in their combined posture. He reached for the telephone. “Hey,” he said into the receiver, “do me a favor and get Stony Brook Sleep-Center on the phone. Ask for a Doctor Brennan.”
Everything in the universe behaves differently when observed--from complex, multi-system organisms all the way down to the microscopic bits that make up atoms. Katherine had been teaching this to her theoretical-physics students for going on three years now. What then, she wondered, had made her think her child’s imaginary tormentors would prove any different?
The idea that her daughter’s imaginary bullies had changed their behavior to avoid detection during Alexa’s two-night stay at the hospital was a terrifying one. Katherine reminded herself, yet again, that Fifty-six did not exist, any more than Seventy-six did--not as anything other than human abstractions. She reminded herself that it was Alexa who’d created both entities, who’d endowed them with numbers in lieu of names. Somehow, though, that thought was every bit as disconcerting as the ridiculous notion of numbers coming to life to torment her daughter.
“Mommy, is it almost bedtime?”
Katherine turned from her seat at the kitchen table. Alexa stood at the perimeter of the kitchen, holding number-one in the crook of her left arm. When a barely two-year-old Alexa Graves had pointed at her teddy-bear, and said “Numba One!” her parents had thought it adorable, and more than a little funny. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seemed downright creepy.
“Almost, baby. Why don’t you brush your teeth?”
Alexa nodded, turned and trod off in the direction of the bathroom. The sight pained Katherine; her daughter moved with the gait of a man being led to the gallows.
“Do you think she’s a monster?”
Katherine knocked over her glass, scrambled to turn it back upright. “What?”
Shame and fear warred for dominion over Michael’s face. “Nothing...I don’t know what I’m saying.”
She moved to stand, meaning to get some paper-towel. “I’ll get it,” Michael said. He disappeared into the kitchen, returned a few seconds later with a roll of paper-towel and a bottle of beer. He placed the beer down and went about wiping up the mess.
“You’re drinking a lot.”
He turned to her. “And you’ve been popping pills…”
Katherine started to say something. She sighed instead.
Michael walked to the kitchen, dropped the soaked clump of paper-towel into the trash bin. When he returned, he sat beside his wife and drew from his beer. “What I meant to say...that is…oh hell, I don’t know.”
He leaned in close, so as not to be overheard. “Is there something inside our little girl?”
Katherine felt her breath catch in her throat. She hadn’t let herself consider that possibility, not seriously, and not yet. That didn’t mean the terrifying thought hadn’t crossed her mind. She felt hot tears sting at her eyes; felt them break and course down her face. She looked to her husband and wasn’t surprised to find that he too, was crying
Because she couldn’t bring herself to say, “I don’t know” out loud, she shook her head and cried.
Michael Graves gathered his wife into his arms. He buried his face in her hair and sobbed.
“What are we going to do, baby? What are we going to do?”
Katherine snapped awake, unsure of what it was that had roused her so suddenly. She sat up in the dark of the bedroom and checked the clock on the cable-box, one of the few clocks in the house that wasn’t covered over. She felt cold, jagged stabs of fear in her stomach and her bowels. Where there would ordinarily be five characters on the digital display--two for the hour, two for the minutes, and a colon separating them--there were now only two...a seven, and a six.
She squeezed her eyes closed, looked again. Disbelieving, she checked the alarm-clock beside the bed:
“Michael!” Her harsh whisper sounded terribly loud in the quiet house. “Michael, wake up!” She reached over, her eyes still riveted to the digital display, and groped for her husband. He wasn’t there.
Panic grew within her, blossomed into alarm. She tore her gaze from the offending clock and confirmed with her eyes what her hand had told her already. Her husband wasn’t in bed.
She dropped her legs over the side of the bed, giving the alarm-clock a wide berth. She stood, went to the bedroom door, and out into the hallway. A glance into the living room showed it to be empty, and there was no light coming from the kitchen. The only light in the house came from the half-opened door of Alexa’s bedroom.
It was more than quiet as Katherine padded, barefoot, down the hardwood-floor of the hallway, and toward the light. The corridor, bereft of sound, seemed as though it would swallow all noise--as though the very space forbade any potential intrusion into the silence.
The bedroom door, already ajar, swung open soundlessly. Katherine stepped inside…
….and froze. The first thing she noticed was that something was wrong with her daughter’s bedroom. It took her frightened mind another fraction of a second to realize that what she’d registered as out of place was the color of the room, now far darker than it had been when she’d tucked Alexa into bed. Another nanosecond passed, and she recognized that the color of the walls hadn’t exactly changed--that they had, in fact, been scrawled upon all-over with black paint, or magic-marker.
Sevens and sixes, they were everywhere the terrified young woman looked. The walls, the floor, and even the ceiling was covered with them--so much so, that the negative space necessary to represent the two numerals was all that remained of the room’s original faded-rose-colored paint. The pattern had a dizzying quality about it, and Katherine reached out to the door for support. Her legs felt suddenly weak, and she feared her knees would give out.
“THIS IS SEVENTY-SIX.”
Katherine jumped where she stood. She turned to her daughter. The little girl was seated, bolt-upright on the side of her bed. Her eyes were glazed over, which meant she was sleep-talking. Alexa always had the same drugged-over look whenever she walked, or talked in her sleep.
Again, in the same inhuman, monotone timbre “THIS IS SEVENTY-SIX.”
“Alexa…” The part of Katherine that was sufficiently terrified to try and wake her daughter was overruled by the mother who knew that waking a sleepwalking person could be dangerous. The word left her lips as little more than a whisper.
Her daughter looked at her then--looked into her. Katherine shivered. A mother knows her daughter’s eyes... she knows them well.
Katherine Graves stared into the eyes of a stranger.
“THIS IS SEVENTY-SIX. STANDBY FOR…THIS IS SEVENTY-SIX.”
The room’s single light, a dimmer-bulb that had already been dimmed halfway, flickered off and then on again. When the light came back on, Alexa was standing not two feet from her mother.
“THIS IS SEVENTY-SIX…”
Katherine screamed. Self-control fled her. Reaching back with one flailing hand to make sure the door was still open, she backed away from her daughter’s body and ran toward her own bedroom. “Michael!”
She ran into her bedroom, and found her husband fast asleep on his normal side of their bed. Or rather, she found about half of him.
Katherine’s grandfather used to have a saying, regarding drivers who swerved over the line separating lanes. “He’ll take his half from the middle,” he’d say with a wink. Well, the half of Katherine’s husband that was missing was taken from the middle, if you will. It wasn’t his bottom-half, or his top-half that was gone; it wasn’t his left-side, or his right. Rather, it was random bits of him that had vanished, as though he'd been an image that had pixelated under scrutiny.
The room shrank. Katherine’s field of vision telescoped, and the world receded. The last thing she remembered was the sensation of falling, and hoping, in an off-handed way, that she’d done so in the direction of her bed, and not the hardwood floor.
Katherine came-to with no idea as to whether she’d been on the floor for minutes, or hours. Taking care, she hoisted herself onto the end of the bed. Her fingers went to her forehead, where they found an egg-shaped knot that represented the epicenter of a terrific headache.
Not without a good deal of trepidation, she eyed the cable-box.
She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Twisting around, she checked the alarm-clock. It too, was once again displaying the actual time. She closed her eyes and cried. When she could, she stood and walked out into the hallway. The first rays of morning sun lit the house now; Alexa’s nightlight was all but lost in them. The door to her daughter’s room was half-open.
Katherine took a deep breath and took the door by the knob. She swung it open. The walls were bare, back to their faded-rose-colored glory. The terrified woman wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or not.
After a quick trip to the bathroom, during which she cleaned the small cut on her head with peroxide, Katherine went to the kitchen. She sleep-walked through the routine of making coffee, went to the cabinet for her pills...and paused. Whatever was going on, she needed to stay sharp. She couldn’t protect her daughter if she couldn’t hold it together herself.
She put the pills back in the cabinet. If she needed them, they were there. She poured a cup of black coffee and took a seat at the kitchen table.
There had to be something they could do for Alexa. Because if they didn’t, Katherine was coming to believe, Seventy-Six--whether a figment of her daughter’s imagination, or some demon-number plucked from the world of the theoretical and dropped into that of the real--would kill their sweet little girl.
It was already ruining her life.
“Mommy, can you help me?”
Katherine put her coffee down. Her daughter’s call hadn’t sounded necessarily urgent, but there was something in its delivery that sounded...odd. She strode the few yards to her daughter’s bedroom. “Good Morning, baby. What’s the matter, oh...it’s okay, don’t worry. Take that off and let mommy get you some clean underpants. Actually, put on your bathrobe and I’ll run a tub for you.”
“He was here.” Alexa’s lip trembled. “Last night...he was here.”
Before Katherine could stop herself, she said, “I know.”
Alexa looked surprised. “How do you know?”
“Because you’re a big girl, and this never happens anymore unless he comes.” Inwardly, Katherine cringed. She wasn’t accustomed to lying, and certainly not to her daughter.
A few minutes later, Alexa was seated in the bathtub, her mother perched beside her on the closed-seat of the toilet. For a time, neither spoke. Katherine was about to ask her daughter if she was okay, when Alexa turned and said, “Were you in my room last night, mommy?”
Katherine felt suddenly hot and cold at the same time. “What did you say, baby?”
“Were you in my room last night? When he was here?”
Tears streamed down Katherine’s cheeks. She nodded. “I think I may have been, baby.”
Katherine saw disappointment dawn in her daughter’s eyes, on her features. She wanted to say something--anything--so as not to hear what her daughter would say next. Alexa needed to say it though...and Katherine was woman enough to acknowledge that she deserved to hear it. She braced herself.
“You ran away, mommy?”
The heartbreak Katherine felt was staggering, the worst she could ever remember. Alexa hadn’t been able to bring herself to accept what she knew to be the truth. Instead, she’d asked a question, had given her mother a chance to explain herself. Surely, in her daughter’s mind, there had to have been some very good reason why her mother had fled her bedroom, leaving her alone to contend with the dreaded Seventy-Six.
There was no such reason, though. “I’m so, so sorry, baby…” Katherine collapsed into sobs. Alexa stood and wrapped a towel around herself. She took her mother in her small arms, held her as she cried.
Katherine Graves stood in the shower, thinking about something Alexa had said once. Numbers, according to her daughter, are like people, in that there are lots of good ones, but lots of bad ones also.
Seventy-Six, which had inexplicably fixated on her daughter, was, of course, a bad one It wasn't alone, though. The little girl said there were other bullies and tormentors out there as well. A little research on Katherine’s part had proven her daughter right. Some tormentors, she learned, are so well known that fear of them warrants its own nomenclature. Fear of the number four, for example, and of course the most widely accepted bully, thirteen. Fear of the number six-hundred-sixty-six is a phobia the name of which is like to leave one’s tongue in a boatswain's knot, or perhaps some satanic pretzel.
Once the hot water had sauntered its way into lukewarm territory, Katherine turned the faucets off. She stepped out of the shower, reached for her bathrobe--and froze. In the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door, a seven and a six had been wiped into the fog.
Katherine held her bathrobe closed around her. She opened the bathroom door. A rush of cool air met her as she stepped out of the steamy room and into the hall. “Alexa? Baby?”
She popped into the kitchen, tying her robe closed as she did. The room was empty. She turned, walked to Alexa’s bedroom. The door was closed, so she rapped wet knuckles against it. “Baby? You okay?”
The knob didn’t move when she turned it. “Alexa? Baby, the door is locked! Are you okay?”
What was she supposed to do? Michael had left for work, and she didn’t know if she possessed the strength to break open a locked door. She looked at the doorknob, nodded to herself. It wasn’t the sort of lock that required a standard key--it was the kind with a locking mechanism on the inside, and a small hole on the outside. A small, mostly cylindrical latch triggers the locking mechanism, a latch that had been misplaced ages ago. But in a pinch…
Katherine turned for the kitchen. “Just a minute baby...mommy’s coming, hold on!”
The drawer beside the silverware drawer, the one the family jokingly referred to as the “junk” drawer, contained all manner of potentially useful crap. Katherine selected a large paperclip, a medium-sized portrait-nail, and a Philips-head screwdriver. She hastened back to Alexa’s door.
She tried the screwdriver first, but it proved too large for the opening. Next, she used the nail. She inserted and then wiggled the small piece of metal as far as the opening of the small-hole would allow. As she was zeroing in on the locking-mechanism, Alexa screamed. Katherine jumped at the sound, and the nail gave a dull clink as it hit the hardwood floor.
Again, Alexa screamed. Over the past year, Katherine had grown accustomed to her daughter’s screams of terror. This wasn’t one. This was an expression of terrible pain.
Hardened by the sound of her daughter in distress, Katherine took three steps back and ran at the door. She lowered her shoulder into it, as she’d seen done on television. The impact sent a wave of red-hot pain out from her arm and into her neck and chest. Undeterred, she backed up and again rammed her injured shoulder into the door. This time, she had the satisfaction of feeling it give, if only a little. The pain was excruciating, though, even overwhelmed as it was by the adrenaline coursing through her veins.
Something inside Katherine snapped. Some part of her subconscious mind knew what to do, and it took over, then. She stepped back and lashed out, landing a solid front-kick to the door, right beside the knob. The sound of wood cracking was her reward.
Had this been an outside leading door, a solid door made of wood or steel, Katherine wouldn’t have had one-chance-in-a-million of success. As it was, she stepped back, and kicked again.
On her second kick, the cheap pressed-wood around the knob collapsed inward, revealing the honeycombed latticework of heavy cardboard that lined the inside of the door. Her third kick rendered the doorknob, and therefore its lock, useless. She pushed the door open.
“Mommy! He hurt my back…”
Katherine looked around. Again, the room was scrawled-over with sevens and sixes of all sizes. Now, though, instead of black, they were the scarlet red of costume-blood. She walked to her daughter, took her hand. “Show me.”
Alexa stood and turned. She lifted her night-shirt and Katherine gasped. Her little girl’s back had been branded, it appeared, with a seven and a six. The numerals rose like angry welts on the child’s still baby-smooth skin. Katherine felt sick, like she might throw up. Her daughter’s tormentor had never manifested itself in so physical a way. It was a violation of her daughter’s person, as though the malignancy with a number for a name was not content to violate Alexa’s spirit. Now it had marked her body, too.
I won’t let you have her, she thought at the malignant abstraction. Not while I’m alive...
At that moment, as though the universe itself had accepted her unspoken challenge, the unthinkable happened. Alexa, her sweet little girl, half-disappeared in front of her eyes.
Katherine heard a horrific, anguished scream, and realized it was she who was screaming. The room darkened a shade, and then it went black.
The man sat forward in his seat. “No...no, no!” He tapped frantically at the open-air interface; The three-dimensional monitor’s haptic responses struggled to keep pace. Within the boundaries of the display, the shimmering air flashed and resolved into a deep blue.
“Shit!” He slumped back in his chair, exhaled. Disappointment washed over and through him. “Shit.”
The man wondered again, if his critics might be right--if the universe itself might not forbid the creation of sustainable, self-aware simulations, as it forbids faster-than-light travel. Perhaps, he postulated silently, that was why he and his team had never been able to identify the source of ERROR SEVENTY-SIX. Perhaps that particular fatal-error, and its myriad pilot-errors, were not the result of his own, and his team’s, computer-code. Perhaps it was part of a much larger program, written in an infinitely more refined programming language…
The man stood. He waved a hand past the monitor, and the dark-blue display disappeared. Before he instructed the lab’s audio-interface to dim the room’s lights for the evening, he glanced, out of habit, at the digital clock on the desk. He shook his head and chided himself in silence. He’d removed that clock a week ago now, along with the analog clock on the wall. That had been the morning after the nightmares started.
J. Robert Kane
East Northport, New York