by Bryan Russell
The Forgotten Songs of Children
Mark stepped in through the door, feeling the silence of the house. Another beer? His foot hurt from the game, and it was another damn loss. He should’ve had a goal, too, if the damn ref had been paying attention.
He scrounged a beer from the fridge and walked into the living room. His wife was asleep on the couch. She had a vaguely unpleasant expression on her face.
Better that she was asleep, as he hadn’t told her he was going out after the game with the guys. He could do without her nagging, the damn look she’d give him because the kids were already in bed and he’d missed them again.
He grabbed the tv remote. Something would be on. But when he hit the button nothing happened. Mark mashed it down a few times. “Shit. A blind ref and now this.” He stood. He walked angrily to the tv and tried to turn it on by hand, but there was only a dull blackness on the screen.
Mark hit the button again and again. Fucking thing. He smacked the button, hoping the tv would turn on or break.
He blinked as the voices came through. He looked at the screen. Blank. No sign of life. But he’d heard voices.
And there again, distantly. Children. Children’s voices, speaking in a tone and rhythm that hinted of music.
The tv was blank. The kids, he thought. The kids are awake. What the hell were they doing up? If they were fooling around he’d give ‘em heck.
Mark listened, straining at the voices. He couldn’t make out words. Just the child-like trilling, the fluting sound of distant voices, their sound untouched by age, innocent and free…
Yet there was something mocking in the notes. Something almost callous, almost cruel. As if they were laughing at him.
Goddamn kids, trying to get away with it.
Mark took a step, banging his sore foot on the coffee table. He grabbed his foot for a second, hopping, and then limped to the hallway.
The voices came, closer and brighter and sharper, and yet still the sound they made was somehow wordless, or beyond words. Laughter set to music, sharp lines crossing and re-crossing. Voices twining and haunting each other, picking at the seams of the world. Many voices. The voices of many children: five or six or ten or twenty.
Mark stopped. He felt cold, his skin pebbling. A cold breath on his neck. The voices were high, floating, moving somehow, as if orbiting him, circling him and wrapping him in sharp wire.
A wind fell through his head and chest and out through his limbs, rushing out from toes and fingers. The sudden presence of fear, of panic.
Mark flung himself up the stairs, toward Kate and Edie’s room. He pushed in the door, the light from the hall slanting across the sleeping faces.
He breathed. They were okay. Peaceful. Mark blinked. No, not peaceful, exactly. They were asleep, their faces pale but not quite reposed. They moved a little, as if dreaming, as if speaking, their lips forming silent imitations of words.
It was nothing, though, the voices. Just the wind. The kids were fine.
The voices struck, the laughter high and drifting, and Mark knew his children were in danger. His lungs felt like balloons ready to burst. He stumbled from the room. Something was here.
The voices whirled, fluting through the air, the harsh laughter of children.
Outside, they were outside. He took the stairs two at a time, trying to find his breath, fighting the sudden pain in his foot, the dread made manifest.
He limped to the door, swung it open. Stepping out into the night the wind was cold on his skin and he shivered. Silence in the dark.
The red glow bloomed in the night, here in one spot and here in another, the light limning butterflies – huge, vast butterflies, starlight peering through their red wings. They glowed, fluttering in the blackness, moving and bobbing and spinning in the air. The wordless voices returned. Loud, now, and deafening, a wordless song filled with cold and tinkling laughter.
The red light spread. It was the red light of his own blood, he’d seen it as a child, in the dark, when he held a flashlight behind his hand and the beam poured through his skin and bled out red on the other side, the bloodlight thick and strange, both liquid and insubstantial.
Peals of laughter, the children laughing, the music of words he would never understand, in a language he had already failed to learn, the wind on his skin and in his hair and the song in his cold ears.
The red light blinked out and there was only blackness and he could see nothing, nothing, nothing.