Afloat on a yellow raft, Tom searched for land. Salt laced his tongue as he looked at the endless sea of waves in front of him and the stars hanging above him, glowing in the dark. The moon was high and smiled down like a cheshire cat ready to play tricks.
Wait . . . how did I get here? Last thing I remember is getting ready for bed, and then—
Before Tom finished his thought, land seemed to appear out of nowhere. With arms stretched to either side of the inflatable, he paddled. Only his palms reached the sea below as he made his way forward. Sweat beaded across his pale forehead, dripping salt into sleepless blue eyes. Reaching the beach, Tom stumbled to his feet; he panted with every step he made in the surf. Once past the ebb and flow, he threw himself down onto dry, rough sand.
A shrill cry came from elsewhere along the shore. Jolted, his instinct drew him toward the sound, leaving a soaking, lifeless impression in his wake — a shadow of himself.
Is that a baby? Why would a baby be out here?
Especially this late. It has to be after ten. Maybe it’s not a baby then.
No, it can’t be.
It doesn’t make any fucking sense.
None of this does.
Tom’s tired, aching feet urged him forward. With every step the wailing grew louder. As he approached he became more certain what he was hearing was a baby. A weary wicker basket appeared on the beach as the source of the sound. Tom reached the noise and squatted in front of the crier’s cradle.
In the seconds it took for his hand to reach the basket, Tom’s heart became a rattling tail of an excited dog. Unsure if it was from running, from the fear of what he might find, or from the terrifying thought of how and why this child came to be here.
Come on, Tom, he recited to himself, as clammy hands inched closer to what lie inside. As his dirty, rough fingers opened the moss-colored sheet, a shrieking eyeless face sprang forward, flinging itself toward Tom like some twisted Twilight Zone jack-in-the-box. Tom flew back. Fuck, he gasped. His feet fell out from under him. His back hit hard on the sand. The last of his breath evacuated his lungs. His head followed his body and slammed into the sand.
Tom’s eyes flung open as he bolted upright in his bed. Beads of sweat pooled atop his forehead, lacing his blond eyebrows with salty pearls. Purple crescents surrounded his groggy blue eyes, encrusted with remnants of the day before like fragments of subsoil around a lake. He panted following the nightmare he awoke from, his chest burning as if the thin ocean air had been real. He swung his bare legs out from his comforter and onto tan carpet. Sitting a minute, he rubbed his palms across his stubbled face before looking toward his clock, which read 4:00 am.
On his oak nightstand sat an empty glass. Damn, he thought, parched and dehydrated from the perspiration, which now soaked his white shirt. As he made his way to the kitchen, a story below, he stopped at his dresser for a new shirt. That’s when he heard it: the wails of a baby. Tom froze — fingers resting on the brass knobs of the dresser drawer. As if he stepped into ice-cold water, horripilation crept over his body.
No, no, no. No fucking way, he attempted to convince himself. He began counting each quickened breath he took, one, two, three, until he got to ten, listening for the cries. Nothing. Relieved, he let out a breath, ready for a new shirt and a glass of water.
Uh wah, wah, wah.
Cries came once more. This time, Tom was certain of what he had heard. He looked out of his bedroom window, which faced the front of his canary house. His heart drummed in his ear like a butcher beating raw animal flesh, horrified of what he might find as he peered through the blinds. Pushing them aside, Tom looked down. His yard was illuminated by the motion- detecting light hanging above the driveway. Palms brimmed with sweat. The length downward felt infinite. Vision blurred. Heat filled his head and the back of his neck behind his ears.
Uh wah, wah, wah. There it was again.
Holy shit. What the fuck is going on? Tom thought as he ran down the stairs, hardly able to grip the rail for balance. He reached the front door. The cries grew louder. Through the peephole, he focused his gaze on the porch. The light had since gone out. With breath held, he made out the shape resting on the bottom cement step. A baby. Wrapped in blankets inside a basket. Wailing. Tom turned the deadbolt, unable to hear the click with his heart pounding in his ears. His blood rushing through him. Hand tremorous, he reached for the doorknob.
Outside Tom shivered. Bending forward, he glanced side-to-side down the dormant street. He reached for the now quiet child, forgetting the monster that sprang out from his dream. It felt light in his hands. Baby in arms and bewildered, he unwrapped the blankets. Inside wasn’t a monster. It wasn’t a baby. It was something else.
Tom stopped breathing. Unnerved, he again scanned the street. He began to gasp. His side began to throb. Still clutching the contents of the basket, Tom reached around his side. Retrieving his hand to find warm vermillion coating his fingers. Blood flowed from an open wound. A hot flash of white pain entered the side of his lower back again. And again. And again — red pouring out in droves. Unable to stand any longer, Tom made his way to the ground. Sound slowly slipped away from him. The last thing he heard were cries dissolving into the distance, mimicking his own. As he fell he saw a figure between himself and the bushes next to the porch. It was holding a blade with droplets of Tom overrunning its tip. It watched, as a plastic doll with a speaker in its chest lay on the pavement next to Tom. Both lifeless.