Richard was humming as he pulled into the driveway. It had been a warm, sunny, almost oppressive day. Gabby lay sleeping like an angel in her seat in the back. And finally, the whole business with Anna was over. They could move on.
Richard took Gabby from the back seat and carried her up the garden path, careful not to wake her. After more than a month he was still impressed by the stately home. A grey slate path ran through the manicured lawn to a grand entrance. Large windows looked out at the driveway and the street beyond. A hedge surrounding the garden offered plenty of privacy. The wind rustled through the leaves on the trees scattered around the lawn.
It smells like it will rain tonight, Richard thought as he walked up the few steps to the front door.
Inside he carried Gabby up the stairs, steadying himself with one hand on the white railing. Several pictures, showing a happy family he didn’t know, hung along the stairwell up to the first floor. A hint of roses wafted through the air. It was a nice safe house, even if it was temporary. Now that Anna was locked up, they would relocate and could finally start their life again.
The nursery was on the left side of the landing. As Richard walked in, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He felt watched. He looked through the room. Nothing was out of place. Gabby’s cribs stood in the corner of the room with the blanket folded back. Whiskers, a small stuffed cat, sat in the top corner. Her changing table stood underneath the window with diapers, baby soap and lotion bottles scattered across it. On the other side of the room were two large built-in closets.
Richard gently laid Gabby in bed. He glanced over his shoulder. Nothing moved in the room. Get a hold of yourself, Richard though. There is no one there. She can’t reach us anymore. It’s over.
Gabby just kept on sleeping as Richard closed the door behind him and headed downstairs. To take his mind of things, Richard turned on the TV and ran through the channels. What was that? He thought. Something he had seen a few channels back nudged his mind. The first channel back showed some cartoon. The next was the cooking channel. Then a tele-sales program. See, you’re imagining things. The fourth was a news bulletin.
“Reporting live from the Aldridge Asylum,” the channel blared at him. “We just received an update that the riots are under control. Unfortunately, it seems that one of the guards succumbed to his wounds. Of the three patients who escaped, two have been apprehended again. The third is still at large.”
The Aldridge Asylum, wasn’t that where Anna had been taken? Richard thought. Anna! That was what had been nagging at him since he had come home. She’d always smelled of roses. But it can’t be, can it? She doesn’t know where we are.
At that moment, Gabby started screaming in a high pitched, hysterical cry. Richard jumped up and raced upstairs. There, the door to Gabby’s room stood slightly ajar. Richard hesitated for a second before rushing in. There, bent over the crib, stood a woman dressed in mismatched outfit that looked like it had been grabbed of off some clothes line, gently stroking the crying Gabby. “There, there,” she said. “Don’t cry, mommy’s home.”
“Hello Richard,” Anna still had the soft, musical voice he had fallen in love with all those years ago.
“Anna,” Richard said. “Step away from Gabby.”
“No ‘Hello Anna, what a nice surprise to see you’?” Anna’s voice changed. It became higher pitched and lost its musical flow. “No ‘how have you been’? No ‘what brings you here’?”
Anna turned her head towards Richard. Her face was contorted into a feral sneer, her blond hair covering half her face. She was shouting now. “After all these weeks, not even a simple hell0?”
Gabby reacted to her mother’s shouting by crying harder.
“Anna, please,” Richard said, hands held forward, pleading. “Why don’t we go downstairs? Then Gabby can sleep.”
“She’s my daughter too! You’re trying to keep her from me.”
“I just would love to have a quiet chat with you without disturbing Gabby.” Richard took a step forward.
In a flash Anna took Gabby from her bed and held her tight. Shocked, Richard stopped short. “No, no. Please. Just look at Gabby. She’s all worked up.”
Tenderly, Anna stroked Gabby’s hair. “No,” the musical voice was back. “She just missed her mother. That’s all. Let’s go downstairs. I’ll bring Gabby, then you can cook.”
Without another look, Anna strode past Richard and walked downstairs. In the kitchen, she sat down at the kitchen island and placed Gabby on the countertop. Anna started making little cooing noises over Gabby. “There should be some food in the fridge I think,” she said as Richard walked in. “Why don’t you see what you can whip up.”
Richard set to work, his motions mechanical. As he gathered some vegetables from the fridge, Anna pulled a paring knife from the knife block and used it to play with Gabby. The little girl followed the light flashing off the knife. Little by little, she calmed down . “You know, the guard wasn’t supposed to be there,” Anna said. “He was just unlucky to be in the wrong place. That’s all.”
Anna looked Gabby up and down. “You should really have gotten her hair cut in the past week.” Richard froze in place. “It’s a complete mess.” Anna turned Gabby’s head sideways, grabbed a handful of hair and sliced it off. Richard could only stare at her.
“I like this place,” she hummed. “Let’s find something similar when we move on from here. Something with character.”
For a moment, she reminded him of the woman he’d fallen in love with those years ago, energetic and full of plans. Redecorating their house, planning the next neighbourhood barbeque, there was always a new project. That had all changed when she’d become pregnant with Gabby.
Richard threw some random vegetables into a pan. “Where would you like to live?” he asked her.
Outside, the first drops of rain started to fall.
“O, I don’t know.” She waved the knife around. “Someplace sunny. It needs to have nicer weather then this.”
Over the course of the dinner, the weather got worse. Lightning charges were quickly followed by rolling thunder. Rain lashed at the windows and the wind bent the hedges outside nearly flat.
Anna chatted on about minor things, ignoring or not noticing the grunts Richard gave in answer. During awkward pauses in the conversation she cooed over Gabby, who was sitting on her lap.
When they finished diner Anna said “Why don’t you clear away the dishes? I’ll put Gabby to bed.”
“You’ve had a long day, dear. Why don’t you just relax on the couch?” Richard said. “I’ll put Gabby to bed and clean up after.”
“Why do you always have to argue about everything!” Anna yelled. “Do as you’re told, damn you!” She slammed her hand on the table, rattling glasses. “Clean up the kitchen and don’t make me ask again!”
Gabby started crying again at the outburst. Anna got up and headed upstairs with Gabby in her arms, not looking back at Richard.
Richard jumped up as soon as she was out of sight and ran to the phone. He picked up the horn, dialled the emergency services and put the horn against his ear.
The line was dead.
He turned around, ran to the kitchen counter and grabbed his cell phone. It had no signal either. Damn storm, he thought.
Not sure what to do, he wandered into the hallway. There, he could make out Anna singing something unintelligible upstairs. Lightning struck. The lights flickered and went out. Richard started sneaking upstairs.
On the landing he turned towards the nursery. The door stood slightly ajar. He walked over and peeked into the room.
The sight in the room froze him in place. Anna stood in the middle of the room, arms raised high. The storm was howling around her through the opened window. She yelled some unknown language into the storm. She had carved a pentagram into the carpet. In each corner a candle was burning straight, the flame untouched by the storm. Gabby was lying in the middle of it all.
Anna reached over to the changing table, picking something up. A flash of lightning revealed the paring knife she had been playing with earlier.
The flash broke Richard’s trance. “No!” he yelled, storming into the room. He tackled Anna as she half turned towards him, bringing the both of them to the ground.
With one hand, Anna pushed Richard off her. “You shouldn’t have interfered!” she shouted, scrambling to her feet. Her face was contorted into a primal grin, her hair wild around her drawn eyes. Richard crawled backwards onto the landing as Anna approached with the knife held high.
“Anna, please,” he said. “Don’t hurt Gabby.”
Anna grabbed him by his throat and pushed him against the wall above the stairs. “You should have stayed downstairs. You should have done the dishes like I told you.”
In the nursery, Gabby started crying and thrashing around with her arms and legs. Richard looked over and saw his little girl lying there in the middle of the pentagram. A protective urge woke in him. He kicked Anna with a surge of strength. Surprised, Anna dropped him with a grunt. With all his might, Richard pushed Anna off of him.
Anna stumbled back a few paces. She missed the top step of the stair and lost her balance. She tripped and fell down the stairs in to the darkness.
A flash of lightning revealed her lying at the bottom of the stairs. Her neck stood in an unnatural angle. Her open eyes stared accusingly at Richard. Richard cautiously walked down towards her and checked for life signs. She was dead, her neck broken. Another lightning flash lit up the hallway. Gabby! Richard thought and ran back upstairs.
In the nursery, the storm had abated. The candles still burned bright around Gabby who was lying still on the floor.
As Richard entered, Gabby turned her head towards him.
“Hello Richard,” she said in a soft, musical voice. Anna’s voice.