(A scary story about children.)
“What do you mean, ‘a little girl died here?’” my wife asked, her voice rising with incredulity. “Don’t you have to disclose that before you sell a house? Isn’t that the law?”
“No,” the realtor replied, eyeing his shoes. “Not in this state.”
“Jesus Christ, Tommy,” Ingrid bristled. Why would you even bring it up then? The paperwork’s already through, for fuck’s sake!”
“Listen,” I interjected, trying to be the cooler head, despite my own irritation. “Hang on. Tommy, seriously, why are you telling this to us? You clearly didn’t have to, but you did anyway. There had to be a reason.”
Tommy stared at the floor. He looked uncomfortable, to say the least.
“Tommy?” Ingrid pressed.
“Look,” Tommy sighed. “I probably should have told you before, but I worried you’d think I was being superstitious. It’s just that I have a daughter. And I know you do, too. And my wife told me this morning that if she were buying this house, she’d want to know.”
“Okay,” I agreed, and took a deep breath. “Ingrid, do you want to hear what he’s got to say?”
Ingrid’s glare had softened. “Yeah,” she replied. “Go ahead, Tommy.”
“It’s not a long story or anything,” he said. “It’s pretty simple, actually. Twenty years ago, a little girl lived here with her father. The mom had died from something when the girl was a baby, so she was out of the picture. It was just the dad and the kid. Apparently he was abusive, but the school didn’t do anything about it until she stopped showing up to classes for a few weeks. When the school couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone, they sent the police to check it out. A cop knocked on the door and the dad just started shooting.”
“Jesus,” Ingrid breathed, and stared at the front door.
“Yeah,” Tommy said, and went on. “The cop got a bullet in the arm, so he and his partner just fired through the door. Dad got killed. Hell, at the end of it all, the two officers got in a lot of trouble. According to the complaint, they had no idea the girl wasn’t right there with her dad. She could’ve had her head blown off. Of course, the police union’s lawyer argued that by that time, the girl was already dead. And she was.”
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“The official report was that she suffocated to death. Murdered. She was nine.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ingrid whispered.
I thought of our little Christina back in the city with her grandmother. We’d just celebrated her seventh birthday. My stomach turned as I imagined someone as sweet and loving as our kid being harmed.
Against my better judgement, I asked, “you said that’s the official report, like you don’t believe it or something. Was there more to it?”
Tommy started to answer, but Ingrid interrupted. “No, no that’s okay. I don’t need to hear any more. I’m going for a walk.”
She pushed open the front door and left me with the realtor. We stood awkwardly in the bare living room, watching Ingrid pacing the front yard for a minute before I spoke up.
“I want to know, Tom.”
He rubbed his eyes with his palms. “Look, Chelsea, my buddy’s father’s a cop. He worked that case. It turned out the kid’s dad was into some awful shit. Awful, like, he made recordings of that little girl all tied up — stuff he sold to other bastards like him.”
“God damn it,” I muttered.
“Yeah. And it wasn’t sex. At least, the coroner didn’t discover anything indicating that at the autopsy. But in a way, I think it might have been worse.”
“What was it?”
“Well you know how I said she’d been suffocated? He had the whole thing on tape. He didn’t hold a pillow over her face or strangle her or anything. It was more fucked up than that. My friend told me his dad went to therapy for years after he saw what it was.”
I closed my eyes as waves of nausea swept through me. “Just say it, Tommy.”
“Chel, he tickled that little girl until she stopped breathing. He tickled her for hours. My friend said the tape was hours of her screaming and laughing but she looked horrified and in so much pain. She laughed and laughed and laughed until she started choking, but he wouldn’t stop. She wheezed and giggled for another ten minutes, then she died. Apparently she’d had mild asthma and the trauma brought on an attack.”
I studied the unadorned walls for a few minutes without saying anything. Tommy shifted uncomfortably in place. I wondered it this was the room where she’d died, or if it was in one of the bedrooms. Maybe the one we’d chosen for Christina.
When I’d gathered my thoughts and was fairly certain I wouldn’t start crying, I said, “Look, do me a favor and never tell Ingrid what you told me. If she gets curious, just make something up, okay?”
Tommy nodded. We never spoke of the conversation again.
Months later, the new house had become our warm home. It was far more spacious than our old apartment. Christina loved it. The yard was filled with the playground equipment I’d promised her: swingsets, a jungle gym, and some other stuff I hated having to mow around, but it was worth it to see our daughter so happy.
I did my best to forget what Tommy had told me, but sometimes I’d be alone in the house, wondering if the room I was in was the one where the terrible thing had happened.
Ingrid would bring up the part of the story she’d heard every once in a while. The first time, she asked if what Tommy had said without her there was too disturbing to hear. She’s always been perceptive.
“No,” I lied. “Just how the police left out a part showing how they’d missed something a few weeks earlier that might have led them to investigate sooner.”
“That’s terrible,” Ingrid huffed. “If only they’d done their god damn jobs.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, and changed the subject.
Last Friday, the three of us were playing around in the living room. We’d just finished watching Moana. Ingrid and Christina were doing their best impressions of Moana and Maui while I belted out a tuneless version of “How Far I’ll Go.”
Christina picked up a pillow, held it over her head, and announced it was Maui’s hook. She swung it around while Ingrid and I recoiled in mock fear.
“You better drop it!” Ingrid called, laughing.
“No!” shouted Christina. “I’m gonna hook you!” She swung again.
Ingrid dodged the pillow and grabbed our daughter and started to tickle her. Christina’s peals of laughter echoed throughout house.
“Tickle monster!” Ingrid cried. Christina giggled and squirmed and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes.
I stopped singing and stood still, suddenly cold. I watched my wife’s fingers scrambling over Christina’s belly and sides. The giggles seemed too loud. Too shrill. Too numerous.
“Tickle monster!” Ingrid shouted again. I listened closer, my eyes widening. There was another source of laughter. It was initially coming from upstairs, but it quickly moved down the steps, through the hallway, and into the room with us.
“Tickle mon –” Ingrid began, but then she shrieked. Small bites and scratches appeared all over her hands and arms. Christina hollered and jumped up and hid behind me. The giggling sound was deafening, drowning out Ingrid’s cries. The wounds began to weep blood.
I rushed to my wife and grabbed her. The giggling stopped. Ingrid was sobbing and grasping her arms with her bloody hands. The wounds weren’t deep, but they were numerous.
A hideous realization dawned inside me. “Go away!” I shouted. “She wasn’t hurting her!”
Christina and Ingrid looked at me, shocked and confused.
“Just go!” I yelled again. We all heard faint giggling nearby, decreasing in volume as it went up the stairs and into the unused third bedroom.
Christina wept pitifully into my skirt. I scooped her up and cradled her against my chest.
“Chelsea,” Ingrid hissed, her eyes wide with pain and shock. “What the fuck did Tommy really say when I left?”
I didn’t say anything. The room was silent, save for Christina’s quiet sobbing.
“Chel, what did he say?”
“Look,” I said, my voice shaking. “Let’s go to the hospital and get your cuts taken care of. I’ll tell you everything after. But… but maybe we shouldn’t tickle Christina anymore, okay?”