Now, she knows it’s way too cold for those babies to be in that water like that!
Rae sucked her teeth and shook her head as she pulled her sweater tighter around her. She stopped her beach stroll to stare at the woman on the sand in the distance, watching the four little kids tumble in the chilly waters of Surfside Beach.
They’re gonna catch their death.
She didn’t see a vehicle anywhere near them, so she thought they might be renting one of the houses along the shore.
Her babies were long grown up and she thought about how she’d always felt like folks were judging how she was parenting them when they were young. She didn’t want to be that nosy old woman, but from where she stood, the woman seemed awfully young.
Besides, Rae wasn’t that old … only middle-aged. And the kids outnumbered the other woman, four to one. Rae’s husband, Tim, had worked as a long-distance truck driver throughout their marriage so she was mostly left alone with their kids.
Not that her kids could be bothered to remember how she’d pretty much raised them without their beloved dad’s physical presence or help. He had only financed their household expenses and performed drive-by visits where he spent his off days running other errands rather than helping with the kids and things that needed to be done inside the house. She did all the hard work of parenting and managing the household; but the kids still hardly called or visited her since Tim had passed on two years prior.
“Maybe she’s on her own, too.” Rae decided she’d just take a slight detour close to where they were playing and see if she could offer a hand in getting the kids wrangled and out of the water. She didn’t have any towels with her and they didn’t seem to, either, but they could figure something out.
The first thing she noticed as she walked within speaking distance of the little family was how the kids completely ignored her. The woman turned slightly to face her and Rae secondarily noted her slow movements encased within the full sweatsuit she wore, complete with the pulled-up hood. She didn’t want to be angry with the woman without knowing the whole story but it seemed pretty selfish that she was covered up and the babies weren’t.
The little ones wore tiny summer swimsuits, perfect for the scorching sun that would bore down relentlessly in their region in another few weeks, but which had yet to make much of an appearance in the unusually cool spring they currently enjoyed.
“Hello!” Rae worked to keep her voice cheerful. The children continued to splash in the light brown surf.
The single gravelly word seemed forced across the younger woman’s vocal cords. She had already turned back to watch the children. Not before Rae had seen the dark bruises underneath both eyes and the slow but furtive motion to pull the strings of the hoodie tighter around her injured neck.
Her slow movements, bruises, and hesitance told a desperate story that almost brought Rae to tears. Poor girl! Her man beat her real bad.
She cleared her own throat and spoke again, keeping the pity at bay so the girl wouldn’t bolt away.
“They sure are full of energy! I wish I had some of that right about now.”
No response from the mother.
“My babies were never that energetic when they were little. Aren’t they cold? How old are they?” She took a step closer to the woman. Close enough to see her shudder. Not close enough to get her talking.
She wrapped her arms tight around her torso. “I can help you gather them up and get them out of the water, if you want. I’m sure they can be a handful.” Rae forced a smile onto her face, despite the knot that grew in her stomach when she thought the woman still wouldn’t respond.
“You have no idea. They never let me rest. Never.”
The words spat from between the full lips startled Rae. It wasn’t just the vehemence the utterance held. The underlying tone almost escaped her, but not quite.
The woman was afraid of her children.
“Oh, toddlers can be real hellions, but they can be brought to heel.”
The other woman had already turned her gaze towards the children again.
“Not them. They do what they want. They know I can’t stop them.”
She shuddered again and Rae followed suit. The air on the shore grew chillier as they stood in silence for a few moments before Rae tried again.
“Do you have towels for them? We can bundle them up and get y’all inside.”
The woman furrowed her brows and looked around on the ground where she stood. She closed her eyes briefly, sagging deep into the sweatsuit so that Rae barely heard the rest of her words.
“They’re fine. They’ll come out when they get ready. Thank you.”
Rae wanted to say more but was interrupted by the oldest girl, who appeared to be around seven years old.
“Who are you?” Pale, bluish gray eyes much lighter than the color of the sky they stood underneath bore into hers. Three more pairs of the same eyes turned to her, as well, and all movement in the water stopped. Her siblings were obviously younger than she, although Rae couldn’t tell exactly how old any of them really were.
Rae held the girl’s gaze and felt as if she was falling into depths of emotionless pools. She had only seen eyes anywhere near that color once before. When she was a girl, she and her cousin came upon the corpse of their neighbor’s dog that had died in the woods behind their grandmother’s house. Its eyes had been a brilliant brown in life. In death, the gray of the unknown beyond had tainted their brilliance.
The children’s mother moved more quickly than she had the whole time Rae had been watching them.
“This is a nice lady who offered to help us. She’s going to continue on her way because we’re okay.” She turned to face Rae, dark eyes imploring her to agree.
Against her better judgment, Rae did so.
“Yes. I thought you might be cold and I wanted to help your Mommy get you out of the water. But I’ll leave you to your fun.”
The baby toddled towards Rae in that speedy way only toddlers could move. Before Rae could back away, the baby wrapped her arms around her legs, sending jolts of icy pain through Rae’s skin.
“Jasmine! Did you find Mommy a shell like we saw on television? Come help me, baby girl.”
The little arms released Rae, but the children’s gazes did not falter.
Rae stumbled and then ran back the same way she had come, unsure of what had happened but convinced that even if the family needed her help, they certainly didn’t want it.
Something wasn’t right about those kids.
Rae had tried her best to forget about the sad woman and the odd little kids until she ran right into the two oldest ones in the convenience store later that evening.
“Where’re your parents?” The store clerk asked the boy and girl as he looked around for an adult to claim them.
“Mommy’s right outside in the car. On the side part.” The boy spoke more clearly than his appearance as a small six-year old would have belied. He continued to stare at the man as he held out the bill in his tiny hand to pay for the large, brilliantly colored bag of potato chips on the counter. His sister stood slightly behind him, in silence.
There were no cars parked on the side of the store. And Rae didn’t see their mother anywhere.
They’re trying to protect their mother.
Perhaps she had sent them to the store alone. Or maybe she was unable to stop them from leaving if something had happened to her.
Her heart broke for the little family. She hadn’t seen a father with them earlier but those bruises on their mother hadn’t appeared from nowhere.
The cashier started to shake his head slowly from side to side as he reached for the phone on the side counter.
“They’re with me.” Rae walked up to stand directly behind the children. She wasn’t really being a busybody if the kids were in danger of having the police called on them and Child Protective Services inserted in their and their mother’s lives. The younger woman was likely doing the best she could and Rae couldn’t stand to see her punished for a minor misjudgment.
Still, something could have happened to the small children as they traveled to and from the store alone. Rae decided she would walk them back home. And I may as well check on their mother while I’m there, too.
The children paid for their snack and Rae paid for her bottle of water. They waited patiently beside the door for her to complete her transaction, chilly, pale eyes trained on the cashier who still shook his head, also muttering under his breath. Rae watched as large beads of sweat appeared suddenly on his forehead and rolled down the sides of his face. She grabbed her change from him before those beads could drop on the bills.
“Let’s go.” She hadn’t expected them to easily do as she said but they surprised her and the two kids padded obediently beside her, one on each side, their little feet making quiet slaps on the pavement. They also allowed her to grab their hands as they crossed the street back to the beach side. Rae was shocked by the initial iciness of their little fingers and reminded herself that they were small children outside in cool weather and it would take a while for them to warm up.
“Does Mommy know you two went to the store?”
“Yes.” The girl spoke up.
“Was she too tired to go with you?”
“She was laying down.”
Rae nodded. “Do you mind if I walk you home and check on her?”
“You’ll have to show me where you live.”
As the children guided her towards their house, Rae was struck with sadness at how much the babies loved their mother and wanted to protect her. Her own adult children had forgotten she even existed and she had to text them constantly to get minimal updates on them and her grandchildren.
She missed the time when they were young and they needed and loved her. She was always with them and she had sacrificed so much for them. She and Tim had grown apart during their childhood, and yet, she stayed with him so the children could have stability. Tim hadn’t noticed the distance between them and probably believed up until the day he died that they were just like any other married couple.
The children slowed down in front of a large, expensive looking beach house close to where she had first seen them. The two-story home loomed ominously in the twilight of the waning sun. No porch light welcomed them. The little boy went up the stairs in front of Rae and his sister went behind her.
As they entered the front door, the smell hit Rae in the face. It wasn’t overpowering but it was largely unpleasant. She struggled to see in the dim room, wanting to open the windows to let in fresh, salted air from the ocean but also needing light to assess her surroundings. Movement from across the room caught her eye and then disappeared in darkness as the girl closed the door behind her.
“I know you’re hungry. I’ll get up and feed you all in a little while.”
Rae recognized the woman’s voice, even tinged with the exhaustion she heard from her. “Hi, it’s me again. Rae. From the beach earlier. I walked the kids …”
“No! What are you doing here? Leave now.” Urgency slightly raised the young mother’s voice and Rae walked sideways, feeling along the wall until she found the light switch and flipped it.
Her brain wasn’t ready to accept what the light revealed. The warm up suit was the same but the woman in it looked much older than she had earlier. Dry, wrinkled skin covered her face, giving her the visage of a skull covered in leather. A skeletal hand waved feebly in Rae’s direction.
Rae didn’t know what the woman was imploring her to do. Then she realized it wasn’t she the request was directed at.
The two youngest children appeared from around a corner and stood with their two older siblings.
“Mommy’s tired. Please let me rest. Someone else can take care of you.”
One of the toddlers spoke up. “I give Mommy Daddy juice.” She stretched out her hands towards her mother and the woman recoiled.
“I just want to die. I’m already dead. Please, let me rest.” The woman slumped down into the couch once again.
“Mommy, you’re the only grown up we have left. The Daddy juice is almost gone and we don’t know where to find more.” The oldest girl turned her gaze to Rae. “Daddy hurt Mommy really bad when he put his hands around her neck. Then we made him sleep so we could wake Mommy up.”
“But she wouldn’t stay awake unless we kept giving her Daddy juice,” the oldest boy continued.
“They won’t let me rest. I slept for just a moment and they brought me right back. And they keep doing it over and over again. I don’t want to be here anymore but they keep bringing me back.” The last of the woman’s words came out in a croak.
“We could let Mommy rest if you will take care of us.” Four pairs of eyes settled on Rae.
She found her voice. “I can’t take care of you. I … I don’t understand what’s going on here. Let me get some help.”
“No one else can help. We already gave you some Daddy juice and it’s working. You have to stay with us and take care of us now.”
Rae’s mind raced back to the wet embrace from the toddler on the beach and the gripping of her hands by the two older children. She remembered the iciness that coursed through her at their touch.
She knew they told the truth. They had given her something. She didn’t fully understand what the something was but it didn’t matter right then.
“Where do you get the Daddy juice?”
“From Daddy. In the bedroom closet.”
“Can we let Mommy rest for a little bit while you take me to see Daddy?”
She allowed the toddlers to grasp her hands that time. The chill from their hands stabbed through her until it no longer sent shockwaves up her arms.
They opened the closet in a back bedroom to reveal the dried-out corpse of their father, withered almost completely to dust.
There would be so much to figure out in being their caregiver. They seemed too young to understand where their gift came from so she had no idea how to help them manage it. But they needed her. They were babies. She no longer had any babies so she needed them, too.
“Did you just give me the last Daddy juice?’
“Yes. You’re nice.” The baby girl stuck her thumb in her mouth and leaned against Rae’s legs.
“When I go to sleep like Mommy, will you have to find more juice from somewhere to give me?”
“I think so.” The oldest girl furrowed her eyebrows. “But maybe you won’t sleep like that for a long, long time since we gave you Daddy juice before you went to sleep.”
Rae guessed the girl might be right. “Why don’t we go tell Mommy she can sleep now? That will make her so happy.”
“Okay.” The kids ran down the hallway back into the living room, Rae following behind them, wondering if there was any food in the house she could make them for dinner.
R. J. Joseph is a Stoker Award™ nominated, Texas based writer who earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She has had works published in various venues, including the Halloween issue of Southwest Review and The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can usually be found wrangling her huge blended family of one husband, four adult sprouts, seven teenaged sproutlings, four grandboo seedlings, and one furry hellbeast who sometimes pretends to be a dog. She occasionally peeks out on Twitter @rjacksonjoseph or at www.rhondajacksonjoseph.com
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