You Can’t Kidnap a Baby

(Originally published in Scare Street’s Night Terrors anthology)

To my son,

Part of me hopes you never read this letter, but I suppose it’s only right you find out someday. Maybe you’ll read this after my death, or I’ll give you this letter when you’re eighteen. Or maybe someday someone will realize who you are, I’ll be arrested, and you’ll find this in my things.

If that’s the case, please come and see me. There are a few things I really should explain to you in person.

Anyway, I’ll begin at the beginning, when we met.

It was not in the hospital, a moment or two after you were born.

By the time we met, you were already walking, and you had two parents with every intention of raising you themselves.

I stood on the flagstone patio in my front yard, working on a painting of two birch trees, and you wandered over. Your dark hair fell over your big green eyes, and you were chewing thoughtfully on your finger.

I dropped my paintbrush. I still remember how it clattered on the flagstones. You could have been a clone of my little brother. You looked exactly like he did before he died, just before his second birthday. Sorry if that’s morbid.

You picked up the paintbrush and started to dab at the flagstones.

At first I wondered if your appearance was the proof I had been waiting for. I thought the house across the street had conjured you somehow. I had been watching it for almost two years without result and was considering giving up on the project, which so far proved an expensive waste of time. But the reports I dug up about the house were intriguing enough to keep me in the neighborhood for a little longer. Most of them dated from the mid-eighties, and suggested the house was haunted.

Besides, your Aunt Meghan and I both dropped out of college to pursue careers as online paranormal investigators, so we were both quite motivated.

Before long, my neighbor two doors down, Mrs. Clementine, walked past. She asked me, did the Jones’ let me look after their baby?

That’s not their real name. I’m not foolish enough to put it down in writing, but to be honest, I don’t remember either.

I said you had just showed up, and I kept you with me, thinking your parents were bound to show up.

“Really,” she said.

I shrugged.

Mrs. Clementine looked at the house across the street. She said, she supposed under the circumstances…She never said what she supposed.

I snapped to attention like a cockapoo smelling a cronut. Something was wrong with that house, and Mrs. Clementine knew it.

 The place stood empty the whole time I’d lived in the neighborhood, the previous owner having moved into a retirement home a few years before I arrived. When he eventually died, there was some fuss over the family that inherited it. Something about the wife.

And now I had to return you to that weird place, even though no one had bothered to come looking for you. What kind of parents would just let their child wander into some stranger’s yard? I never did.

I said I would take you back.

Mrs. Clementine nodded.

She watched me cross the street, her expression vaguely concerned. Maybe she didn’t think I should take you back either.

I pulled myself back to reality. No sense in getting carried away.

When I knocked on the door, Mr. Jones answered. His eyebrows rose when he saw you. He opened the door just enough to allow himself to slip out, and then closed it behind him.

I said I found you wandering outside.

He thanked me profusely and gushed over you.

Now he cared.

I offered to babysit sometime, if he wanted. The words burst out of my mouth before I could stop them. Part of me groaned inwardly. I was getting far too attached to you already. Meghan and I had already agreed never to get personally involved in our investigations.

He gave an awkward smile and thanked me for the offer. Somehow, I knew he wouldn’t be taking me up on it.

Mr. Jones went back inside the same way he’d left, without ever letting me see into the house.

I called your Aunt Meghan to report on the situation, and complain about the Jones’. She had been encouraging me to call it quits, and the new information I provided didn’t change her mind.

“We still have enough from the kickstarter campaign to fund three more months of rent,” I said. “Let’s stick it out. Maybe with new occupants, the house will finally do something.”

“Why would it do that?”

“Well, the neighbors didn’t seem to think the Jones’ moving in was a good idea. If they know about the house, maybe their opposition has something to do with whatever’s going on there?”

She reluctantly agreed, and I continued my surveillance with renewed interest. Sometimes I painted in the front yard, and sometimes I watched from my bedroom inside. One of the tricky things about being on stakeout was making sure I didn’t look like I was on stakeout.

A stranger’s car pulled up to the house in the morning, and a man in scrubs entered before Mr. Jones left for work. A nurse?

That afternoon I saw the nurse helping Mrs. Jones to her car. She seemed to be having trouble walking and she scratched obsessively at her arm.

I decided to look up the Jones’ on social media, using the community Facebook group. Most neighborhoods aren’t close-knit enough to have their own group, but this was exactly the kind of Stepford-creepy place that would.

 The Jones’ had a joint account, and rarely posted. The few posts on the page were littered with sunsets and inspirational quotes about living each day to the fullest. Obviously not everyone whose Facebook page looks like this has a terminal disease, but in her case, I thought it was a possibility.

I saw Mrs. Jones outside a few times in the next two weeks. Sometimes she needed a cane to reach the mailbox, other times she could walk almost normally. Once she wandered aimlessly up and down the street. After a while I came outside, worried maybe you had gotten out again and she was looking for you. But according to the neighbors she’d just “gotten lost.”

That’s when things began to get weird.

The morning after the second week, I saw her out in the front yard. Mrs. Jones ran after you without any weakness or signs of physical tics, the twitching and scratching at her arms. The next day she went to get groceries. I’d never seen her drive the car before. The nurse stopped coming.

At first, I assumed she’d just found a good doctor. But then the house started acting strangely. One evening, only the upstairs lights came on. Another day, I saw Mr. Jones leave for work from the back door, and then used the same door to get in again that evening. Later that night, the blinds on one side of the house were…twitching. I don’t know how else to explain it.

Still, I tried not to make too much of these oddities. Maybe the downstairs lights didn’t work. And the front door had a busted lock. And you were playing with the blinds.

I checked Facebook again. There were some status updates that spoke vaguely of being “blessed”, and some new family pictures. Nothing out of the ordinary, until I realized that a door in the living room led upstairs in some photos, and downstairs in others.

Photoshop, you’ll say. And so did I. But why would they do that? Even when I zoomed in, I couldn’t see any evidence the photo had been tampered with.

I should have been excited. But instead, this whole thing was starting to make me feel twitchy. Children and haunted houses generally don’t mix well. You see, I wasn’t just watching the house, or your parents. I was also watching you. Delighting over the little successes and discoveries in your life. How you figured out what a sprinkler was for, and learned to throw a ball, and went toddling after it as it rolled away. I watched enviously when your mother brought you inside at the end of the day.

If the Joneses would let me babysit, at least I could have reassured myself that you were okay. I scowled every time I thought of the tight smile Mr. Jones put on when he’d given me his unspoken refusal. As if I had done something wrong, and not just returned something precious to him when he had let it slip away.

I called Meghan again to update her. I may have gone on something of a rant about the strange things going on and how it was irresponsible to have a baby living in those conditions.

“So, what do you want to do?” Meghan said.

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t kidnap a baby, Christine.”

“I know that. I just don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to like it. Just keep watching. Do you think you could get invited to their house?”

“No. They don’t ever have people over. Which is weird, especially for a place like this. There has got to be something seriously wrong with that place. But maybe I could–”

“Could what? We don’t break the law, remember? We have rules.”

“No, I know. Never mind. I’ll call you later.”

The next afternoon I walked down the street to the mailbox and saw you in Mrs. Clementine’s front yard. You played in the sandbox, while Mrs. Clementine observed the progress of your miniature construction zone.

She stood and watched for a while, then sat down on a lawn chair and pulled out her phone, with only an occasional glance in your direction.

“So they let you babysit, huh?” I said.

She nodded. “Yeah, they went to a matinee. I guess Mr. Jones took the day off.”

I nodded, walked into the yard, and crouched down beside you. You smiled at me and showed me your favorite truck, babbling cheerfully in baby-speak. I wanted to offer to take over for Mrs. Clementine, but even if she was silly enough to agree to that, your parents wouldn’t like it.

Besides, I’d had a much worse idea. I had to find out what was going on in that house. Meghan would forgive me, she always does.

So I went back to my house and dug a casserole out of the freezer, so if necessary I could claim to be neighborly and not spying, and then headed over to the Jones’ house as inconspicuously as possible. In this neighborhood, most people didn’t bother to lock their doors, but the Jones’ did. I cursed under my breath and hunted around under their welcome mat and potted plants for a key. I finally found it beneath a ceramic frog.

 I quickly ducked inside and shut the door.

The place seemed normal, at first glance, but after a few seconds it struck me that the house looked a bit dishevelled. The walls were at odd angles from each other. The tops of the windows were all at different heights. I could see how they’d tried to disguise the irregularities with furniture and art placement, arranging the furniture to invent perpendicular angles, or hanging paintings at a height between windows so the differences were less noticeable.

I heard a peculiar, thumping sound coming from deeper into the house.

“Hello?” I said. “The door was open, and I brought a casserole.”

Possibly the most idiotic thing I’ve ever said, or at least in the top ten.

I didn’t know whether I wanted someone to answer or not, but no one did.

Tentatively, I approached the sound and found myself in the kitchen. A cupboard door opened and slammed itself closed. It paused for a while, then banged open and shut several times, followed by another pause, and a few more slams. Then a shorter pause and several more.

 It seemed almost frustrated. Or, as I recalled Mrs. Jones scratching at her arm, itchy. Adding to this effect, the floor tiles bunched up just before each of the slam sessions, though it wasn’t clear whether they were causing or reacting to the irritation.

Footsteps creaked behind me.

I whirled but saw no one.

Regardless, the footsteps walked into the kitchen. A cupboard door opened, revealing a set of glasses. The footsteps walked over to the sink, and the facet turned on and then shut off again.

And then the pattern repeated.

Footsteps came in, the cupboard opened, closed, and then the tap turned on, and off.

I watched this for several minutes. Not interfering, and not daring to move. I didn’t know whether I was going crazy, or the house was.

Eventually I walked over to the glasses cupboard and closed it when it opened.

I looked around nervously. Birds twittered from outside.

Having seen enough, I walked back into the living room. But the windows were gone and in the place of the front door, I saw an interior doorway leading to an exact copy of the room I stood in, though the colors of the walls and furniture were less saturated, dimmer. My stomach tightened. What if I couldn’t get out?

But to my relief, the faded living room was complete with windows, and the door I hurried to escape through. As I scooted away with my casserole, my heart slowly started to return to its normal rhythm. I hardly believed I’d gotten away with it. But now what?

I had to find out more. Whatever afflicted the house clearly had something to do with the illness Mrs. Jones had when she first moved in. What was it?

All evening I combed through the neighborhood Facebook group for clues, looking at posts from a few months ago when the Jones’ arrival was the hottest bone of contention. Most people in the group were annoyingly discrete, but finally I saw a word that snagged my attention: Creutzfeldt.

A quick Google search yielded the information I sought. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the human variant of spongiform encephalopathy. It’s caused by prions, sneaky little misfolded proteins that cause other proteins in brain tissue to misfold also, leading to sponge-like holes. Not good for brain function, as you might imagine. The disease manifests differently in different species. In sheep, it’s commonly called scrapie, because they rub themselves raw against fences.

In humans, it causes memory loss, impaired coordination, hallucinations, involuntary movements, and eventually, coma and death. It matched both Mrs. Jones’ symptoms, and what I had observed earlier that day.

I felt sorry for the house. Which is bizarre to write, but it’s true. Even so, this was not a safe place for a little boy to live.

My fingers shook as I dialed Meghan’s number. She was no help. I told her what I’d seen and my theories about what was going on. She thought it was cool, of all things. I got mad at her and hung up.

Clearly, I was on my own.

Calling child services was the obvious solution. Not good enough. You might get placed in some group home or foster family. But the house obviously wasn’t safe. I couldn’t leave you there and wait for something terrible to happen and prove I should have acted.

The only thing left to do was talk to your parents. In the end it wasn’t the only thing, but I couldn’t consider taking more drastic action, not yet.

The next morning, I waited in my front yard until I caught Mrs. Jones outside, carrying a package back from the mailbox. I pounced, walking swiftly across the street to confront her.

“Look,” I said. “I know what’s going on in that house.”

Mrs. Jones turned and cast a nervous look over her shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know it’s not safe in there.”

“You stay away from us.” She hurried up the steps to the front door.

I followed. “Your condition, it was terminal, wasn’t it? And now the house has it instead of you. That’s why you moved here, right?”

She scowled over her shoulder, and tried to open the door, but it stuck.

“What do you think happens when a house goes into a coma and dies? At least get Stec out of there.”

Yes, they called you Stec. I don’t know why I remember that. It’s always seemed like such a stupid name to me. As if someone began to say a name like Steven, hiccupped, and then was stuck with the result. As I write this, you’re still only four years old, so I don’t know what you’ll make of the name I chose for you. But I’m sure you’ll agree, anything is better than Stec.

With a sharp jerk she got the door open. “This is none of your business. Leave us alone.” She slammed the door shut.

I was frustrated, and disappointed. Maybe if I had offered to help instead of acting accusatory, things would have been different, but I was too angry to be diplomatic.

A couple neighbors standing in their front yards stared at me. Without acknowledging them I stomped back to my house and slammed the front door.

I spent the next several days trying to convince myself that perhaps it wasn’t so dangerous after all, and the Jones’ had things under control. After all, they weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who knew about the house. If it was truly dangerous, someone would have done something. Maybe this would pass.

But I could see it getting worse. The roof began to slump on one side. The lights flickered at night or didn’t come on at all. The doors seemed to be getting increasingly unreliable. Mr. Jones stopped leaving for work in the mornings. Maybe he had arranged to work from home. They started having groceries delivered. Sometimes one of the Jones’ would be waiting outside to bring them in, having exited from the garage or even a window. Other times, the delivery worker would leave the bags on the front stoop, and it would be hours, or the next day before someone came to get the groceries.

What did happen when a house went into a coma and died?

I couldn’t imagine it would be anything good. What were the Jones’ thinking, keeping you in that place? I suppose it seemed like a miracle when Mrs. Jones got better. The house had become their savior. Perhaps if Mrs. Jones tried to leave, her sickness would return. They had to make the house work. That, I think, is why they kept you there. Because they wanted to believe she was going to be okay.

This is all just conjecture on my part. As you’ve seen, the Jones’ and I were never on speaking terms. But I can’t explain their otherwise aberrant behavior any other way.

At some point, I suppose they must have realized they were wrong to stay in the house. By then it was too late.

One night, I awoke to the sound of a car alarm. My normal procedure when this happens is to silently curse the owner of the car and grit my teeth until it stops.

The alarm was close. Flashing lights came through my blinds and made striped patterns on the wall. I scrambled to the window and saw it was the Jones’ car.

There was a chance the car alarm had gone off for any of the myriad stupid reasons car alarms go off, but I couldn’t afford to believe that. No, someone inside the house had set it off, calling for help the only way they could. I grabbed my headlamp, and ran across the street.

Getting in was a lot harder the second time. Though the key was in the same place, I couldn’t unlock the door. The lock wouldn’t move, as if it had fused solid on the inside. The knob wouldn’t even twist. I had to break a window, but the first few seemed to have rotted drywall behind them. Finally I found a real window, shattered it, and clambered inside.

I couldn’t believe it was the same living room. It looked like a haunted fun-house fever-dream. The walls leaned at drunken angles, the ceiling sloped down oddly to one corner, and the floors and walls were rotting and full of holes. And it was far, far larger than it should have been.

Shadows ran through the rooms. The shapes of humans going about their daily business. Kids running, someone vacuuming. The house was hallucinating.

It was like the horror movies Meghan occasionally convinces me to watch, and yet it felt very different. Nothing evil lurked in this place. It was just sick. I don’t know whether that made me feel better or worse. The house didn’t want to hurt me or you, or anyone else for that matter. But there was nothing I could defeat, either. No way to fix this. Nothing to do but find you and get out of here.

I called out, but the only answer was the scraps of murmured conversation coming from the shadows.

Being careful to avoid the rotted floorboards, I headed across the living room to the doorway where the upstairs staircase should have been. Instead, I found a hallway that hadn’t been there before, and I decided to explore it in hopes of finding the stairs. The floor sloped upwards, and the ceiling sloped downwards as I crept along. By the time I got to the staircase at the end of the hall I felt like an adult in a child’s playhouse.

I’ve never liked stairs, and these were not helping. They were steep, and narrow, and I worried the house might forget whether they were supposed to go up or down. Nevertheless, I climbed, holding tight to the banister.

When I reached the upstairs hallway, I called out. Again no one answered, but I could hear you crying, almost obscured by the sounds of water rushing and pipes rattling. I made my way down the hall. The weird angles made strange optical illusions, forcing me to feel my way along the gritty, decaying walls to your room.

The floor tilted so much, your crib was nearly on its side. You looked up at me, blinking in the light of my headlamp. Your tears stuck your long eyelashes together in clumps and made tracks in the dust on your cheeks. I picked you up and vowed I would never let go.

I made my way out into the hall, still calling out. There was only one other door, at the far end of the hallway. Water seeped out from within. A bathroom, perhaps. Muffled splashing rose above the creaks and murmuring voices, and someone called out for help.

I opened the door, still holding you tight.

My brows furrowed. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. It was as if the toilet bowl had fused with the bathtub and become an enormous, filthy pit in one corner of the bathroom.

The water swirled, gurgling and bubbling. I saw hands, grasping at nothing, and a mop of hair. Not a shadow, this time, but a person. I couldn’t reach them without slipping into the water.

I ran back outside, searching for something to use to help the victim escape. I grabbed the curtain rod from your room, but by the time I got back, the water had mostly drained away. It was murky and still, slowly rising.

I called out again, with no answer.

Someone had gotten sucked into the pipes. But were they dead, or would they come out somewhere? I still couldn’t see any other rooms, but there had to be more. Maybe the basement?

The floor became increasingly spongy under my feet, and I wasn’t sure how much longer it would support my weight. Getting you out had to be my first priority.

I decided against meddling with doors and broke open the first window I came to with my elbow, turning my back to shield you from the shattered glass. By a stroke of luck, because of the slumping house, it was significantly closer to the ground than it should have been. I jumped out the window backwards to avoid landing on you, crashed through a shrub, and struck the ground hard.

I lay among the tattered remains of the shrub for a while, with you held tight to my chest. You were shrieking but unhurt. I wasn’t so lucky. My ankles and my knees ached, but especially my rear, which had taken the brunt of the impact. I sat up, and sang to you until you quieted. Slowly, I stood up. A sharp pain stabbed my ankle, but it was manageable.

I called 911, and said the house was collapsing. Which it was, in a way.

We sat on my front step and waited. You cried yourself to sleep in my arms.

Relief washed over me when the fire truck pulled up to the Jones’ house. Then I watched, dumbstruck, as the president of the homeowner’s association came out and argued with the fire fighters. Her raucous voice carried enough for me to get the gist of what she was saying. The house was fine, it just looked like that, and certain neighbors were prone to making prank calls. The firefighters knocked on the door, but when no one answered, they prepared to leave.

It was unbelievable. But then, the house only looked wonky from the outside, not broken-down. If they’d just gone in…

Most normal people wouldn’t have reacted by running off with you. They would have made a scene about the people still possibly trapped alive in the house. They might even have pointed out the broken glass. But I have never claimed to be normal. I just wanted to get out of that horrible situation, and I wanted you with me.

I went inside my house, and packed a bag. Before leaving, I peeked out my front door to check for possible witnesses.

Mrs. Clementine walked up and down the street, calling your name. It was hard to see in the light of the street lamps, but she seemed rumpled and dirty. Had she gone inside the house to look for you? Well, she was too late.

I crept out to my car, and placed your sleeping form in the footwell before leaving that ridiculous place forever.

We stopped at a supermarket on the way to a hotel; I bought a car seat and other things you’d need. It wasn’t a simple procedure, but I managed it somehow. I had no choice. Once we were finally tucked away in the hotel room I put you to bed. The room was safe and quiet, but I knew this wasn’t over yet. I downloaded Tor onto my laptop, and started looking up how to buy a fake birth certificate on the dark web.

“Don’t tell me I can’t kidnap a baby,” I muttered.

The following months were some of the hardest of my life. After barely escaping the neighborhood without anyone noticing I had taken you, I couldn’t risk coming back. So Meghan had to deal with the landlord and oversee the movers. She had some choice words about my decision, especially since we couldn’t share our discoveries with all the subscribers, followers, and Patreon patrons who made this investigation possible. Just in case anyone from the neighborhood saw what we posted and came after you.

Even so, she supported me through all of it. I’ve heard some people say their friends would kill for them. Sometimes I think your Aunt Meghan really would.

The stress of rebuilding my life while coping with single motherhood would have done me in if not for her. Even with all our precautions, I was terrified someone would take you away, and your cries for the Jones’ nearly broke my heart. But the first time you called me Mama, I knew I did the right thing.