By Tim Frank
As Rostov’s eyelids inched open, caked with the gunk of dried tears, a shooting pain angled down from his wrist and along his arm. He was chained to the radiator in the basement again. His tongue was a leather sock and he had a headache like a saw prising open his skull. It was dark, and where Rostov lay – in a pool of his own vomit, shit and piss – it was darker still. He yanked at the handcuff three times then let his arm dangle. Before him, was a bottle of water and a packet of aspirin. He could just about reach them with his free hand. He knocked back a few pills and gulped the water down in seconds, gasping once he’d emptied the bottle.
“Let me out!” cried Rostov. “Let me out of here!”
After a while, a door opened, illuminating the staircase that snaked down towards the bowels of the basement. A woman wearing a green pleated dress and fifties style wedges appeared in the shaft of light.
“Honey,” Rostov pleaded. “I’m sober and I’m never going to drink again.”
”What about the baby?” his wife, Carol, said.
“I’d never hurt that child or the one we’re expecting,” he yelled back.
Carol took a step back and began to close the door. Light was slowly edged out by the darkness.
“OK, OK, just release me and I’ll never lay a finger on our baby again. It’s just the booze that’s got me into this mess. I’ll get back on the wagon, permanently, and things will change.”
Carol relented. She released her husband from his cuffs, helping him stay upright as he staggered up the stairs. Then Rostov hurried into the bathroom for a shower.
That night Carol and Rostov finished dinner and began to wash up. It was Rostov’s turn to dry. The baby, Alex, was happily covering himself in raspberry jam in his high chair – globs of it falling into his tray like clotted blood. Rostov reached over to touch his wife’s pregnant belly but instinctively she swatted him away. Rostov sunk his head in resignation and dropped the dishcloth into the sink. He went to watch the news in the living room.
After Carol had put Alex to bed there was a knock on the door. Rostov flicked the telly on mute as Carol opened up. There was some indistinct chatter by the front step, then two men wearing suits and grey overcoats hustled into the kitchen where Rostov joined them. Without an invitation, the two men seated themselves and flashed their badges.
“I’m Chief Inspector Belle,” said the man with a neatly clipped mustache and sideburns, ‘and this is my partner Inspector Green. Do you know why we’re here tonight?’
The couple shook their heads. Belle crossed his legs and felt his chin.
“Let me ask you, what’s life like on an army barracks such as this? I’m sure it’s a very supportive, close-knit community, right?”
“It’s an extremely friendly place to live, yes,” nodded Carol.
“I can imagine,” said Belle. “And in times of trouble it wouldn’t surprise me if you all close ranks.”
“What are you getting at detective?” said Rostov.
Detective Green took out a couple of pictures of babies, and spread them neatly across the surface of the dining room table.
“I call this the Nickelodeon line up,’ Green chuckled.
“Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Rostov,” said Belle, “but inspector Green is new. People expect great things of him. I don’t. Anyway, do you recognize any of these children?”
“They’re so young,” said Carol, “they could be anyone and the photos aren’t very clear. No, we can’t be sure. Can you tell us what this is all about? We want to help but we’re clueless.”
“Mrs. Rostov,” said Belle, “these are babies who belong to parents that live in this army barracks. The children are missing. Surely you must have heard the news?”
Rostov slid the photos back towards Green and said, “We know nothing, and that’s the truth.”
“Listen,” said Belle, “I served in the forces for a short time. I know what it’s like for soldiers coming home from a war zone. PTSD they call it, don’t they? I mean these guys they can just flip…crack under the strain and god knows what they’re capable of. How long were you out there Mr Rostov?”
“Over a year,” Rostov said.
“What happened to you on your tour?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Why?”
“I’m just trying to piece together what might have happened to these babies. Some possible motives.”
“But I don’t understand why are you bothering us?”
“We intend to follow all possible avenues. We’re interviewing everyone in the barracks that were posted in Iraq in the last couple of years. The fathers of the missing babies were on tour during that period and we think there might be some kind of connection. It’s just a theory for now but to tell the truth we don’t have much to go on.”
“So, because we fought for our country, we’re suspects?”
“For the moment nothing is being ruled out. These children are just missing for now, but who knows what will become of them. But I would just like to add this; be careful Mrs Rostov, I wouldn’t be surprised if your child is next.”
“You’re way out of line Inspector,” said Rostov, “how dare you come into my house and speak to us that way? I’d like you both to leave.”
Belle smiled sheepishly, then nudged Green who ceased scribbling his copious notes.
“Let’s go,” said Belle.
Carol showed them out. She returned with a furrowed brow, wringing her hands.
Rostov leaned against the kitchen countertop and sighed. “Don’t let them get into your head. I’m sure the babies will turn up soon, unharmed. And you have nothing to fear about me.”
“I’m phoning the Duncans,” Carol said, “I think I recognized their child but I didn’t want to say anything just in case.”
“Well I’m turning in,” said Rostov.
“Just like that? You’re not concerned that one of your friends might have lost their baby?”
“I’ll start to worry when there’s some concrete news.”
”I don’t get you. Fine. Go to bed. Just bury everything like you always do.”
“Jesus, Carol, give me a break, I’m trying.”
That night Rostov had to face his dreams stone-cold sober. He was determined to clean up his act but he was scared of the thoughts that lurked just below the surface of his mind. He settled down into bed and popped four sleeping tablets into his mouth. He was ready for a rough night.
After what seemed like just an hour, he saw a young barefoot woman pad lightly into his room. She had olive skin and balanced a baby on her hip. The woman had searing white eyes and a tattoo on her forehead in the shape of a red and black egg. The baby’s head was split open with large chunks of brains exposed, shrapnel lining its cheeks. The infant was quiet and held a maniacal grin, revealing blood-splattered gums. The woman cut through the silence with a bone-chilling cry. Rostov sat up straight in his bed, soaked through with sweat. It was only midnight. He felt he was going crazy because he was convinced he hadn’t slept at all. In fact, he believed he’d seen something that wasn’t just an apparition, but something alive, made from flesh and blood, something from beyond visiting this world. He couldn’t come up with a reason to fully explain why, but he knew dreams weren’t that vivid. He’d had terrible nightmares since he’d returned from Iraq. This was different. He needed a drink, something to dampen the pain and obliterate the memories, but he resisted the urge.
His wife wasn’t beside him so he went to look for her. He stepped carefully along the darkened hallway outside his bedroom. A beam of moonlight from the spare room was all that allowed him to find his way. He heard the rustling of his wife’s nightgown as she moved out of their baby’s room. She was cradling their son’s head in her arms as he slept quietly. Rostov stopped. She had no sense of him being there. She opened the cupboard along the hall and lay Alex upon a bundle of blankets and pillows. She stroked his cheeks and gave him a kiss upon his forehead. Rostov rushed back into the master bedroom so he couldn’t be seen. Before she could return he was under the covers pretending to be asleep, fuming that his wife had hidden the baby from him once again.
The next morning Rostov was hunched over a bowl of cornflakes while his wife was feeding the baby formula from a bottle.
“What did the Duncans say?” Rostov asked.
“Couldn’t get through, but I’ll call again tonight after work.”
“No need, I’ll pay them a visit after my shift.”
Rostov was a gardener working in the barracks – digging up turf, planting flowers and shrubs, mowing the lawn in the summer. But it was autumn now and most of his time was spent raking up leaves.
Once he’d finished work that day, he decided he’d have a drink. Just one. He knew his wife would smell it on his breath but he felt she’d lost all faith in him anyway, so what did it matter?
A few hours later, night descended on the barracks and Rostov was propping up the bar, having knocked back six pints with whiskey chasers. In one of the booths beside the exit, a dim light exposed someone Rostov recognized, a man who held a tearful expression, smacking his palm against his forehead intermittently. It was Jameson, who served in Iraq at roughly the same time as Rostov. He was married and had a young child. As if trying to float down a choppy river, Rostov pushed himself away from the bar and moved towards his friend. He wanted to say hello and fish for news but as he struggled to steady himself he saw Jameson stand, grab hold of the door that led outside and then limp through it. He disappeared out of sight.
As Rostov stepped out of the bar the fresh air hit him like a boxer’s jab and his knees buckled. He looked around and finally saw Jameson in the distance, staggering towards the park, the place where Rostov had spent so many hours working.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion and then as he entered the park he heard the most terrifying sound. It was high-pitched wailing like he’d never experienced before. As he got closer to the source of the shrieking, he could make out two men underneath a tree laying objects in a shallow hole dug in the ground. It was then that Rostov realized the objects were babies. He stopped in his tracks when he witnessed one of the men raise a muddy spade over his shoulder and sent it crashing down to the ground, bludgeoning to death one of the children. There was the sound of a skull cracking. Before Rostov knew it, the murderer had passed the spade along to the other man who took his turn to bash in the brains of another child. The cries were swallowed up by the night until silence reigned amongst the flowers and trees that surrounded the dead infants.
Rostov vomited and collapsed to his knees. He couldn’t believe what he had just seen. Maybe the alcohol was playing tricks with his mind? He’d never experienced anything so shocking in his life. Not since the war that is. The noise of his retching alerted the men to his presence and they gathered around him. He recognized Duncan and then Jameson followed. They were both from his battalion that had been posted in Iraq. He believed this was the last few seconds on this earth.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Rostov pleaded.
The men loomed over him.
Duncan said, “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“I don’t understand, what are you doing?” said Rostov.
“We had no choice,” said Jameson, slurring his words. “They’re here.”
“The families we killed. They’ve come for us, for revenge and to take over our babies’ bodies. We couldn’t let them take our children so we had to kill them ourselves.”
“But this is madness, you’re all sick. Look what you’ve done. You’ll never get away with this.”
“We don’t want to; our children are gone. There’s nothing for us to live for. They’ll come after you and your kid too Rostov. They will take over your mind, there’s no resisting it. Now go before you get blamed for what we’ve done. Remember your child is ripe. That means he’s ready to be taken over. Kill him before they can get to him.”
Then Rostov’s mind went blank. He was suddenly transported to another time and another place. He recognized where he was but he felt too disoriented to pin it down in his mind. Then he realized why – he had been hiding from this experience for a long time.
In a city turned to rubble, bodies – both Iraqi soldiers and UK forces – were strewn across the wasteland, as inanimate as the concrete they lay upon. Tanks traversed deserted streets as soldiers were given the all-clear to march forward. Rostov moved through this barren scene, taking pictures and dictating some ideas for the army magazine. Around every corner on bullet-ridden walls, he found strange signs – blood red and black colored oval shapes. He took some shots of them, clueless as to what they meant. As he passed a deserted building with cracked doorways and smashed window panes he heard the whimper of what could only be a small child. Rostov went to investigate, stepping into the ground floor of the block and then down into the basement where he could make out the deep tones of a man’s voice emanating from behind a cluster of burning firewood. Rostov lifted his rifle and aimed it into the smoke as he saw movement behind the blaze.
”Come out!” he said, coughing.
“Please,” came a woman’s voice. “We peace, we peace.”
“Come the fuck out!”
A woman, the woman, that he’d seen in his dream that wasn’t a dream, appeared. She was barefoot and carried a baby on her hip. There was an elliptical tattoo on her neck.
“No kill, please,” she said.
“Where’s the man? I heard a man’s voice.”
“What? No, understand. Please, no shoot.”
“I’m here to help. I won’t shoot but get the man out here, now.”
Just then someone in Iraqi army fatigues jumped out from behind the flames, screaming and aiming a Kalashnikov. Before Rostov knew it, he was firing his weapon, pointing instinctively as smoke from the fire burned his eyes, blinding him temporarily.
Then everything went quiet. As the smoke cleared Rostov could see what he’d done. Three bloodied carcasses. He stepped closer to the corpses, crouched down and looked into their eyes. The woman was still alive. With her last breaths, she uttered the words, “I take your child.”
Rostov felt himself jolt back into the present moment – the park, the trees and the grass beneath him. He had to get back to check on Alex. A part of Rostov felt he was subject to some kind of mass hallucination – his mind warped by his experiences in Iraq just like his friends – the other felt his child was in the utmost danger and only Rostov could save him. It was very late. He guessed his wife would know he’d been drinking and when he sneaked into his home and crept up the stairs he discovered his wife asleep in their room and that Alex had been removed from his cot again. Rostov searched all the usual hiding places – the cupboard, the closet under the stairs, behind the curtains in the living room and the wardrobe in the spare room where he finally found him. Alex was so calm, breathing deep and easy. Rostov gathered the baby up in his arms and, along with a bottle of vodka he’d stashed underneath the sink, he carried them down to the basement.
The place stunk of bleach and feces. He positioned Alex on a quilt and watched the baby’s pudgy hands grasp at thin air as his chest moved in and out. He could only dream of such peace and at that moment he felt more love for the child than anything he could imagine. Rostov took a swig of liquor, lay in the fetal position beside the infant and waited. But he didn’t know what he was waiting for and when he heard footsteps moving down into the basement he couldn’t think of any excuse to explain to his wife why he had taken the baby and why he was drunk again. But there was something strange about the sound of the steps. They were light and echoed ethereally in a way he’d never heard before, creating sounds like pebbles skimming across a lake. This wasn’t his wife. Rostov sat up straight, wiped his bleary eyes and blinked furiously, trying to wake himself up from his dream state. But no matter what he tried the footsteps kept thrusting through his consciousness until out of the shadows a figure unmasked itself. It was the woman who had haunted him last night. She was panting like a dog. She carried the deformed baby – skull shattered and the flesh of his eyes torn.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Rostov said.
“You know, you know,” said the woman.
“I won’t let you take my boy.”
“There be no choice. You took mine, now I take yours.”
The woman pulled up her shirt and revealed her belly. On it was a black and red oval-shaped tattoo.
“This is the mark of my home. Our people in town you and your friends killed. The town special. We know suffering, we know death, we know to control life after death. We special people in Iraq and you pay for it.”
“I don’t understand, you mean that your people in your town have special powers?”
“Look I didn’t want to kill your child. What happened out there wasn’t me and trust me, I’m sorry for your loss, so sorry. But I can’t allow you to take my baby. Take my life if you have to but not my child’s.”
The woman knelt down and placed her baby beside Rostov’s.
“I come not for you. I need your baby’s body for my baby.”
Rostov reached for the bottle of vodka and chugged back all that was left of its contents. ”I can’t take this,” he said, slurring his words but seeing things as clearly as he ever had. “There must be some other way.”
“But surely you understand I can’t lose my baby?”
“It is fair. Justice. Now take your child and strangle the neck so my baby can become your baby.”
“I won’t. I won’t!”
But as if he was an automaton being controlled by outside forces he reached over to Alex and put his hands around the infant’s tiny neck and began to squeeze. Rostov grimaced and then cried out, “No!”
The baby began to struggle as the Iraqi child became fainter to the eye, slowly disappearing from sight.
“I can’t stop,” he said, “please god help me from hurting my little boy.”
The woman gave a ghoulish grin and nodded in encouragement as Rostov’s hands tightened their grip.
Alex struggled, but not in the throes of death as one might expect, but in a spasm of wakefulness.
His eyes shone as if recognizing his dad for the first time.
“Alex,” Rostov whispered, “I can’t protect you anymore. I pray that you thrive in another world because this one doesn’t deserve you. I certainly don’t.”
Rostov collapsed onto the unforgiving concrete, teeming with ants. A dripping faucet could be heard from behind the washing machine in the corner.
Rostov came to as he felt sharp stabbing pains against his cheeks.
“What have you done? Wake up!”
It was Carol. She was slapping and shaking him until his mind cleared and the light from the single bare lightbulb brought the scene into focus.
“Carol,” Rostov said, watching as she carried Alex’s limp body, “I didn’t mean to kill him, but you’ve got to believe me I had no choice. I can’t explain because you’d never understand.”
“What are you talking about? Alex is fine. But you’ve had your last chance, you have to leave this house, for good. You’re so drunk you don’t even know whether you’ve killed your own son or not.”
“He’s OK? Can I see?”
Carol pointed Alex’s face towards Rostov who looked into his baby’s eyes and in his foggy state of mind, he could swear he saw irises shaped like ovals, colored red and black. At that moment he felt he’d found some kind of strange salvation, and although he knew this might be one of the last times he would be allowed to be in touching distance of his son, he believed he had bestowed upon his child a great gift – a genuine legacy. He had given life.
About Tim Frank
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in journals many times including Bourbon Penn, Bartleby Snopes, Thrice Fiction, Fiction on the Web, Scarlet Leaf Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, Blue Mountain Review and Able Muse. Tim Frank specializes in the comic, the dark and the surreal. He has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Devil in my Veins, and is currently writing a sci-fi thriller novel.