The first night Eve heard the whispers in her bedroom, she could only make out a single word: “Flannery.” She bolted upright in bed at the mention of her daughter’s name, staring through the darkness with wide eyes and a pounding pulse. Light pierced through the darkness as she turned on a lamp. Her feet hit the floor before a single thought processed beyond the repetition of her daughter’s name. Soft, quick footsteps led her to the door of Flannery’s room, where she found the young girl safe and asleep in her bed.
The exhaustion from the day returned as the adrenaline of the moment faded. Satisfied, Eve trudged back to her silent bedroom. The moment her head hit the pillow, the whispers began again. She sat up in bed, eyes roaming the bare dresser, the walls devoid of paintings and pictures. Finally, they rested on her open window. A cool, fall breeze caressed her skin and carried the scent of smoke from a neighbor’s long-dead fire pit. She brushed aside the curtains to look outside, but silence and stillness greeted her.
Eve shut the window and locked it before returning to bed. An alarm clock rested next to the lamp on her otherwise bare nightstand, revealing the time to be just a bit after three in the morning. She lied down once more, and within minutes, sleep returned. Nightmares of the horrors Flannery could face in life followed.
Flannery’s shout woke Eve from her fitful slumber, and she once again bolted upright in bed, heart racing. Giggles rose into the air around her, and a tired smile crossed her features. She pulled Flannery close.
“Your alarm went off, but you didn’t wake up,” Flannery said. “So I was your alarm clock!”
Eve shot a concerned look at her clock. When had she unplugged it? She didn’t remember waking up.
“Go get dressed,” Eve said.
Flannery slid off the bed. Before she could make it to the door, Eve spoke again.
“Did you clean your room like I asked?”
A proud smile crossed Flannery’s face. Eve almost mirrored it before her daughter shook her head and left the room. A sigh slipped out of some dark place within Eve, sliding through her lips as her head bowed. She would clean her daughter’s room.
Eve dressed in her usual work attire—a white pantsuit to cover the full sleeve of tattoos on her left arm and a half sleeve on her right arm, as well as the tattoos on her calves. A simple ring on her left ring finger served to cover a small tattoo of thorns woven around it as well as scare off any possible suitors. She wore no jewelry or makeup beyond a swipe of pink lip gloss and a silver locket her parents gave her, which contained a lock of Flannery’s fiery red hair. Her fingers traveled up to her shoulders, where her own red hair hovered. It had once been a source of pride back when it was waist-length—before Flannery stuck gum in it some years ago.
Breakfast for Flannery meant a smiley face made of bacon and eggs, as well as a piece of toast smothered in grape jelly. Eve sipped her first cup of bitter, black coffee as she watched Flannery dig in. If she had time once Flannery finished eating, Eve would snatch up a piece of dry toast and munch in the car.
Once she dropped off Flannery at school, Eve rushed to work. The elevator ride lasted less than a minute, but she found herself counting the seconds. As usual, the only other administrative assistant in the office, Jasmine, greeted her with a relieved expression and a sigh. A floral perfume wafted over Eve, and she fought the urge to cough. She walked to her desk, but footsteps followed her. The suffocating smell tickled her nose.
“Today’s the day, I thought,” Jasmine said. “Today’s the day Eve finally gets fired.”
“I’m not even late,” Eve said. She glanced down at her watch to make sure of this, but she still had two minutes.
Jasmine shook her head. “If you’d let Flannery take the bus—”
“No,” Eve said.
Her coworker leaned onto the desk. Eve held her breath. Jasmine’s pink, manicured fingernails tapped against the surface in quick strokes.
“Tell me,” she said. “When was the last time you did something for yourself? Something without your daughter? Like, I got Luke to watch the girls while I went out last night with some friends. You should come with us sometime.”
Eve grabbed a pencil and jotted down her to-do list. Her boss, Ronald Pryce, would need his lunch at noon, no later. Samples would need to be chosen for the monthly catalog. Another sigh met her ears, and she shrank in on herself.
“What are you going to do when Flannery is all grown up and gone?”
The tip of Eve’s pencil snapped. She sucked in a shaky breath and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Do you have a sharpener?” she asked.
The whispers continued for a week, always at night. Most nights, Eve chalked them up to bad dreams or noisy neighbors. By the seventh day, she decided to discover the source. She’d been deprived of sleep, but only enough to develop dark circles under her eyes and a persistent irritation. After determining no intruders were lurking inside the house, Eve grabbed a small flashlight and made her way outside.
She crept along the exterior wall of the house, sneaking toward the corner that led to her bedroom window, intent on catching the whisperer. When she reached her destination, she pressed her back against the wall and prepared herself. The flashlight shook in her trembling hands. With a deep breath, she jumped out from behind the wall and turned the flashlight on to confront the whisperer.
She glared at the empty space. No sound met her ears beyond the gentle chirping of crickets and the occasional hoot of an owl.
Eve turned the beam of the flashlight to the ground. The grass appeared undisturbed. Frustrated, Eve returned to her bed. Her nerves calmed enough for sleep, but as she drifted off, the muffled voices again rose to greet her. The words wormed into her brain, and even as she slept, they poisoned her dreams.
You wanted to be an artist, didn’t you, Eve?
Why give everything up for Flannery?
The alarm rang, but Eve turned it off, unplugged it. She rolled onto her stomach, groaning into her pillow. A sharp, piercing pain jarred her head. When was the last time she’d had an actual migraine?
Eve jolted up, her dark-rimmed eyes wide with panic. Her gaze fell onto Flannery, who grinned at her.
“Did I scare you?” she asked.
Eve shoved Flannery away, nearly knocking her off the bed. The young girl looked up at her, stunned. Flannery’s eyes grew wet. Her lower lip trembled.
“Mommy didn’t mean it,” Eve said.
The ache pounded in her skull, but she lifted Flannery to her, cradling the girl close.
“Mommy didn’t mean it.”
Jasmine made a noise of disapproval as Eve walked into the office a minute late, her hair in disarray and bags under her eyes. Her sleeve rode up a little, baring the bottom of a tattoo. Jasmine tugged the sleeve down. Her perfume once again embraced Eve, but this time it was a smooth vanilla. Relaxing.
“I said you should get out more,” Jasmine said. “Not party all night. What happened?”
Eve ignored her and sat at her desk. The whispers from the night before crowded her mind, reminding her of what she’d lost over the years. She’d dreamed of being a tattoo artist in her early twenties, had saved up for an apprenticeship. There had been plenty of friends, parties, boys. Flannery had been a mistake, really. Eve hadn’t been careful enough. The father had given her a bad number, something that led to some random deli fifty miles away. So she had been alone.
It seemed natural to keep Flannery. The moment she was born, Eve couldn’t keep her eyes off of her daughter. Red hair so much like her own, the bright blue eyes sparkling like sunlight on the ocean. “Flannery” rolled off her tongue nicely, a slight homage to her favorite author from forced high school readings, Flannery O’Connor. Eve lost the friends, parties, boys, and most of her family, but her parents helped her through college. Her mother even found her a nice job as an administrative assistant for Ronald Pryce, a jewelry designer. Flannery attended a nice private school, they had their own house, and Eve—
Her hand hovered over the paper she wrote on. She set it down with a slow, stunned movement. No hobbies, no art, no friends.
Did she exist without Flannery?
“What is with you lately?” Jasmine asked. “What are you writing, a letter?”
Eve glanced down at the paper. In sharp, dark strokes, she’d written:
I gave up everything for you.
The sentence repeated about six times before she’d stopped. She covered it with her hand and smiled up at Jasmine. The other woman waved her hand in dismissal and returned to her desk. The rest of the day passed by in a blur until Jasmine once again hovered over her shoulder.
“Don’t you have to pick Flannery up in a couple of minutes?” she asked.
Eve jumped to her feet and gathered her belongings. She rushed out of the office then down the stairs when the elevator took too long to rise to her floor. By the time she buckled her seatbelt, she was already five minutes late. She cursed under her breath and sped through light after light, at one point running a red light without a second thought. The school buses had already left by the time she arrived, so she parked in front where Flannery waited on the steps, hugging her arms to her body.
The young girl made her way to her mother’s car, and Eve put on a delicate smile.
“How was your day, sweetheart?” she asked.
“You’re late,” Flannery said.
Eve’s smile faltered. The pain in her head increased, but she said nothing.
“You’ve never been late,” Flannery said. “You’re always on time.”
Eve’s fingers twitched against the steering wheel. Her smile faded, and her eyes stared straight ahead at the road.
“Mommy, are you listening to me?”
“I gave up everything for you.”
The words slipped from Eve in the form of a growl. Flannery fell back against her seat with a soft thud. When Eve glanced back in the rearview mirror, light glinted off the tears on Flannery’s cheeks.
That night, after a silent dinner and Flannery’s quick retreat to her bedroom, Eve decided to spend the night outside. She made a fresh pot of coffee, filled her thermos, bundled up, and walked out armed with a flashlight and a butcher knife. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness, but the cool night air chilled her even through her winter garb. Shivers wracked her body as she took a seat by the corner of the house, listening for the whispers outside her bedroom window.
She sipped from her coffee to stay warm and awake. Determination steeled her, and with it not being a work night, she had every incentive to watch for the monster lurking outside her window. When she ran out of coffee, she hurried inside to refill before returning to her post. Her head rested against the cool, rough brick wall of the house. Within a few moments, she fell asleep. The whispers followed her once more.
In her dreams, she bathed Flannery for the first time in years. She poured water over the fiery red hair, but it refused to come clean. When Eve could take no more, she shoved Flannery’s head under the water. Flannery smiled at her even as her body thrashed. Bubbles drifted up from her lips until none remained. When she rose from the water, lips blue, she spoke.
“See how easy it is, Mommy?”
Eve called her therapist the next morning to make an emergency appointment. That afternoon, she sat on the plush couch and picked up an oil-and-water liquid motion desk toy resting on the table next to her. As the drops of oil fell like bubbles, she recalled how peaceful Flannery appeared as the last bubble of air drifted from her lips and rose to the surface of the water. Her grip tightened on the toy. She imagined Dr. Blake’s eyes boring into her as she spoke.
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “I can’t sleep. I’m imagining things. Horrible things.”
“What kinds of things?” Dr. Blake asked.
Eve wrung her hands, eyes downcast. “Hurting Flannery,” she said. “I’ve never thought this way before, and I would never—”
“Thinking and acting are two different things, Eve,” Dr. Blake said. “You’re a very stressed, single mother with perfectionistic tendencies. It’s normal to feel resentful, even angry sometimes. These kinds of thoughts and dreams can be disturbing, but the fact that you called—the fact that you’re disturbed enough to seek help—proves that you aren’t a real threat to your daughter.”
Eve ran her fingers through her hair, refusing to make eye contact. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I think I need something to make the thoughts stop,” she said.
“What you need,” Dr. Blake said, “is to find something for yourself. A hobby, maybe. You mentioned you used to like drawing, for instance. Medication doesn’t fix everything. You know that.”
“I don’t have time,” Eve said. “Flannery needs me.”
“Do you think being a good mother means giving up your whole identity?”
Eve pondered Dr. Blake’s words the entire way home. When Flannery mentioned a last-minute sleepover with her best friend, Eve agreed. She’d never allowed Flannery to sleep over with friends, fearful of the care of other adults and sets of house rules. Maybe one night out would allow her time to draw or try some other hobby. Space to breathe.
Eve sat before an empty sketchpad for hours, making tiny marks and erasing them. The pencil tapped against her desk. Her teeth chomped on the wood as she stared at the ticking clock on the wall. Exhaustion finally won, and she laid her head on the desk. After some time, the whispers began, waking Eve from her fitful slumber. She rose from her desk, set on finding the source before her daughter returned home.
Your daughter is the whole reason you don’t have any sense of self.
No time for you, no time at all.
She sucks the life out of you like a parasite.
After you let her literally suck the life out of you for nine whole months.
Eve stumbled through the house. The voices remained at the same volume throughout. She peered out of each window, every door. She checked the shower, under beds, in every closet. A frustrated scream tore from her throat.
You brought her into this world. It’s your job to take her out.
Eve dropped to her knees, humming. She rocked back and forth as the voices grew louder, as though they were right next to her.
Where are your friends now, Eve?
Where are your dreams?
What have you become?
A sob shook her whole body.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
She buried her face in her hands.
Listen carefully, and we’ll correct the problem together.
Eve’s performance at work improved over the next few days. She remembered to pick up Flannery from school every day. Flannery rambled on and on about school, her friends, and different craft projects she’d put together. Eve smiled and nodded along, always humming a cheery tune to herself.
When the weekend arrived, Eve made Flannery a cup of her favorite hot chocolate. She whistled as she reached under the kitchen sink for the strychnine she’d used to poison rats when the house had been infested years before. The crystals dropped into the liquid, dissolving soon after. She smiled.
“Flannery,” she said, “I’ve made your favorite!”
No response. She grabbed the mug and hurried to Flannery’s room. Would it have a taste? Would it be quick? The voices had said it would be quick.
She opened the door to Flannery’s room. The young girl straightened upon seeing her mother, beaming with pride. Worry shot through Eve. What did Flannery have to be so happy about? What sort of mess had she made?
“Surprise!” Flannery said.
Eve glanced around the room for this supposed “surprise.” She noticed its cleanliness. Nothing stuffed under the bed or in the open closet—everything in its place. Her gaze traveled from the made bed to the clothes tucked away in the hamper. She stroked the top of the dresser, only for her finger to come back without a speck of dust.
“Are you happy, Mommy?” Flannery asked. “You’ve been so tired. I’m a big girl now, so I can help you.”
Flannery had never cleaned her room before. Eve’s eyes pricked with shameful tears.
Flannery reached for the mug.
“Is that my reward?” she asked.
Eve retracted her arm.
“I forgot the marshmallows,” she said.
She backed out of the room, walked down the hallway, and poured the liquid into the sink. After making a fresh cup of hot chocolate complete with marshmallows, she returned to her daughter’s room with a strange smile. Flannery threw her arms around Eve, and Eve returned the hug with shaking hands.
“I’ve been really tired, too,” Flannery said. “With the voices in the vent.”
The vents. She had neglected to check the crawl space.
“They can’t get me, right, Mommy?” she asked.
“Right, sweetheart,” Eve said. “Nothing is going to hurt you.”
Eve stood before the door leading to the crawl space. The lock lay on the ground nearby, mangled. She sucked in a deep breath and opened the door. The air inside smelled musty and earthy, but it also stank of rot. Eve covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve and tried not to cough.
Something hunched and twisted skittered further into the crawl space when the beam of the flashlight hit it. Eve clicked off the light. She crawled inside on her hands and knees, brushing aside cobwebs, ducking under the pipes and ductwork. A dark, chitinous insect scurried across her hand, and a wave of nausea swam over her.
The silence weighed on her. Despite the lack of sound, the feeling of a presence lingered. Something waited in the shadows, something she didn’t have a name for. She stopped crawling and sat back on her heels.
“Get out,” she said. “You’ve had your fun. Leave us alone. Get out of our house.”
“I know you can hear me,” she said.
Something large shifted in the darkness.
“I don’t know how, but I know that I invited you,” Eve said. “I thought those horrible things and brought you here, but not anymore. Leave us. Go find someone else to whisper to.”
Hot breath brushed the nape of her neck. Hard, sharp objects she recognized as claws traced her spine through the thin fabric of her t-shirt. She held her breath.
“You have no power over me,” she said. “I want you gone.”
The touch receded, and the creature moved to the front of the crawlspace. In the slashes of light shining through the slats of the round window at the opposite end of the room, the whisperer appeared as a young girl with fiery red hair and black, bottomless pits where its eyes and mouth should have been. When it spoke, its voice was the voice of many.
“If you call us again,” the whisperer said, “we will not be as courteous.”
With that, the creature’s joints popped and cracked. It fell into the shadows, out of sight, though the horrible wet, tearing sound of its transformation continued. Eve’s stomach lurched, but she forced herself to stay, to see it gone. She waited until the sounds of the night—crickets, owls—returned before she went back upstairs.
Flannery waited for her at the kitchen table, in front of a small wooden mannequin leftover from Eve’s days as an artist. She sat down in front of her daughter, steeling herself for questions about her confrontation with the whisperer. How could she explain those dark thoughts and feelings? The sinister, unthinkable urges? The creature born of her regret and resentment?
Flannery pointed to the mannequin. “I found this in the closet,” she said. “Can you teach me how to draw people?”
Relieved, Eve picked up one of the pencils Flannery had set out, and she drew.