Tony heard the rumors about the boy in room five before he met him. He’d been away for the week, closing up the old family farmhouse in St. Clairesville. His mother had died last year, and he and his sister finally sold the farm and the house that went with it. Tony was glad to see it go.
He’d never been cut out for farm work. His father had known it long before the day they had to put Tony’s old speckled mare, Ambrose, down. Ambrose didn’t like anyone but Tony. She was known to bite the fingers of unsuspecting children who walked up to the fence of Red Tree Farms. His daddy used to say it was a wonder that one their daddies didn’t come back and shoot her. Not that he gave a shit, he would say, a glue factory was about all she was good for. He wasn’t one for mincing words.
Tony found himself back in that old horse stall, smack dab in the middle of St. Clairsville’s ghosts. He swept it the same way he planted flowers on his mama’s fresh grave. Which was by ignoring the memory of his father laying on her right side under the cold, nutrient-rich Ohio earth. He swept the push broom over his daddy’s muddy work boots standing over Ambrose with a sharpened knife.
That fall the leaves had skipped changing colors and went straight to brown like they were skipping right over their hospice death-march and jumping straight off the bridge into sudden bereavement. Tony first noticed the abscess running a brush over Ambrose’s usually smooth, dappled neck. Four days he watched it, sometimes placing one prodding finger on the lump. It had a pulse. He kept one silent eye on the mass until one day a ripple crossed Ambrose’s skin like the wave of a contraction before the sheep dropped a lamb.
It was the undulating wave of something alive.
The movement had sent his spine scraping against the door of her stall until he fell into a stunned tangle of prepubescent limbs on the barn floor. He ran into the kitchen, stuttering about tumors and cancer. His father had entered Ambrose’s’ stall minutes later with a bottle of denatured alcohol and a razor blade. He dumped the alcohol on the trembling horse’s flank while Tony had patted her mane, trying to soothe her nervous brays. When the blade sliced through her skin, Tony braced himself for blood. What came out instead was far worse.
A dozen black spider babies dropped out of the skin pocket, covered in blood and pus. Plop, plop, plop—they had hit the hay and shit covered stall floor. His daddy had stamped them out while cursing at him to hold Ambrose. She was bucking the reins and spraying blood, pus, and spiders all over his daddy’s coveralls.
Ambrose stopped when his father jabbed her with the butt end of his rifle. The blow didn’t kill her, but the infection would several days later.
“Jesus Christ, it’s just a couple of spiders, Tony. What’s the matter with you?” his daddy had said, berating him as he stood in the barn, silent tears streaming down his face.
That night he had dreamed of spiders falling on his cheeks, one after the other. Each was enclosed in a teardrop membrane sac that popped when it hit his face. His dreams rained tears of spider blood until he hit the ground running away from Red Tree Farm thirteen years later.
Tony was glad to see the farm go and glad to be back on shift at the Ridgeway Inpatient Psychiatric Unit on the Child and Adolescent floor. He worked third shift alongside a nurse and social worker. Tonya the second shift aide had cornered him at the door walking in. Her brittle bottle-blond hair grazed the collar of her shirt in uneven, broken layers. Her face bore lines more chiseled and harder than usual.
“His aunt says he’s got a demon. Don’t look at me like that. I thought the same thing. But listen, you are not going to believe this shit. The caseworker that worked with the family quit; she said there wasn’t enough money in the world and that she couldn’t explain what that had happened in the house. He can walk on the ceiling.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Tony said.
“Yeah, that’s what I said, too. But get this. The charge nurse talked to the supervisor over at DFS and she said the same thing. Been on the job 18 years and never saw anything like it. The nurses down in the ED said that they heard him talking in different voices, said the voices sounded like a full-grown man. They weren’t lying. I heard him myself, and it’s eerie as hell. And just wait until you have to restrain him. He lifted me clear off the ground.”
“Maybe you need to spend less time sucking down Virginia Slims and more time at the gym, Tonya.”
Tonya laughed and gesticulated with her smoking hand.
“Believe what you want, but that little shit has kept us up every night with his scary voices. When it’s your turn to restrain him, have fun. It’s no picnic.”
“I can’t wait,” Tony said, stamping out his cigarette. Tonya was probably exaggerating as usual. Nonetheless, she had piqued his interest in the kid.
When he got onto the floor, it was a quiet night and getting on towards eleven pm. Most of the kids were in bed, knocked out by their PM meds. An odor floated through the hallways that pressed against his temples like a drumbeat.
Jonna, the night shift nurse, slid her chair next to his. “Have you read the new kid’s file yet? He’s an odd duck.” She cracked her gum and cocked her head to the side. Clearly the gossip had reached the nurse’s station.
“I heard he is a unique one,” he said.
“Yeah, you could say that. He’s quiet…until he’s not,” she made a face like she bit into a lemon. “And he smells…off.”
“Well damn Jonna, half these kids never met a stick of deodorant.”
Which was true. The mix of adolescence, mood disorders, poverty, and chaos did not make for good smelling children. They usually ended up cleaning up OK once their meds and the showers kicked in.
She shook her head. “Nah, not like B.O. It’s more like mildew and old battery or something. Kid ain’t right.” She gestured toward the back hallway where the patients slept. “You’ll see.”
Ton logged on to his workstation computer next to Jonna and clicked on the child’s name—Parker Melwood. He found that reading the assessment and the nurses’ notes gave him clues on how to best work with the kids. Plus he had to admit, he was curious. The beginning read like most do; parental abandonment, undiagnosed mental illness, and intergenerational chaos. But an excerpt towards the end read rather unusually.
Melwood, Parker DOB 3/3/2010
…Noteworthy is that the family moved into a new residence in Sylvania, Ohio approximately three months prior. Upon the move, Parker immediately began reporting to his caregiver that the house was haunted and refused to sleep alone in his bedroom. She noted that Parker has a history of “telling stories,” especially if he perceived that he was not getting enough attention. She made him sleep in the bedroom and soon after began hearing him speak to himself as if in conversation with another person in the middle of the night. She acknowledges that this was a difficult time for the whole family and that his younger sister was also having difficulty sleeping in the new home. She was waking with night terrors several nights a week. “We are all just bone-tired,” she tells this writer. Parker began to display other unusual behaviors such as speaking in unusual tones of voice, setting fires, and arranging household objects around the home in odd formations. She notes that his lying behaviors escalated. While before he would lie to get out of trouble, he now was making up peculiar and elaborate stories. For example, he once took all the bottles of soap, shampoo, and detergent in the home and stacked in in an elaborate pyramid in the middle of the living room floor. When he was asked to clean it up, he became hysterical and screamed that it was “Alfred” that did it and that Alfred would burn him if he moved the arrangement.
He rubbed his eyes. A headache had been pulsing behind his temples since he walked on the floor. He skipped ahead to the collateral notes from this supposed caseworker who Parker had driven off the job.
…Collateral notes from the therapist working with the family at that time corroborate that Parker’s psychosis seemed to be triggered by the move into the new family home. Child Protective Services re-opened the case when more burns and marks appeared on his body with no explanation. His great-aunt shares that at this time things began to occur that she could not explain. While emotionally dysregulated, he began to display unexpected strength for a child, placing cracks in the wall and ceiling plaster and pulling apart heavy pieces of furniture. Mrs. Melwood reported to the psychiatrist that Parker had “lifted himself off the floor” and that it “looked like he was floating.”
Both the psychiatrist and the case worker expressed their concerns about Mrs. Melwood’s mental stability to the case supervisor at Child Protective Services. Case notes faxed over from CPS documents that on 6/30/2010 an interdisciplinary team convened to discuss placement in either an alternate foster home or residential treatment. Parker’s behavior escalated during this meeting, and he began to speak in his Alfred voice. His level of emotional state deteriorated to a point where team members expressed concerns for his safety. He was placed in a therapeutic hold after attempting to scratch the face of the CPS supervisor. The attached CPS incident report and therapist notes from the family session both state that his body movements caused furniture to tip over and pictures to fall off the walls and shatter. A window in the living room was also broken with an unknown object while he was placed in the hold.
While awaiting the ambulance to transport Parker to the emergency department Parker was observed to move his body in such a way that “his body walked vertically up the wall until his feet touched the ceiling.”
Tony clicked off the chart and took a long sip of his lukewarm hospital coffee. Tonya hadn’t been completely making that part up, he thought. He pulled himself up out of the squeaky office chair to start bed checks.
There was a strange feeling in the air. The atmosphere felt heavy, like the weight you feel pressing down on your skin before a storm opens up. One of the fluorescent bars flickered as he passed under it, buzzing back to life after he passed. Tony thought he could hear the murmur of voices from the TV as he passed by the common room. But when he looked in the doorway, the TV looked back at him with a flat, black screen.
He continued down the hallway to patient rooms. The first two rooms were empty. Room three was dark except for the ambient light left on for safety checks. He paused outside, noted measured breathing, and made a note on the clipboard.
Room four was a fourteen-year-old boy named Ritchie who favored staying up late reading and trying to sneak cigarettes in the shared bathroom. He gave Tony a thumbs up when he stopped outside the door. Ritchie seemed to be doing well after only a few days and Tony guessed he was on his way home soon.
Tony could hear the squeak of his new Nike’s on the tiled floor. He hated the piss- yellow and white checked linoleum. It never looked clean. As he approached room five he found that his heart was beating a little faster than usual. Of course, this is the devil kid’s room. What do you think, you are going to go in there and he is going to be walking across the ceiling like a spider?
He pushed his feet forward until he was standing in front of the door with the vertical observation window. He breathed easier when he saw the child’s back facing the door, lying in bed. He paused, waiting to see the rise and fall of respiration. Satisfied that room five was breathing and would live to see another day of playing Damien, he turned to move on.
As he did, he felt a tickling sensation on his head. He swatted up and felt wiggling legs squirming through his fingers, trapped between his hand and his close shorn curls.
“Fuck!” he exclaimed, jumping back.
He swatted at his scalp and looked on in horror as two fat black spiders scuttled across the piss yellow linoleum, disappearing under the door of room five. Each one had a body the size of his index fingernail, which was a sizable circumference for a midwestern city spider.
“Son of a fucking bitch,” he cursed under his breath.
His skin was crawling. This place was really turning into a real shit hole. He picked up the clipboard that had fallen on the floor. Footsteps sounded from the other direction.
“Everything OK?” asked Latrice, the third shift social-worker. She held two cups of steaming coffee in her hands.
“Yeah, sorry about that. Fucking spider fell on my head from up there.”
“You better not be playing with me. You know I hate spiders.” She eyed the floor suspiciously, bouncing on her toes.
“Then you might wanna steer clear of this general area right now. He was a big sucker, and he went thatta way with his buddy,” said Troy, indicating he indicated to room five with a head nod. He wiped his face where Ambrose’s blood and spider blend had hit him all those years before.
Just inside the doorway of room five, Parker was out of bed. He stood facing the outside window. He was murmuring words just out of ear shot. His posture looked odd, like an old man’s. Tony felt his senses prick up.
Latrice walked in and began speaking softly to him. Parker’s shoulders instantly relaxed and he nodded from time to time. She slowly and gently guided him to the bed and damned if she didn’t tuck that boy in.
“Night Parker bug. See you tomorrow,” she said, stepping out into the hallway.
“Night Miss Anjou,” said Parker, sounding like any little kid ready for bed.
Tony fell in step with Latrice as she left the room. As the door to room five was closing, he heard Parker speak one more time, and his voice sounded…different.
“Goodnight Spider Tony.”
Tony swung his head around. Parker’s eyes caught the hallway fluorescents in an owl-like flash before the door swung closed.
An hour later, Latrice and Tony noticed the smell of burning. A stomach-turning blend of hot electrical wire and old matches. She sniffed around the room like a bloodhound, finally stopping at the air vent.
“It’s coming from one of the rooms.”
“Call maintenance” Tony said, in no mood to root around in the forty-year-old air vents. He thought of the solid thump those spiders made when they hit the linoleum. No telling how many of their friends could be in there.
“It’s probably Ritchie smoking in the bathroom again. I don’t know where he keeps getting cigarettes, but I’m tired of the hallway smelling like an ashtray. Will you go?” asked Latrice. “I have to finish this report.”
Ritchie’s room sat dark and silent, which somehow Tony knew it would be. The door to room five, on the other hand, was an open invitation. Parker sat on the bed facing the window. His thin brown hair fluttered around his ears and forehead. The sheets were blown back against the bed and torn up paper flew around the room in a mini whirlpool. How did the kid get the window open?
Annoyed, Tony crossed the room to shut the window. He froze with his hand on the sealed hospital window. Their windows didn’t open. What kind of psychiatric inpatient unit would have windows that opened? Not one that cared about safety.
“Indeed Tony. What kind of hospital would have windows that opened? The little kidlets could go splat on the pavement.” Parker spoke in the voice of a retired history professor, both sarcastic and condescending. The curls on the back on Tony’s neck prickled and he had to force himself to turn around.
Parker sat in the bed primly, back razor straight, legs crossed one over the other, his little foot cocked and pointed at the wall. Tony didn’t think he had ever seen a nine-year-old sit like that in his life.
The ripped-up paper in the room picked up speed. Tony stood stock-still. He could feel the paper strips hitting his arms and legs. He stepped closer to Parker.
“Stop it,” Tony growled.
“Stop what Spider Tony?” Parker said, looking around the room with a smirk on his face.
“I don’t know how you are making this mess, but you need to cut it out.” Tony’s throat was dry and tight.
“Problem Tony?” Latrice had come in and he realized he was still standing over Parker’s bed, every muscle in his body tensed. He probably looked like a complete psychopath.
The wind was gone and the papers dropped. Parker’s shoulders relaxed and he dropped his head into his hands. He looked up at Latrice with the big, sad eyes of a little boy.
“Thanks Mrs. Anjou. I had a bad dream.”
“It’s okay, Parker, just go to sleep. It’s all gonna look better in the morning. You’ll see.” She eyed Tony, her lips in a thin line. She marched out of the room.
Parker looked up at him, his eyes gone animal again. He peeled his lips back slowly without taking his eyes off Tony, pulling his mouth into an odd open tooth grin. From behind Parker’s white chicklet teeth emerged first one, then three spindly black legs. They wrapped around the boy’s teeth from the back of his mouth.
Tony stood frozen, bile rising in his throat. His ears rung with the plop, plop, plop of the spiders raining off Ambrose’s bucking flank.
Parker opened his mouth like a hinge. The barn doors of his jaw revealed the body of the spider, fat and black. The smell of hay and manure filled Tony’s nose while he stood in room five. The Alfred voice was back, this time a violent growl.
“You stay away from Parker. He’s my prize pony.”
“Parker,” Tony’s voice came out in a low garble of phlegm and bile. He cleared his throat, which was tight with fear.
“Parker, its lights out.”
“Shut up Anthony, or I’ll slice you like Ambrose,” the voice snarled. The spider had crawled all the way out of Parker’s mouth and rested on the pillow next to him.
The spider continued to twitch slightly on the pillowcase, shifting closer and closer to Parker’s mouth. Tony should kill that godforsaken thing, but there is no way he was going near it. He had an idea that for every spider he killed, three more would plop into its place—plop, plop, plop.
“What’s the matter Spider Tony? You got a bad case of the mums? You could say Parker does as well, or as you call it in your little book, see-lect-ive mutism. Aren’t you two just two peas in a pod?” Parker didn’t look like Parker anymore, his face lined and aged like an older man. His cheekbones sitting in lower spot on his face than two minutes before.
Tony backed out of the room. That was no kid named Parker. That was no kid at all.
Bed checks again. This time he made Latrice go with him, not even pretending to hide his fear of the strange child. The room smelled strongly rotted eggs and something old. Something very old.
The room was in silent chaos. Parker rolled violently back and forth across the mattress. Every time he got to the edge of the bed he arched his back up until he bucked his slight body completely off the sheets. When his spine left the sheets, small back dots fell off the back of his green scrub top on to the mattress. Under him were a mass of swarming black spiders. They crawled up the white wall behind the bed. More were running across the tiled floor.
Parker was horrifyingly silent. His face was contorted into an open-mouthed grimace like he was screaming, but no noise came out. He clawed and scratched at his face, showering more spiders across the room. Tony fought the urge to leave and never come back.
“We need to move him, now.” Latrice said.
He followed her into the spider-infested room. They could hear Parker’s joints popping as he continued to writhe. His hands occupied with moving Parker, he used his shoulder to knock off the stray spiders that continued to crawl off Parker and onto he and Latrice. He clamped his lips tight as one clambered up his neck.
Time slowed down to a watery crawl. The night nurse was on the wall phone calling up to the seventh floor for back up. After she hung up, she ran over and began using a rolled-up Highlights magazine to swat off the remaining spiders while they moved Parker into the padded observation room.
“We’re fine. They’re off. Can you grab the PRN?” Latrice asked Jonna, who nodded and ran back towards the nursing station, swatting the back of her neck as she ran. If Tony could have removed his skin like a suit in that moment, he would have done so gladly.
Twenty minutes later, Parker had gone quiet and the rotten egg smell was fading. He had his back turned to them but had calmed enough to no longer require restraint. Several minutes ticked by. Tony marked time on his clipboard for respiration monitoring and behavioral notes.
Parker began to murmur to himself. “Three blind mice, three blind mice. See how they run, see how they run. They ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut their tails off with a carving knife, three blind mice.”
Latrice looked like she had swallowed something foul. Her face was contorted into a look of disgust and she visibly shivered. Tony felt the electricity in the air.
The song picked up in volume, Parker’s back still to them. “Three blind mice, three blind mice. See how they run, see how they run. They ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut their tails off with a carving knife, three blind mice. Three blind mice…”
As he began the third round of the nursery rhyme, his head began to turn to the right. “…see how they run, see how they run…”
It kept turning inch by inch, now parallel to his right shoulder. Parker/Alfred sang on, “…they ran into the farmer’s wife, who cat their tails off with a carving knife…” The joints in his neck popped out loud. Latrice and Tony took a step towards him and stopped. His head was now rotated a full 180 degrees from the front of his tiny body. He stopped singing and looked at Tony.
“Isn’t that right Spider Tony? Who cut off your pony’s tail, was it you?” He laughed with awful abandon.
His disjointed head was red and contorted into a grotesque grimace. Parker began to sing again. “Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run..”
Tony knew he had to help Parker. His tiny body bas bent in ways that it was not supposed to bend. But he found that he couldn’t move his feet. Again, Tony was frozen, but Latrice was not.
“Enough.” She said with quiet authority.
Parker’s eyes were big, and his pupils look scarily dilated. He reached two hands up and pulled his head even further to the right. The color on his face deepened from scarlet to purple. He coughed up phlegm and spit on the floor.
Latrice crossed the room and pulled both his hands down and rotated his body out of the contorted position with one swift movement.
“That’s enough Alfred. You hear me?”
Parker/Alfred was wheezing and looking at Latrice with malice.
“You and me are going to have a little talk. You know what I think? I think you are enjoying the show. I for one, am done with it. I am done with your spiders, and I am done with the sick circus act you are pulling on this kid. You might have been able to pull this shit with bubble head Tonya and her crew, but this is my unit.
“Shut up bitch.” Parker spit in Latrice’s face.
She didn’t even flinch. “No, you shut up and I’m talking to Alfred right now. Maybe in your day, you could torture a kid until they just up and died. But up here on my floor, that’s not how we do things. The longer you keep him talking with that voice, and saying creepy things to the staff, the longer you gonna be in here. Do you think the doc is ever going to discharge Parker while you are spinning his head around and having him talk like a demon? I think not.”
“Well Ms. Anjou, maybe I will leave. Maybe I’ll come pay you a visit at your house? 732 Pepperdine Drive, little red house on the corner? I heard you love spiders, too.”
Something hardened behind her eyes. Tony recognized it for what it was, a wall built to cover the fear. Latrice Anjou did not take kindly to direct threats.
“Well Mr. Alfred, you are free to do what you want. It is the red house on the corner. But I fear you would find me pretty dull. Mostly I work and garden. But more often I work here. Eating the same grainy mashed potatoes with film-covered gravy from that godawful cafeteria. You know the ones. Surely you could think of more unique ways to spend your time. There’s a whole hive of a city out there.”
Parker/Alfred had grown quiet, as if contemplating it.
“I love it here, but it does get boring. There are only so many word searches that you can circle, groups you can go to, books you can read. After a while, you start to miss it out there. Outside those windows are roads that go anywhere.” Latrice kicked the door of the observation room open and pointed at the large windows across the hall in the common room.
Parker/Alfred’s eye sparked for a moment as he looked at the cityscape outside the window, lights sparkling in the distance. He stared silently out at the city. Minutes ticked by. Finally, Parker’s eyelids drooped, and he slumped against the padded wall.
Tony stepped forward and held out a hand. Parker took it and stood up off the floor, bracing one hand against the padded wall. He walked next to Tony back to his room and lay down without a word on clean sheets provided the housekeeping staff while they were in the observation room. Parker immediately fell into a deep sleep.
Latrice met him out in the hall. She looked more tired than he was used to seeing her. Her face held worry lines he suspected would travel with her into the coming months. She stopped at the doorway to her office and looked back at him, taking a deep breath before speaking again. “How are we supposed to document that?”
Emily Fox-Douglas is a writer and social worker who lives in Ohio with her husband and two children. She loves camping and telling scary stories around the fire. Her poem, “If Time Were a Shutter Click” won 219 Poem of the Year through Haunted Waters Press.