Beat the Drum
by Kimberly Steinberg
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The night was dark with a weighty blackness, but Liam could hear breathing and smell the monster’s rotting breath. Nine-year old Liam lay on the top bunk, curled up tight on his side with his back to the ladder. The covers were over his head so tight he could barely breathe through the tiny air hole, and he knew the monster was going to get him. He reached out to touch the plain grey wall in front of him. The wall was cold to the touch but hard and solid, reassuringly real. The time was approaching midnight on a cool fall evening in Boise, Idaho.
I opened my eyes with a start when Liam cried out and hurried to his room. It was freezing cold, and he was shaking with fright. He recounted the dream, and I told him when I was his age I used to have nightmares about monsters too.
Liam was my stepson, and our relationship was awkward, but tonight he let me comfort him. After a few minutes, he calmed down and I went back to bed.
When I woke in the morning, I gazed out the window at the view of the city below, sparkling in the dim morning light, the desert sage foothills across the street. As reality slowly crept in, I took a deep breath and got out of bed. I could hear Oliver starting coffee in the kitchen, calling the kids to get up.
Oliver was my second marriage. He was kind, with a gentle temperament. His dark hair was turning grey, and his green eyes looked at the world and saw the best in people. He had a quirky sense of humor and a quick wit. I was the more practical and realistic one. He was a great stepfather, and my kids adored him.
We had three children: my two boys and Liam, but Liam was the one I worried about the most. He was happy-go-lucky but sensitive. At nine, he had learned to keep a low profile. He’d been living with us for a year, since I married Oliver.
They had been through a long legal battle over the last few years until Oliver finally won primary physical custody. His ex-wife’s, Ava’s, mental health problems were the deciding factor. She was neglectful and not very observant, but there had been no overt abuse.
* * *
Today was the first day of school, and Liam looked tired and pale. He was a good student but had trouble with math. This morning his sandy brown hair was rumpled with bedhead and his shirt was on backwards. That was Liam, the absent-minded professor.
“Did you go back to sleep?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I stayed awake for a long time.”
“That was a creepy dream,” I said. “But you’ll probably forget about it after you get busy at school.”
I dropped him off, and dwelt on the dream on my way home. As a child, I was obsessed with vampires. I studied them and tried to convince myself they weren’t real. I wore a crucifix and slept with scarves around my neck.
I consoled myself with the thought that vampires must be invited in by their victims. But they were crafty. They could appear human for short periods and trick an unsuspecting victim. They could even change their appearance and disguise themselves as someone else.
When I got back to the house, Lucas and Jack were ready to go. Jack was the same age as Liam and Lucas, four years older. We had kids at three different schools, I often felt like a taxi service. Luckily, Boise was still a small enough city that traffic was minimal, even at rush hour. Returning again to the house, I went around, picking up toys and clothes off the floor. The floor was wet in Liam’s room. I’d ask him about it later. I wiped up the water and started my day. I had plenty of work to do.
* * *
That night when I was helping the kids get ready for bed, I noticed two strange marks on Liam’s neck. The holes were jagged with crusty red blood around the edges. He had monster dreams, and now he had marks on his neck?
“Liam, how did you get these marks?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They were there when I woke up this morning.”
Don’t freak yourself out, I thought. Vampires aren’t real. What could have caused those marks? I’d talk to Oliver later.
“Oh hey, I almost forgot. Why was there water on the floor of your room this morning?”
“That was from the lady,” Liam said. This was getting stranger and stranger.
“What lady?” My voice was shaky.
“She knocked on my window and asked if she could see my room.”
“Liam, you let a strange woman in the house to see your room?”
“I couldn’t say no,” said Liam.
I couldn’t tell how much of this was real. Was this part of his dream? “What did she look like?” I asked.
“She was beautiful with long black hair and blue eyes. She said she wanted to be my friend.”
When I told Oliver, he dismissed it, assuring me it was fantasy. But throughout the day, my thoughts kept returning to that puddle of water on the floor and the trapped look on Liam’s face when he spoke of his dream.
* * *
The next morning, I kept a close eye on Liam. He was laughing and joking with the other kids but, if anything, he looked paler. He had dark circles under his eyes.
“I think you should take him for a check-up,” I told Oliver. “I’m worried about him.”
“Okay, I will,” said Oliver, probably just to appease me.
“Did you notice those weird marks on his neck?” I asked. “They look like vampire bites.”
Oliver looked at me in disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“No, of course not.” I laughed. “But it is odd.”
After Oliver looked at the marks, he called the doctor and made an appointment for Friday.
That night I woke up and looked at the clock. It was 3:00 a.m., the devil’s hour. I learned that from watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I heard noises in the back yard.
“Oliver, wake up. I hear something outside.” He groaned. “Okay,” he said, “let’s go check.”
When we turned on the porch light, we saw Liam digging a hole in the dirt with his bare hands. He was eating the worms he found.
“Oh, My God,” I said. “What is going on?” Oliver’s eyes were huge. “Liam, honey,” said Oliver, “come here. Wake up, Liam.”
Oliver put an arm around him and walked him inside. Liam didn’t respond. Was he sleepwalking? He immediately crawled back into bed and didn’t move. Oliver looked at me, fear in his eyes, but we didn’t talk about it. What was there to say? After a long time, Oliver and I fell back asleep.
* * *
On Friday, Oliver took the morning off from work for the appointment with Dr. Spence. Dr. Spence had been our family doctor for several years, and I liked his no-nonsense approach. He was conservative about medication and stayed current on the latest research.
But the doctor was a little eccentric. He owned chickens — fourteen to be exact — some for food and a few for eggs. A lot of people in Boise owned chickens. He told Oliver that the night before he had killed eight of his chickens by cutting off their heads with a pair of surgical scissors. I didn’t need to know that.
“Well,” Dr. Spence said, “let’s do some tests.” He thought that Liam could have a vitamin deficiency. He was also concerned about a possible psychiatric cause for Liam’s strange behavior, that the marks on his neck could be self-induced.
“Let’s wait and see what the lab results tell us. My nurse will give you a call.”
After Oliver got home and filled me in on the visit, we sat quietly at the kitchen table with our coffee cups. It was drizzling outside and a dreary day. Oliver had dropped Liam off at school on his way home.
“He seems so fragile,” I said. “When does he go see his mom again?”
“Next weekend,” said Oliver. Ava had custody every other weekend, and Liam looked forward to his time with her.
* * *
On Monday, Dr. Spence’s office called and said that Liam had an iron deficiency. His nurse explained that people with iron deficiencies may develop cravings for non-food substances, such as clay, dirt, or chalk, a condition known as Pica. This could explain digging in the dirt outside. The nurse recommended an over-the-counter supplement and a check-up in two weeks.
“But does Pica include eating worms?” I asked.
“I’ve never heard of that happening before,” said the nurse, “but Dr. Spence wants to wait and see how he responds to the treatment before we do anything else.”
We decided to spend the weekend relaxing at home. The kids worked on homework, and we went to the library. We watched a movie Saturday night. Oliver and I caught up on household chores. Sunday morning, I found dirt on Liam’s floor.
“Liam,” I said. Were you digging in the dirt again?”
“No, it’s from the lady,” said Liam.
Was he hallucinating? I swept up the dirt and tried to stay calm.
Over the next two weeks, Liam slowly got worse. My boys noticed his strange behavior too. The marks on his neck were more pronounced, and he walked around in a daze. His appetite was almost non-existent and he complained of stomachaches. He spent a lot of time alone in his room instead of playing with the boys. I wondered if he was depressed.
I put a new deadbolt on Liam’s window and the front door, just in case. The other kids were just as scared as I was.
“What’s wrong with Liam?” Lucas asked.
“He’s not feeling well,” I said. “Don’t worry, we’ll find out what’s wrong.”
Lucas said, “I thought I heard him talking to someone last night.”
“What did you hear?” I asked.
“Just mumbling. When I went in his room, there was no one there. Maybe I was dreaming.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Kimberly Steinberg