I stood center stage.
The spotlights were blinding. My hands trembled, tucked together at my waist. My lips felt dry. My heart was beating fast, sped along by a rush of performance adrenaline I could never quite get used to. In the periphery of my vision I could make out the outline of the coliseum seats. The auditorium was filled with people. Attendees had come to witness the competition and cheer their school, their own acapella group. They were quiet, waiting for me. My feet shuffled beneath me. I cleared my throat. I dabbed at perspiration along my neck. A note signaled for me to begin, heard beneath the discreet clamor of controlled anticipation that was coming from the packed audience.
I looked up. My lips parted. My voice began small and timid, but rose with courage. My song soon carried itself to the ceiling and to the far walls, displaying my gift. I sang for those gathered, for my team, and for me:
Ave Maria, maiden mild
Oh, listen to a maiden’s prayer
For thou canst hear amid the wild
’Tis thou, ’tis thou canst save amid, despair
We slumber safely till the morrow
Though we’ve by man outcast reviled
Oh maiden, see a maiden’s sorrow
Oh mother, hear a suppliant child.
There was silence when I finished. I remained where I was. Then the cheers and clapping resounded. I felt suddenly whole. I bowed in the lights.
Making my way to the back of the stage, I was unable to hold down my smile. I expected to be immediately enveloped by the enthusiastic greeting of my acapella group. For Emma, Valeska, Tonya, Courtney, and William to fold me up in their excitement. I had done it.
I stepped from the bottom step, met by no one. A child dashed past me, running ahead, disappearing at a corner which led to the changing rooms where the teams all prepared. I shrugged it away with a smile, wondering if maybe the boy was the brother of one of my teammates or of another competitor. A young girl then bumped into my hip. She looked up at me with a smile of apology, then bounded away in the same direction as the boy. I turned at the corner. The hallway was dark. The exit sign at the end of the hall provided the only light, a soft glowing red. The two children standing in the red light.
Their eager smiles were brushed by the shadowy red light as they watched me. I didn’t like the way they didn’t blink. I stepped into a changing room to keep from getting any closer to them, not caring if it was the room designated for our team.
I found myself in a vast open room, shaped perfectly square like an enormous plain box. The only light came from another exit sign located at the opposite end of the room. I couldn’t see where the walls met the ceiling because of the thick darkness, and looking up, I felt as though I were at the bottom of a hole.
As though they had been hiding or lying on the ground, children came alive all around me, standing from the floor. Giggling, they began dashing around. I could barely count how many children there were because of the darkness. I could only catch glimpses of their shoulders and feet, their hair tossing, but never their giggling faces. The children were unbothered by the darkness. So, I knew these children were not the right kind. I wanted to go back out the way I came, but there were far too many children near the door, as though they knew I’d want to go there.
I pretended not to be bothered, that I was in fact pleased to see children enjoying themselves so much. I forced a smile onto my face, but it was a poorly made disguise, and I knew the children knew because of the way they began to cluck gleefully.
The children sucked me into their play, running closer to where I stood. I began to work my way towards the exit sign, far at the other end. The children would press on me, then dash away again, only to be replaced by other children who circled me. My hand brushed their heads, still pretending I was unbothered. More children swarmed. Running by my hips. Touching me. Causing me to struggle forward. I placed my hand on the head of a boy who began pulling at my arm. When I touched him, I could feel his childlike curiosity at how my fingers might taste. How they might snap off in his mouth. More children came, encouraged by the eager tastes of the boy. A tiny tongue licked my hand. I pulled away, shuffling against the tide of children, terribly afraid because my fingers had always been mine and I wanted to keep them.
Then the children took up a melody. The song they sang was:
She loves us for who we are,
And wants us in her belly.
Even as she eats our parts
She tells us, “Call me, ‘Mummy.’”
Come a little closer,
We have a secret to tell.
After she’s through with eating you,
You’re going straight to hell.
I might have clapped at their gift for music just to maintain my forged placid pose, but I made my way closer to the exit sign and pressed through the door beneath. Shoving them behind me, I escaped the children who continued singing and licking at the air.
I locked the door. I was in a separate room, not outside, as I had expected. It was a bedroom and there was no other door.
I wanted to go home.
“Go to sleep,” one of the children encouraged through the door. The children had gathered at the door and were attempting to pry their way inside, pushing and banging against the wood. I hated myself for how afraid I was of the children. They sang:
She’s here, she’s here
Our Mummy dear!
Open the door and let her in!
Not to do so would be a sin.
It won’t take long!
Only the length of a song.
When she’s through eating you,
We can eat you too!
The doorknob rattled. I threw myself into the corner. The deadbolt unlocked. The knob turned. The door opened. Children flooded through the entrance. Attempting to stand and run, I collapsed beneath the children as they smothered me. They began grasping at my parts, pulling at my clothes and hair. I could hardly see through their small fervent faces. They parted suddenly, kneeling beside my body while they continued to hold me flat to the floor. In the doorway stood a horribly tall woman, watching. Her face was expressionless but for an excitement in her eyes.
I began to struggle against the binding of little hands. I could barely move. I felt like a child myself, more of a child than they. I fretted fearfully, shaking helplessly and crying.
The woman bent to me, as though she wanted to listen to a secret I might tell her. Then she reached for my hand and drew it up as three children released it for her. Prying a finger loose from the fist I had made, the woman placed my pinky finger in her mouth. Her teeth bit down slowly. Then harder. The children began to lick at my skin and face, tempting themselves with a taste, as though they’d been given permission.
All I could do was scream. I screamed until my lungs burned. I screamed and screamed and screamed. The children mimicked me with their terrified, pathetic, helpless little petrified screams of mockery. I screamed even more.