By: Manen Lyset & J.J. Cheesman
My Brook, the sweetest little girl any mother could ask for, was born on the eleventh of February. I was eighteen when she was conceived, her father was a man I’d met at a party while I was attending college. He was someone I’d never seen before, and haven’t seen since. I couldn’t even tell you his name. It was a drunken night of un-protected euphoria that gave me my first and only child, and for that very reason, after she was born, I suffered severe post-partum depression. Every one of my friends told me to get an abortion in the beginning, but the more I thought about the life inside me, the more convinced I was that I just couldn’t do it.
My mother was a big help though. She let me move back home and offered no complaint what-so-ever about my pitiful state while she did most of the work with Brook. I think the truth was that she was just glad to have a full home again. Dad passed away from a heart attack two years before I moved out, and I think she’d been very lonely. I slept on the couch in the living room for the most part, while Brook slept in a crib in my old room. College was put on hold because I didn’t think there was much point in going to school if I was going to be too exhausted from taking care of a baby. For two months that couch was pretty much my nest, and I hardly ever moved, even when I heard Brook through the baby monitor on the night stand next to me. I would just wait for mom to go check on her.
It wasn’t until one day in April that I finally broke out of my crippling and lethargic state of mind. I was lying on my side in the living room, while the TV played its scheduled commercial advertising. There was a sudden rustling sound that came through the baby monitor, heralding Brook’s awakening from her nap. For a moment, I lay unmoving, expecting to hear commotion from mom’s room when she heard Brook through her own monitor. That’s not something I’m proud of either, but it is the truth.
I’m not sure how to properly explain my state of mind during that time in my life. It was a sickness of the head, and I was too deep into my own pool of self-pity to seek help for it. There was an ever-present sinking feeling of regret for not having an abortion, and then subsequent guilt for allowing myself to have that thought. Mom never even once suggested that I should go to therapy or express that I was a burden to her in any way. I think she always believed that I would just one day snap out of it. As it turned out, she was right.
That day, I laid there, listening to Brook coo in her crib and waiting to hear Mom leave her room, something changed in me. I remember thinking, what in the hell are you doing, your daughter needs you. From that simple thought, I drew strength. As I stood from the couch and made my way down the hall into Brook’s room, I knew everything was going to be fine. I wasn’t a bad person just because I’d needed Mom’s help with my baby. School didn’t have to be an unattainable dream just because I got pregnant, single mothers do it all the time.
I entered Brook’s room, walked over to her crib, and looked down at her. The table top fountain on the dresser next to the crib burbled as I smiled down at my daughter. She had her feet up, grabbing at the loose ends of her footie pajamas, but she stopped when she saw me. There was a long moment of silence as we stared at each other. Brook stared up at me with unblinking eyes and an open mouth, as if she was sizing me up. It’s absurd, but it was as if she was wondering herself if I had finally broken free from my depressing spell. Finally, she smiled up at me and giggled. I laughed too, and picked her up, swaying her back and forth as if we were dancing. That’s when I knew, everything would be fine.
From then on things changed for the better, and I felt like my normal self again. I got back to school and completed my bachelors in Chemistry. Mom let us live with her until I found a job and was able to build up enough savings to move out on my own. Brook grew up so fast, and before I knew it, eight years came and went. She was the sweetest little girl a mother could ever ask for, I never once had to discipline her for any reason. Though I did have to be careful to keep an eye on her. Exploration was her favorite hobby, she was always so curious, her blue eyes always so full of wonder. So, I had to make sure I was always watchful, and I was. I was always so careful, but then, there was that day on the lake.
It was a sweltering hot summer day, and I thought it’d be a great idea to go to the lake. I asked Brook if she wanted to go, and she was ecstatic. So I loaded up the car, and we were on our way. I put floaties on her arms, made sure her tiny life jacket was secure and tight before I sat down on a towel on the shore and sent her on her way.
“Don’t go far from me, you stay where I can see you. Don’t wade far out into the water either,” I told her sternly.
“I won’t momma,” She said impatiently.
I waved my hand to let her know she could go. She promptly raced to the water. I dug my nose into a book and started reading while she ran up and down the shore, splashing water with each exaggerated step.
At first, I looked up after every couple of sentences to make sure she was still in the shallows, but after a while, I let myself get more engrossed in the mystery novel I was reading. As long as I could hear Brook giggling and splashing, I knew she was fine. The problem is, to the distracted ear, the sound of fearful wailing is surprisingly similar to gleeful shrieks of delight. Likewise, energetic paddling and desperate thrashing also sound dangerously similar. I only realized something was wrong when everything went quiet. In that instant, my heart stopped. I looked up, but I didn’t see my little girl: I just saw a mostly still lake with a distant ripple racing towards the opposite shore.
The book fell from my hands.
I ran to the water, my body already trembling from a wave of panic. My voice cracked as I screamed my daughter’s name. I hoped she’d just wandered out of the water – maybe back to the car –, but as I played back the last few minutes in my head, I could swear I heard her yell, “Momma, help!” while I was stupidly distracted.
I’d kicked up so much mud plunging into the lake that the water was now murky. Waist deep in it, I desperately pawed around trying to find Brook. With each failed swipe, I became more and more distraught. It’s like I couldn’t shut the voices in my head up. The voices that kept whispering about her fate. That was a branch, not her foot. Too late, you’ll never find her now. You should have started looking by the dock. Too late now. What I needed to do was take a breath and calm down: I was no good to Brook like this, but when your child goes missing, it’s impossible to think rationally.
And then, just as I was about to fully give in to the grief and guilt, I heard her soft little voice.
I turned around, choking back tears. She was standing on the shore, the waves I’d made licking her toes gently. Her hair was dripping wet, her smile was gone, and her eyes were unfocussed, as though she was looking right through me, but it was her. It was my Brook. She was alive and well. I joined her on the shore and gave her a big hug, asking her more questions than she had time to answer. I don’t think she answered a single one, but it didn’t matter. She was alive. That’s all I could hope for.
It’s strange, I never even questioned where the lifejacket and floaties had gone, nor how she got out of them.
It was raining for a third day in a row. I was thankful for the downpour, because it meant we could stay inside where it was safe. I hadn’t left Brook’s side since the incident at the lake. Hell, I hadn’t even let mom babysit her while I did the groceries. I was so afraid she’d run off and get hurt. But it was raining now, and there was nowhere for her to run off *to*. She sat in front of the television while I cooked breakfast, one eye on her and the other on the pancakes.
“What do you want to drink, honey?”
I smiled and reached into the cupboard for her favorite princess glass, only filling it halfway to prevent her from spilling any. We ate at the table, her eyes constantly shifting to the TV in the other room. Once we were done, I let her go back to her cartoons while I cleaned up.
“Momma’s going to go take a shower now, okay? You stay right where you are,” I said sternly, once the dishes were put away.
She didn’t answer, too enthralled in the show.
I wanted to believe she’d be fine, but leaving her even for a quick shower made my stomach lurch. I made sure to keep the door open so I could listen in on her. I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to my baby. Not again. Never again.
I stepped into the steaming hot shower and closed my eyes, straining my ears to hear what was going on in the other room. At first, I only heard the normal sounds of my daughter shuffling a little, but then…
I nearly slipped and broke my neck rushing out of the shower so quickly. I barely took the time to grab a towel before I barrelled into the living room, my face flushed with anxiety.
“What’s the matter, honey?” I screamed in a panic.
Brook was sitting on her bean bag, watching another show. She glanced at me with confusion, shrugged, and turned her attention back to the TV.
I wasn’t amused.
I scolded her for calling for help when she didn’t need it, but she seemed completely unaffected by my frustration. She kept saying she hadn’t called me, but I knew what I heard. I hoped grounding her was enough for her to get the message: you do *not* call for help when you don’t need it…and just to hammer that point in, I read her the story of the boy who cried wolf that night before going to bed.
The next day, I awoke early and made my way down the hallway. I stole a glance into Brook’s room to see if she’d awoken. She was indeed awake, and she stood at her window looking out at the cars passing up and down our street.
“What are you doing at the window, baby?” I asked.
Brook said nothing, she only continued to stare out into the street and seemed unaware that I’d spoken at all. I walked up behind her, and peered out at the busy street. When I did so, Brook finally acknowledged my presence and turned around. She stared up at me solemnly and the only sound in the room was the filter humming within the fish tank on its stand across the room.
“Mommy, can I please watch TV?” she asked, her voice was low and monotonous.
I returned her gaze and looked into her sad blue eyes. Where they were once a bright sapphire, they had become a dim cobalt. Her complexion had always been fair, but as I examined her, I could have sworn she had become whiter. I felt her head to see if she had a fever, but it was cold to the touch, and I felt myself shiver. Mentally, I made a note to make sure the heat was on.
“Yes honey, you can go in and turn it on, and I’ll make you some nice hot soup.”
Lethargically, and with hardly any acknowledgement at all, Brook walked across the bedroom to leave, but stopped at the door, turned to me, and said, “With some water, right?”
I was taken a little aback, but I gave a smile. “Yes baby, with water.”
Brook nodded, and turned to leave the room. Now that she had gone, I gave one last look outside. The traffic had died down almost completely, and the street outside was now empty and devoid of life. Now that there was nothing in the way and no other distractions, I found myself gazing at the other side of the road. Where a single boat skipped over the vast and sprawling lake.
Hours later, Brook and I were sitting side by side on the couch in the living room. On the TV in front of us, a nature documentary about ocean life was playing. Brook sat staring at the screen in rapt attention, but my eyes were on her. Since that morning, she’d asked for six glasses of water and drank them all greedily. Yet the soup I had made earlier; tomato, her favorite, sat untouched. Color had returned to her cheeks and her eyes had brightened, but something was still off. Something changed in Brook that day at the lake. Something I hadn’t noticed through the euphoric relief of finding her safe. Now the relief had passed, and a cold sinking weight of unease had dropped into the pit of my stomach.
“Mommy can you get me more water?” Brook asked, interrupting my train of thought.
“Of course, dear.”
I went to the kitchen, filled a glass from the tap and brought it to Brook. She downed it in seconds and handed the empty glass back to me, not saying another word. I took it from her.
“Mommy is going to go take a bath, will you be okay without me for a few minutes?” Brook hardly gave me an answer with a half-hearted nod. A half-baked idea was forming in my mind as I made my way into the bathroom and shut the door. An insane yet persistent nagging somewhere in the back of my head. It kept calling to my memory a single thought that I’d had just days prior. Too late, you’ll never find her now.
I forced the thought away and I plugged the drain in the tub, turning the hot water valve as I did. I’d hoped that a nice warm bath would calm my nerves and relieve my irrational fears. I got undressed, dropping my clothes in front of the door, and examined myself in front of the mirror. My eyes had bags under them, and I looked flushed. It then occurred to me how tired I was. Work had been hectic, and the odd occurrences of the past week had taken their toll on me.
With the tub now full, I turned off the tap and lowered myself into the bath. The water was very warm and inviting, and already I felt a million times better. There was nothing to worry about, I was being silly. After a few minutes passed I drew in a deep breath, held my nose, and laid my head down in the water. Fully submerged in the bath, all sound was muted save my own rhythmic breathing. To me, that was the most peaceful thing that you could do. Alone in the water, there’s nothing to bother you.
“Please help me Momma.” Brook whispered in my right ear.
I flailed in the water, frantically pulling myself out of the tub. My neck snapped back and forth, searching all around the bathroom for any sign of Brook. Turning to the bathroom door, I found it to be closed and my clothes in front of it remained undisturbed. I leaned back on the kitchen sink and waited for my breathing to slow. What was happening to me?
There was a knock at the door, and I jumped.
“Mommy, I need a glass of water.” Brook’s voice muttered.
I clutched a hand to my chest and sighed in relief.
“I’ll be there in a minute honey.”
“No, I need it. *Now*.” She said.
I was about to call out to her, scold her for talking to me that way, but I stopped myself. Something instinctual in me demanded that I comply. I can’t explain what it was, but it was connected to that nagging thought.
“Okay honey, I’m coming.”
The next morning, she was awake and in front of the TV long before I got up. I just barely registered the glow all the way down the hall when I got up to use the restroom. My daughter *never* woke up before 7. It was 4:30. In a half-conscious stupor, I ignored it and returned to bed, only to find out what had happened when I finally woke up for good.
I didn’t even think to scold her. I felt like I was going through the motions again as I made breakfast. Was I slipping back into my old habits? Would I start to neglect my child? Was she really *my* Brook? No, that was a silly thought. Of course she was my baby. She had to be.
Brook guzzled down two glasses of water, barely touching the waffles I’d made her. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a full meal. I rubbed my temples tiredly. She was fine. I was just overreacting. She must have eaten. Even if I racked my brain and couldn’t recall her eating a single meal since we came back from the lake, she must have. She wouldn’t be standing otherwise.
I let her watch TV again as I started tidying up the house. I’d let it fall into a bit of a state of neglect over the past couple of days. My cleaning session eventually led me to Brook’s room, where I was shocked to find her aquarium half-empty.
“Shit,” I whispered to myself, careful for my daughter not to hear me cussing. “Must have sprung a leak.”
I grabbed a fresh wash cloth and approached the tank, expecting to find a puddle of water. The desk was dry. Maybe I turned the heat too high and it evaporated as it slowly seeped out. I furrowed my brows and examined the tank closely for any crack. Nothing on the front. Nothing on the sides. All that was left was the back. The tank was heavy, and I had to wrap both my arms around it tightly to pull it from the wall so I could check. As I did so, my ear pressed up against the glass, and I heard a voice.
I nearly dropped the tank, but managed to catch it, my fingers streaking against the glass as it slowly lowered back down to the desk.
I stepped away, heart pounding as I stared at the aquarium in shocked disbelief. I *knew* the voice hadn’t come from the living room. There was no doubt about it. It had sounded distorted, as though spoken through a glass pane. It had come *from* the aquarium.
Nervously, I chewed my nails and paced around the room, never letting my eyes stray from the tank. The fish inside seemed to mimic me, as they swirled around in panic from all the commotion. I approached. What I was doing was insane, I thought, as I considered the facts. Still, I slowly turned my head, pressed my ear against the glass, closed my eyes, and listened intently.
“Please help me Momma.”
The voice was distant, like an echo rippling through an empty auditorium, yet clear enough for me to hear every word.
I felt myself shaking. *This* was my baby girl. Not the monotone creature pretending to be her. This was her voice, her inflection, her emotions.
“Please help me Momma.”
I knew what I had to do. I needed to get my daughter back. I needed to get rid of this *fake* Brook.
She was a monster.
“Please help me Momma.”
The real Brook was still lost in that lake, waiting for her momma.
“Momma’s coming,” I whispered against the glass.
I tried to hide the venom in my voice as I stood between the couch and the TV. Brook didn’t even seem to notice me, even though I’d interrupted her show. She sat still, as lifeless as a doll.
“We’re going to the lake,” I said dryly.
This caught her attention. She looked up at me and smiled. Her smile made me nauseous. The false grin of a disgusting toad. I didn’t even pretend to go along with her sick little game.
“Get in the car.”
She got up, walked over to the entrance, and reached for her rain boots.
“You won’t need those,” I uttered coldly.
She feigned confusion, and I huffed in response. She didn’t really think I was buying her act, did she? I grabbed her hand like a parent walking her child through a crosswalk, and led her to my car. The touch of her cold skin disgusted me. I didn’t bother taking the time to buckle her in. I needed to get *my* Brook back. Nothing else mattered.
The drive took no more than three minutes. Brook’s imposter sat quietly in the back seat as we went, and I took care never to look in the rear-view mirror at her. But before I made the turn down the road that lead to the lake, doubt crept into my head.
What are you doing? This is crazy. As soon as those thoughts came to me, Brook spoke up.
“Mommy, what do you think you’re doing?” She said. Her voice was cold, but it had something else behind it. An imposing tone that was indescribably chilling, so much so that I remained quiet as she spoke her next words.
“It doesn’t matter, it won’t change a thing.”
I looked into the mirror at her. She was still smiling that cold smile. I turned my eyes back to the road, and put a little more pressure on the gas pedal as we sped towards the lake.
I drove into the east entrance of the lake which held a dock that was hardly ever used, and I hoped the rain meant there would be no one around to witness what I had to do. One glance around after I parked the car confirmed no one would be.
I took a deep breath and got out of the vehicle. I moved quickly so that I didn’t have time to think about what I was about to do. My body seemed to move on its own as I yanked the rear-passenger door open and grabbed Brook firmly by the arm to pull her out. She kicked and screamed as I drug her to the dock, her voice growing in ferocity as she spoke.
“YOU’RE CRAZY!” She screamed, “THIS WON’T HELP ANYTHING!”
I pulled and struggled as I moved us both toward the water, the rain now soaking my hair. Water fell in and around my ears, and I could hear my baby’s voice shrieking for help.
“Momma! Momma!” They cried, mixing in the shouting protests of the Brook imposter. All of the screaming urged me on, solidifying in my mind that I was making the right choice.
I made to the end of the dock, and with all my strength I shoved the shouting monster off into the water. She grasped out, and tried to latch onto me as she fell. Instead she missed, and her head cracked against the wood of the dock. Moments later, she sunk into the water.
I fell to my knees and sobbed. The rain stopped, and in that moment, all was quiet. I stared with blurry vision into the water, watching, waiting. There was no disturbance on the surface of the lake, no ripple in the water. Tears streamed down my face as the gravity of what I had done weighed down on me, and my heart wrenched as a renewed doubt surged into my brain.
You made a mistake. You killed your daughter. You’ll never find her now.
“BROOK!” I screamed out into the lake. My heart began to race, and my breaths became shorter. “BROOK!” I called out again, and this time, I got an answer.
I turned quickly around. Standing behind me, soaking wet, wearing a life jacket and floaties on each arm, was my Brook. I couldn’t believe it. It was her, it was really her. My tears had halted from surprise, but now out of pure joy they came again. In disbelief, I laughed and outstretched my arms, and Brook ran to me, embracing me tightly.
For a long time, I just knelt there, holding my daughter close to me. Then she finally spoke.
“Mommy, can we go home please?”
I released her from our embrace and looked her up and down before squeezing her tightly in a hug again.
“Yes baby.” I said. “Yes, we can.”
When we got home, I didn’t question Brook at all. I figured she’d been through enough. So, I ran her a bath and left her to bathe while I made her tomato soup and grilled cheese. I was ecstatic that she ate greedily, and when she was done, she asked for seconds, which I happily made.
When she was finished, I asked her if she was tired. She said she wasn’t, so I took out some cookie dough out of the freezer and prepared them on a pan. While we waited for the cookies to bake, we sat in the living room. The TV was on, but neither of us were paying attention to it. Brook was drawing with her crayons on the coffee table, and I sat watching her intently. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t believe I had her back.
I had so many questions. There was so much that I wanted to ask her, and, in time, I would. But for now, I didn’t want to jinx the fact that everything was just fine.
After a minute or two, I had to use the bathroom, and I told Brook I’d be right back. Halfway to the bathroom, I was stopped by Brook’s voice.
“I love you Mommy.”
I turned around and saw Brook smiling up at me from her drawing, and I smiled back.
“I love you too sweetie.”
About a week later, I heard sirens blaring outside. Police cars came racing down my street and towards the lake. I felt a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach, but one that went away as soon as my eyes settled on Brook sitting at her desk in the corner, smiling as she doodled.
I heard they found a body. A young girl about Brook’s age with the same ashy blond hair and deep blue eyes just like hers. I don’t know why it bothered me so much. I had Brook back. Nothing else mattered. Still, I felt myself shaking a bit.
“Mommy will be right back,” I whispered, as I stepped towards the bathroom.
Once inside, I went straight to the sink and splashed water on my face. Somewhere outside, I heard the rumble of thunder. I purposely avoided letting the water come near my ears, but I chided myself for it. After all, that was the reason I had actually come into the bathroom. I just … needed to know. I just wanted to make sure the inkling of something *off* was all in my head.
Cupping my hands under the running faucet, I took a deep breath and mentally counted to three. At three, I splashed the water directly into my right ear. To my relief, I heard nothing.
I exhaled heavily.
“Momma help!” I heard Brook scream from the living room, followed by a loud crash.
I ran out of the bathroom, screaming Brooks name. I found the living room empty, and the huge bay-window behind the couch was broken. I ran over to the window and screamed out into the night.
Beyond the window, I could only see darkness. I grabbed my phone, and dialed the police. As it rang, my eyes caught something sitting on the couch.
It was Brook’s drawing. She had drawn a large body of blue water, and within it were several stick figures floating on the surface. Above the drawing, were four letters not written in Brook’s handwriting.