Christopher Ransom is the author of the international bestselling novels The Birthing House, The Haunting of James Hastings, and The People Next Door. After studying literature at Colorado State University and managing an international business importing exotic reptiles, he worked at Entertainment Weekly magazine in New York, various now deceased technology firms in Los Angeles, and as a copywriter at Famous Footwear in Madison, Wisconsin. Christopher now lives near his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Visit his website at http://www.ransomesque.com/
He was still a soft floating consciousness in his mother’s womb when the nameless thing that would destroy his ability to lead a normal life, even as it allowed him to thrive in darkness and secrets, first reached out and blanketed him. Sheltered and growing at a rate deemed natural and healthy, the fetus was in his twenty-seventh week, a period known for rapid brain development and the lids’ first shutterings over newly formed eyes. The shroud fell upon him in less time than is required for light from a lamp to cross a room and touch the window, lasted 2.45639 seconds, and retreated as quickly as it had arrived.
He registered nothing physically or mentally. It was as though a star had been eclipsed by a strange moon in a planetary system ten thousand galaxies away, the frictionless vacuum of blackout unobserved and silent, except that here the eclipsed object was the child and the universe was his mother. There wasn’t much to it that first time. He simply vanished in the absolute absence of light while sleeping in total darkness, and five heartbeats later was revealed, still sleeping in total darkness.
His mother, who was napping on the couch while the end credits and depressing chords of Days of Our Lives played from the console Zenith, also felt nothing. The shroud left no trace, scar, impairment or disability. No medical test could detect it. Ultrasound sonograms were not standard at the time, but even if Rebecca Shaker had undergone one at the precise moment her unborn child disappeared, the sound waves would have painted a normal picture of the life she carried. Sound was sound, after all, and light was light. One could bounce off what the other could not illuminate.
His change, if it could be called such, happened and unhappened too quickly for the human eye to record. The in-between was a silent aberration. And so it was that, for lack of a witness to the event, no one would ever know it had found him so young.
Or that it was only beginning to form an attachment to him.
The next incident did not occur until 29 February 1976, a leap day, just fourteen minutes before he began his descent into the birth canal. He was veiled for a little more than nine seconds, as if the child or forces interested in him were unsure of his place in the world. Not eve Dr Roose, a sober man overseeing his one hundred and eighty-eighth delivery, happened to see the child depart from and return to the humanly visible spectrum. The mother felt nothing other than the usual contractions and agony.
The leapling crowned. His shoulders made Rebecca Shaker scream through the final release. The boy slid forth into Dr Roose’s large gentle hands. The cord was cut. The child took well to breathing. Becky and her husband John, who were young and in love and could not know their child would lead such an extraordinary life, cried with joy. At seven pounds six ounces, the Shaker baby - who was named Noel, in honor of a son Becky’s grandmother had lost in his infancy, but whom the grandmother from then on regarded as her angel of grace and strength - was pronounced intact and lovely by the senior nurse, his head of black hair most impressive.
A second, younger nurse, who was always anxious during deliveries, noted the cold assessing regard in the baby’s eyes as they roved around the room with unnatural alertness. He looked lost, searching, as if he had been expecting to find someone or something else waiting for him upon his arrival. During the weighing, he fixated on one corner of the ceiling, the darkest point in the room, above the drapes and the cold black pane of glass. His tiny mouth fell open and his breath seemed to catch before he scrunched his eyes and craned away in apparent genuine revulsion.
The young nurse, whose name was Onnika - a Scandinavian word for light - had inherited her parents’ superstitions about unnatural darkness and dim rooms. Onnika became momentarily hypnotized by the darkly recessed corner, as the child had been, and moments later she was blinded. Losing all vision in an instant, Onnika cried out and ran from the delivery room, colliding with the door and a linen basket on wheels in the hall before fumbling her way to another, empty room, where she fell to the floor sobbing in distress. After several minutes of frantic praying, her vision was restored.
Onnika did not share the cause of her panic or its blinding effect with Dr Roose or the Shaker parents. She was reprimanded, but she convincingly explained she had only been tired and overcome with emotion. She was sent home early, but had difficulty sleeping and required a reading lamp to be left on at her bedside at all hours for several weeks. She did not know what the child had seen, but feared it was a demon that had followed her home and was waiting above her bed each night, preparing to take her while she slept. Onnika’s greatest fear was that the demon would occupy her soul and command her to kill herself, extinguishing the light and life she had been blessed with.
Her fear lessened some months later when she met a man named Ian, pronounced like the oxygen-taking gesture which precipitates sleep, who was visiting Colorado as a member of the Norwegian national ski team. Ian came to the emergency room with a broken ankle and chapped lips, to which Onnika administered plaster and emollients. Riding the gurney between floors, Ian told her a joke in Swedish. Onnika stayed past her shift to bring Ian cocoa with freeze-dried marshmallows. He returned to Norway but wrote her letters weekly, often on the backs of postcards featuring grainy photos of the fjords. Onnika fell asleep reading Ian’ letters in her bed.
Their courtship, no less intense for its glacial inertia, reminded Onnika she had much to live for, replacing her superstitions about good and evil, demons and light, with superstitions about love. After Onnika mailed Ian a pair of her white nurse stockings, he agreed to move to the Unites States. Onnika birthed two boys and a girl. Ian broke his lower back skiing and retired from the international circuit to launch a line of apres ski apparel, which proved so successful he was able to stay home with his family more often. For much of the remainder of her life Onnika and her children were quite happy, almost never staring strangely into rooms without lamps, or peering for too long up into ceiling corners beyond light’s reach.
Noel was seven months and ten days old, his mother awoke to the sound of his cries making their way down the hall. Rebecca exited her bed in one smooth rise that did not disturb her husband and, still half asleep shambled blindly into the spare bedroom. As if appeased by the comforting sound of his mother’s approach, Noel ceased his bawling by the time she reached the threshold. John had painted the walls blue with silver and gold moons that now looked too real, as though their home was open and balanced on the edge of the solar system. The bare wood floorboards were cold against Becky’s soles. Swaying, she steadied herself in the doorway a moment.
Eight feet away, on the other side of his room, a blurry white shape filled the four-square window above his birch crib. The shape was of a small man, from the waist up, wearing a white suit and matching rounded top hat. His features were as indistinct as hers in the darkness, the face a smeared oval with dark sockets and a reddish ring around the unsmiling mouth.
Becky gasped and thrust herself into the room to protect her child. Within her first two steps the figure in the window retreated and was replaced by her own hazy reflection, bringing her to a halt. Absurd though she knew it to be, she reached up and patted her hair, half expecting and hoping to find that she had pinned up her hair in a bun or some other nest which might suggest the shape she had seen in the window. But her hair was down, hanging around her chin and barely protecting her bare shoulders from the draft now seeping through the window frame.
Her heart slowed its frantic beating as she gazed down at Noel. He was staring up at her, face bunching with a fresh round of squalls. She checked his diaper and found it dry. His forehead wasn’t hot. His chest was not clammy. He was hungry, that was all.
She settled into the reading chair beside the small table and lowered the right strap of her nightgown. He began to feed at once, pulling at her with resentment. She touched his eyebrows and wiped something that had dried at his nose, then folded the hem of her gown up around his legs and torso. Oh God, she was tired. Everyone said motherhood stretched you thin, but no one came right out and told you just how utterly flattened the daily cycle of caring for an infant left you. She didn’t want to fall asleep in here again, waking with a sore neck, but she couldn’t help closing her eyes for just a moment. Soon she began to doze.
Outside the tiny bedroom, a winter wind rolled down from the Rockies and crooned against the frozen gutters and brittle window panes. Becky’s mind swirled with dream-state images of their first family Christmas to come, gathering candles and strings of light and the cookies she would bake into a cozy tableau, and with the next gust abandoned these thoughts as instinct warned her to wake up, check the baby, make sure he’s all right.
But of course he’s all right.
In a minute... I’m so tired I could sleep for a month.
Eyes closed, she could feel him there, suckling, the small but growing weight of him in the basket of her arms.
But that shape in the window...
Groggily, she glanced down to see if his eyes were marrowing with the fulfillment of his midnight meal.
He wasn’t there.
Her thickened nipple stood glistening in the moonlight, still warm from his mouth as a single drop of milk fell slowly into the air over her lap and was absorbed into ... nothing. Her arms were empty, but her panic was still a distant thing, slowed by the dreamy unreality of the vision and lessened by her crushing fatigue.
What a strange dream. My boy is gone and my body has turned to gold.
Against her will her eyes closed again. She must have gotten up, set him back in his crib and sat back down, too tired to return to bed. This had happened before, on those nights when she didn’t want to leave him. Not out of fear, but the love of watching him sleep. She would drift off in the chair, sometimes reading a mystery novel that always wound up face down in her lap, and wake just before the sun began to cast its morning blue in the room.
The wet pressure at her nipple, which had ceased some time ago, grew more insistent. The weight in her tired arms became real, as real as the whetted smack of his lips, as real as the hardening edge of his gums clinging to her.
Becky found the lamp switch and clicked soft yellow light into the room. Her eyes scrunched in reflex against the glare, but not before she once more glimpsed the emptiness in her arms and the glossy bud of her breast still shining with saliva and the fine beads of milk he-had left encircling the darker ring where his mouth should have been. She forced her eyes open wide and snapped forward in the chair.
He’s gone, he’s gone...!
Noel was there, of course. His mottled blushing forehead, the tiny squib of his nose, his narrow chest and his hot plump belly within the mint-green terrycloth jumper. He was here. Here. For a moment her mind raced with the knowledge that something was wrong. Something had happened to him, to them, and it wasn’t normal. Something had come between them while she dozed, taking him away, only now he was back.
She arched from the chair and turned toward the window, where she had seen the little man in the white suit and top hat. The window was dark, closed and latched, empty but for the outline of their backyard.
But something was here. It came inside and took Noel away.
But that was silly because ... what could it be? What could have happened to make her think her child was here, then not here, then here again? Either she had, sleepwalking, put him back in his crib and then fetched him again. Or she was simply confused, half asleep, letting her imagination run away from her.
The phrase sleep deprivation came back to her. Dr Roose had warned her about this common symptom of motherhood. That’s all it was, that’s all it could be. She was so tired. Her mind had slipped, the way it had slipped a few days ago when she went to unload the dishwasher and put half of the cups and plates away before realising they were still dried with mashed potatoes and apple juice.
Noel continued to rap at the food source with one bunched fist. His color was robust, his eyes drooping. She felt his forehead again, then her own. No, there was nothing wrong with him. As for her, she needed another six hours of real sleep.
‘Don’t you do that, Noel-baby,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t you tryto get away from Mommy ever again.’
She stayed with her son until almost five a.m. In the morning he was fine and she was relieved. Her protective nature had pulled one over on her sleepy mind. After a month or so, she had forgotten what she had seen (the face in the window) and not seen (her son where he was supposed to be). Noel was growing, changing, becoming more of a handful every day. There were a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of strange dreams, but none featuring a small man in a white suit and top hat.
There would be more episodes in the months and years to come. Some as short as twenty seconds, as long as sixteen minutes, and many which happened in the middle of the night. But by luck or fate or perhaps even his parents’ need to deny the barely glimpsed and totally unexplainable phenomena, almost three years of his life would pass before anyone noticed the arrival or departure of Noel’s fleeting affliction.
This first eyewitnessed account was also the moment in Noel Shaker’s life when, with some regularity, terrible things began to happen.
(C) Christopher Ransom 2012
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.