The forecast called for rain again, which meant Nell had to keep the children inside. From the eighth floor window of their apartment, she could see the playground peering back, as soaked and sad as a kitten abandoned in a storm. Green paint peeled back from the bars. The colors of the wooden spinner turned anemic, and frayed rubber swings swayed over puddles of muddied water, a mist rolling in through the darkness. It wasn’t abandoned yet, per se. Just neglected, like everything else in the trio of apartments that hugged the playground. Their gray faces matched the endless clouds and bled through with red rust stains.
Children had never been part of Nell’s plan until her husband came along. Dirty hands, dirty mouths, touching every surface. But he wanted them. He wanted to have as many children as they could before they turned thirty. He even insisted on changing their diapers.
But now Simone was five and Kenny was three, and Nell was the only one who had made it to thirty years old. He drowned when his vehicle fell into a sinkhole, leaving her a widowed mother. She couldn’t wait for the day the kids were tall enough to see over the top of the washer or big enough to push the vacuum cleaner with their own bare hands. Parenthood exhausted her in the same way her pregnancies had, with aching joints and mood swings that bordered on breakdowns. Then there was the guilt—the mother’s guilt—for even thinking badly of her children.
Nell turned from the window and stepped on a pair of dirty socks.
“Someone come pick up these socks, please,” she called down the narrow hallway. Nell heard the tired in her voice echo off the apartment walls.
The clamor of little feet on the hardwood neared. “Sorry, Mom,” Kenny whispered at the floor. He picked up the socks and scurried off.
Nell shook her head. Her kids were afraid of her, and she didn’t know how to stop it. This was what being a single parent and afraid of their messes got her, a contagious cycle of despair. Every time she tried to apologize, another eyesore manifested, and the itch of correcting her children was impossible to resist.
Nell peeked around the corner of the kids’ room and saw them playing with Legos.
Sensing her presence, Simone glanced over her shoulder. “Can we play outside today?”
“Afraid not, honey. It’s raining again.”
Simone pouted. “I still don’t get why we can’t play in the rain.”
“Cause it’s wet,” Kenny told her matter-of-factly.
Nell stifled a chuckle. “Maybe tomorrow. Mommy’s going to take a shower. Be good, okay?”
Simone and Kenny nodded, and Nell disappeared into the bathroom.
Being clean was Nell’s favorite feeling. She remembered as a child when she started doing chores around the house. Her own mother praised her for her spotless laundry, her mirror-finish polishing skills. It gave her pleasure to clean. So when her husband died, she leaned on the one skill she had and loved and became a cleaning lady to pay the rent.
She didn’t know what it was like for the other cleaning ladies in these parts. But one “in” with a friend who knew a family uptown, and she was booking regulars throughout the week. An hour here. Half a day there. Freshly shampooed carpets. Suffering the pungent smell of bleach to behold immaculate tile grout. Sometimes she’d be the referral for a move-out—a one woman show—or entrusted with sanitizing after a particularly grimy tenant. The before-and-afters gave her heart as much of a rush as it did the owners. Although the pay, in general, wasn’t much, Nell was tipped well.
Then there was home. Chaos buried in the carpets, finger-smudged surfaces, sheets and chairs and clothes in disarray. She would gladly pay someone else to clean it if she had the money. But it all went to keeping the lights on and food in everyone’s mouths. Even the babysitting was provided as a favor by a neighbor on their floor, Miss Mildred, who Nell immediately liked when they met years ago. Mildred’s couch was still covered in plastic and visitors were expected to keep their sodas on the coasters. Nell cleaned Mildred’s apartment once each week in exchange for childcare. Plus Mildred sometimes dropped off dinner, which was plentiful and delicious and made Nell feel obligated to scrub extra hard just to deserve it.
Otherwise, Nell’s own apartment was no calling card for her profession. Perhaps that’s why she retreated to the bathroom when she could. Minimal damage happened there. Clean-ups were easy when they did. The possibility of mold, which she could control, was greater than the possibility of children’s gunk, which she could only control so much. In the shower, with the children just far enough out of sight, Nell felt her responsibilities and worries wash away with the soap suds.
Nell saw it growing darker outside as she pulled a towel from the linen closet. Having a bathroom with just a shower seemed counterintuitive to raising babies, but the idea of swimming in her own skin cells in a bath made her want to vomit. When they apartment hunted for the first time, she made that clear to her husband. Instead, they bought a plastic baby bath for the sink when Simone arrived and a bigger one later that fit in the shower. Simone was now almost at the age where she’d be able to bathe unattended, and Nell counted down the days and up the inches until that blissful moment arrived.
Nell stripped off her shirt and turned on the showerhead. Her forearm stung in the ice-cold stream. Because of the old plumbing in the apartment complex, it took several minutes for hot water to reach the eighth floor. She used the remainder of the time to finish undressing and check her business email on her cell phone.
When Nell was finally beneath the hot running water, she felt like she lost her mind. In a good way, a daydreaming kind of way. She imagined she was beneath a giant waterfall on a deserted tropical island. The pounding of the drops against her skin and the tile muted out the shouts of children playing in the shared playground below their apartment, honking traffic, and the clamor of nearby trains. Today it would mute the thunder as well and its threatening hiss above the city.
The water flowed from Nell’s crown to her toes and steamed up the glass door. There was minimal chance Simone and Kenny would burst through the mist. They had before, and her response had been so uncontrolled and harsh, they knew better than to do it again. It was as if her anger broke the lack-of-privacy spell all toddlers seemed to be under. Yet she regretted also knowing the apartment might catch on fire, and they’d be waiting outside the door patiently until she finished.
Nell grabbed the shampoo and lathered up her hair. She watched the suds trickle down her breasts and over the stretch marks along her stomach. The drain frothed up momentarily with suds, and Nell noted that she’d need to pour clog gel down it after she was done.
The buzz of the hot water made her skin flush, and its heat deadened her cares. She breathed in the vapors.
Then a scream curled up through the streams of water and vibrated in her ears.
Nell gasped. “Simone? Kenny?” she yelled.
The water continued to rush.
She turned off the shower head, wrapped a towel around her torso, and burst into the living room. There, Simone and Kenny sat watching television, Legos sprinkled around the base of the couch.
“Who put all those—?” Nell caught herself. “Did one of you scream?”
Nell turned toward the television. Their favorite characters, a mouse and a duck, were in a sailboat headed toward an island. Nell had seen this episode many times before. There was no screaming. Just adventure and a sing-along at the end.
“Did one of you scream?” Nell repeated, trying to calm her voice. But her nerves rattled in her throat, and she could tell from their faces that Simone and Kenny thought she was mad at them. They stared at her dripping hair and the water puddling beneath her feet.
“Okay then. Well,” Nell whispered to herself. “I just thought …” She cleared her throat. “Mommy’s going to finish her shower now.”
She sloshed back down the hallway toward the bathroom, trying not to slip.
The rain stopped on Tuesday, and Nell was relieved to find the kids and Miss Mildred already dressed for the park when she came home from work. As Simone and Kenny danced toward the playground wedged between the three dilapidated apartment buildings, Mildred confessed she’d given them candy an hour ago.
The park was practically empty. The bars were still slick from rain earlier that day, and the sky was still overcast, but Nell needed the kids to run off their extra energy because she needed a quiet afternoon.
An unexpected white glove inspection followed her work today. A frowning customer, convinced he’d asked her to deep clean the shower when he hadn’t, refused to pay her until she promised to come back tomorrow and finish. She cursed herself for not itemizing her services and being desperate for the cash.
As Simone and Kenny ran circles around the swings, a few more children from the complexes appeared, some in their hoodies, some in galoshes. She watched them grab hands and swing around, then race from one building to another, shouting “Tag!”. She was happy to see Simone and Kenny excited for once this week, but also hopeful that they’d barely have the energy to make it through their dinner.
A couple appeared on the opposite end of Nell’s bench and silently watched the children play. The man was older, with a rugged beard and spectacles. He wore a tan boating hat with a long chin strap that dangled onto his belly. It was hard to tell the woman’s age. Her hair was such pale blonde, it could have passed for gray, and it frizzed in the heat like a bird’s nest. She pulled at the hair closest to her face, as if she were nervous, and stared across the playground with milky blue eyes.
“They’re harmless,” Nell said to the woman, as if to apologize, as if her own rambunctious children were the ones making the woman agitated. “A friend gave them candy before I picked them up today.”
The couple both turned toward her.
“My name is Nell. I live in apartment 8C.” She raised a friendly hand toward the couple, but pulled it back when she realized no one was offering theirs. Nell and Mildred had talked about this many times before. Race over poverty. Even living in these tattered buildings didn’t erase that. She hated how they looked at her as if she was dirty. “You all just move in?”
The couple shook their heads yes in unison.
“Sorry,” the woman said, pointing at Nell’s folded hands. “I have a compromised immune system. Germs and all. I’d rather not shake hands.”
Nell could respect that.
“We moved in just below you,” said the man, quite a bit more chipper than the woman with him. “7C. This is my wife, Helena, and I’m Carl.”
“Pleasure to meet you both,” Nell said. “Is that one yours?” She pointed to a pale, blonde boy in overalls playing with Simone and Kenny.
The couple shook their heads no. Carl even laughed.
Nell waited an uncomfortable minute for them to point to their child. When they didn’t, she asked, “Do you all have any children?”
Helena crinkled her nose. “No. They get sick so often. I just couldn’t,” she said in disgust.
Nell bit her tongue before she blurted out, Then why the hell are you two sitting in a dirty kids’ playground?
She shifted on the bench and searched the playground for Simone and Kenny, who had disappeared up a ladder and into a crawl tunnel with the pale boy.
“Can I ask you something, Nell?” Carl said. “It’s Nell, right?”
Nell shook her head yes.
“Have you been baptized?”
Nell glared. “Beg your pardon?”
Carl chuckled and wrapped an arm around Helena. “It’s only fair. You ask us a really personal question, then we get to ask you one. So have you been baptized?”
“That’s none of your business.”
The laughter fell from his face. “There’s still time, Nell.” His eyes turned from her and stared blankly at the children on the playground.
Nell got up from the bench and stomped over to her kids just as it began to sprinkle again. “Come on. Time for dinner,” she said, grabbing them each by a hand.
They scurried past the couple as thunder rumbled in the distance.
Inside, Nell put on a pot to heat and told the children to wash up. She cursed the couple as she poured in salt, brought the water to a boil, and tossed in the pasta. First a terrible client. Now a terrible neighbor.
For her part, she also ruined dinner. The sauce was too watery. Simone kept stirring hers into the noodles, as if she’d hoped that would thicken it. Kenny just put down his fork and rested his head in his hands.
“Sorry the rain stopped playtime again, you two. Sorry dinner wasn’t so great.”
Simone held up her hands. “Can we watch another Tales from the—from the—?”
“Crypt?” Nell asked.
“Yeah. I promise to not have nightmares this time.”
Nell realized Simone was too young to handle the show, but one night when Simone couldn’t sleep, she joined Nell in the living room. Nell thought Simone fell asleep before the scary parts even started. But that belief was put to rest when Simone crawled into her bed a couple hours later.
“Mommy really needs her sleep tonight. Maybe this weekend.”
Simone moaned and put her head in her hands, too.
After the kids were tucked in bed, Nell washed up the dinner plates and switched to her pajamas. The sky still rumbled outside the windows, and she could hear the finger-tapping sound of raindrops against the windowpanes. She was tired, and the thought of returning to that cranky man’s house tomorrow to clean weighed her down. But the money.
Nell peered through the window blinds. Streams of rain seemed to slow as they barreled through the lights across the street. She noticed one of the lights above the playground darkened. Trees swished and swayed in the wind around it. From under one of the swaying trees, two figures appeared. They held hands as they walked toward her apartment building, the rain continuing to fall upon them. One in a raincoat, the other covered by a wide-brimmed hat.
Just before they reached the edge of the playground, they stopped and glanced up. A pair of spectacles and two icy blue eyes fixated on her window. Nell covered her mouth and stepped back, letting the tiny slit between the window blinds clamp shut. The words of Carl replayed in her head. There’s still time, Nell. She turned the lamplight off.
In the bathroom, as she brushed her teeth, Nell noticed a red ring around the sink drain, still wet and oozing upward. A gurgling sound erupted from the drain, as if sludge was caught inside. Nell wondered if the children had tampered with it, or worse, if her own hair or toothpaste had created a clog.
She wiped her fingers along the edge of the drain and pinched them against her thumb.
She pulled at the pop-up stopper until it broke free of the flange and eyed into the darkness of the drain.
Suddenly the scream she’d heard in the shower the other day bubbled up from the drain. Faintly this time. It was a child’s voice, just as it had been in the shower. A piercing, desperate scream. Any mother would have known, would have shuddered at the sound.
Nell grabbed her cell phone and flipped on the flashlight. She peeped down into the drain, expecting to find more blood or hear more screams. Instead, two glistening eyeballs peered up at her.
Nell cried out and dropped her phone on the floor. She stuck the stopper back inside the drain and covered it with her hands. After whispering to herself for several minutes, she loosened her grip and opened her eyes. “You’re seeing things, Nell. Get it together,” she told her reflection in the mirror. “Call Mildred. She’ll talk some sense into you.”
Mildred picked up on the first ring. “Nell? Everything okay?”
“I don’t know, Mildred,” she sighed into the phone. “Have you heard any strange noises tonight?”
Mildred thought. “It’s an old building. What exactly do you mean?”
“Have you met the new couple who moved into 7C?” Nell asked. “I just saw them earlier this week and … I don’t know what to make of them. I don’t think I like them. They kind of creeped me out. They weren’t very nice to me when we saw each other at the playground.”
“Can’t say I have,” Mildred confessed. “But, Nell, you don’t have to like everyone in this building.”
Nell stumbled over her next thought and pulled at her hair. “Mildred. Some strange things have been happening. First I think I hear one of the kids screaming when I’m in the shower. But they weren’t. Then I find a ring of blood around the sink drain, and then—then—you’re going to think I’m crazy. I swear. I just saw eyeballs looking at me from the sink drain.”
Mildred was quiet for several moments. “You watch too many horror movies, Nell.”
“No, but I—”
“And that red ring around the drain is not blood. It’s iron from the municipal water supply. Even I get those stains from time to time.”
Nell sighed. This wasn’t going well at all. But Mildred was talking sense, as predicted.
“Will you do me a favor, honey?” Mildred asked.
“Will you accept my apologies again for giving the kids candy? Then letting them wear you out so much you’re starting to see and hear things past midnight? And would you please, for the love of God, Nell, stop watching Tales from the Crypt before bed?”
Nell felt like an idiot. “Yes, Mildred. I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“You didn’t,” she replied, “and I promise not to wake you. Now get some rest.”
Nell hung up the phone.
In the bathroom, upon second glance, the spot now mimicked rust. A red-orange crayon line drawn around the drain. Mildred was right. Perhaps Nell was letting her imagination run away with her. Perhaps she was searching for a distraction from the real horror of having to clean that man’s house a second time tomorrow.
She resisted the urge to check the windows again, to see if Carl and Helena were still out there in the rain. Instead, she tiptoed past the children’s bedroom toward her own bed.
“Have you been baptized in the blood of the Lord?” A stranger, holding a bible above his head, shouted at Nell. She pushed away the flyer he tried to force upon her and headed down the stairs toward the subway. This was the last thing she needed after finishing her cleaning today. The gruff client gave her the money he owed, but not without threatening to leave a bad review on every social media platform where her business existed. Then her vehicle broke down as she left suburbia, and she had to call a tow truck. Fortunately, there was a mechanic in the city who could take her. But the repairs would take a few days and cut into the money she’d just been paid.
Nell flung her wet umbrella onto the seat next to her so no one would sit there. As the train popped in and out of the city, in and out of darkness and rain, the majority of the passengers exited. Nell hadn’t taken this line in years but knew her stop would be the last. If she had her way, she’d never venture out this far again for a job, let alone twice for the same client. She stood and made her way toward the doors.
As the train pulled into the next to last station, Nell caught sight of Carl and Helena, standing on the platform. The blue eyes and spectacles whizzed past as the train came to a stop. They faced the train with smiles frozen on their faces, as if looking for and expecting to see her—or at least someone they knew. She gasped and ducked behind some seats at the far end of the car.
“You ok lady?” a man asked, peeking from behind his newspaper.
“Everything’s fine,” she told him. She whispered it to herself again several times.
The couple couldn’t be but one car length away from her. Had they seen her? Would they come? She crawled toward the exit to the next train car, hoping to put more space between her and them.
She opened the exit door and, while balancing on the connection, the train hitched into motion again. She slipped into the next car and hunched over in the closest seat.
Nell pulled at her hair as she tried to think of what to do at the next stop. She’d wait, she decided. She’d wait until the very last minute, until it seemed as if the doors were about to close. Then she’d keep behind them as they walked to their building. She’d wait for the next elevator, too. In movies, the person following, able to watch without being seen, was the one who had the advantage.
The final stop was announced. A handful of figures made their way to the platform from other train cars. Then just as the doors quivered, Nell slipped out.
She must have waited long enough, she figured, because she didn’t see any couples climbing the stairs to the street above. No wide-brimmed hats bobbing along the sidewalk. No shadows at the base of the apartment building.
As the elevator door closed and rose past the seventh floor without any sign of the couple, Nell breathed a sigh of relief. The apartment smelled of chicken pot pie when she opened the door. Simone and Kenny stopped playing and waved at her.
On the kitchen counter was a note: Be right back, in Mildred’s handwriting. Nell was soaked from walking from the station to the apartment without her umbrella. She threw her thin coat into the washing machine and changed into her robe.
“Where’s Miss Mildred?” she asked, somewhat perturbed that the children were left alone.
“There’s a leak in her apartment,” Simone explained. “Someone called. She said she’d be right back.”
“I see. Well, did you all get a chance to eat already? It smells great in here.”
Simone and Kenny nodded their heads.
“One for you,” Kenny said. He pointed at the refrigerator.
Nell removed a serving of chicken pot pie and microwaved it until it was steaming. It was 15 more minutes before her head returned. The kids were watching cartoons from one of their favorite series, the mouse and the duck on the sailboat again. Still no Miss Mildred.
“How long has Miss Mildred been gone?” Nell asked.
Simone shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“How many times have you all watched that show since she left?”
Simone and Kenny glanced at each other and calculated.
“Three? Maybe four,” Simone said. “Yeah. Four times with you here.”
Nell knew by heart that the episode was thirty minutes. This meant Mildred had left the children alone for almost two hours. She checked her phone screen.
Plumbing problems. Mess all over the floor or I’d bring the kids with me.
And then, half an hour later: They’re ok. I checked on them. Left my number. Let me know when you are back.
Nell texted Mildred that she’d returned, then sunk her head into her hands and let out a sigh.
“Hey, Mom. Mom?” Simone tapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. They checked our pipes, too. We’re fine.”
Nell lifted her head slowly. “Someone came while Miss Mildred was away? And you let them in?”
Simone panicked. “But they said they knew you! They live in 7C downstairs.”
“And we got to play with Caleb!” Kenny squealed. He did jumping jacks in the middle of the living room.
“Kenneth Raymond,” Nell hissed. “Stop that. Who’s Caleb? What are you talking about?”
“Their son,” Simone told her. “He likes to swim. Remember? We met him on the playground.”
The kids’ attention returned to their cartoon. Nell’s hands began to tremble.
Carl, Helena … and Caleb. Why would they tell her they had no children? How could they have been on the train at the same time her kids were seeing them here at the apartment? The puzzle almost made her brain snap.
Nell felt her still-damp hair stick to her neck and cheeks. Legos scattered all over the floor again, stains on countertops, across their shirts. The sink was full of dishes that reeked of sweet and sour grease.
Nell stood and shuttered the window blinds. She locked the front door.
“Please pick up your toys—all these toys on the floor.” Nell could feel her voice rising. “And don’t open this door until I come out of the bathroom! Do you hear me? Don’t do anything!”
Simone and Kenny cowered and shook their heads yes.
Nell raised a hand to her wet hair. “Mommy just needs a shower.” She repeated “I’ll be fine” all the way to the bathroom.
Hot steam spilled out of the top of the glass door. She waited until the mirror fogged over and swallowed every curve of her body. She stared into the sink, its porcelain curves sweating, but saw and heard nothing this time.
In the shower, as the water beat down, Nell stared into the drain. Little bubbles percolated from within it. If she could just see through the pipes to the floor below, see what was happening in 7C. Nell pulled at her hair. A chunk of it fell, escaped her hands, and swirled around the drain. No wonder it was clogged, she thought. She bent down to pick up her hair.
Then a little swirl of red mixed into the hair. Nell rose and stepped back. The water grew darker and darker, eclipsing with the stain and stench of blood. It ran over Nell’s shoulders, onto her knees and over her body, into the standing pool at the drain. As Nell turned to glance up at the showerhead, something skittered across her toes. Through the drain, tiny fingers reached up and unearthed the drain cover.
“Help us! Help!” The tiny voices cried out from within the drain.
Nell screamed and pushed the glass door so hard it collided with the wall and shattered.
From one of the ceiling vents, Nell heard more voices and the sound of dogs barking. She crept over the bathmat and past the toilet, trying not to step in the glass. The sink gurgled and overflowed with blood, from the counter onto the floor.
Nell ran to the living room and found it empty. Simone and Kenny no longer stared at the television.
“Help!” The piercing scream followed. It bounced off the living room walls.
Nell stood, stark naked and dripping blood onto the living room carpet. She noticed a note on the coffee table. She rushed over, covering her breasts with her hands.
Went to play xoxo, the note read. It was written in crayon. But the writing wasn’t Kenny’s, who couldn’t write, or Simone’s, who still scribbled her A, B, Cs. She didn’t recognize the writing, its perfectly curved “p” or the way the x’s and o’s crowded each other.
“Help!” the scream of a child floated up from under the front door.
Nell grabbed a blanket from the couch, barely covering herself, and bolted into the hallway. She ran a few apartments down the hall and pressed her ear against Mildred’s door, but there was nothing. Even after she beat against the door, no one opened it.
The cries for help echoed at the end of the hall, by the stairs. Nell followed it, slowly descending the steps, leaving bloody footprints in her wake.
As she entered the seventh floor, the screams faded and were replaced by the distraught, inconsolable cries of children. So many children. Nell’s ears rang with them. She fell to her knees.
There’s still time, Nell, she heard Carl’s voice whisper.
“My babies. My babies,” Nell whimpered. She crawled on her hands and knees toward the middle of the hall, to a door with a cross dangling from it.
Then she stood. The door to 7C was ajar, as if waiting for her. Nell wrapped her wet, bloody fingers around the knob and pushed it open.
Jenna Dietzer is a Tampa, Florida resident. After a long hiatus, she has returned to writing. (Thanks, 2020.) Nowadays you’ll find her listening to creepy audiobooks while surrounded by her four cats and her partner’s dog. Her short story “Why She Dreams of Alligators” is forthcoming in the Women of Horror Anthology Vol. 4 by Kandisha Press. You can find her on Twitter @duh_jenna.