It was the middle of the night that woke her. Savannah sat in bed, soaked with sweat, listening intently for the sound that woke her to come again. “Is someone there?” she asked the dark with shaky confidence, like she’d asked it a thousand times before and was still waiting for an answer.
The strange noise returned — thump, thump, thump, thump, thump — and Savannah couldn’t help comparing it to the once familiar sound of a husband returning home late from work, or a son sneaking back into the house at 3 a.m., or a knock at the door from a grim-faced policeman that signaled the end of the world. They weren’t really comparable, but she compared them all the same.
Savannah conversed naturally to shadows that never replied, but to the golem lying beside her she could only whisper, the fear scraping her voice like a sore throat. “What do you think it is, Max?”
The pillow golem stirred beside her, gently lifting his downy head. “It’s just the wind,” he grumbled. “You’re safe . . . Go back to sleep.”
“Just the wind?” Savannah scoffed. Max didn’t understand. How could he? He was a pillow golem, not a parent.
Savannah stared into the black with mad determination, as if she could somehow will it into making sense. As if the whole of creation sat in the dark with them, waiting for her to mold it, to fix it, to end the nightmare they’d been living in.
Max gazed up at her as if wondering just how far she’d gone in the span of a moment. He rested a tender hand on her leg, hoping to break the spell. Savannah blinked twice, her wide-eyed stare broken. She looked to Max, uncertain. There was something in his unblinking eyes, she decided. Something deeper than plastic, than cotton. Something that felt. That perhaps understood. “Can you . . .” The question hung there.
A golem exists for a single purpose of your designation, or so the common sales pitch goes. No aggressive behavior, fleas, worms, or wetting the bed. Max was a pillow golem–square-shaped body; round, joint-less limbs; soulful, black-button eyes. A popular model, especially for young families. His purpose was always simple. Look after Cody and be his friend. But Max had outlived his purpose, and there was no preparing him for this.
He crept through the unlit house, quiet as cobwebs. With tired dignity, he crawled through a repurposed doggy door out to the backyard. The grass there was long and uncut, blooming thorny weeds with thick, spiny stalks. Some nights, he saw the twinkling, multicolored lights of fairies dancing between their leaves. Some nights weren’t so scary.
Others . . .
Max had seen dire bats the size of minivans perched atop the house, their blind eyes betraying the fact that, in their own way, they really saw everything. He’d seen hairless, pale-skinned creatures burst from the ground, grab some unwary rodent and disappear into the earth. Stones had come to life around him, throwing handfuls of dirt at each other in violent but futile upheaval.
Occasionally, the neighborhood kids could be seen peeking out second story windows for a glimpse of goblins or ghosts. No one ever called or came over though, concerned about strange beings dancing under the moon. Maybe they were stuck behind walls of their own.
Tonight, Max was lucky Savannah hadn’t dreamt too deeply. A gray sky hung over him, with a drowsy moon keeping an eye out and some tired stars keeping company. No swarm of gnats, no devils wielding pitchforks, no giant worms wriggling out of the earth.
As he made his way around the house, Max waved at the scattered constellations, wondering if in their own celestial custom, they waved back.
Just beyond the master, Max came upon the Gone Room–the room they pretended wasn’t a room at all. Just a void or an empty space or anything really, just so long as you didn’t call it a room, especially not Cody’s room.
While Savannah’s dreams stalked the untamed jungle grass of the backyard, her memories lurked indoors, cordoned off by a locked door. Over time, however, the Gone Room became too thick with memory and needed to be aired out.
Max didn’t know why it happened. Sometimes he wondered if he was the reason–if living too close to a human caused some transfer of magic, projecting her dreams into the physical world. It was a possibility that worried him.
Max climbed over the juniper bush squatting beneath the window, careful not to tear his old cotton-cloth body on spiteful branches. It was a sore gig, but he had to do it. As soon as the window creaked open, Savannah would be transported to a time when that sound meant her son was sneaking back into the house. He was home. He was safe. She could rest.
Once inside the Gone Room, Max found Cody sitting against a wall, white as milk. “Want to play a game?” the young boy asked, tossing an intangible ball that passed right through Max. “Max, you’re no fun!” the boy grumbled.
“He’s just a stupid golem,” said fourteen-year-old Cody, appearing suddenly in the corner of the room. “Golem, where did you put my magazines.”
“Leave him alone!” said pre-teen Cody, suddenly on the bed, trembling with nervous conviction. The right corner of the boy’s face was missing, as if even this ghostly image was fading away.
Before Max could make sense of this, Toddler-Cody came crawling from the closet. The specter-child clambered to its feet and charged at him with an eager, wide-eyed grin–and no ears. Max startled and bumped against the dresser.
“Not now, Max. I’m busy,” said eighteen-year-old-Cody, dropping a squirming mouse where once sat an impressive terrarium. Beneath him, Radagast the Brown–now an alabaster white–slithered against walls that weren’t there like a reptilian mime artist.
Max had always hated that snake, but it had made Cody happy, so he let it be. Indeed, the Cody which now stood over him had no eyes or ears or nose, only a wide grin that stretched across his pale cheeks.
The room quickly became crowded. Memory-Codies faded in and out from every corner, and Max felt a tingling claustrophobia creeping through his thread count. He had to clear the air. “Go now,” Max said, shooing them all out the window. “Go be dead.”
“Max! Let’s play!”
“You’re not the boss of me!”
“Don’t tell Mom!”
The cool night air pulled each of them from the room like the cold vacuum of space, leaving the room quiet and dark, or almost so.
The memory of Radagast the Brown still lingered and shone, wrapped around its ghost-white prey.
Max climbed up the dresser, grabbed the ghost-snake from behind its memory-walls, and released it. The snake uncoiled and swam through the air, waving like a white ribbon out the window and straight up to heaven. Meanwhile a separate glow scurried down the dresser, across the floor, and disappeared.
His task complete, Max sat against the wall, giving Savannah a few more minutes to fall asleep before he returned. Beneath the window, he spotted the ghost-ball the first Cody had thrown, and reached for it. The ball was solid, if you wanted it to be. Solid enough anyways. The feel of it in his three-fingered hands was fuzzy and soft. He could squeeze through it easily, and it would explode white confetti like dandelion puffs. Memories were delicate things.
Max missed playing ball. Missed having someone to play with. Savannah wasn’t interested in playing. She was too busy hoping and grieving and dreaming. Max had had it up to here with memories and dreams–with phantoms and figments and things that weren’t real. Inside his stuffed body, something intangible tangibly ached for something concrete. But heartache didn’t make sense to Max–a creature without a heart–so he did his best to forget it squeezing tightly like a balled fist inside his chest.
On his way out the window, Max threw the ghost-ball to the moon.
The moon didn’t toss it back.
Once, in the middle of the night, the whole world came to an end. An officer in uniform came to tell her. He told Savannah all kinds of impossible things, pillowed with courtesies as if that would make her accept them. She wanted to tell him he was wrong. Cody was barely old enough to drive; he wasn’t old enough to drink. He wasn’t old enough to die. She still wanted to tell him that.
Savannah learned then: you could wake up from one nightmare into another. She wondered now if this was just the same or if it was finally, blessedly, something else . . .
The window slid shut; Savannah heard it clear as bells. But it did nothing to dispel the fear — the hope — of intrusion. Instead, she sat, waiting for another signal. A noise, especially one isolated in the dark, could be anything, and that is what Savannah anxiously hungered for: Anything. Absolutely anything . . . Some hint of purpose or plan. Some sign that even the impossible was possible. Some small assurance that something of her son remained somewhere.
There was a twist, a crack. She startled and turned as the door creaked open. Savannah held her breath. A small shadow lumbered into the room and quietly shut the door.
“Did you hear it?” she asked, eyes wide like flying saucers.
“Why aren’t you asleep?” said Max, climbing up the bed.
“Who could sleep?”
“There’s nothing out there. It’s just the wind.”
“No . . .” said Savannah, determined. “The wind doesn’t sound like that. It’s something else. Something bigger.”
“What’s bigger than the wind?”
Savannah scanned the room, trying to discern foreign shapes in the dark. They say when you own a golem, you start seeing potential golems in everything. In a mound of dirt. A pile of trash. A ten car pile-up. Anything can be alive with the right spark. Savannah thought of this as she glared at the misshapen heap of family relics against the far wall: a hoard of photo albums, stacks of home videos, black plastic bags full of stuffed animals and old clothes waiting indefinitely to be donated. She couldn’t part with them like she couldn’t part with Max. Life was a relative term, after all. Max didn’t have blood or bones or cells or, presumably, a soul. But he was alive and who’s to say that old photographs and toys weren’t alive or left their ghosts behind?
Beside her, Max watched, his eyes begging her to come back, to return to their lonely bed, their lonely house, their lonely life. He didn’t understand. He would never understand. She needed this — needed it to be something, to mean something. If this were nothing, her hopes, each invested with hopes of their own, would all declare bankruptcy. The whole economy of her heart would collapse.
Savannah sat there listening, not daring to breathe as her hope filled the room. Max watched and waited for the bubble to pop. When at last the pregnant silence was broken by a soft, mammalian squeak, Savannah gasped as if stricken. Not a miracle, not a message, just a nuisance . . .
The sound came again from behind the wall, unmistakable, and it pierced her heart like a dagger sharpened by her own dreams. In that moment, all the possibility of magic, mystery, and excitement evaporated quicker than a snowman along the River Styx.
Max scrambled to his feet, anxious and alert like some common dog. “Lay down,” said Savannah, crawling back in bed and swaddling herself in the worn-out comforter. Max didn’t listen. “Max . . . It’s nothing,” she said. “Only nothing . . .”
“Nothing?! But you were right! There’s an intruder!” He shifted his feet on the bed. “Sounds like it came from Cody’s old –”
“GODDAMMIT MAX I’M NOT GOING TO REPEAT MYSELF NOW YOU LAY DOWN OR YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”
There was a wildness behind her eyes — a pain long buried, briefly unearthed. Max knew better than to question or challenge her. Instead, he sighed dramatically, wrapped himself around her legs, and promptly fell back to sleep.
Savannah had no such luck. Her restless mind inundated her with alternative explanations to the sound: golems, gremlins, ghosts, God–and that’s just the G’s. She rushed through chimeras like she was flipping through channels, until she imagined a glitch in time bringing her late son sneaking back into her life through his bedroom window. She could swear she heard the window slide open. “All right!” she surrendered, throwing the sheets from her body.
They stood outside The Door That Never Opens, just waiting. Savannah’s hesitant hand hung over the knob, conflicted. What was she doing? There was nothing for her past that door . . . Just standing there was enough to flood her with memory, with the acute awareness of time and the tick-tock-tick of the grandfather clock down the hall. What if she could walk through that door and it be two years ago? Or ten? Or twenty?
He would have been twenty . . .
Her hand fumbled and released the doorknob to no effect. It might have been a sign. She withdrew, remembering the last time she’d stepped inside and realizing how long she’d been content to imagine this door an impenetrable wall.
The sound came again. Another thump-thump of life, distant, dull, but strong — an amplified heartbeat, perhaps — summoning her. It wasn’t the sound, but the wall that was imaginary. The truth: there was no wall. Savannah steeled herself and committed. She gripped the doorknob and opened it gently, afraid of what she’d find, or what she wouldn’t.
As soon as the widening gap allowed, Max ran in, disappearing into the room while Savannah stood frozen at the threshold.
Max felt like the balled-up fist that sat heavy in his chest had loosened. The chirruping behind the wall wasn’t just some phantom or dream, not some mere figment that would fade with the dawn, but a real, concrete thing. It was a call to adventure — a Catch me if you can — and Max was overwhelmed by a sensation he’d near forgotten: the panicked, joyful compulsion to run, to chase, to catch. The thrilling sight of a ball thrown across the yard.
The room was unusually dark without the soft glow of old memories. Indeed, the space felt large and empty without them. But then Max noticed strange growths ballooning from the shared wall, swelling like tumors and turning a sickly, off-white color. Max stumbled to a halt to observe them, feeling the subtle rumblings of doubt bubbling up inside him.
On the largest tumor, a bulb pressed from the center, and slowly a brow stretched above it. Small hills formed along the sides, and soon Max recognized a young boy’s face. He could almost hear the voice: Want to play a game?
“Is it safe . . . ?” Savannah called from the doorway, but Max wasn’t sure how to answer. Once, she’d tried to explain to Max memories so important that they hide deep inside you, stick to your bones until they come spilling out. Max wondered now if the same thing happened to houses.
Before he could formulate a response, Max saw something ripple under the wallpaper, moving towards the Codies like a shark beneath the waves. It stopped at the nearest face and thrashed. The Cody’s reaction was sloth-like, delayed. Slowly it creased, folded, and scrunched up in pain. Max had seen that face a thousand times before and was always there to comfort it. He remembered then how the Codies were fading and incomplete. The old programming, still knocking uselessly inside him, took over.
Protect Cody. Be his friend.
“No!” Max cried. He jumped onto the bed and smacked at the creature with both hands. The thing deflated but then immediately puffed out and darted around the burgeoning face. Panicked, Max looked around and discovered something he’d never noticed hidden along the wall: a darkness blacker than the darkness around him.
Outside the room, Savannah heard more sounds that might be meaningful. Scuttling and shuffling and gasping and, finally, “No!!” Thwap! Thwap! Thwap!
Her whole body turned cold with fear. “Did you find something?” she asked, shivering in the doorway.
“Turn on the lights!!”
Savannah felt against the wall for the switch, the room pulling her in with a gravity all its own, until she found it. A hard, fixed thing. Like an anchor.
The sudden brightness was more blinding than revealing, however. Once her eyes adjusted, she scanned the room for something familiar to land upon, but every familiar object felt alien, pulled from some long-forgotten dream.
The blue ceiling with fluffy white clouds painted onto it, the wallpaper of trains with smiling conductors and laughing passengers that Cody hated by seventh grade but no one bothered to change, the unmade bed that Savannah always wanted but was unwilling to remake.
Nothing, however, felt as simultaneously familiar or alien as that absence. It spread over every corner of the room, invisible and intangible yet she couldn’t see or feel anything else.
There was no one in the room and nothing out of place. No masked burglar. No floating specter. No teenager pretending to be asleep, hiding their fully-clothed body under the sheets. There wasn’t even an open window. Instead, she saw Max shoving his face against a hole in the wall, and it almost made her cry.
Savannah composed herself as she did everyday: she tightened her clothes about her body, like a warm net holding all her broken pieces together; she straightened her posture to keep from collapsing, and frowned for the same reason. “Max, get back,” she commanded.
He pulled himself away and looked around in wide-eyed disbelief, as if everything in the room had changed once the lights came on. The soft thumps traveled through the wall again.
“We’ll need a hammer!” said Max desperately.
“We’re not tearing down the wall . . .” said Savannah, rubbing her weary eyes.
“We have to stop it!” said Max, throwing up his doughy white arms.
So badly did Savannah not want to return to bed that she actually considered this proposal. For her, sleep had become like a little death–the chewing before the final gulp.
Savannah bent down and lowered her head to the hole. It was just empty space — blackness that seemed lonely without stars. The sound came again, assuring her of something hidden, something calling, but she couldn’t see it. She could never see it. This thought hit her so deep in her soul that she wasn’t sure she felt anything at all aside from the fresh desire for sleep — for a night’s worth of oblivion.
She turned and sat against the wall, defeated.
There was one thing that was different, she now recognized. One thing that was missing, and it stared right back at her. She watched that empty space as if it were the crux of all her grief, as if any moment it might move or speak or laugh at her.
She couldn’t exactly leave an animal alone in here to starve, even if it was only a damned snake. One of the neighbor boys had taken Radagast the Brown. God only knows if he kept it. Now Savannah looked at the empty space on the dresser and she missed that damn terrarium and that stupid snake more than anything.
“We’re not going to find anything,” she said at last.
“But . . . But . . .” Max tried, pointing to the bubbles along the wall, still visible with the lights on, though the faces were gone.
“It’s just the moisture under the wallpaper,” she said, wrenching her tired body from the floor and walking across the room. “Jesus, there’s probably mold . . .” She locked the window for good.
“But there’s something behind the wall!!” said Max desperately.
Savannah scanned the room one last time, soaking in the reality of that place that was still as distant to her as Heaven or Hell. “It’s just a mouse . . .”
Max’s eyes grew wide with revelation, as if the cosmos and all its secrets had suddenly opened up to him. He thrust his face against the hole, digging at it with soft, desperate fingers until Savannah picked him up and carried him away. Max gasped and pointed, but Savannah simply pulled him tighter against her body, shushing him like an infant.
She turned off the light and shut the door as quietly as she could–the ghost of a maternal habit that still haunted her limbs. The door once again was a wall between her and that place. Deep down, she knew: she needed the wall. It blocked the view of the void on the other side.
Throughout the night, Savannah tossed and turned, thrashing under waves of memory and bedsheets. Outside the house, lightning flashed. Thunder rattled the walls. Max thought he heard the savage chant of demons preparing to sacrifice the world, to cast it altogether into the quiet sea of night. Savannah couldn’t hear them, of course. She could never hear them. Savannah rode the crest of dreams until they sent her plummeting into her bed, awake and gasping for breath. Outside, the storm of imagination sulked and lulled, until Savannah wiped her eyes, shifted her body, and cast herself into oblivion once more.
Max hardly stirred as Savannah careened beside him. This routine was far too common. But he sat up when she did. He pressed his weight against her side, a tacit reminder of support, until she slipped and sighed and sailed off to sleep.
It’s just a mouse . . . she’d said, but Max thought differently. He’d glimpsed something as Savannah carried him from the room, saw it dart across the hole, furry and fast. That’s when he remembered the memory-mouse that escaped its digestive fate that night. But then came another, and another again. A whole mischief of memory-mice lurked there behind the wall.
Now Max was left with questions: Was there a mouse for every time the snake fed? Could memories change? Could they grow? Could they escape their routines and become something new? Questions without answers, Max bristled. That was all life seemed to give these days. But one thing Max he for certain: the Codies were fading.
There seemed only one thing he could do about it: Max thought of the snake.
He recalled its smooth scales and flicking tongue, its black, unblinking eyes and fluid movement. And once he had a clear picture, he adjusted it. No, it was bigger, he told his memory. Much bigger. Tougher, too. And hungrier. Max concentrated with all his might, trying to conjure a memory to eat the memory-eating mice. The whole thing had a serpent-devouring-its-own-tail vibe, but that’s magic for you.
And it loved Cody, Max reminded himself. Protected him, watched over him . . . Max forgot about the time Radagast bit Cody’s finger and Cody cursed and Max swore to avenge him. He forgot how as soon as the stupid thing came into the house, Cody’s attention turned from him to this snake that didn’t even do anything. Max thought only of how snuggly it was to Cody, and how it guarded him from all the destructive mice of the world.
Behind the wall, something sounded. Thump, thump!
Max felt the memory-mice were mocking him. He resumed his focus, thought of how Radagast could hunt a dozen mice in one go, catching them with his mouth, depositing them in a vice of scaly flesh, and lunging for another.
The house groaned as something long and lean ballooned from the wall. A burst water pipe, Savannah would guess.
There came a frightened chirp. And then, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump! And silence filled the room.
Max glanced back at Savannah, struggling in her sleep. He wished he could tell her: Don’t worry. Your Codies are safe. All of them . . . She wouldn’t understand though. He wondered if she even could.
It’s just a mouse . . . she’d said, as though a mouse weren’t awful enough. That word still turned over and over in Max’s head. Mouse . . . Like house but stronger, more domineering. A thing that eats houses, feeds on their bones.
“No such thing . . .” Max muttered in the dark, “. . . just a mouse.”