Changeling

by Beth Scott


The moment the midwife put the baby in her arms, Chrystal was certain it was an alien. She kept expecting others to comment but no-one did. Her husband, Ferdinand, was thrilled to bits with the child — the first boy after two daughters. The grandparents on both sides rejoiced and admired and the girls, Penny and Katie, were in raptures over their baby brother.

Chrystal felt sure the midwife or the doctor would be bound to notice something but it seemed it was only she who saw past the baby’s superficial normality. She had to train herself to stop referring to the infant as ‘it’. But it was how she thought of him and as for the name they had decided on before it was born, David, she couldn’t get used to using that at all!

She did try to hint at something unusual about the child, to her doctor and to the nurses at baby clinic but they immediately suspected post-natal depression (which she had suffered from after her first pregnancy) and took to examining the baby closely for evidence of abuse.

Chrystal soon learned to keep her thoughts to herself and act the doting mother when anyone else was around. But secretly she marvelled that no-one else seemed aware of the baby’s strangeness. For one thing, it never slept. Oh, it shut its eyes of course but it didn’t fool her! She could tell that it was watching from behind its prettily lashed lids.

As it grew, she noticed a curious thing. It didn’t seem to learn by trial and error like a normal child. It acquired skills by stealing — though of course it was clever enough to appear to learn to do the expected things at the appropriate time. She first noticed this when it was about ten months old and still not crawling.

It had never shown much interest in their pet dachshund Billy — who, as if he shared her opinion, always took care to keep well beyond its reach — until the day when it followed the little animal eagerly, almost hungrily,with its eyes for hours. At the end of the afternoon when Ferdie came home from work, David suddenly crawled rapidly towards him.

‘Hey little fella!’ cried Ferdie, swinging the child delightedly into the air. ‘Who’s decided he’s off to see the big wide world then?’ The girls shouted,

‘Come and see Mummy! Look what David can do!’

But in the kitchen Chrystal’s eyes were fixed on Billy, struggling to drag his paralysed back legs across the floor, whimpering. The vet said it was a problem dachshunds were prone to, because of their length, though poor Billy did have it very badly and it was of unusually sudden onset.

When treatment failed and the little dog was clearly in constant distress, the decision was taken to put him to sleep. It was after this that Chrystal stopped even trying to think of the baby as ‘David’, convinced that despite its facility to feign and gain affection it was out only for itself and would stop at nothing to achieve its ends.

Dreadful confirmation came when it began to walk. No, pulling itself up and cruising round the furniture for this one. The very moment it got up on two legs and walked confidently across the lawn to watch Ferdie weeding the border, old Mrs. Buyers, their neighbour, had broken her pelvis by falling in the garden and died six weeks later in hospital. Chrystal felt a wave of guilty relief that it had happened to someone outside the family, mingled with dread of what or whom it might harm next.

No-one else of course remarked on the coincidence, as no-one else seemed to find it weird that it didn’t babble baby-fashion like other toddlers. She tried to point this out to Ferdie. ‘He’s just the strong, silent type’ he joked fondly. ‘He’ll start when he’s ready.’

It was a little short of its third birthday when it came out with its first sentence — fully-formed and grammatically correct. ‘May I have a biscuit, Daddy?’

‘There, you see!’ Ferdie crowed. ‘He was just waiting till he could get it right!’

Chrystal marvelled that he didn’t find this truly bizarre and awaited the bad news she was sure would follow. It came in a phone-call from her brother-in-law.

‘Dad’s had a stroke’ he said. Chrystal didn’t need to be told he had lost the power of speech and knew her father-in-law would never talk again.

‘Will someone have to drown for it to learn how to swim?’ she asked herself. And what if it were one of the girls? Her blood ran cold at the thought and she refused to holiday at the sea-side that summer. Ferdie shook his head uncomprehendingly. He loved his wife but he couldn’t conceal from himself that she could get some really weird ideas into her head at times.

As winter came on, Penny seemed to go from one cold to another. Chrystal told herself that it was just what was going round. Katie, Ferdie and herself had had one, though the boy, she noted, had not. But Penny seemed unable to shake one infection off before the next left her pale and listless, languishing on the sofa.

The doctor took blood tests but could find nothing and suggested a virus of some kind. He prescribed tonics and pills, even anti-depressants, but nothing did any good. When Penny refused to eat and if persuaded to, vomited it straight back, she was rushed into hospital. But in spite of all that was done she simply faded away, still undiagnosed, before their eyes.

After the funeral Chrystal sat in mute misery while Katie, wet-cheeked, sought comfort in her grandmother’s arms and Ferdie, who seemed to have aged ten years, held his son on his knee, stroking the golden head.

Unwillingly, Chrystal’s eyes rested on the boy. She hadn’t looked at him properly in days — her mother had moved in to care for the children and run the house while she was at Penny’s bedside — but now it struck her forcibly; this golden boy, rosy as an apple, glowed with such health and vitality it seemed to flow out of him as though he had more of it than could be contained in one five-year-old body — more than his rightful share. But of course, that was it! He did have more than his rightful share!

‘It was you wasn’t it!’ she hissed. ‘You did it to her! It’s all your fault!’

For an instant it was as if she were staring at a photograph of witnesses to an accident. No-one moved and Chrystal crazily wondered if perhaps she had only thought the words.

Then the boy started to whimper and Ferdie exploded, ‘Have you gone mad? How could you say such a thing to a little boy — your own son!’ He cuddled the child close as Chrystal ran sobbing to their bedroom.

Later, her mother came in.

‘I know you didn’t mean what you said’ she said gently. ‘But you can’t take your hurt out on others like that and on little David of all people.’ She paused. ‘Ferdie thinks, and I agree with him, that perhaps you should see someone, talk to someone, a counsellor or-’

Chrystal shook her head. ‘I don’t need a psychiatrist. I was wrong to say what I did. I don’t know what came over me and I’ll apologise to — David. To everyone. Just give me a moment, will you?’

As the door closed Chrystal sank back on the bed, her body weighted down with exhaustion. She didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to continue pretending she didn’t know what she knew. But now it had taken one of her dearest, and she must fight to protect the rest.

As life gradually returned to a semblance of normality, Chrystal tried not to cling to Katie while watching her closely for any sign of ailing. The boy had started school now, tall and strong for his age and excelling at all kinds of games.

‘Naturally,’ thought Chrystal bitterly. ‘Just as Penny did!’

But what would it want next? More strength? More sporting prowess?

Or a gift for languages or maths or making money? Or, and the more she considered this the more she thought she might be onto something, perhaps it needed to prey on the vitality of others simply in order to grow the way a normal, human child could do.

Perhaps after a while, a few months maybe, it would reach a plateau and need to seek a new source of energy in order to get bigger, stronger, cleverer. If she was right, she had a small window of opportunity before it sought another victim.

In the meantime, she must put on the performance of her life, setting aside, in so far as she could, her mourning for Penny. She must watch closely over her family without seeming to do so and force herself to show affection to this creature who had callously drained her daughter’s life.

As she lay beside Ferdie during the long, wakeful nights, she decided one, that she must act swiftly before the creature gained in strength and intelligence and two, that there was only one sure way to safe-guard her family. It must die.

She collected the boy from school at mid-morning break, telling his teacher that he had a dental appointment. She even made sure to call in at the dentist, knowing that she would be told she had mistaken the day of the check-up, for she could never feel sure what went on in the boy’s head and didn’t want to arouse his suspicions.

‘That was silly of Mummy, wasn’t it!’ she said brightly, adding conspiratorially, ‘But seeing as you’re out of school now anyway, let’s have a little treat, just you and me!’

On the long drive to the coast the child, to Chrystal’s relief, dozed off which meant she didn’t have to keep up a flow of enthusiastic mummy-speak. He woke drowsily as they drew into a carpark intended for walkers of the cliff-top path.

‘We’ll have a lovely walk and afterwards we’ll buy some ice cream. Wont that be nice?’ she announced cheerily. The child nodded in his serious, quiet way as she took his hand firmly and they set off together along the path. The wind tousled the boy’s golden hair and his blue eyes widened at the vista of rolling, white-topped sea and the seagulls wheeling and crying beyond the cliff edge. The spot Chrystal chose overhung a mass of jagged rocks far below.

‘Look! There’s a boat out there. Can you see? No, you’re too small. Let me lift you up.’ She took him in her arms and plunged with him into the void. As they fell, she turned triumphantly towards him but saw only the innocent, terrified face of a little boy, clinging trustingly round his Mummy’s neck. There was time for an instant of terrible remorse — before the end.

Miracle boy survives death fall.

Five-year-old David Soames escaped death in the arms of his mother as she plunged off the cliff at a well-known beauty spot. According to eye-witnesses, 36-year-old Chrystal Soames appeared to throw herself deliberately from the cliff holding the boy in her arms.

“The woman’s body appears to have acted as a cushion which saved the boy’s life,” said a police-spokesman last night, “ but it was still a miracle that David was not killed with his mother on the notorious Devil’s Rocks.”

It is believed that Mrs. Soames may have been suffering from depression, following the death of her daughter earlier in the year.’

The little boy pushed the newspaper under the bedclothes and lay back on his pillows. It wouldn’t do to let on just yet how fluently he could read, all of a sudden.


Copyright © 2006 by Beth Scott

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