by Ben Bamber
As a ten-year-old, Caitlin knew she was ordinary. She found the new house extension mysterious, and her younger brother irritating. She didn’t always behave for her mother, for which she felt guilty, but not enough to apologise. For the most part she liked waking up late at night and staring out of the window of an unfinished extension window. It had an echo, which Caitlin exploited.
For six months the extension remained empty, with tools and scaffolding lying around. Access to it was via the utility room, containing the washing machine and the deep freezer. Caitlin would often go into the room, kind of enjoying the danger of her imagination. The shadows, the cold, the greyness of the walls and ceiling as if it were a tomb. She never stayed long, waiting just long enough to shiver in her bed clothes then returning to bed.
‘Caitlin. What are you doing in here again?’ Her mother grabbed Caitlin’s shoulders and walked her into the kitchen. ‘You’re freezing cold now. It’s going to take ages to warm you up.’
‘We’re going to have to lock you in your room.’ Her mother joked, but Caitlin was tired and didn’t respond.
Her father walked in. ‘Was she in that room again?’
‘Yes. If you finished it we wouldn’t have this problem.’
Caitlin peered round the frame of the door and watched him pour a scotch. She looked back before he noticed her, took the hot water bottle from her Mother, then returned to her room in silence.
Next morning, Caitlin scrambled out of bed before being called. Wrapped in a quilt, her eyes puffy and her cheeks red from the heat of her bed, she wandered downstairs calling for her mother. Her parents always had the heat turned up too high.
‘You all right, darling?’ her mother asked. Caitlin smiled.
‘Can I have crispies, please?’
Her brother bounded in, fully dressed, screaming and shouting. Caitlin pushed him away as he stood right up to her face and pulled a grimace to annoy her.
After breakfast, Caitlin, wrapped in a large red duffle coat, played outside. She grabbed her bike, then Harry grabbed his to imitate her and they cycled in circles round the garden. Caitlin circled the garden three times before abandoning her bike to stop Harry copying her.
Saturday night was always spent in front of the television. Her dad had rented a family film and Caitlin sank into it — its message, its story. She lost herself in an imaginary world, with the rest of her family sinking into the background.
Then it was bedtime again. She was tired. As mother pushed them gently past the passage to the extension, she craned her neck backwards to look at it. She wondered whether her curiosity would take a hold and she would be there again tonight.
At midnight she woke to the Disney clock light in her eyes. She stared at the luminous numbers as she tried to make out the time. The light didn’t normally come on, but she didn’t give this much thought. In the house she could hear movement and decided to wait before she climbed downstairs to look in the extension. When she heard her parents’ bedroom door softly clunk shut, she climbed out of bed, putting her feet straight into her slippers.
She was wide awake now, and the house was silent. She crept over to her dressing gown and slipped it on. It was a bit too small for her. She peered out into the corridor. She passed into the landing and down the stairs, which creaked. They had given her away last time, so she slowly placed one foot on one stair at a time.
She turned carefully at the banister and walked towards the plastic sheeting covering the door into the new room. There was a good view of the park. When she arrived, the floor reflected light from the moon and the street lamps. She hadn’t noticed this before and strained to see what was different about it.
She slid on the floor, so she stooped to touch it. A thin layer of ice. She crept across the floor, the ice cracking under her feet, making what seemed like a loud enough noise to wake her parents.
The moonlight illuminating the room created a sheen on the bare plaster walls.
At the window she saw what looked like several cars and people on the green. Trees cast shadows across it, and she watched, shivering with cold. Lights flashed around, and quiet voices reached her from the green.
She turned with a start to see her mother move silently past the plastic-covered door, which she had left pinned back. Her mother in a pink dressing gown and fluffy slippers shuffled past her. What was going on?
Caitlin stepped forward and saw that the car was a large machine with doors open and people walking like zombies into them and then walking back out a couple of minutes later. Then she saw her mother, father, and Harry walking, as if mesmerized. She moved closer. Now she could see tall thin grey beings herding people in and out of the strange machine. She began to shake and cry, then marched out.
It was bitterly cold. The alien figures didn’t look at her when she inched out of the door onto the street. Even her parents didn’t look up at her. She saw them enter the jaws of the machine; large open doors, flat and silvery, the rest of the ship hidden in the shadows. She waited, worrying they may not re-emerge. Eventually they marched past her as if she were invisible.
‘Mother,’ she cried. ‘Dad.’ She was ignored. Then, as her father turned to close the door, she flung herself forward. She landed on the doormat with a carpet burn for her trouble. She rubbed it and stood. All three walked robotically inside. As she cried and called their names they continued to ignore her. She shook in terror.
The door closed in Caitlin’s face. She stepped back to avoid having her nose smacked. She wept and sat on the doormat outside, knocking on the door, crying. Eventually the door opened and, as if nothing had happened, her mother spoke to her, seemingly back to normal.
‘What’s wrong Caitlin?’ She knelt and picked Caitlin up.
Caitlin was hysterical. Her parents tried to calm her down, but Caitlin couldn’t stop. Her Mother began to cry, as she bobbed Caitlin up and down in her arms.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ she asked her husband.
Caitlin saw her father biting his lips and his hand folded backwards against the kitchen worktop, and his forehead worry lines deepening.
Eventually, taking big sighs in between her words, she spoke. ‘I went into the new bit and it was icy on the floor.’
Her mother looked at father. ‘Is it icy?’ He shook his head.
Caitlin continued: ‘I saw everyone climb into the spaceship and then come out, and then you and dad didn’t see me. You just walked past, and I didn’t know what to do. And I had to jump into the front door.’
‘But me and daddy haven’t gone out, love.’
‘Why did they leave me out, Mother?’
‘What do you mean?’
Caitlin began to cry again. ‘You don’t believe me.’
Her mother put her down. ‘Get her a drink, Father.’
Caitlin’s father poured a juice and gave it Caitlin. She gulped trying to catch her breath between sobs. They walked into the living room. Caitlin’s mother switched on the heater and sat her daughter down in a chair.
‘Tell me again, Caitlin. What happened?’
Father, with the deep look of distress and worry across his face, leant against the wall.
Caitlin trembled. ‘A spaceship. You all got into a spaceship.’
Her mother shook her head. ‘But there’s no such thing.’
‘She dreamt it,’ her father added.
* * *
Father and Mother dressed one at a time so they could keep Caitlin in her bedroom, while Harry wandered round upstairs, looking lost and traumatised. When Father noticed blood on his shirt, he asked Mother where it had come from.
‘I don’t know,’ she snapped. ‘You can see I have Caitlin to deal with, you silly man.’ He threw the garment into the washing basket, then called Dr Peters.
Father realized that the doctor and his colleagues would have to consider the possibility of his daughter’s having been sexually assaulted and whether he was fully engaged in the problems. Was it just a bad dream for Caitlin? Father had every reason to assume that he would be under the spotlight now. If he agreed to her being assessed in a psychiatric facility, she would have the chance to explain what happened.
‘Okay,’ Mother said, and they sat in the kitchen to talk.
‘She needs to go to hospital,’ Father said.
‘I agree. At least for a few days so they can assess her.’
Father was relieved and surprised. ‘Okay. I thought that was going to be difficult.’
They discussed what might have happened, including an intruder. But there were no readily available explanations of how their sweet girl could have suddenly exploded into psychosis from nowhere. That evening she was removed from the house, screaming and crying, and put into an ambulance. The doctors agreed with her parents that she must have an assessment in a safe environment.
Mother cried, while Father talked to Harry about what was happening to his sister. He didn’t really understand, except to say that he had blood in his shirt too. Father shrugged this off, not having the energy to go and find Harry’s shirt and check it. He must have overheard him telling Mother. He and Harry sat closely together and watched television.
Father said to Mother, ‘You could take one of those pills Dr Peters prescribed.’ Mother didn’t answer.
Early next morning Father helped with breakfast so Mother could go to the hospital. He saw her pick a small piece of mud which fell off her slippers. She smelt it, then wrapped it up in tissue and put into the swing bin.
At eight o’clock they headed out to the car. The grass had a large indentation in it, and Father walked slowly over to it. Mother took out her camera and snapped a picture. She checked it on the screen and then drove away.
* * *
Half asleep, Caitlin heard her mother.
‘Hi darling, how are you doing?’
Caitlin covered up her knee graze but knew her mother must have noticed it.
‘Okay. I don’t want to be here, though, Mother. Why did they leave me out?’
‘I don’t know, dear.’ She removed the camera from her bag and took a photo of Caitlin’s knee.
‘Do you believe me then, Mother?’
‘I believe something happened to you, but I don’t know what yet.’ She smiled at Caitlin just as the doctor arrived.
‘Come with me please, Mrs Turner.’ The doctor took mother to the other side of the screen and to the wall, but Caitlin snuck over to listen.
‘Caitlin has calmed down. What do you think happened?’ the doctor asked.
‘I honestly don’t know.’
‘She seems to have had some kind of psychosis. Normally this happens to children as a result of a trauma, usually of an assault of some kind. I want to keep her in for a few nights, and if she continues to make progress she can go home. But I would like to have regular contact with her as an outpatient, Mrs Turner.’
‘Okay. I would like to stay here tonight, doctor?’
As the doctor left, Caitlin rushed back to her bed just in time and sat with her knees to her chest.
‘I think I believe you. But...’
‘What?’ she asked, her face brightened.
‘We need to keep this to ourselves. Our own secret?’
‘Okay, Mother.’ They hugged.
* * *
Mother took Caitlin out for a meal with a sticky pudding dessert, then they walked through the mall and bought new clothes and returned to the hospital mid-afternoon. They chatted with the staff and patients, who were generous towards Caitlin, and Mother appreciated that.
By nightfall Mother had difficulty getting off to sleep. She was puzzled why Caitlin felt left out. Why, when everyone else around her had something awful done to them, would she feel left out? It was one of those puzzles which asks deep questions of humanity. And it was a part of social learning: to be loved, accepted and to operate as a social group. She tossed and turned thinking about what she’d photographed.
It was late when Mother woke with a start. Hospitals were noisy places at night. She needed the toilet, so she got up and wandered into the corridor. As she passed the common room window she saw figures moving around. She saw Caitlin and the tall slender figures she’d talked about, with the machine just as Caitlin had described.
She stood still, her heart thumping, and saw Caitlin climb into the machine and then come back out again a second or two later. She was in a trance just as she’d described. Mother wanted to take a picture, but the camera was in her room and she couldn’t tear herself away until Caitlin came back.
She saw Caitlin walk past the window and out of view, so Mother ran, passing the nursing station and noticed the staff asleep, slumped uncomfortably in their chairs. She whizzed down the corridor and into Caitlin’s room.
She was already in bed and the window was ajar. She woke her up.
‘Caitlin, they came for you.’
‘Did they?’ she replied, sleepily.
‘Let me check you,’ Mother said. Caitlin lent forward and Mother pulled down her top from the neck and checked between her shoulder blades. There was a very small horizontal thin red line on her back. She took her camera and snapped a picture.
She climbed into bed with Caitlin and they held each other and drifted off to sleep. By morning the hospital was back to normal. Noisy and busy. Mother discharged her daughter. She took the camera from her bag again, and walked round to the side of the building where she had seen the alien machine.
A branch had broken, but that could have happened any time. There were no signs that anything unusual had taken place, so she returned the camera to her bag and left. But Caitlin seemed pleased they’d come back for her. It was their secret. These strange beings had, by accident or by design, left two witnesses to their experiment or their mission.
At home, Mother sat back in her chair, folding printouts and a disc with the photos into an envelope. She reached for a craft knife and lifted it up over her shoulders. She used her fingers to find a small lump and then guided in the knife. As she winced in pain, she just caught the tiny capsule before it slipped away. She held it up to the light.
An unassuming, smooth silver capsule, with no seams. She opened a plastic specimen bottle and dropped it inside. Then she took a tissue and wiped it down. She put it in her desk drawer and locked it. All these things would for now remain a mystery. She had no clue whom to tell or what to do.
She would just wait to see what the next few months and years would bring. Proof of extra-terrestrial life, sitting in her desk drawer and a petrified daughter not too far away in her room, curled up in a ball, too tired to speak. No longer invisible but too traumatised to be Caitlin again.
Copyright © 2009 by Ben Bamber