You wake up from a nightmare to see a little girl in your doorway.
There’re a few things wrong right off the bat. By the time you’re awake enough to count them all, she’s moving.
She’s fast, and she’s quadrupedal. She crawls under your bed before fear even hits, and she stays there; you dare not move. There’s this sound she keeps making—a muffled moan, low in her chest. You lie motionless and try to convince yourself that you’re dreaming. That you were dreaming. That this is sleep paralysis.
You know it’s not though, because you can move.
You could move. You could peek under and see for yourself if there really is a little kid there. A creepy little girl with a dirty face and greasy hair. You could get up. You could make a break for it. You could do a lot of things, but you are so fucking scared.
So, you just let it happen.
When you were six, you spent the summer at your grandmother’s house. Your mother worked and your grandmother was sick of you, so you spent a lot of time outside, looking for ladybugs and trying to sneak lizard eggs into your bedroom. You remember a few other kids your age: a girl who helped you lift up rocks, a boy who played Avril Lavigne on his MP3.
You remember a group of older boys too. They had bicycles and cigarettes, and they were too cool to hang out with you. But sometimes, they’d let you watch them play football, and up on that concrete wall, you felt like you were one of the grown-ups.
The girl is looking at you again. She’s crawled out from under the bed and is tugging at your covers, staring. She’s still making that noise. Her bulging eyes are bright against the grime on her face.
When she notices that you’re awake, she pushes each of her muddy fingers into her mouth, one after the other. The thumb as well. Her cracked lips stretch around an entire fist.
She makes sure you’re watching, and then she bites down.
You got to hang out with the older boys alone sometimes.
You think you remember an apple tree. You think a neighbor owned it. You knew stealing was wrong, but walking away felt impolite. You don’t remember stealing an apple.
You do remember the boys laughing, though. You remember getting told you did a good job. You remember your mother refusing to look at you.
You don’t remember eating the apple, but you feel something in your mouth. You get out of the bed and walk past the girl, into the bathroom and rub at your hands until the sink water starts burning.
You still feel sticky.
You feel rot on your tongue. You wonder why you’re washing your hands when there’s mud in your bed. You sit on the bathroom floor and watch your hands cramp.
You know there was never an apple tree.
She makes you uncomfortable.
It’s not just because she’s not supposed to be here. She’s here now, so that’s all you can do about that. But something bad has happened to her, and it’s obvious.
You can’t look at her without thinking about it. And you don’t want to think about it. There are things kids go through—really bad things—that you don’t even want to put down on paper. Things you can’t even think about without being stained forever.
Not even just to notice. Not even just to remember.
You think about all the people who kept clean of you then, as the girl crawls into your bed and under your blankets. You wonder how they did it: You can’t make yourself push her away.
In your dream, you peel an apple and you wake up nauseous; she’s still in your bed.
Her weight is on the mattress and her scent is in the air. Her breath is hot on the back of your neck. She smells like dirt and sweat. Something rancid.
You screw your eyes shut and keep still.
It comes off you in layers. It stains everything you touch.
It does not matter how it got on you. It’s on you now. You will get it on everyone who lets you close, and you will still never get it off.
You rub your face against that pillow until it’s dirtier than you are, and then you poke her in the back. You keep poking until she turns around.
She does not seem surprised to see that you look exactly like her.
You’re both wallowing in dirt.
You’re not sure which one of you it’s coming from.
You’d say realizing was the worst part, but that would be a lie.
You could avoid realizing, maybe. You could never speak about it. You could pretend that words have no meaning and that kids have no memories, but you’d still feel sticky.
The truly worst part was when it happened. Your skin might be crawling now, but at least it’s just a stain.
She keeps coming back.
You should be used to her by now, but you’re not. You can feel your denial wearing away. She gets under the blankets sooner than you do, and you join her.
You change the sheets every night, even though you know they’ll be caked in mud come morning. It feels tiring and pointless, but it beats being buried alive.
You don’t think you’d be able to claw your way out again.
You know better now, and that’s all the comfort you’re ever going to get.
You make yourself look at her. She burrows into your chest the moment you let her, and when you wrap your arms around her, the incomprehensible sound gets soaked up by your shoulder.
There’s so much dirt on your pillow every morning.
But, it comes off.
MARTA ŠPOLJAR is a previously unpublished author from Zagreb, Croatia. She is a full-time student of comparative literature and English language, and works as a translator.
DÓRA HORVÁTH lives in Budapest, Hungary with their husband and two cats. By profession, they are a software engineer and self-taught photographer, graphic designer and amateur author of short stories (and some poems) written in Hungarian.