"Emily, what's wrong?"
Josh squatted down in front of her, trying to catch a glimpse of her face. Emily sobbed and waved him away, her head hidden beneath her arms, face pushed into her small pink pillow.
He knew what was wrong, but he wanted her to tell him. He wanted her to realize that all grownups were scum.
They thought they were just little kids, but they watched the news, listened to the radio. Maybe they didn't understand everything, but they got the big picture. They knew what went on in the world, what kind of bad things grownups were capable of. But they couldn't do anything about it; they were too small. They couldn't fight back. They had to go along with whatever the grownups did.
"Hang on there, Emily," Josh whispered. "Just a few more days. Then your parents will come back from their trip and your uncle won't be around anymore."
He knew words alone weren't enough to comfort her. But he couldn't protect her. What could he do against a grown man, an ex-military man who towered over him at twice his own height? Even if they had the courage to tell someone, nobody would believe them, and Emily would be embarrassed to death.
Josh wanted to kiss her goodnight, give her some hope, show her that he was her friend and that he cared about her, but he didn't know of a good way to do it. He knew better than to touch her right now. She had been touched enough.
"I'm going home now," he said finally. "If ever you want to come along, just go ahead. I don't mind. We could go for a walk in the forest, away from everybody. You know?"
He thought he saw Emily nod. Josh turned around and walked down the porch steps, leaving her vulnerable and alone. He hated that.
He hated his parents when they argued. Every night, it was the same thing.
But tonight was different. Tonight, he could smell the stink around his mother.
Most of the time, his mother didn't smell at all. But once in a while, when she went away on a girls' night out and returned very late, their arguing woke him up. And then he could smell something he didn't like. Something that reminded him of what Emily's uncle did to her.
During Biology, they had learned all about the anatomy of a rabbit. The teacher had shown them which organs were responsible for breathing, for digesting food and for reproduction. It seemed that every female animal had tiny eggs inside it, like a chicken, but it didn't lay them in a nest and sat on them until they hatched. No, something else happened that had to do with the male animals. They put something inside the female animal and then the eggs would hatch in the tummy of the animal. The baby then grew bigger until it had everything it needed to survive in the world and only then did it come out.
At first, the kids hadn't thought much about it, but after a while Josh had made the connection between rabbits and humans. After all, humans were some kind of animal as well, weren't they? So babies had to be made the same way rabbits made them.
After some more research in the school's library, Josh had found out how it all worked. He hadn't quite understood everything, but then Emily's parents had decided to go on a second honeymoon and they asked her uncle to come watch her. Then her uncle had done something to Emily he shouldn't have, and it had something to do with the way animals reproduced, but there was a difference. Emily couldn't grow babies yet. You had to be all grownup before you could do that.
So what her uncle did wasn't for reproduction, but for fun. But only for his fun, because Emily didn't like what he did. She hated it. So Josh hated it as well. Not only because Emily was in pain, but also because it made her smell bad.
Josh could smell it, and it was the same kind of smell his mother had when she came back from one of her late nights. And he was sure his dad could smell it too, or why would they argue like that?
Normally, his parents would just yell, scream and shout, but the worst thing was when they whispered, when they were too angry to raise their voices.
But that wasn't the only kind of whispering that bothered him. While he was listening to his parents downstairs, he heard other voices in the background, strange voices. At first he thought his action figures were talking to him, but he didn't believe that anymore. The voices seemed to come from inside his head.
Josh's parents worked downtown. He didn't know where or what they did. He had never been that far into town. He was only ten, went to elementary school at the East End, just a few blocks from his own house. In vacation time, his parents left him and his sister, Carol, with Mrs Greenwich, who helped with the housework and did groceries. Josh liked Mrs Greenwich. She cooked delicious meals, was always interested when he told her something and she liked the same movies he did. Sometimes he helped her with the housework, so she would be finished early and they would have time to watch a video together.
This summer he was alone with her. Carol went away somewhere with friends, to some sort of camp. He didn't mind that. He liked her better away than at home. Josh's sister was eight years older than him, and she was creepy. Not so much her personality, but the atmosphere around her. A few years ago, when Carol had gone to Junior High, she wanted more privacy and convinced their parents to hire a team of carpenters to transform the attic into a new room for her. There still was a smaller attic, separated from her room by a new wall, but there were no lights anymore.
A few months earlier, when she was out on a date, he'd snuck inside, curious for her diary. She was older, wiser and he knew he could learn a lot from her. She was his big sister, after all, the person to go to when something was wrong and there were no parents or Mrs Greenwich around.
But never before had he wanted to read her diary. All that had changed when his parents went to a party and she invited her boyfriend to come over. Josh woke up at the loud squeaking sounds coming from the ceiling, together with the heavy groaning of two people. One of them he recognized as being Carol's.
So he went inside her room to read her diary and find out what she had been doing. But he couldn't stay inside. The smell was terrible. He immediately ran out, no longer in the mood to read about her little secrets. He told Mrs Greenwich about the smell, but she laughed at him. "You and your little jokes! Now stop fooling around. I've got some serious work to do and if I don't finish it, we won't be able to watch that new Dreamworks animation you've been so crazy about lately."
Josh didn't understand it. Had she not discovered the smell? Wasn't she aware of the filth hanging in the air upstairs, clearly coming from underneath the sheets on his sister's bed? Now that he'd gotten a whiff of it, he seemed to smell it all the way downstairs! How could she not be bothered by it?
After a few days, the horrible stench cleared up. But he still didn't want to go into Carol's bedroom. There was something wrong with her. She had the same smell his mother had when she had been away for half the night. The same smell now surrounded Emily because her uncle had given it to her. Somebody must have given Carol that smell, probably her boyfriend. But why was there a smell in the first place? Why didn't Mrs Greenwich smell it? With all the power of his imagination, he couldn't come up with an answer to his questions.
One day, when he didn't have to go to school, he decided to explore the house and what hidden treasures he could find in the smaller attic. He needed a flashlight, though, and he knew there was one in his sister's bedroom: she had one there to use when she wanted to read in bed. But he didn't want to go inside. He felt too squeamish to go into that creepy place. Instead, he just sat down in front of the door and waited.
He didn't know why he did that. He had this natural feeling that, when he just waited long enough, something would happen that would help him out. He sat down for fifteen minutes, his eyes locked onto the door, thinking only about the flashlight lying beyond that door and how much he wanted it, craved for it, longed for it.
Suddenly, he heard a knock. It came from the other side of the door. He stood up, pulled down the handle and pushed open the door, just a few inches.
The flashlight fell through the small opening onto the floor of the outside hallway, rolled against his left shoe and stopped.
Quickly, he closed the door. He picked up the flashlight, turned it on and went to the attic. Never once did he ask how it was possible for the flashlight to move from inside the nightstand, across the room, against the door and onto the hallway.
He was still listening to his parents downstairs. His mother had been covered with that smell when she had come to kiss him goodnight. Now she had the smell without going on a girls' night out, which meant she'd been infected by it sometime during the day. Josh had no idea, but he was sure glad she had been late for dinner so he didn't have to sit next to her at the table. He would've had to rush to the bathroom to vomit, even without any food in his stomach.
This time, it was his dad's turn to whisper, and soon Josh's own whispers rose up from inside him. They were ordering him to kill his parents.
He was astounded by that thought. Where had it come from? And why would he want to do that? Maybe it was true he wouldn't even notice their absence and maybe he would finally get a good night's sleep, but who would take care of him and his sister? Of course, they had always relied on Mrs Greenwich in that field, so maybe the real question was why wouldn't he want to do it?
But that was crazy, wasn't it? It was bad. He shouldn't have these thoughts. Why was he hearing these whispers? Perhaps he really was crazy …
The constant rows, fights and arguing made him feel tired. Always hiding in his room, covered by the blankets, pretending not to hear any of it. He was tired of pretending. He wanted to let them know he wasn't innocent at all. He wanted to tell them he knew what went on in the world, what his mother did when she went out on her own. He wanted to scream in their faces what horrible things that war hero uncle next door did to his friend.
Now that his mother was totally surrounded by that awful smell, maybe he should listen to the whispers and get rid of them. He didn't ask how he would do such a thing, for a strong inner sensation, coming from almost the same place his whispers came from, told him he didn't have to worry about that. The solution would come, the same way he had gotten hold of the flashlight a few days back.
The whispers stopped. Both kinds, the ones downstairs and the ones inside him. He heard someone coming up the flight of stairs. Josh knew it was his mother, for the intensity of the smell sharpened when she passed his room, and his father had been sleeping on the couch downstairs for as long as he could remember.
The smell was too much to cope with. He tried to use his pillow to keep it out of his nose, but it suffocated him. Then he tried to hide under the covers, which was too hot. He saw no solution.
In an instant, the closet door flung open and a handkerchief jumped out and flew towards the bed. It fell down and covered his nose, protecting him against ... whatever that thing was, hovering all around him, around the house ... around his mother.
A temporary solution.
When he went to visit Emily the next day, nobody answered the door. He went back home and met Mrs Greenwich in the kitchen, cutting up some vegetables. She had just stripped an onion and her eyes were all watery and red. "Hi Josh," she said. "I didn't know you were up already."
"I just went over to Emily's," Josh replied. "But nobody's home."
Mrs Greenwich's face paled. She dropped the knife and walked over to him. "Oh, I wish you had come here first before going over there. I need to tell you something."
Josh felt his heart freeze. He didn't want to hear anything more. He already knew what had happened to Emily. Her uncle had gone too far.
"Emily had to go the hospital," Mrs Greenwich confirmed his worst thoughts. "She fell down, started to bleed internally."
Josh stepped back from Mrs Greenwich. Either she hadn't been told the truth, or she was lying to him as well. He knew what had really happened. He knew what had made the smell come into his house, what his sister and his mother had done to produce it and what Emily's uncle had done to her. It disgusted him ...
He ran upstairs and hid in his bedroom. He locked the door so Mrs Greenwich couldn't enter and he stayed there for the rest of the day without having lunch. When he heard his parents come home in the evening and a knock on the door, he said he was sick and needed to rest. There was no second knock, so he stayed in bed. He didn't want to be with any grownups right now.
They never told kids about the s-word, because they thought they would try it out for themselves, see what it was really like. But he didn't even want to think about trying it out for himself! He was only ten!
But what grownups didn't know was that if they didn't tell their kids about it, their kids wouldn't know how dangerous it was. Kids like him were never warned about people like Emily's uncle. By keeping silent, by thinking they were protecting their kids from dirty stories, they were putting them in real danger.
If his sister wanted to try it out for herself … that was her choice. But why had his mother done it? Why she had done it without his dad knowing about it? His dad hadn't been covered with the smell, so he hadn't done the s-word with her. Why had she been so secretive? Why didn't she want his dad to know?
Soon, Josh heard his parents start another argument. Not much later, their shouts turned into whispers.
It was the voices inside him that confirmed his suspicions about his mother's affair. They whispered to him during the night. They made him aware of the truth. The voices inside were strong, and they could do more than just talk. They had done so much for him, and now they were joining the whispers coming from downstairs, like all those nights before, but this time they were pleading for him to say the word. To give them permission to kill his parents.
He didn't care who or what the whispers were. From his point of view, they were the only ones who'd never lied, who'd never kept anything from him. Maybe he should grant them something in return. Maybe he should consider letting them kill his parents. It was clear his mother and father weren't happy anymore. They didn't do anything than yell and scream and shout ... and whisper.
Josh listened to them downstairs. His father was yelling, his mother was saturated with the smell, then his father was whispering.
Josh listened and waited. He saw no other solution.
The whispers stopped after the thought passed through his mind. A premature silence fell over the house.
Josh closed his eyes, satisfied, and slept.
Tomorrow, Emily's uncle would be next.