by John A. DeMember
Five and innocent, Johnny’s wiry frame hunkered down, just below the bed rails. His grandmother’s labored breathing pulsed like black-green waves, agitated to a froth and dying against the shore.
The light of the day, in its last gasps, slithered over the horizon. Like a burial shroud, a mute, gray darkness descended on the snow-covered landscape just beyond the foggy bay windows of the playroom. The room, once full of joy and sunlight—yellows and light browns—was now dark, shadowy, and filled with the smell of decay. The hushed conversations in the adjoining kitchen formed an interminable white noise.
A massive bed now dominated the room, and little Johnny played in the tent created by the blankets draped over his elderly grandmother. Entirely ignorant of the vicious cancer eating her alive, he felt certain she was asleep. She always slept.
He remembered his old playroom, and he could still almost see it. Now, there was a breathing machine where the entertainment center once stood; drop cloths and blankets were stacked on bookcases once spilling over with colorful children’s books; hoses, curled like cobras, were stuffed inside an old toy box; medicine bottles like tiny tombstones lined the windowsill; and flowers in their last throes of blooming reached blindly for the frigid air just beyond the windows.
Johnny’s grandmother always used to take him to the park. He felt as if it had been another life.
Her squat, pear-shaped frame would lumber through the sand and bark mulch. She always clapped feverishly for Johnny as he traversed the last of the monkey bars, or nailed an aerial dismount from the swings.
The memory of her bright eyes and rosy cheeks was now a mere memorial to the skeletal woman hidden beneath the crisp, white sheets, her cheeks now an ashen gray and her eyes sunken, black, and lifeless.
“You are my precious little man,” she often said with a smile, back before she lost the ability to speak.
“I am going to marry you, Grammy,” he would retort with a lovable sea of ignorance.
Not so long ago, the little boy would slip into her basement while she watched game shows. He imagined himself an archaeologist of the same ilk as Indiana Jones, and he felt an infernal pull to rummage through his long-since-passed grandfather’s military artifacts buried somewhere deep, dark, and near the furnace.
Johnny was always wary of the loud ignition of the furnace and the ominous, fiery smile of its front grate. He just knew it was something vile, something wicked.
“You know, there is a toe-eater down there,” she once said when she caught him. “Yes, a ghastly beast of a thing.”
He had spent the following days in the doorway, lying in wait, rubber-band gun cocked and ready, knowing he had to protect this special woman from the terrible, mysterious beast.
The boy popped his head over the bed rail and stared at his sickly grandmother. A single purple toe protruded from a gap in the blankets at the end of the bed.
He grabbed the toe and lovingly shook it with a smile. The old woman’s eyes opened faintly, like two dark stab wounds.
“It’s the Toe-Eater,” he said, in the most ghastly voice he could muster. “Do you wanna go to the park with me, Grammy?”
The old woman’s eyes seemed to study the young boy. Johnny slunk down below the bed rail again, just beyond his grandmother’s ominous gaze.
“The Toe-Eater is coming to get you, Grammy,” he said with a sinister giggle.
The boy popped up at the end of the bed, and again wrapped his tiny hands around her exposed toe, shaking it violently. The old woman’s jaundiced toenail slid off from its oozy root and fell to the floor.
The little boy stared at the bloody half-moon of flesh left behind and dropped below the bed rail again. The old woman didn’t move.
Johnny heard someone approaching from the kitchen.
“The Toe-Eater is coming; the Toe-Eater is coming!” he said. He scrambled along the base of the bed frame and wormed his way into the dark, fortress-like cubby between the bed and the corner of the wall. This little space was another world, dark and completely hidden.
The lights shut off with a click, and the boy heard something enter the room. He was now in complete darkness, and the deafening thud of his heartbeat drowned out the pulse of the breathing machine. Then, a sigh broke the silence.
Johnny thought he heard his Grammy crying. The sobs were restrained, muffled, and came in waves. Tears flowed with enough emotion to cut through mountains of pain and anguish—tears once kept hidden and secret, tears of desperation.
He knew the Toe-Eater was somewhere in that room, waiting for him, waiting for the moment he produced himself from his secret hiding place.
The little boy pressed himself ever deeper into the corner of the wall. Beads of sweat streamed down his face and he trembled in terror. He could barely make out the midnight silhouette of a claw and its slender, tendril-like fingers searching the darkness from the other side of the bed.
The Toe-Eater, he thought. A heavy, acrid feeling swelled in his stomach. He didn’t move and didn’t breathe.
The hideous hand hung in the darkness mere feet away from the crumpled boy. Its fingers slid against the wall like a blind man reading Braille. The long, pointed digits’ interminable twitching finally ended over the electrical socket, their strange and vile form faintly illuminated by the blood-red light of the arterial power strip.
Johnny watched, with his hands over his mouth and his eyes wide, as the wicked hand wrapped itself around the serpent-like chord that slithered its way into the wall.
In one quick movement, the darkness finally consumed the red aura created by the power strip. The breathing machine no longer sang its life-song, and an abyssal silence filled the room.
Johnny heard the plug fall to the floor. He thought he could see the murky outline of the claw and its blood-red nails receding back into the vast darkness of the room. The footsteps of the Toe-Eater became faint, and Johnny let out a gasp, his first deep breath since the lights had gone off.
The boy cautiously unfolded himself, climbed out from behind the bed, and crouched just below the bed rail, shuddering with fear. His heart pounded like a tribal drum as he slowly peeked over the edge of bed, over the mountainous landscape created by the crumpled bed sheets and blankets.
To the boy, the old woman seemed to be sleeping again. He reached out into the murk and delicately grabbed the exposed, wounded toe, “Don’t worry, it’s me, Grammy, it’s me,” he said.
The old woman produced a single shuddering gasp and suddenly the boy felt like he was all alone. He let go of the old woman’s toe and ran from the room.
As they loaded his grandmother’s casket into the crematorium, the boy pressed his face against his father’s leg. He couldn’t bring himself to look.
“It’s okay, little man,” his father said. “You don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”
The boy moved the fabric of his father’s pants aside just enough so that one of his big, brown eyes could watch.
The ignition of the incinerator made him jump. He watched the licking flames pour over the casket through the slotted grate in the door, and he just knew that something truly insidious lurked in there with his Grammy.
He looked over at his sobbing mother. Her long, slender fingers and red painted nails covered her mouth. He felt something darkly familiar about her hands and the way she cried.
Under his breath, he said, “Beware the Toe-Eater.”
Copyright © 2014 John A. DeMember