Touched

You try to trust your kids. You try to believe in them and let them make their own choices and hope that you’ve instilled in them enough morals and common sense to get by without you hovering over their shoulder.

And then you get a call while you’re out on your first date in almost five years to say that *both* of your daughters were rounded up as part of a large group of kids trespassing up at Cliffhook House.

It might not have been so bad if it were just Marci, she was fifteen, it came with the age, I could have understood that rebellious desire to sneak out and taste some ill gotten freedom. What I could not understand was why she thought it was ok to drag her eight year old sister, who she was supposed to be babysitting, along with her.

After a very quick apology to the guy I was with, I hurried out to join a small caravan of SUVs and mom mobiles winding their way up the steep road that led to Cliffhook. Even from a distance, it’s iconic towers and slanted roofs were visible over the trees. At various points in its long history, the great stone structure had served as a private home, a girl’s school, a minimum security prison, and an infirmary before it closed for good. Now, apparently, it was just a conquest for bored high schoolers looking for a place to party.

The parking lot was already alight with the red and blue of idling cop cars when we pulled in and a baby faced officer met us at the front steps. We were made to provide ID and then led like a herd of cattle through the tall double doors. The inside was dark and smelled of damp and mildew and we had to stick close to Officer Gerber as he guided us by flashlight down the hall.

The kids were all being held in a small office, where they looked varying degrees of bored or nervous. Only my youngest, Layla, looked the least bit guilty. She actually burst into tears when I came in and launched herself at me from her seat with a flurry of apologies. I wasn’t upset with her, though; all of my ire was directed straight at Marci, who met my scowl with an unconcerned flip of her dark hair.

“What were you thinking?” I hissed at her through clenched teeth after we’d received a long lecture from the sergeant. “Do you realize how dumb this was? What if you’d been hurt? Or your sister? I asked you to be responsible for two hours, just *two* hours, and you couldn’t even give me that!”

Layla clung to my hand, still sniffling, while Marci stomped towards the exit ahead of us.

“Would you chill out, Mom? Layla was fine; I made sure she was in a room away from the party-“

“You left her alone?” My grip tightened around Layla’s hand with a renewed rush of Things That Could Have Gone Wrong flashing through my head.

“She was *fine*,” Marci said again and I could hear the eye roll implied in her voice. “I checked on her, geez. Relax, wouldn’t want you stroking out.”

Her attempt at a low blow was not lost on me, although I bit down hard on my tongue to keep from reacting to it. My mother had passed the year before from a stroke and she knew how sensitive I still was over it. I stared at her back, a surge of anger and hurt and a love so complete and unconditional that it made the former two all the more painful coursing through me, and I reminded myself that she didn’t truly understand the weight of her words.

From down at my side, Layla gave my hand a little tug.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” she said yet again.

I forced all of the teen-caused angst deep down into the pit that all parents have to dig within themselves and smiled at her.

“It’s not your fault, sweetie.”

“If it helps you feel better, I wasn’t alone.”

No, no that didn’t help me feel better. My stomach tightened and I asked, “Someone was with you?”

“Yeah,” Layla pointed over her shoulder, where our shadows had become stretched along the floor behind us in the glow of light coming in through the open front doors. “Ada was with me.”

“Ada?”

“Yeah, she was already in there when I got there and she wanted to be my friend, so I said ok and we played together the whole time! I wasn’t scared or anything, Mama, it’s ok.”

“Was she at the party, too?”

“No, she was there a long time.”

“Ah,” I said.

I just kept smiling and nodded and marveled at the imagination of a child left to her own devices.

What a nice, creepy icing for the shitheap cake that this evening had become.

When we got home, I rounded up all the chargers for the cell phones and laptops and the power cords for the gaming console and locked them in the safe I kept in my closet. Marci screamed that I was being unfair, that I was a fascist (which was a new term; I hoped it meant she was paying attention in her history class), that I was trying to ruin her life. Her phone was her lifeline, didn’t I understand? It was already at 33%, it wouldn’t last long!

“Cherish it,” I told her, shutting the safe and spinning its combination lock. “It needs to last you two weeks, and then we’ll *talk* about whether you get your cords back. You’re still grounded for the full month regardless.”

“What if I have an emergency and need to make a call?” She demanded.

“You can take the flip phone in my nightstand. You’ve earned it.” I said. She shrieked in frustration and stormed out of my room and I called after her. “And if I see that your phone has been charged at all, I’m taking it away altogether!”

The slamming door I received in response reverberated through our small house.

Joke was on her, though; she shared a room with Layla, who I still had to tuck in. Marci glared up at her ceiling the entire time Layla and I went through her bedtime routine, like she thought her sullen silence was punishing me. After getting Layla snuggled under her covers, I told both girls that I loved them, switched the light off, and shut the door behind me on my way out.

I had one, single hour of peace.

“Knock it the fuck off, Layla!” Marci shouted.

I groaned and rolled off the couch, where I’d been watching reruns of I Dream of Genie, and returned to their room. They were both sitting up in bed when I turned the light back on, Layla teary eyed and protesting and Marci yelling at her.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, stepping into the middle of the room so I was between them. “Both of you quiet down, and Marci, watch your language.”

“But she’s being a bitch, Mom!”

“Marci!”

“Am not!” Layla argued. “I wasn’t doing anything!”

“She’s lying! She was throwing shit at me; look!”

Marci gestured towards the floor, where a few of Layla’s stuffed animals were scattered around beside her bed. It was hard not to believe Marci’s side of things with such damning evidence.

“Layla,” I said warningly, “why were you throwing things at your sister?”

“It wasn’t me, it was Ada! She doesn’t like Marci, she said she’s mean,” Layla pouted. “I told her not to.”

There was that name again, the same one she’d said at Cliffhook. I sighed, raking a hand through my hair. The night had been long enough already without Layla adding a mischievous imaginary friend into the mix.

“Layla, honey, can we just behave please? Mama’s very tired-”

“It wasn’t me!”

“I don’t want to hear it, ok? Just behave, tell Ada to behave, and all your stuffies, too. I don’t want to have to come back in here.”

Layla turned to her wall, where her shadow was sitting up beside her. “I told you we’d get in trouble,” she said glumly.

I bid them both goodnight again and returned to the living room. The TV continued to play, but it was little more than background noise while I mulled over Layla and this new friend of hers. It made sense, to a degree, that she might have made up a friend to play pretend with while in that spooky manor house, but now it seemed that she had brought it home. Was that normal? Did kids do that?

I frowned up at the ceiling. It was silly to think that it was anything more than Layla using her imagination as a way to act out. She was mad at Marci for getting them in trouble, it made sense. Still, the timing couldn’t have been worse; it was just making an already tense situation worse, not to mention that it did seem eerie based on where it started.

A sigh escaped me and I grabbed the remote, flipping the television off.

Don’t be such a worrywart, I scolded myself, by tomorrow, she’ll move on to whatever flight of fancy catches her interest and next Ada will be forgotten.

But Ada was far from being just a memory the next morning.

Layla was quiet and sluggish at breakfast and, when I asked her why, she just said Ada had talked all night and now she was sleepy because of it. The same pangs of concern from the night before reared up again, but I bottled them back up quickly. If this was some kind of subconscious ploy for attention or an excuse to cover up that she’d stayed up too late when she was supposed to have been sleeping, I didn’t want to feed into it.

I also not so secretly hoped it would put an end to Ada faster. I was the parent, I had to be rational and clear headed; I couldn’t let the kids know that I found this sudden onset of make believe friend a little unsettling, to say the least.

“Stop being weird, Layla,” Marci said, “no one was talking to you last night.”

While I told her to be nice to her little sister, I couldn’t help but silently echo the sentiment (albeit in more gentle, motherly terms).

Layla’s behavior, though, didn’t get any less “weird”.

Over the next week, I received at least one yellow card from school letting me know that Layla had been misbehaving. Monday’s said she was pinching other kids in line, Tuesday’s claimed she’d pushed another little girl down the slide, on Wednesday she came home with two, one for biting someone on their shoulder from behind hard enough to leave an indent and another for yanking someone else’s hair so hard that their scalp bled a little.

It wasn’t much better at home. Marci had been tripped and hit and found thumbtacks in her shoes and on her seats. She even came to me one evening, screaming that she’d found sewing needles pinned through her clothes so that they might stab her when she pulled them on. It got so bad that I agreed to let Marci stay at their Dad’s while I worked things out with Layla.

No one saw Layla doing these things directly, they were all sudden and from behind, but when the victim turned around, she’d be standing there.

It was hard not to think that she was guilty, but I tried. I asked, begged, pleaded, demanded to know what was going on, but she only ever had one answer.

“Ada did it.”

And then, every time, she would look towards her shadow.

The whole ordeal was taking a toll on all of us, we were snippy and short tempered and irritable, but no one more than Layla. Her appetite had dwindled, her sleeping became irregular, she developed dark, hollow circles around her eyes, and she lost interest in doing a lot of the things she had loved only a week before. She insisted she felt fine, though, and said that she was happy as long as Ada was happy. Her friend was very important to her.

I, however, was growing increasingly concerned and anxious.

“I think we should go to the doctor, honey,” I said Wednesday night at the dinner table. Between the increasingly violent outbursts and the fact that she’d barely picked at her meatloaf, I felt like I had to start seeking professional help.

She looked so pale, so tired.

“No, I’m ok, Mama,” she replied.

“I’m going to call Dr. Bardson, just to be certain.”

Layla shook her head. “Ada won’t like it!”

“Sweetie, we can’t go on like this. You’re not eating or sleeping, you’re getting in trouble at school, you’re picking on your sister. This isn’t like you.”

“Because it’s *not* me!” Her lower lip trembled in frustration and she jabbed a finger towards the floor, where her shadow pooled beneath her. “It’s Ada!”

I pulled my chair close to her and grabbed her hands in mine. “Baby, where did Ada come from? Are you mad at Marci for the party thing? Are you upset with me? What’s going on? I need you to talk to me.”

She met my gaze solemnly. “She’s my friend. She lived at Cliffhook for a long time all by herself. She was very lonely. Now she has me, so she doesn’t have to be sad anymore. I don’t want her to be sad.”

“But she does bad things, we don’t want to be friends with people who do bad things.”

I didn’t know if I was encouraging her poor behavior or this Ada fixation, but I had to try and do something. If I could just get her to see how harmful her little game was, we could go back to normal. All would be well.

“She doesn’t mean it, Mama. Sometimes she just gets mad and she does things. I can’t just stop being her friend, though, everyone else already did! She needs me.”

The understanding route didn’t seem to be working; I needed to switch gears into Bad Cop mode.

“We need to stop this, Layla; no more Ada, no more getting in trouble, no more playing around, ok? I’ve been very patient, but enough is enough.”

“I’m not playing! I didn’t do any of it; Ada did it,” she recited the same excuse she’d been using since that night at Cliffhook.

“I don’t want to hear it!”

Layla shoved herself back from the table and ran out of the kitchen, tears brimming in her eyes.

I told myself then that it was just my imagination, but as she left the room, her shadow flitted along the wall beside her, and I thought to myself that it looked darker and more defined than it should have.

She remained in her room for the rest of the night and I left a message with her pediatrician, asking for the earliest possible appointment.

The next day, just after lunch, I got a call from the elementary school.

Layla was being accused of having stabbed the boy who sat in front of her in the back with a pencil.

“Ada did it!”

The teacher heard it. The principal heard it. The school psychologist heard it. They all heard it, and they all told me that they weren’t buying it. It wasn’t stated outright, but they each implied that they thought something was going on at home that had triggered such behavior in my usually well behaved daughter. They asked about any changes that might have been made, if I had any new people in my life that I’d left alone with my kids, if our routine had home had been upset.

I was open with them, both too afraid that they might find an excuse to escalate matters to authorities who could take Layla away to lie and hopeful that they could offer me some guidance, and told them about Cliffhook and my fights with Marci and about Ada. They took notes, they listened, and then they suspended Layla. We were lucky, they said, the boy was going to be ok and since Layla had always been a good student, they weren’t going to expel her. Yet.

When I asked for help, for advice, for anything, they gave me a list of therapists for me to contact and sent us on our way.

I was furious, at Layla, at the school, at myself; I felt let down and like I’d let my child down. I tried to talk to her about what had happened, but she just said, “Ada did it.”

Her voice was quiet, tiny, exhausted.

She went to bed without even attempting supper that night. I stood outside her door, my forehead resting against the frame, and I cried quietly for my sweet little girl and for all the ways I seemed to be failing her.

Sleep was a welcome escape when I finally managed to find it a few hours later.

A sudden weight at the end of my bed woke me sometime late in the night. Being woken up from a deep slumber is second nature to mothers and, unperturbed, I propped myself up on my elbows and stared blearily into the darkness, until the familiar outline of my daughter became visible. She was sitting at my feet, quiet and still.

“Layla?” I asked. “Is everything ok?”

“I’m hungry, Mommy,” Layla’s voice was a soft whisper.

“Of course, baby,” I said, throwing back my comforter. “Want me to make you something?”

“Mama?”

I jumped and jerked towards my bedroom door. Layla was standing in the open doorway, her little glow worm stuffie hugged against her chest so that it illuminated her drawn features.

When I looked back to the foot of the bed, there was nothing there.

“I told her not to wake you,” Layla said.

“What?” My mouth had gone dry.

“Ada.”

Layla spent the remainder of the night in my room, curled up against my side and finally getting some much needed sleep while I held tight to her. Before she’d drifted off, I’d tried to ask her what exactly Ada was, a ghost, a demon, something else, but she had just shrugged, her eyes already shut and her body relaxed.

“She’s Ada.”

I had never been a particularly superstitious or religious person, but that night, I was suddenly both. Ada was no longer just some figment of my daughter’s imagination, she was no longer just the scapegoat for Layla’s wrongdoings, she was something else, something much darker, and she was very real.

I no longer believed I needed a doctor to help Layla; I needed a priest.

After a sleepless night spent watching vigil over my child, I searched for the nearest churches and went down the list, calling one after another and telling them about Layla and Ada. A few thought I was a prankster, others just said that they were sympathetic, but couldn’t help, but there were three that agreed to at least meet with us and I made appointments with each for that same day.

We went to St. Bernadette’s first, where we were met by the welcoming Father Darby. He brought us to a rec room and told Layla to play while we talked. Instead, we sat in silence across the room and he simply observed the half hearted, disinterested way she pushed the toys around.

“Do you mind if I speak with her?” He asked. “You can watch from here, I just want to hear the child’s experience in her own words.”

I agreed and he sat with her for a while. They spoke softly, the Father smiling and nodding and patient while she mumbled along. I strained to hear what was being said, but it was a futile effort and I resigned myself to watching and hoping.

When Father Darby returned to me, he looked grim.

“Layla has been touched,” he said. “The entity she encountered at Cliffhook has bound itself to her and she has accepted it willingly. It hungers for blood and chaos and as it gets stronger, it will take its fill however it can. It’ll be little things at first, but they will progress. Its appetite is never satisfied. It is an unholy thing that she continues to carry with her as an extension of her own body, even here, even now. Her innocence protects it.”

Her shadow, I thought with a low moan.

Under normal circumstances, I believe I might have laughed at him and told him that that was ridiculous, that I was too rational a person to believe in that nonsense. Instead, I had flashbacks to Linda Blair in The Exorcist and swallowed hard.

“What can we do?”

When he reached out and put his warm hand over mine, a chill spread throughout my body.

“She is willing, Ms. Garron. As long as she welcome the creature, there is nothing that can be done; she is its shelter and its protector,” he said, and then he paused to glance at Layla. “At this stage, though, I’m not sure that we would be able to remove it at all. Your daughter is…very weak; Ada is working quickly.”

“What are you saying? What’s going to happen to her?” I clutched his hand in a vice grip.

“Entities like this Ada are parasites. They latch on to humans, especially children, who are easier to manipulate, and they feed on them until the host is so weak that the entity can inhabit their body. Once that happens…willful possession damns the soul, Ms. Garron. Layla has welcomed this thing into her and now, she is too weak to fight it. It is only a matter of time.”

“I-I don’t believe you,” I sputtered. “There must be something we can do. Call a young priest, get the holy water, whatever you need to do! I will pay you!”

He just shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

I cursed at him and whisked Layla out of his church, determined to find a better outcome, to get actual help, at one of the others.

The news I received from the priests at St. Leo’s and St. Gerard’s was similar.

“She’s a child!” I snapped at Father Jerome after he, too, told me that allowing Ada to fully possess Layla would condemn her.

“She is,” he agreed sadly, “one who did not know what she was doing. May God have mercy on her.”

Layla and I sat in the car in the parking lot of St. Gerard’s for a long while. I wept into my hands while my little girl pat my arm, telling me that all would be ok.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” she said. “It’s ok, me and Ada are here for you.”

I uncovered my face long enough to look down into hers. When had it become so colorless, so thin? Her eyes were watery and bloodshot, her lips chapped, her hair limp and dry. My baby was exhausted from a battle she didn’t even know she was fighting.

I took her hard by the shoulders. “You have to send Ada away, Layla! She’s hurting you, can’t you see?”

She shrank away from me with a small, heartbreaking cry. “No, Mama, she’s my friend! She needs me! She was so scared and alone at Cliffhook, she can’t go back!”

“Please, baby, for me? For Mama? Send her away!”

“I can’t! I can’t!”

We stared at one another, tears streaming down both our faces. She was trembling in my grip and I realized how bony her arms felt beneath my fingers. I pulled her to my chest and I hugged her tightly and I covered the top of her head in kisses while murmuring that I loved her.

My daughter wasn’t damned, she wasn’t condemned; she was an innocent.

An innocent.

My heart squeezed tight in my chest, painful and swollen, and I couldn’t breathe without shuddering. I let Layla go and told her to buckle up, that we were going on a ride.

If Ada had come from Cliffhook, Ada was going to return to Cliffhook.

The sun was setting behind its towers when we finally arrived. I parked in the lot, closest to the overlook that afforded a brilliant view of the town below. We stood in front of that great stone behemoth of a building and Layla asked me why we had come.

“Because we have to get rid of Ada,” I said.

“No, Mama, she doesn’t want to go back! She hates it here! I won’t let you!”

Layla broke away from me and, in a surprising burst of energy, ran across the parking lot, away from Cliffhook, her shadow, dark and defined, at her side. I gave chase, calling after her, and we ran down the footpath that led to the edge of the cliff that gave the manor its name. Layla skid to a halt, her chest heaving, and whirled around to face me.

“I won’t!” She shouted, and I felt my heart sink into my stomach.

“Ok, baby, it’s ok,” I said, my voice wavering dangerously. “Come here, it’s ok.”I took a step towards her and she took one back, so close to that sheer drop down the rocky ledge, and I sprang forward, wrapping her in the tightest hug I’d ever given. She clung to me in return, sobbing against my chest.

“Ada hates it here! She won’t go back, she won’t,” she said.

“I know, baby,” I whispered, “it’s ok. It’s going to be ok. I love you, Layla.”

“I love you, too, Mama.”

My grip on Layla loosened and her’s did as well. I felt her little arms unwrapping from around my waist and I gazed down at her and she up at me with those blue eyes of hers, once so bright, but dull now, and so tired.

“I love you, Layla,” I said again, barely able to form the words.

I cupped her face in my hands and I pressed my lips hard against her forehead. My tears dripped onto her skin, down her cheeks, mingling with her own.

I said it one more time, when I pushed my baby girl from the overlook of Cliffhook House.

My daughter wasn’t damned, she wasn’t condemned, and now she never would be.

I sank to the ground, my arms wrapped around myself, rocking back and forth. I was unable to scream or cry, unable to make a single sound. The only thing that kept me from jumping after her was thoughts of Marci. I sat there while the sun sank below the horizon, leaving streaks like blood across the sky, and I continued to sit there long after the crickets had started to sing their nighttime songs.

When I could finally bring myself to move, it was mechanical, like someone else was controlling my body and I was just a passenger along for the ride. A strange, disconnected numbness had washed over me, and I drifted back to the car in a fog. Once inside, I gripped the steering wheel with both fists and stared blankly through the windshield at all the twinkling lights in the town below.

I didn’t even notice the dark figure sitting in the backseat, not until it spoke in Layla’s soft whisper.

“I’m hungry, Mommy.”

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