My son loved books. If the only thing the kid ever got as a gift was books, he’d have been the happiest person on earth. No idea where he got it from; his dad and I could barely bother skimming short news articles, much less intentionally sit down to slog through a book.
Cole, though. He was born to live between pages.
His grandma got him his first stack of picture books when he was a few months old. We lined them neatly on the single shelf hung over the rocking chair in his room, admired how their brightly colored spines complemented the pastel green of his walls, and then promptly forgot about them. Bad parenting? Maybe. But we figured he was still too young for it to matter.
It wasn’t until one sleepless night, when nothing would soothe him and I was just about ready to crawl in the crib and cry beside him, that the books caught my eye. It was a last ditch effort, after the car ride, the constant rocking, the cry it out method, had all failed. I didn’t expect it to work, but it felt like the only thing I hadn’t tried. I grabbed the one on the end and sat in the rocker.
Within minutes, Cole had fallen into a deep sleep.
From then on, our nightly routine changed. Dinner, burp, potty, bath, story. It worked like a charm, and by the time he turned five, one entire side of his room had been taken over by tall bookshelves lined with children’s titles.
Cole grew into a quiet child. He didn’t make friends easily, even at an age when it was usually so effortless, but he never complained. He had his books, and that seemed to be enough.
My husband, Daron, and I traded off nights so Cole had an equal amount of quality reading time with both of us. It was my turn that night. Cole had picked out Where The Wild Things Are, and we sat in his bed, him nestled against my side while I read the short tale of Max and his visit to the jungle of Wild Things.
“The e—” I started to say, but when I turned the page, another image was waiting for us.
I frowned down at it, certain that the previous page was the final one. Cole tipped his head back to look up at me, his expression sleepy, but expectant. Why wasn’t I finishing it, his little face asked. I kissed his forehead and smiled, convinced I’d just forgotten this last part. We went through so many books, it wasn’t all that surprising.
“Max went to bed, his belly full of hot supper.”
The accompanying image was of the little boy fast asleep in bed.
Now that has to be the end, I thought.
But there was one more page. One more picture, almost identical to the last.
“And the Wild Thing under his bed smiled, for his belly would soon be full too.”
It was then I noticed the difference: the pair of yellow eyes peering out from the darkness beneath the sleeping child. I snapped the book shut, causing Cole to jump slightly.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” he asked, seemingly unphased by the strange ending. Maybe he was too young, or too tired, to understand the implication of that passage.
“Nothing, baby,” I said.
I kissed him goodnight, tucked him snuggly beneath his covers, and left his room, the picture book tucked beneath my arm.
“Hey, Dar,” I said once I’d gotten downstairs. “Is this a new copy or something?”
I held up the book in question and Daron glanced away from the TV. “Don’t think so.”
“You sure? Because I’ve read it to him probably a dozen times and it’s never ended like this.”
I tossed it into his lap and he flipped idly through it. I watched his expression, waiting for the same confusion I felt to settle in, but he just shrugged.
“The kid gets his dinner, so what?”
“What?” I grabbed it back from him and opened it to the end, expecting to point out the creepy eyes and the sentence about the hungry Wild Thing.
But those pages were gone.
I ran my finger along the inner spine, gaping at the untorn edge, as if I thought that somehow, between leaving Cole’s room and coming downstairs, the additional pages might’ve gotten ripped out.
“There was a new ending,” I said. “Artwork and everything! It was implied Max was going to get eaten.”
Daron’s brow wrinkled. Now he was confused. “Did you doze off up there? Have a little dream, maybe?”
“No…at least, I don’t think so,” I said, but uncertainty had crept in. It wouldn’t have been the first time Cole and I fell asleep during a bedtime story. “Maybe.”
“That’s probably all it was,” Daron’s features relaxed into a teasing grin. “That’ll teach you to read such scary stuff before bed.”
I rolled my eyes and tossed the book on to the coffee table. That’d teach me indeed.
Daron was up the next night. I stood in the doorway, arms folded loosely across my chest, watching him read to our son. It was one of my favorite things to peek in on. Cole had picked one of his favorites, It Looked Like Spilt Milk, and called out the shapes he saw in the white splotches. He was grinning. It always made him look so much like his daddy.
“Angel!” Cole crowed.
Daron nodded along and turned the page.
Cole paused and pulled the book closer, studying it intently. A shadow passed over Daron’s face and the book was shut.
“Alright, buddy,” Daron said. “That’s enough for tonight.”
“But we’re not done!” Cole replied with a pout.
“It’s late, we’ll finish tomorrow.”
Cole whined a bit, but we settled him with raspberries on his tummy and a noisy kisses all along his face, until the book was forgotten. I followed Daron out into the hall and closed Cole’s door. Our smiles dropped.
“What happened?” I asked.
He thumbed through the short book, his head shaking in disbelief. “There was…something. I don’t know. Damnit, where is it?”
I put my hand on his arm. “Daron?”
“One of the pages, it was different. New. Just like you said last night.”
We traded a glance, unsure, tinged with the beginnings of fear.
“What was it?”
“It looked like a kid,” he said slowly. “Except it was like a chalk outline they use for bodies. But I can’t find it again.”
“What is going on?” I whispered.
My husband didn’t have an answer for me.
When Cole was in school the following day, I grabbed a stack of his books and laid them out on the floor around me. One by one, I went through them all, looking for any added pages, any changes to the sweet, colorful stories. But nothing seemed amiss. I did it again with a second set, but had the same results. No dark twists there either. I wasn’t sure if that made things better or worse.
The front door slammed shut downstairs.
“Cole,” Daron called over the pounding of little feet.
The bathroom door opened and closed with a loud bang. I hurried from his room and met Daron at the top of the stairs.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, concern tightening my voice. It was only the middle of the afternoon.
“Cole had an accident,” he said.
“An accident? Is he ok?” I grabbed my husband’s arm.
“An accident accident. In the middle of lunch. The other kids saw and, well, you know how kids are.”
My whole being ached for my child’s brush with public embarrassment and I went to the bathroom door.
“Hey, kiddo,” I said, knocking softly. “Daddy says you had a little accident.”
“I didn’t!” Cole shouted back.
I was shocked by his raised voice, but even more so by what I heard in it: hurt, shame, and so much anger. I looked back at Daron, who clearly shared my surprise, but he motioned for me to let him cool off for a few.
“You want me to come in?” I asked anyway.
“No,” he said curtly, and the word sank like a tiny splinter into my heart. It was the first time he’d ever turned me away.
Daron put an arm around my shoulders and I leaned against him with a sigh. It seemed the days of relatively uncomplicated parenting were coming to an end.
“It’s just about dinner time. Why don’t I order a pizza,” Daron said loudly enough for Cole to hear through the door.
It remained firmly shut.
My smile was flimsy. “Go ahead. I need to clean up and then I’ll be down.”
“I’ll explain later.”
We separated, him going downstairs, me returning to our son’s room. I sank to my knees in the middle of the book circle and picked one up. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was smudged and bent, a well read, well loved little book, and I flipped it open.
The caterpillar ate its apple.
The caterpillar ate its leaf.
The caterpillar ate its way through a child’s eyeball.
I practically threw the book away from me with a horrified yelp and rocked back on my heels, my heart pounding. I grabbed the next nearest book, The Giving Tree, and flung it open.
A boy hung from the lowest branch, his large black eyes wide and empty.
The next book’s pages were just shades of red, pale at first, but darker and darker until everything, pictures, words, and all were covered in the deepest crimson. It was the same in the next and the next and the next.
I screamed for my husband to get upstairs. He rushed to my side and I held up the red stained pages for him to see. He took hold of the book and dropped on to the edge of our son’s bed.
“I didn’t have an accident.”
Cole’s voice, so low and dark that I almost didn’t recognize it, startled us. We looked at him, standing in the doorway in the pajamas he left on the bathroom floor in the morning.
Cole’s stare snapped to me and for a moment, I saw something in his pale eyes I’d never seen before. Anger. Hatred. So cold the air fled from my lungs. And then his face cracked, and my little boy crumpled in a sobbing heap.
No matter how much we begged him to tell us what was going on, he refused, until he’d cried himself to sleep. Daron and I looked helplessly to one another, and then, not knowing what else to do, we started picking up the books.
A few tentative checks revealed they’d all returned to normal.
I thought, given a good night’s sleep, Cole might do the same, and we’d be able to talk to him. About his accident, about his books. But he was still sullen and quiet all through the next morning.
“I love you, Cole,” I said as I dropped him off at school.
“Love you,” he said, a mechanical reflex on his way out of the car.
I watched him trudge toward the entrance, a book hugged tight against his chest like a shield.
My phone rang just an hour later.
“Mrs. Velez?” a woman asked.
“This is Ms. Thatcher, your son’s principal. We need you to come down to the school. There’s been…an incident.”
I was beaten to the office by a pair of uniformed officers. The look they gave me when I entered was scathing.
“What’s wrong? Where’s Cole?” I demanded, breathless from having run from my car.
“He’s in my office,” Ms. Thatcher said, her tone carefully neutral.
“Why wouldn’t you tell me what happened over the phone? Is he ok?”
“Cole is fine” she said in the same way. “The boy he stabbed, however, is not.”
Cole. My sweet, gentle baby who was never happier than when he had his nose in a book. They said he had killed another child.
They claimed they didn’t know why, not really. The other boy, Harry, had been a bit older, in second grade to Cole’s kindergarten, and popular with his peers. The teachers said they’d even seen him talking to Cole, who usually kept to himself and his books. The attack, as they called it, was seemingly unprompted.
Cole had a different story.
Harry had been picking on Cole since they’d met during recess a few months before. He thought Cole was weird and let everyone know it. There was name calling, teasing, Harry led his friends in taking Cole’s book and playing monkey in the middle with them.
“I tried to tell the teachers, but they didn’t listen,” Cole said. “They said he was playing.”
Boys will be boys.
“Why didn’t you tell me and Daddy?” I asked him.
“I didn’t want you to be mad at me. The teachers got mad.”
The splinter embedded in my heart pierced straight through.
Cole had tried to ignore Harry, but it didn’t help. Every day, some new taunt or torment awaited him in the schoolyard. And every day, he was less and less able to escape into his books.
The one place he thought he might be able to escape, tainted by Harry’s endless presence.
And I’d seen it. I’d seen the anger bubbling in the books, but never my son. The hungry monster under the bed, waiting to eat the little boy. The body shape that Daron had seen in the spilt milk. The hungry caterpillar, the hanging tree. All that red. Reflections I couldn’t explain of a child being pushed closer and closer to the edge. My child.
And I’d missed it, save for those brief, inexplicable images hidden within his safe spaces.
It came to a head when Harry had dumped water into Cole’s lap and shouted that “the weirdo” had pissed himself in the middle of the lunch room.
No one had helped Cole beyond escorting him to the nurse’s office to call his dad.
“He was so mean to me, Mommy,” he sobbed into my shoulder. “I didn’t mean to hurt him, I just wanted him to stop.”
So that morning, when Harry had approached him after drop off to tease him about wetting himself, Cole took out the scissors he’d taken from my desk and hidden in the middle of his book.
All it took was a single hard blow to his neck, and Harry finally stopped.
I held my little boy close while the world shattered around us. My mind had gone blank, no thoughts, only white hot, searing fear and confusion. How had this happened? Any of it. All of it.
His book had fallen open on the floor at our feet and I gazed vacantly down at it, a well worn copy of a Clifford The Big Red Dog book.
Clifford sat proudly in the middle of the page, a mangled boy hanging limply from his jaws.
At his side, a small figure I would have recognized anywhere stood with his hand against Clifford’s leg and a wide smile, one that always made him look so much like his daddy, on his little face.