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Terrible Doesn't Begin To Describe It

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She doesn't understand why Mommy's crying, only that she cries a lot these days.

"Mommy?" the tiny girl whispers through the keyhole, contrasting the dark room on the other side in her pink and white polka dot dress.

The crying lessens.

"Yes, Gemma?" Her mommy sounds like she has a stuffy nose. Maybe she's sick. Maybe that's why she's crying.

"Daddy called you on the phone." Gemma opens the door and proudly brings the phone to her red-nosed mother. As she slowly takes the phone from her daughter, Gemma pipes up again, concerned.

"Are you okay, mommy?"

"Yes, Gemma, I'm fine."

Mommy doesn't look fine, but Mommy knows everything. If she says she's okay, she must be.

Gemma wanders over to the corner with the books and selects a Curious George paperback. She opens it, listening to her mother's side of the conversation while she examines the watercolors.

"Nothing... everything." "I can't, it's too much." "What do you what me to DO?"

Hairs stand up on Gemma's neck as her mother's voice grows more and more stressed. Finally she jumps up to leave.

But- "Gemma, Daddy wants to say hi."

Daddy! The tiny girl in the polka dot dress reaches for the phone.

"Hi, daddy!"

"Hey, Gemma."

She remembers her manners. "How are you, daddy? How was work today?"

A tired chuckle. "It was good, sweetie. But can you help me with something?"

This is exciting. Gemma doesn't get to help Daddy very often. She'll take this very seriously.

"OK."

"Can you tell me if mommy's okay?"

"She's crying but she says 'I'm fine,'" Gemma turns and smiles at Mommy, proud of herself, but Mommy's not looking. She's gazing into a silver-edged handheld mirror.

"What's she doing right now?" the deep voice on the other end asks across the phone. Gemma describes the scene to him.

"Tell her how pretty she is, Gemma, and that I'm coming home soon." Gemma does as her father asks, a little alarmed by the urgency of his tone.

Mommy shakes her head, flinging a few tears across the room. A small, sarcastic laugh escapes her.

"She's laughing," reports Gemma uncertainly. Something isn't quite right.

"Mommy has to use the bathroom now, okay?" her mother says, tears rolling down her face. Gemma cannot for the life of her understand why the bathroom is such a depressing place. The bathroom is where she can make bubble crowns in the tub and play with her duckie. "I love you Gemma, okay? I love you so much."

When Daddy hears of mommy's plans, he gives his daughter a single command.

"Follow her."

Gemma, good girl that she is, watches as her mother walks down the hall... and passes the bathroom. Gemma thinks this is a game. She hides behind a shelf when Mommy walks into the kitchen, stifling a giggle. Her father is conversing with the taxi driver in the car, phone tilted away from him for a moment.

He misses his daughter catch her breath as she watches Mommy pull a long, thin knife from the dishwasher. He hears, though, when Gemma cautions her; "Knives aren't for playing with, Mommy."

"Gemma? Gemma, are you there?" her father tries to keep his voice calm but can barely hide the panic rising in his chest.

"Mommy is playing games with a knife," Gemma says sadly, a sentence that will haunt her father for the rest of his life. "That's a no-no, right, Daddy?"

Her father is on the verge of tears. "Tell her not to, Gemma, tell her daddy's nearly there and he wants to talk to her!"

"Wait for Daddy, Mommy!" cries Gemma, following her mother to the bathroom- but she slips inside and locks the door before her daughter has a chance to reach inside. Her voice soaks through the wood and reaches Gemma's confused ears.

"It's okay, Gemma. I love you. Tell Daddy I love him too, and that it's not his fault."

Gemma relays the message to her father, unsure of what else to do. He nearly chokes in his misery.

"No..." He pleads to no one. "No, I'm almost home..."

Gemma pounds on the bathroom door, understanding, finally, that this is no game.

"Mommy!" she shrieks, dropping the phone. Come out, Mommy! Please come out!" But there is no sound from the other side of the bathroom door, nothing at all.

Gemma is scared, and salty tears slide down her face, adding misshapen polka dots to her formerly sweet dress. Now it just feels dirty. Everything feels dirty, sick. The little girl doesn't understand. Her frightened thumb finds it's way into her mouth, where she sucks on it. Something she hasn't done for a year and a half.

When the front door crashes open, snapping the awful silence, she screams and jumps in fright.

Her daddy, looking more scared than she's ever seen him, runs with thundering footsteps down the hall.

"BECCA!" he bellows. "Becca, where are you!" He sees Gemma slumped against the pale yellow wall opposite the bathroom.

"No... No..." He kicks the door with his firefighter-strong boots until a hole appears, the wood splintering to reveal a portion of the bathroom.

"Don't look, Gemma, please don't look," he cautions. Gemma covers her wet eyes with two small hands as her father lets out a moan of pain. For once, she doesn't peek.

Tears flooding his eyes, he holds his daughter in the polka dot dress. Back and forth he rocks her, "shhhing" both of them all the while. Gemma is still unsure what has happened- but she knows that the bathroom is now a Dark Place. Her mother is trapped there. How? Why?

Nothing will ever be the same again.



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