by Matt Godfrey
Shortly after the birth of her daughter, strange noises from the nursery began to wake Miriam Applewhite up at night. At first she would burst into the room, afraid something had fallen and woken or even harmed the infant, but each time the baby would be asleep and nothing in the room appeared out of place, at least not in the soft glow from the street lamp that reached in from behind the closed curtains.
Her husband Tom never heard the noises, but he was a heavy sleeper who had once slept through a tornado that caused significant damage to the house next door. Each morning she would describe the noises to him, a scrape or a thud, a clatter or a bang. Tom would smile, say, "The ghosts are getting so clumsy," then stuff his mouth with a granola bar.
Miriam was torn between feeling angry at him for not taking her seriously and frustrated at herself for never finding any proof that something real had happened in the nursery. It was in a state of self-frustration as she was emptying the diaper pail one morning that she found the indent in the wall. A small mound of plaster dust lay on the floor against the baseboard, several inches below a jagged round depression. Her first thought was that she would need to get out the spackling and she hated touching the spackling, but then she stiffened as she realized that this dent must be evidence of whatever she was hearing in the night.
The baby cried as she was dropping to one knee to investigate further, so she walked over to the crib where the little girl had been sitting surrounded by toys and scooped her into her arms. They walked over to a picture hanging on the wall, just above the mysterious indentation, an oversized playful portrait of a goat wearing a suit and fedora, and continued their daily ritual of Miriam pointing at everything in the room and naming it for the child. The goat stared out of the frame with eyes narrowed in mischief, a half-smile frozen on his face. His floppy ears were pushed out to the sides by the hat and his blue suit was complete with a blue and white pinstriped tie and pocket square.
“Say hello to Mr. Goat," Miriam would say, waving. The baby recently had started reacting to this daily observance with a smile, and Miriam felt that a wave was close at hand. The online forums said there was still at least a month before that milestone, but Miriam was determined to teach her and waving at Mr. Goat seemed as good a lesson as any. Then they would move on to the yarn mobile hanging over the crib, at which Miriam would point and say, "Mobile. Mobile," exaggerating the syllables until she hated the sound of her own voice, and on to the lamp, the stuffed animals, the other pictures on the walls.
Before they left the nursery to name all the other objects in the house, Miriam would always give a last wave goodbye to Mr. Goat. "Say bye bye to Mr. Goat, angel. Bye, Mr. Goat. We'll probably get bored in fifteen minutes and come say hello to you again." Each word was stretched to twice its normal length with the false cheeriness of a parent running out of ways to entertain their child.
They left the room and Miriam skipped down the long hallway into the kitchen, bouncing the baby and making her laugh. She stopped abruptly in front of the sink when the walls shook with a huge thud, as if something very heavy had dropped to the floor from a great height. She turned around slowly, unsure of what she would see. The sound had come from the direction of the nursery.
She held the child tighter as she padded back down the hall, taking extra care with each step to make as little noise as possible. She craned her neck to see around the door frame and into the nursery. Everything seemed normal. She entered the room and surveyed the scene, still being as silent as possible, though she wasn't sure why. Nothing had fallen. Everything was in its place.
As she walked out of the room and back toward the kitchen something caught her eye. She turned her head to the portrait of Mr. Goat and stared. A long moment passed between her and the picture. She moved closer, and then closer still, until her face was only inches away from the glass. Was something different? She squinted her eyes in concentration but nothing came to her. The moment was finally broken when the baby in her arms started to whine and squirm, bored by the lack of movement. She left the room, not noticing that the little pile of plaster dust had grown, and next to the indentation there was now a black scuff.
Later that night as she and her husband lay beside each other in bed, each buried in their own iPhone, Miriam came across a photo she had taken earlier in the day of their daughter laughing. They’d been trying for weeks to get a good photo of this because they both thought she looked so grown up the way she covered her smile with her two tiny hands. “Hey, look at the picture I got today,” Miriam said.
She turned the phone toward Tom and he immediately broke out in a smile. “You’re kidding me. What did you do to get her to laugh so much?” He took the phone and moved it closer to his face, still smiling, a father deeply in love with his child.
“No clue. She was just rolling around on the floor in her room and I was cleaning up a little. Wasn’t even looking at her when she started to laugh.”
“Let’s print this one out. Frame it.”
She took the phone back and as she looked again at the photo she froze. She hadn’t noticed it before, but now it was all she could see. In the photo, their daughter lay on a blanket on the floor, head angled slightly away from the camera, looking off to the side. She was in focus and the background was slightly blurry, but it was clear that she was looking up at the wall. Looking up at the portrait of Mr. Goat, whose head was turned and pointed down at her, lips open in a wicked smile.
She didn’t speak for a long time, deciding whether or not it was true, whether or not she was crazy. But the evidence was right in front of her. Her voiced caught as she said, “Tom.”
But before he could speak a low thud rumbled their bed. They both snapped their heads in the direction of the nursery. “Now that one I actually heard,” Tom said, laughing and tossing off the covers as he climbed out of bed. “I’ll go check.” He calmly slipped on a pair of house shoes that matched the ridiculous red silk pajamas he loved so much. But Miriam's fear paralyzed her. She sat bolt upright in bed, gripping the covers, too shaken to move.
Then, from across the hall, they heard their daughter cry.
Miriam scrambled out of bed, her motherly instincts shoving away her fear. Tom rushed to the nursery and threw open the door. Miriam was only a few steps behind, but she could see nothing as Tom stepped into the room and was enveloped by the darkness.
The cries subsided and Miriam stopped outside the door, straining her ears for any hint of sound. The silence stretched on, and just as she was about to go in and check, a large black shape rushed through the shadows in front of her and the door slammed in her face.
She reached for the door knob, hand shaking, and turned. “Tom!” she shouted over and over, rattling the knob but unable to open the door. More deep thuds from inside the nursery. She gritted her teeth, backed up a few steps, and threw her shoulder into the door as hard as she could, turning the knob as she did. The door crashed open and she was thrown into the black. She stumbled into the middle of the room and righted herself, struggling to make out shapes among shadows.
“Miriam!” Tom shouted, and she pivoted toward the noise. “Take her!”
At first she didn’t understand what was happening. As her eyes adjusted she finally saw that Tom was on his back on the floor, clutching the baby to his chest. But he was moving, was being pulled across the rug by his leg. A shape, animal-like, shrouded in shadow, was dragging him toward the wall. Toward the portrait of Mr. Goat.
“Just take her!” he kept shouting, extending his arms as far as he could, shoving the baby out and away from him. Miriam rushed over and grabbed the child, now crying again, and pulled her close to her chest. The shape pulling Tom raised its head and looked at her, then snorted and bared its teeth. They glinted off the dim light from the hall. She recognized the smile.
As she watched, torn between fleeing the room and fighting, the shape backed itself into the wall below the portrait. It put one sinewy leg onto the wall, its hoof resting in the little indentation, bits of paint and plaster dust falling into the growing pile below. It pushed itself up and fell backwards, sinking back into the picture frame.
Tom was now upside down flat against the wall, one leg bent and swallowed by the frame up to the knee. He was disappearing, inch by inch, in violent little tugs. He screamed and fought, arms flailing, fingernails clutching at the smooth wall.
Miriam snapped into action. She shuffled the baby into a one-armed football hold and rushed over to whatever she once believed was a picture frame. She grabbed Tom's arm and pulled, but with only one hand and nothing to brace herself against she didn't have the strength to pull him out. Another yank from beyond the frame and he disappeared up to his waist, bent backwards in an excruciating, inhuman way.
Maybe if she pulled the frame from the wall everything would stop. Maybe its power would be broken. She dropped Tom's hand and grabbed the top of the frame. "Everything's going to be okay," she said, and pulled the frame from the wall as hard as she had ever pulled anything in her life.
The wire from which it hung snapped and the frame fell forward, directly over Tom, and landed flat on the floor. She stood, unable to move, looking down at the back of the picture. Even the baby stopped crying, and silence settled. Tom had disappeared underneath the frame.
Finally she gathered the courage to kneel beside the overturned frame and flip it over. It took her hand years to reach out and grip the side of the black plastic, but once she was holding it she righted the frame in a single, swift move.
Her breathing was the only thing she could hear as she rose and switched on the light. There were too many shadows without it to confirm what she feared to be true. Once it was on and the room was bathed in a white, irreverent LED shine, she turned around as slowly as she could. There was the frame, perfectly intact on the floor, holding the smirking portrait of Mr. Goat. Except he no longer wore his suit and tie. Now he wore red silk pajamas.
The baby was getting restless and she squirmed, craning her neck this way and that, until she noticed the portrait now curiously on the floor. She smiled down at it, extended her arm, and for the first time ever, waved.