Stuffies and Wooden Spoons

Standalone Story

This was my entry to the NYC Midnight short story competition for 2022. It received an honorable mention in my category in the first round, and this version has been updated to incorporate the feedback provided by the competition judges.

Streetlights whiz past like we’re on a fairground ride, casting shadows. Occasionally, I catch one that looks like a person out of the corner of my eye and can’t help but do a double take, but so far, we’ve managed to escape their attention. Annie is still asleep in the passenger seat, her threadbare bunny stuffie on her lap. It's always struck me just how much she looks like me, even at this age, and I feel a pang of desperate sorrow deep inside that there’s nothing of Natalie in her. I watch the slow rise and fall of her chest. She looks peaceful, which is so far from how I feel that I can’t imagine ever feeling it again. Peaceful is a word without meaning. Maybe when we reach the lake, I can begin to rediscover it, but there’s every chance it’s not going to be a realistic proposition for me.

Miles later, my eyelids start to droop. How the hell is my body thinking about sleep right now? I need to stay awake. I need to drive normally and keep an eye on my speed. The last thing we need is to be pulled over. We haven’t gone nearly far enough.

“Are you getting up any time today?” Natalie’s voice drifts up the stairs like a cloud of powdered sugar.

“Hadn’t planned on it,” I shout back, eliciting a charming guffaw from Annie’s room next door.

I listen to the clomp of feet on stairs, wait the requisite amount of time for Nat to appear in our bedroom door. Hand on hip, she asks, “Kayleigh, are you okay?”

“Come to bed and find out,” I say, tossing my book aside.

She seriously considers it for a minute, then shakes her head, dark hair bouncing. “It’s nearly three in the afternoon. Aren’t you hungry?”

“Nope. If I get up, then I expend energy. That’s what makes me hungry.”

She picks up one of the velvet cushions from the small couch in the corner of our room and throws it at me. I shriek and bat it away. “You’re an idiot,” she asserts, grinning, then leaves. Moments later, I hear her voice in the next room. “Hey, Annie-bear. You’ve got a party to get ready for, you know.”

“I know, just a little longer?”

Nat starts to say something, then chokes off the words. There’s an awkward pause. A second later, she says, “Sure, honey. But just another ten minutes, okay?”

“Okay.” Annie is, at eight, an expert in manipulating her moms, and she delivers this with a mournful tone that carries through the wall and straight to my heart.

I sigh. If Annie’s party can only wait another ten minutes—realistically, a half hour—then I guess I do need to haul my ass out of bed. After listening to Natalie’s footsteps receding down the stairs, I extricate myself from the covers and plod down the hall to Annie’s room, past the photo of me when I was pregnant and glowing. I love that photo. I knock gently on Annie’s door, give her a second, then push it open.

Her attention remains fixed on her tablet for a moment. “Annie-boo?”

With obvious effort, she looks up, seems to stare right through me for a second, then smiles.

“What are you watching?”

She shakes her head. “Nothing, really.” She holds the screen up, and the image on it is difficult to interpret, being fuzzy and dark. Two figures, maybe men, in a forest at dusk. They’re rendered in silhouette, like they’re backlit, but with no obvious light source. It’s probably one of the bear documentaries she likes so much.

I nod. “What say we pick an outfit for your party?”

She frowns at me for a second like she hasn’t understood my suggestion, then beams and hops down from her bed.

I know so little.

Are they still people? They still look mostly like people, there’s just less substance to them, like they’re becoming literal shadows, like the people they were have been replaced with an awful hole in reality through which anything and everything will inevitably slide. But because they look like people, does that mean they can do things people can do? Can they really drive? That’s what it looked like they were planning when I drove away, but how can something so intangible as a shadow drive a car? Could they be right behind me and I’d never know? I sneak a glance at the rear view mirror, almost expecting to see headlights, but the road is empty.

“Annie-bear, Annie-bear,” I mutter without entirely realizing. When I stop and my soft cooing is replaced with the hum of the engine, I realize it’s not my name for her. I’ve always called her Annie-boo. It was a stupid little thing, but she seemed to like it.

Annie-bear is Nat’s name for her.

I try Natalie’s phone again, but there’s no answer.

Natalie stays at home to make a start on dinner while I swaddle Annie in her red and white winter coat, mittens and faux fur lined boots, then walk her out to the truck. The sky is like primer waiting for paint, the light weak and pallid, seeming to flatten everything down to a single dimension. Annie walks to the passenger side of the truck then yells, “Hi, Mr. Carter!”

Our mailman, who I hadn’t noticed, turns our way and raises a hand, squints for a moment, then says, “Hi, Annie. Hi, Kayleigh. Where are you girls off to?” He’s a plump older man with thinning hair, but a winning smile.

“She has a birthday party,” I say.

“My friend Tegan,” Annie explains.

“Well, you have a good time,” Mr Carter says, and ambles off down the street. Annie and I get in the car and forty minutes later, she’s safely at Tegan’s house and I’m on my way home. It’s January, which means it’s almost completely dark by the time I’m close. The neighborhood is quiet, only a handful of people willing to brave the cold, and I guess I’ll be one of them later. Just ahead of me, a barely visible figure clad all in black darts across the road, and I jump on the brakes, cursing under my breath. I take a second to catch my breath, then a few minutes later, I pull into our driveway.

“Natalie, I’m home!” I announce, pirouetting through the front door. I’m struck at once by the smell of something savory and herby. “Oh, man. I’m starving.”

“You should have gotten out of bed when normal people do,” Nat says. She’s wielding a wooden spoon and wearing one of the cutesy aprons she insists on using in the kitchen. This one features a cat in a business suit.

I park myself on one of the stools at the kitchen island. “What is it? It smells fantastic. Gimme.”

“You’ll have to wait. It’s not ready.”

I pout, and she leans in and kisses me. After we’ve eaten, we take advantage of the house being child-free, and after that we watch some Netflix in bed.

It’s nearly an hour later when I see lights in the mirror. What are the chances? I ask myself. Surely it can’t be them. Surely. We’ve been on the road for nearly three hours. They can’t have caught up. It’s not a straight route. They would have needed to be following me right from the start… or to know where I’m headed.

I shudder.

No, it must just be other people out for a two a.m. jaunt. Having just about managed to convince myself of this, the first set of lights is joined by a second, then a third, the tingling between my shoulders growing more intense with each new pair of bright, hungry eyes. They’re gaining on us rapidly, obviously unconcerned with being pulled over. I ease my foot down on the gas pedal a little more, increasing our speed to eighty, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough.

Annie stirs in the passenger seat, but she remains asleep.

Picking Annie up from her party is uneventful. Tegan’s parents look exhausted, and the children that still remain are practically falling asleep on their feet, stumbling around like zombies, but Annie seems perfectly okay. Once we’re in the truck, she scrutinizes me. “Are you okay, mommy?”

I cock my head. “Why wouldn’t I be okay”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. I thought you looked… under the weather?”

“I feel fine,” I say, and pull out of the drive. It’s starting to snow and we drive into the star field created by the flakes in silence for a while. Eventually I ask, “How was your party?”

“It was great!” she says, her enthusiasm making me wish I’d stayed to experience it myself. “I wish we lived closer.”

“Me too, Annie-boo.” I can’t resist a rhyme.

She giggles, then leans into the foot well to pick up her bunny stuffie, which she examines with a curious intensity. Minutes later, the warmth and the motion of the car pull her down into slumber.

Arriving home, something is clearly wrong. Mr Carter’s mail truck is in our drive and the front door of the house is wide open. “Shit,” I hiss under my breath, then jump out of the car, locking Annie inside. I hurry past the mail truck, checking through the window as I pass the driver-side door, but the vehicle is empty.

Inside my house, my life is strewn around me in tatters. Furniture and plates, cutlery and artwork all lie on the floor. Some of it is intact, but toppled. Some is broken, and some almost pulverized into obscurity. Nat? Mr. Carter?” No response. It’s then that I notice the back door is open too, its window smashed, with a small trickle of coppery blood having drawn a track down from one of the jagged edges long enough ago to have lost its intense redness.

I rush through the door and out into our yard, and what I see is… it’s hard to look at, let alone to truly take in. Mr. Carter is there, but he’s not there. He’s faded, somehow, like he’s shrouded in shadow or is maybe becoming a shadow. Others are there, too. Our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Pemberton. A boy I see from time to time out and about. They’re not quite as faded as Mr. Carter.

“What… what’s happening?” I say.

Nobody replies, but I realize my mistake at once. Other people—other shadows—step out from behind shrubs. One carries the rear half of a cat. It’s only seconds, but soon I’m staring at over twenty of the things. I start to hyperventilate as I frantically check each of their barely visible faces to see if Natalie is among their number.

She isn’t.

They start to advance on me.

I turn and run for the truck, throw myself behind the wheel and snake along the road, tires squealing. Annie doesn’t stir beside me, which is good. I have no idea what I’ll tell her. I check the rear view mirror and see dark blotches in the moonlight gathering around Mr. Carter’s mail truck. Are they… is it possible they can give chase?

Where can I go where they won’t find us?

The only place I can think of is the lake cabin Natalie and I own.

Maybe Natalie got out and she’s had the same idea. I don't see her car, which gives me hope. I call her a couple of times, but it goes to voicemail.

We arrived half an hour ago and I carried Annie in from the truck and tucked her into bed, and she remained asleep. At the time, I didn’t like being alone, and now I’m not.

They’re here now. I heard the first one a few minutes ago, stumbling around outside. Their coordination isn’t very good, but I’m pretty sure they must be able to run. I don’t see how they got to Mr Carter’s mail truck so soon after I drove off otherwise.

I haven’t gotten us to safety, I’ve trapped us.

How long before more turn up? How long before they get inside?

I don’t know what to do.

I move from room to room in the dark, trying to come up with something—anything—but there is no way out from this. My only hope is that they can’t tolerate daylight, and that we can survive the night. I check my watch. At least three hours to go before the sun will even think about making an appearance.

It’s too long.

I tiptoe down the corridor on my way to Annie’s room. If this is the end, we should be together. A body slams against the window that runs down the corridor, sending me reeling back against the opposite wall panting. The one—this shadow—is just like all the others, like what’s left after a person is burned from reality, only… this one is wielding something. I start to weep when I look closer. It’s a wooden spoon. All she needs to complete the look is the whimsical apron. I wonder if they all cling to something from their lives during the transformation, maybe hoping it will tether them.

“Oh, God. Natalie.”

Another body hits the window next to her. It’s hard to tell who this shadow is, but the moonlight is enough that I can make out his mail truck parked in the clearing. I shudder at the image of the two of them sitting side by side in the mail truck, two shadows cast by nothing, in complete silence. I shake my head. That window won’t stand up to much more. I skitter down the corridor and pause with my hand on Annie’s bedroom door for a second before I push it open.

An anguished cry burns my throat.

The light is still on, just like I left it. The shadow that stands before me seems to be absorbing most of it before it reaches my eyes, though. It almost hurts to look at her. I whimper. “Annie-bear. Oh, Annie, no.”

It’s the answer to my final question: why are they following us? They’re not following us. They’re following her.

Just Annie.

The thing that used to be Annie says nothing, merely stands watching me as I sob. She might be staring, or she might not be seeing me at all, perhaps sensing me some other way instead. I turn to look at Natalie, then back at our daughter. I wonder how long the transformation takes.

When did it start for her? I can’t say for sure, but my mind seizes on whatever she was watching on her tablet earlier that day with the weird silhouette men. How many other people saw that video? Another question occurs: why have I been unaffected so far? The only thing I can come up with is because I’m the one who carried little Annie to term. We’re connected by blood, and maybe there's something in us that slows down the transformation. But if Annie has turned, I can’t have long left.

I take a final glance at the hall window. It’s not going to hold much longer.

At least we’ll be a family again soon.

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