"Come play with me.” That line… It’s a cliché for the horror genre, is it not? You all know what I mean, the unsettling apparition of a child, or maybe just the voice, beckoning to you. What is it about children that gives them the ability to be so damn creepy? Maybe… maybe it’s the fact that, generally speaking, children are helpless and anyone with a nurturing side to their personality wants to help them and care for them.
I mean, if any one of us saw a child in trouble, I’m sure we’d rush to help in whatever way we could… and in normal circumstances, if a child said, “Come play with me,” someone might just pass a ball around for a minute or two, maybe play hopscotch. Children are innocent, right? Safe enough to play with a child, right? I’m telling you you’re wrong.
This isn’t something I like to tell people, in fact it’s something only my mother and I know, but over the past few months it’s been building up inside of me… This urge to tell someone. I need to tell someone what happened, even if it was nearly thirteen years ago. This isn’t a story I’d consider telling people, but not because I’m afraid they’d think me crazy. I couldn’t give a damn about that. I don’t tell people this because it brings back some pretty painful memories for me, and even now as I’m writing this, it’s hard to talk about.
Anyway… I’ve avoided this long enough, it’s time. When I was a small girl, I lived in a trailer park with my mom and dad. I was an only child, and I had a normal life, for the most part. I don’t remember much. As I said, I was a small child. What I do know is that one night, my mother and father got into a big fight over dinner which resulted in my father throwing whatever my mother had cooked outside the back door and yelling at me, kicking me across the room at one point. The man had a temper, that was no secret, but he wasn’t usually like this, at least not around me. I don’t blame him or hate him for any of this, and to this day I’ll do anything to defend him.
I love my father. However, this incident was a turning point for my mother. The next night when my father went to work, my mother told me we were going on a trip. She packed a small bag of my clothes, one of hers, and told me to grab anything else I might want. All I took was a small stuffed cat named Buttons that my father had given me for my first birthday. She called a cab and we went to a motel room for a few days. After that, she told me that we’d be moving into a new home called a “shelter”. She said there’d be other kids there, probably some of them around my age, and that I’d like it there.
She was right about there being other kids my age, and the house was beautiful. It was huge, with a playground out back and lots of room to run around. What I remember most though was the staircase. I made friends quickly with all the kids there, but the one I liked talking to most was Sarah. Sarah was quiet and she always wore a dress and always stood at the top of the stairs and talked to me.
She never did anything else really, and she didn’t talk to anyone else. I never went up to her, I just stood at the bottom and we’d talk like that. Sarah didn’t really like the other kids very much because she said they weren’t like us. She said they didn’t know what it was like to think like us. She didn’t really like that I played with the other kids, but she didn’t try to stop me either. She said she only wanted to play with me.
Not long after moving in, I met three kids that lived in the house next door. One of them was my age, the boy, and the two sisters were a little bit older. My mom said it was a good idea to get out of the house and go play with them for a while, so I did. They invited me to come inside and see their playroom, so of course I did. That sounded awesome! I’d never had a “playroom” of my own… A room especially made for playing? It sounded great!
The room itself was fairly empty except for a toy chest in the corner and several toys strewn on the carpeted floor. The walls were bare white, like the rest of the house, and the windows stood without a curtain just opposite the door. When we were in the playroom, the oldest sister walked over to the window and stared out, shaking her head.
“Do you know what happened over there?” she asked. I walked over to where she was and looked to where she was pointing. She was pointing at the shelter, right in the window facing the one in the playroom. I shook my head. What did she mean? What happened there?
“Do you wanna know?” she asked me, her brother and sister silent now.
I simply nodded, keeping quiet so I could hear the story. “A long time ago, there was a little girl named Sarah who lived there… that was her room,” she said, pointing to the room across from where we stood. “Well… one night there was a fire. Nobody made it out. She almost did… they said they found her body at the top of the stairs, and that’s where she died.” I felt like I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to look out the window anymore. I couldn’t. “They remodeled the building a couple years ago,” she said, matter of factly.
“Stop being a know it all with your big words!” her brother said.
“Oh…” I said. That’s all I could say. Lucky for me, it was starting to get dark, and my mom came over to bring me back with her. I didn’t want to tell her because she might not let me play with my new friends again. I didn’t want to tell Sarah either. I stayed as far away from the stairs as I could.
The next night, the other family who lived in the house told us she and the kids would be gone for a couple of days. This meant that mom and I were, more or less, alone. I wasn’t feeling well, so a little break from other people would be nice. I laid down on the couch and mom turned the TV on for me, sitting at the other end of the couch. She asked me if I wanted to go upstairs to our room… I said no. I wanted to stay downstairs.
I must have fallen asleep. I can still remember that breathing was hard, my nostrils feeling crusty from running so much during the day. I woke up in the middle of the night to the fire alarm going off. Mom woke up around the same time I did and picked me up, carrying me outside. I heard sirens of fire trucks in the distance. I was pretty out of it when they got there, but I still remember what they said to my mom after they’d gone inside. They’d said, “We couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary… I don’t know why the alarm went off.” How could it have been set off by just nothing?
My mom said it was, “Probably just the weather,” and took me back inside. I remember as she carried me back to the couch that I saw Sarah standing at the top of the stairs, watching me. I started to cry.
A week later, my mom said she found a new place for us to live, she said it would be our own apartment, not like the shelter. I was relieved… I hadn’t talked to Sarah since those kids told me about her, and I wouldn’t go upstairs alone. I hadn’t seen her since the incident with the fire alarm. However, I would hear her voice sometimes as I lay in bed at night. It was like she was calling out just to me. “Come play with me.”
The new apartment was close to the school I’d be going to kindergarten at and, like mom said, we had our very own place. There were three floors, each with one apartment per floor, and ours was on the very top. For several months, my mother and I lived peacefully in our new apartment, and I began to forget about Sarah. For several months, we were happy. I missed my father and thought about him all the time, but for the most part I was happy here.
Then the nightmares started. Each and every one was the same. It started as simply me lying in bed at night. This made it initially difficult for me to tell if it was a dream or real. In the dream, I would start to drift off… until the smell of smoke came to my nostrils. At this point, I would jump out of bed, coughing slightly, and looking around. I would cry out for my mom and I could hear her calling for me, but I couldn’t get to her.
I stayed in the room for the longest time, waiting for my mom or the firemen to come save me. After a while, it became obvious that no one was coming to get me, and I was starting to get light headed. I managed to get out of my bedroom door to see that most of the apartment was engulfed in flames. In the dreams, I only made it to the top of the stairs before I passed out on the floor from breathing in too much smoke. The last thing I hear over the crackling of the fire before I wake is a voice:
“Come play with me. I will find someone to play with me.”
The summer before I was to start first grade, my mother announced that we would be moving, yet again, to another town altogether. I wasn’t excited. This meant I’d have to make new friends and start over again. Secretly, part of me hoped it would make the nightmares go away. Mom said that we had until the end of July to move in to the new apartment, but that she wanted me to see it before we moved in. She took us both on a road trip to a town totally unfamiliar to me, and what seemed to be a long way away from what we called home.
The town was bigger than what I was used to, and I remember being excited because we passed three playgrounds on the way to the new apartment. She took me inside and we looked around. This place was my favorite of all of them. It had windows everywhere that made it look bright and sunny and above all, happy. I couldn’t wait to move, and I was sad that we couldn’t move in right then and there.
After a while, mom said we had to go back home, so we went and the car and drove back the way we’d come. As we pulled onto our street, it didn’t take long to notice that something was wrong. Lined up in front of our building were two fire trucks and a police car, all with lights flashing. My mom parked on the other side of the road and went over, telling me to stay in the car.
I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I remember staring up at the black smoke still faintly smearing the sky and feeling my blood turn cold. It was coming from our apartment. When mom came back to the car, her face was drained of all color and she couldn’t speak right away. When she finally spoke, it was more to herself, and she could only get three words out. “Why just ours?” I thought I saw Sarah up in the blackened window of our former home.
Today, I sit at my computer writing this and thinking about her. I’m shaking, and I don’t know why. It’s months before my nineteenth birthday and I’m living with my dad, attending a community college in the area. My dad remarried years ago and now has a little girl from his second marriage. She’s quite a bit younger than me — six — and she reminds me a lot of myself at her age.
I guess she’s the reason I started to write this. I haven’t been able to get the events of yesterday out of my head. I was watching her while my dad was at work and I was outside with her while she played on the swing set. I heard the phone ringing inside, so naturally I went to answer it. This isn’t the part I can’t shake off. The thing is… when I went back outside, Rebecca looked at me and said, “We have to go inside.” When I asked her why, she only said four little words before running back up the steps and in the house. Four little words, but they were enough to bring chills up my spine.
“Sarah wants to play.”