Charlie wiped his brow as thunder rolled in the distance. A symphony of raindrops fell on the crops, and darkness washed over the farm as he pulled his tractor into the barn. Gunner happily wagged his tail and greeted Charlie as he walked inside the dimly lit farmhouse. Drying his head with a towel, Charlie called out to his wife, Clara, inquiring about her plans for their supper. His question was met only with silence. Making his way to the base of the stairs, Charlie called out again. Lightning illuminated the interior of the home as his voice echoed through the halls. Charlie stared at the white carpet in horror during the brief moment of flashing blue light. Dark-red droplets of liquid painted the stairs.
Time stood still as Charlie ran into the master bathroom, covering his mouth as he screamed, “NO, NO, NO,” repeatedly. Clara cowered in the corner— her inner thighs stained crimson. She rocked back-and-forth, holding a blood-stained bundle of towels in her arms.
Charlie crouched down and gazed at what was once destined to be their child.
Anger and hopelessness rushed through his veins as he took the towels from Clara. She pleaded for Charlie to come back to her as he left the bathroom, descending the stairs and making his way outside into the pouring rain—grabbing a shovel from the shed. Gunner kept his distance as he followed his master deep into the woods.
Charlie struck the ground again-and-again as he dug the grave. Lightning danced along the trees as he placed the small, innocent corpse into the earth before filling the cavity with mud— and finally, a large, flat stone. Charlie pointed the shovel at the whimpering dog as they retreated out of the woods and back home, promising the canine that if he ever dug up the grave— it would surely be the last thing he’d ever do.
The two years following that night were the darkest Clara and Charlie would ever see. A series of droughts decimated the crops and steered Charlie’s career from farmer to construction worker. When he punched out in the evenings, Charlie found solace in bourbon and Blair— the young, attractive bartender that poured it for him.
Clara’s days were filled with silence and daydreams of what should have been. She couldn’t bring herself to un-furnish the nursery, complete with a rocking chair, crib, changing table, and pink-block-letters on the wall. The letters that spelled the name neither Charlie nor Clara could bring themselves to say aloud. A-U-T-U-M-N.
The nursery door remained closed—an unspoken, unbroken rule.
Summer came to an end as a chill filled the air. Charlie staggered through the door. Cold, untouched food rested upon the kitchen table. The stench of the bar clung to him. Periods of prolonged silence and resentment accompanied this and most dinners. Another month of infertility had come and gone, and neither Charlie nor Clara felt the need to discuss it.
As night fell, the couple completed their respective rituals. Charlie retreated to the recliner with a 6-pack, and Clara retired to the master bedroom. She stripped to her underwear and stared at her body in the mirror as she placed her hands over her lower belly and recited a quiet prayer.
As Clara closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, a breeze whistled through the open window— and with it— a sharp noise pierced the silence. A voice whispered, “Mama,” and Clara’s eyes burst open as she grabbed her stomach and gasped. Charlie snored, face-down next to her on the bed as she got up and closed the window.
The following morning was filled with grey overcast and cold, thin air. Clara lit a cigarette on the front porch as Charlie’s truck disappeared down the gravel drive. His departure and Clara’s anxiety retreated in tandem. Heavy fog danced atop the Wolff pond and rolled across the desolate dirt patch that had once grown a vast sea of crops. Yet another reminder of what should have been.
As Clara put out the cigarette and turned to walk inside, something along the woods’ tree-line caught her eye. Approaching cautiously, she discovered Gunner, still and staring at the threshold of the dense foliage. She called out to him to no avail. Clara moved closer. Trembling uncontrollably, the dog urinated on himself where he stood. She knelt to console the frightened German Shepherd. He turned and snarled, viscously snapping at her like a feral beast. Clara fell backward in fear. She called out again as the dog turned and ran off in the opposite direction, out-of-sight.
That night when Charlie returned home, Clara told him of the dog’s bizarre behavior. He theorized Gunner likely picked-up on a female’s scent and was filled with aggressive hormones. Charlie then broke the news to Clara that he would be leaving for a few days on a new project. She didn’t feel the need to respond.
Before bed, Charlie reminded Clara of two things. The first being her doctor’s appointment scheduled for the morning, and the second was that today was an ovulation day. The smell of stale beer turned Clara’s stomach as the couple struggled through un-passionate sex that evening. What was supposed to be the act of making love had become yet another tedious chore. Clara turned her head and looked down the darkness of the hall; her heart began to race.
The nursery door was ajar… ever so slightly.
Buzzing, fluorescent lights filled the doctor’s office with a low hum and harsh light. An elderly woman in a blue sweater smiled widely at Clara as she sat and read a magazine. When the nurse called Clara back, the old woman grabbed Clara’s wrist and told her, “you’re a wonderful mother.” Clara stuttered a confused response and apology as she shuffled past.
The doctor filled Clara’s ears with the same story she heard over-and-over again. That all her levels looked normal, to keep trying, and get plenty of rest. Clara told the doctor about her issues with sleeping and anxiety. As she left the office with a fresh bottle of sleeping pills, she noticed the old woman was nowhere in sight.
The night was quieter with Charlie gone and Gunner still missing. Clara called Charlie’s hotel room and was met with his annoyed tone. Charlie told her that he was exhausted and would be home in a few days. As she was hanging up, Clara thought she heard the sound of a female voice in the background. Clara convinced herself that Charlie probably had the TV on in the room.
A double dose of sleeping pills kicked-in, and Clara dreamt of the woods.
Running through the trees in the darkness, Clara followed the harsh sound of a baby wailing in pain. The cries rang so loudly she thought her ears were going to bleed. Clara fell to her knees in a clearing in the woods and listened for the cries. The wailing was muffled now, coming from the soil beneath her. She dug frantically into the earth, scraping and clawing grass and dirt. As she raked her fingers deeper-and-deeper, blood began to pool from within the hole beneath her. The bloody-mud consumed her body as she sunk, and the baby’s cries turned to laughter.
Clara awoke in a cold sweat and hurried downstairs for a glass of water and a cigarette. Just as she calmed herself down, Clara nearly retched when she noticed the fresh dirt caked beneath each fingernail.
Sleep-deprived, Clara looked out the window until the orange sunlight of dawn peeked through the blinds. She forced herself to get dressed and slowly made her way to the market. Clara couldn’t help but feel as though she was simply going through the motions of life. After checking out at the register, Clara walked to her car and noticed a familiar face standing in the parking lot. She took a deep breath and approached the old woman from the doctor’s office, still dressed in the same blue sweater. Her heart pounded in her chest. After a deep breath of confidence, Clara approached the woman and introduced herself. She told her they met the other day, and the woman nodded in agreement. Clara asked what she meant when she told her she was a good mother. The old woman spoke softly as she climbed into the driver’s seat. She told Clara that she drives by the Wolff Farm every now and again and loves seeing her little girl playing in the woods. Before Clara could respond, the old woman waved goodbye and drove off.
That night, Clara flipped on the TV and stared at the black-and-white screen. The noise and light soothed her as her eyes grew heavy once-again, taking another white pill for good measure. The sound of TV static woke Clara as the sun disappeared over the horizon, the volume increasing with each passing second. The light strained Clara’s eyes as they crawled towards the television set on all fours. Reaching for the dial, the screen changed — taking her off-guard. The static was replaced with an image of a woman holding a baby in a rocking chair. Clara squinted at the screen as her eyes struggled to make out the details. She reached for the dial again, turning the TV off. Clara laughed at herself for foolishly being scared. As she got up from the floor, the TV kicked on once again. The woman now hung from a noose above the chair, which continued to rock back-and-forth. Clara gazed in disbelief, frozen in fear. The TV’s sound of the rocking creaked rhythmically against the wood floor. Clara screamed and pulled the plug from the wall. The noise continued as she came to the realization that the sound wasn’t coming from the TV— but from the rocking chair in the nursery upstairs.
That same evening, Charlie returned home, changing his shirt in his truck to hide the smell of Blair’s perfume. He entered and was distraught when he found the farmhouse to be empty. He called for Clara, answered only by his echoes. And for the next few months, Charlie was alone.
Family, friends, and neighbors searched the surrounding area to no avail. Clara had simply vanished without a trace.
Blair frequented the Wolff home as Charlie had concluded that Clara would not be returning. Charlie and Blair sat near the fireplace, drinking and talking as they did on most evenings. Tonight was different, however. Charlie’s vision began to blur. Blair lay face-down on the carpet after just half a drink. Charlie looked to the bourbon in his hand, then to the decanter. The flames of the fire danced as he swirled the amber liquid, white foam clung to the sides of the glass. Charlie stumbled to the bathroom, attempting to purge himself. Just before losing consciousness, he caught a glimpse of Clara’s empty sleeping pill bottle in the waste bin.
The blistering Winter wind woke Charlie from his daze. The ropes that bound him to the large oak tree dug into his shoulders. He tried to call out, but only a small whimper escaped his lungs. As Clara approached him from within the woods, Charlie could hardly recognize her. Her disheveled clothes hung loosely from her gaunt frame. Clara stood before Charlie, and he was speechless. She told him how she would leave him here to freeze to death— forgotten in the woods like their daughter. She cursed his name for taking their baby and burying her in the woods.
Charlie pleaded with his delusional wife, begging her to remember the truth of that night. Tears streamed from his eyes as he recounted the memory of their stillborn child, the baby who was never given the chance to take her first breath. Clara only stared at him. The morbid realization that there was no getting through to Clara creeped-in. Charlie sunk his head as he quietly sawed at the ropes with the knife in his back pocket. Clara walked closer and called him a liar as she stroked his cheek.
“Autumn is ready for you.”
Charlie hadn’t heard the name spoken aloud in years. The ropes held by just a few threads against his blade. Clara knelt near the foxhole at the base of a large oak, and Charlie eyed her curiously. Clara whispered into the hole for a few moments before stepping away.
Charlie’s heart pounded in his chest as the creature emerged from the hole.
His eyes and brain battled with one another as he tried to comprehend the distorted flesh, hair, and bone that stood before them on two legs— as if crudely impersonating a human being. Clara beamed with admiration, her vision and memories poisoned by the creature, which disguised itself as a beautiful child in her eyes.
The ropes snapped with a final slash of Charlie’s knife, and he fell before the creature— its decrepit finger scratching Charlie’s leg as he ran towards the tree-line.
The house came into view, and Charlie saw a glimmer of hope. His leg throbbed with pain, yellow pus oozed from the wound the creature left. He fell to the ground as new memories rushed through his mind, memories of raising a beautiful, healthy daughter. Charlie writhed as he fought the faux recollections, grasping to hold onto the truth.
Clara and the creature stood before him once more. Charlie turned towards them, and Clara smiled. Telling him how he would truly see Autumn, his daughter, for the first time. The creature’s transformation displayed before him, tricking his mind into seeing the child that never was.
Enraged, Charlie scooped the creature up in his arms and ran. Clara followed slowly behind. The creature whispered into his ear as he stumbled towards the frozen pond. It told him that all would be over soon, how it would feed on them both— body, mind, and soul— just as it had fed on countless others for centuries.
Charlie walked with the creature onto the thin ice; he turned and smiled at his wife one final time as a tear streamed down his face. In his arms, he held the child, the one Clara promised he would see. In a final moment of clarity, Charlie saw the lie before him and jumped. His boots shattered the ice as he held the creature close — both descending into the darkness.
And as the frigid waters took the life from Charlie and the creature, Clara’s mind unclouded— free from pain, and ready to start anew.