© 2009 Douglas Olson.

Something Is Wrong

A short story


Editor's note. This story first appeared in the August 1988 issue of Instauration. Seeking to protect the canonical text, we have preserved the one cultural reference that is outdated. Sad to report, the other cultural references are all too timely, all too pertinent. — Nicholas Strakon


Something was wrong! Something was wrong in the house!

Ingrid felt it emotionally first, a gnawing, wrenching, fearful feeling that screamed without ceasing in her mind. Then it swirled through the fluids of her body and she felt it echoing in the hollows of her bones. It seemed to come from nowhere, all of a sudden, and gave not a second's respite: Something is wrong! Something is wrong! Something is wrong!

She was in the kitchen when the overpoweringly ominous feeling struck. Through the throbbing insistence ringing in her ears, she could hear the microwave oven cooking and Phil Donahue holding forth on the under-the-counter television set. Through an impelling red haze, she saw her finger on the button of the trash compactor, pushing it even as the feeling of wrongness came over her.

She turned quickly and ran, her slippers slapping a preternaturally loud Morse code on the floor and then bouncing back to deliver stinging blows to her heels. She heard the noise and felt the pain, but they seemed only abstractions, not relevant to the undeniable urge that impelled her. Something is wrong! Something is wrong!

Passing through the swinging door to the dining room, she noticed that the rooms, the furniture, the very air seemed to shimmer; ripples and strange colors paraded through empty space, and it almost seemed that her eyes had been turned into crazy-house mirrors. While noting the phenomenon, she gave it no particular thought. Something is wrong!

Ingrid caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored back of the china cabinet — a wide-eyed, wild-eyed figure wearing a faded and worn wildflower-print housecoat. Her blond hair stood straight up, the way she imagined it would look if she stuck her finger in a light socket. Her piercing blue eyes seemed to be covered over with a film of horror, of anticipation. It was as if — deep down inside herself — she somehow knew the nature of the alarm which her conscious mind still registered as only a vague but undeniable feeling.

There was a look of utter terror on her face. Every nerve ending shrieked. Every muscle was taut. Her heart beat with an intensity she had never known, and adrenalin was being continually pumped into her system.

Every part of her body seemed to be in tune, to be working in unison, preparing to defend itself against whatever it was that was sending such a strong signal of wrongness.

As she crossed the dining room and entered the living room proper, an unconscious glance through the picture window showed that her late-model Volvo convertible was parked in its proper place in front of the two-car garage. She knew in that moment that the trouble must be upstairs.

The baby!

It had taken her this long to think about the baby!

So distracting was this thought that she almost missed the turn at the stairway. Grabbing the ornate post at the end of the bannister, she altered her motion, stubbing one toe painfully against the carpeted runner on the bottom step.

A little off-balance, she staggered upstairs, the insistence still pounding through her entire being. Something is wrong!

How could she have forgotten the baby? True, the child had been home for only a few days, but she and Erik had not endured the long wait of many months to have the infant forgotten as soon as he had arrived. His coming was supposed to be a beginning, not an ending.

Sprinting up the stairs, the guilt of her momentary forgetfulness lingered. The child was her duty, their duty. A sacred trust. The baby should be the most important thing in her life, not something to think about once the car and the house were determined to be safe.

Quite breathless, she gained the second-floor landing. All was quiet, with only her strenuous gasping for air disturbing the calm.

She raced past the door to the master bedroom and hesitated momentarily before pushing on the partially opened portal of the nursery.

Something is wrong! Something is wrong! screamed a small voice inside her. But everything looked normal. A chest of drawers was piled high with disposable diaper containers and baby accessories. The crib was in its place, against the far wall. The side was in the up position, and there was a large green, red, and black baby blanket spread across the rail, blocking her view of the infant.

Holding herself to deep, quiet gulps of air in an effort not to awaken the baby, she tiptoed to the crib and craned her neck to see over the obstruction.

With a roar, a great spotted beast leaped from behind the blanket, launching itself at her throat. The tawny orange projectile seemed to come at her in slow motion, its unblinking green eyes meeting hers with a look she somehow comprehended as envy and revenge.

The animal struck, its sharp claws embedding themselves in her skin as the beast's weight pushed her off balance. She landed on her back, with her assailant standing astride her chest, mauling her clothing and her flesh.

She felt its hot breath on her face as the incredibly long fangs parted and permitted a pink tongue to emerge and lick her face with several quick strokes. Then, with a sudden change of demeanor, the animal buried its fangs in her throat.

Ingrid felt unspeakably weak as her life's blood gushed torrentially from what she instinctively knew was a torn carotid artery. The animal licked her face again, this time lapping up the rich red fluid that spurted from the neck wound.

Her heart pounded with terror and shock, causing the fount of coppery-tasting crimson to flow with continued vigor. The great cat licked thirstily, and a sound came from its throat that Ingrid at length understood was purring.

Who could have suspected such a thing? she thought as the room seemed to darken and shapes became hazy. It's not my fault. I can't be blamed....


Ingrid awoke with a cry on her lips and was momentarily blinded by the sun. Her heart beat wildly as she assessed the situation and realized that she had fallen asleep while sunning herself on the chaise lounge. It was a stupid thing to do, since her fair skin burned so easily ...

The baby!

It was not like the dream. There was no instinctive feeling that something was wrong. But she had heard that dreams sometimes came as warnings, and decided that the prudent course was to check on the little one immediately.

She passed through the kitchen, where Phil Donahue was indeed mouthing off on TV, and wondered vaguely if she had heard the sound and incorporated it into the dream unconsciously. She hurried through the dining and living rooms, pausing momentarily to check the Volvo in the driveway. Everything was in order.

Mounting the stairs, she began to feel foolish about the whole thing. How could she let a simple dream unsettle her this way?

Bad things just don't happen to people like Erik and me, Ingrid thought. We always do the Right Thing. We produce and consume. We stay in the suburbs. We support the right causes. We vote for the right candidates. We're careful. We never take chances. And we have a long list of good friends, the right kind of friends, who always do the Right Thing.

Reinforced by her litany of righteousness, she paused in the doorway of the baby's room, noting that the scene was just as it had been in her dream, with the same green-red-black blanket blocking her view of the child.

An irresistible feeling of unease arose in her mind, similar to the dream, but much less intense. She absently recalled a verse from the Bible about leopards changing their spots, but couldn't remember the rest of it.

Shaking her head, she forced herself to dismiss it all. Her minister would be the first to agree, she was sure, that such unpleasant thoughts should simply be ignored.

Ingrid crossed the room and gazed down upon her son as he slept. He was beautiful, she thought. She had always wanted children, and was so grateful that adopting him had been such a Right Thing to do.

His dark skin contrasted sharply with the whiteness of the sheet and of the diaper he wore. His thick lips were pulled into a small "O" shape as he made an unconscious suckling motion in his sleep. The few strands of hair on his skull were already showing a tendency to curliness. Ingrid was filled with the thrill and pride of motherhood as she watched little M'bulu Carlsson sleep.

She felt so foolish about having been worried.

What could possibly be wrong?

October 27, 2009

© 2009 Douglas Olson.