(Horror) – Mother Midnight comes to you in the night. She searches your mind for what you want. You’ll certainly get it, what you desired, but the price you’ll pay will leave you begging for her to stop, to leave you alone, to help you no more. There’s nothing to be afraid of, though. It’s just a kid’s cautionary tale. A message to be careful what you wish for, and to take responsibility for what goes wrong in your life. It’s just a cautionary tale…
A Stupid Phrase
The black, metal sign was only slightly rusted. It arched high over the leaf-strewn drive, perched on top of two brick columns. Caleb leaned forward from the back seat to read the sign: Putnam Psychiatric Center. His stomach twisted with dread. They could research any bit of local history for their project, and somehow the twins talked him into this insane idea—literally, about insane people.
Caleb sighed, “How did you convince me to go along with this again?”
Lucy, who was driving, chuckled devilishly. Luke, her twin brother, turned around in the passenger seat to face him.
“Dude,” he said, “there’s nothing to worry about. We’re just looking through some old records and… talking to one crazy guy…” He smirked.
“That’s so reassuring,” Caleb said, turning to look out the window at the park-like grounds. The October air had removed nearly all the green and replaced it with oranges, reds, and yellows.
“Caleb,” Mila said from the other backseat, her voice calming his heart. “He’s just trying to egg you on. There’s really nothing to worry about.”
“Aren’t you at least a little bit curious, man?” Luke said. “I mean, we could actually be uncovering some real secret local history—think about how that’ll look on our college essays!”
“Yea, you’ve used that argument already.”
“Musta worked,” Luke said, winking at Caleb. “Or, maybe you just got outvoted.” Luke laughed as he turned back around in his seat.
Caleb knew they already went through this, but he couldn’t help himself, and the words shot out, “Mother Midnight can’t be real! It’s just a stupid ghost story, a kid’s cautionary tale.” Then, Caleb mimicked an old teacher’s voice and wagged his finger, “Don’t go blaming Mother Midnight, now.” Back in his original voice, he said, “It’s a ghost story—not real—not history.”
Luke turned back around in his seat. “We went through this how many times, man? No one is saying ghosts are real… but the story is purely local. Can’t google it, and it doesn’t exist outside our town… or our county at least. That makes it part of local history, and Mrs. Fineman signed off on it already.” Caleb went to interject, but Luke spoke over him. “Second, the story might have originated at this Psych Center. The story that we’ve all heard as kids talks about a ghost lady coming to some kid in the middle of the night and promises to get them anything they want. She grants wishes like some terrible genie, everything going wrong.”
“Moral of the story,” Mila cut in, “be careful what you wish for.”
“Yea,” Luke continued. “Which led to the saying, ‘Don’t blame Mother Midnight,’ when things go wrong in your life, you forget your homework, or whatever. Anyway… mom said that she’s had two patients in her time here at the Psychiatric Center who claim to see this Mother Midnight and claim she is the cause for some of the terrible things that they’ve done or that have happened in their lives.”
“We’re still talking ghost stories, though! And delusions!” Caleb said.
“And, as we’ve all said… what if the story is based on some real event from the past?” Luke said. “Myths often stem from some truth, so that’s what we’re going to attempt to uncover. See if there’s a patient zero from decades ago, perhaps. Mom thinks that if there are two patients who’ve used Mother Midnight as a delusion, there might be others. Maybe the whole myth began at the Psychiatric Center decades ago? One patient’s delusion spreading like a virus or something. Or maybe it could just lead us to a time frame when the whole myth began, and then to what caused it.”
“Come on, Caleb,” Mila said. “It’s way cooler than just reading some local history book like everyone else in class is going to do.”
Caleb expressly disagreed and would prefer the boring book, but looking into her green eyes, he forgot all his opinions as Lucy parked the car.
Lucy turned around in her seat and grinned at Caleb. “If it’s just a ghost story, Caleb… why are you so scared?” She raised her eyebrows and then turned around, chuckling, and got out of the car. Luke laughed and got out too, his laughter still sounding through the closed doors.
“Caleb, it’s going to be fine,” Mila said. Her smile held a hint of humor in it too, but her eyes were also caring. “I mean… what’s the worst that can happen?”
The Putnam Psychiatric Center was a mix of old and new. There was the original Asylum—an administrative building now—two stories tall, made of gray and white stone, with the number 1897 etched into the white stone above the main entrance. Behind that was a six-story building with a modern flair, balancing elements of stone, brick, glass, and cold metal.
Caleb, Mila, Lucy, and Luke waited in the original stone building for the twins’ mom to meet them. They didn’t have to wait long before she came in with a broad smile. Her blonde hair was the only feature that didn’t match with the twins, who had brown. Otherwise, she could have passed for an older version of them with long narrow features, high cheekbones, and a pointed chin.
“Hey guys,” she said, hands in her white coat pockets. The twins walked up and gave their mom a hug, and then she faced the other two keeping her arms around the twins. “Good to see you, Mila—Caleb. This should be fun. Are you ready to get started?”
“Definitely,” said Luke, and Lucy echoed his statement.
“Come on then,” their mom said, and she walked off.
She brought them to a large room of shelves and boxes. A single table with a computer sat near the entrance. The twins’ mom walked over to the table where three files were piled beside the computer. She picked them up.
“I took the liberty of starting you all off,” she said. “Not all of these files have been digitized.” She waved her empty hand at the room of files. “Only those dating back to 1970. So, I started you off with the easy part, the computer searching part. These three patients”—she held up the files—“all have similar delusions to the man we have in our facility today. They all mention a ghost woman coming to them in the night, granting their desires, which apparently lead to a disaster of some kind. One of them definitely names Mother Midnight.”
“Isn’t that strange for them all to have the same vision?” Caleb said.
She smiled at Caleb. “No, not really so strange. Something like this we would mark under a type of emotional transference. First, these patients attach a trauma in their life to something unrelated like a different event in their life, an alternate version they create to make things better, or some type of external source for blame. They’re unable to separate the reality from the delusion they attached to the traumatic event. The transference part I’m talking about is this legend of Mother Midnight that we have. If the story was told to them as a child, and then they suffered a traumatic event, it’s an easy delusion for different people to fall back onto. A source of blame other than themselves can make a traumatic event easier to cope with in their minds.”
“So the coincidence is more about the fact that we all know the story,” Mila said.
“Spoken like an expert, Mila, yes. This is why we often see common delusions among family members or relatives where the family has their own superstitions. Anyway… here are those three files. You have about thirty minutes to look through them, take any notes you want for your project, and Mr. Elms should be prepped for our visit.” She handed the files to Lucy. “I’ll be back to bring you up to the main building. Good luck!”
Lucy immediately distributed a file to Luke and one to Mila. Mila gestured for Caleb to share with her and his cheeks flushed. They spread out on the cold concrete floor, reading the files under the dim ceiling lights.
All the files were as the twins’ mom said. They all cited a ghostly woman in the night as the source of their problems. Caleb’s and Mila’s file was for a man in his twenties, admitted to the center in 1989, who set fire to his office building, killing three people in the process. He claimed that he didn’t do it, that it was Mother Midnight trying to free him from a job he wanted to leave.
Lucy’s file was for a man in his late fifties, admitted in 1975, who said the brakes on his car failed, resulting in a devastating car accident. Two people died, and he was permanently placed on disability. The man was later admitted to the psychiatric center for attempted suicide, which they then concluded may have been the real cause of the accident as an investigation also showed that his brakes worked just fine. Again, the man’s claim was that a ghostly woman was to blame for the brakes failing. Luke’s file was their current patient, thirty-seven years old, admitted five years ago after an accident at the factory he worked left five men incapacitated and himself fired. He blamed Mother Midnight for the incident.
“Some pretty crazy stuff,” Luke said.
“Yea…” Mila agreed. “Really similar stories.”
“And do you all notice how each story ends?” Caleb said, frustration in his voice. Didn’t he tell them this was a bad idea, after all?
Before anyone answered, the twins’ mom came back to escort them up to visit Mr. Elm. They followed a covered path to the primary patient building, then took an elevator to the fourth floor. The four of them kept silent, subdued by their research, while the twins’ mom spoke to other doctors and staff along the way. Finally, she stopped outside a room and turned to face them all.
“Okay, some protocol,” she said. “First, Mr. Elm is not in any way violent towards others, but he is a danger to himself. That is why he will be in a straight jacket and locked down in a chair… standard protocol when he’s out of his living space.” Caleb felt his face go white, and his hands clammy, which she must have noticed, evidenced by her next statement. “I tell you this only so you won’t be frightened when you see him. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Okay? Other than that, I’ll be in there with you… Ready?”
They all nodded except for Caleb. Mila grabbed his arm and pulled him alongside her. He warmed up a bit. Inside, Mr. Elm was indeed in a straight jacket, and the jacket locked to the chair he sat in. The room held no other furniture, a solitary window providing the only decoration—it could have been a painting of a beautiful autumn scene. Mr. Elm’s hair was cut short, the stubble on his face the same length as the hair on his head. His blue eyes were vacant, distant.
Luke started with the questions. “Mr. Elm, can you tell us about the ghost woman you see?”
“A devil… not a woman,” said Mr. Elm. His voice was hoarse as if he were out of practice from using it—or too practiced. He looked up and stared Luke in the eyes as if daring him.
“Does she have a name?” Luke asked.
“She only refers to herself as my mother.”
“When did you first see her?” Mila said, stepping forward.
Mr. Elm’s eyes looked Mila over with contempt, taking his time to respond.
“Five years ago. Sometime right after midnight. I woke up, and there she was, sitting on my bed.”
“What did she say?” Caleb asked in a whisper.
“Rejoiced that she found me… found her son. She said she was there to help me… knew the things I wanted. Got ‘em for me too, but… not in any way I’d be grateful.”
“Like what?” Lucy asked.
“I hated my job, and I wanted out, but I couldn’t just quit. She figured it best to cause the machine press to malfunction, destroying five other lives just to get me fired and to give me what I wanted… I didn’t make any mistakes that day!”
“And does this woman—who thinks she’s your mother—does she come to you every night?” Mila asked.
“At first, same time every night. But now… she’s always here. Walking around this room right now, analyzing my thoughts, fishing for what I want. And she knows… ”
The four of them looked around the room, and Caleb felt a chill on his spine. Was the air suddenly colder, or was that his nerves again?
Caleb forced the next question out of his mouth, “And what is it you want right now?”
Mr. Elm smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile.
The soft sound echoed in the empty room, and everyone froze. Before anyone’s brain could catch up to what was happening, Mr. Elm was up and out of his seat. The lock holding him down was undone. Before the twins’ mom could even raise a hand in protest, Mr. Elm was running, but not for the door. With a roar like a lion and a pounce like one too, the window shattered as Mr. Elm disappeared from sight, leaving only the distant view of the colorful leaves framed by shards of glass.
Chaos ensued, the twins’ mom rushing from the room, leaving them all in stunned silence. The wind whistled through the broken window, and Caleb turned to his friends.
“Did you notice how all the stories ended?” Caleb swallowed hard. “Like this… all of them ended like this.”
Caleb sat with his friends at lunch the following day, staring at Luke, his mouth hanging open.
“Oh, come on, Caleb!” Luke said, hands slamming down beside his lunch tray.
Caleb shook his head, “No way, man. How are we not dropping this after what happened yesterday? You’re crazy.”
“No… Mr. Elm was crazy. You’re not tellin’ me you actually believe he was haunted by some ghost-lady, are you?”
“Well… no, but…”
Caleb stared down at the half-eaten pizza on his lunch tray; the constant noise of students talking over their lunches filled his ears like static.
“A man jumped out of a window—to his death—right in front of us and… and don’t you think it’s also a big coincidence?” Caleb said.
“A coincidence?” Mila asked.
Caleb turned towards her and said, “The fact that there were two other patients at the Psych Center who believed the same thing as Mr. Elm, and who are all now dead… all committing suicide… all under the watchful eyes of doctors and so on.”
“Emotional… transfer-ation… or something,” Lucy said. “What mom said—they all heard the myth, the fairytale, as kids and attached to this Mother Midnight story to not have to deal with the fact that they caused some horrible stuff.”
“Exactly,” Luke said. “Mr. Elm caused a terrible accident at work, got fired, ruined people’s lives, and blames it on a ghost to make himself feel better.” Luke leaning back confidently in his chair like a lawyer resting his case.
“And the lock on Mr. Elm coming undone on its own?” Caleb shot back, his sweaty hands on his knees under the table.
“Broken lock,” Mila said. “Just unlucky.”
“Locks don’t just open on their own!” Caleb said.
“Broken ones do,” Lucy said with a shrug.
“Caleb,” Luke said, speaking calmly, leaning forward. “It comes down to one simple question. Do you believe in ghosts?”
Caleb thought for a moment. “No,” he said.
“Then, you’re doing it,” Luke said.
“Fine…” Caleb pushed his tray away from himself, unable to consider eating more.
“Great,” Luke said. “Time to put this fairytale to rest while we continue trying to track down if there’s a real story behind it all.”
Luke re-iterated the instructions to Caleb, but he knew them already as the idea filled him with dread from the moment Luke first shared it. The theory was that Mother Midnight is looking for her son, as Mr. Elm said, so she’ll come to men or boys during the night—which matched with the fact that all the other patients were men too. Also, since the myth calls her Midnight, and Mr. Elm added that that’s about when she first visited him—“Same time every night,” he said—they were going to try and summon her by waking themselves up in the middle of the night—to find that “same time.”
“You better do it, Caleb,” Luke said. “In fact. I’m going to call you to make sure you’ve done it. I’ll set my alarm first for midnight, and you set yours for 12:01. I’ll call you at 12:01 to make sure you set that alarm.”
“Fine,” Caleb submitted. “But, for the record… this has nothing to do with history anymore.”
“It’s called going the extra mile,” Lucy said with a grin.
* * *
The next nights went exactly as Luke said. He woke up first, and Caleb answered his phone call after waking to his own alarm. The first night was 12:00 and 12:01—the next night, 12:02 and 12:03, and so on. Over the weekend, they went back to the Psych center to go through older records to see if they could find other cases not in the database, and perhaps when the original story started. Going through the physical files, they found another case in the ’60s, but nothing in the ’50s. They’d continue again next week.
Caleb tried to get a night off from the midnight wake-ups on Sunday—due to his looming math test the next day—but Luke wouldn’t have it.
“It’s one minute, Caleb. It’s not going to make you fail.”
So, that night, the seventh night, Caleb’s softly beeping alarm woke him at 12:13 am. He turned it off and began to reset it for the morning while he awaited Luke’s phone call. Then, a breath and a soft sigh sounded from right beside him. He turned around like a snapping rubber band to see a woman facing him, and he froze. Caleb stared at the woman’s dark eyes and her broad smile, all framed by long, ratty black hair. His phone buzzed in his hand from Luke’s phone call, but he barely felt it.
“I found you, my son,” she said. “I’m sorry I’ve been away so long, but I’m here now, and I won’t ever leave you again.”
This Is What You Wanted
Caleb’s phone rang again for the third time, and the woman sitting on his bed looked on silently, smiling.
He answered the phone with a throaty, “Luke…”
“About time, dude,” Luke said. “Did you wake up at 12:13, or are you just getting up now?”
“Luke… she… she’s… here.”
“She’s sitting on my bed.”
“Very funny man, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He hung up the phone before Caleb could say anything else, and the woman on his bed inched closer. She wasn’t a ghost as Caleb would have thought a ghost would be. The bed moved when she moved, although not as much as he would expect from a normal person of her size. She rested a hand on his knee, and, through the comforter, he felt her touch—solid and cold.
“My dear,” she said softly, still smiling. “It’s me. Your mother…”
Caleb didn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, but believe me, I couldn’t. You know Mother would have been there if she could. But, don’t fear, my son. We are a family again, and I will protect you and be there for you every day for the rest of my life. I promise.”
“I…” Caleb’s mouth and throat were dry, his words a whisper. “I’m not your son.”
Mother Midnight laughed softly and gently.
“I know it’s been a long time, my son, but you’ll see in time. You’ll remember your mother’s voice, her touch”—she reached out and stroked his cheek—“her love.” She leaned in close, one hand still on his cheek, and kissed him on the forehead. “Rest now. You want a good night’s sleep for your test tomorrow, but don’t worry… I won’t let you fail.”
Mother Midnight got up from the bed and walked towards his bedroom door. She wore a white nightgown, her messy hair on her shoulders. She turned back to Caleb when she reached the door.
“Sleep, my son.”
Then, without opening the door, she passed through the solid wood and out of sight. Caleb remained sitting up in bed; the cold touch of her hand on his cheek lingered, as did her cool lips on his forehead.
* * *
Caleb didn’t remember falling asleep and expressly tried not to do so, but his alarm had to wake him in the morning none the less. He opened his eyes with reluctance, but not in the way a teenager does when they want to sleep in or perhaps avoid another Monday at school. Fear kept Caleb’s eyes closed. After a minute, he cracked open one eye so slightly he saw nothing at all. A little further and his tidy room began to come into view, and to his relief, it was empty.
Getting ready for school, Caleb had to remind himself to breathe as he constantly looked over his shoulder, around corners, and back over his shoulder again. He threw his shirt on so fast as to not lose sight for a single moment. He blinked fast or not at all, on edge, waiting for the moment the ghost woman, Mother Midnight, would appear before him again. Feeling sick to his stomach, Caleb skipped breakfast with a “Not hungry today” to his mom and went outside to wait for the bus a few minutes earlier than usual. The cool, fall air felt nice, freeing in a way, until, whether it was in his imagination or not, Caleb felt an extra coolness upon his cheek and on his forehead. A reminder that last night wasn’t a dream.
When he arrived at school, Caleb tried to explain to everyone what was happening. That everything Mr. Elm had told them was true. That Mother Midnight was real, and she visited him last night. Without surprise, no one believed him, and the bell for first period was ringing before he could explain further. Would he believe them if they told the same story? Probably not, he concluded, but it didn’t make the situation any less frustrating, nor make his anxiety ease up.
Usually, Caleb would sneak in some extra studying in between periods with Mila, Luke, and Lucy, but all he did instead was look over his shoulder and inspect the occupants of the hallways, looking for a ghostly woman with long black hair and a simple white nightgown. The result was entering math class, third period, stressed to the breaking point. His teacher, Mrs. Hind, got right down to business as usual. The class grew quiet as she walked around, handing out the test.
Caleb skipped the first problem as his mind went blank of all memory. He attempted the second problem but knew he was missing something. His mind was all over the place. Remember math, be on alert for Mother Midnight, don’t throw up. The test was going poorly. He looked up to check the time. It was halfway through the period, and he was not confident about a single answer. Mrs. Hind walked around the class, and before she turned his way, he put his head back down. Then, a soft breeze brushed his ankles between the small gap of his pant leg and his socks. He looked down to see a piece of paper resting on his shoe.
Caleb picked up the paper and turned it over in front of him. It was the answer sheet to the test—Mrs. Hind’s copy. Before he could think about how it got there, her footsteps echoed behind him, and he turned his head up to face her.
“Caleb Benson,” she said, ripping the answer guide from his hand. “I never would’ve thought…”
“I didn’t,” Caleb said. “I found it on my shoe… caught in a breeze or something—just landed there… I just picked it up, honestly, like a second ago.”
“Mr. Benson. This”—she rustled the paper violently—“was not just lying on my desk for a… breeze to carry it off! This was in a folder on my desk.”
“I swear, I didn’t… it just…”
“Save it, Mr. Benson… for the Principle. Take your things and go—now.” Mrs. Hind pointed her empty hand in a crisp, straight line towards the door.
Caleb caught Mila’s eye as he walked towards the door, backpack over his shoulder. Her face was full of surprise. He tried to convey to her, without words, with eyes and eyebrows, that this was the work of Mother Midnight, not him. He didn’t think he succeeded, though. As the classroom door closed behind him and he stood alone in the empty hall, the ghostly words of Mother Midnight seemed to echo in his mind, “… don’t worry… I won’t let you fail.”
* * *
Caleb plopped his backpack down on a chair in the corner and took the other empty seat at the desk. He’d never been in the Principle’s office before, and Mr. L—his name was too long and interesting to pronounce or remember—seemed to loom over Caleb, sitting behind his desk. Caleb didn’t like being in trouble, which is why he never was. The question of how he knew what being in trouble felt like—since he’d never been in trouble—was a question he never asked himself.
“So, Mr. Benson, what happened? Mrs. Hind called and said you were caught cheating…”
As he did with Mrs. Hind, Caleb tried to explain himself, but the unconvincing stare that looked back at him was not encouraging. His mind was full of one thought: I have to get out of this mess.
“I swear, Mr. L., I’ve never been in trouble, and I didn’t take those answers. They just blew from somewhere to my seat.”
“Okay, Mr. Benson, I—”
Mr. L. stopped and was looking over Caleb’s shoulder, eyebrows high. Caleb turned to see the back corner of the office up in flames. The fire licked the walls and consumed his backpack. It curled around a small bookcase, books adding fuel to the flames. Caleb quickly stood up and backed away. Mr. L. was at the door and had it open before Caleb could shout his surprise. The Principle was back with a fire extinguisher and had the fire out quickly after that.
“How did…?” Caleb said as Mr. L went down on hands and knees to inspect the charred up and foam-covered area. Caleb’s backpack was definitely a goner.
Mr. L. turned around, eyed Caleb suspiciously for a moment, and then shook his head with a slight grin. He pointed his finger at the wall. Caleb had to get down on his knees as well to peek beneath the chair where his backpack sat, covered in white foam. Caleb had a keychain hanging from one of his zippers, and the metal was somehow lodged into the outlet on the wall.
“Mr. L. I swear I did not—”
“Relax, Mr. Benson,” he said, holding up a hand. “I don’t think you cheated on your test, and I don’t think you did this. Must’ve been some sort of magnetic…” The bell rang, announcing the end of third period. “I suggest you head to your next class, and please be a little more careful. I like our school and want it to still be standing by the end of the day.”
Caleb nodded thankfully, picked up his destroyed backpack, and, holding it to the side, left the office for fourth-period lunch.
Just Don’t Think About…
“Do you believe me now?” Caleb said, looking at the three skeptical faces at his lunch table.
“You’re talking about ghosts, Caleb… they’re not real!” Luke said.
“You wanted them to be real, right?” Caleb said. “Isn’t that why we did this whole waking up at midnight thing?”
“Honestly, I just thought it would be fun to scare you a bit.” Luke shrugged and grinned.
“What reason do we have to not believe Caleb?” Mila said, and Caleb’s heart skipped and danced to an internal whistling tune.
He smiled at her. “Thank you.”
“That’s what friends do,” Mila said, and Caleb’s heart returned to normal. “We trust each other.”
“Yes! Let’s catch a ghost!” Lucy said wide-eyed.
“You too?” Luke said, looking at his sister, who stared back without saying anything. “Alright, fine,” he said. “Friends trust each other. But… that means a ghost is real, and for that matter, a ghost that is haunting Caleb. You all remember Mr. Elm, right?”
The table went quiet, and Caleb felt like he just stepped off a boat that had been at sea during a storm. The quiet remained for a long minute.
“Mr. Elm didn’t have help,” Mila finally said. “We’ll help Caleb, and it’ll all be alright.”
“Thanks, Mila,” Caleb said, and they smiled at each other for a brief slice of time before Luke interrupted.
“Okay, so a plan,” he said. “We need more information, right? Who is this woman? What does she want?”
Caleb explained the full conversation he had with Mother Midnight last night.
“So she wants to make you happy,” Luke said. “That’s not so bad…”
“Hello?” Caleb said. “I wanted out of the principle’s office and the place set on fire…”
“Right,” Luke said. “So, what Mr. Elm and those other patients said is true too. Everything goes wrong, like the worst genie in the world.”
“What did she look like?” Mila asked. “What was she wearing?”
“Just a plain white thing,” Caleb said. “Like those long nightgowns people used to wear.”
“Hmm,” Mila said. “Could be early 1900’s? Maybe… we need more.”
“I know, but we still need more information. Yes, she wants to help get you things you want, but there has to be a deeper reason, right? A connection to her real son, maybe?”
“Oooh,” Lucy said. “Maybe there’s a ghost son out there, and we need to reconnect them?”
“Good idea, sis,” said Luke. “Okay, Caleb, it’s on you to go on a midnight reconnaissance mission. Grill this ghost lady with some questions and find out who she was. Maybe more about her son or something.”
“Great,” Caleb said. “And in the meantime, the school might explode because I’m hungry and I want a snack!”
Everyone went silent again as they thought over the new dilemma. The bell rang to head for fifth period, but they all sat still, and Caleb felt a little more at ease. Regardless what was happening, he had three friends who didn’t care about anything else but helping him at this moment. What’s better than that? Caleb wondered with a small smile and a feeling of ease.
“I got it!” Caleb shouted, the shout drowned by the moving and chattering students leaving the cafeteria. “You can’t stop thinking about something because then all you’ll do is think of it. I need to think about other things. Not things I want, but things I already have… things like you guys… I have awesome friends. When I think about that, I don’t think about wanting anything because I have it already.”
“That’s brilliant, Caleb,” Mila said, and his heart began skipping to some internal whistle again.
* * *
Easier said than done summarized his task nicely. He never noticed how much his mind just wandered around before until he had to keep it on the present moment. The future held things he didn’t have, which led to something he would want, and he couldn’t go there now. Caleb focused hard in class, keeping his mind solely on learning. If he began to drift, he used his friends again to think about how lucky he was to have such a great group.
Nothing disastrous occurred for the rest of the day, and he made it to his bedtime, which he dreaded. All he wanted, which he allowed this thought, was to not see Mother Midnight again. This wish would not be granted, though.
Caleb woke to a gentle but too-cold-touch on his leg.
“Sweetie,” said a woman’s voice. Caleb tried keeping his eyes shut, but she began shaking him awake. “Come now, I know you’re awake. Don’t make your mother wait.”
Caleb slowly opened his eyes, his body covered in goosebumps, but not from the cold touch. The time was again, 12:13 am.
“There he is,” she said warmly. “How did your test go at school today? And I heard you almost got in trouble with the Principle.” She wagged a finger disapprovingly at him. “We must remember to be on our best behavior at all times.”
Caleb kept his mind elsewhere, scanning for things he loved that he already had. So grateful for his parents, for the house they had, for his bed, his comforter was so warm and perfect. Mother Midnight stared at him with her head to the side. She was entering his mind—Caleb could almost feel it—searching. He could do this, but not forever. He needed to ask the questions Luke, Lucy, and Mila helped him come up with.
“Um, Mother?” Caleb said.
“Yes, my dear?”
“What year is it?”
“What year is it? Why I… I don’t know. I’m sorry, son, but I… I don’t know.” She looked frustrated, border-line angry at her inability to answer his question, and Caleb did not want to find out what happened when she got angry.
“That’s okay, but I have another question.”
“I hope I can better answer this time.”
“Where have you been?”
“Oh, dear, that’s a tough question to answer. I don’t know if you’re old enough to hear it, but does it really matter? I’m here now.”
“I… it just… it would bring me comfort to know where you’ve been, is all.”
“Okay… bad people took me from you. People who said they had my best interests in mind, people who said they were doing me good, took me from you, left you alone with no mother, no one to take care of you!” She was agitated, but Caleb couldn’t stop her. “I was trapped! No escaping their walls and their drugs and their fancy little white coats! Monsters, they were monsters! But…” Her voice suddenly settled, and she went from raging storm to peaceful caregiver in a jarring instant. “I’m here now. Here to make up for lost time, so tell me, my son. The world is your oyster. Anything you want, I will get for you, I will make happen for you.”
“I don’t want anything… mother.”
“Now, now…” she wagged her finger again. “Let’s not fib. Everyone wants something.”
“Honestly, no. I want nothing… now that you’re back, I’m… I’m complete.”
Mother Midnight smiled. “How nice. Well, don’t you worry, my son. I’m not going anywhere… ever again…”
Crap, Caleb thought. Wrong thing to say.
Tragic Past, Tragic Present
It was Mila who figured it out, and good thing too because Caleb’s mind was so focused on keeping his mind from drifting to anything he wanted that there was no headspace left for other thinking. Caleb filled everyone in on his experience the following morning before school, and Mila came to lunch with her epiphany.
“The people who took her away from her son,” she said, “must have been the people at the Psych Center—the Asylum at that time. Think about it… she said something about the people in their fancy white coats, plus how you described what she was wearing, Caleb. I don’t think it was a nightgown, but more like a hospital gown. If she was locked up there, the records might still be there, and we can find out who she was!”
It made sense to Caleb. Luke and Lucy would talk to their mom after school, and they would hopefully be able to visit the records room sooner than the weekend to go through the old files again. If they could find out what happened to Mother Midnight, they could hopefully find a way to have her leave Caleb alone.
He made it through another day and another night without thinking of any wants, but he was definitely growing tired from the nerves. They were all set to go to the Psych Center after school, which gave him a sense of relief as he entered first period. Then, he nearly dropped his books. Standing behind his chair was Mother Midnight, during the day, visible, clearly, to only himself as no one stole a glance at the woman in a hospital gown with long black hair.
Focus, Caleb thought as he smiled at Mother Midnight and took his seat.
“You must want something, my son!” Mother Midnight exclaimed as he tried to focus on his teacher up front.
“Who can tell me what is so special about Carbon?” Mr. Gifford said.
Mother Midnight paced the aisle beside Caleb, talking over the teacher. “Everyone wants something, my dear! Everyone!”
“No desire is too small or too big for my son! Whatever you want!” Her voice grew louder and more violent.
“Carbon can form more complex structures, which makes it—”
“LOOK AT ME!” Mother Midnight’s voice vibrated Caleb’s bones, and he obeyed the command. She moved to his desk in a flash, too fast for a human to walk. Hands on his desk, she leaned closer, face inches from him. “What do you want?”
Caleb was near to tears, trying to focus on the present, Mother Midnight, Carbon. He felt alone, cut off, and just wanted… NO! But it was too late. He could see that by the smile on Mother Midnight’s face. Her personality did a complete one-eighty.
“A girl!” she said, spinning around, clutching her hands to her chest. “A girl! My dear, you should have said so sooner. There’s not a moment to waste. You must begin to court her right away. Life is short!” Mother Midnight smiled and caressed his cheek before walking away, fading into nothing, yet some of her mutterings remained. “Should we start with flowers? No, what my son needs is opportunity…”
* * *
Caleb caught up with Mila halfway on their typical walk to third-period math. He was worried but felt a little more at ease to be around her than to not know where she was and if she was safe.
“How’s it going today?” Mila said. “I mean… you know.”
“Not great,” he admitted. “She’s stalking me during the day now.”
“Well, that’s not—Ah!”
Mila tripped as they reached the stairs, books sent flying, and Mila fell down three steps before catching herself by grabbing hold of the metal railing.
“Mila!” Caleb rushed down to her. “Are you okay?”
She straightened herself up, blushing with embarrassment. “I… yea.” She laughed. “That’s embarrassing.” Mila began collecting her books, and Caleb helped.
After gathering up her books, they continued their walk to class, but before they turned the corner, leaving the stairwell and entering into the first-floor hallway, Caleb caught a glimpse of Mother Midnight at the top of the stairs. She was shaking her head, hands on her hips as if scolding Caleb.
* * *
They returned to the Putnam Psychiatric Center right after school, Lucy driving again, and they met Luke and Lucy’s mom back at the old stone building. She escorted them to the records room as she’d done before.
“Do you need any—?” Their mom started as they reached the door.
“Nope,” said Lucy. “Thanks, mom!” And the four of them rushed into the room without another word. Their mom shrugged and left them to it.
“Where do we begin?” Luke said.
“Any sense as to what time-period she might have been here, Caleb?” Mila said.
“I tried asking her, but she didn’t say.”
“We can keep going backward like we were doing,” Mila said, “or it might be better to start at the beginning. 1897 and then up.”
They agreed and located the correct aisle, the furthest from the door where the lights seemed somehow dimmer, more likely a product of perception than actual lighting. Boxes were labeled by a range of years, and as the years progressed, the date ranges grew closer together. The first box said, 1897 to 1902. Then, 1903-1907. 1908 to 1910. And from then on, each box held a year’s worth of files, or more than one box per year.
“One box at a time,” Caleb said with an air of authority, feeling a sense of determination he’d never felt before. “We look for women patients first, and then from there, we go into the files to see if there are any stories that connect to a relationship with their son.”
“Some might even have pictures of the patients,” Mila added.
“Even better,” Caleb said as he pulled the first box from the shelf.
An hour later, Mila had to leave for a violin lesson at her house, her mom coming to pick her up. Before she left, Caleb felt a knot in his stomach and rushed to her side.
“Be careful,” he said.
She smiled. “I’ll be fine. You be careful. I’m sorry I have to go, but I might be able to come back after.”
“We got it from here.”
“Keep your thoughts clear,” she said and left with a wave.
Mother Midnight appeared where Mila had just stood, looking after his friend before turning to face him.
“You have to seize your opportunities, my son.”
“Please—stop,” Caleb said in a hushed voice, through gritted teeth.
“Nonsense, my dear. I know what you want, and I can help you. You’re my son, and I will move heaven and earth for you. Don’t you worry. You’ll have more opportunities…”
Before Caleb could protest, she was gone, and he was staring at the wall. He punched it, which hurt a lot and his eyes watered. Was this really what he wanted? Was Mother Midnight helping, giving him opportunities to ask Mila if she wanted to be more than just friends? Perhaps if he did so, Mother Midnight would stop, Mila would be safe, and that would be the end of it. No, he thought, It won’t ever end. She’ll find something else after that and after that. And what if Mila said no? That thought made him shudder. The emotional pain and awkwardness was one thing, but the fear of how Mother Midnight would respond was worse to consider. The only solution was to continue what they were doing. Find out her story, and find a way to use it against her.
They reached the year 1921 when Lucy squealed.
“I… I think I… Caleb, is this her?” Lucy held out a small black and white photograph. All Caleb could do was nod, his mouth open in shock that they actually found her.
“What’s it say?” Luke said, grabbing the file from his sister.
“Hey!” Lucy said, but Luke didn’t answer her, his eyes dancing over the file.
“Man, this is some rough stuff…” Luke said. “Beth Greene—admitted in November 1921. Suffered severe emotional distress, which resulted in a complete shattering of her understanding and ability to accept reality.”
“What happened?” Caleb asked.
“Let me see… here. Her son, Tucker Greene, was born that September. Her husband died on the day of delivery in some accident at work. Oh man, this is terrible. A month later, the baby died too… some disease—diphtheria—whatever that is. This is where she kind of cracked. Apparently, she wouldn’t accept that Tucker died and continued caring for the child. No one knew until November… a month after the baby died. Oh, man, this is sick. She was going for a walk with the baby in the stroller, showing it off to people in the park, casually like nothing was wrong. They called the police and so on.”
“That’s dark,” Lucy said, and they all went quiet for a long pause. The entire world seemed to get quiet.
Caleb spoke in a whisper, “What happened to her after she came here?”
“Didn’t end well… it says she wouldn’t accept that her child was dead. Kept trying to escape saying that she needed to get back to her son—that her son needed her… sound familiar?” Caleb nodded, and Luke continued. “She ended up escaping one night, killing one of the doctors in the process. It all ended with her being shot by police.”
Lucy took the file back from him. Caleb didn’t know what he was feeling. A mix of sorrow for the tragedy and the constant fear of Mother Midnight, of Beth Greene’s ghost.
“Get this,” Lucy said. “The estimated time of her death was 12:15 am. How much you wanna bet it was actually 12:13 am on the nose—”
“Yea… the time you woke up, Caleb…” Luke said. “Makes sense. Creepy…”
“Can I take this file home?” Caleb said.
“Yea, mom’ll never know,” Luke said. “Just toss it in your backpack.”
* * *
Lucy and Luke dropped Caleb off at home about a half-hour later, and he went to his room to continue examining the file. Before he finished re-reading what Luke shared with them all, his phone rang. It was Luke.
“What’s up?” Caleb said.
“Dude, not good. My dad just got a call. Mila and her mom got into a car accident on their way home earlier. They’re both in the hospital. Sounds pretty bad.”
Caleb didn’t know what to say, he was in shock, and he knew it was all his fault.
“Meet you there?” Luke said. “Do you need a ride?”
Through a dry throat, Caleb could only say, “Yea… yea.”
He relayed the message to his parents and then waited by the front door, alone, for Luke and Lucy to pick him up. He needed the space to think for a moment. Caleb couldn’t see Mother Midnight, but he felt something cool caress his cheek, and then he heard her voice as if whispering an inch from his ear, “Opportunity, my son. Opportunity…”
Rest In Peace
There was only one place where Caleb could think to go, only one place where this could end. After seeing that Mila and her mom were okay, hurt bad, but okay, Lucy and Luke took him home. He said goodnight to his parents, but when he shut his bedroom door, he had no intention of going to sleep. A little online research, and then Caleb was crawling out his bedroom window, something he’d never done before and had never thought to do before. He walked carefully along the roof and jumped down to the grass below.
The cemetery was only a few miles away, and, even while walking with his now sprained ankle from his roof jumping, he arrived in less than an hour. The cemetery website didn’t have exact locations of every headstone, but it did have areas based on dates of death. Using his phone for a light, Caleb walked alone among the dead, searching the headstones. And then, there it was. Beth Greene—her headstone old and speckled with moss. As Caleb hoped, there were two graves beside hers. One for her husband, and beside that, a small headstone for the baby, her son, Tucker Greene.
Caleb took a deep breath and then called, “Mother…?”
She appeared almost instantly. “Yes, my son?” Mother Midnight said, looking at Caleb and then around at the cemetery. “Now, this is no place for you to be at night. We should get home.”
“No. We’re staying here.” The authority in his voice startled both Mother Midnight and himself. “We have to talk… Mother.”
“Very well,” she said, walking closer, folding her arms across her chest. “Talk, my son.”
Caleb checked his phone. It was just after midnight now, and he didn’t really know what his plan was, but he knew it had to be here if there was any chance of sending Mother Midnight away—sending her… onward.
“First things first,” Caleb said. “I am not your son. My name is Caleb Benson. Your name is Beth Greene. My parents are Carl and Jean Benson.”
“My son, no, no, no. I’ve just been away for a—”
“No! Your son died many years ago. I am not Tucker.” The name Tucker did something to her. She twitched like a television program going in and out of service for a split second. “Look.” He pointed to the headstones, and she inspected them closely. Then she stood tall, and her voice was violent, and she was a storm.
The air around her twisted and blew with a harsh cold. The leaves kicking up around them like a tornado. Caleb froze in shock, and Mother Midnight turned away from him, her eyes in the direction of the Putnam Psychiatric Center. He didn’t want to turn her away from himself to just go destroy the lives of others.
“NO!” he shouted over her storm. “Tucker was already dead. It wasn’t their fault… and it wasn’t yours either!”
She turned to face him, and her face was distorted and dark, the ghost of herself now more pronounced than anything human in her. Caleb’s body shook with fear. Anyone who ever said, “If looks could kill,” never saw the face staring back at Caleb.
His teeth chattered as he spoke, stuttering. “It-t-t-t… was… dis-s-ease. Nothing… nothing you c-could’ve done.”
Mother Midnight was instantly standing before him, moving ten feet in a blink, and she leaned forward, her face an inch away from his. “They—took—me—from—him.”
“L-look at the dates…” Caleb pointed back to the headstones, but his eyes remained on hers. “T-tucker died a month before you—before you went to the hospital.”
She shook her head, “No. I remember my son. HE WAS ALIVE! HE NEEDED ME! HE NEEDED HIS MOTHER!”
This wasn’t working, and Caleb was fresh out of ideas, and Mother Midnight was a storm again. What could he do against a force like that?
“What do you want? Why are you here? Why are you helping me?”
The storm around Mother Midnight faded slightly, and she faced Caleb. Her demeanor changing from vengeful to concern.
“I am here to help my son.”
“But you know I’m not him.”
“I’m here to… do what I couldn’t… didn’t have a chance to give…”
“To give Tucker the life he deserved.” Caleb swallowed deep, waiting for the storm to return, but it didn’t.
“Yes,” she said, looking him in the eyes. “The life he deserved, but that I never got to give him. So… so I give it to you, my dear!”
“No. I don’t want anything from you. Your job is done.”
“Of course, it isn’t! A Mother never rests! I mean, how are you going to get the courage to talk to this girl without me? How are you going to get good grades without my help? How are you going to get out of trouble? YOU NEED ME! AS MY SON NEEDED ME!”
“That’s it!” Caleb said, and Mother Midnight looked at him, not understanding. “I might not, Beth. I might not get the courage. I might not get the grades I want or avoid trouble my whole life. But that’s on me… not on you. This is my life… and… and my life is what I make it, right?”
“My son deserved… YOU deserve…”
“You can’t give me courage or anything else. You wouldn’t be able to give that to Tucker, either. He’d have to figure that out on his own too. You gave him his life! That’s enough.”
“NO!” Mother Midnight screamed, and the storm returned more violent than before. Caleb was in the eye of the storm, staring into the eyes of its maker—dark eyes. “IF YOU DO NOT APPRECIATE YOUR MOTHER… THAN I SHALL FIND A SON WHO WILL!”
“NO!” Caleb reached for her, but she was now vaporous, slipping slowly out of sight. The winds slowed, and the leaves fell to the ground. He felt the cold touch upon his cheek, and a voice whispered in his ear.
“One day, my son, you will see, you will miss me, beg for your mother to return, to come help you, and despite your attitude… Mother will come with open arms because that’s what mothers do. Goodbye, for now, my son…”
All went still; in fact, the world seemed to be unnaturally still now. What did he do? He didn’t end anything; he didn’t do what he set out to do. Caleb was sure that she was gone from him, but also not completely. He knew it also meant she was going to find someone else to “help.” He looked at his phone. The time read 12:12, and then not two seconds later, Caleb watched it turn to 12:13. What have I done?
* * *
Two weeks later, Caleb sat with his three friends as Luke typed away on his laptop. Mila sat next to Luke, her whole leg in a cast, and Caleb rested a hand on her shoulder. She looked over her shoulder and smiled up at him.
“Alright,” Luke said. “The basics are set up. Website domain, mothermidnight.org. Now, we just have to figure out what the heck to write here without sounding crazy.”
“Who cares what people think?” Lucy said. “We know what’s real.”
“The only way for this to work is to be completely open,” Mila said. “It’s going to sound like some crazy, conspiracy theory website, but what choice do we have?”
They all turned to face Caleb, who nodded in agreement, then said, “We have a responsibility to help whoever her next ‘son’ is. Whoever that is, if he tries to find out who Mother Midnight is, like we did, maybe we can help him before he ends up like Mr. Elm. Before anyone gets hurt.” He squeezed Mila’s shoulder with affection.
“You’re the boss,” Luke said, and then added, “don’t let it go to your head.”
“Okay, what do I write?”
Caleb thought for a moment and said, “Type this… although it’s hard to believe, Mother Midnight is real. She’s in search of her son, and that might be you. If you wake up in the night, and the clock reads 12:13, she’ll be there… waiting… but so will we.”
What Did You Think?
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