I brought this upon myself when, more out of politeness than conviction, I agreed to babysit for the summer. My mum’s friend needed someone to, as she put it, ‘keep her daughter in check’. When she squeezed my hand until the pressure made my knuckles crack, I wanted to back out.
Each week I would leave Ania playing in the living room and knock on the door to her mum’s bedroom. She’d open after a pause and give me a prolonged look. To an outsider she’d probably appear confused as to why I was there in the first place. My voice was hesitant every time I asked to get paid and she’d nod thoughtfully as if the idea was news to her. Sometimes she seemed to struggle to find her bag, although it was sitting on top of a shelf opposite her bed, always. She’d dig through it, the cracks in the fake leather gaping open, hand buried all the way in, as if she was performing delicate surgery on some exotic animal. I ran my fingers along a dent in the doorframe, long and deep, thick white paint chipping at the edges.
It was barely any money. But I persisted regardless. And every week the pauses were a little longer, the bag harder to find.
I welcomed the payment with a smile, of course. Stayed overtime. Arrived promptly, spoke little, hummed with agreement at everything she said. Sometimes, not often, mind you, I thought about how in some places this constituted an actual job, the type of work that could sustain a person. But Poland was a play country where people didn’t get paid real money, just symbolic amounts. Ania understood this well. She would set up a shop with her friends at the square, often, and give them twigs in exchange for stones. So I played with her. And I played with her mum.
If it wasn’t for Ania, I would have left after the first day. But that’s how they get you, isn’t it? Well, they got me. By the end of the summer I was at their tenement house from morning till night. And what a place it was. Not particularly original, that’s true—there were buildings like this all over Lodz, plaster and brick crumbling, all windows facing the grey, closed square in the middle—but somehow exceptional in its commitment to barrenness and desolation. No trees, no flowers, not even a clump of overgrown grass. At least it had an outdoor carpet hanger. Children would hang off of it more often than rugs.
Ania would go to the square and heroically attempt to have a good time with the other children scattered about, sounds echoing off the walls. Old ladies who spent their days spying on people stained the windows with their heavy respiration, watching the children. The eyes flickered from above, the silent audience in a grotesque parody of a colosseum. I took that position myself sometimes, towering over the square in the living room window, making sure the girl was safe.
Once, using her most matter-of-fact tone, Ania told me about a disturbing game she played—a walk into the void of the old cellar, a dark presence visible from all sides of the square. The door no longer closed since the hinge had rusted and broken off. It made a sinister, creaky noise on windy days and looked mildly threatening at any other time. The only living things seen going in and out were mangy, stray cats. The children would swear the cat invasion had transformed the cellar into a nightmare feline kingdom. It was filled to the brim with a swarm of them, the walls were soaked in cat piss, and the floor was covered with faeces, dead pigeons, mice, and other as yet undiscovered treasures.
I could have destroyed their romantic vision with a description of the mundane reality—likely five moulted animals on a smelly blanket. Instead, I kept nodding and listening to the tales of their brave attempts to reach the belly of the beast, overcoming the nausea and breathing in the stench as they took turns walking into the expanse of the cellar.
Apparently whole generations of children attempted that walk and turned back after a couple of steps. I wasn’t sure if it was the smell, the fear of the darkness, or the visions of hell they conjured, but, as the legends proclaimed, nobody managed to get further than the end of the corridor. Whatever waited behind the bend remained a mystery. The person who reached the furthest into the depth was Gabriela, Ania’s best friend. Even now I could walk to the yard and see the faded writing in chalk that proudly stated: ‘Gabriela–12 steps’. She was about eleven at the time, the same age as Ania now.
The first time I heard of her, I wasn’t interested. Back then, I listened to Ania’s mum as if she was an oracle and tried my darndest not to fuck up the basics, knowing she was keenly observing my every move as I settled in. Perhaps that was the reason why Gabriela got lost in the long list of instructions. But she was there, itemised amongst the don’ts rather than the dos. I remember thinking the name sounded a bit too grand for a neighbourhood overflowing with Kasias, Asias, and Marysias, but it was what it was.
A few days later, Ania stormed into the living room, and delivered the news. ‘I saw Gabriela,’ she announced with such reverence, the papal audience would not compare. ‘She’s still fucked up.’ Her tone was so casual one would be forgiven for assuming she was describing Gabriela’s hair colour or listing her favourite foods.
‘What?’ I paused. Actually, I should have explained why it wasn’t kind to say things like that, but that battle was lost a long time ago.
She blinked at me as if my surprise was unjustified. ‘You know, still drawing fucked up nightmares.’
Ah. That was when Ania introduced me to what Gabriela was most famous for—her artwork.
‘Mum says they’re not that good,’ she said, handing me some crumpled papers. ‘She says they make Gabriela feel important and in—’ Bless her, the word was not really working for her. ‘In—insufferable as a result.’
Right. I stared at the images for a moment, flipping through the pages. ‘I think they are that good,’ I said.
Messy, actually, but extremely expressive and surprisingly confident. Gabriela somehow made all the imperfections work to her advantage. Perfect composition, a sure hand, a nice balance between precision in the details and the blurry generalities.
She was cruel in her interpretation. And yes, there were some nightmares in the mix, but what got my attention was a drawing of Ania. It was borderline mean, all the awkward proportions overemphasised, her slightly asymmetrical nose suddenly obvious, eyes a little empty. It made Ania look like her mother, the same round face and crooked smile, not something I noticed before. There were stains on her shirt as if Gabriela was questioning my ability to keep that in check. I looked up from the page and spotted some oil on Ania’s collar. I smiled. Despite all the unpleasantness, what actually radiated from the image was affection for the girl. Yeah, Gabi, me and you both.
‘They are that good,’ I repeated while looking at Ania with embarrassing persistence, almost as if I believed my opinion could influence her more than her mother’s.
Soon it became clear that the matter of Gabriela was so crucial to the household, even I, its temporary and least important member, had to be well informed.
‘This girl is a nuisance,’ said Ania’s mother, suppressed anger simmering in her voice. ‘Don’t let other people’s pointless blethering fool you for one second.’ She stopped to consider how much she actually needed me to know. ‘She imagines herself to be some grand intellectual, God bless her poor soul. Barely a sprout, yet thinks she knows better. Ania gravitates to that! And not just her. Even some teachers fall for it, yes. But not all, thank heavens. She did have problems before,’ she punctuated the sentence with a few assertive nods. ‘Her parents justify it, because otherwise they’d have to admit—’ She cleared her throat. ‘And I have to deal with that. Ania keeps coming back with a head full of nonsense.’
She sat there in silence for a moment. I suspected this dramatic pause served to emphasise the seriousness of the situation.
‘It’s not normal,’ she started again, voice sharp. ‘She hates her life. Hates this whole country. As if she’s been anywhere else!’ It seemed like she made her point but felt compelled to continue. ‘One day, to my face, she said the only thing she can learn from teachers is what a shit profession does to fragile idealists who failed to get out on time. When I asked her why she says such things, she said that since she’s legally obligated to attend this ehm—’ She swallowed the swear word. ‘This institution… the teachers might have her by the throat, but can’t force her to respect them. You can imagine what all this did to my daughter.’
I smirked. Luckily Ania’s mother was too engrossed in the topic to care.
‘It just keeps getting worse,’ she added after another pause. ‘Once I saw her on my way home, just there, at the square. I called her name. No reaction. I thought that maybe something was wrong. I approached her and… You know what she was doing?’ I was glad she never waited for my answers. ‘Sitting next to a dead pigeon and drawing it! I’ve never seen her more focused. Disgusting. I tried to drag her away, but she gave me such a horrible look. And her drawings! Dreadful, horrifying things. I could see every detail of that filthy, dead animal. And I kept explaining to Barbara’—she meant Gabriela’s mother—‘that something’s wrong and always has been. She wouldn’t listen. God knows if me and Barbara weren’t that close I don’t think I’d ever… If she wasn’t my friend Ania wouldn’t be allowed to spend a second around Gabriela.’ Her fingers tapped on the table, drawing my eyes. ‘But you know how things are… people have their opinions,’ she added with clear condemnation.
For a moment I thought the story was over. But this was merely an introduction.
‘Once she went down to the cellar, came back with stories about some ridiculous creatures living there. All the children believed it. They still do! My daughter was so young at the time she shouldn’t have cared, but was scared, alright. It was like an epidemic of sudden unease. I told Ania this was stupid, all made up. Huge cats in long cloaks, for fuck’s sake, imagine that.’ She shook her head. ‘All wasted effort. My own daughter believes Gabriela over me.’ There was another pause, but this one lacked any theatrical flair. ‘The cats come out at night, eat dead pigeons. That’s where it started, anyway. After a while Gabriela changed her tune. When hungry enough, they yearn for human flesh, apparently. And what was I supposed to do with that? Who would scare the children like this? And why?’ She looked at me as if she expected an answer, then proceeded anyway. ‘I’d say she’s just winding them up. Then it turned out she did the same to herself. Barbara told me that Gabriela often draws these creatures dragging her down to the cellar and ripping her to pieces.’ She shook her head. ‘Her art teacher says she has a vivid imagination. Well… Forgive me if I’m not impressed. And Ania admires her, God forbid. It’s not easy.’
I nodded. It was easy to picture Ania waking up in the middle of the night, terrified.
As a final piece of evidence, Ania’s mum brought me another drawing. I could imagine her finding it amongst her daughter’s things and getting a fright. The precision of detail was as impressive as before, no different from the portrait of Ania—dreamed up or real, it made no difference. There was a pair of huge cat eyes staring at me from a piece of thick paper. Animalistic, yet filled with distinctly human desperation. A giant fucking cat in a worn down cloak. It should have been easy to mock. It wasn’t. I swallowed hard, my eyes drawn to the small tears in the fabric, the missing clumps of fur, the thin skin stretched over the bones. It must have smelled of the legendary cellar, the stench suddenly filling my nostrils.
‘So what do you think?’
‘She’s not too happy, is she?’ I said, feeling like an absolute idiot. It was neither what I wanted to say nor what she wanted to hear.
‘How old are you anyway?’ A seemingly unrelated question.
‘Huh, same age as Gabriela, and yet… so much more mature.’ For some reason, the tone of her voice made my stomach turn. ‘I’ve heard you’re taking extended English?’
‘You want to be a teacher?’
I flinched. ‘No I—’ I failed to come up with an appropriate lie. ‘I want to leave.’
‘Jesus, you too?’ She huffed. ‘It’s naïve, you know. Thinking the grass is greener elsewhere.’ Her pause was longer this time. I didn’t say a thing. ‘Gabriela had grand plans of her own…’ Her hand glided over the drawing on the table, and she smirked at me. ‘But don’t worry, life will grind you down.’
The school year started and somehow I was still there. But that’s beside the point. I got lucky that day. Gabi’s mum paid a visit, and I happened to be in the living room, cleaning up the toys. Me listening to their conversation was just a happy by-product of the complex task at hand. I arranged all the construction set pieces by size and colour, then rearranged them again. A pointless charade, really, because it was obvious they were letting me stay, even without any acknowledgement or a single glance in my direction.
‘I know I shouldn’t be saying this,’ Barbara said in hushed tones. ‘But when she actually does what I ask, she doesn’t quite seem like herself. I th—think, well… I think she’s just pretending for my benefit, not to worry me, like—like she’s the adult.’ She let out a nervous laugh. ‘In the last few months she just goes to school, does her homework, comes back on time… It’s all perfect. I—’ She hesitated. ‘I hate it a little.’
Ania’s mum was exceptionally quiet, probably busy dying inside.
‘And I ask her if everything’s ok. She just says “yes”, and smiles,’ Barbara continued with actual uneasiness in her voice. ‘Why is that worse?’
‘I’m glad Gabriela is doing better.’
‘I suppose.’ Barbra was subdued for a moment, but was not giving up, some of Gabi’s blood surging in her veins, for sure. ‘Sometimes she actually seems fine, don’t get me wrong, but… Something’s missing.’
‘Could it be all the trouble?’ she snapped.
Barbra shook her head. ‘She used to be so receptive, opinionated, and yes, a lot of it was hard to listen to, sure. But if you could hear her at her best, condemning all this…’
‘All this what?’
‘No, I don’t.’ Ania’s mum was beginning to sound combative. ‘She’s finally on track. If you keep questioning it, she’ll get back to her old ways, that’s all.’
‘Well, yes but… So much of what she used to say actually seemed reasonable.’
‘Don’t you feel like, ehm—something’s not quite right. A number of times I found myself arguing against her, and thinking…’ She trailed off seeing no understanding on the other woman’s face. ‘Um… At least she’s still drawing. Only, somehow, the new ones are even more intense. I mean—’ She chuckled, and stared at Ania’s mum with an uncomfortable smile. ‘Not that she’d ever win any competitions with any of what she draws. But some of them, s—some are really—’
‘Well, yeah. And…’
Barbara blinked a few times and stared ahead blankly for a moment. ‘Nothing.’ She complimented the word with the fakest of smiles.
I felt a shiver run down my spine, and a thought hit me. It was true, twelve steps into the cellar, little Gabriela did see something beyond dirty walls, old bikes, or even giant cats. She saw her future.
Perhaps that’s why she was prone to screaming her lungs out on occasion, drawing during classes and, most importantly, saying exactly what she thought. Here she was, a character created out of unruly scraps of my imagination, made real. In my mind Gabriela spoke her lines with conviction, repeating after Barbara who reported her words with a strange kind of detachment. ‘Do you know how tedious it is, to talk to them, to waste my fucking time listening to the rubbish they spew? I’m in the wrong because I don’t respect them. I’m wrong because I want to do something I care about. But they are right to follow along like fucking drones. They make me sick. And, of course, they look at me with a mix of disgust and pity. But that’s fine. Their hatefulness towards me is fine, I’m sure. Because they’re right and I’m wrong. I wish I knew why it must be this way. I wish I understood.’ And she went on, her voice only growing in strength, until it went quiet, that is.
Mentions of Gabriela grew scarce in the next few weeks. She wasn’t doing anything remarkable after all. Ania engaged in a little victory dance once she realised her mother no longer disapproved of the friendship. After that quiet period, Barbara started to visit quite frequently, said Gabi’s marks were improving, teacher reports grew warmer, and her friendships were stable for once. However, the more positive her stories, the more unsettled her mother seemed.
Then there was a phone call in the middle of the night, Ania’s mother.
‘I’m sorry for calling so late.’ At least she got that useless statement out of the way up front. ‘I didn’t want to worry you earlier… But we can’t find Ania anywhere.’
I looked at the clock. It was a couple of minutes after midnight.
‘Because you see…’ She hesitated as if not telling me was really an option. ‘Gabriela disappeared yesterday night.’
‘Nobody knows where she is.’
I gave it a second to sink in. She kept talking.
‘We decided not to tell Ania, but Gabriela’s parents informed the teachers. Gossip spreads fast. Ania walked out of school. We called everyone we could think of. We’ve been looking. I have no idea…’
Her ambition to be a great mother ended up being more important than her daughter, as usual. I guess that’s why she waited hours upon hours before calling me.
‘I’ll be there in half an hour,’ I said, and hung up in the middle of her sentence.
It was a bit funny actually. The first time I heard the story about Gabriela’s grand heroics, the unachievable accomplishment—walking the furthest into the void of the cellar—I had a strong feeling one day I might be forced to break her record. Once I passed the door I gained a new appreciation for those who backed out at step one. The air was thick with the acidic odour of piss, suffocating.
The first light switch only let out a cracking sound. The corridor was long, darkness impenetrable, the floor uneven concrete, the wall crumbling, an occasional blotch of paint under my fingers. There was something almost like wind pushing against me, a freezing breath with none of the freshness one would expect.
I called for Ania. Nothing.
And then I heard a meow from behind the bend, another, some sounds of shuffling, and my blood ran cold. Ridiculous, I told myself while calming my breath.
The second light switch actually worked, a naked lightbulb on a thick cable hanging above my head. The space turned white, then the details began to emerge. The corridor was as unremarkable as they come. Everything was normal to a shocking extent.
And there she was, a dozen steps behind the bend. Ania, still idealistic enough to aspire to be a real friend to Gabriela, ready to step into the black abyss if that’s what was required. She was sitting on the floor, huddling her legs, face swollen from crying, a torch in her hand, still on, faint light pointing away. It was only once I saw her that I realised how worried I was, relief squeezing at my throat. She must have heard me but decided not to respond, and she was ignoring me still, even once I left barely one step between us.
Everything around us—those wooden bars, unused skates, and mundane, old furniture—must have dealt the last strike to Ania’s belief in Gabriela’s vision of the world. If she found hell, wild and raging, at the end of this corridor, she’d probably be pleased.
‘There’s nothing here,’ she said, unable to resist stating the obvious.
I sat down next to her, trying not to overthink the state of the floor. A part of me was overjoyed that I was the one who found her, not her mother, but perhaps that was the wrong thing to focus on. At first I felt obligated to say something responsible, something that would make her want to go home. But then I couldn’t help but consider whether staying in the cellar was not somehow preferable to going back to where we were.
When she began to sniff more aggressively, I hugged her, and my fingers tangled up in her hair, its brightness already fading. She’ll be a brunette like her mother, not long from now. And she’s going to forget Gabriela in a couple of years. She’ll forget me too. The time when I could pretend I could stop this was running out. I desperately wanted to believe that maybe if I tried hard enough I could squeeze her mother out of her, perform an exorcism of some kind. It was childish of me, but I wanted it so much, the thought almost made me cry.
‘Promise me something,’ I said. ‘Once the shit hits the fan, don’t believe what your mother says about Gabriela. You know her better than that.’
Ania looked at me as if she didn’t understand what I was talking about, and after a moment I realised that she really had no clue. There was nothing I could do.
‘Why are they not here?’ she asked instead.
I leaned back on the wall and tried to come up with something. No success. I knew what the simple solution was. But it was hateful.
‘Um…’ I hesitated. ‘Those creatures from her drawings, they don’t exist.’ As I said it, as obvious as the words were, they didn’t sound right to me.
As expected, she looked at me with indignation. Here I was, siding with her mother.
‘But Gabriela saw them,’ she said, her confidence waning, despite the conviction in her voice. ‘She told me.’
‘Maybe she was making stuff up to keep you on your toes.’
‘She wouldn’t do that.’ She shook her head, tears flowing again. ‘Where is she?’
I considered backing out, but hey, in for a penny… ‘I’m… I’m sure she’s fine, probably staying with some friends.’
‘I’m her friend,’ she insisted in a swollen voice.
‘She’ll be back. It’s constant drama with her. This is not new.’
‘If she saw those cats and they’re not real…’ She paused, breath shaky. ‘Then how can I tell if something is?’
‘Ania, come on. She lets her imagination run wild, what can I say?’ I sounded more annoyed than I intended. ‘Your mum warned you about her. We should go home.’
Ania looked at me with hollow eyes and I felt a little bit like I betrayed everything I believed in. But it worked.
‘You’re safe,’ I added using the comforting tones of a good, aspiring mother. ‘There is no danger. No stupid, giant cats dragging you or Gabriela anywhere. Those were just ideas, her ideas. She’s had plenty of those.’
As small as she was, Ania appeared to have shrunk even more, huddled by the wall. She didn’t ask any more questions. She also didn’t object when I led her out of the cellar, squeezing her fragile hand in mine just a little too hard.
Her mother was screaming, her anger echoing deep in my skull, her hands flying high in the air. Her father was a shadow at the back of the living room, a blink behind the doors, as always. Ania was crying so hard, she was starting to gag. I stood there in silence holding on to the knowledge that, as delicate as she was, she was stronger than either of them. Maybe some spark would survive, as hard as they worked to extinguish it, the walls closing in around them, sounds growing louder and louder in my ears.
I was dirty and stained, like all the concrete, crumbling brick, dead pigeons, moulting cats, and dirty walls had leached into me. The stench of the cellar was in my hair, radiating from me as if I was doused in piss. All the emotions they threw around so thoughtlessly stuck to me, a thick molasses of disgust stifling my lungs. I wasn’t ready, forgot to set up my defensive walls, the reality around me vivid, complete, not something I could resist, escape or explain away, plain as day, for once.
It had been a long time since I had disconnected from the world. I barely remembered the last seashore I imagined walking along, the last forest I visualised until I almost believed it was there, the last make-believe human who would actually care. When was it? The last time I pictured a life I wanted, the opposite of the life I had, in a place which looked nothing like this, felt nothing like this, inhabited by someone, anyone but them. Too long ago, that’s for sure.
Where was Gabriela? Nobody asked. But I could think of nothing else, my mind conjuring visions of what might have happened, flipping through her drawings, replaying every detail, every snippet of disconnected conversations, the collage of images running through my head as I stared at the family crumbling before my very eyes.
Then Ania’s mother decided it was my turn, and I got hit by a blaring string of words. The volume decreased with time, until it became low, conversational. ‘We don’t need your help anymore,’ she said.
I froze. ‘W—what?’
‘You heard me.’
I looked at Ania standing in the doorframe, and something in my mind flipped. ‘And who’s going to help her cope if Gabriela’s dead?’
‘What the fuck did you say?’
I took a deep breath, calm. As calm as I could possibly be. Calm when Ania’s mother gave me the few belongings I had left in their house. Calm when she dragged Ania away from me without the chance to say goodbye. Telling myself she would have, if she could. And that made it fine, didn’t it?
I walked off, a slow stroll through the square, so quiet, empty, only two working streetlights, a few windows shining in the night, a gust of chilly air, almost fresh. It made me shiver, my face wet from tears.
There was a person standing by the gate, nothing unusual. And yet, I couldn’t look away. My eyes struggled, just a silhouette, difficult to discern, a distant lamp shining from the other side of the road. The figure was so unnaturally still, as if poised and ready to pounce, not even a breath expanding its chest, waiting as I approached.
Finally there was movement, fluid, effortless and swift. Even before the creature was close enough for me to distinguish its features, I knew what it was.
For some reason, I wasn’t even surprised when I saw a pair of huge cat eyes shining underneath the hood. The creature looked exactly as Gabriela drew it, every detail matched. And I understood why. Once you see it, you never forget.
The cat was curious, sniffing around, eyes wandering, never quite focused on me. I didn’t feel scared, just numb. And yet, my heart was racing, shoulders shaking, and I could hear myself panting, so loud.
It occurred to me that when I looked at the drawing, I thought I could imagine the smell. I was wrong. The reality was much, much worse. And I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the last thing Gabriela ever experienced, the penetrating stench of rot, the sight of chipped teeth bared in a grimace, nose twitching, the sound of its wheezing breath. All I could think of was her last sketch—features slashed to oblivion, belly cut open, body contorted like the dead pigeon on the ground. I tried to picture her struggle to escape and then realised I’ve never actually seen Gabriela. I didn’t know what she looked like, so the only face I could visualise was my own.
For a moment, my heartbeat was all I could hear, then my ears popped, the muffled sounds soon replaced by a loud screech. There was one thing this was: impossible. I shut my eyes and hoped against hope that if I stopped believing in the creature, it would disappear. Instead, I felt its wet fur on my forehead, its twitching nose sniffing at my hair. It was focused, looking for something.
Not now, I thought. Not yet.
We were both motionless, my eyes squeezed shut, still, waiting, waiting… until I felt a change in the air. It didn’t find what it was looking for.
All I heard was the rustle of fabric as it moved away. Then I was alone in the dark.
Hana Carolina is a pseudonym of a creative and academic writer based in Edinburgh. She is passionate about classic cinema, gothic literature, and all things Scottish.
photo by Jan Kopřiva (via unsplash)