Lullabye . . . and good fright . . .


by Patrick Park-Tighe © 2004

The boy pulled his head up from the pillow to face the clock glaring at him with angry red numbers. He blinked twice hoping somehow the display would realign itself into something less sinister. The time swam into tighter focus but didn’t change. Two-eleven was long past the witching hour. Kyle sighed miserably and tugged the blankets more snugly to his cheek.

He twisted onto his side, squeezing his thighs together and drawing his knees to his chest. The ache rolled with him, unrelenting as he clenched his jaw, believing that keeping still and impossibly tight would somehow short circuit the gnawing urge to pee. He had stopped counting the minutes on the bedside clock. His life was now about the glacial passage of seconds and heartbeats. Worse still was the growing realization that he had a painfully limited number of each left before he either pissed himself or died screaming into the bed sheets.

Kyle pinched on the small lamp on his night stand. The weak white bulb made his bed an island of half light bordered by shadow. Across the room, the closet door, which never did seem to wholly shut, gaped a little more ominously. A chair, a dresser, a tumble of clothes and a scattering of toys transformed into a hostile landscape of misshapen faces and limbs. The boy clamped his hand around his crotch, pressing the soft flesh into his belly. His bladder had grown square, dull teeth and was chewing its way out from beneath his bowels. Time had run out. Eyes blurring with tears, he choked back a whimper and pushed down the bed sheets.

The rug felt like the coarse hair of an animal under his feet. Moving quickly on his toes, he crossed the roomed and flicked on the overhead light with fingers buzzing with a fearful current of their own. The light flashed on making his eyes sting. For a second he reveled in the fact that the room was again his own, safe and familiar. The relief died quickly as he turned to face the bedroom door. Through tight lips he drew in a slow, deep breath. His hand closed numbly around the cool brass of the door handle. Pale and shivering, he stood anxiously like a swimmer about to slide into a icy lake. When the door swung inward there was only the darkness and a complete and smothering silence.

Inching his way into the hallway, he pressed his palm against the smooth plane of the wall. He squeezed his eyes shut preferring the blackness beneath his own lids to the ink stain he just walked into. At his fingertips, the wall terminated abruptly at a corner marking the opening of the stairway down to the main floor. Reaching around the corner, he found the butt of the banister and locked his hand around the wide wooden rail. Bare feet slapped rapidly on the stairs. The lower landing brought him to a jarring stop. This was the part that unnerved him. He had to let go of the rail, negotiate the width of another hallway and find the bathroom light switch-- all while blind in a terrible no-man’s land.

Lurching across the narrow hall, he clipped the bathroom door jamb. The impact, though minor, cost him his bearings and he fumbled in a panic for the light. Around him, his fingers traced a towel rack and the edge of a laundry hamper. A step and a quarter turn and he was at the vanity. From the end of the hall, something coughed, or maybe it laughed-- he wasn’t sure. He ears strained for more as his hands flew erratically across the walls like moths. In the hall, a floorboard creaked twice as if weighted then released. Suddenly, the hard plastic nub of the switch was in his hand. Heavenly light bathed the small room.

He stood savoring the moment, drinking in each minute sensation. The water in the toilet boiled as his urine streamed into it. He breathed in the bitter tang of it as it mingled with the sweet floral of the pot pourri sitting on the tank lid. A dead fly lingered beside a slim wafer of soap by the sink. The mirror over the sink had a crack in the bottom corner, a bead of yellowed glue held the fragment in place. These were things he saw and understood. The thing in the hall was not.

He ran his hands under a thin stream of water from the faucet. He wanted to be thorough, to take his time, to stall a little. Beyond the bathroom door, he could make out the first of the ten stairs that would carry him back to his room. This was the worst time-- the helter skelter scramble to the safety of his room. This was where things could go wrong. The boy shivered.

The hallway was silent. Silent but not empty. He could feel it out there, something large and deadly, carved from the shadows. It waited, crouched low, muscles tensed but self-possessed and patient. Kyle’s heart sank, he felt terribly small and fragile.

When the light blinked off, the boy was already in motion. A single bounding stride carried him onto the small landing at the foot of the stairs. In the hallway, the thing grunted and the floor shrieked a single murderous note. As he flew up the first three stairs, Kyle heard a dry rustling, like leaves blowing across asphalt, swirling down the hallway. At the fourth step, something heavy dropped onto the landing behind him.

The boy dropped to all fours, both feet and hands driving him forward. It was on the stairs with him now and a sudden whiff of its dank breath curdled in his nose.

Two more steps. Now the thing’s breathing was close enough to warm the bottom of his feet. Claws scrapped inches from his heels. Adrenaline and urgency pushed him faster towards the safety of his bedroom. The added speed gave him some distance from his pursuer. Two more steps and the landing was within reach.

His stomach flipped as his right foot slid off the final stair and sent him sprawling awkwardly onto the landing. Momentum lost, he kicked out against the wall towards the threshold of his room. With horror, he realized too late that his right leg still trailed in the darkness. Something warm and papery curled around his ankle. A scream rolled around inside his mouth like a stone too large to spit out past his teeth. Instinctively, he lashed out with his free leg.

Under his heel, something crunched. It cracked like an egg, splashing a cold, wet juice across the bottom of his foot. He kicked again, his heel sinking deeper into the ooze. The thing shrieked as it released its grip on the boy’s ankle. For a second, each froze on the staircase. The thing sucked in a pained breath; the boy held his own.

“You’ve got more spunk than sense, boy,” it whispered at him. The voice was low and thin like wind through dry grass. “We gotta square this up somehow, you and me. You’ve hurt me something terrible. So ya know what? I tell ya what-- to make us even-- I’m going to eat you slow. Whatcha think about that?”

The boy offered no sound but the frantic squeak of his fingertips and toes across the varnished planks of the landing. In a heartbeat, he had sprung cat-like through the doorway and launched himself onto the bed. Small fingers hooked into claws, he raked the sheets up and over himself. He laid still as stone, listening, taking small breaths through clenched teeth.

Seconds tumbled into minutes and the silence remained intact. Kyle let his shoulders loosen and the blankets unknot from his hands. Even the thing had to abide by the rules of darktime. He had made it safely to his bed and the room was awash in light. Although he was too young to know the word, he had found sanctuary. The boy whistled a single soft note in relief and celebration.

“Figure you’ve acquitted yourself well, do you boy?” The voice crackled from somewhere on the staircase. Fear settled back in the boy’s belly like a slab of ice.

“Think you’re clever, got one over on me, maybe?” The thing said, the words paper cuts on the boy’s already frayed nerves. “You may be that. But I will tell you this. We’re a couple of gentlemen and we play by the rules, you and me. But your ma…well now that’s a horse of a different color as they say.”

Kyle’s eyes welled with tears, his heart felt too large for his small chest. Something was terribly wrong. It was like being served his favorite meal only to find there was the most awful smell coming from the plate.

“Your ma was feeling a little dry tonight, sonny,” it continued with a hint of a grin. “They say you can lead a horse to water…and whaddyaknow? She drank. And drank some more.” The boy felt like he was smothering, the air thick and choking around him.

“Seems she’s forgotten the rules, Kyle. Most grownups do--sooner or later,” it spoke slowly taking a long pause before continuing. “Now, normally I wouldn’t take much notice. But given the recent turn of…events, I think yer ma deserves a little special attention.”

It sniffed the air with its broad, flat nostrils flared. “Right now, she’s rubbing her eyes and sliding her pretty feet into her slippers. She’ll miss those loose floorboards and open the bedroom door just shy of where it squeals on the hinges. She’s quiet as a mouse, that one--I’ll give her that-- but not very fast, not very fast at all.” Kyle’s stomach rolled. The ice moved swiftly towards his throat. He could imagine the cold sparkle in the black iris of the thing’s eye and its shark-toothed smile wet with saliva.

The dry rasp of leaves retreated down the stairway.

“You know what, boy?” It whispered as it went, the words cold as ashes, “Cause we’re friends and all…I’ll let you know how she tastes.”

x x x

This one gave me a shiver--I rarely shiver when I read horror tales--and that was enough to convince me of its worth. If it didn't scare you, you've either got ice water in your veins or you're a bad liar. Either way, I think you'll agree this scary little bed-time story is worthy of our forum. -GM

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