By Matt Byk
It was dark. The boy was huddled up under his blankets. His Pooh Bear pajamas were unusually uncomfortable tonight. Usually slipping into the warm, soft cloth was soothing; tonight, it itched. The teddy bear he clung to desperately so many nights before, his confidante, his protector, felt flat and lifeless in his arms. Something was wrong. Something was really wrong.
"Mom!" his voiced cried out into the darkness. "Mommomomomom!" The sound of his mother's footsteps hurriedly thumping down the hall; the door opened, a beam of light from the hallway.
"What is it, dear?" Her voice, usually calming, soothing. Flat.
She sighed and stepped into the room. Her presence, nothing. She sat on the bed. Weightless. "Now, now... What's the matter? Is it that bad ol' closet monster again?"
"What is it then, Tiger? What're you scared of?"
She sang, softly. Cradled him in her arms. It didn't help. Something really bad was out there. Something really scary.
"Mom? Can I sleep with you?" She sighs again.
"Tiger, you're getting to old for that. Don't you want to be a big boy? Big boys don't sleep with their mommies."
He didn't want to be a big boy. He wanted to be safe. "Yeah, mommy. I wanna be big." She tucked him in, kissed him on the forehead (wet, clammy), smiled at him (like the skulls on TV, and skulls means DEAD and DEAD means cold and in the ground and no more mommy and daddy and...)
"G'night, Tiger." The door shut with a click (like the guns on TV when the bad guy shoots the good guy and he's DEAD). Darkness.
The boy lay curled up under his covers, his eyes squeezed shut. He dared not open them. The shadows were just waiting there to reach out and grab him.
He jumped. "Mommy?"
He curled up tighter around his teddy bear and shivered.
TAP TAP TAP TAP.
The sound was coming from his window. "Just a branch... Just a branch or a bird or a bug or a leaf or..."
"Open the window, Tiger."
The boy froze. He heard that.
TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP.
"Open the window, Tiger." Like the cold rush of air that hits you when somebody hasn't closed the window on a snowy day, the voice crept up his spine.
"No," he meeped.
"Go away!" the boy whined, his eyes brimming with tears. He'd started shaking again.
"Open the window, Tiger, and I will."
"No! I'm scared! Stop that!"
"Open the window, Tiger, and I'll stop, I promise!"
They boy thought about calling out to his mommy, but she'd just tell him he was imagining things. She's had a long day, and worked, and had to cook and clean, and dad just comes home and reads the paper and doesn't fulfill her needs, and sometimes the boy just gets in the way. That's what she'd said to grandma on the phone one time, except she didn't know he'd heard.
"You won't get in my way, Tiger. I'll be your friend. Now open the window."
It wasn't a tapping like he wanted in. You knock when you want in. That's what nice people do. This is a tapping like daddy does when he's mad, when mommy's late, or when dinner's not ready, and he's saying all kinds of bad stuff quiet.
"I've got something for you, Tiger. Don't you want a present?" TAPTAPTAPTAPTAP!
Something told the boy to peak. Just look, and he can't hurt you. The monsters can't hurt you when you try to look at them. He swallowed deep, yanked the blankets back, and looked at the window.
The tapping stopped.
He dare not get out of bed though. This is probably just a trick that the monster under the bed is trying to pull. He lay back down, and kept staring at the window until he dozed off.
Every night, the mysterious tapper came back to visit, the voice whispering at him to come and open the window. Sometimes he called out in terror and frustration for his mommy and daddy. The tapping would stop as soon as they opened the door. They'd tell him to go back to sleep. The voice would laugh, and the tapping would start again.
He talked to his daddy, finally. "Daddy? Can I ask you somethin'?" Daddy was reading the paper. Daddy always read the paper.
"There's a man outside my window at night, and he wants me to open the window. He keeps knockin'."
"I'm scared, daddy."
"Yeah, that is pretty scary." Daddy was real smart, because he could read the paper and think at the same time.
"What should I do? He won't go away."
"Um, yeah. Do, um, do what he wants, I guess. You have to learn to play nice with your friends." The newspaper rustled.
"Daddy, he's not my friend. I'm scared of him." Daddy put the newspaper down and sighed.
"Boy, you gotta stand up to bullies like that. Let them know that you're not scared, and they'll respect you. You want to be respected, don’t you? You'll have lots of friends if you're respected."
"Okay, daddy. I'll open the window." Daddy kind of looked confused, but nodded, satisfied that he'd given his son valuable life advice. Then he went back to his paper. Damn Democrats were going to bring the country to ruins.
That night, the boy got ready. He lay in bed, waiting for the tapping to start. It did.
TAP TAP TAP TAP.
"Open the window, Tiger."
He swallowed deep, then sat up in bed and looked at the window. Looking at the window stopped working a long time ago. The tapping stopped for a second, then started again, more frantic.
"Yeah, Tiger, that's it! Open the window! We can be friends, then! I'll respect you!"
They boy dropped to the floor, and padded softly, hesitantly, toward the window. The tapping became faster, louder.
"Yeah, Tiger! Yeah! We're gonna be GOOD friends! Yeah! Open the window, Tiger! Open it!"
As the boy reached for the window, his hands were shaking. His fingers touched the sill; the tapping was so loud that the glass was rattling. He gripped the handles of the window and started tugging the window up.
"Yeah, YEAH, TIGER! That's it!"
The boy started, and looked up at the window. In the glass, he saw a pale reflection of a face that wasn't his. Pale, pale white skin, black pits for eyes with tiny red pinpoints at the center, no nose, and a wide, round, toothless, gaping maw of a mouth. The boy gasped, and in a burst of strength induced by his fear, slammed the window open. He felt a cold, cold breeze swirl around him, but it didn't come from the window: it came from inside him. He heard the voice laughing, in its whispering, wheezing way.
Everything spun run around him. Black. Dark. Inky. He tried to run, but he was thrown around. He didn't know if he was sitting or standing or flying or falling or what. He opened his mouth to scream, but it was full of the darkness, flowing in and out of him. All kinds of pictures flashed through his mind; strange people, strange places, strange things. The face that he saw in the window, big blue people, bunny people, tall, beautiful people, monsters, trees, buildings, castles; all these things flashed in his mind. All kinds of feelings rushed through him, lots of feelings that his five year old mind couldn't fathom, but some that he knew all too well. Fear, anger, sadness, and a little bit of happy.
Then he was in his bed, laying down. The thuds of his parents' feet coming down the hallway, the door opening.
"Tiger?" His mommy's voice. "What the hell?" His daddy's voice.
"Tiger?" His mommy again. "Are you okay?"
"Why the hell's his window open?" Daddy again. Daddy's footsteps across the floor, thud as the window shuts.
The voice snickering inside his head. The voice inside him, now, the darkness creeping into his soul. Mommy fretting over him in a haze, Daddy cursing and standing behind her, angry, mumbling when she shushes him. Dark explosions all around. The voice's quiet, wheezing, hissing laughter in the back of his mind. Finally, the darkness of sleep.
The boy woke up the next morning, the sunlight streamed through the cracks in the blinds. The boy crawled deeper under the covers. The sunlight bothered him. It didn't hurt, he just didn't like it. When he finally did stumble downstairs, his mom asked him if he slept well. He shrugged. She lifted his chin and frowned at the dark circles under his eyes, then smiled and beeped him on the nose. The boy shuffled to the table and slumped into his chair. He managed to choke down the lumpy oatmeal his mom made, and then went and plopped in front of the TV, his usual morning routine.
After a while of watching the too happy cartoons about mutant furry animals, he got really bored. He got up and poked round with his colorful toys: red plastic balls, green aliens, blue fish. The bright colors bothered him. Basement. It's dark down there. Not bright. Safe.
He found himself standing at the top of the basement stairs, peering down into the darkness. Cool, moist air wafted up and played around his ankles like snakes twining around and around a thin tree trunk. Primal fear deep inside told him to run. The damp, musty odor coming from below formed a hand, one long, bony finger beckoning him down. The boy couldn't help it. He was drawn down the steps against his will, mesmerized by the darkness.
He found himself digging through old boxes, must and mold spooring up around him in a cloud. He dug around, delicately, too delicately for a boy his age, laying old, fragile clothes around, separating the dark ones from the light ones. He plopped down by the dark ones, and held them up, admiring the way that the feeble light coming from the basement windows could not shine through them. As he set one old jacket down, he noticed his fingers. They were long, much longer and whiter than before. He gasped, but instead of being afraid, he was filled with wonder. He flexed his fingers, and watched how the dim light mottled across the back of his hands and fingers. He got up and wandered around the basement; entranced by the way the light played off of his skin. He bumped into a dustcloth, a heavy canvas, which slid to the floor with a dusty thump. He looked up, surprised, and saw a mirror. But it wasn't him in the mirror. He screamed and stumbled backwards, and the kid in the mirror did the same. The boy fell hard on his rump, and stared at the kid in the mirror.
He was really skinny and pale; his eyes, well, he didn't really have any eyes. They were just black holes. His black mouth was all stretched out in surprise. And he didn't have a nose, either; just two holes like a skull (and skulls means DEAD!). The boy scuttled backwards across the floor, not daring to take his eyes off the kid in the mirror. The kid in the mirror did the same, his eyes growing wider in surprise and fear as the boy's anxiety rose in his throat. Finally, backed into a corner, the boy screamed.