(The estimated reading time for this is 11 minutes)
“Better Heard and Not Seen” © 2014 by Michael Penkas. All rights reserved.
Kevin Temple was afraid of the shadow that lived in his closet. But he was more afraid of his mother.
She stood in the doorway to his bedroom, the hallway light casting her unsteady shadow across the floor and over his bed. Though he knew it was impossible, Kevin could feel the cold of her shadow through the blankets. “I need to get up for work tomorrow at six o’clock, so I’m not going to hear anything in this room tonight, am I?”
Kevin shook his head quickly.
“You know what happens if I do?”
He nodded slowly. Even the memory of the belt made him flinch.
“There’s nothing in your closet except clothes, right?”
Again, Kevin nodded.
“OK.” She shut the door almost completely, leaving it open only a crack so that a sliver of light from the hallway could fall across the floor, missing his bed entirely.
And then Kevin was alone with the shadow that lived in his closet. He didn’t know if it was the shadow cast by something fearsome or simply a shadow that was fearsome all by itself. But he had seen it on and off ever since they’d first moved into this house three months earlier.
He’d liked the old house better, liked when his parents had lived together and neither of them had resented him at all. Now his mother resented him because she’d had to quit her old job for one that made more money and his father resented him because he had to pay his mother child support every month. He was seven, so they’d both thought he was too young to understand things like jobs and alimony; but he’d understood just fine. They didn’t want to live together any longer; but they could never really be apart because of him.
This new house was much smaller and cheaper and in a worse neighborhood than their old house so that Kevin wasn’t allowed to just go out and play with whatever children he could find. He’d overheard the realtor and his mother talking once, when they thought he wasn’t listening, about the history of the place, so he knew that somebody had died here.
Perhaps the shadow was the ghost of the person who’d died in this house. Or perhaps it was the thing that had killed him. Kevin wondered how anyone could have slept in this room and not noticed the shadow that slid out from under the door, roaming slowly across the floor until it found the bed. Perhaps the last person to sleep here always fell asleep right away…or maybe he’d been blind. But the shadow would slide up the side of the bed, then slowly move up towards Kevin’s head. How could a blind person not notice it? How could a sleeping person not wake to it? The shadow was as cold as his mother’s.
Even if Kevin had managed to sleep, he would wake if the shadow had made it to his bed, would watch in terror as it slid towards his face. He would look throughout his bedroom and outside and at the door leading to the hallway and try to find something, anything, that would cast a shadow that moved along his bed; but he would never find anything. It would come ever closer until it touched his neck and then he would scream.
At first, his mother had tried to calm him, assuming he was nervous about being in a new house. But after several weeks and a job that she hated, her patience had worn away and she’d begun scaring him into silence.
So Kevin lay quietly for an hour, eyes fixed on the bottom of his closet door. He was about to fall asleep, convinced that tonight there would be no shadow, when the door began to creak open. It had never opened in the past. The shadow had always slipped beneath it. But now it was opening and Kevin wondered again if the shadow had been cast by something all along, something that was finally coming out for itself.
He expected the door to open only a crack or at least to stop creaking at some point. But the hinges simply continued squealing until the door had completely come open, pressed up against the wall. Kevin couldn’t help but worry for a moment that his mother would hear the squealing hinges and come back in, belt in hand, to blame him for the noise.
But if his mother walked down the hall, he didn’t hear it, and if she had opened the door to his bedroom and was standing there, he didn’t turn his head to look. He saw and heard nothing beyond the closet, beyond the empty door. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness and he could see his shoes, shirts and pants all where he’d set them. He saw nothing standing before him.
Then, near the floor, reflecting the meager light from Kevin’s window, was a boy’s milk-white face. The eyes moved slowly around the room and he caught his breath when those eyes finally met with his own. He wanted to look away or close his eyes and pretend he hadn’t seen; but he couldn’t stop looking at the boy on his closet floor.
There was a shuffling sound as the boy reached out with a hand as white as his face and pulled himself a little farther out of the closet. His other arm hung limply against the floor and his knees wobbled around for purchase, as if his lower legs were useless. It wasn’t much noise, no more than Kevin would make turning in his sleep, yet again he wondered about his mother and whether or not she would hear. All the while, the white-faced boy kept watching Kevin, neither boy turning away from the other one. He did not smile or frown or glare hatefully. His face seemed to have no real expression at all. Kevin didn’t want to think too much on the fact that he did not see the boy blink.
It was nothing, just a dream he was having halfway between sleep and waking, Kevin told himself, until the crawling boy bumped against his bedroom door, knocking it completely shut with a loud thump and a soft click. The sliver of light that had been only a small comfort was now gone completely.
And the boy turned just enough so that there was no longer any doubt where he was heading. As he reached the side of the bed, Kevin pulled the covers up over his head. He knew it was stupid and pointless; but the reaction had come without thought and there was nothing else to do. He knew that it wasn’t real; but didn’t know how to stop seeing it.
He felt the bed shake a little, then there was a dull thump on top of it, something brushing his leg through the blankets. He didn’t scream, knew it would not help. He closed his eyes, again pointless since he was already blind beneath the blankets. He felt the boy struggling up onto the bed with his one good arm and two bad legs. Neither of them said anything.
Kevin did cry just a little when he felt the blankets being pulled away and scrunched himself to the far end of his bed as they lifted far enough for him to see that white face staring at him, still with no expression at all. It took a full minute for the other boy to settle himself beneath the blankets and cover himself up.
And the two boys lay in bed together, in silence, for a very long time.
Kevin could feel the scream welling up inside him long before it came. He could feel it in the sweat drying against his skin and the blanket which couldn’t be warm enough and in his stomach that shook so much he thought he would vomit but instead of bile it would be sound that erupted from him. The sound rose through his chest and into his throat and out—
A cold, cold finger pressed against his lips just as they were about to open. And a voice whispered, “Don’t scream. Please don’t scream. Be very quiet.”
And Kevin obeyed the white-faced boy whom he could no longer see.
After a minute, the whisper said, “There’s something in the closet. You mustn’t wake it.”
The finger came away from Kevin’s lips, but they were still cold. After another minute, he whispered, as quietly as he could manage, so quietly that he barely heard himself, “My name’s Kevin.”
“Mine’s Richard,” the voice whispered back. “I used to live here.”
Kevin could feel the edge of the bed at his back. He couldn’t slide any farther away without falling off. He grabbed part of the mattress cover and held onto it as he tried to see Richard under the blankets. There was only darkness; but it was getting gradually cooler.
“Don’t fall off,” Richard warned. “One night, I got out of bed. I was going to go into the living room and sleep there.” He made a sound like a breath and Kevin could feel the cool air on his face. “I never made it to the door.”
Beyond the blankets, Kevin heard a rustling coming from the direction of his closet. Something was moving between his shirts, occasionally scraping one of the clothes hangers against the metal rod they rested on. There was a sound like something tripping and slamming against a wall.
Richard’s finger returned to Kevin’s lips as the sounds continued. Neither boy said anything. It sounded as if the thing was trapped in the closet, even though the door to it had been left wide open.
After a minute of rustling and scraping and bumping into walls, another familiar and horrible sound began. The sound of slippered feet walking down a hallway, accompanied by angry labored breathing.
Kevin heard the door to his bedroom squeal slightly as it flew open and his mother’s ragged voice saying, “All right. I told you what would happen if you couldn’t keep quiet. Now get out of bed.” He heard the belt in her hands snap once and shook even as Richard took his finger away from his lips for a moment to instead place his cold hand over his mouth entirely.
“Come on. I know you’re awake.” Kevin heard her take one step towards his bed before stopping. She asked, “What are you doing in there?” The hand against Kevin’s mouth shook.
His mother screamed only once. There was no sound of a struggle; but he did hear something heavy fall on the floor. After a minute, he heard something being dragged towards the closet. Then there were sounds that he didn’t want to hear.
Richard’s hand stayed on his mouth the entire time. There were some bumps and more scraping of clothes hangers. There was a tearing sound that went on for a long time. And just once, there was something like a giggle, a high-pitched childish laugh. And Kevin was glad that he couldn’t see what was happening.
And after a while, those sounds stopped and he was lying with the white-faced boy in silence. They said nothing more to each other, both terrified of whatever was in the closet. And Kevin didn’t want to think about what was in the closet, what was so horrible that even a ghost would be afraid of it. He’d heard the thing and that had been enough.
A half-hour after Kevin’s mother had screamed, there was more sound from the closet. A shuffling sound that left the closet and moved slowly along the floor towards his bed. Kevin listened carefully. Soon, he realized that it was heading towards his side of the bed. Squinting back tears, he pulled himself away from the edge, closer to Richard, who hadn’t said a word. The thing shuffled closer and Kevin was actually brushed up against the white-faced boy when he felt the thing tugging at the bedspread.
It was pulling itself up onto the bed. It made no sound, no labored breaths or grunts. The springs creaked as it finally settled on top of the bed. Then it began pulling back at the blankets. Kevin wanted to run from the bed and into the hallway, take his chances on out-running the thing rather than simply waiting for it to slide up next to him. But Richard’s arm was wrapped around him, burning his skin, it was so cold, and held him down. As the blankets rose, he could see that same white expressionless face staring back at him, never staring past to whatever was settling into bed behind him.
Then the blankets were back down and the three of them were in darkness again. A second arm, cold but not as cold as Richard’s, wrapped around him from the other side. His mother whispered, “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you; but now you must be very quiet. It’s sleeping.”
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