08 Sep Michael
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"Michael"Written by S.P. Hickey
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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
My son Michael is all I have left.
But in a lot of ways I’m lucky, because he’s all I need.
He’s such a good boy.
He takes care of me, looks after the house and manages to keep his grades up at college. I’m so lucky and so, so proud of him.
It would have been very easy for things to go wrong for him, after all he’s been through.
It started when he was just two years old. Michael fell down the stairs and banged his head hard on the stone floor in the hallway. Claire should have been watching him. She should have been there, but she was never attentive enough, she never cared for him like she should. Not like I do.
He suffered with seizures for days after. We nearly lost him. I don’t know what I would have done then. I couldn’t live without my boy.
But he made it. He was strong and he showed me that, when you’re faced with adversity and things aren’t working, you need to be tough. You need to fight.
His recovery made me feel brave enough to try for another child — made me prepared to give Claire another chance to be the mother she should have been.
So, three years after Michael was born, she fell pregnant with Amy. Our little girl was beautiful, with my dark hair and Claire’s piercing blue eyes, just like Michael. Michael felt a little threatened at first — I’m sure all children do when a new sibling upturns their life — but over the months, he warmed to her. He was so protective.
There were times when I saw him standing by her crib, just watching her sleep. He had the most intense look on his face — it was the sweetest thing.
Amy adored Michael too, she looked up to him and would follow him around like a little puppy, desperate to play with her big brother.
When I close my eyes and picture my daughter, that’s how I always remember her. Her sparkling blue eyes twinkling with joy as she dashed after my Michael. It’s a good memory.
Michael loved her, just as much as me and Claire did. Now I think about, I realize Claire might have resented Michael even back then. I think she was jealous of how much Amy loved him. Of how much I do.
That’s why she blamed him, after it happened. He was only seven though, for crying out loud. What kind of a mom leaves a seven-year-old and a four-year-old unsupervised in a garden with a pond? What kind of woman doesn’t panic when her son comes in alone to get a sandwich, his clothes wet.
He told me that after they played in her Wendy house, he was playing with his sister by the pond, that he splashed the water to make her laugh. Amy was only four. She couldn’t swim.
Claire should have been watching them.
Afterwards she was never the same. A fortnight after we buried our daughter, Claire packed a bag and left.
You should have heard the filthy lies she told before she went, the vile accusations at that poor, sweet, innocent little boy. She asked me to choose — Ha! Like there was ever a choice to make! — then, when she saw my mind was made up, she told me to wake up. She told me to open my eyes and look at the world, to not let love blind me.
I looked her straight in the eye and told her I never would, then I slammed the door behind her.
Poor Michael was so traumatized. He was obviously in shock, because he acted so detached and emotionless about the loss of his sister and mother. I think he must have been left numb by the emotional rawness of the situation. But there were signs, subtle hints that he wasn’t coping anywhere near as well as it might first appear.
I feel a little ashamed for sharing this, because I’d never want to embarrass him, but for a long time afterwards he would wet the bed at night. It broke my heart as I stuffed his soiled sheets into the washing machine, knowing how much he must be hurting. My poor, poor boy.
So, to help Michael cope with his grief, I bought him a kitten. She was a little black and white thing, her eyes still blue, her mewing little voice so delicate and so fragile sounding that she couldn’t help but melt my heart. I thought that she could be a new friend for Michael to talk to when he felt he couldn’t talk to anybody else.
When he first saw her I knew that I had done the right thing — his eyes lit up, a beaming smile spread across his face and he turned to me and asked: ‘Is it for me? Can I keep it?’
I smiled back and told him yes, of course he could, but first she needed a name.
I had to dab at the tears that welled in my eyes when he picked the kitten up, held her close to his chest, and smiled at me as he said: ‘Amy. This is Amy.’
Michael was so attentive to that little cat, and she was exactly what he needed when my poor, unlucky little boy suffered yet another tragedy when he was only 10 years old. Michael knows he shouldn’t have played with the matches, but all children are curious, aren’t they? I mean, I’m sure if you tell most little boys or girls not to play with fire they are going to want to find out why. It makes sense.
There had been a few fires in our neighborhood that Summer, so I had mentioned how important it was that he be careful, that he not play with anything that could cause a blaze. In a lot of ways it’s probably my fault for putting the thought in his impressionable little mind.
I think he still associated the Wendy house with the day he lost his sister. I think he still remembered the pain of that bereavement and that was why he wanted it gone.
I don’t know where he got the lighter from, but I know I should have taken better care of him. He could never have known the burning plastic would run and drip like that. How would a 10-year-old know that it would stick to the skin on his hands, that it would burn so hot and cling to the flesh, even as it charred his little pink fingers?
He was so brave as we sped to the hospital. The cold water from the faucet saved him from any permanent nerve damage, but the skin bubbled and blistered before my eyes, the sickening smell of the singed downy hairs on his arms filling the air.
But even as I panicked, racing to the ER, he never cried. He was so still, so quiet. He’s so brave.
It was only a few weeks after the event, while his poor little hands were still bandaged, that I heard him react to it. It was late at night, and as I walked by his bedroom door I heard him. He was whispering to himself in the darkness.
But they weren’t words of misery that I heard, instead he was furiously hissing exclamations of pure rage and fury at the situation. He was so angry, it sounded like he really hated himself for it. I moved closer to his door, planning to knock and ask if he wanted to talk, but a creaking floorboard gave me away and at once Michael fell silent.
I took the hint and backed away, giving him the space he clearly wanted.
Time passed and finally the bandages were removed. It was upsetting to see his little hands afterwards. They were weak (it took weeks of physio before he could use them properly again), and the skin was waxy looking, pale and covered in ripples, yet smooth as porcelain in other places. They still look like that to this day.
I thought their appearance would frighten him, but instead he studied them carefully, peering at them intensely through the black rimmed spectacles he had just started to wear (sadly my little boy inherited my shortsightedness), his stony face impregnable. Finally he nodded and lowered them again, listening as the doctor explained how they would recover. He never betrayed the slightest hint of emotion then. I couldn’t believe how brave he was.
Yet no sooner had we overcome that last obstacle, then tragedy struck again.
I think it must have been a fox, maybe a stray dog.
But when I walked out into our yard that morning, I knew what that bloody, tattered thing down in the corner was before I even got there. Yet if it weren’t for her little purple collar, I might not have been able to confirm what I feared. Amy, Michael’s pet and best friend, had been ripped to shreds.
I scooped her up and placed her broken little body in a box, then, with a heavy heart, I took the long walk upstairs to Michael’s bedroom.
I rapped on the door, then entered. Michael was sitting in his bed, still in his pyjamas, and placed his spectacles on his nose as I sat down beside his feet.
‘Hey, buddy,’ I said gently.
‘Hello Dad,’ he replied, his kind face watching me fixedly.
‘Uh, I need to talk to you about Amy…’ I continued.
‘Oh Amy’s not here,’ Michael replied. ‘She’s dead.’
I felt so sad to have to correct him. ‘No, not your sister, buddy,’ I said. ‘I’m talking about your cat.’
Michael peered at me, a slight look of confusion flickering across his face.
‘Uh, I think an animal got into our yard last night,’ I continued. ‘And, uh, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but I think it killed Amy. I’m sorry.’
I leant in close and wrapped my arms around my son, hoping I could somehow shield him from the pain.
When you get right down to the core of it, I think that’s what a parent is — a child’s shield against the horrors of this world. It’s all we should ever hope to be. It’s the only role I have ever wanted.
When I finally let go and looked at Michael he was so serene, and I felt glad to have at least helped him a little in that moment.
‘You ok?’ I asked him.
He nodded, swallowed hard, then licked his dry lips.
‘Dad?’ he said quietly. ‘Can I see her?’
I wasn’t sure that was such a good idea, but he was adamant it was what he wanted and I didn’t feel I could deny him that last chance to say goodbye.
So I held his hand and walked him downstairs to the box that held Amy’s remains.
‘Are you sure about this?’ I asked one last time, but Michael nodded at me — a short, anxious gesture.
So I lifted the lid.
Michael peered into the box at what remained of his cat for the best part of a minute. He didn’t say a thing, instead staring with glistening eyes behind his glasses. He held it together so well, but one thing betrayed how he was feeling.
His breathing changed. It became faster and faster, right up until I replaced the lid.
He must have been so upset.
After we buried Michael’s best friend at the end of the yard, I worried about him a lot.
Michael didn’t have many friends, and I couldn’t work out why. He never really fitted in at school, which is why I think his grades never quite matched his intelligence. He is such a clever boy, but for the vast majority of his years in education his grades have been average at best.
I noticed that he never really mixed well with other children, and became concerned that he would struggle to find companionship. It was with this concern in mind that I made him an appointment with Dr Sparrow, a highly regarded child therapist.
But when the day of the appointment came, poor little Michael had a terrible stomach ache. I nearly ended up having to take him to the ER, but luckily it passed on its own. We tried to reschedule, but each time something seemed to crop up. In the end he never did meet with Dr Sparrow, but that’s no big deal, because shortly after I voiced my concerns about Michael’s lack of interaction with other kids he quickly made some friends. Not many, and I don’t think any of them were ever that close to him, but it was a start.
He’s always been a very private person, so I didn’t pry about his relationships and he kept them very much to himself. I was just glad to know that he was forming some bonds after all.
I think he just needed time to become the boy I knew he could be.
Over the high school years he studied hard and discovered a real joy in exercise and personal fitness. I let him work out with my old barbell in the garage and he would take long runs through the nearby woods. It made me happy to see him taking care of himself.
Michael never got in any trouble, you know. Well, except that one time when a bully poked fun at his pressed white shirt, his khakis and his neat side parting. You know how that sort of person can be, they see somebody taking more pride in his appearance than they do and they go on the offensive. The boy called him horrible names, then he even punched Michael, bloodying his nose and ruining his shirt.
The boy had a reputation as a troublemaker, so it was always going to backfire one day.
The Principal tried to tell me that Michael had gone too far, that after that boy was taken to hospital she would need to be seen to take action. I wouldn’t stand for it, I wouldn’t let her punish my Michael for defending himself against that little scumbag. It was a real battle and I even needed to get a lawyer involved (which I couldn’t really afford) but eventually Michael was able to return to school without any blemish on his record. We paid the other boy’s family to make this go away — not because Michael did anything wrong, but because I wanted it all over and done with before he applied for college. I had to remortgage the house, just so that little bastard who tried to victimize my boy could get the physio he needed to walk again and some expensive dentures so he could chew steak.
As if a piece of work like that deserves steak! He should be on bread on water, in a prison with all the other degenerates.
Still, after that whole unfortunate situation was over, Michael had done well enough to get accepted into the local college. I thought this was perfect — I could keep an eye on him and he could continue to get the education he needed to make his mark on the world. I didn’t want him to feel that he was missing out though, so I bought him an old pick-up truck. I felt it could give him some independence and I know he appreciated the thought. He passed his test first time.
He’s such a clever boy.
He’d barely been at college for a full semester when something happened that made me all the more grateful that I was able to keep an eye on him.
A college girl was killed.
They found her in the woods, and the news reports suggests that the monster who killed her had performed some unspeakable acts on the poor girl before murdering her.
I told Michael that he needed to be careful out in those woods, that no matter how well he knew them, he wasn’t safe out there.
He just smiled and told me not to worry, that I shouldn’t have any concerns about anybody trying anything with him.
Yet just when I was starting to calm down, it happened again. And again. And again.
There have now been six killings. All girls from local towns, all of whom have been taken from their homes, then discovered days later, deep in the woods. All of whom have shown the same upsetting pattern of injuries. It made me worry for poor Michael’s safety at first, but then, a month ago, I realized just how bad it was.
I was looking for my work gloves and remembered that Michael had asked about them just a few days earlier.
Michael was at college so I went into his room to see if I could find them there. At first I had no luck, but then I looked under his bed. Sure enough, there they were, but then I spotted the box.
It was a small, unassuming, wooden thing, with a latch.
I feel ashamed to admit it, but I was curious, so I took it out and had a look inside.
Inside I found several newspaper cuttings, all about the murdered girls. The most recent one was a pretty girl called Kerri, the paper including a recent photo of her with dyed bright red hair and a cute smile. Then I saw them. Down in the bottom of the box, tucked into the corner.
A girl’s ring.
A vanity mirror.
A piece of pink ribbon.
A single lock of bright red hair.
Suddenly it dawned on me. Michael had known these girls, probably even been close to them. If he kept a lock of Kerri’s hair, he might even have been in love with her.
My heart broke — how much more tragedy could befall my poor boy? How many more people that he cared about would he lose?
Wiping at my damp eyes, I placed everything back in the little wooden box and tucked it back under his bed before backing out through the door with my gloves.
Later that evening, after he came home from college, Michael came to speak with me while I was working in the yard.
‘Dad, did you go in my room today?’ he asked, pale and thoughtful.
‘Yeah, buddy, just to get these gloves,’ I smiled, respecting his privacy and not raising the subject of the box of keepsakes, the memories of his departed friends. I knew he’d talk to me about it when he was ready.
He stood watching me from behind his thick glasses for some time, that same thoughtful look on his face, before finally nodding, a determined little gesture (or was it one of gratitude?), then smiling and saying: ‘Hey Dad, why don’t I cook dinner tonight? You don’t look like you’re feeling so good.’
I told him I was fine, but said he could cook if he wanted. I knew he probably wanted to do it to thank me for being so discreet about his box.
As it goes, I’m glad Michael did cook, because later that night, after we ate, I did start to feel unwell. Maybe Michael will be a doctor with an eye like that? He’s certainly clever enough.
My illness has gotten worse over the last few weeks, and I’ve ended up bedridden. Our home is pretty isolated out here, so I’ve had nothing but this laptop and my son for company.
Luckily Michael has taken over the running of the house, including making all of our meals. I’m doing my best to eat them, but the pains in my stomach are getting so bad now. I’ve felt so sick and I’m definitely weaker than I was. I’ll be honest with you, I’m starting to worry that this could be something serious — and I told Michael as much yesterday.
He told me that Dr Harper has been real busy lately, but he’ll be along soon to get me back on the road to recovery. In the meantime I just need to take it easy, while Michael takes care of our home.
Even now, as the sky darkens and the stars are starting to appear, I can hear him hard at work in our backyard, digging away.
My son Michael is all I have left.
But in a lot of ways I’m lucky, because he’s all I need.
He’s such a good boy.
Credit: S.P. Hickey
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