Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Ever since she was small, Patty Carson had been fearful of the dark. As was almost every small child, which is to be expected, since children tend to be afraid of things they don’t yet understand. Things that they can’t quite see with their eyes, but with their minds. Things that their parents can’t quite protect from, since they aren’t real. Things that wait until you’re alone, solitary, and left with your thoughts; they take the shape of the shadow of the dresser, the wind in the curtains, the rustling of tree branches on windowpanes, or the flickering of a streetlamp. They slip into the corners of your eyes, their eyes glowing, but not quite there. These are the devils that most children have to face when they try to sleep, as they try to ignore the shifting in the darkness by pulling their comforters over their heads.
This, however, wasn’t quite why Patty was scared of the dark. No, she was more practical than that. What she was haunted by, she didn’t believe to be real at all, which is extremely unlike most children. However, this did not negate the fact that it only took one night for a terribly deep and irrational fear of the darkness to be planted into her small head, there to stay for years. One night, in the summer of 1995, that was by most means an ordinary night to anyone else.
Even though it wasn’t.
A small voice broke through the still dark of the bedroom, making Patty jump. She clicked her flashlight off from under her nearly suffocating position under her comforter, hoping to the heavens above that she hadn’t been caught reading after she was supposed to go to bed. She waited for a few moments, fiddling with the bottom of her nightgown in feverish anxiety as the seconds ticked by on the small alarm clock on her nightstand. It was one of those old-y looking ones, the ones that was in the shape of a circle, and was equipped with two bells that would, when the set time came, ring rather enthusiastically as they were hit mercilessly by the small lever that was sticking out of a hole in the top. Patty both loved and hated that clock, both for its cute blue and green design and its incessant ringing in the mornings when she had to go to school, respectively.
“Patty! Pst, Paaaatty!”, the voice called again, sounding a bit more agitated than before. With a small sigh, Patty lifted her head from her covers, seeing that her sister was wide awake and looking at her from across their shared and darkened room, her eyes twinkling with mischief and slight annoyance at the way her older sibling had ignored her. Her dark hair had been pulled out of its signature messy pigtails for the night, though there were still remnants of the scruffy mess it had been not an hour ago, if anything could be told from the one single crease in her mahogany locks that the elastics had left behind.
“Yeah, what is it?”, Patty’s voice was almost a growl, and she hunkered down once again into her sheets before her little sister could answer. A frustrated huff resounded through the room, but the elder of the two girls payed no mind to it. She didn’t often take kindly to people who interrupted her precious reading sessions, and that included her sibling. Sometimes, even more so than others, much to the annoyance of their parents.
“Nothin’. Jus’ wanted to say g’night.”, Patty’s little sister, whose name was, in fact, Celia, seemed to be pouting from across the room, her childish slurs making it worse than it should’ve been. Patty could just tell. There was absolutely no way she wasn’t. Celia was five, so she was going to pout and cry and scream and kick when she didn’t get what she wanted. Despite being only eight, Patty knew this. Luckily, there had been no tears this time. The elder of the two felt the crease that had formed between her eyebrows lessen a bit, and she let out a small breath of air. Almost a huff, but not quite. It could’ve been a sigh, but it was too quiet for that, too. Not that Patty cared. She finally let a small smile cross her plush, childish lips.
“Yeah, yeah, goodnight to you, too.” was the eventual response, and, without another word, Patty roughly turned herself away from the conversation, making a small show of rustling the covers and turning away from Celia. A small giggle was heard, and more rustling.
“I love you, sissy.”
Patty gulped heavily at that. She wasn’t used to her sister actually saying that out loud. It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other; far from it, actually. True, they had their quarrels, sometimes more often than others, but they were relatively close, for siblings, and Patty was proud of that fact. However, it wasn’t often where they would verbally admit their affections for one another, if at any time at all, so it had been quite shocking for Patty to hear it then, in such a random moment. It almost left her with a foreboding feeling of sorts, but, since she did consider herself to be rather clever and level-minded (despite the fact that she had no idea what exactly ‘level-minded’ meant), she shook it off, settling for another smile that would go unseen by Celia in the low light. The only witness of her sleepily happy expression was the bumpy surface of the now grey-ish blue-looking wall and a stuffed panda bear that her father had bought her at the zoo once. The bear itself was pink, though it couldn’t readily be deciphered in the shallow darkness.
“Love you, too. Now, go to sleep, or mom’ll be mad!”, Patty’s warning elicited a small gasp from the girl opposing her, and more rustling sheets were heard. Then, it was silent once more.
The clock ticked on ominously, though Patty only paid heed to the rhythmic sound to count the seconds, bobbing her head softly with each number until she reached sixty. It was a ritual of hers, to wait exactly a minute before trying to read under her covers after the lights had been turned off. Or, to put it more into perspective, when she was finished with a late night conversation with Celia. Most older folk would agree that only one minute was far too short to be waiting for the coast to clear, but even Patty, who was rather mature for her age, was still eight years old, and a minute was the absolute longest that she could wait before she got antsy. One minute, in her childish mindsight, was plenty.
Light snoring could be heard as Patty sat up, slowly and quietly, her round eyes locking on the sleeping figure of her sister in her fluffy pink comforter (though she couldn’t really see the pink; it was tinted to a more grey colour by the moonlight streaming through their shared curtains). It wasn’t really that she had anything to worry about, since she knew all too well that Celia was a decently deep sleeper; an incident with the stove had assured both her and her parents of that. However, she didn’t want to take any chances. After all, her book was waiting for her, and at a climax, too! There was no way that she’d let her sister catch her now.
A single, small hand reached carefully from the confines of Patty’s bed. Its small fingers groped mindlessly around the top of her nightstand, appearing almost like a large spider that can’t seem to locate its web. And though most spiders would indeed find their webs, if they were in the right place, Patty’s hand did not find what it sought. There was no book on her nightstand, nor was there any clunky flashlight. She was nearly absolutely sure that she had set them there, almost positive, but there was not where she had set them, apparently.
Patty didn’t tend to be forgetful, even at the worst of times. She never forgot her homework, nor where she left her lunch when she was at school, or even Celia’s ‘secret’ stash of black licorice. No, she liked to pride herself on distinctly remembering where she put each and every thing that she possessed (even though she sometimes failed in that pride). This was why a chill ran up and down her spine when her hand touched nothing but the smooth surface of her wooden nightstand and the cool metal surface of that cute but horrible alarm clock.
Her first worry was that her parents had somehow confiscated her book and ‘her’ flashlight (she may or may not have taken it from her father’s desk drawer) while she was saying goodnight to Celia, but that thought was quickly banished. How in the world could they have done it, anyways? They can’t teleport like in the cartoons they watched on Saturdays…
Patty’s mind whirled in a way that only a child’s mind would whirl, filling with irrational thoughts about her parents screaming at her once the morning came, telling her to ‘stop reading before bed, Patty! You know that you shouldn’t! You have school, and if you don’t get good sleep, you’ll get bad grades! Patty! You need good grades to read! Patty!’ It wasn’t as if they said these things to her on a regular basis, forbid the thought. However, the subtle glances had been enough. Worried eyes over the counter as she ate breakfast, nearly falling asleep in her oatmeal. Stern stares over the morning paper as she slowly got ready for school each morning, heading out the door with a small wave and a soft ‘goodbye, mom and dad. I’ll see you after school.’ Patty was sure that she knew what they were thinking. ‘Patty, you read too much for your age. You should play more with other kids. Patty. Patty, little Patty. We know you use our old flashlight at night to read until dawn. It’s not good for you, baby girl. You know it isn’t, Patty.’
A swift blink of her chocolate brown eyes put an end to those scenarios. Patty’s hand clenched as she practically yanked it back into her covers, swallowing thickly as her eyes scanned her room, not for the first time. She silently wondered to herself as she did this, watching as shapes seemingly wormed and swarmed across her vision, squirming in the shadows, hinting at things that would have any other child cowering under their bed sheets. Patty had long since taught herself not to fear these lying shadows, telling her overactive brain to ignore it and continue onto the next page, always the next page. At least she never got nightmares.
However, right in that moment, as her thoughts swirled just as the shadows did, her mind came to a screeching halt as it grasped an idea. An awful idea, truly, and one that she was afraid to admit to. Afraid to admit to being afraid of the idea.
If her parents couldn’t have taken her book and her flashlight, then who had?
It seemed like hours for Patty as she lay there, silent, frozen, under her comforter, which was actually rather warm and cozy. The familiar material did nothing to comfort her, her breathing shallow as her wide eyes tried to keep themselves from blinking. Who had taken her book? Who had done it? Celia was asleep, and all the way across the room; besides, Patty would’ve heard her if she had gotten up. There was no way that she would’ve done it. So, what had?
What had done it?
Patty shook her head furiously, pressing her tiny fists against her forehead in an attempt to push the foreign thoughts out of her mind. What did she mean, what? It had to have been either mom, dad, or Celia, there was no one else who could’ve done it! Stop being so silly! Her eyes clenched shut, her knees curling together and her feet brushing against what felt like a sock that had been long lost within her bedding and had never been picked up. Patty tried to focus on that sock for a long moment, wondering whether or not she would’ve gotten a light but slightly scolding whap on the head for it from her mother’s rolled up crossword book. She probably would’ve…
‘Just go to sleep, Patty. You can ask mom or dad in the morning.’ Patty’s own voice resounded within her head, and she tried to calm her breathing even a little bit. Her heart felt like that of a rabbit’s, beating one hundred miles per minute. It wasn’t as though she actually knew how fast a rabbit’s heart beat, and she was sure that hearts didn’t beat in miles, but the expression seemed to fit the situation, and her father had used it in many different situations, all having to do with your heart beating out of your chest. It seemed appropriate, since it really did feel like her heart was beating in miles. She felt it in her ears, in her palms, in her throat. It seemed like the fright that the loss of a simple book was harder to escape that she had thought.
A small squeal of fright pushed past Patty’s lips at the sudden noise, and she quickly buried her face in her hands. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a rational voice crooned ‘It’s nothing to worry about, Patty. It’s probably just some animal from outside, Patty. Just go to sleep.’
However, that part of her mind was cruelly stamped out once she managed to peek past her hands and into the severely darkened hallway.
The usually cheerful blue wallpaper that covered the interior of the hallway was nowhere to be seen, cloaked by the black shadows that now encompassed it. The light from her window could only illuminate so much, and that light only reached out so far, only about two feet outside her door before melting away, giving into the darkness of the night. That light, the usually comforting blue-grey of the moon, only served to frighten the poor girl more. And it wasn’t so much the moonlight, but what it illuminated, that brought on this new fear.
There was her book, lying face-down in the hallway. Looking innocent, as if it had been there the whole time. Patty knew for a fact that it had not.
Chocolate brown eyes snapped up from the ominous book, staring into the darkness as a deer stares at a wolf, just as it’s been trapped. A stare that held fear, pure and sharp, as it waited, patiently for the claws of its predator to close upon them, for those hungry jaws to snap around their neck like a rat caught in a trap. Waited for death.
It seemed as if Patty’s feet worked on their own accord, stepping from the safe and warm confines of her bed and comforter, her head abandoning her fluffy pillow. They slowly padded across the cold hardwood floor, watching for any familiar creaky boards. The only sound that Patty seemed to hear were her own nearly silent footsteps, her soft breathing, and the beating of her own heart as it pounded in her ears. Her hand shakily twitched as it reached down, down to the surface of the floor, sweaty fingers clasping over the slightly worn cover of her book. Her eyes staying upwards, watching for any movements within the shadows. That small, rational voice in the back of her voice chimed in once again, with calming words like ‘it’ll be alright, Patty. There’s nothing really there. It was probably just Celia trying to play a trick on you. Patty, you’re being silly.’
While Patty would’ve loved nothing more than to listen to that voice, pleasant and soft, and go back to bed like she should (after all, it was a school night), something told her that she wouldn’t be able to sleep, whether she liked it or not. It felt as if the darkness was staring at her, mocking her small and childlike form as she stood stock-stiff in the doorway. Her small fingers harshly gripped at the binding of her book, though the object had been forgotten in her hand almost as soon as she had picked it up. For a moment, she almost did listen to the voice, her feet twitching ever so slightly in the direction of her bed.
The young girl’s mind seemed to stop as a haunting voice floated up the stairs, down the black hallway and to her unfortunate ears. Goosebumps prickled against the sleeves of her nightgown, and her eyes were the size of quarters, bulging out of her skull in barely contained terror.
The voice was her mother’s, it seemed. Soft as warm chocolate, as it was when the woman wasn’t angry with either of her daughters. However, something in the tone, as if there was an unexpected bit of spice in the mix, made chills run up and down Patty’s spine like frightened mice. It sounded… almost too sweet. Like her mother was using the sugary tone to make Patty come out of whatever nook or cranny she had managed to fit into to escape punishment.
It was a tone that her mother had never used, not once. That was what was so terrifying.
A shaky breath made it’s way out of the young girl’s lips, almost as if she had forced it out, and it was accompanied by a quivering whimper. If she had been anything but a child, most would have called her pathetic, despite the hypocrisy on most people’s parts, considering the chilling situation. However, Patty was, in fact, a child, and such things were sure to frighten her badly, even though she possessed a surprisingly mature mindset.
“… Mom? What is it?”, Patty’s timid voice called out despite her better judgement, her book now tucked securely against her chest. She took a hesitant step into the darkness of the hallway, her eyes frantically scanning for the nearest light switch. She knew for a fact that the nearest switch was all the way down the hall and next to the stairway, but some frantic and panicking part of her mind desperately wished for a miracle to occur, and for the light switch to somehow move to the wall directly outside her doorway, where she could see it and easily turn on the light. However, as any rational observer would conclude, no such miracle took place, and the hall remained shrouded in black. Patty almost wanted to step back into her room, but her quivering form didn’t seem to listen to her head. Her sock-covered feet took another tentative step from the safety of her bedroom, a decision which she almost immediately regretted.
“Patty! I need you to come downstairs, okay sweetheart?”, the voice crooned yet again, the saccharine laced tone floating into her ears like a sweet-tasting poison. Somehow, Patty’s feet moved further from the moonlight shaft that was cast by the window in her bedroom, her breathing quickening pace and her heart in her mouth. She felt her stomach flip uncomfortably as she lost her vision almost completely, one of her hands reaching out blindly for anything that might be in her way (even though she knew the hallway, and the rest of the house, like the back of her hand; everything seemed to be different once the sun went down). One foot after another, the eight-year-old padded ever so slowly down the hall, her face the epitome of panic and childlike fear. So far, she hadn’t managed to stub her toe on anything (especially that nasty side table her parents had placed next to their bedroom door for some odd reason. She had never bothered to ask them, but it’s legs gave some rather nasty bruises if you weren’t careful. Patty had learned early on to despise and be watchful of that table), which was surprising, but her mind couldn’t find the will to pick the joy out of that.
Patty almost let out a shriek when she stuck her right foot out and it didn’t land on anything. It almost seemed as if she was going to trip and fall into the infinite abyss of nothingness (so her young mind told her, with a certainty that she couldn’t ignore), until it slapped harshly against the wood of what she assumed was the staircase. She gulped harshly, her throat contracting in an almost painful manner as she paused yet again, her foot frozen on the top stair as she stared blindly into the darkness.
“Mom? Are you still there?”, her voice sounded pitifully squeaky, even to her own mind, as she called out, hoping for a positive response (and, at the same time, wishing that no one would reply at all). It was silent for what seemed like an eternity, and, for that moment only, relief flooded through Patty’s mind, her shoulders falling from their tensed position.
“Yes, sweetie, come on downstairs!”, the tenseness returned with a vengeance as her mother’s voice passed through her being like a ghost, chilling her to the bone. The darkness swirled, as it always had, before her eyes as her mind swam with thoughts, doubts, contradictions, anything that would somehow to convince her not to follow the directions that her mother had given her. Something was definitely not right, Patty was sure of that, but, as she was a young girl, and an inquisitive one, at that, she was almost forced to go and investigate, even though every part of her subconscious was screaming at her to simply go back to her room; she had her book, she simply had to go back to bed and pretend that none of this ever happened. Sadly, for once she deemed not to listen to such thoughts, and she crept cautiously down the stairs.
The cool tiling of the dining room floor caressed the pads of Patty’s feet as she descended onto it. However, it seemed as if it was nothing compared to the shivers running down her spine. Her mind spiralled, and she couldn’t seem to focus on anything. It wasn’t all that surprising, but it was slightly frustrating to the girl, who was trying to be at least somewhat calm. She wasn’t a baby, she could handle a little dark! She wasn’t like Celia, who would cry at a flickering light. No, she was older, she was braver. She’d be fine.
“Mom? Hello?”, her tiny voice echoed off the kitchen walls, her form shaking a bit, like a leaf about to fall off of a branch in the middle of autumn. Again, it was silent as the grave. Patty heard what sounded like an owl hooting outside the kitchen window, which allowed for some much appreciated moonlight to filter in through the half-closed blinds. She could see the stars reflecting off of the smooth, wooden surface of the dining table, and the glint of the many glass cups within their cupboard. They seemed to shine like stars themselves, and the peacefulness of such an observation did not escape Patty. She felt like she wanted to smile for a small moment, until she felt something grasp her shoulder like a vice, making her let out a shriek. The grip felt as cold as ice, though she could definitely say that it didn’t feel like a hand.
“Patty, sweetheart… you shouldn’t read so late at night…”, her mother’s voice seemed to be right beside her ear, though it seemed almost garbled, mixed with something else, something far more sinister than her mother’s soft and warm tone. It was then that Patty finally fully concluded that, whatever this thing was, it was definitely not her mother.
Nothing happened for a few seconds. The grip suddenly released, eliciting another squeak of terror from the small girl. It seemed the terror was over, and she curled into herself a bit as she breathed quick and heavy.
Then, suddenly and like a tidal wave, shadows, feelings solid and cold, encompassed her like an octopus closing in on it’s prey, or a venus fly trap finally closing on the fly which had been lead into its maw by the sweet bait the carnivorous plant had produced just for that purpose. Patty didn’t even have the time, nor the breath, to let out a screech of terror as the darkness covered her mouth like a gag, taking away both her voice and her air. Everything was cold, oh so cold, and Patty squirmed helplessly. It felt as if many sharp needles were being pressed into her skin all at once, and her skin itself was being pressed into her bones, her organs being smooshed together from the sheer force of whatever was holding her. Her breath was lost to her, and she felt herself gasping for anything to fill her struggling lungs with.
“Just hold still, Patty… just hold still…”, the fake voice cooed in an almost cruel way. Patty, who was struggling to simply remain awake (alive), her wriggling finally ceasing as she lost control of her body, finally found the resolve to simply open her eyes. What she saw, she simply couldn’t believe was real.
Two horrid, yellow eyes peered at her from what seemed to be a never ending darkness, and an invisible mouth full of sharp teeth grinned at her, impossibly white. There was something odd dripping off of the pointed canines, a thick, red substance that could almost be mistaken for paint. It was if it was something straight out of a storybook, or the horror stories that the boys at her school would tell her to scare her. She never had thought that it’d be so terrifying when it was staring right at her, with a smile so malicious and eyes so cold, as cold as the emptiness of space, the void. She knew, very well, that it wanted to kill her. She also knew that she couldn’t do a thing. After all, what could she do against a shadow? Patty felt something dribble past her lips as her stomach seemed to give way, an impossible pain filling her entire being.
“Just hold still…”
Patty was finally able to scream.
A gasp slipped past Patty’s lips as she sat up from her bed, sweat clinging to her forehead and her bedsheets sticking to her thighs like glue. She simply lay there for a moment, trying to calm her breathing as she stared up at her darkened ceiling. She dazedly began picking out patterns in the bumpy texture, trying to find shapes in the randomness as one might in clouds. It always seemed to help after that nightmare, for some reason that Patty couldn’t quite explain. Maybe it was because it gave her something else to focus on, or it was just entertaining enough to be distracting from her fearful mindset. Either way, it was a welcome comfort for her.
It had taken years for Patty to get over her experience with that… thing that dreadful summer night. Her parents had actually found her after they heard her scream, only to find her laying in a quivering ball on the tiled floor of the kitchen, looking like she had just been thrown through a window. Neither her mom or her dad had had an explanation for what had happened to her, even though they did their best to explain it to the doctor they had taken Patty too almost immediately after she was discovered. However, Patty had insisted that it was a monster, a terrible monster that attacked her in the night, like a shadow that swallowed you up when you least expected it. She had been terrified out of her wits for months afterwards, absolutely refusing to sleep anywhere but her parents’ room for the entire period. It took even longer for Patty to learn to sleep without a nightlight.
It was only years afterwards that Patty, now much older, was able to convince herself that what had happened to her wasn’t real. Of course it wasn’t, since there was absolutely no way for a shadow to try and kill her. She had probably been sleepwalking and tripped on something. There was no other explanation that Patty was willing to accept, since she had found that holding onto that irrational fear of the shadow thing would not get her very much sympathy once she made it to high school. So, in light of that, she pushed the terrible night to the back of her brain, only to resurface when she had nightmares.
Or those rare instances where she found herself staring at the shadows as they swirled beyond her eyes, wondering what exactly they could be hiding.
Patty ran a hand through her hair with a heavy sigh, forcing herself to sit up in her bed and check the time with a weary glance. She winced harshly when she found the time to be 3:26 in the morning, and let out an annoyed huff. The nightmare never really went away, she found. No matter how many times she told herself that what happened that night wasn’t real, that it was just a figment of her imagination, the horrific dream would once again present itself to her subconscious as she slept terrorizing her until she woke up in a cold sweat, her heart beating out of her chest and her breath as quick as a rabbit’s.
“Just a dream, Patty… you’re fine. It’s fine.”, she muttered to herself, as she almost always did after the dream, and she rubbed her temple carefully with the tips of her fingers. After a moment of silence, she decided that she wouldn’t be able to get a wink of sleep any time soon, and that it was in her best interests to read the book that she had brought with her to bed.
Her hand stretched out towards her nightstand, fumbling around for a few moments and bumping her fingers into her small side lamp (that needed a new lightbulb, but she’d worry about that later. She had a flashlight, anyways). Patty’s face scrunched up for a moment at the thought, before shrugging nonchalantly and reaching blindly across her nightstand for the second time. However, her expression shifted yet again, turning from confusion, and possibly a bit of disbelief, to abject terror as realization dawned upon her mind, almost as if a light switch had been flipped in her head.
Her book wasn’t there, and she lived alone.