Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The terrible thing happened at night—as most terrible things do.
While I click-clicked away at my home job as a transcriptionist, I’d often watch the boys playing in the backyard. They’d be at it for hours, acting out some scene with foam swords and plastic guns, only stopping when the sun left to rise elsewhere.
Seeing Mason happy made me happy. He’d finally found a friend.
His father left us when he was six months old and, more or less, held no role in his life. Sure, there were the occasional visits every few years, but even those were short and feigned, not even so much as an annual birthday card.
Perhaps that was why Mason anchored himself such a secure distance from other kids (a point driven home by his fifth-grade teacher and several others).
Part of me didn’t blame him. Kids in school, especially the ones I can recall, weren’t the friendliest bunch. If you were lucky, you could pick out the sharks from the minnows and avoid them, but honestly, they all look the same, twined together in the same concrete box.
“Please give him a best friend”, I’d whisper at my bedside every night, sending out the same message to God, or at least to something just as benevolent, to hear my prayer. “Give my son his first best friend”.
Then, one day, much to my wonderment, Mason brought Todd home for a playdate. He was a petite boy with mismatched clothes, unkempt hair, and the bluest eyes you’d ever seen. I was ecstatic—relieved that my son had finally cracked open his shell and found a buddy.
“I saw him at the park,” Mason told me when I asked how they met. “He was sitting alone at the swings, like he was sad. When he saw me on my bike, he waved, and I waved back. Then, we hung out, and he was really cool.” As he shared this, I couldn’t help but smile at his excitement, so much deserved by the loneliest boy in the world.
That night, they had a sleepover and passed out in the living room. From my bedroom, I could hear the muffled speech of our television which they had left on.
Sighing, I untucked myself out of bed and walked sluggishly down the stairs to them. Light from the screen pulsed and stretched over the sleeping boys. Mason was swaddled in his blanket on the floor, while Todd was curled up on the couch.
I scanned for the remote, and after no luck, I moved to shut it off myself.
Crik! A lone bag of chips crinkled under my foot.
From the couch, Todd’s shape twitched and then bolted upright.
I meant to say, sorry, but I was stopped short.
When Todd jutted awake and opened his eyes—I couldn’t see them. They hadn’t rolled up in their sockets or slipped to their sides, they were simply gone. Two holes of singular darkness.
Todd had blue eyes—vividly blue eyes. But at that instant, not even the glow of the television reflected off those dark membranes, black as Santa’s coal.
Then, he blinked, and the eyes returned.
Before I could say anything, his mouth stretched into a yawn, and his body slumped back into the cushions. I was stiff as a board, somewhat relieved I hadn’t shrieked and woken them both up.
My thoughts told me it was a trick of the light, as did any speck of reason. Vision played games with you that way. I switched off the television and went back to bed.
A few weeks later, on an especially windy evening, a knock came at the door. Todd was there as usual, see-sawing on his soles patiently.
“Hi there,” I smiled.
“Hi.” He smiled; his thin neck cocked. “Can Mason come out and play?”
Before I even had to answer, Mason had already squeezed past me, still working one of his arms through his jacket sleeve. “Bye, Mom!”
I watched as they disappeared down the street.
The rule was to be back before dark, and to their credit, the boys always returned just as the sky started to dim. On that particular outing, they came home with some cool rocks they’d found and dirt-clotted sneakers.
By the time Todd was ready to walk back home, it had fallen too dark for him to go alone. I gave him a ride, with both boys in the backseat. It wasn’t a far drive, as his house was only a few streets away.
Every so often, my eyes would slip back to the rearview and see Todd watching the street, Mason dozing off next to him. As we passed beneath the street lamps, a bar of light would creep through the window, roll over his face, and vanish over his head.
The car suddenly rocked as my wheels rolled too hastily over a speed hump. His gaze left the window and met mine. Only this time, as the slanted light skimmed over his features, blue eyes did not look back at me. They were gone, blotted out by the same oily darkness. Silent murky circles. Even his skin—in just that quick moment—looked different, like dry, mottled clay fit poorly over a skull. Lips bloodlessly shriveled.
I slammed on the break, jostling all of us with a sudden lurch. Mason gasped himself into wide-eyed awareness.
As fast as it had happened before, the straight-faced horror in my backseat returned to a sweet young boy, shocked and surprised.
“Sorry,” I breathed. “Sorry about that, guys. I thought I saw a cat in the road.”
We reached Todd’s house, a white ranch style with a flowering dogwood tree in the front yard.
As the boys said their goodbyes, I could only stare into the dashboard, my heart sending tremors down my arms. The world felt off its tilt, as if the lines separating actuality and nonsense were blurred. I was disoriented by how real it seemed: his eyes like deep, dark wells, his unhealthy skin stretched and pulled like a death mask. My thoughts clashed with the fold of my brain that formed logic, and eventually, logic won.
It was all in my head—period.
But despite how far fetched it sounded, I actively avoided eye contact with Todd, not even giving a sliver of opportunity for that oily pitch to return. If it even happened in passing glance or a quick double-take, I’d be back to circling the rim of a mental collapse.
A week later, I went to pick up Mason from Todd’s house. I’d pulled up along the curb, texted, I’m here, and waited there for some time. There was no sign he’d read my message, nor did he answer any of my calls.
When I got tired of waiting, I twisted the keys out of the ignition and made my way up the slim walkway. The house was missing a great deal of shingles, which scarred its roofline in dark patches. The rain gutters were clogged and stunk of decomposing leaves.
I knocked briskly and waited. The door unlocked, held only partially open by a door chain.
“Yes?” The face peeking out asked. His voice was nasally, like it was lodged somewhere in his throat, right in the pit of it.
“Hi, I’m Holly, Mason’s mom, here to pick him up.”
The door closed and then opened fully as the chain slid out of its holder. The man on the other end was lanky with onset baldness widening his forehead, his eyes tired and heavy.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he said, flashing a thin-lipped smile and offering a handshake. “David. The boys are probably still on their way back, but they’ll be here any minute now. You can come inside and wait if you’d like. I’ve got some tea ready to go.”
I took him up on the offer and followed him inside. At our immediate right was the living area, where a woman sat watching a romcom on the television. Paying no mind to the sound at the door, she kept her back to us. Beneath the show’s timed laugh track, I could hear the sound of hard, labored breathing. Hanging over the side of the sofa drooped a thin, skeletal wrist.
On the wall, a grey Kit-Cat Clock shifted its eyes and wagged its tail.
The kitchen was small, with a triangular arrangement of sink, stove, and refrigerator, a small dance between the three. Flowery wallpaper looped around the room. A Formica-topped table sat against the wall with minty green chairs. I took a seat in one as David retrieved some cups from the cabinet. The smell of light orchid drifted through the air.
“Hope you like green tea,” he said quietly as he filled the cups and brought them over.
“Green is fine,” I replied, taking the cup from him. “Thank you.”
He planted himself in a chair. “They’re really fond of each other, aren’t they—the boys, I mean?”
“I’d say so, you can hardly keep Mason away,” I laughed. By this point, I had noticed the dark pouches beneath his eyes more clearly. In fact, his overall appearance seemed to hang in a mournful sag. Whatever supplement he needed—he was missing a lot of it.
“So, how long have you been in the neighborhood?” I asked for the sake of conversation.
“Oh, a good while now,” he mused, rubbing a finger along his cup.
“Really? I’m surprised Mason didn’t meet Todd sooner; our houses aren’t too far from each other.”
“Todd?” He asked, as though needing a moment to remember his own son’s name. “Oh, yes. That is pretty surprising. He, hmm, gets around.”
“Mason never sees him at school. Does he go to a different district?”
Lines creased his mouth. “School…well, we—”
From the living room, a harsh guttural coughing reached us. David’s neck swiveled toward the sound. “Excuse me. My wife needs me.” He left his chair and hastily went to her. Not too long after that, the front door opened as Todd and Mason arrived.
As we said our goodbyes to David and his silent wife, he clasped my hand in a tight shake. “It was nice meeting you, Holly, Really, it was.” When he released his grip, I realized something was left in my palm.
When we were back in the car, I folded it open.
“What’s that, Mom?” Mason asked.
“Nothing, sweetie,” I smiled back at him, placing the crumpled note in my lap—a phone number, a time to call, and the word HELP scribbled into its loose-leaf.
It was nightfall when I unfurled and read it again. I was in the backyard occupying a seat at our fire pit, my cell phone in one hand and a cigarette pinched in the other. The note said to call at eight, which was only five minutes away. As the time drew closer, my chest grew tighter with anxiousness.
Moments ago, I’d snuck into my own room, pulled out the bottom shelf of my dresser, and unearthed the pack of Marlboros hidden there. Three years I’d been without them, and three years I’d kept my promise to Mason to stop smelling like an ashtray. But tonight, shamefully, they were the only thing holding me together.
When the clock on my phone pulsed eight, I took a long drag on the cigarette and dialed the number.
The tone chirred in and out a few times and finally connected. “Hello?” David’s voice chattered on the other end. “Who is this right now?”
My heart rattled in my throat. “It’s Holly, Mason’s mom.”
The voice exhaled and then returned briskly, “I need you to listen to me, okay? Are you listening?”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“Keep it away from your boy.”
The firepit popped and spat a few embers. “Keep what away? What are you talking about?”
“Listen,” he snapped, a manic-weight to his words, “don’t let Mason come over here anymore. It isn’t safe for him. Don’t even let it go over there. You have to stop this now.”
I twisted my neck back toward the house and then leaned forward in my chair “Are we talking about your son right no—?”
“—isn’t my son!” he scorned. “Not at all. Not in any way.”
“You need to calm down. If you need help, I can call the police.”
“No! No police!” he screamed, his voice so tight and stressed that it splintered on the other end. “It will take more from her if you do that. My wife—she can’t handle much more. It’s taking something from her, taking something from me. We can’t get rid of it now. It’s too late for us. But not for you. You can stop this.” He started to weep and mutter to himself, “It came to our door to use the phone. Why did we let it in? Why did we let it use the fucking phone!?”
Something stirred in his background. He paused and then whispered, “Keep it away from him.” And then he hung up.
I’m not sure how long I sat out there, but it was long enough for the flames to shrink into powdery mounds.
When I entered the house again, Mason was on the couch with his tablet. “You smell weird,” he said, taking note of me.
“The fire pit,” I lied, my thoughts too heavy to muster anything else.
He flashed me a big smile and tactfully asked, “Can I have a sleepover at Todd’s this weekend?”
“No,” I answered stiffly. “That isn’t going to work.”
“Why not?” he persisted. “Todd always sleeps over here. Why can’t we do his?”
“Because, Mason, I said no, end of story.”
He shot an icy look of defiance at me. “Fine, then he’ll sleep over here then.”
“No, he won’t. We are going to take a break from Todd for a while.”
His jaw opened, flabbergasted. “You can’t do that.”
“I just did,” I said, perhaps a little too matter-of-factly.
As I walked back up the stairs, I could feel the burn of his eyes watching me on every step, both of our nights now ruined.
David’s deranged garble on the phone sat with me for the rest of the night. I had no idea what to do, what to fix, what to think.
Keep it away, it isn’t safe for him, the message, so vague but also desperately clear. I had to keep Mason safe; that was all that mattered.
The next day, after Mason was back from school, I sat him down on the couch. “I’m sorry for last night,” I said. “I was very stressed, but that is not the way I want us to speak to each other again, okay?”
His eyes naturally scanned the floor. “Okay.”
“I love you, Mason, and no matter what, I want you to be safe, so there are a few things I need to know about Todd. Will you do that for me?”
He nodded again, his sneakers softly kicking the backpack slumped on the carpet.
“Did he ever act weird or strange to you?”
His head shook.
“What about his parents? Did he act different around them at all?
I wasn’t sure how to word the next question, but I did my best anyway. “Did he ever do something with his eyes?”
This time, Mason nodded.
My heart squeezed itself smaller. I wanted so much to change the subject, to retreat to the kind cadence of sanity. But I had to know more. I had to protect my son. “What did he do with his eyes?”
“A trick,” Mason replied hesitantly. “Told me not to tell anyone though.”
“You have to tell me.”
His lips crinkled, trying to keep the secret zipped up. Then, he finally spoke, “He could make them disappear.”
I felt drugged by his words, my head even feeling lighter, like all the logic in the world had just been raptured away. You did see them, my thoughts repeated. You did see the deep, dark wells. As quickly as all my self-doubt left, a scrim of dread filled the empty spaces. “Did it scare you?” I asked.
“A little,” Mason replied absently. “He said not to be though, that he’d show me how to do it too.”
I grabbed his shoulder, making him jump suddenly. “He didn’t though, right? He didn’t do anything to you?”
He looked confused, like I was the one talking crazy now. “No.”
“I know that he is your friend, Mason, but I need you to promise that you won’t see him anymore.”
Mason’s gaze flicked back to mine; his eyes wide with betrayal. “What?” The tears began to come down.
“Promise me,” I repeated, the words like razors scraping down my tongue.
“I don’t want to!”
After much hesitation, he tearfully replied, “I promise…” I hugged him, closed my eyes, and surrendered to the cruelty of it all.
For the rest of that hellish week, I kept my ears tuned for the knock at the door. For whatever reason, Todd never used the doorbell.
Inevitably, the knock came.
Behind the frosted glass of our front door, I could see Todd’s vague shape teetering on his soles. When the door opened, he smiled up at me. “Hi, can Mason come out and play?”
“Sorry, dear,” I smiled back, “Mason can’t play today.”
The corner of his mouth lifted as his neck cocked to the side. “Can he later?”
“No, I don’t think so, sorry.”
His nose wrinkled, and the skin between his eyebrows creased. “Okay.”
I closed the door, watched him leave, and that was that. It might take a few times, but eventually the message would sink in—leave my son alone.
I felt a sense of pride behind that, and what could possibly better protect a boy than his mother? But when I turned and saw Mason’s cold eyes from the stairs, the pride all but evaporated.
When Todd returned the next day, I gave him the same answer. Then the day after that, and the one after that. I couldn’t even refuse to answer when he knocked; otherwise, he’d sit there and wait, knock again, and wait some more, knowing full well we were home. Four straight evenings of it.
And poor Mason, he had every right to despise me for this. No parent could want to wall themselves between their son and his best friend, his first friend, but what choice did I have? We were drifting apart, orbiting ever farther away from one another. He was my prisoner, and I was the judge sentencing him back to a lonely world. Surely he’d make new friends, right? The world was full of them, and if anything, this was proof that he could find them. That thought helped me cope, anyway.
When the knock came for the fifth time in a row, my tolerance had run out. Todd wasn’t catching on, and to make matters more irritating, it was eight or so at night this time. Part of me hoped it was someone else, maybe a neighbor bringing a package by that was wrongfully left on their doorstep. But I knew better than that, and I was not allowing this to go any further.
Mason was doing his homework at the kitchen table when I passed by him, no acknowledgment whatsoever.
When I pulled the door open, Todd was standing beneath our porchlight, both shoulders hunched over his ears as though expecting me to smack him—and perhaps verbally that was what I did. “Go home,” I said assertively. “We’re done. No more of this, alright?”
“Can Mason come out to play?” he asked sorrowfully, as though it weren’t after dark.
“No, Todd, he can’t. And he won’t the next day, or the next. Now, go home and stay there.”
His small arm rubbed his sleeve nervously. “It’s really dark. I don’t want to walk home alone. Can I use your phone to call my parents?”
I felt absolutely cruel, but I also knew the game he was trying to play. “You walked here on your own; you can walk back on your own.”
Then, as I moved to close the door and end the conversation, Todd made his eyes disappear. The darkness washed over them quickly and seemed actually to curdle in his sockets. A thickening, horrible, texture. His face became milk-wax, the sad child disappearing behind it. Beads of perhaps sweat dripped from his temples. One ran into his eye and vanished into the void.
“I want to come inside,” he spoke, the sorrowful note in his voice also gone.
My heart slackened to a deep, slow throb. I felt the need to pinch my side, to tweak it hard enough to draw blood and wake from this moment.
Between the dead, shriveled lips, I could see the decayed tips of black teeth. “Can I please come inside?” he asked.
“No,” I said semi-reactively.
His black, craving eyes, narrowed at me. For a moment, I actually thought they started to cry, but it was the darkness dribbling down his cheeks, oozing like oil slicks. “I just want to play with Mason.”
The sound of it—the sound of that horrible face saying my son’s name snapped me out of the shock. I slammed the door closed and quickly locked it. Mason stood stiffly in the kitchen. His expression was only a shimmer of consciousness, vacant as a sleepwalker. “Mason, look at me, honey. It’s all okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” But his unfocused eyes were not facing me.
Three firm knocks came from the door.
When I turned to face it, a dark shape lingered behind the frosted glass. A tall figure, taller than any adult, was hunching to look inside, and from behind the single pane that separated us, its vague shape didn’t move. From the other side, Todd’s childish voice was still calling, “Can I please come inside? Don’t you want to play, Mason? Don’t you want to play?”
I could feel it watching us, like static vibrating the air.
When I tried to move Mason, he refused to budge, staring emptily toward the evil thing behind the glass. Heavy as he was, I scooped him up in my arms and bolted for the stairs. It won’t break in, my thoughts uttered. It isn’t allowed to. That much I was sure of. If it wanted to get in, it would have by now. It needed to be invited.
I shut both of us away in the bathroom upstairs, and when the sounds of the front door finally ceased, Mason snapped out of it.
He was confused, like he’d just missed everything that transpired. I wasn’t sure whether to consider that a blessing or not. Perhaps it was, and perhaps also, it was not God that answered my prayer.
It was impossible to digest what happened that night.
Sometimes I’d linger on the stairs, right on the top step, and watch the doorway, wondering if the glass would suddenly darken, if Todd’s voice would slip through and ask to come inside.
One night, David had left a voicemail on my phone.
“She’s gone,” his voice whimpered. “It got what it wanted from her. Drained her dry. Now, my wife won’t wake up, and it’s left us. I don’t know what it wants from your boy, but it wants something. No matter what, don’t let it back inside.” The message cut out after that, and he still won’t answer my calls.
Todd never did come back, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Strangely enough, the one least affected by all of this was Mason. I was worried to see him fall back into that distant bubble, but that isn’t what happened. He’d started to make friends with other kids around the neighborhood. New friends. Normal friends.
He’d become a real social butterfly, and despite my brain ripping itself apart to understand what I had seen, I at least had that comfort to cling to. Seeing Mason happy made me happy.
Lately though, I’ve been feeling strange. It’s been harder to feel motivated about things, let alone get out of bed in the morning. Even my appetite has started to dwindle. Day by day, I’ve been growing increasingly sapped and lethargic. I don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s getting worse.
Mason’s been helping me get around the house, even going out of his way to play chef and make me things to eat. He’s a good boy, but sometimes dear lord, I catch something in his eyes, something that shouldn’t be there.
But it’s only a trick of the light, please God, let it only be a trick of the light.
Credit : Michael Paige
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