Aiden Keller couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t share his bed with his little sister. Thing was, Aiden was an only child. His parents didn’t bother trying to have more than one. Alan and Mary Keller weren’t like most couples that fall in love, boink carelessly, realize that’s how kids are made, and decide we may as well boink some more since we’re stuck together and the path of responsibility is much cheaper than the alternative.
Alan was an architect. He might have been more established and more well-known if Mary wasn’t an antique enthusiast and a hobby historian. The two went hand in hand. An awfully sorry, splintered table isn’t just a sorry splintered table. It’s the sorry splintered table from the house that burned down at 308 S. Birch. The house had been in the family for generations and this table was the only thing that survived the conflagration. The old refrigerator that moaned every fifteen minutes wasn’t any old moaning refrigerator. It was the first appliance that Mr. Lewis had in his corner grocery store that was little more than a big shed he bought off the executor after someone passed away. The corner grocery would thrive for some fifty years and the refrigerator, though seeing better days, was still in operation, complete with the heavy cakes of frost in the freezer.
Alan’s work didn’t suffer because of any conflict between his profession and his wife’s. Sometimes the antiques she would collect were entire houses. Especially houses with a lot of “character”, situated in towns and cities with a “colorful, rich” history. The only way to collect the next interesting antique house would be to move.
And so the Kellers would move. Frequently.
He didn’t mind it all that much and he loved to see his wife relish the thrill of discovery at each stop. Between the quality of his designs and her way with the local market for antiques and historical events, money wasn’t an issue. But it did upset a fair share of his clients who easily lost track of which phone number and address was current. Plus he found that after the stress of each move, his mental muscle for good design had a “warm-up” period. In the midst of that lifestyle, maintaining one child was enough. But there wasn’t just one child in the Keller household. Not after one particular move.
Alan saw it coming. The FOR SALE pamphlets were starting to pile up again on her desk, and they were all from one particular area. Some small burg in Illinois.
As quiet and remote as the place was, the number of “unsolved mysteries” was rather high. The missing persons per capita were also high. The more she dug, the more she found. The old Baptist church that had a fire. Twice.
She was prattling to Alan about all this while they toured the available houses for sale. Small as Silverkey was, it had a historical district centered on a hill. Alan felt like the houses were frowning at him, that their history was something they preferred to keep to themselves. His wife was clearly missing this cue.
At the top of the hill was 202 Riverloft. It was love at first sight, when she gazed into those cracked and clouded windows held together by a web of ivy, skeletal in the November cold. The windows were placed in a study of straight, vertical shapes that all ended in points, impaling the sky. The central house had the only horizontal feature in sight. A ribcage of exposed planks shedding white flakes of paint. The building was married to two conical brick towers, one slightly taller than the other. It was overdue for a lot of TLC, but it was a veritable castle.
Alan didn’t have to ask. He knew.
It was drafty, had more living space than a family of six, let alone a family of three could realistically utilize, and every last floor creaked and moaned like a sexually active World War I veteran. The elephant tromping around in the kitchen overhead would always turn out to be a mouse. It wasn’t long before this was just another part of life and a means of finding each other wherever they were in the estate.
Aiden could tell his parents apart by the sound of the creaking floor. Mom sounded lighter, quicker, short and breezing strides. Dad’s steps were ‘deeper’, unhurried. Whenever either drew close to his room, he had plenty of time to hide the comic book and replace it with his homework.
It was one night he was about to fall asleep that he heard footsteps in the hallway. They were definitely lighter than his father’s, but they weren’t flighty like his mother’s. The way they meandered around the hallway, it sounded like they were made by someone who wasn’t familiar with the house. They went back downstairs more than once, as if uncertain about where the stairs were taking them. Then they finally came to the open doorway of his room and stopped. Aiden took a few seconds to realize he wasn’t breathing. He was on his side, facing away from the door. He didn’t dare look. It was forever before there was another footstep. Then another. One soft, careful pad after another slowly made its way toward him. His heart was slamming against his ribs. Something inside of him exploded, whether in his chest or in his head he couldn’t tell, but it happened when someone placed a hand on the mattress and crawled into bed with him. Darkness took him before he could scream.
When he came to, his mother’s face was the first thing he saw. She looked worried, her brow furrowed.
He looked around, shivering violently. He was in the cavernous living room on the couch. Something about the sunlight levels told him he had missed school.
“Did something happen last night, Honey?”
“There was…” and a mental door slammed shut, preventing him from recalling. His mouth hung open for a stream of information that wouldn’t flow.
“Did you have a bad dream or something?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“We should still call a doctor,” came Alan’s voice from somewhere.
Aiden looked around. Alan came to the front of the couch.
“We can’t have a doctor bill as soon as we move into a new community,” Mary said with her hands out. Alan just gave her a hard look.
“You wouldn’t wake up, son. And you were as white as a sheet like you saw a ghost or something.” Alan sat at the foot of the couch. The slight sinking feeling made by another body on the cushions caused Aiden to tense up.
Aiden cast the bucket back into the well of his soul, but it would only pool up with darkness. He squinted and shook his head.
Alan looked at Mary. “If this happens again we are calling a doctor.”
She cast her eyes to the floor and bit her lip.
Alan put his hand on his son’s ankle.
“Rest up, son.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“Got any homework left, then?”
“You’ll probably have some tomorrow. School started five hours ago. You’d show up to say hey to everyone before coming right back home.”
“Can I go outside?”
“Sure. Just don’t wander too far. We need to keep an eye on you for a while.”
Aiden wasn’t one for wandering. But he could have easily stumbled off past the town limits in the fog of thought he found himself in. He paced around the spacious perimeter of the back yard, marked by an arthritic wooden fence. Very much lost in thought, yet thinking nothing. Running up against nothing as he retraced what he could of the last night’s incident.
He was in bed. He remembered that.
He heard something. He couldn’t remember what.
Then what? Did he hear something? Did he feel something? See something? Someone spliced the tape at that point, hard and clean. But he stayed there, in that mental space, like a hiker gazing over a great gorge. He never noticed the setting of the sun and his mother had to call him inside to dinner three times.
Someone tried to get in bed with me.
It hit him when the toothbrush began working up a lather.
Someone DID get in bed with me.
His strokes with the brush slowed. The recall wasn’t a fraction as terrifying as the experience. It was actually faint and bodiless like a vapor. Like a dream.
It must have been a dream.
Then again how many dreams have made him miss school? He remembered a day in Kindergarten when he feigned that he had a nightmare during naptime and needed to go home. Teacher didn’t buy it, however he insisted.
Some small voice in the back of his head began insisting that someone indeed tried to get in bed with him, in the waking world. His rational mind wasn’t buying it. He spat into the sink and washed it out of sight.
Of all the ‘new’ bedrooms Aiden had to live through, this one responded to decoration the least. An eight-year-old boy can generally lend his aesthetic of timelessness to a room, like a band-aid, covering over the years and events a room may have already weathered.
Not this room.
It didn’t yield to it’s new tenant. The action figures and cartoon posters were out of place, like a puffy scar or a tumor. This may have been Aiden’s new home, but he felt like the unwanted guest of a reluctant household. The faded olive vinyl wallpaper shrugged and itched at him and his belongings, suffering the whole thing with a thin patience.
Sleep took him quickly. Truth be told, he was exhausted. But fitful dreams didn’t waste time coming out of their sunless nests. He dreamed that he was paralyzed, only able to move his eyes, and some unseen force floated him through the hallways of an infinite version of the new house. He drifted by the doorway of his parents’ bedroom, glowing cold in the moonlight. He tried so hard to call out to them for help, but his throat was silent and his parents slept on and the invisible hand that dangled him like a kitten slowly paraded him into deeper, longer, abyssal hallways of shadow where even the moonlight feared to enter the narrow windows. The silence was charged with a sinister laughter that was felt instead of heard. Then the floorboards screamed with a creaking larger than life as the phantom hand suspended Aiden in front of a lone pool of silver light. The feet emerged from the shadows. They were skeletal, black as if carved from coal, as were the legs. Kneecaps shifting as ebony femur and tibia ground against each other. The legs led up to an amorphous cloud as if a myriad gnats were trying to congeal together. The staggering legs carried the cloud forward,
creeaakk, creeaak, creeakk
until Aiden, his eyes liable to explode from inability to cry out, was enveloped.
He woke up. He was in bed. There was no phantom parading him through the halls. There was no gnat ghost trying to swallow him.
But there were footsteps.
Unsteady and light, making the floor groan.
Making their way towards his bed.
He filled his lungs to scream bloody murder, but the explosion wouldn’t come. He could draw air in, but not out. He tried to draw in more air even though he felt like his lungs would burst.
Someone anchored a hand on the bed and a weight shifted the whole frame as someone got in beside him. His mouth opened, but his mind broke before he could make a sound.