“‘Who did that?'”
Lines from my nephew’s favorite book, “Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues.”
A sudden noise at my window yanks me awake. It’s a bird, an insect. Hell, it’s a bat. It’s relentless. It’s always there to shake me awake. How long can a person go without a full night’s rest?
The sunlight burns my stinging eyes. My air conditioning doesn’t work, and sweat rolls down my face and pastes my shirt to my back. The cars passing overload my system. My brain can’t choose which noise or sight to concentrate on. A horn sounds, and my head snaps up. My vehicle is rolling forward, inching closer to the intersection ahead. I’ve nodded off at a red light and released the brake. I mash it back down with a startled gasp. The light’s transition from red to green doesn’t immediately register. Impatient drivers honk their horns, and my heart pounds in unison with the obnoxious noise.
I saw a kid die. He drowned right before my eyes. I didn’t know he was in trouble, God, I swear it. It happened so quietly. By the time it dawned on me that he was drowning, it was too late. The last thing he saw was my frantic gaze, reaching out to him, pleading for him to live. The world should have shrieked in protest of a life snuffed out, yet the sun rises and sets, the birds sing, and the people live.
It’s gnawing on me. It’s taking its time, the guilt—pacing itself. And why not? It’s got until my own death to consume me. The weight of his lifeless body is a sensation I’ll never be able to forget. Sometimes I’m walking through Wal-Mart, or some other store, pushing my cart along, and out of nowhere I’m again cradling his phantom weight in my unsuspecting arms.
Is it a monster? A demon? A ghost? It started after the child died. And it started with a rat-a-tat-tat.
Most nights, it allows me to fall asleep for a couple hours before its drumming rouses me. I prop myself up on my elbows and watch the bedroom window, waiting for the stuff of nightmares to appear on the other side of the glass. I imagine it’s grinning at my terror. Or maybe it’s watching me from the shadows, smug with dutiful satisfaction. When will it break from this routine? When will it decide to venture inside? I wonder. All too soon, is the answer.
I tip-toe down the hallway, the light of the flashlight trembling in my quaking grip. I’m too scared to let it know I’m coming with a bold blast of the hallway light. It’s in the kitchen, clanging and banging around. No more gentle rat-a-tat-tat. I need to see it. Closer and closer….and I’m right around the corner from it. I peek.
A night-light is on. My searching eyes flitter back and forth. I almost miss it, but it shudders and gives away its position. There!Crouching on the floor, a shadow darker than the darkness of my house. It moans. It’s big. Its head is turning. I lose my nerve and dart back to my bedroom, locking my door behind me.
Underneath my bed, my knees throbbing from the carpet burn I sustained in my haste to dive into hiding, my breath comes in short, raspy waves. I pray. A tear rolls down my hot cheek. The floor outside my door creaks. The door knob turns and rattles. It’s here. It will rip the door off the hinges. It will crush and mutilate my body. I weep. The rattling ceases. The floor groans as it departs.
Another night. There’s a hush over the house, but something woke me up. I sit up in the illumination of the moonlight pouring through my window. I’m not alone. It stands at the foot of my bed, a seven foot tall figure shrouded in a white sheet. It is motionless. My heart beats in my ears as I gawk at it. For a minute or an hour, we remain locked in this position. Then it pivots and shuffles out of my room. Outside my door, it claws at the hallway walls for the rest of the night.
I hug my knees, too terrified to even hide. As the sky lightens, the scratching becomes distant. When the sun rises, it stops altogether. I am rattled. I cannot go to work. I choose to sleep in the light of day, and sleep is good to me.
When I awake, the evening has already arrived. My senses are on high alert. I check every door and window. The door to the basement is unlocked. I lock it. I don’t feel much safer. I lock myself in my bedroom and settle into the middle of the bed. I wait. It doesn’t take long.
Rat-a-tat-tat. It’s not inside yet. I shine the flashlight on the window. Nothing is there, but there’s a spot of condensation on the glass, like someone is breathing on it. My stomach somersaults, and I force myself to turn the flashlight away.
Somehow, I drift off, my back supported by the wall. A door is disturbed. I flinch awake and point my flashlight at my bedroom door. It’s still closed. I shift the light—in front of the bed, my closet door is opening. My flashlight blinks off and refuses to come back on. The darkness darker than my house is crawling out of my walk-in. It stops and rolls its head.
I want to jump out of my skin. Impulsively, I pull the cord to my lamp. I catch a fleeting glimpse of it slithering under my bed. I leap off the mattress and sprint to the living room. Somewhere in the house, heavy knocking begins. As I struggle to catch my breath, the pounding intensifies, and the house vibrates under its force. I clamp my eyes shut and clutch at my ears. I have to call for help.
I snatch the cordless phone off its cradle and dial the number. The knocking stops as the phone rings. She answers on the fourth.
What do I say to my sister? How do I explain everything?
“Hannah, are you there?”
“I-I’m here,” I whisper. “June, something’s in my house.”
She says nothing for a few seconds. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s torturing me.”
“Christ, if you think something’s in your house, why don’t you call the police? What do you think I can do about it?”
She’s got a point. “I…I’m sorry. You’re right.”
Footsteps enter the hallway. My ears perk up. I should’ve turned on a light.
“Yes?” I whisper.
“Don’t ever call me again.” She hangs up. The dial tone hums.
The footsteps continue. I am frozen in time.
The boy’s limp body hung in my arms. I clutched him to my chest as I howled in agony.
It rounds the corner, covered under a sheet again. It drops back down onto all fours.
My nephew’s lifeless eyes stared up at me. “I didn’t know he was drowning, I didn’t know!” I scream.
I throw the phone at it. It recoils before renewing its advance with vigor.
“Please forgive me, June, I’m begging you—it was an accident, please!”
It reaches for me. I snatch the fabric it hides beneath and tug it off. The sheet collapses and reveals empty space.
He drowned. I was supposed to protect him, and he died.
The sun rises. The birds sing. The people live. The sun sets.
June’s silence was the worst. She could’ve screamed, she could’ve attacked, but silence? Nothing else could’ve shredded me apart like her cool refusal to comfort or condemn.
The next night, the tapping begins again.