Mason knew something was different as soon as he woke up.
He had a knack for that. Most of the time he could ignore it; but sometimes it bothered him, nipping relentlessly at his brain until he found what was out of place, or broken, or wrong. This morning was like that.
It took Mason almost fifteen minutes to survey his room for irregularities. It was the room of an eight-year-old boy, and there were countless treasures and trophies to be inspected. Besides, his parents wouldn’t be up for another hour or so. He had some time to kill.
He found it in the last place he looked, of course; the closet. Mason didn’t like his closet.
He knew it was stupid. Every time he stood in front of the door and felt the heavy dread crawl through him, Mason told himself that only babies were afraid of their closets. He knew there was nothing to be scared of, that there was nothing inside. But there was another part of him, a primal part, that was certain something was.
Mason felt the cold prickling of fear, but in the cheery light of morning his curiosity won out. He wrenched the closet door open and slapped at the switch. The harsh yellow bulb snapped on, banishing the dim.
A breath of chilly air wafted past him, carrying with it a foul odor. It was dumpster-sweet, rotten juices and rust.
He gagged and waved his hand in front of his face, but the odor vanished as quickly as it came; now it just smelled like his closet. Mason looked around for the source, and that’s when he saw the hole.
It was down near the floor, next to a stack of rarely played board games - a roughly circular hole in the wall, about as big around as Mason’s head. He couldn’t see inside from where he stood, but it looked dark.
Mason scanned the closet for some sign of where the hole had come from, but there was nothing; everything was where it should be. Except for the hole.
He bent down to get a better look but kept his distance. Something about it made him nervous. Besides, there was always the chance that something had tunneled into his closet wall and was waiting just inside. A squirrel maybe, or a rat...or worse…
Holding his breath, Mason ducked his head down just low enough to look inside before jumping backward. Nothing came bursting out after him, but he hadn’t been able to see anything either; it was too dark.
Mason stared at the hole for a minute or so. Finally, he crouched down, shuffled over to it on his knees, and bent to peer inside. Past the rough and irregular edge of the drywall, the hole stretched back into the dark. It did sort of look like a tunnel, retaining its roughly circular shape as far back as Mason could see. As he knelt there trying to pierce the gloom, a whisper of cold air slithered out of the hole and caressed his face. He caught another whiff of that sickly sweet smell and sat back, blanching. Whatever this hole was, it smelled awful.
Something else was bothering him too. Mason stood and reached on tiptoes for the closet shelf above him. He needed his toolbox. It had been his birthday present last year, a heavy metal box with a set of real tools inside. He retrieved it and set it reverently on the carpet, taking a moment to smooth down a catcher’s mitt sticker that was coming unstuck. He had decorated the box with a sheet of baseball stickers he’d won at school; he didn’t like baseball, but he did like stickers. Mason flipped the box open on the floor and pulled out a measuring tape.
He crept back over to the hole and slowly, he extended the stiff yellow measuring strip inside. There was no resistance after one foot, or two, or three. When the measurement reached six feet, Mason let the tape snap back, frowning.
He got up and carefully crept out of his room and towards the bathroom. He could hear snoring from his parent’s bedroom down the hall. They got grouchy about being woken up early, so he had to be quiet. Mason pushed the bathroom door open, flicked on the light, and searched the wall opposite the toilet.
On the other side of that bathroom wall was his closet. Mason was good at estimating, and he figured there was a little less than two feet of distance between his closet wall and this one. The only way he could have fed the measuring tape out as far as he did was if it had gone through the wall and into the bathroom. But there was no hole here.
Confused, he turned off the light and crept back to his room. Had he made some mistake? Mason grabbed a small flashlight from his toolbox and plopped down onto the floor. He pointed it into the depths of the hole in his closet wall and clicked it on.
Mason should have been looking into the space between the walls. He should have seen the backside of the bathroom wall, and maybe some wires and pipes for good measure. Instead, the little light illuminated a tunnel that went on and on into the dark.
It was much longer than six feet, small and cramped and rough. As he peered inside, the tunnel seemed to stretch and distort before his eyes. It made him sick to his stomach, and he turned the flashlight off and scooted away from the hole, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths to steady his squirming insides.
Mason’s eyes snapped open and he froze, his breath catching in his chest. A voice drifted out of the hole. A voice that said his name.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaasoooooooooon…” The whisper came again, hissing out of the darkness. Mason yelped and scrambled backwards into his room, back towards the light. His eyes were locked on the opening of the hole.
There was a barely audible chuckle. “Clever Mason.” The voice came from somewhere far away, a thick, burbling whisper.
“Clever boy. Mm. Curious mind. Our favorite.”
Mason sat in a pool of sunshine as a familiar dread snaked up his spine. This was wrong. He could feel it in his head.
An almost unbearable silence hung over the room. Mason heard nothing but the pounding of his pulse in his ears. Then it came, a dragging, slithering sound, like a rake snarling across cement.
Mason bolted to his feet and ran to the bedroom door. The voice had been louder - closer! He had to get out of there, get to his parents, or outside. Anywhere. Anywhere but here in his room with the hungry, whispering hole.
His finger closed on the doorknob and wrenched at it. But the knob wouldn’t turn.
Mason tugged as hard as he could, but the door was stuck fast. It wouldn’t open.
“We watched, Mason.”
“Since you came to our house.”
Mason pounded on the door, trying to force it open, trying to wake his parents.
“Watched from the dark and quiet.”
The voice was louder now, almost as if it was coming from the next room. Mason shouted and screamed for help. Why weren’t his parents coming? Couldn’t they hear him? His brain was screeching. Out of place! Broken! Wrong!
“Going to have fun.”
“Going to have food. Mm”
“Going to have Mason.”
It was here. It was here!
Mason ran for the closet door and slammed it shut, then dove for his bed. All he could think to do was hide. Mason scurried beneath his blanket, terrified tears streaming down his face as he tried to stifle his sobbing breaths.
A door slowly creaked open, and Mason heard heavy, deliberate footsteps moving towards the bed. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t dare.
Something was there. Something was standing by his bed, looking down at him.
Mason screamed when the blanket was pulled off. He screamed and screamed and screamed.
“Whoa!” shouted his startled father, jumping back from the bed.
Mason was still screaming as his father gathered him up in a hug. “Hey, buddy, it’s OK, it’s OK, I didn’t mean to scare you!”
It took a few moments for Mason to realize what was going on. He sobbed and clung desperately to his father’s soothing warmth, and then stole a terrified glance at the closet.
The door was open.
His father pulled back and looked at him quizzically, then followed Mason’s gaze to the closet. “What?”
Mason just shook his head as he stared at the closet wall. There was nothing there. The hole was gone.
Mason’s father looked back at him, concerned. “Another nightmare, huh? Well it’s all right now. You’re safe.” He gave Mason’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Mason stared up at his father and smiled stiffly.
His father beamed back. “There we go!” Mason felt himself being swept up and lifted off the bed. “Ugh, you’re getting heavy.” His father made a face, and Mason smiled another perfunctory smile.
“Hey, I heard your mom say something about pancakes this morning. Why don’t we head into the kitchen and help? I’m starving!” Mason glanced back at the closet as he was carried away. He could feel his father grinning down at him.
It was an ordinary morning in an ordinary house. No one would think there was anything wrong at all.
No one but Mason.