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Bedtime Kids Suspense

If there had been a presence in the house, born of otherworldly energies and bound only by the invisible thread of unfinished business, it would have watched from the second story bedroom window as the Peterson family arrived in a burgundy station wagon around 10PM on a windy Thursday night. It would have scoffed as they hauled in their two suitcases, three smartphones, a laptop, a work laptop, a tablet, a smart speaker, a mobile hotspot with no service, and one very tired little girl.

Notably absent from the family treasures was a stuffed orange tiger. Elle, the child whose arms lay draped around her mother’s neck, had left him behind at one of the many rest stops in Pennsylvania. And although she’d at first insisted that they should turn back, then later that they might still find him on the way home, she knew deep in the knot of her stomach that he was permanently gone. She had grieved him all the way from Cleveland to Toledo, then drifted off into a fitful sleep for the rest of the ride across Michigan.

The two living inhabitants of the house came out to greet the Petersons. They were known to Elle as “Grammy” and “Grampy.” They smelled of butterscotch and powder. Elle had seen them at home in Connecticut once before. But this was different. Here, everything smelled like their hugs.

“Sorry we’re so late,” said Elle’s dad. “We hit every stretch of traffic and construction along the way.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Grammy said. She clutched her granddaughter to her nightdress. “She’ll be sleeping in your old room, hun. I’ll just take her right up.”

Elle’s dad opened his mouth to protest, but Elle’s mom gave him the double-raised eyebrows. Whatever objection he had, he let it go.

If there was indeed a presence upstairs, it would have slipped out of its favorite room and into the spaces under the eaves so as not to be disturbed.

To Elle, the bed seemed big as an ocean. Grammy set her down in the middle and lifted the covers up to her chin. Elle was so high up she wasn’t sure she could even get down on her own.

“I have a Mickey bed at home,” Elle said.

“This was your daddy’s bed when he was your age,” Grammy replied. “And here,” she gestured to the nightstand where some cinnamon graham crackers lay. “In case you get hungry.”

Elle looked nervously around the room. There were a few stacks of boxes, a closet with a lace curtain hanging in the door, and two windows filled with nothing but night.

“I need my Alexa,” Elle said.

“Your Alexa? Is that a doll?”

“No, it’s my music. Alexa just plays music and then I fall asleep.”

“Oh,” Grammy looked thoughtful. “I have something even better.”

She left Elle briefly, then returned with a small, pink elephant. It was simply made, more like an elephant-shaped pillow than the naturalist-approved stuffies that Elle was used to holding. Elle ran her fingers over the loosely embroidered eyes.

“I had a tiger.”

“Oh, is it downstairs? Did you bring it with you?”

Elle’s eyes filled with tears.

“Oh,” Grammy said. “Oh, oh. Well, here. Listen. All stuffed animals share a soul, did you know that? It’s true! Long ago, before me, or even my grammy was born, all the stuffies in the world got together and agreed it would be for the best. That way, if one of them ever got lost, another could watch over the exact same child using the exact same soul. If your tiger went away for a bit, maybe it’s because he just wanted to see what it’s like to be an elephant.”

Grammy tucked the blanket around Elle’s body until she became a cocoon. She hummed a distant lullaby. Any attempted hauntings that night would have been unsuccessful, owing to the simple fact that Elle was pooped. Her eyes were closed before Grammy even switched off the light, and she didn’t stir again until the smell of pancakes drifted up from the kitchen.

The next night, of course, was another matter.

Elle’d had a great day. She had pockets full of rocks and the touch of sunshine on her cheeks. For dinner, Grammy made lumpy potatoes and a strange sour pork. But the normally picky Elle impressed her parents by eating everything on her plate. Then she sat in the big armchair with Grampy and watched grownups spin a wheel on TV. At the end of each episode, they all shouted “Wheel. Of. Fortune!” together.

Everyone was having a great time. Except Elle’s dad. He seemed like he was trying to seem happy, but if anyone stopped to look, they would have noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the nervous twitch he gave every time someone spoke too sudden or loud. When it was time for Elle to go to bed, he announced that he would be the one to take her.

He got the double-eyebrows again, likely because he usually left the bed-putting to his wife. But someone bought a vowel, and all eyes were back on the TV.

“C’mon kiddo, let’s go.”

She held his hand as they made their way up the dark stairs. As soon as the lights came within reach he flicked them on, throwing the hallway and her room into a harsh mix of brights and shadows. He eyed the closet curtain as it swayed.

“You sleeping okay up here?” he asked.

Elle nodded.

“That’s good,” he said.

He placed her on the bed and went to turn off the light. Elle let out a soft cry, which startled him. Elle had never seen him so jumpy.

“Daddy, I had crackers last night and Grammy didn’t turn off the light so fast and I want my Alexa.”

“Did you eat all the crackers?”

She nodded.

“Maybe I’ll bring you some up in a little bit.” He sat on the side of the bed, mentally cursing the defunct hotspot. “What did Grammy do while she waited for you to fall asleep?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, what did you do, then?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Okay. Well, you were pretty tired last night. I know. How about you sing a song? Give Alexa a little break.”

“Grammy tucked me in.”

Elle’s dad tried his best to stuff the blankets around her. It was no cocoon, but the end result was cozy enough.

“She found my elephant, too.”

“You mean this?” He retrieved the pink elephant from the floor. He studied it for a moment, lost in recognition. Then he tucked it in, too, kissed Elle, and headed for the door.

“Daddy?” Elle said sleepily.

“Yeah?”

“Grammy said this used to be your room.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you like it?”

He swallowed.

“If you need anything, you just shout out and I’ll be right up in no time, okay? I’ll sleep on the couch tonight so I can hear you.”

Something so abstract as a presence, so vague as a ghost, may sometimes traverse where us mortals may not. It can see the physical world, yes, but it can also see the world of the mind’s eye if the picture is sharp enough. And that night, Elle’s dad had a dream that was very, very sharp.

He lay on his back on the couch. He could feel his chest rising and falling with breath, but he was certain he would be unable to move should he try. Grammy’s little plug-in, light-sensing nightlights had all gone inexplicably dark, yet the living room was cast in a greenish hue.

That’s when he heard the thump of something at the top of the stairs. They were curved around a wall, you see, so Elle’s dad could only watch the bottom three just after the landing. He could see nothing above that.

A second thump. And a thud. And a thump. And a thud. He feared for Elle, but he feared for himself, too. He lay frozen, unable to look away. Yet no monster erupted from the dark. As the thumping grew nearer, even into the spaces he should be able to see, all that emerged was a small silver object that floated slowly through the air. Behind it trailed the white line of a taught string. He realized the silver thing was an empty tin can, like one of those old telephones he used to play with.

Someone had a message for him.

It came to rest near the couch. It issued a fog of angry whispers, whispers he couldn’t understand. A chill floated down upon him, making it hard to breathe. It grew closer. Then, larger. It wanted to swallow him whole. It wanted to-

He felt himself blink, and the can was replaced by Elle. The living room nightlights glowed warmly in their sockets once more.

“Daddy, I had a bad dream.”

He threw his arms around her.

“There were things coming out of the boxes and my elephant just fell down off the bed. Can you get it? Please?”

“Sure.”

The stairs stretched up before Elle’s dad, terminating in darkness. The sole light switch was up there in that pitchy gloom. He used to get into trouble for leaving it on because he hated having to race the shadows on his way to and from his room.

He looked back at Elle. She sat on the couch, an afghan pulled tight around her shoulders. She had her thumb in her mouth, something she hadn’t done in a year.

“I’ll be back in no time,” he said.

If there had been a presence, it would have been quite furious at the intrusion and subsequent departure of Elle. It would have been tearing through the second story rooms in search of something living to take its anger out upon. As it heard Elle’s dad approach, it would have curled around the edges of the door frame and waited for its new victim to move within springing distance. It would have seethed with a rage that turned the air into frost.

But as Elle’s dad got closer, it might have recognized him. Who knows? A mere presence is so vastly different from us mortals, with its memories jumbled by the overstaying of time. But perhaps an entire childhood spent together in a tiny room would have meant that it sensed something familiar. Perhaps it would have been briefly confused by the graying beard, the lines now etched into his face. But the former boy’s eyes would still be the same. Wouldn’t they?

It might have then stepped aside, letting Elle’s dad pass into the bedroom. It would have watched curiously as Elle’s dad did not immediately turn the lights on, nor did he rush back down the stairs in a panic. It would have marveled as he groped in the dark for the elephant, found it, then turned to face the presence head on. The two of them would have stood mere inches away.

“I’m not afraid of you any more. At least, you’re not the scariest thing that I can imagine. You are nothing, just a strand of leftover fear, and you can’t hurt my Elle. Especially not while I’m around.”

When Elle’s dad came down the stairs, elephant in hand, Elle gave a little whoop. She hugged it close. Her dad sat down next to her, letting out a long, slow breath.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

“Thank you, daddy!” She snuggled up. “Do I have to go back upstairs now?”

“Nah,” he said. “I think you and I can just camp out on the couch for the rest of our stay.”

“Okay.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with upstairs. The camping out part is just for fun.”

But Elle did not reply. She had already closed her eyes and slipped back into the realm of childhood sleep. From somewhere upstairs, Elle’s dad heard a soft twang. It was the sound of something tightly drawn breaking, of something overwound releasing, and the long exhale of shadows as they finally settled down upon the floor to rest.

October 27, 2023 15:38

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2 comments

RJ Holmquist
19:01 Nov 01, 2023

This was enthralling. As simple and familiar as being scared of the dark, yet told with fresh and gentle coziness. "windows filled with nothing but night" might be my favorite line, and I loved the bit of grandmotherly wisdom about stuffies sharing a soul. What a great read!

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Will Willoughby
13:19 Oct 28, 2023

Well done! The sensory details are sharp, and the characters feel authentic and engaging, pulling us into the story effortlessly. It’s another one of your stories that seems to feel full and rich in a small space. Substantial and fun. Neat trick! Two details that stand out: the smell of hugs and the image of the dad pretending to be okay when he’s really jumpy and haunted. Good read. 🙂

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