A gentle breeze blew through Ruby City as little Ben rushed inside for his evening bath. He hated the before-bed routine, which included washing, brushing his teeth, combing his neatly trimmed brown hair, and putting on his pajamas. His mother was a stickler for cleanliness, and those rules were a lot for an eight-year-old boy to follow.
Ben's bedsheets always smelled like they came fresh from the dryer, and the scent of lavender lingered in the air. He hated that smell. It reminded him of how perfect things had to be in his family. Ben's dad was a workaholic and spent more time at the office than he did at home. This left the sole responsibility on Ben's mother to take care of the house and keep her boisterous son on the straight and narrow.
As Ben trotted into his bedroom, he noticed that his clothes for school were already laid out on his desk. He couldn't help but roll his eyes in annoyance. What he wouldn't give to have a little chaos in his world. Ben slowly navigated his eyes around the room, taking in how perfect things were. His action figures were in the toy bin instead of where he left them, all set up for a new adventure. His crayons and markers were perfectly placed in their containers and rested nicely on his drawing table. The carpet had just been vacuumed, and the blinds were closed. All was ready for a peaceful night's slumber.
Ben took a deep breath and wished that his dad was there to read him a bedtime story, but alas, it was not meant to be.
“Ben! Are you ready for bed?”
His mother's shrieking voice startled him. “I-I'm ready, mom.”
She wrinkled her forehead and fired, “Did you brush your teeth?”
“Yes, mom,” uttered Ben, smiling wide to show off his pearly whites.
“Prove it!” she demanded. “Breath test, now.”
Sternly shaking her finger, she retorted, “Don't give me any attitude tonight. I'm not in the mood!”
Ben closed his eyes and took a deep breath. There was no use arguing. He knew better than that because it would be a lost effort. He leaned forward toward his stooped mother and blew a soft waft of air. The smell of peppermint filled his mother's nostrils, and she smiled.
“Good boy,” she said. A sense of gratification lit up her face. “Now… off to bed; you have school tomorrow.”
Twisting his face into an awkward smile, Ben nodded his head and climbed on the bed. His mom tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead.
Before closing his bedroom door and turning out the light, Ben heard his mother mumble, “Goodnight.”
Ben was now alone in the dark isolation of night. He lay on his back and stared at the blackness that engulfed his slender body. Unlike most kids, Ben was not afraid of the dark. He welcomed it because it allowed him the freedom to think without the constant reminder from his mother to follow the rules. The shadows were a golden key that unlocked his imagination.
He could fantasize about anything and everything without limitations, and that's precisely what he did every night. If Ben wanted to be a swashbuckling knight battling a fierce dragon to save his beloved girl, no one could stop him. If he wanted to be a superhero trying to save the world from an alien invasion, there were no limits to his creativity. Indeed, Ben felt comfortable in the dark.
Drowsiness began to sink in, and Ben's eyes grew heavy. The only sound in Ben's bedroom came from his black-cat clock. It had enormous eyeballs that swayed back and forth like a swinging pendulum. Tick, tick, tick….
The clicking sound was a soothing lullaby that allowed Ben to drift into dreamland. Time itself disappeared as it often does when we sleep, stealing precious hours away in real-time. The peaceful tranquility of slumber would have to wait because the tick, tick ticking was getting louder.
Ben awoke, startled. Trying to get a sense of things, he sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes. Ben focused on the ticking noise as it grew louder and louder. He thought he was dreaming for a brief moment, but he knew it wasn't a dream after a quick pinch.
The ticking sound was like a monster tapping on the window, and the tiny hairs on the back of Ben's neck were screaming to the heavens. He quickly slapped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes. His heart was thumping in his chest like it wanted to escape to the loving arms of his mother, but oh no, that would not be a wise choice. Ben knew she would only lecture him about the importance of sleep and how such foolishness was an idiots game.
Ben uncovered his ears as the noise gave way to a deafening silence. The only thing Ben could hear was his own gasps for oxygen. He couldn't see anything in the dark, but he could sense a presence next to his bed. Ben desperately wanted to reach over to his nightstand and turn on the lamp, but would he dare? Did he possess the courage to reach out into the void for salvation?
I can do this! All I have to do is reach out as quickly as possible and let the light save me.
Biting his bottom lip, Ben squeezed his hands tightly in frustration. He outreached his hand and flipped on the lamp. Sweet relief washed over his soul because nothing was standing near him. Suddenly, the ticking sound erupted again, but this time it wasn't coming from the clock; it was coming from the foot of his bed.
Hoping that his courage would not fail him, Ben crawled toward the edge of his safe island and peered over the cliff. There he saw a black cat the size of an adult human hunched over, tapping its curved claws against the bedpost. It looked at Ben with freakishly huge evil green eyes and snarled, “Did you brush your teeth!!”
The feline monstrosity lunged at Ben with murderous intent. He jumped off the bed and ran for the door. Ben had no choice now. He would have to take refuge in his mother's arms. Before storming out, Ben glanced behind and noticed the creature was gone. His eyes searched the room with surgical precision to no avail. The overgrown cat was gone. His mother's embrace would have to wait.
Ben quickly grabbed his blanket and swaddled himself like a newborn baby. He sat down by the door, just in case he needed to make a mad dash, and waited. There was no sleeping that night, only fear. The lights stayed on.
Later that morning, Ben was already dressed and ready for school, much to his mother's surprise. He ate a bowl of cereal without saying a word about what happened and rushed out to catch the bus. It felt good to get out of the house and breath some fresh air.
The bus stop was only two blocks down the road, and Ben was the first kid to arrive. Soon, the other kids made their big entrance and completely ignored Ben, as this was the way of things. Ben learned to expect it. There was just something about the older kids not wanting anything to do with their younger counterparts. In fact, it was a right of passage for the young ones to get picked on. Despite this, Ben stood solemnly as their insults went in one ear and out the other.
When the big yellow tugboat arrived, Ben watched the other kids get on first to take their seats in the back. Ben's gaze drifted off, and the bus driver noticed that he was staring at the sidewalk.
“Are you getting on or what?”
Ben opened his mouth to say something, and when he looked at the driver, shock rattled his bones as he saw the fearsome feline staring at him. “Did you take your bath!?!”
Dropping his bookbag, Ben ran away from the bus and headed for school by himself. After all, it was only twenty blocks down the road, and he was sure that he could make the distance safely. The bus honked its horn as it drove past him, and Ben could hear the other kids laughing at him.
The day went on like any other; only Ben had a hard time keeping his eyes open. In Mrs. Tingle's English class, Ben dozed off while she was giving a lecture about run-on sentences. She brought him back to the land of the living with a loud crack from her ruler across his desk. He made sure that he paid attention, although his eyes were bloodshot and felt like sandpaper.
He glanced at his textbook to follow along, and when he looked up, Mrs. Tingle was gone. In her place was the humanoid black-cat creature. Its hair was matted and ruffled. The cat was staring a hole through Ben with its unwavering eyes, and in one swift motion, it held up its elongated claws and scratched the chalkboard. The noise ripped through Ben, making him cringe. It snarled, “Did you comb your hair!?!”
The bell suddenly rang, and Ben jolted out of the room faster than a lightning strike. He didn't bother going to his next class. Instead, Ben wanted to go home so that he could tell his mother what was going on. He didn't care if she chewed him up and grounded him for the rest of his life; he had to tell her. Ben needed help because something was very foreboding about the mysterious cat creature, and he felt like his life was in danger.
He left school without anyone noticing him and started his journey home. Along the way, he thought about the monster.
Where did it come from?
Why was he the only one able to see it?
What did it want from him?
Before Ben had a chance to question his sanity, a white Volvo pulled up alongside him. It was Mrs. Fincher, his next-door neighbor.
“Hello, Ben. Are you heading home? I could give you a ride if you like.”
Ben ruffled his face before facing her. He half expected to see the monster instead, but it was just Mrs. Fincher. He smiled wearily and walked towards the car.
Mrs. Fincher retorted with a warm smile of her own and said,
“That's my good boy. I'll make sure you get home safe and sound.”
Ben got in the car, and the scent of pine and stale cigarettes stabbed his nostrils. He didn't really want a ride, but the thought of the cat stalking him made his choice easy. He could be home in ten minutes and find solace in his mother's unforgiving arms. She would know what to do; Ben was sure of it.
As Mrs. Fincher's car pulled up along Ben's house, she reached down into her ashtray and pulled out a yellow wrapped butterscotch candy, and handed it over. Ben looked at the candy like it was a deadly virus and accepted it, not wanting to be rude.
Before leaving the Volvo, Mrs. Fincher boasted, “Hope you have a sweet day!”
Ben looked up at her and saw the black cat starring back at him. “Did you put your clean pajamas on!?!”
Ben exploded from the car with a thunderous scream and ran across the front lawn to get to the front door. His mom didn't like him running on the perfectly trimmed grass, but at this point, he just didn't care.
Before dashing in through the door, Ben noticed his dad's truck in the driveway. Dad's here? I need to tell him what happened! He'll believe me for sure.
Running through the house with his shoes on was a big no, no. His mother was sitting by the tv and immediately yelled at him.
“What are you doing home from school? And why are you wearing your dirty shoes on my clean carpet?”
“Where’s dad? I need to talk to him right now!”
Rolling her eyes, she clenched her jaw and sneered, “He’s in the kitchen washing the dishes.”
Ben took a few steps and heard his mother call out, “Take those shoes off!”
“We are going to have a talk, mister!!” he stopped dead in his tracks and removed his shoes. When he looked back to his mother, she transformed into the hideous black-cat monster.
Overcome with fright, Ben rushed into the kitchen and saw his dad rinsing off some plates with his back turned. Ben knew he had to talk fast before the creature caught up with him.
“Dad, there is a big black-cat monster after me! I need your help!”
His father turned to face him, only it wasn’t his dad; it was the creature. “Did you clean out your ears, boy!?!”
The cat twirled a wet dishcloth around and hissed, “I don’t think you did. COME HERE!!!”
Ben fell to his knees and wept in the fetal position as the monster crept towards him with evil blood-lust in its eyes.
This is real.
This is my trial by terror,
And I failed.
This will never end.
This is my worst nightmare.
Daniel R. Hayes