“Can we watch one more episode, Dad? Please?”
Jared stared at his son, deciding whether or not to give in to the pleas. He wanted to keep watching himself, but not because of the content. His mind was elsewhere; a dark place he didn’t like visiting.
It was their first night without Janie. After their argument last night, she left the boys to fend for themselves. Jared had woken up in the early hours of the morning to Janie packing her things. She had told Jared she was heading to her mother’s house for a bit. He asked her how long a “bit” was, but she didn’t respond to any more of his questions. She finished packing in silence and left.
“Can we, Dad? One more?” Carter’s hand was holding the remote, his finger resting on the play button.
“One more, buddy. Then we need to get some sleep. You have school tomorrow.”
Carter gave a big smile and started the next episode. The two boys watched the show in silence, both using it as an escape from their current reality. Carter was young, but he knew something was wrong. He knew not to ask about Mom anymore when he saw the look on Dad’s face when he asked where she was at breakfast. It didn’t feel right without Mom in the house.
“I’m going to get ready for bed, okay buddy?” Jared stood up from the couch, ruffling his son’s hair as he walked away.
“Okay, Dad. Don’t be too long.” Carter gave a slightly frightened look but didn’t let it last too long. He looked back at the television and pulled his blanket up to his chin.
Jared pulled out his cell phone as he climbed the stairs to his room and dialed Janie’s number again. C’mon Janie. Answer the phone. You can’t keep leaving us in the dark. The phone rang three times before stopping. She wasn’t even allowing him to get to the voicemail anymore. He swiped his finger down the screen, counting how many calls he had made. He got to fifteen before he saw his mother’s name pop up. He wasn’t going to talk with her; he didn’t need any marriage advice from her right now. She hadn’t done much better than him.
Jared stared at the man with messy hair and dark bags under his eyes. The man had an electric toothbrush in his mouth and a mixture of toothpaste and saliva running down his chin. It was a pitiful-looking person he had no compassion for. Anybody that allowed their spouse to leave them was a joke. What kind of husband can’t keep his wife happy? Sure, the news always says divorce rates are at an all-time high, but that’s for all the other schlubs that can’t keep it together. He wasn’t a schlub. He wasn’t. He wasn’t.
“Dad! Are you almost done?”
Carter’s call coincided with the ending beep of the toothbrush. His son needed him. Jared quickly washed his face with warm water and dried it off, allowing the towel to drop to the ground as he shut off the light and left the bathroom. “I’m coming, buddy.”
He checked the phone again as he went down the stairs. His finger hovered over the call button, but he refrained himself this time. Maybe it was his self-pity turning to anger. As he walked around the corner, he noticed the television was off and Carter was gone. The Marvel Superhero blanket was stretched across the floor and water from a bottle slowly leaked onto the carpet.
“Carter?” A heavy silence hung in the air. “Where are you, buddy?” Jared reached down and picked up the water bottle and blanket. “Let’s go to bed.”
Jared looked at the clock on the wall and saw the time. He gave a small curse, angry with himself once again for his mistake. Janie would never have let Carter stay up until 10:00 PM, especially on a school night. Jared walked down the hall towards Carter’s room, noticing a light pouring out from a room to the left in the hallway. The door creaked open and Carter came out in his Iron Man pajamas.
“Sorry Dad, I was brushing my teeth.”
“No worries, buddy. We gotta get you to bed. Mom would kill me if she knew you were still up.”
Carter gave his dad an inquisitive look. It was the first time his mother had been mentioned since she’d been gone — other than when he tried to bring her up. “Yeah, she would.” Carter gave a small, sad smile. “She’ll be back tomorrow, right Dad? She just needed…a break?”
“Yeah, something like that. We can call her tomorrow, okay? She was just really busy tonight.”
Carter couldn’t tell if his dad was telling the truth, but he didn’t feel like talking about it anymore. “Dad, can I sleep in your room? I don’t really want to sleep by myself tonight.”
“You have school tomorrow, Carter. It’d probably be better if we sleep in our own beds tonight. Get better sleep that way, right?”
“I guess,” Carter said. He didn’t want to argue. He wanted his dad to think he was a grown-up; tough like the superheroes in his favorite show. “But can we…leave the hallway light on?”
Carter’s anxious expression caught Jared off guard. He had been in his thoughts so much today that he didn’t consider his son’s. “I think that’d be okay,” Jared said, hugging his son. “Let’s get you to bed. Didn’t you have a spelling test tomorrow? We didn’t practice, did we?”
“It’s okay, Dad. I practiced with Mom on Friday. I have the words down.”
“I was never worried,” Jared said, opening the door to his son’s room.
Carter climbed into his bed and Jared spread the superhero blanket over the top of him. “Let me go get you some water,” Jared said, shaking the water bottle he had picked up. It was almost empty.
“Sounds good. Thanks, Dad,” Carter said, picking up the comic on his nightstand.
Jared walked to the kitchen and pressed the bottle against the water dispenser on the fridge. A small light clicked on at the top of it, illuminating the clear water as it streamed down.
Startled, Jared dropped the bottle of water. It clanked as it bounced around the floor, water escaping from it haphazardly. Reaching quickly into his pocket, Jared pulled out the phone. A new notification stretched across his phone — a reminder to pay the power bill. Are you kidding me ri—.
“Dad, is everything okay out there?” Carter’s concerned voice filled the air.
“It’s okay, buddy. I just accidentally dropped your water bottle.” Jared pulled the towel hanging from the handle of the oven door and started wiping up the water. “I’ll be back in just a second.”
Jared wished his only concern right now was the power bill. That was something he could handle; something he had control over. With Janie, he was powerless. It was a problem he didn’t know how to fix. He filled the water bottle again and screwed the lid on tightly. He wasn’t going to allow the water to spill again. Not on his watch.
“Here you go, champ,” Jared said, placing the water bottle on Carter’s nightstand.
Carter had his comic book open, but Jared noticed he wasn’t reading it.
“Dad. This is all my fault, right? I have a weird feeling, a bad feeling, that I’m why Mom left.”
“Carter. Why would you say something like that? Of course this isn’t your fault. Mom just wanted to go see Grandma.”
“But what about school? She is always here to get me ready for school. She didn’t even tell me she was leaving.”
Anger flared once again in Jared’s mind. His son was right. How could Janie just leave them like this? She could be mad at him, whether it was right or not, but how could she do this to Carter? The boy didn’t deserve this, to feel abandoned.
“Don’t ever think this is your fault, buddy. You didn’t do anything wrong. Get some sleep; we both need it. Everything will be good tomorrow, okay? I’m sure mom will be back as soon as she can be.” Jared wasn’t sure why he said this, but it seemed his only option was a small, white lie. It was usually Janie who cheered up Carter the best.
“Dad, can you check the closet before you go?”
A small jolt of panic ran through Jared’s body. His son wasn’t typically one to make a request like this. “Sure, buddy. Why do you want me to do that?” Jared asked as he walked over to it. The doors were wide open, revealing a closet full of clothes and toys.
“Just in case, I guess,” Carter said, tugging his blankets up. “I know it’s just my imagination, but I thought I saw something in the corner of it. My comic was kind of scary, so that’s not helping.”
“We are in the clear soldier,” Jared said, imitating the voice of Carter’s favorite superhero. The giggle from his son helped him feel better. “Fortifying defenses now.” Jared closed the closet doors and made a locking sound. “Sleep tight, little man. I’ll leave the hallway light on.”
“Dad, wait. Take a walkie-talkie with you. Just in case I need anything.” Carter opened the top drawer of his nightstand and gave one of the walkie-talkies to his dad. He pressed the button on the left side and cleared his throat. “Testing, testing. One, two, three.”
“You’re coming in loud and clear, Captain,” Jared said. “I’m closing the door and testing comms now.” Jared closed the door and walked to the end of the hallway and pressed the button. “Can you still hear me, Captain? I’m currently making my way to The Bedroom of the Upstairs. Wish me luck!”
“Good luck, soldier. Let me know when you arrive at your destination.” Carter said.
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Jared made his way to the stairs and started climbing to his room. He let the phone remain in his pocket, deciding not to touch it until tomorrow. He wasn’t going to let Janie weigh him down anymore tonight.
Jared entered his room and raised the walkie-talkie to his mouth. “No signs of hostile life. The area is secure and preparations are being made for sleep. I’ll report back bright and early in the morning, Captain.”
“Good work soldier. Rest at ease. Night, Dad.”
“Night, Carter.” Jared plugged his phone in, making sure not to look at the screen. He was going to get some good sleep tonight. God knows he needed it. Like his son, Jared pulled the blankets up to his chin and stared at the ceiling. Instead of sheep, he liked going through his upcoming bills. It was much more boring than counting sheep.
Carter thought about turning on the lamp that rested on his nightstand to read another comic but decided against it. He didn’t want to see another scary monster in it. He knew he needed to get some sleep for his big spelling test tomorrow, but he wasn’t tired. A weird feeling was keeping him awake. He didn’t know how to explain it, but it felt like something was in the room with him. If the feeling didn’t go away soon, he would have to call his dad. The light seeping in from under his door added to the small light plugged in near his door, but his room was still extra spooky tonight. Was Dad lying to him? Was he the reason his parents were fighting? He definitely heard them say his name while they were in the kitchen arguing.
Carter sat up quickly in this bed, frantically searching for the button on the lamp. After a few seconds, his small fingers located it and more light filled the room. Carter’s heart thumped rapidly as his eyes scanned the area, but he didn’t see anything. He reached for his water bottle but noticed it was gone. Further panic filled his mind until he looked down. His water bottle rested on the floor as a dark stain started oozing from it. He’d have to give his dad a hard time for not getting the lid on tight enough. The sensation of cold metal met his hand as his fingers wrapped around the bottle, but it wasn’t the only sensation he felt as he leaned over the edge of his bed. A rush of cold air ran across his wrist. Freezing air. Carter withdrew his hand quickly, never having a solid grip on the bottle. It flew through the air and crashed into the wall, the lid coming off fully. More dark stains trickled into the carpet as the water escaped. Despite him pulling his blanket around himself tightly, his wrist was still freezing. His arm shook as it reached from the safety of his blanket for the walkie-talkie on his nightstand.
“Dad. Dad. Can you hear me?” Carter kept his voice low, trying not to startle himself — or anything else that might be in the room.
“Dad. Please answer.” Carter’s voice became a high-pitched plea. He tried to be tough, but he was having a hard time.
Carter’s eyes widened. It wasn’t his dad’s voice coming out of the walkie-talkie. It was something dark and gravelly.
“Who is this?” Carter asked.
“A friend? You don’t sound friendly.”
“Yes. A friend of your mother’s. We know each other quite well.”
The light coming from the hallway vanished, leaving Carter with only his lamp and the small nightlight plugged in.
“Hey, who’s there?” Carter called out. “Dad, is that you?”
“It was me, Carter. You shouldn’t sleep with the lights on. Aren’t you a big boy?” The voice from the walkie-talkie was mocking.
Despite being plugged in, the nightlight plugged in by Carter’s door went out too. The only thing keeping the darkness at bay was Carter’s dinosaur lamp.
“Come to the closet, Carter. We can talk with your mom together. You would like that, wouldn’t you?”
The doors of the closet slowly opened. The remaining light from the lamp wasn’t enough to reveal what was waiting inside. Carter tried to close his eyes, but he couldn’t. What was happening? Where was his dad?
“I’m waiting, Carter. But not much longer. Come to the closet. I’ll leave the light on for you. You don’t want to be dragged to it, do you?” The voice sounded delighted at this option.
“No. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to call my dad.”
The lightbulb in the lamp shattered, encasing the room in darkness. Carter shouted at the top of his lungs but was quickly muffled by the sheets wrapping around his face. Something grabbed his leg and pulled, dragging him to the edge of the bed. He felt the momentary sensation of falling before his head hit the bed frame and everything went black.