To celebrate Halloween, I wanted to publish a short story I wrote for an anthology a number of years ago…an anthology that went nowhere and left behind one of my favorite shorts. Thankfully, I have the original and, without further ado, I give until you…
By Jack Wallen
Darkness echoed through the cavernous bedroom. Lightning strikes shot from a Godless sky, black clouds loomed over houses rent asunder by dividing time and tide. A child shivered and shuddered under a mounded pile of sheet and blanket, surrounded by bears, lions, dinosaurs, and any other beast of protection that would protect from the soulless unknown. Light crept and crawled from under the door. Between the bed and the door lay shadows teaming with child-devouring monsters.
Evil, smiling pooka clowns rocked in chairs.
Spark shooting robots shuddered and shook themselves back to life.
And nightmares awaited on the other side of sleep.
Dylan dared not peek his head out into the cold night air. All he could do was wait, hope he could survive through the night and arrive at the other side of bedtime alive.
His clock ticked.
His clock tocked.
His clock stopped.
“Dyllllllllan. Come out, come out, where ‘er you are.”
The whisper-thin voice of the haunting girl shattered the silence. Dylan curled himself up into the tightest ball he could conjure.
The haunting started just a few days ago. It was the evening of June sixth… Dylan’s sixth birthday. His mother had made his dreams come true and allowed him to invite his best of friends over for a slumber party. To that day sleepovers were forbidden. That was before the boy’s father had left. Since the departure, everything seemed so much easier. The yelling ceased. The crying stopped. The bruises healed. The night of the slumber party, Dylan heard the first gentle whispers.
The other boys were fast asleep, after too much candy and too little control. They had enjoyed cartoons, video games, and shrieks of laughter only young boys could produce. But once the celebration was little more than a fading memory, some other joy came out to play.
The sound was little more than a soft wind breezing underneath his closet door. The melody of a light wind buzzing through Halloween trees or winter snowscapes. His ears were the only to take notice. No other sleep was threatened by the soft sound.
That night it was easy to play it off as fluke. No need to even bring it up when the other boys woke. Daylight had arrived with safety in tow.
After that night… things changed. The next bedtime brought the return of the whispers, only this time the rustling wind had a voice. A voice desperate to gain the attention of the sleeping boy.
It seemed to speak, shocking the boy from his sleep. Without hesitation, he stormed out of his bedroom. When the boy ran into the protecting arms of the mother, all was again brushed aside as harmless noise. Dylan was escorted back into his bed and promised the sun would rise and all would be forgotten.
The sun did rise. The boy did live.
The following bedtime brought yet another darkness that gave birth to even more uncertainty. It was another evening alone in a bedroom lit up by yet another storm. Fear seemed to be the only driving force behind the weather since the sound appeared. And like the lightning, the voice was there.
The same voice from the previous night – a little girl.
“Dylllllan… don’t be afraid.”
Under the sheets the boy wept tears of horror. He wasn’t suffering flights of fancy or a grand mal imagination. There was something in the room with him and that something knew his name.
The boy held his breath, waiting for the return of the ghost girl’s voice. He was met with a lonely silence to gentry rock him to sleep.
That night, the voice never returned. Dylan woke in a tight ball under a mound of down comfort.
When the little boy arrived at the breakfast table the following morning, he carried with him bags under bloodshot eyes no child of six should suffer.
“Dylan, are you feeling okay?” The concerned mother hovered, caressed, and hugged.
“I’m fine. I just… never mind.” Dylan thought twice about bringing up the voice yet again. His teachers and friends had already accused him of making up stories to gain attention. Even Dr. Farthing lobbed similar accusations, but claimed it was all due to the loss of his father. The last thing he wanted was to be accused of being a liar.
“You don’t feel feverish. I should take you to the doctor. Or maybe you should stay home from school and rest some.”
Panic struck home. Dylan’s heart raced around his chest and threatened to explode from out of his rib cage. The idea of spending more time in bed asleep clamped a cold fist of fear over his heart. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep the flood of tears from raining down his cheeks.
“Baby, what’s gotten into you. Did you… “
Dylan knew what his mother was about to ask. His mind insisted he bolt from the room and slip under his bed. He held himself still. His brain willed his heart silent and his feet motionless. His bladder threatened to break the damn and flood his pants.
“…hear that voice again?”
At the very mention of the waking nightmare, the floodgates opened and his eyes burned red. His mother wrapped her arms tightly around him. It was the first time in days Dylan felt any sense of security. He wanted to bathe in the warm glow of his mother’s protection, step inside of her and wait out the insane fear.
His mother pulled back from the embrace, her own eyes threatening to flow freely, and spoke in the warmest of voices.
“Sweetheart, after school, I’m going to take you to Dr. Farthing’s so you can have a chat with her. Would that be okay?”
Of course it would be okay. Dylan loved Dr. Farthing. Besides his mother, she was the only woman Dylan knew that made him feel safe. He trusted Dr. Farthing. Dylan could tell her anything and she wouldn’t laugh or call him names.
“I’ll pick you up from school and we’ll go straight there. Now, let’s walk out to the bus and get you on your way.”
“Dylan, who do you think the voice belongs to?” Dr. Farthing smiled as she cut straight to a chase Dylan was hoping to avoid.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
The doctor leaned back in her chair and crossed her long legs. She wore patent black heels that reflected light into Dylan’s eyes. He wanted to bask in the light, get lost in the glint and glare.
“Why? She’s just a little girl right?”
It would have been an easy assumption to make – that the voice belonged to a little girl. That was a leap of logic any adult would make. The mind of a six year old offered acrobatic jumps and bounds no adult could fathom. To Dylan, that voice could be a demon, an ogre, or any sort of the nasty creatures that take up residence in the closet of a child.
“I don’t know.” Was all Dylan could muster.
“But you said…”
“I know what I said. But I don’t know. I haven’t seen her, so I don’t know if it’s a little girl. It could be a trick. It could be a monster pretending to be a little girl. I don’t want to know. I just want it to go away.” Dylan’s voice grew well above his usual quiet grace.
When the session was over, Dylan felt no comfort. In fact, if anything, he felt worse. Dr. Farthing didn’t work her usual magic. He felt exposed, like everyone could stare through his skin and see his fear. All Dylan wanted to do now was hide and cry.
The young boy ran into the waiting room and watched as his mom and Dr. Farthing chatted. The doctor handed over a small slip of paper and gave Dylan’s mom a gentle hug. When his mom turned and looked at the child she smiled wide and spread her arms.
“Come here my little man. Everything’s going to be okay.” She took the boy into an embrace and lifted him off the floor. “What’s say we stop by the drug store and then, on the way home, get some ice cream and French fries?”
The diversion worked for the moment. Dylan was always thrilled at the thought of spending time outside of the house – especially now with the dark visitor waiting in the corners and shadows.
But night would come. It always did.
“Dyllllllan. It’s me. Let’s play.”
The voice broke the darkness and ended in a lilting giggle.
“L-l-leave me alone. I don’t wanna play.”
To the boy’s surprise, the room grew silent. The only sounds Dylan heard was the chirping symphony of the crickets from the cooling summer night and his heart pounding in his throat. The air conditioning kicked on, shocking him with fear. Every sound grew louder. The metronome of a clock. The creaking of the settling house. But the girl’s voice seemed to have vanished. Dylan’s heart slowed back to its usual rhythm, his lungs expelled the stale air they held. He made it… he was safe. His muscles eased back into a relaxed state and his lungs fell into the deeper rhythm of sleep. And just as comfort began to whisk him away from reality, it all began again.
To the frightened boy’s shock, the layers of protection above him slowly slid away. He could sense the little girl in the room, somewhere, waiting patiently.
When Dylan opened his eyes the soft glow of the ghost sat, cross-legged, at the foot of his bed. She stared at him with welcoming eyes and smiled. There was a familiarity Dylan couldn’t put his finger on.
“Hi.” The whisper-sweet voice traveled the space between the dead and the living.
“What do you want?”
The girl bounced in place, ponytails tossing to and fro. Another delicious giggle spiraled around the room.
“I want to play.”
A simple change sped through Dylan’s system. The fear he’d endured over the last few weeks seemed to fade away. In the glint of a friendly smile, the boy finally was able to feel at home again in his own bed, his own skin.
“W-what’s your name?”
The delicate ghost’s smile faded slightly. “I was never given a name.” The smile returned, like some nervous tick. “But I’ve always called myself Dora. I like Dora. You can call me Dora.” The translucent glow surrounding the girl seemed to brighten, almost imperceptibly, upon the naming.
“I like that name.” Dylan sat up and folded his legs upon one another so his sitting position matched that of his new friend.
“Why are you in our house?”
The question popped out without Dylan even realizing it had formed in his brain. As soon as he asked it of Dora, he regretted the action. Immediately Dylan changed the subject.
“Are you a ghost?”
Again, another bad move. This time, however, Dylan allowed the question to dance between them, awaiting answer.
Dora let her head drop. “Yes.”
The most basic of answers spilled a bucket of ice into Dylan’s blood. His heart leaped between calm and storm. The air around the two children grew dense, colder.
Without warning, Dora looked up at Dylan and smiled. “Want to play a game?”
The change took Dylan by surprise. He loved games. He nodded his approval.
Dora shifted her body so she was closer to the boy. Her voice grew nearer, but softer. “I’ll say a word and you say the first word you think of. Okay?”
The living child nodded and smiled. There was some bit of joy to be had in games played with new-found friends.
“Okay, here we go…” The spirit settled in and flashed Dylan her brightest smile.
“Girl.” Dylan shot out his answer immediately.
The word was met with silence.
“Don’t you want to play?”
The single word sucked the joy from the room. Dylan had done his best to put the man who would be dad out of his mind. After a year the sting in his heart still ached. He longed to have his dad back, but hated the screaming that accompanied his presence.
Dylan nodded, forcing back the tears of pain.
“Man.” The only word Dylan could associate without opening the floodgates.
Dylan didn’t like where the game was going. He didn’t want to respond to the last two words… didn’t want to think things dead and murdered.
“Can we play another game?” Dylan stopped Dora before she took the game deeper into the abyss.
A knock came out of nowhere, the sound jump-started Dylan’s heart. His eyes darted around the room and when they returned to the bed, Dora was gone.
“Dylan, you okay in there?”
The voice was his mother’s. She entered the room to see her boy sitting up in bed, a look of pale dread washed over his face. Her hand shot up to Dylan’s forehead. “What’s wrong honey?”
His eyes felt drained, like something was pulling the skin below them to the floor. His head was heavy, his heart heavier. Dylan felt hollow. When the ghost girl disappeared, something inside him seemed to vanish, something precious.
“I’m okay mom.”
The boy lied. He wasn’t okay. But he knew there was no telling his mother about the ghost. She didn’t believe in such flights of fancy and would only humor the boy until it seemed she thought he was serious.
“Would you like to come sleep in my room?”
Oh how he would love to return to a time when cuddling up between his mom and dad brought such ease and comfort. He wanted that, wanted to put the fear and unease behind him. But that time was not now. Dylan wanted Dora back – wanted to continue the game, to get to know the girl and know where she came from. As scared as he was, his curiosity had always been the greater force.
Besides, it was just a little girl.
“Really, I’m okay mom.”
Mothering arms wrapped tightly around the boy. The soothing peace brought by the embrace stayed Dylan’s strength.
“Alright then. Let’s send you off to dreamland with a kiss.” The mother laid the child down and tucked the blankets around his tiny frame.
“And who do you want with you?”
With the help of the mother’s hands, a brown and white stuffed monkey hopped up onto the bed and joined Dylan under the covers.
“I love you baby.”
“I love you Mom.”
The door swung shut behind the woman, leaving the room under the dim glow of an aquarium and the arrhythmic flash of lightning.
A chill blanketed the room. From Dylan’s mouth the breath of winter seeped, dancing around shafts of flickering lightning. Between cracks of thunder, a light, echoing giggle darted and skipped.
“D-dora?” From under the covers, Dylan’s voice slipped.
“Dylllllan.” The voice of spectral innocence flooded the room. The sound pulled Dylan from his cocoon of cover.
“Time for another game!” The voice of the girl was as inviting as any living friend.
“Sure. What do you want to play?”
“Mmmmm…” The ghost bit her lip and looked up as she thought. “Have you ever played ‘I spy’?”
Dylan nodded excitedly. “Mom and I play that in the car all the time. I’m really good at it.”
“You go first.” Dora patted Dylan on the head.
A brief silence was shared before Dylan began the game.
“I spy, with my little eye, something that begins with… the letter ‘f’.”
Dora squealed with delight as the game began.
“Is it… family?”
The ghost’s answer took Dylan by surprise. “How would I see family in my bedroom? It’s just you and me and you’re a ghost.”
“Is it… fear?”
“You don’t know how to play this game do you?” Dylan demanded.
“I do. I do know how to play. I’ll keep guessing.”
The spirit closed her eyes and sat perfectly motionless.
“Don’t you need to look around?”
Slowly the girl’s eyelids raised. As she stared deep into Dylan, her eyes transformed into shiny black orbs.
“Is it forgotten?”
“You said you knew how to play the game!” Dylan’s frustration boiled forth in a voice louder than slumber. He knew right away the game threatened to wake his mother. The boy sucked in a deep breath and held it behind tight lips.
“Let me try now.” Dora stared around the room and finally, with the same black eyes, stared back at Dylan. “I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with the letter ‘b’.”
Dylan’s frustration continued to mount.
“Bear. Basket. Blocks. Blue!”
“No, no, no, and no!” the phantom girl squealed with sinister delight.
The boy looked about the room in desperation. “There’s nothing else! What is it?”
Dora smiled slowly, her eyes returning to their former pale blue and white.
“Brother.” The ghost whispered, just before the familiar knock came at the bedroom door. With each knock the girl faded further. As she disappeared from sight, Dylan felt drained of life. His body fell forward onto his bed; the only sign of life, the gentle rise and fall of his breathing.
“Dylan? What’s going on?” The head of the mother peeked into the bedroom. When she saw her son asleep on top of his covers she entered the room to situate him back into the comfort of his bed. When she felt skin as cold as death, panic flooded her system.
“Oh God… Dylan, wake up.” A gentle smack to the cheeks brought the slightest life to the child.
“No baby, it’s Mommy.”
The sound of the voice brought the boy jerking back to reality. When his eyes opened, he screamed, wrapped his little arms around his mother’s neck and cried.
“I’ve run every test I can in this office, but I haven’t found anything. Dylan seems fine. His heart sounds good, his pulse and blood pressure are exactly where they should be. I would recommend a CAT scan so we can rule out anything in the brain. Honestly, I’d like to say this was nothing more than a case of night terrors. Everything you described fits it perfectly.”
“But his temperature… his skin was so clammy.”
“The shock to the system brought about by night terrors can do strange things to our bodies. I just don’t want to get invasive or cause you to incur unnecessary costs until we have more information. Let’s give this a few more nights and see what happens. If it continues we’ll schedule a CAT scan and see what’s going on inside.”
“Am I going to be okay?” The innocent question immediately sent the mother into a landscape of fear and hopelessness. Her baby was confused, tormented… by what, who knew. Who cared, he just wasn’t perfect. There was something wrong with her baby boy.
“You’re fine sweetie. Everything is fine.” She swallowed her heart and lied. “You’re just having bad dreams is all. This will all fade away and you won’t even remember it happening.”
Another lie told by another parent with a breaking heart.
Along with darkness, came another storm. As much as Dylan wanted to seek the shelter and comfort of his mom’s bed, something deep inside his belly pulled him back to the heart and soul of the building darkness within his own little world.
Curiosity was a strong monster. The will of a child, stronger.
The door slowly creaked shut. The rumble of thunder brought the room to life. A bolt of lightning flashed outside the window, revealing the ghost standing in a corner of the room.
“Dylllllan.” The musical voice played with the air around the boy’s head.
“Want to play another game?” The wispy form settled into shape at the foot of the bed.
Dylan nodded his head in excitement. He pulled himself up into a seated position in front of Dora and smiled nervously. Something about Dora was different. The change was almost imperceptible, but she seemed less translucent.
“Let’s play ‘cat’s cradle’. It’s simple. I weave this string in and out of my fingers like this… ” Dora pulled a thin string from the shadowy veil that seemed to separate the two children. “Now, put your hand in this hole and I will try to capture your hand. When you see me flinch, you better pull away or you’re mine.”
The poltergeist lowered her head and grinned. Thunder crashed, vibrating the windows. Dylan jumped. Dora giggled low and menacing.
Dylan bristled. “I am not!”
“You are. I can smell it.”
Another blast of thunder rumbled. Dylan closed his eyes before the lighting flickered and flashed. Even with his eyelids crushing together, Dylan could see the lightning come and go. A squeal of fear escaped his lips.
“It’s okay Dylan. I won’t let anything hurt you.” Another giggle played around the room.
“Here, put your hand in the cradle and let’s play.”
Tentatively, Dylan guided his hand into the spider’s web of thread. “Will this hurt?”
“Do I look like I would hurt you?” The spirit shifted her fingers ever so slightly.
Dylan flinched. Dora filled the bedroom with laughter.
The cradle became a still life picture. Not even the frayed thread wafted side to side. The hands remained motionless for seconds… minutes. Silence and stillness enveloped the room. The moment was frozen – time a necessary commodity. Dora’s eyes slowly blinked and her hands jerked apart. The string released and wrapped around Dylan’s wrist. The ghost of Dora coalesced and became opaque.
Dylan’s face drained of color, his eyes fell shut. “W-what… are … you … ”
Laughter swirled and spiraled around Dylan’s head as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
The young boy tried to cry out, tried to pull his hand from the cradle. The harder he pulled, the tighter the grip. The grip of the cradle moved up his arm to his elbow. Dylan’s torso swayed, his head lolled side to side.
“Let’s play another game Dylan.” The ghost-thin whisper caressed the boy’s ears. “Let’s pretend to be one another. You can be the girl that died in the womb and I’ll be the boy given life, given love. I’ve been waiting for a very long time to play this game, Dylan.”
Threads of light spun and wove around the children as the ghost wrapped her tiny hands around the neck of the boy. Paler and paler, the flesh on the face of the boy grew ghostly white. Dylan’s lungs choked and sputtered. Dora stood above the boy and threw her arms out and her head back. A string of spirit rose from the living child, lifting the dead girl from the bed. As the thread of life connecting the two dissipated, the girl floated back to the bed – whole. The non-corporeal body made real. The young boy lay broken on the bed, the meat of his flesh fading from reality.
“Dyllllan… good bye.”
The sweetness of the girl’s voice kissed the boy’s spirit as he left the living world.
Six Years Earlier
The mother screamed. She knew something was wrong. Her contractions were too painful, too early. She pushed down, pain shooting up her spine and into her brain.
“What’s wrong with my babies?” Her voice cracked. “And where’s my God damn husband?”
A nurse stood beside her, holding her hand. “There’s been a complication dear. The doctor is doing everything he can.”
“Something’s wrong! I can feel it.” Again the mother screamed out, hoping to dilute the pain with rage.
A blackness overcame the soul of the mother. Something tragic had just happened within. She could feel it – a loss.
“What is it Doctor?”
Again the mother bore down against the pain until she heard the cry of a baby. One cry. One baby. Another pain shot up her back. The mother pushed down again. She felt the body exit and she waited, waited for the familiar cry of life. It didn’t come.
“What’s wrong?” The mother insisted.
When the doctor informed the mother the umbilical of the boy had wrapped around the baby girl’s neck, she knew… one of her twins had perished at the hands of the other. As the mother held the baby boy, tears of despair washed over the infant. The nurse took the baby boy away to prepare it for the nursery.
The sounds of the mother weeping echoed off the chrome and tile of the birthing room. As the mother wept herself to sleep, she promised she would never forget the unborn baby girl.