NIGHT TERRORS by John Biglands (1st place, Jan21)

I push my head around the edge of the door. It’s eleven o’clock but he isn’t asleep. He’s lying on his bed, ramrod straight, staring up at the ceiling. His eyes are wide, shining circles in the half-light of his bedside lamp. He turns his head towards me and his body jolts, as though a shock of electricity has hit him.

“Dad?”

My heart sinks. I hear the panic in his whisper.

He sits up in bed. “Dad, can you check under the bed?”

“What’s the matter, matey, lost your voice?”

He flinches at my loud, falsely casual tone. “Dad, please. I think there’s something under there.”

I sigh and walk over to the bed. “Why do you think that, Jakey?” I say, speaking more softly now.

“I heard a noise, “ he says. He’s on the verge of tears. This has been happening a lot lately. A few nights ago he’d been convinced that Berty—a fluffy, orange hippo that Jake’s loved since pre-school—was moving by itself. I’d had to lock Berty in the downstairs bathroom before Jake would calm down. The next night we couldn’t find the damn thing and Jake couldn’t sleep again, for fear that it was hiding somewhere in the house. I sigh again. I know that this is probably normal for his age, but I’m starting to worry. His teacher said he fell asleep in class last week.

“Please, Dad.”

I nod and smile and ruffle his hair. My knees crack as I kneel to look under the bed. All I can see is an old pair of Jake’s pyjama bottoms and a toy car with one wheel missing. But there is something else further back, near the wall. It’s probably an old blanket. I take out my phone and flick on the torchlight.

The breath catches in my throat. I look into a face, pale and frightened in the white torchlight. It’s Jake. Tears are streaming down his face and his legs are curled up against his chest. He fixes my eyes with his and presses his finger against his lips, shaking his head in tiny, frantic movements.

“Dad?” The voice is from above, from the Jake in the bed. I’m paralyzed. I cannot speak. What I’m seeing is impossible.

I kneel up. Jake’s sitting upright in the bed now, his duvet wrapped around him. He sees the fear in my face and he pushes his back flat against the bedrest. I look at his scruffy, blonde hair and his undersized spiderman pyjamas that only reach halfway down his calf, and make a decision. I lean forward and lift him, duvet and all, from the bed.

“Was it there?” he says.

I don’t answer. I don’t know what to say. As I climb the stairs he wraps his arms around my neck so tightly that it hurts. He’s getting stronger these days.

Our bedroom is in the attic space. We decided to give the bigger room to Jake when we moved in. He needed the space. Nell’s already asleep. She turns over slowly as I deposit the bundle of our child onto my side of the bed. She opens her eyes and frowns at me.

“What’s wrong?” she says.

“Take him a moment, will you?”

“Ethan?” she calls after me, “what’s wrong?” I step back down the stairs in silence. What would I say, anyway?

I pause at Jake’s bedroom door, fear and anger battling for control. I clench my fists and kick open the door. It crashes into the side of Jake’s desk. I flick on the light and step inside. The room looks empty. I walk over to the bed, and I force myself to crouch down and look underneath. It’s gone, the thing that looks like Jake. The old pyjamas are still there but the broken car has moved. It’s further down than it was before. I feel a tingle on the back of my neck. Then there is a creak from the wardrobe. I jump back to my feet, my pulse throbbing in my ears. I step across the room and rip the wardrobe doors open. There, huddled into the corner beneath the row of shirts and trousers, is the intruder. He looks up at me and reaches out his arms.

I take a step back. The sight of him is even more chilling now that I see him in the full light. The features of his face are a perfect replica of my son’s. The freckles on his cheeks, the fleck of brown in his left eye, even the undersized, spiderman pyjamas.

“What are you?” I say.

“Dad, it’s me, Jakey.”

“No, you’re not, you’re …”

His face crumples in despair. “I’m Jake,” he says, his voice a broken whimper.

“Why do you look like my son?”

The question feels cruel. He pushes his face into his knees and shakes his head. “It changes. It was my robot tonight. I locked it in the toybox. But then I heard it opening the lid, so I crawled under the bed, and then…” His body shakes in convulsive sobs, “Does it look like me now?”

I walk forward and wrap my arms around him. I can’t help it, he’s my son. I feel his warm tears on my shoulder. I rub his back. He says something, but I can’t make out the words. It’s just a mumble in my neck. Then he lifts his head.

“Where is it now?” he says.

My arms tighten around his body. If this is Jake then what’s upstairs? “Nell!”

Suddenly I feel Jake’s arms and legs battling to break free from my hold. “Mum!” he shouts as he sprints towards the stairs. I follow him. We reach the bedroom together. I slam my hand into the door and it thumps open. She’s sitting alone on the bed, mouth agape, holding only the duvet I’d carried up the stairs just a moment ago.

“Jake!” she shouts.

He jumps onto the bed and she hugs him, pushing her nose into the top of his hair.

“He just disappeared!” she says, her voice breaking. “One minute I was holding him, the next he just wasn’t there.” She squeezes Jake tighter. “I thought I’d lost you, little man.”

“Ow!” says Jake.

“Sorry.”

I breathe out a long sigh. If the Jake in the duvet just disappeared then the boy in my wife’s arms must be our Jake. Whatever the thing was, at least I know where my son is now. I sit down on the bed and wrap my arms around both of them.

 

Nell decides to sleep in Jake’s room for the night. I set up the camp bed for her and leave the nightlight on. I’m trying to resist the temptation to check the doors and windows for the fifth time, but I’m restless. What else can I do? Phone the police? I shake my head. What would I tell them anyway? I’m still trying to explain what’s happened to myself, let alone some sceptical PC. Instead, I fix myself a whiskey and take it up to bed. I give the landing windows a final check, but I resist the temptation to peep round the door of Jake’s room again.

“They’ll be fine,” I tell myself, and head to the bedroom. I’m going to miss Nell tonight. I wonder why she decided to sleep in Jake’s room rather than have Jake in our room. Probably to let me sleep. I have work in the morning. It was thoughtful of her, but I probably would have slept better if we were all together. I put the front door keys by the bedside lamp. I’ll sleep with it on. I take another sip of whiskey and open the wardrobe to hang up my dressing gown. I hear the camp bed creaking in Jake’s room as Nell shifts on it. As I begin to close the wardrobe doors I stop dead. Protruding from under the rail of hanging clothes is a pair of feet. The tumbler of whiskey falls from my hand. The glass smashes on the wooden floor. I feel a sharp pain as a splinter of glass hits my big toe. I yank aside the row of shirts and dresses.

“Nell!” I shout bending down to her. Her hands are tied. The belt around her mouth pulls her cheeks back into an involuntary grimace. I try to remove the gag but it’s too tight. The prong has pierced a new hole through the leather. I can’t release it. Nell kicks her legs.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m trying.”

She makes an angry, muffled noise and jabs her head towards the door.

I let go of the belt. “Jake!”

Downstairs there’s a heavy thump from Jake’s room.

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