Thursday, October 5, 2017
By Daniel Skye
Phil Atkins awoke to an unsettling din.
Faint scratching sounds that emanated from the crawlspace.
Phil listened for a moment, then dismissed it. But the noise persisted, making it impossible for him to drift back to sleep.
Rats, he thought, literally. The crawlspace must be infested. Garfield, you lazy bastard. You’re certainly living up to your name. You couldn’t scare away a mouse, let alone a pack of rats. He made a mental note to call the exterminator in the morning.
He rolled to his side and folded the pillow around his head to block out the noise. The din faded, but was quickly replaced by a similar racket that loomed overhead.
Now it was coming from the attic.
Their ranch-style home was cozy and modest, and it fit their budget when Phil and Laurie were newlyweds, but the house was one-story, excluding the attic. So certain noises had a way of traveling throughout the house.
Rats! It’s gotta be rats! For Christ’s sake! This whole damn house is infested!
He could picture them scurrying around up there; big, ugly, hairy, filthy-looking things. Their big tails dragging around, thumping against the floorboards. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Careful not to disturb Laurie, Phil slipped out of bed and threw his bathrobe on, cinching the belt around his waist.
Half asleep, he stumbled out into the hallway and saw that Todd’s bedroom door was ajar. He could see the glare of the nightlight. Phil shook his head. Ten years old and still afraid of the dark, Phil thought.
He was about to take a peak in the attic when Todd came sauntering out of his room, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
“Mom, dad, what’s that noise?”
“Shhh,” Phil whispered. “Your mother’s still asleep. I think there are rats in the attic, maybe in the crawlspace too. Don’t worry about it. Go back to bed, Todd. I’ll call an exterminator in the morning.”
“I don’t think its rats up there,” Todd whispered back.
“What else could it be?”
Todd’s eyes widened. And Phil caught a quiver in his voice when he spoke. “The boogeyman.”
Phil sighed. “Todd, we’ve been over this before. There’s no such thing as the boogeyman. It’s made up. Make believe. It’s just something they came up with to scare children.”
“Well it’s working,” Todd said. He was quite sharp and witty for his age.
“Go to bed,” Phil said, patting him on the back. They both returned to their rooms. He curled up next to Laurie and shut his eyes, tried to mentally block out the noise. But the din never ceased.
Laurie was sleeping like a rock. In fact, she was snoring. Todd heard it, he heard it, but Laurie didn’t hear a thing. Phil chuckled. That woman could snooze through an earthquake, Phil thought.
Sleep evaded Phil that night. And in the morning, he was brewing a full pot of coffee and flipping through the phone book. He tried three different numbers before he could find someone available on short notice.
But the exterminator found no evidence of any infestation. No droppings, no scratch marks, no nests or footprints. And not a single rat in sight.
“Impossible,” Phil exclaimed. “I heard sounds all night long.”
The exterminator assumed Phil would be ecstatic with the news. He was a husky man with a ruddy complexion, and Phil could read the expression on his face. The man was silently questioning Phil’s sanity, though he wouldn’t dare say it aloud.
The exterminator decided to do him a favor and not charge him for the visit, seeing as how he didn’t find a thing. Phil wondered if he should call another exterminator for a second opinion. But he decided to wait it out and see if he heard the noise again that night.
A well-rested Laurie cooked breakfast while Phil sat at the Formica kitchen table, reading the paper and sipping his coffee. Garfield was splayed out on the kitchen floor, licking his paws. Of course he bared no resemblance to the cartoon cat, but Todd had named him when he was five. Todd was parked in front of the TV, watching Saturday morning cartoons. He only joined them at the table when his pancakes were ready.
Todd piled on the butter and smothered his pancakes in syrup. He didn’t cover his lap with a napkin or tuck one into his shirt as his mom often requested. His mom was lucky he even used a fork. If Todd had it his way, he would’ve used his hands for everything.
“Would you like some sausage?” Laurie offered.
“No thanks,” Todd declined. “I don’t eat pork anymore. Processed sausage and bacon can give you cancer.”
“Is that what they teach you in school?” Laurie asked.
“No, they teach us how to pass the standardized tests so the school gets more funding.”
Laurie rolled her eyes. That boy’s tongue is either going to make him a fortune one day or it’s going to get him beat up, she thought.
“What’d the exterminator say, dad?” Todd inquired. Kids were curious by nature. And Todd was no different.
“He didn’t find any rats. But he didn’t find any boogeymen either.”
“It’s so strange,” Laurie said. “I wonder what it could’ve been.”
“This house is pretty old,” Phil pointed out, searching for any reason that would explain what he heard. “Old houses are notorious for their strange noises. Could’ve just been the pipes rattling.”
Todd looked unconvinced. Phil took a sip of coffee and said, “I’ll tell you what. If you’re so sure there was a monster or a demon in our attic last night, let’s check it out after breakfast.”
Todd froze in his seat, his fork in midair, syrup dripping onto the Formica table, and Phil could almost see his son going pale.
“Come on,” Phil egged him on. “You’ll be safe with me. And if you’re right, you’ll get to say ‘I told you so.’ What do you say?”
Todd was apprehensive, but he saw this as a chance to prove that he had some guts. Though his father concealed his disappointment, Todd knew how he felt. Fathers always want their sons to be just like them. Why would his father be any different? His father played sports when he was younger. He wasn’t afraid of the dark. And he certainly didn’t believe in monsters. Todd couldn’t say the same for himself.
After breakfast, they ventured upstairs. Phil reached up and pulled down the folding attic stairs and made sure they were secure. “After you,” Phil said.
“Uh, no that’s okay. You go first.”
“If you insist.”
He ascended the attic steps with Todd trailing not too far behind him. The floorboards were coated in dust and they squealed with every step they took.
“Well, take a gander,” Phil said. “Nothing but cobwebs and dust and some old boxes. The only scary thing in this attic are your mom’s photo albums. You ever seen your Aunt Cynthia’s chin whiskers? Believe me, it was nothing compared to her hairy legs.” He shuddered at the thought.
“Hey, what’s this?” Todd said, wandering off to examine something scribbled along the wall. He couldn’t read it aloud. The words had stolen his breath for a moment. Phil drew closer and soon the words came into focus.
Roses are wilted. Violets are dead.
The boogeyman is real. He’s under your bed.
“Very funny,” Phil groaned. “I really hope you didn’t use permanent ink.”
“Dad, I didn’t write that,” Todd finally breathed. “I swear. It wasn’t me.”
“Then who was it, Todd? Your mother? How stupid do you think I am? Give me a little credit, will ya?”
“Dad, I’m telling you the truth. It really wasn’t me.”
Phil sighed and scratched the top of his head. He studied Todd’s expression. If Phil wanted to know when his son was fibbing, all he had to do was watch the eyes. Todd could never look him directly in the eyes when he was lying. But Todd never broke eye contact, not this time.
“Just go downstairs and play with your dolls or something.”
“They’re called action figures, dad.”
“Whatever. Just go to your room for now. I need time alone to think about this.”
“What do you make of all this?” Phil asked Laurie over a stiff cocktail. After the morning he’d had, he required something stronger than coffee.
“I don’t know. But Todd did it, right? I mean, who else?” She paused for a moment, giving Phil the chance to confess.
“It wasn’t me, if that’s what you’re thinking. I wouldn’t mess with our son like that.”
“So it had to be Todd. Christ, our son is convinced there’s a monster in our house.”
“Todd just has an overactive imagination. There’s no boogeyman. There are no monsters in his closet or hiding under his bed. He’ll realize that eventually.”
“Eventually? And what do we do until then?”
“I guess we continue to let him sleep with his nightlight and listen to his boogeyman stories until he grows out of it.”
“What if it’s not a phase? What if he needs professional help?”
“I think I’m going to need professional help after this crap.”
Phil’s cell phone pinged. He assumed it was work related.
One new text message from an anonymous number.
Roses are wilted. Violets are dead. The boogeyman is real. He’s under your bed.
He threw the phone down and started seeing red. Before Laurie could even ask what was going on, Phil was marching to Todd’s room.
“How did you do it?” Phil screamed as he barged in. “You don’t have a cell phone, so what did you do? Did you use your computer? Or did you have one of your friends’ text me?”
“What are you talking about?” Todd asked, bemused.
“I just got a very interesting text message. And I think you know all about it.”
“Well, I don’t. What’s going on?” Again, Todd did not break eye contact. But that didn’t mean he was telling the truth. It just meant he was getting better at lying as far as Phil was concerned.
“If I find out it was you, you’re grounded for a month.” Phil left his son with that threat still lingering in the air.
Phil tried to sleep, but that twisted rhyme kept playing inside his head. Roses are wilted. Violets are dead. The boogeyman is real. He’s under your bed.
It was just after midnight when the scratching and thumping sounds returned. He quietly got up to investigate.
“Dad!” Todd cried from his bedroom. “I heard something moving around inside my closet!”
“Keep your voice down,” he whispered harshly.
The noise ceased as Phil left the master bedroom. The glow of Todd’s nightlight was all he had to guide himself through the hall. He stared up at the attic, waiting for the din to return.
Todd heard something shifting around inside his closet again. He sat up in bed.
“He-hello,” he whispered. “Is anybody there?”
The closet door creaked open, and five serrated claws tapped against the side of the door.
“DAD!” Todd shrieked.
Phil came rushing into Todd’s bedroom. “What is it, boy?”
“In-in-in the closet,” Todd stammered, pointing one trembling finger towards the open door. Phil stormed over and thrust the closet door open.
Empty, just as he suspected. He sighed, a long, exasperated sigh. “Todd, this is getting old. And speaking of old, aren’t you getting a little too old for this boogeyman crap? There’s nothing here, kiddo. Nothing in the closet, nothing under your bed. Nothing crawling on top of the ceiling. You’re not possessed like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. This needs to stop.”
“But it was there dad, I’m telling you. The boogeyman was there. He had these sharp claws and he was scratching against the door.”
Phil bit his lower lip to stifle the parade of obscenities that wanted to escape his mouth. “We’ll talk more about this in the morning,” he said, grinding his teeth. “Goodnight, Todd.”
As Phil walked out and slammed the door behind him, Todd’s nightlight flickered and the bulb burned out, plunging Todd into a world of darkness and obscurity. And that’s when the scratching resumed. Only it wasn’t inside his closet. The sound was coming from under his bed…
A grumpy, bleary-eyed Phil was on his third cup of coffee. He hadn’t slept a wink. Not with all that clawing and thumping and scratching. And neither had Todd. He sat up with the lights on all night, drinking soda from the fridge until his tummy was bloated and the sugar was coursing through his veins.
“Gotta be rats,” Phil mumbled to himself, sounding like a crazy person. “I’ll get some glue traps and some rat poison. Problem solved.”
“Millie McBride is at the door,” Laurie said. “She wants to talk to you about Todd.”
“Phil,” Millie said. She was known throughout the neighborhood for being a laconic woman, brief and to the point.
“Millie,” Phil said, returning her greeting.
“Your boy is acting out again. He left a little something on the side of my house. Wanna come take a look?”
Phil followed her down the porch and across the front lawn. Carved into the blue vinyl siding of Millie’s house was a phrase Phil Atkins had become very acquainted with.
Roses are wilted. Violets are dead. The boogeyman is real. He’s under your bed.
“I’ll handle Todd,” Phil said, his fists clenched.
He walked back to the house and slammed the front door so hard that Laurie flinched. “Where is that little son of a bitch?” he snarled.
“Todd? He rode his bike to the market to get milk.”
“I’m going to kill him,” he shouted, pacing back and forth through the kitchen, unable to cool off.
“What on earth did he do?”
“He defaced Millie’s property. The same crap he wrote up in the attic, he carved into the side of her house. Now we’re gonna have to pay for the damages. Why can’t that boy ever just be normal?”
Garfield strolled into the kitchen, stretching himself out. He splayed on his back and Laurie reached down to rub his belly. The cat purred with satisfaction.
“Are you even listening to me?” Phil shouted.
“Don’t snap at me! I’ve had enough of this!”
The radio clicked on, and Phil turned his attention to the kitchen counter where the Sony Portable was perched. The volume steadily increased as the radio jumped from station to station, finally settling on 102.3, WBAB. A familiar tune blared through the speakers, one that was hard for Phil not to recognize.
“I’m your boogie man, I’m your boogie man. Turn me on. I’m your boogie man. I’m your boogie man. Do what you want.” Phil yanked the cord out of the wall and the music died.
“Well, you can’t blame Todd for that one.”
“How did it turn itself on?”
“How should I know? Maybe Todd’s right. Maybe we do have a ghost or a boogeyman in the house.” She was clearly joking, but Phil was in no mood.
Todd made it home just before it started to pour. But if he had known what he was walking into, he would’ve stayed out in the rain…
Thunder clapped in the distance. Drops of rain tapped against the windows and flooded the gutters.
There had been no mention of a storm on the weather channel. But Phil’s mind wasn’t on the thunder or the lightning. It was focused on Todd and Todd alone, who stood defensively in the living room with his arms crossed, mirroring his father’s stance.
“It wasn’t me, dad. I swear. It was the boogeyman.”
“THERE IS NO BOOGEYMAN!”
Todd recoiled at the sheer volume of his dad’s voice. For a brief second, he wasn’t afraid of the boogeyman anymore. He was afraid of his old man.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” Phil said, quick to apologize. “But this needs to stop. I’m putting an end to it once and for all. I’m going to prove to you there’s no such thing as–”
The lights flickered and faded. The entire house went dark and the only electricity was that in the sky.
“Dad, I’m scared,” Todd said, his teeth chattering.
“Relax. It’s just a blackout. The whole neighborhood is probably out.”
“Phil?” Laurie called out. “What happened?”
“Just a blackout, dear. I’ll grab some candles and we’ll wait for the power to come back.”
The floor rumbled beneath his feet.
“Phil, do you feel–” Laurie’s words ended abruptly as the house shook violently from its eaves to its foundation, throwing them all off their balance.
Laurie crawled towards the sofa and used it to pull herself up. She stumbled around in the dark, calling out to Phil. Todd found his mother in the darkness and clung to her side. The rumble ceased and the Sony Portable could be heard from the kitchen.
“Children, have you ever met the boogeyman before? No, of course you haven’t for you’re much too good, I’m sure… Hush, hush, hush. Here comes the boogeyman. Don’t let him come too close to you. He’ll catch you if he can…”
The radio clicked off and the lights returned.
Silence. Terrifying, gut-wrenching silence.
Laurie looked around the living room.
“Where’s your father?” she croaked.
Todd glanced down the hall, where his nightlight had come back to life. He could see the glare of the light from where he stood. He took his mother’s hand and led her down the hall.
“Dad?” Todd called out as they walked hesitantly towards the bedroom. They stood in the threshold of the door, bewildered.
“Dad, what are you doing under there?” Todd asked. His father was under his bed, his legs sticking out, the only part of him that was visible.
Blood seeped out from under the bed, forming a pool around his legs.
The closet door sprung open and Todd’s tiny heart skipped several beats. It lurched forward, its skin as black as tar and rough as shoe leather. Its serrated claws and ravenous incisors were more than Todd could bear seeing. Yellow eyes stared back at Todd, glowing like rays of moonlight.
Its lips–dripping with blood–parted, but no voice escaped. Instead, the voice Todd Atkins heard was the one inside his head. The voice that was telling him to run like hell.