Tom sighed and picked up the remote. He really wanted to finish his movie, but it was late and the movie still had a fair bit to go. He switched it off and stretched his arms... and froze.
There were voices coming from his son's bedroom. Not a voice. Voices.
He stood and padded softly out of the living room, and down the short hallway to the boy's room. The voices, soft and whispery to begin with, fell silent as he approached - but now there was a soft scrabbling, as if something, or several somethings, were racing across the hardwood floor. The sound sent a chill down his spine and put a tightness in his chest.
He stopped in the doorway, but whatever had been there was gone. The spill of light from the hallway behind him and the dim glow of the night light still left plenty of dark corners, and for a moment the urge to cross to his son's bed struggled with the urge not to put his feet down in a darkened room where something had just been moving. Then he flipped on the lights and started forward.
His son was sitting up in bed, blinking against the sudden glare. "Hi, Dad."
He looks guilty, Tom thought. Aloud, he asked: "You still awake, buddy?"
The boy nodded.
"Who were you talking to?"
"Nobody." The boy was looking down at his hands.
"I heard voices."
"Myself. I was talking to myself."
For a moment, Tom considered arguing... but really, what was he going to say? There was nobody here, nobody the boy could have been talking to. Maybe he was just having a conversation with his toys or something. And maybe the skittering sound had come from a toy, too - something his son had dropped or slid across the floor. So he said, "Okay. Listen, it's pretty late. Try to go to sleep, okay? And if you hear anything moving around in here, you call me. Got it?"
The boy met his eyes, looking solemn. "I got it."
He nodded and ruffled his son's hair. Then he stood and went back into the hall, flipping off the light as he left. He went through the rest of the house, turning off the lights. He brushed his teeth, and slipped into bed. And then he lay there, staring up at the ceiling in the dark.
After a few minutes he got back out of bed. His sock feet were silent on the floor, and his eyes had adjusted to the darkness... as much as they were going to, anyway. Moving carefully so as not to bump anything, he made his way back to the living room, and then to the hallway that led to the boy's bedroom.
Yes: there were definitely voices in his son's room.
He kept his steps slow and soft as he moved down the hall. This time there wasn't any light to give him away. The voices grew louder, clearer, closer... but he still couldn't understand them. He had the strange impression that they weren't speaking English. Surely Tom Junior, at age five, wasn't making up his own languages? Wasn't this too young for that?
Tom reached the doorway but stopped just outside it, where he wouldn't be visible from his son's bed. He could hear his son's voice, babbling softly. Then another voice answered, in the same sort of nonsense-words. For a moment, Tom thought that maybe his son was making the second voice, too. Then a third voice joined the conversation, cutting in over the second one.
He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, using his mouth so he wouldn't make any noise. Then, ever so carefully, he stepped into the doorway.
There was something on his son's bed. No, two somethings... three... more... Those weren't shadows on the covers. They were alive, whatever they were. And they were all around the boy. His first thought was a swarm of rats, but he didn't think rats moved in groups like this... and he knew that rats didn't talk.
For a moment he froze, afraid to step forward and equally afraid to step back. Then something moved at the edge of his vision.
He turned his head slowly, and found himself eye to eye with one of the creatures. It was sitting on top of the big Ikea bookshelf beside the door, looking directly at him. The night light left it in shadow, just like all the others on top of the bed; Tom had the impression of needle-sharp teeth and gleaming eyes in a dark, uncertain body.
It exhaled, a soft sibilance that made the others fall silent on the bed. The boy started to say something, in that strange other language, but Tom lurched back and flailed at the switch.
Light flooded the room, and for a moment he couldn't see. He could hear, though: clawed feet scampered across the floor, carrying dark bodies under the bed and into the closet. He felt something brush his hair as it leapt from the top of the book shelf and landed in the darkened hall behind him.
By the time he could see again, they were gone.
Tom Junior was still sitting up in his bed, and once again he was blinking. This time Tom could see tears at in the boy's eyes. "It's okay," he said, crossing the room. "You're safe."
He knelt in front of the bed and twitched the covers back.
There was nothing under there.
He crossed to the closet and pulled the door the rest of the way open. There was nothing in there, either. His son sniffled on the bed, then asked: "Daddy, why did you make them go away?" He didn't answer immediately. The things he'd seen had been too big to hide in the boy's shoes, but... he ruffled through the hanging clothes, in case something was clinging to them. He knew he was risking a finger, maybe even a hand, but he had to know where they'd gone.
Nothing was hanging on the clothes. Nothing was in the closet, and he couldn't see any holes that they could have escaped through.
After a moment he closed the closet door, and went to sit on the bed beside his son. "What were they?" he heard himself ask.
"It's okay," said his son. "They're nice monsters. They need help. They were going to take me with them" - he sniffled again and wiped at his eyes - "so I could help them."
And as soon as it was dark again, they'd come back. Tom knew it. He couldn't find them; he couldn't stop them. They'd come back, and they'd take his son away with them.
"Okay," he said finally. He stood up, crossed to the light switch, and flipped it off. Then he went to the night light and flipped it off, too. Then he felt his way back over to the bed, and sat beside his son. "Talk to them," he said. "Tell them I'm coming with you." And he listened as his son began speaking in that unknown language.
In the morning the house stood empty.