“Just a quick one?” Davey begged. He sat up in his bed while his father, Christopher, stood waiting to tuck him in.

“Not tonight, bud,” said Christopher.

“But I’ve been seven for a month, and you said you couldn’t tell me the old stories until I was seven,” said Davey.

“No fair,” Susan interjected from the doorway. “I was seven forever ago, and I’ve never heard those bedtime stories.”

“I told you,” explained Christopher, “that they’re not to be told to kids one at a time.”

“So tell us now,” said Susan. She came into Davey’s room and climbed over the frame at the end of his bed. She propped a throw pillow against the wall and made herself comfortable.

“This just isn’t a good night for it,” said Christopher. He was thinking about Melanie. She was still downstairs, muttering at the TV with a full glass of wine. Up until three glasses she was fine, but her anger always came out with the fourth. This wasn’t a night he wanted to be caught telling old ghost stories to the kids.

Susan stretched out her legs and pushed her blond hair behind her ears. Davey stared at Christopher with unwavering intensity.

Christopher wasn’t a pushover, but he knew when he was beat. He reached behind him and pulled Davey’s little chair from under the desk. It was a tiny room, just big enough for the single bed, a bureau, and a cramped desk. Christopher had to maneuver around the chair just to spin it. When his foot caught on the edge of the bed he nearly flipped over backwards.

When he’d finally put his legs to the side and found the seat, he agreed – “Okay, but just a short one.”

The kids nodded.

{pullquote position=right;margin=0em 5.5em 0em 0.5em}If you stay up too late all those rules disappear, and the shapes and shadows of the night are free to turn into hungry monsters.{/pullquote}

“Which one do you want to hear? There’s the one where the twins slept too long side-by-side and their hair grew together,” said Christopher.

“Scarier,” said Davey.

“I don’t know,” said Christopher, “that one’s pretty scary. What about the Stages of the Night?”

“Yeah,” said Susan.

“Yeah,” repeated Davey. He flopped back down, pulling his covers up to his big grin.

“Okay,” said Christopher. He snuck one more look over his shoulder to make sure his wife wasn’t within earshot and then started his story – “A long time ago, in the middle of winter, a little family was snowed in for the night. They lived in a little cabin in the woods and they had a good fire going, so it was nice and cozy inside. The dad put his kids to bed early, so they could get up at dawn and help him dig out once the snow quit drifting. The kids, a girl and a boy, had never known their mother – she died at childbirth.”

“What were their names?” asked Susan.

“What do you want to call them?” Christopher asked her.

“Susan and Davey!” his son interjected.

“No, let’s give them make-believe names,” said Christopher.

“Liam and Ava,” said Susan.

“Really?” asked Christopher.

Susan nodded.

Christopher continued – “So the dad, we’ll call him John, he put the twins to bed, but he had to go back out into the night. He had a night job watching over the town Granary.”

“What’s a Granary?” asked Davey.

His sister tsked and rolled her eyes – “It’s where they kept the grain, retard,” she said.

“Don’t use that word,” said Christopher automatically.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. Susan rearranged her nightgown and tried to seem nonchalant.

“So yes, John watched over the community supplies of food and livestock,” said Christopher. “He felt bad leaving his kids alone all night when he worked. They were only about your age, Davey, but they were good kids and didn’t make any trouble when Dad had to work at night. At least until that night: the snowy night, when Liam found out first hand about the Stages.”

Christopher saw Susan’s right hand move up to her mouth and then away. She knew she wasn’t supposed to suck her thumb, but it was a deep-rooted habit. Davey still had his big smile. Nothing seemed to scare Davey; he was happiest amongst the spooky and ghoulish.

Christopher continued – “That night when the whole world was covered with a thick blanket of snow, and the blowing flakes spattered against the side of their cabin like sand, that was the night that Liam decided to see the Stages for himself. He wanted to know if the old stories his uncles told were really true. The uncles always warned the kids to be asleep before the Stages started, or else they’d be sorry.”

“What are the Stages?” asked Davey.

Susan let out an exasperated sigh, but Christopher continued on, incorporating Davey’s interruption – “The Stages are like the chapters the night moves through after everyone is supposed to be asleep. The first stage is the Stage of Possibilities. You see, daylight keeps everything orderly; makes everything obey the laws of nature. Gravity, physics, life, death – these are all concepts of daylight,” he glanced back and forth between their blue eyes. “If you stay up too late all those rules disappear, and the shapes and shadows of the night are free to turn into hungry monsters. The old black rock near the pond will shift and become an angry dog with huge fangs, dripping with blood. Liam thought he would be okay because everything was cold and frozen outside. He just wanted to see what would happen, so he kept one eye open and watched the firelight play against the walls while his sister fell asleep.”

Susan had pulled her legs up close to her body. Davey’s eyelids looked heavy.

“For a long time, Liam didn’t think anything would happen. But then he finally saw,” said Christopher. “Next to the fire, their Dad kept a pail, for hauling away the ashes. That pail cast a big shadow on the wall next to the door. Where the handle attached, a hole let a little light through, and it gave the big shadow an eye, to watch over the room. As Liam peeked between his thick fur covers, the head of the shadow turned to look at him, even though the pail never moved. Liam held himself perfectly still as the shadow slinked off to the left and out of sight. He didn’t want to turn his head to follow it. He thought if he turned his head and admitted that he was awake, the thing would certainly come after him. You see, Liam had stayed awake until everything was possible. There were no more rules to keep that shadow from turning into a monster.”

Christopher assessed his children. Davey was still grinning, but his eyelids drooped and swayed. Susan was curled up, hugging her knees to her chest. He lowered his tone, hoping to lull the kids the rest of the way to sleep – “When the monster moved, this was the second stage, the Stage of Hunger. This is where everything called to life by haunted imagination roams the earth. Liam was frozen with his fear. He wanted to call out and wake Ava, but he was too afraid. His heart pounded in his ears. It was so loud he thought for sure the shadow-monster would hear. The fire popped and Liam nearly screamed,” said Christopher.

Susan sucked in a startled breath. She forgot herself and took her thumb into her mouth.

“He strained his ears and tried to ignore the sounds of the fire. That’s when he heard it. A scraping noise, barely audible at first, was getting louder and louder. Liam shrunk down under his blankets, hoping to make himself disappear into his bed. In her sleep, Ava groaned as if she sensed what was coming. The scraping sound got louder and louder until Liam didn’t think he could stand it any more. He wanted to run from their little cabin, out into the night, to get away from the sinister shadow-monster. And then…” Christopher trailed off. It looked like he would get away with it – both kids were sliding into their own dream-world, the troubling story already forgotten.

Christopher took a breath and prepared to rise from his seat.

“Then what?” asked Davey. Christopher was startled. He looked between Davey and Susan and found them both alert and ready for more.

“Oh,” he said. He lowered his voice again and got back into character – “And then, CRASH! The door banged open and their father, John, burst in from the cold night.”

“Knew it,” said Davey.

Christopher frowned.

“That’s it?” asked Susan. She shook her head. “That’s a crappy ending.”

“Oh really?” asked Christopher, raising his eyebrows. “But that’s not the ending, as far as I know. Oh well, I guess I must have it wrong. Ready for bed then?”

“No!” both kids yelled.

“Shhh!” he glanced back at the hallway. “But I thought this story was too predictable and crappy,” said Christopher.

“Come on – please tell us the rest?” begged Susan.

“Please?” asked Davey.

“Okay, I guess,” said Christopher. “There’s not that much more to tell, honestly.”

He waited a beat, until Davey and Susan were rapt.

“John came in to the cozy cabin slapping the snow from his clothes and warming himself by the glowing fire. Liam sat up straight and threw back his covers. He ran to his dad and hugged him around the waist. John lifted him from the ground and said ‘Liam, what are you doing up?’ Liam explained about how he had defied the Stages and stayed up, inadvertently awaking the shadow-monster. John comforted his son – ‘It’s okay, Liam. What you saw was just a regular shadow. You thought it walked away, but it was just the fire dying down. Now that I’ve stoked it, the shadow comes right back, see?’”

The kids nodded along with Christopher.

He continued: “So Liam went back to his bed and watched his father get ready for his own rest. His body was warm and safe, but his thoughts were still troubled. This time he thought about the Stage of the Hunt, what his uncle called the ‘Hungry Feast.’ That stage was supposed to be particularly dangerous. All the hungry hunters prowling the dark would make even a peaceful man’s blood boil. Liam realized he hadn’t been paying attention, maybe he’d even drifted off – his father was missing.”

“What happened to him?” asked Davey – his voice a smiling whisper. Christopher shuddered a little at his son’s morbid curiosity.

“That’s the question that drove Liam from his bed. All he could think was that somehow the shadow-monster was somehow real. He imagined his father struggling for his life, and Liam pushed off his covers to go help. He couldn’t bear the thought that his dad would be killed by something that his curiosity had called to life.”

“Because he stayed up too late?” asked Davey.

“Exactly,” said Christopher. He noticed that Susan’s chin was resting on her chest – she had drifted off at last. He lowered his voice to a whisper and continued the story for Davey – “So Liam crept away from his bed, tiptoeing across the room to the passage that led to the summer room. When he was about to round the corner, Liam got his second big scare of the night. Right around the corner, as if waiting for him to approach, came…” Christopher paused, but Davey offered no guess, “his father.”

Christopher waited for Davey to be disappointed again, but Davey just watched. If Davey had been someone else’s son, Christopher would have called him creepy.

He continued - “Liam was glad to see his father alive and well, and was even more comforted at what his father said next – ‘Liam, you’re just jumpy tonight. You can sleep in my bed until you settle down.’ Liam nodded and followed his dad to the big bed, farthest away from the fire. His dad hugged him tight under the heavy covers, and Liam knew nothing bad could happen to him in his father’s strong arms. At least that’s what he thought until he felt his father’s hot breath on the back of his head. That’s when Liam remembered why the Stage of the Hunt was so dangerous. It was one of the most feared Stages because it was contagious.”

Davey understood – Christopher could tell from his eyes.

“The next thing Liam did was the last thing he would ever do. He rolled over to look his father in the eyes. He looked his father in his glowing… red… eyes.”

“Cool,” Davey breathed. His eyes fell shut with the word. As if, now satisfied with a gruesome ending, Davey could finally sleep in peace. Christopher shook his head reflexively – dismissing the revulsion he would never admit feeling.

He leaned over – “Ready for bed?” Christopher whispered in Susan’s ear.

“Uhh-kay,” she yawned.

Christopher reached towards her and she put up her arms. He plucked her from Davey’s bed quietly, not moving the bed more than an eighth of an inch. Christopher was clumsy, except when it came to his kids. With his kids he was strong and graceful.

Christopher carried Susan to her room and slid her under thick covers. She had a better room than her brother, but it would still be cramped for a teenage girl, which she would soon become. Their inadequate house pushed at the back of Christopher’s thoughts, like a forgotten errand. Now that the kids were in school most of the day, he was supposed to go back to work. It had been nearly a decade since he’d decided to be a stay at home dad; the prospect of a job-search was daunting.

“Cold,” she mumbled.

He pulled up the covers, kissed her forehead, and tucked her in tight.

“Good night, sweetie,” he said.

“Night,” she replied. She turned her head and closed her eyes.

He backed out slowly and closed the door to just a crack.

Back in Davey’s room, his son had already kicked most of the covers off. Christopher rearranged Davey’s limbs and folded back the heaviest blankets. Davey was always radiating heat, but he was even hotter tonight, still getting over the tail of a fever. Christopher leaned in to kiss Davey’s forehead when he saw the mark.

He dug in his pocket for a mildly-used tissue. Pushing Davey’s hair back, Christopher wiped the white smudge from his son’s neck. Christopher left the tissue in Davey’s trashcan and closed door most of the way.

With the kids safely to bed, he turned his attention to his wife. She would be downstairs, either talking on the phone or watching television, a glass of wine clenched in her right hand. Some nights, maybe even most nights, she didn’t drink at all. They would stay up until the news, talking, making plans, and cleaning up the kitchen. Nights like these, where she would be on her fifth or sixth glass of wine when he tucked in the kids, had become a regular part of Christopher’s life. On those nights he had three children, and it was time for him to see the third to bed.

Christopher flipped on the light at the top of the stairs and put his hand on the railing. Even something he did dozens of times a day, something that any normal man of thirty-six years would completely take for granted, was affected by Christopher’s clumsiness. Since he was a little boy, as young as Davey was that night, Christopher had learned to always use a handrail when climbing or descending stairs. He started down.

A noise from the end of the long hall, from the door to the master bedroom, claimed his attention and he turned his head. He wondered if Melanie, his wife, had somehow managed to slip past him while he was tucking in their children.

Melanie woke on top of the covers, blinking away the light from the nightstand lamp. She rolled over and reached for the slender stem of her glass, but she wanted water, not more burgundy. Melanie glanced at the clock, suddenly confused and waking up quickly. It read two seventeen.

“Dad!” cried Davey, from the next room. “DAD!” he screamed.

She sat up. It felt like her body was two steps ahead of her brain and she settled back down on her elbows. Christopher would see to Davey. There was no need for both of them to get up if Davey was yelling for Chris.

Her eyes were half-closed again before her confusion came back even stronger.

“Dad?” Davey called.

Chris should have been there by now.

This time Melanie sat up and swung her legs off the side of the bed. She pushed to her feet and steadied herself on the bureau. She ran fingers through her hair as she consulted the mirror. She straightened her blouse and smoothed the front of her slacks. Her head began a slow drumbeat in time with her pulse. There would be a headache waiting for her in the morning if she didn’t get that glass of water. Davey’s room was two doors down.

“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked, as she pushed open Davey’s door. The hall light was on, so she didn’t open it all the way.

“I think I stayed up too long,” he cried.

“What? What do you mean?” she knelt next to his bed and smoothed his hair.

“I wanted to stay up until the Stage of Possibilities, just to see,” he said frantically.

“Shhhh,” she said, “don’t wake up your sister. Just tell me what happened.”

Davey started again, slower, as if explaining something very complicated – “I wanted to stay up to see the Stage of Possibilities, so I could see what it looked like,” he whispered.

“What does that mean, honey?” she asked, while she stroked his face. She reached over clicked on his lamp. The bulb came on slowly, with its slightly cold florescent light.

“Dad told us about how the night has stages. I just wanted to see the first stage, so I tried really hard to stay up. Even when the scary noises started, I just pinched myself on the arm, see?” He pulled his arm from under the covers. A string of welts ran from his wrist up to his elbow. One had a small spot of blood from his sharp nails.

“Oh, honey,” Melanie licked her thumb and wiped the blood from his arm. She cleaned her thumb on a tissue from the nightstand and then used the tissue to wipe a smudge from the side of Davey’s face.

“The scary noises stopped at one, zero, seven,” he pointed to the clock on his bookshelf. “And nothing happened for a long time. I almost went to sleep, but then, at two, zero, zero, I saw it.”

“Did Dad tell you scary stories before bed?” Melanie asked as she tightened her mouth.

“No,” Davey answered.

Melanie stowed her anger for later, and tried to recover a more appropriate, sympathetic look. “What did you see?”

“I saw the sideways-head thing over there,” he pointed at the corner where his dresser met the wall.

“What’s the sideways-head thing?” she asked.

“It looked normal until about here,” he indicated his chest, “but then, where the head should be, it was all sideways. And it made a sound – it sounded like this,” Davey made a low growling sound in the back of his throat. She was nodding sympathetically when he started the noise, but her head stopped moving on its own. That noise coming from her son was creepy. The hair stood up on the back of her neck.

“And it was over here?” she asked, crossing to the dresser.

Davey nodded vigorously.

“Honey, I think that was your imagination,” she consoled, looking around the dresser. “Or maybe you fell asleep and didn’t know it, and then had a bad dream.”

“But Mom…” he began.

Melanie cut him off, “Honey, there’s nothing over here, and if something had been here, I’m sure I’d see a sign of it.”

“But in the Stage of Possibilities…” he started.

“We’ll talk with your father about the stage of whatever in the morning, okay?” she asked.

“Can I just talk with Dad now? I just want to ask him something,” begged Davey.

“We don’t want to wake up Dad,” she said. “He had a long day, I’m sure.”

“Please?” asked Davey.

Melanie sighed – “Okay, I’ll go get him. You stay here,” she said. She left his light on and pulled his door shut.

Exiting Davey’s room, she noticed the light at the top of the stairs. Melanie moved quickly at first, but then slowed as she approached the stairs. She rounded the corner with her breath held, but then released as she relaxed.

What did I expect to see? she thought.

“That’s it!” Davey shrieked from right behind her. Melanie jumped and nearly slipped on the top stair. Her hand shot out and touched the wall, steadying her balance.

“Davey you scared the life out of me!” she said. “I thought I asked you to stay in bed?” she knelt down next to him.

“What’s going on?” Susan asked shuffling from her dark room, rubbing her eye with her knuckle.

“It’s okay, go back to bed, dear,” said Melanie.

“But Mom,” yelled Davey, “that’s it, that’s it. It’s right behind you – look!”

Melanie straightened up and rolled her eyes. “Okay Davey, what?” She turned around and looked down the stairs where Davey pointed, but still didn’t see anything but stairs that descended down into their dark foyer.

Susan reached to the wall and flipped the switch for the lights at the bottom of the stairs.

That’s when Melanie’s inebriated, thirty-four year old eyes saw what Davey pointed at – the sideways-head thing.

Four steps from the bottom, with an outstretched arm clawing a tread, a perfectly normal body lay. But the body was topped with an abomination. The neck skin was split – torn and stretched. The man’s face was pointed down and away, his chin resting on his back. All Davey and his mother could see from the top of the stairs was the back of the Christopher’s head.

Susan crossed the hall and came up next to her brother and mom to see what the light had revealed.

Susan was the first to scream – “Dad! Oh Dad!” she cried as she pounded the stairs to her father.

“Oh, fuck,” said Melanie.


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