It was the third cup of coffee that was to blame.
I knew when it was offered I should have turned it down, but I didn’t, and that was why I found myself thrashing about in bed and then finally, at three in the morning with a full bladder and a racing brain, sneaking down the stairs to try and relieve one of them. That was why I happened to be walking by the bay window as the full moon caught my eye and, drawn by its magnificent beauty, that was how I came to be standing there when I saw the creature.
“Creature” seems too polite a word, one that you would use for rabbits or other furry, woodland animals. My mind wanted it to be a demon straight from hell, only its skin was as pale as the moon and looked drawn taut in some places and left loose in others, too big a bag even for the lanky frame. No hair covered its misshapen skull, and the clothes that hung on its gaunt frame seemed mindlessly chosen, tatters pulled from various clotheslines.
I watched, curious and wary, as the thing’s head lolled back and forth, its eyes roaming with no clear intent until they settled on the last thing I wanted them to see: me.
The thing straightened as if pulled up by a string, and then slowly, deliberately, raised its arm and pointed a long, gnarled finger at me. I could hear a sound come from its throat that was nothing close to human: at once the low rumble of a passing train mixed with the screaming of a loose shopping cart wheel. It opened and closed its mouth in a horrid imitation of speech and stepped toward me, now hunched and tip-toeing while never once breaking eye contact.
I foolishly wished there were curtains on the window, as if closing them would keep the creature at bay. I knew I had to keep it outside the house, away from my sleeping wife and son and away from me, and all I could think of was the baseball bat in the next room, and whether or not I would be able to grab it and be back in time before the thing found a way in.
It stopped at the window, flaccid finger pressing against the glass, and furrowed its brow. Then it began to tap on the large pane, a steady, haunting beat that echoed around the room, threatening to wake the house and put everyone in danger.
My worst fear then came true.
“Daddy, what’s that noise?”
My son, his eyes weighted with sleep, stood halfway down the stairs looking at me. I turned to him and waved him away.
“Go back to your room, Charlie, and close the door. Don’t come out until I tell you it’s okay, alright?”
It registered in my brain that the tapping had stopped. I slowly turned away from my boy to see the creature watching us both, his hand flailing back and forth in a crude imitation of a wave.
“Oh!” was all Charlie said.
“Go to your room now, Charlie,” I hissed.
I felt the panic well up inside me, the same panic I had been tamping down for three years, that something awful would happen to my son. Images of his empty bed and the open window next to it came rushing forward. The pain of the two months of searching, anguishing, while the police did nothing, churned up as I fought to keep a steady mind.
Charlie did as he was told, and I relaxed somewhat knowing that the bars on his window, on all the accessible windows, would keep this thing outside. I turned back to look out the window and found that the creature was no longer standing there pushing against the glass. I thought for a moment that I had imagined the whole thing, that this was all some sort of hallucination from sleep-deprivation, and then the doorknob started to move.
It twisted back and forth only slightly, but enough that I could picture the thing turning the knob with its gnarled hands as the staccato of metallic clicks beat against my eardrums. I knew it was only a matter of time before it found its way in, despite all of our precautions. The double deadbolts, the barred windows, the cameras, none of them would be of any use against this horrible creature. I backed slowly out of the room to search for the bat. If it came to it, I would do whatever it took to protect my family.
It took a moment of searching, just a moment, to finally find the bat wedged behind the armoire in the spare room. I had no idea why it was there, but I was happy that I knew. Now that I had forty-two inches of hardened ash in my grip I felt more secure, ready to deal with whatever came next.
I was not ready for what I found when I went back into the front room. There stood Charlie, his spaceman pajamas hanging loosely off of his ten-year-old frame, his hair a tousled mess and his stuffed dog in the crook of his arm, holding open the front door and the thing, easily twice his height loomed over him, its face full of anger.
“I’m sorry,” whispered my son to the thing, “I didn’t know.”
Primal rage boiled up inside me. If my son was talking to this thing then he likely knew it, and if he knew it then there was no doubt in my mind that this thing, this hideous creature, was the cause of my son’s disappearance so many years ago. All thoughts of how or why were shoved aside as my only thought was protecting Charlie.
“Get away from him!” I yelled, charging forward. The thing looked at me and seemed to be looking through me as it lunged to the side to avoid my assault and leapt across the room. It was deceptively fast for its size, and I barely had time to spin around before it launched itself across the room again, grabbing at the air with its grotesque fingers as it dodged my attack. I tripped and fell backwards, cracking my head against the bannister and held up the bat to protect myself.
My wife was there then, pulling Charlie up the staircase despite his protestations. As I tried to regain my footing I realized the thing wasn’t coming after me. It wasn’t even paying attention to me. And with one leap and twist through the air it grabbed ahold of something I hadn’t even noticed: a shadow dancing in the low light.
The cacophony of battle died down as the creature held up the twisting shadow in triumph.
“Yay! Oh, the cleverness of you!” my boy shouted as the creature let out a monstrous sound like the crowing of a diseased rooster.
It leapt into the air and was out the door before I could even react, and I wasted no time shoving the door shut and slamming the deadbolts back into place.
“Second star to the right,” Charlie whispered as he stared out the bay window after the creature, “and straight on until morning.”
I lay there, my back pressed against the door in an impotent effort to keep everything out, and looked back and forth between the wide, panicked eyes of my wife and the sad, ashamed look on Charlie’s face.
“I only meant to borrow it,” said my son, quietly. I remembered then the day he returned to us, out of the blue and with no explanation, with feathers in his hair and his pockets full of dust.