The following short story is a work in progress that I originally wrote up over on my Twitch channel. It was intended to be submitted to a contest on writing.com, but I completely overshot the 1500 word count required of entries. So rather than butcher what I had or rewrite it all from scratch, I’m just going to present it here in its current form and take my time revising it. Enjoy.
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They told me becoming a father would change me, ya know—my parents, that is. My old man used to tell me that’s when I’d learn what sort of man I really was. My mother, however—well, she figured I’d finally get all that was coming to me, for all the trouble I used to cause her when I was a kid. All the screaming and the fighting. But to tell the truth, I don’t think either of them was right. Not really.
Nathan was a sweet kid. Bit of a mommy’s boy, for sure. But the kid never made so much as a peep. Maybe if he’d shit himself, or whatever. Other than that? The kid was an angel. In fact, sometimes I’d get a little worried and go look in on him every now and again just to make sure he was still breathing. For the first couple of weeks, my wife was so terrified she’d wake up one morning and find him dead in his crib that she hardly slept. Me, I didn’t think twice about any of that at the time. But soon as she stopped worrying, I did. I worried about every little noise he made, every little noise he didn’t make. I started researching every ingredient in his formula, his food, his diaper. My wife thought it was cute, all the fuss I made over all this. My parents—my father, mostly—they thought I was driving myself crazy. And maybe I was, at least a little bit. But it felt right, ya know? Like if I did nothing else right with my life, if I could just manage to not fuck this all up for him, then all was right with the world.
So I guess in a way my parents were right about it all. Maybe I did get what was coming to me. Maybe I did learn what sort of man I really was. But it wasn’t when I became a father, because those were the happiest moments of my life. No, I knew they got it right when I ceased to be one.
The last night I saw my little boy alive, the two of us were watching his favorite movie while his mother was cooking dinner. Like I said, he was a real momma’s boy and he’d follow her around the kitchen, trying to help her with whatever it was she was doing. And sometimes she’d let him help too. But most of the time he was just in the way, ya know. What the hell is a two year old going to do when you’re trying to cook? So I picked him up. And he cried and kicked and said he was helping Mommy. And then he stopped all that just as soon as I put on Ghostbusters, because he might have been a momma’s boy but he was still very much my son.
So we’re sitting there, watching the movie, and we get to the part where they’re working their first gig at the hotel. And I remember this real clear too, because my wife came in and asked me when I was going to take this box of Nathan’s old clothes down to the Salvation Army. When I said I’d go take them right then if she didn’t mind Nathan tugging at her apron strings again the second I left, all he could do was tell me how I was going to miss his favorite part in the movie. He loved it when Bill Murray pulls off the table cloth, right, like a magician, and then all the flowers and glasses come flying off with it. He tried to do that at home once, too. Right after the first time he’d seen the movie. Annie didn’t care for that too much.
Anyway, I get up to go and Nathan’s starts getting fussy, telling me, “Gonna miss the flowers, Daddy.” And I tell him to be cool, that we’ll watch it again after dinner, right? But that’s not good enough for him. So Annie tells him he can help her finish up in the kitchen, and of course that works. So, I grab the box and my keys, and I take off.
Now the Salvation Army is about ten minutes away, and I never thought to check the time. Didn’t think it’d close anytime soon, at least. But, of course, I get there and they’re already locked up for the night. The lights are all off and the parking lot is empty except for this kid who works there. He’s maybe sixteen, and he’s just standing there tapping away at his phone. Probably waiting for his mother to come pick him up after his shift, right?
Anyway, I pull up and go to get the box out of the backseat where I put it. And the kid starts saying something, but I can’t really hear. Not until I get half-way to the door.
“You can’t leave that here,” he says to me.
And I stand there for a second, looking at him like he just told me he shit himself. And I ask him what does he mean I can’t leave this here. And he tells me it’s policy and points to a sign over near the door—little red piece of tin. The thing says no donations after hours. And, again, I ask him what does he mean I can’t leave it there. It’s just a box of my son’s old clothes. Are they gonna reject a perfectly good donation, throw that shit in dumpster out back?
The kid just looks at me for a second, like he’s giving it a real one over in his head before he shrugs his shoulders and tells me, “Whatever.”
Cool, whatever. I leave the fucking box there, get back in my car, and then hurry my ass back to my wife and kid.
So I get back home and we have our little family dinner. When we’re all good and done, Nathan helps Annie with the dishes—because of course he has to—and then we finish watching the movie. Of course, we have to start all over again because Nathan, for whatever reason I never understood—and probably never will, of course. But he can’t watch it where we left off. No, he’s got to watch it from the beginning. Okay. Fine, whatever. By the time the movie’s over, he’s passed on the floor in front of the TV. So I carry him to bed, tuck him in. And I just sort of watch him for a long minute. Watching as his little chest rises and fall under his blankets.
And while I’m standing there, I don’t think twice about that kid at the Salvation Army or their stupid sign or the box with Nathan’s clothes or anything else. All I can think about is how my son and I just finished Ghostbusters, so I’m good. It never crosses my mind that this is the last time I’ll see him alive.
Annie and I must’ve only been sleeping for a couple of hours before the noise woke us up. Annie would tell me the first thing she heard was the trash can falling over, but I swear it was this—I’m not sure how else to describe but this wet meowing, like a cat crying under water. Like it was something just outside our window.
So we wake up and it’s dark and Annie’s got this itch that something or someone’s outside. And I tell her it’s probably just some raccoon, right? What else could it be?
But she pushes and asks me to go out and check. And I don’t want to, of course. I just want to sleep. But then she has to go and mention Nathan, telling me something’ll happen to him and how I’d never forgive myself if I’m wrong about it being a raccoon.
Now, don’t get me wrong. And it’s not that I think you’re going to twist my words. It’s just that I want to be clear that I’m not blaming Annie for anything of what happened. Not one bit. What I am saying is that she gets me thinking about Nathan and I can’t help but go out and check. And every night since then, I’ve had to live with that choice. Of going outside to check on whatever that noise was instead of running right over to my son’s side and not leaving him until the fucking sun rose. That falls on me. All of it. Lord knows how Annie blamed herself for everything, no matter what I told her. But this is on me, and it always will be. Right?
Anyway, I go outside and I check around for a bit. I got my cellphone there in my hand, using it like a flashlight. And I don’t see a goddamn thing, just the trashcans knocked over. Annie’s right behind me, asking me what it is, and I tell her just that.
And that’s when it happens. Again, Annie would argue about the order in which it all happened. And I’m pretty sure what I’m saying is the way it really did, but I could be wrong. I don’t know anymore. It’s just been so long now. And after everything that’s happened, I’m hardly sure which way is up some days. But I swear I heard the glass of Nathan’s window shatter long before we hear him screaming. There’s just no way it got in through the back door while we were out there, not without at least one of us hearing or seeing it.
Anyway, the glass breaks and Nathan just starts screaming. He’s crying and screaming for me, begging me to help him. And I know—I just fucking know—that this is it. All those nights of me looking in on him every five fucking minutes and this is the night I finally fuck it all up—me!
I run, right? I just run right for my son’s room and I push my wife out of the way. I just shove her ass out and send her flying against the wall. And I practically fly to my son’s side.
Maybe if I’d been just a little faster, all of this, everything that’s happened since that night, would’ve turned out different. But I wasn’t fast enough. And everything is the way it is.
Sometimes I stay up at night and I can still see it, except it’s all slowed down. And maybe it’s just the way I see it in the dreams and that’s the only way I can see it anymore. Could be that things are all twisted in my head, everything’s exaggerated. But I can see my son’s room just the way I left it a few hours earlier. His little night-light on, casting these little stars across his ceiling. Just light enough so he’s comfortable sleeping in his own bed, but still dark enough that I can’t make out everything all at once when I get in there. It takes my eyes a minute to adjust. But when they do, I see—it’s just blackness all over the wall. Lumpy and dripping down, like someone’d just thrown jars of blueberry preserves against my son’s bedroom walls. I can see it clumped up there. And I look over at my son in his bed, and all I can think is that someone’s covered him in the same shit. That he should be pissed as all hell and crying and begging his momma to give him a bath even though we all know he hates taking a bath.
It’s funny, I remember when he was just a baby. He was maybe three months old at the time. But I’d gone in to check on him like I did, and he was just covered in shit. Just head-to-toe covered in his own shit. Like his diaper had just gone off in his crib like a grenade. And I’m standing there, right? Right there in the doorway, thinking, oh, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding me, right? The kid’s two, almost three. And he’s gone and shit all over himself again. And I think maybe I’m laughing at the time, but I’m really screaming and crying without realizing it. My mind’s just gone. And it isn’t until Annie catches up with me and starts shrieking right behind me that I snap out of it and I finally see, really and truly see what’s going on.
My son’s there, dead in his bed, gutted like a fucking fish. His innards thrown about all over the room, the walls and the floor. The ceiling’s just dark and dripping. Like a bomb had gone off in my son’s belly.
And while my brain’s trying to process all this, I see this thing in the window. And I know it’s there because my wife is telling me to look at it. It’s this sickly looking thing, looks kinda like a person, but it’s skin, it’s face—you ever see one of them naked mole-rats before? It’s nothing but this sickly looking pink skin, beady eyes, and teeth. That’s what’s there standing in my son’s broken window. And I swear it’s holding my son’s skin in its fucking hand.
Everything else is a blur after that. That thing was there one minute and gone the next. The police are at our door, responding to a call from our neighbors. Our neighbors are there watching all this from their own lawns, some of them are recording it with their fucking phones. And I do remember being pissed as all Hell—still am, to tell the truth. But the police and all that do what they need to do, and my wife and I never tell them anything about that thing we saw, of course. But we can’t stand to be there a minute longer than we have to, so we get a room at a hotel and do our best to sleep even though we both know that’s not going to happen. And I don’t think we slept much ever again after that. Every little noise had my wife snapping upright in bed, screaming. And she did that for maybe three months straight. And me? Me, I just can’t sleep at all. These days, even after all this time, I barely manage—if I’m lucky—three hours most nights. If that.
But the weeks and months go by and I don’t even know how we even pretend things are normal in that house after everything. But somehow we do.
And then, one day, my wife gets it in her to ask me to head back down to the Salvation Army. To see if maybe—just maybe—they still have Nathan’s baby clothes somewhere. She wants something to remember him by that isn’t from that room, which at this point we haven’t even stepped into. The thing was cleaned from top to bottom by professionals, tore out the carpet and dry wall and everything. All like new. But it’s just verboten at this point, ya know?
Anyway, it’s been quite a while since I left that box there. No way it wasn’t processed or thrown away, or whatever. But I don’t want to cause Annie anymore grief, of course, so I go.
Now when I get there, I see the same kid from that night. And he just looks at me with that same stupid look of his. Probably saw what happened on the news and isn’t sure how to react to seeing me and all that. So I just go right on and ask him if maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance they still have Nathan’s box of clothes. Of course, he shakes his head and tells me they don’t, that they’ve been sorted and distributed around the store a long time back. And he just keeps on apologizing for a minute until I tell him that’s just fine. And then the manager comes on over and tells me that I can take back whatever I can find that’s still there in the shop. So I thank him and turn to do just that. And that’s when my heart just about stops in my chest.
I nearly fall ass over teakettle and the kid has to catch me before I fall completely over. And when I look back up, he’s there standing in front of me same as you’re sitting right there. It’s my Nathan.
Except it ain’t my Nathan, because my Nathan—or at least what’s left of him—is rotting away in some fucking box in the ground, right? But I see Nathan. It looks just like him, anyway. It’s my little boy with his skin on and everything. But it’s all just a little crooked. Like it’s not set on there quite right.
It takes a minute, ya know, but I finally get it in my head to call out to him. Like maybe it’s really him and I haven’t just lost my goddamn mind. Except when I do, his parents show up. His dad is this big blond man and his mother is this petite Asian woman. And this kid looks nothing like either of them—he looks just like my Nathan.
But they’re standing there, dressed in second-hand clothes. Still got the tag on and everything. And all they do is look at me for a minute, like I’d just caught their son stealing or something. But all they do is politely nod and walk on right out that door and around the corner. And I just watch them do it.
I never did see that kid again. Never went back to that shop either. And I sure as Hell never told Annie about any of this. Not a word. In fact, the only reason I’m telling you all of this now is because I don’t have to worry about her hearing any of it. It might be something worth keeping to my own grave, but whether anyone believes it or not, it’s something that has to be said.
Those signs, the one’s about not leaving your donations after hours. They’re not just some courtesy. They’re warnings.
Maybe my folks really did have it right in the end, bless their souls. That night I lost my little boy to this thing, whatever it is. That’s the night I learned the sort of man I was. I failed my son. And now that Annie’s gone, I know I failed her too. I tried for years to convince myself otherwise. So, if sharing all of this, even if it means looking like a crazy old man in the process. If it means helping a father keep his family safe tonight or any other night, then it needs to be said. I failed my own family. I won’t fail another. Not if I ever want to see my wife and son again.