The mother’s eyes snapped open. For a moment, she felt confused, fuzzy. The full moon cast a cold, white light through the open window, and a chilly breeze wafted inside, bringing with it the intoxicating smell of budding flowers, green grass and wet sand.
Quietly, she stared out the window at the garden she loved and tended to with great care. For some reason, the sight of the dark garden unsettled her and she deliberately turned her back on the window. It didn’t make her feel better. Her skin began to crawl, and she got the distinct feeling that someone was looking at her. Is that what had woken her? Was there someone in the garden, just waiting for the perfect time to invade their home? She spun around. In the bright moonlight, she could make out every tree, every shrub and flowerbed, but she didn’t see a person.
Feeling a little foolish, she turned back to her husband, who was still fast asleep. For a moment, she felt intense anger at him. How could he sleep so peacefully? Why did it always fall on her to make sure the family was okay, that the children weren’t somehow choking in their sleep or walking through the house unsupervised, just looking for a way to injure themselves? She pushed the feelings way, way down. “It’s a mother’s job,” she whispered.
Her husband stirred. “Whu?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
Within seconds, his breathing returned to normal, and she could see the even rise and fall of his chest. In the crib against the opposite wall, the baby stirred in his sleep and moaned. She tensed, waited for the cry, but it never came. Like her husband, the baby went right back to sleep, and though she couldn’t see him clearly, she could hear him snoring softly and couldn’t stop the smile.
Slowly, the tension left her body. Maybe it was just a dream that woke her, and what she felt was the aftershock of a terrible nightmare. She wondered if she should check on her oldest two. That’s what she should have done, that’s what any good mother would do, but she was so very, very tired. Fatigue stole across her body, and it felt like magnets forced her eyes shut. She flipped over onto her stomach, and waited for sleep to claim her.
Just as she was about to drift off, she heard a giggle from her two older sons’ room. Her eyes flew open. She half expected to see someone, or something, standing next to her bed, but all she saw was the open space between the bed and the window, and the quiet garden, bathed in moonlight. She waited. Unaware that she was holding her breath. There it was again, but this time he laughed out loud. A beautiful, happy belly laugh.
The mother relaxed and smiled. Her son was obviously having a very good dream. She closed her eyes and waited for sleep.
“Leave me alone!” her son screamed.
The mother froze, her heart started pounding in her chest, blood rushed through her veins, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe, but then her son cried out again, and her motherly instincts overrode her fear. She came unglued and tumbled out of bed.
Within seconds, she was out the door, down the hall and standing in her sons’ room. She snapped on the light without even thinking about it, and looked around the place, but apart from her two boys still sleeping peacefully in their beds, the room was empty. Feeling slightly annoyed, she sighed, switched off the light and left the sleeping children behind.
Knowing she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, the mother went to the small office she kept right across from the boys’ bedroom. She switched on her computer, thinking that she might as well catch up on a little work while she was up. For just a moment, she forgot that she had three children, a useless husband who couldn’t get out of bed if wild horses tried to drag him out, mountains of unpaid bills and only one meagre income.
So lost was she in her work that at first it didn’t register. “Is this your brother?” Markus asked.
The mother frowned and stopped typing, straining her ears, listening as intently as she could.
“I have a little brother too,” the boy said and giggled.
The boy stopped talking. The mother waited. Listened.
“What does … iddi … idditating mean?” Markus went quiet as if listening, then laughed. “Yes, they are idditating.”
Talking in his sleep, the mother thought, and tried to go back to work, but her son didn’t stop talking, and laughing. The mother sighed, and pushed away from her desk – obviously, the child was having a dream or some kind of fever-induced hallucination.
Her son sat bolt upright in his bed, staring at the opposite wall, his head cocked to the side, his eyes lively and interested. “Markus?” she asked. “Who are you talking to?”
The boy jerked, startled. He gave his mother a toothy grin. “My friends, but you chased them away.”
The mother walked over to his bed and laid her hand on his forehead. He was cool to the touch. “I’m sorry, but you know it’s late and you should be asleep. You can play with your friends again tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mommy,” the boy said obediently.
“Okay then, lie down and try to sleep.”
The boy nodded, and flopped down. She tucked him in, planted a kiss on his cheek and left the room. The minute she was back in her little office, Markus resumed his conversation. She listened, fascinated.
“I have dinosaurs. Do you want to see them?”
Quiet. As if her son was listening to someone talking back.
“Don’t you like dinosaurs?”
“Okay. Do you want to play cars?”
“Yes,” a deep, calm voice answered.
The mother almost vomited as her heart rate shot up and blood rushed to her head. Was it her imagination? Did someone just answer her son? She couldn’t move – nothing could get her out of the chair.
“I like hot wheels. Do you like hot wheels too?”
The mother relaxed, almost laughed. Her imagination was playing tricks on her.
“What … hot wheels?”
Her head started spinning. She desperately wanted to get out of the chair, walk the short distance between her office and her bedroom to wake her husband, but terror had glued her to her seat. “Markus!” she screamed. “Markus, come here!”
She heard her son’s bed creak as he got up, his little footsteps padded down the hall, and then he stood next to her. “What, Mommy?”
“Who are you talking to?”
“My grown-up friends. My friend’s brother is gone. Did his brother go to sleep?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. I guess so, but … there’s no one here.”
“Where is he sleeping? I can’t find him.”
“I … there’s no one here, Markus!”
“Yes there is,” he said. “Come see.”
The mother was afraid, dreadfully, uselessly afraid. “No, no I don’t think so. Go … you should go back to sleep.”
Markus spun around and ran out of the office.
“Where’s your brother? Did he go to sleep?”
“Okay. But where? I can’t find him. Is he under the bed?”
The mother’s heart rate slowed. Perhaps it just was her imagination. Children had imaginary friends all the time. That was it – just her child’s imagination, and in the dark of night, she allowed herself to get swept up by it.
“Okay. Hey! Do you want some milk? I can ask my mommy to get us some …”
“Oh, you don’t like milk? Why not?”
“Okay. I’m very tired now. You have to go.”
The boy fell silent. The mother waited.
“Leave me alone now, I want to sleep,” Markus said.
Minutes passed. The mother started to relax. The fear left her body. Her mind cleared. Just when she started to think the worst was over, Markus cried out. “Leave me alone! Go away.”
A soft chuckle.
Immediately, the paralyzing fear was back. She knew she had to get up, had to go to her son, but she couldn’t. Unadulterated terror coursed through her very being, and she remained frozen to the spot. She was close to tears, and panic threatened to overwhelm her. She prayed, “Please God, whatever it is, make it stop.”
Silence fell, minutes dragged by, everything returned to normal. The baby cried, the mother got up, fed him, changed him and put him back in his crib. She tried to wake her husband, she really needed to talk to him, wanted to tell him what had happened, wanted to feel not so alone, but he just waved her away. “Oh, go ‘way,” he mumbled and turned his back on her.
The mother returned to her little office. She stared at the computer screen, but didn’t take anything in. Her mind was reeling. She had never felt so completely and utterly alone. The rest of the world didn’t exist for her. In that moment, she felt like she was the only living person on the planet. Did she really hear a man laugh in her son’s room? Was she so strung out and sleep-deprived that she was imagining it all?
The boy’s screams interrupted her train of thought. “Go away. Leave me alone! Go away. I want to sleep. Go away.”
The mother sighed and got up. Her heart was beating way too fast again, and she had a fleeting image of herself lying dead on the floor because her overtaxed heart gave out. The night’s rollercoaster was almost too much to handle, and her chest hurt with the effort it took just to breathe. She wanted it to be over, wanted to sun to come up, and for the nightmare to end.
She made it to the doorway of the children’s bedroom. She gasped loudly and stopped short. A shadowy figure was hunched over her son. The room exploded with a cacophony of sounds. Quiet whispers, weeping, calls for help. She was almost paralyzed with fear, but she had to try, had to stop being useless, had to do something. “Go away!” the mother said in her sternest voice. “Leave him in peace.”
She flicked the light switch. Immediately, the voices died and the shadowy figure disappeared. Her son gave her a dazed look. “Mommy, there was a man in my room.”
The mother glanced at her other son, who quite amazingly still slept soundly. She turned back to Markus. “You were only dreaming, sweetheart.”
“No, I wasn’t. He had a hat and he scratched me.”
“Where did the man come from?” she asked.
“He climbed out of me.”
A chill ran down her spine. She struggled to think, didn’t know what to say. “Okay, but he’s gone now. Go back to sleep.” It was the best she could do.
Markus snuggled under his blankets. “Will you sing me the twinkle song, Mommy?”
“Of course I will.”
The mother sang softly while she brushed sweaty hair from her son’s brow. “Mommy?”
“If Nathan goes away, will you miss him?”
“Yes, I will. I will miss him very much.”
“The man with the hat said he’s all alone, and he wishes he had a brother too. I told him he can have Nathan, then he won’t be alone anymore. I’m sorry, Mommy. Don’t let him take Nathan, okay?”
“Good,” the little boy said. “Okay. Night-night.”
The mother turned away from the bed. A scream stuck in her throat. “Go to sleep,” the man with the hat said.
She didn’t have time to register what she saw. Her mind went completely blank. The mother tumbled to the floor.
Sharp sunlight stabbed at her eyes. The mother groaned and turned away from the window. Next to her, the husband was still sleeping. She could hear her sons playing in their bedroom, laughing, joking, roughhousing, being happy, contented little boys. “It was a dream,” she almost laughed. “It was only a stupid dream.”
The mother stretched, groaned in pleasure and got out of bed. She grabbed her cell phone to deactivate the alarm before it went off and woke the baby. A small frown creased her brow. She stared at the clock on her phone. Almost couldn’t believe what she saw. It was well past midday. A worried knot formed in her stomach.
She looked at the crib, could see her baby’s shape under the single blanket, but he wasn’t moving. He should have woken her hours ago. Her lips went numb, her legs felt like jelly, and with incredible strength she somehow managed to walk to the crib. With trembling hands, she pulled the blanket off the baby.
The child cooed, and blew a little spit bubble. The mother laughed softly, the nightmare had gotten to her. It was strange that he had gone more than twelve hours without a feeding, but maybe the husband had gotten up at some point to give him a bottle.
She lifted her infant and cradled him against her. “There’s Mommy’s big guy,” she said, and gently patted his back. She heard happy squeals and laughter from her other sons’ bedroom. Markus said something to Nathan. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but Nathan responded with a hearty laugh. “Let’s go see what your brothers are up to, and get some breakfast in you guys.”
On her way out, the mother kicked the bed. “Get up!” she said, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. “Do something with your useless, fucking life.”
The husband stirred and turned on his side, away from her. Ashamed at herself for the outburst, she ignored him and left the room.
The mother stood in stunned silence. Markus sat on his bed, talking to Nathan, but Nathan wasn’t moving under the bed covers. She was sure she had heard him talking and playing with his brother.
Then it dawned on her – he was probably playing his favourite hide and seek game. She grabbed an extra blanket from Nathan’s bed, spread it out, and gently lay the baby down on the floor. “Where’s Nathan?” she asked playfully. “I was sure he was in here.”
“He’s there, Mommy!” Markus squealed and pointed at his brother’s bed before he collapsed with laughter.
“Is he under the bed?” the mother asked, and dropped to her knees. “No,” she said as she got up. “He’s not there. Where could he be? Is he under his blanket?” she asked and ripped off the covers.
Nothing could stop her screams. She gathered her child in her arms, and started rocking him, calling out his name.
The husband finally woke up, and ran down the hall to investigate. He looked from his son to his screaming wife, to the crying baby on the floor, to his wife. “Stop screaming,” he yelled and smacked her across the face. The mother’s mouth snapped shut. She stared at him in shocked amazement. “What happened?” he asked. “What. The. Hell. Happened?”
“I stopped him,” Markus piped up. “He tried to take Nathan, but I wouldn’t let him.”
The mother and father turned to their son, their eyes wide. “What do you mean, Markus?” the father asked.
“The man. He wanted to take Nathan away with him, but I stopped him,” Markus said, and proudly pushed out his chest. “I made him go away. I looked after Nathan. I am a good big brother.”
The mother looked at her dead child’s face. His sweet little face was contorted in a look of abject terror, his mouth still open as if he screamed in his final moments. “Nathan … is dead,” she said. Her voice sounded like it came from outside her, and very far away, but she pushed on. “He’s gone, Markus. He died.”
“He’s not gone,” Markus said. “He’s right over there. He’s hiding in the closet. See?”
The mother and father very slowly turned their heads to look at their sons’ open closet. The mother thought she saw something move in the shadows.
“Now he can stay with you forever,” Markus went on. “And you’ll never have to be sad or alone again.”