My four year old son and I have a night-time ritual. Step one: turn off his cartoons and pray he won’t wail loud enough for the neighbors to think I’m torturing him. Step two: sedate the wild beasty with the “Goodnight Moon” story. He’ll be crawling all over the bed at the beginning, but I just keep reading slower and softer while I wait for him to wind down. Then with barely a whisper, I’ll say:
“Goodnight Mommy,” he’ll always say back. The peace that comes afterward, it somehow completes the long day of commuting and work. It heals all the pacifying of clients, and writing reports, and running errands, and cooking and cleaning and everything else that makes Atlas’s job look easy. And listening to my boy’s deep breathing, everything in the world will be right again, and I’ll know I’d do it a million times over just for the sacred simplicity of the precious little time I have with him.
That’s how I thought it would go on forever, until a few nights ago when I whispered goodnight and he replied: “Goodbye mommy.”
“You’re supposed to say goodnight, silly,” I said. “Goodbye means leaving, and I’m not going anywhere.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ll miss you mommy. Goodbye.”
He was asleep before I could respond again. I thought it was cute at the time. I didn’t think for a second about waking him up and going through the whole process of settling down again. There was something about how deliberately he said it though that left me feeling unsettled. Just to be safe, I walked around the room and made sure his window was locked. I left the door open a crack like I always do to check in on him, kissed him one last time, and then left.
I didn’t hear a peep all night, but I still couldn’t get any sleep. I kept getting this chill and waking up in a cold sweat. What if he said goodbye because someone said they’d take him away? Mikey’s father didn’t live with us (long story), but he’d never even showed interest in his son before. It wasn’t a rational fear that made me keep walking by his room at night. Once at 11 PM, tucking his errant legs back under the covers. Again at 2 AM, putting his stuffed dragon back under his arm. I finally got a few hours of fitful sleep, until 7 AM rolled around way too fast when it was time to get him ready for pre-school and –
he was gone. My bleary eyes became lasers. The stuffed dragon was still there. He’d never go anywhere (not even the bathroom) without it. Windows, doors, all locked from the inside. Closets, cabinets, pantries, I was on a rampage, tearing the place apart like I was a pillaging army. Screaming his name until I was hoarse, pounding on my neighbors doors, and then finally calling the police.
I was in tears by the time the officer came by to ask me a few questions. No, I don’t know where he could have gone. No, I don’t know why anyone would take him. No, no, no, until finally I mentioned that he said goodbye last night.
“Sounds like he ran away then, ma’am. I’ll get this back to the station. In the meantime, take a drive around all his favorite parks, playgrounds, whatever is nearby.”
The whole day was hell, and the next morning was worse. I don’t know if those haunted stretches of misplaced time can be considered sleep, but the first thing I did when I woke up was look in his room again. The vain hope that this had all been a nightmare flickered when I saw what was on his bed.
A crude, crayon drawing of a little blue blob (the color of his pajamas), riding something that looked like his stuffed dragon. Shaky block letters underneath said:
The stuffed dragon was gone. It didn’t mean anything though. I’d been tearing the room apart looking for him, and it would have been very easy for me to knock one of his drawings onto the bed. I’d probably taken the dragon when I was looking for him without even noticing. All the drawing did was send me into a fresh spiral of despair. The police hadn’t turned up anything, and it wasn’t until the next morning when I got my next clue.
Another drawing was left on his bed. There was a taller figure here, and I assume it was supposed to be me because underneath it said:
That was the longest day of my entire life. I patrolled the house a dozen times, even crawling through the heating ducts to see if he was still in the house somewhere. I picked up a security camera to watch his room so I could catch whoever was leaving the drawings. After-that it was just a matter of waiting to see if tomorrow brought anything new. I’d intended on staying up all night to watch his room, but I’d run myself so ragged that I couldn’t fend off a few hours of welcome oblivion.
The cam footage was the first thing I thought about. It was Mikey. Walking into his bedroom in the same pajamas I’d seen him in last. The stuffed dragon was clutched under one of his little arms. He didn’t face the camera mounted above the door, he just went straight to his crayons in the corner and began drawing. I sat there mesmerized while he drew – ten minutes at least before he got up and put the drawing on the bed. He broke the blue crayon while he colored, and sure enough the blue was still broken on the floor where he’d left it. When he was finished, he finally faced the camera.
It wasn’t Mikey. That thing that looked at the camera. The thing wearing his pajamas and sitting in his bed, it didn’t have a face. Just smooth skin with slight contours where the facial features should be, like latex pulled suffocatingly tight across the face. There wasn’t a mouth, but I could still tell he was smiling from how the muscles pulled back when he looked at me.
I NO U WACHIN. I WACHIN U 2.
That’s what his drawing said, right next to a crude drawing of an eyeball. I’m insane, I decided. The stress, the worry, the sleepless nights. It’s driven me insane. I didn’t know who to show the video to. I didn’t even know if they’d see the same thing I saw, or whether it was all in my head. I just lost it. I don’t know how long I spent in that room — sitting and rocking in the corner, hands clutching my knees to my chest — but before I knew it, it was dark again.
I was so, so tired. I hadn’t been to work in days. I don’t even know if I still had a job. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d taken more time off to spend with Mikey, I could have deciphered his warning sooner and prevented all this. Or that if he really did run away, then it was my fault and I was living in a nightmare of my own creation.
I guess I just fell asleep where I sat in the corner of his room. It was still dark when I woke up, but I was still so tired that I didn’t open my eyes. I just sat there listening to a soft scratching for a long time before I was finally alert enough to realize what it was.
Crayon on paper. Mikey. I was awake in an instant, and holding in my scream took more willpower than I knew I had.
He was sitting on his bed, his back toward from me. Scratch, scratch, scratching away with the crayons. Humming something, the gentle melodic rise and fall of the sing-song voice I used when reading Goodnight Moon. I stood up as quietly as I could, but he must have heard me because he put his crayon down.
“Mikey?” I whispered, still terrified that I had gone completely insane.
The boy climbed down from the bed, his back still facing me.
“Where did you go, Mikey? Why did you say goodbye to mommy?”
“Mommy is too busy. Mommy doesn’t care.”
It was his voice! His soft, pure little voice. And he was talking, so he had a mouth! I was in tears as I rushed toward him, but he didn’t react even when I hugged him to me.
“Mommy does care! I’m so glad you’re back, Mikey. You have no idea how much I’ve missed-”
I didn’t see it until I was already holding him. Now, his lack of a face was all I could see.
“I do know. I told you I’ve been watching you too.” It wasn’t a mouth he was speaking from. Not exactly. The slit started at the top of his neck and ran vertically to where his nose should have been. It opened and closed with the motions a mouth might make, but it was a gaping wound that he was speaking out of. Each time it closed, a sucking gurgle reverberated from it.
I let go, but he didn’t. He was latched around my hand, dragging me into the wound which closed around my fingers. I didn’t realize how fragile that little body was until I pulled free and the wound tore wider, all the way up his face. He didn’t stop though — leaping at me, climbing me, grabbing my other hand to shove it deep into the wound. I tore free, this time ripping him all the way down to his stomach before I could get him off me.
He was insatiable. I had to throw him against the wall before I was able to escape. I slammed the door behind me and put my back against it, alternating between heaving sobs and tense breathless pauses while I listened inside. “Goodbye mommy,” was all I heard.
I held the door shut while I called the police, although I didn’t feel any pressure or hint of presence from the other side. It took them ten minutes to arrive, and by the time I opened the door to Mikey’s room again, the boy was gone.
The security footage! I ran to my computer in the other room and pulled it up while they waited: patient, polite, and utterly unconvinced. I clicked on empty file after empty file, everything black and inscrutable from tonight. Next I looked for last night’s footage, but it was completely gone.
I didn’t go back into Mikey’s room until after the police had gone, and even then I crept like I was a thief in my own house. That’s when I noticed the blue crayon smeared all over the lens of the camera. There wasn’t any sign of him left. Not even the blood from that source-less, flapping wound.
What I did find though? A fresh drawing, childlike and innocent despite all the red. It looked like me again, but there was a big pac-man like thing that was about to eat me up. Underneath it said:
FUN MOMMY. PLAY AGAN TOMORROW NITE.
I hate thinking about how many chances I’ve had to play, all wasted because I was too busy or too tired or too distracted by everything that didn’t matter in life. I miss him so much, I think I’m even looking forward to tonight.
Even if he isn’t the same as I remember. Even if I have to blindfold myself so I don’t have to look at what he’s become, I’m going to sit down and draw with him. And maybe, if I’m very very lucky, then he’s going to understand how hard I’m trying and he’s going to still be there when the morning comes.