It’s just your imagination, Dennis thought. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to steady his breathing. Isn’t that what they always say? ‘That Dennis sure has an imagination!’
The blanket crept down his chest and bundled at the end of the bed. He peeked through his eyelashes, but the air above his feet remained clear. There was nothing to see.
“Who’s there?” he asked. His voice was thin and fragile; a little boy’s voice. Dennis cleared his throat. “Who’s there?” he growled, trying to sound older.
Silence answered him, as it had for three nights now. Dennis shuffled backwards and sat on his pillow. He could hear his parents above him, arguing about something he didn’t understand, and he knew better than to disturb them. The last time he tried they had directed their ire at him, and he still felt the sting of that injustice. No, his parents would not help him now.
The floorboards at the end of his bed creaked. How many steps had it taken to reach the wardrobe last night? Seven? As if he had spoken aloud, the door to the old oak wardrobe on the other side of the room swung closed. Dennis balled his hands into fists and tried to think of another hiding spot.
He had memorized every crack and groove in his old room, but this one was still unfamiliar to him. The whole house felt strange, like they were on vacation somewhere and would be leaving soon. It wasn’t theirs yet, despite moving in two weeks ago, and any charm it held in the daylight faded as soon as nighttime approached.
It always started with the bed sheets. His mother would kiss him goodnight, her lips painted with red wine, and turn off the light. Then, just as he began to close his eyes, he would feel a tug on the blanket. The first time it happened, he was already asleep and was able to convince himself it was part of a dream. However, his visitor was more confident now. It barely waited until his mother’s shadow had slipped beneath the door before demanding attention.
The second night he tried lying still, pretending he didn’t notice that his bed sheet was crumpled at his toes. But ignoring it, whatever it was, only seemed to make it angry. It wanted to hear him: his voice; his heartbeat; and his gasping, frightened breath.
Hiding hadn’t worked either. When Dennis made it into the wardrobe last night, he thought he might be spared from the creature’s torment. Instead, it had pounded on the door until the board cracked, sending tiny shards of wood flying over his head. Dennis stayed in there, frozen with fear, until the morning sun scolded his visitor and it finally retreated.
He tried to tell his parents what had happened, but all they did was hand him a spray bottle with a sticker on it that said, ‘MONSTER REPELLENT.’
“Squirt this on your visitor and he’ll go away,” his mother said with a smug grin. His father rolled his eyes, but his mom was insistent. “Fight imagination with imagination,” she hissed at her husband.
Dennis glanced at the bottle on his bedside table. Somehow, he didn’t think that stale water would be much help here.
“I want my blanket back,” Dennis whispered. He crawled to the end of his bed and picked up the sheet with trembling fingers. “I want to go to sleep now.”
The blanket yanked away from him, burning his palm.
“Ow,” Dennis gasped. “You hurt me!”
The wardrobe swung open, and the blanket threw itself inside, hitting the thin backboard with a loud thump. Dennis stretched his arm out, a futile attempt to retrieve his bedding from the other side of the room, but the force ignored him. It slammed the wardrobe shut and locked it.
Dennis’s eyes darted between the wardrobe and his bedroom door. His parents might be mad if he left the room, but at least he could see them. And, he thought with a grimace, they can’t lock furniture without keys.
He focused on the door that separated him from safety, his heart hammering in his chest. Upstairs, his parents had finished fighting and were watching television. Studio laughter cheered him on as he eased himself onto the floor.
It was now or never.
Dennis pushed himself forward and ran across the room. His bare feet slapped against the floor as he dodged boxes he hadn’t yet unpacked, and he thrust his arm toward the doorknob.
A muffled voice shrieked next to his ear. It reverberated around the room, gliding into the walls and crashing back against him. He froze, his breath caught in his throat.
He tried to run again but panicked. The door stretched away from him, pulling the floorboards until they snapped under his feet and sent him sprawling to his knees. Gasping, Dennis darted under his bedroom window. The scream pushed against his skull, full of words he could not comprehend, and he held his hands over his ears.
The handle to the window rattled. Dennis lowered himself until his cheek scraped against the floor. Above him, his father laughed.
“Okay, okay! I’m not leaving!” he cried.
The floor snapped back into place. Dennis pressed himself as closely as he could against the wall, his hands shaking beside him. He traced the floorboards with his eyes but could not see any sign of where they’d splintered only moments ago. They looked just like they always had: light, wooden panels, scuffed by shoes that no longer walked here.
“I don’t know what you want,” Dennis whispered.
The window shuddered.
“Do you want me to open the window? Is that it?”
He pulled himself to his knees and unlocked the window. The glass swung open, and a cool breeze curled under his chin. It lifted his face until he was staring into the backyard.
“That’s my stuff. So what?”
In the middle of the yard a pair of swings hung from a thick wooden beam. They were just as he’d left them that afternoon: completely still, as if resting before he came back to play on them again tomorrow.
“I don’t get—”
One of the swings moved.
Dennis watched with wide eyes as the swing pulled itself forwards and backwards in a disjointed rhythm, faster and faster until he could barely make it out in the dim moonlight. The wooden frame creaked and moaned, and a flock of birds burst out of a nearby tree, screeching as they disappeared into the clouds.
“Stop it, you’ll break it!” Dennis shouted.
The swing stopped mid-flight, refusing to move even when the wind urged it on. It twisted on the spot until its ropes were taut, then let itself spin out. When the tension finally released from the ropes, it fell back down and hung motionless once more.
Dennis reached out to close the window, and it slammed shut in front of his hand. He jumped back and put his fingers to his mouth.
“Why are you doing all this?” he asked. A tear slipped down onto his cheek. Nobody would believe him, that he knew for sure. He had an imagination, after all.
“What do you want from me?”
From the corner of the room, Dennis saw something move. He shuffled forward, placing each foot carefully in front of the other, until he stood beside his desk. Pencils and paper littered its surface, and in the center was an aging checkerboard. One of the small black pieces rose into the air and fell back down in an adjoining square. Dennis frowned.
A red piece on the other side of the board bounced up and down. Dennis hesitated, before reaching forward and picking it up. He moved it diagonally, then jerked his hand away. The piece rested, unmoving, in its new square.
“You want to play?” he asked, furrowing his brow.
The bedroom light turned on and off.
“That’s what this has all been about? You just want to play with me?”
The light turned on and off.
“How old are you?”
The light turned on and off, again and again. Dennis counted silently.
“You’re eight. I’m eight too. Are you always going to be eight?”
The light turned on and off.
“Do you know where your parents are?”
The room remained dark.
Dennis paused. “Were those your swings?”
The light turned on and off.
“Well, I can’t play outside with you. But I guess we could play a few games of checkers.”
The light flicked on and off excitedly. Dennis smiled, then felt his mouth droop a moment later.
“I’m not always going to be eight though. You know that, right?”
The light turned on and off, slower this time.
Dennis slid into a chair. “We can worry about that later. Let’s play.”
A black piece jumped forward. Dennis raised one of his pieces and made a move.
“You’d better give me my blanket back once we’re finished,” he said.
And he swore, from the other side of the table, he heard laughter.
Elizabeth Nettleton grew up on the Sunshine Coast, Australia, and now lives in Oxfordshire, England. She has been an avid reader and writer since she was a child, and particularly enjoys writing dark and speculative fiction. Her short stories and drabbles have been included in The Sirens Call eZine, Trembling with Fear, Short Fiction Break, and several anthologies by Eerie River Publishing.