“What?” I said, my eyes reflexively scrunching up as I turned under the duvet.
“I’m too scared to go to bed.”
They stood in the doorway, backlit by the lifeless hall light. This was an all too familiar routine, one he’d have to grow out of, but ever since Mum left he couldn’t face the dark.
Reluctantly I swung my legs into the cold, shedding the duvet, accurately inserting my feet into small slippers and walked towards him, his face blank as a freshly painted wall, hands tucked into his armpits.
“I’ll lead the way,” I said, my voice morning-thick.
We reached the of flight of stairs, and along the way I again noted the ghosts of pictures, faint grey rectangular lines on the paint, of family portraits – missing – like her.
The only light switch was at the top, an electricians error yet to be rectified.
“I’ll go up. You wait here.”
“Yes”, came the whispered reply, hesitant, slow, distant like a trans-Atlantic phone call.
I didn’t look back, I never did.
Softly my feet met the varnished pine steps, until the hallway lighting left my side, leaving me to fumble in darkness, feeling each step, counting in whispers, twenty three, twenty four…until I reached out, my fingers feeling rough carpet, eyes adjusting, seeing nothing but that pattern of darting green specks.
Stepping upwards, I felt around the corner for the familiar switch. Strange… It had the feeling of knuckles, rough skin, of fingers and a ring.
Pushing childish thoughts to one side my searching hand tripped the light, extinguishing any imagined presence.
I looked down the staircase. He wasn’t there. I waited, watching, focused on that distant patch.
“Are you coming up?” Words always sounded so lonely from here, where questions contained questions.
A shadow kissing the laminate was followed by his appearance, gripping an axe, wearing that vacant face that fear moved into each night free of charge.
Apparently the axe was for his protection, although it surprised me at first.
Mechanically, he came up the staircase, eyes fixed on me begging me not to move, more whites than pupils, axe grasped in both hands.
As he approached I shuffled off to the bedroom door, the only one other than the linen cupboard.
Turning the handle, the creaking panel-door swung inwards revealing no secrets in the poverty stricken light that filtered through, allowing me to see the carpeted floor. I noticed some stains then reached around, flipping the switch, hearing wheezing behind me.
The double bed lay motionless in the middle of the room, covered in navy sheets. The desk was unusually tidy, while the mirrored wardrobe haemorrhaged clothing.
He walked in, brushing past, making me take the end of the axe handle across the shoulder. He stopped halfway between me and the bed. Without moving his body he twisted his neck, giving me one eyeball. “It wasn’t me.”
Confused, I tried to decipher the meaning. “What wasn’t?”
I inspected the prominent brown spots of various sizes embedded in the cream. It wasn’t my business. I shrugged.
He walked to the edge of the bed and stood motionless, staring at his reflection, unbreakable eye contact, transfixed. I was losing patience then he looked down at the axe and uttered, “Youuu!”, at it, before placing it on the duvet, then peeling a corner up he slipped into bed, pulling sheets up to his neck, staring at the ceiling.
“I need you to look under the bed…” he said, so robotic and emotionless I felt a shiver crawl outwards across my skin, increasingly worried by his strange behaviour.
Hesitant, I crossed the room, stepping over the faded brown spatter marks.
“Do I have to?”
Crouching down, I looked at the white bedskirt with matching stains with what looked like traces of green sponge, and I felt damp seep through my pyjamas from the carpet.
I reached out, pulling the bedskirt upwards, “There’s nothing under there”, pre-loaded onto my tongue.
Leaning down, I confidently looked under, glancing briefly, releasing the cotton in shock. My breathing stopped. I was unaware of any movement in my body, my throat dried instantly.
“Well?” he said.
Trembling, I struggled to stand up, and slowly I backed away towards the door, his eyes following me, the varnished axe handle bouncing light.
“There’s…nothing there.” Turning slowly I reached the doorway and managed to say, “Sleep well, Dad”, before closing the door quickly.
I turned the landing light off and went down the stairs quieter than a cat, as if Mum wasn’t under the bed, as if everything was totally normal, as if they did actually get a divorce, as if at eleven years old I would have to run far, far away.