For the fourth time that night Payton Marsch heard the muffled low and raspy groan coming from his closet.
He checked the clock: 1:48 a.m. Three minutes since the last groan. The previous one had occurred after a six-minute silence. The other two he hadn't bothered to time, but he did know that they were spaced further apart.
Buried in his sheets, the comforter so huge that it engulfed his seven-year-old frame, he rolled over onto his side, facing away from the closet door. Even at his young age he knew it was unwise to turn your back on potential danger, but at the same time he drew comfort from this small effort to make himself stronger.
His father would have wanted it that way.
"Big boys don't complain or cry out for their dads at the first sign of trouble," his father'd been telling him over the past six months.
He lay there, body curled up, knees drawn tight against his chest. The muscles in his back were weak and loose from the fear of what might be in his closet making that noise.
Eyes closed, he prayed that sleep would come and after a nice long dream, he'd open his eyes to the morning light that always spilled through the window just above the headboard. He'd walk to school with Dave, settle into class, and by first recess, tonight would be nothing but a faded memory.
I wish my door was open, he thought. His father was adamant about bedroom doors being shut at night. A fire hazard if they're left open, he'd say.
"Gotta be safe should something happen," Payton was told more than once.
Dad had never been the safety freak of the family, but ever since Mom didn't come home last month, Dad had changed. He was more paranoid, more unsure, and the man that Payton once thought of as his own personal Axiom-man was now just a mere mortal.
His eyes snapped open as the low, raspy groan seeped from behind the closet doors again. He cringed beneath his sheets, sucking his body up into an even tighter ball. Dare he look at the clock?
"No fear, no fear, no fear," he whispered and forced himself to roll over.
It was 1:49. Probably 1:49:30, if the red digital display on the little black clock showed seconds.
It's getting closer. Though he was just learning the art of telling time in school--something he had a little difficulty grasping, especially when dealing with those catalogue clocks--no wait, fire log clocks?--that wasn't it either, but whatever they were called, it didn't matter. Point was, he understood that there were sixty seconds in a minute, which was different than one hundred pennies in a dollar. And half a minute was thirty seconds, so that meant the next time he heard the sound, it would be less than a minute from now.
He closed his eyes and focused on the math. Though he was ahead of his class and already grasping the basic concepts of division, what he wouldn't give for a pencil and paper to make figuring this out easier. Less than a minute, less than a minute, less than...
Thirty-five seconds? Forty?
Wait. A minute and a half is ninety seconds, right? So half that is ... um ... half is ... forty ... forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, yeah, forty-five seconds. Less than a minute. I was right!
That "less than a minute" quickly came round and once more another groan came from his closet, this time louder.
"Dad..." he whispered, half-expecting his father to hear him all the way to his bedroom at the end of the hall. "Dad, wake up. It's almost here. Dad."
Half of forty-five ... His jaw dropped. There is no half of forty-five. Five can't be split in half!
"Oh no," he said louder than he meant to and quickly slapped a palm over his mouth to keep himself quiet.
He peeked over at the closet door. The white dual-doors joined together by a pair of hinges, which were gray in the darkness that covered his bedroom, sat there, unassuming, the wood the only thing separating himself from whatever was within.
A shockwave zipped up and down Payton's chest and his breathing kicked into overdrive.
"It's almost here," he mouthed, the only sound escaping his lips the sibilance of the letter S.
Hands shaking, he ducked under his quilt.
"Dad, come here. Dad, come here. Dad, come here."
His father never came.
He had to scream--needed to--and make some kind of noise to alert his father to what was going on. His closet had never made noise before. The clothes inside didn't make noise. Even the toys and board games lining the top shelf within were quiet ones.
Something was inside there.
"Gggrrruuuhhh..." The sound. That awful sound.
The closet doors creaked open, their squeal against the hinges sending a wild tingle up and down Payton's arms. His body locked. He couldn't move.
"DAD!" He pictured himself throwing the comforter and sheet off his body, leaping out of bed, throwing open the bedroom door and bounding down the hall and barreling into his father's room to seek solace beside his dad's big and warm body. The mental image was so clear and so real that Payton's heart broke when he realized that he was still in bed, cowering beneath the sheets.
"Dad!" His voice caught in his throat and when he tried to call out again, only a soft "Da" escaped his lips.
Payton remained there in the dark beneath his quilt, hugging his knees to his chest, head pressed tightly against his kneecaps. "Go away, go away, go away." Breathing hard and breathing deep, he waited there in morbid apprehension. Any moment now, whatever was within his closet would come out, whip back his bed sheets and rip him to pieces.
Yet nothing happened.
The moments ticked by. One minute? Two? He didn't know. He didn't have a clock here under the covers to help him keep track of time.
"Big boys aren't afraid of the dark," his father told him last week when he took away his nightlight. "You're going to spend your whole life sleeping in a dark room. You'll be safe. There's nothing to be afraid of."
If only he could hear those words now: "There's nothing to be afraid of."
Dad, you just don't know. Dad, you're not here. You never hear me. Tears leaked out from the corners of his eyes.
"I wish you were here," Payton said, his voice heavy with grief.
Snot leaked from his nose; he wiped it against his knees, the snot's dampness seeping through his pajama pants to the skin beneath.
The moments ticked by.
Silence. The whole house was quiet.
His heart began to slow and his breathing calmed down.
"I think it's gone," he whispered. "H-hello?"
More than anything he wanted to be strong. More than anything he wanted to show his father he was brave and that he could face the dark.
Be fast. You can do it. He gripped the comforter near his head. One ... He squeezed the quilt even tighter. Two ... Tighter still. Just go fast. And he prepared the word "Dad" to come screaming out of his lips should he need it. Three!
He threw the quilt forward, ripping it from over his head.
There was no one there. The room was quiet. The room was dark.
The closet door was open, offering a gateway to endless black.
A rush of heat coated Payton's skin and sweat burst from his pores.
He sat there for several minutes, his lips pursed, breathing out the fear.
The clock read 1:54.
Ears perked, he listened again for the groaning. Listened for any sign of life in the house.
Quiet. Absolute silence.
Heart beating quickly, he thought maybe that groaning was his imagination after all, that the closet--which needed to be closed all the way to remain shut thanks to its janky hinges--that maybe that groaning was just built up tension in the frame.
The thought brought a smile to his face and a sudden feeling of foolishness. Perhaps his dad was right. Perhaps he was a scaredy-cat.
"I thought..." he started. "Stupid."
He slowly swung his legs over the side of the bed, slid his bottom to the edge then planted his feet on the plush carpet. When he stood, it took a couple of steps for his feet to be sure beneath him, his legs still rubbery from the ordeal.
The closet loomed before him, its inside pitch black, an endless pit of the unknown.
Just close it then go to bed. Don't tell Dad tomorrow. His heart ached. He'll just make you feel bad.
"Just do it quick," he said quietly and stretched out his hand to push closed the dual-door.
Something stirred in the dark.
Before Payton could scream, a gray hand snapped out of the dark and grabbed him.