Mikey Bryant woke up coughing. His throat ached from the smoke, and when he opened his eyes, the acrid haze forced them closed again. The smoke alarm’s shrill, rhythmic screech made his head pound.
“Mommy!” He yelled it across the endless expanse between his bed and the door. He sat up, clutching his stuffed bear against his chest. “Daddy!” He added, then coughed again.
He forced his eyes open and saw movement. There was something scuttling across the room from Mikey’s left to his right. The closet was there, and Mikey could just see the outline of the open door. The shape obscured the bottom of the frame for a moment as it passed through and disappeared into the blackness.
Tears spilled from Mikey’s eyes, from both irritation and fear and he wiped them with the sleeve of his pajamas. “Daddy!” He called again into the room. He got to his feet and with one arm outstretched, the other still holding the teddy in a stranglehold, he stepped in the direction of the door. The safety of his parents’ room awaited him beyond.
Thundering footsteps caused the floor to shudder beneath him and the smoke first swirled, then parted. “Daddy,” Mikey said, this time more statement than demand, and closed his eyes. He felt strong arms wrap around him, bundle him in a soft blanket and lift him from the ground.
“Mikey,” his father’s voice washed over him. “You okay, buddy?”
Mikey nodded. He was safe. He buried his face into the curve of his father’s neck, and his tears stopped.
“Good,” Daddy said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Mikey felt them turn and go out, through the door to his parents’ room. Again he forced his eyes open. He wanted to see where they were going.
They were running, stomping near blind through the smoke. They stopped for a moment and Mikey looked down the hallway. Flames leaped at the other end and blocked the path to the front door. A wall of flickering orange light obscured the living room and kitchen.
Mikey’s eyes were not dazzled by the dancing fire. Instead, they focused on the shape that stood in the hallway, silhouetted against the deadly backdrop. It was short, like him, and black, or was that the shadows and smoke? It looked vaguely human, but also, Mikey thought, like the drawing of a character in a fairy story his mother had read to him. He could not remember which one. It made him shiver, and he hugged his father tight.
They were off again, Daddy having regained his bearings, and Mikey lost sight of the creature. Moments later they were at the window that overlooked the back yard, and Mikey’s father held him out into the open air. Mikey panicked at first, then his mother’s grateful eyes locked on his and he relaxed.
His father followed him through the window. He wore only a pair of jeans–no shirt–and a blanket folded and held over his mouth against the smoke that poured out of the windows.
The sirens were first a distant whistle, then a caterwauling howl on approach, then, as the red and blue flashers dyed the night sky purple, they were a piercing alarm. Mikey stared transfixed, both by the yellow flames that were beginning to flick out of the windows like a snake’s tongue, and by the huge fire trucks that had pulled up to the curb and loosed their contingent of scrambling, yellow-clad firefighters into the lawn. Mikey’s mother wept and held him too tight. Mikey didn’t mind.
They walked to the front. Mikey and his mother took the blankets the firemen offered. Mikey’s father refused, instead pacing back and forth in the warm night in front of his family. The neighbors were out of their houses. Mikey recognized Mrs. Griffin next door, and Tim across the street. There were others he did not know. Nobody approached them.
The water rose from the hoses in great sparkling arcs toward the house, beating back the flames. Mikey watched until it was complete. The flames and smoke receded until only the charred blackness shone wet through the windows. A firefighter approached, his face grayed with soot. Mikey’s father walked up to meet him. Mikey stared at their mouths as they talked and Mikey grimaced when he could not make out what they said. Then, his father’s voice rose above the rumbling engines of the firetrucks. “We don’t smoke!” Daddy said, making an exasperated motion with his upturned hands. That same gesture usually preceded a declaration of corner time when directed at Mikey. Mikey doubted his father could put the firefighter in time out.
From the outside, Mikey could not tell there had been a fire. When he looked close, he could see the black smudges on the red brick above the windows where the flames had licked the corners. If he stared long enough, he could tell that the inside of the house was not just dark, but black.
Mikey unbuckled his seatbelt and popped open the car door. He slid out of the back seat while his parents were still talking in hushed tones in the front. He was anxious to get inside and see what it looked like. He dreamed of the little man in the hall last night and wondered if it was still inside.
He ran with no particular urgency toward the front porch, the way seven-year-olds run everywhere they go. He heard a car door open with a thunk behind him followed quickly by his father’s voice. “Mikey! Don’t go inside yet!”
Mikey rolled his eyes and slowed down. He walked the rest of the way to the concrete front steps and dropped to a seat on the second one. “Okay!” He yelled back.
Mikey’s parents, both in shorts and work boots (“Gotta dress for the job,” Mikey’s dad said), lumbered toward him. It seemed to Mikey that the older you got, the more you lumbered.
Daddy brushed past Mikey on the stairs, absently reaching down to ruffle Mikey’s hair. He took out his key to unlock the door, but it was unnecessary. The firemen had kicked it in and it swung open with a light push.
Mikey moved in close behind his father. His mother stayed at the bottom of the stairs, wringing her hands. “You ready, buddy?” Daddy asked him.
“Yeah,” Mikey said, and focused forward.
The rooms were familiar, but painted black with char. The couch stood where it always had, but it wasn’t really a couch anymore. The photos still hung on the walls, but the glass was opaque and the photos themselves were invisible. The television’s plastic shell had melted to the floor, and its glass picture tube had exploded shards of glass into the room. “Careful,” Daddy said. It smelled like the morning after a camp fire. The ground crunched beneath Mikey’s feet with every step. He held onto the back of his father’s shorts.
The living room and kitchen were the worst. Plastic things had melted. Metal was black. Wood was ash. Fire reduced everything to the parts that wouldn’t burn.
They reached the hallway. Mikey blinked and saw the little man behind his eyelids, standing still in front of a wall of jumping flame. He shivered. The fire had made it down this hallway too, and the wood paneling covering the walls was crumbling. Mikey touched a piece and it fell to the floor.
Beyond the hallway, things brightened up.
“Fire didn’t make it this far back,” said Mikey’s father. Mikey nodded.
The heat that jetted through the hallway must have been considerable, because the wallpaper around the opening peeled back in blackened curls. Smoke stains bloomed on the walls, perverting their usual blue color into dirty yellows and browns. The furniture still stood. The smell was rancid, worse than the burned areas.
Mikey’s room was better than his parents’, but still unsettling. His Thundercats poster was ruined, curled in at the edges and discolored. Mikey picked up one of his action figures and wiped the greasy soot from its face. He-Man would survive to fight another battle, but he would need cleaning. Mikey hoped the rest were in as good a shape.
The smell in here was worse. Much worse, in fact, and it wasn’t smoke. He looked back through the doorway, where his father stood looking around his own room. He hadn’t even noticed when his father had stayed behind, but now that they were parted, Mikey fought a wave of anxiety.
“It’s just my room,” Mikey told himself.
He spent a few minutes picking up his toys and wiping off the brown film with his hands. He went to the bed and sat down. It felt the same. He bounced. He lay down. It stank of fire. He got back up. As he sat on the edge of his bed, he remembered waking up. It was the cough that had roused him, wasn’t it? He remembered something moving in the haze. He hadn’t seen it, but it had been there, stirring the smoke and thumping about. It had vanished into the closet. He looked to his right.
The closet door stood just beyond the foot of his bed. Small posters and magazine cutouts of the Ghostbusters, He-Man, and Thundercats plastered its front. The smoke had curled the pages upward and stained them a dark green-brown so that the surface looked scaled. Like dragon skin, Mikey thought.
He walked over and placed his hand on the knob. He’d have to be careful. What if the thing was still hiding? The thought made the hairs on Mikey’s arms stand straight and there was electric anxiety in his chest. He gulped down a lungful of air and held it. He twisted the knob and swung open the door, jumping back. The door banged into the wall. Mikey let his breath out in a great sigh. Nothing but clothes and toys awaited him in the dark.
The smell that wafted out a moment later made Mikey’s knees wobble. Mikey remembered the time a skunk had died under the back porch. The stink had taken a month to completely clear. Whatever had been in his closet was worse, maybe with hints of what Daryl Fisher at school call body odor. You don’t know you have BO, but your aroma tells me so, he thought and cracked a grin despite his nerves.
He stepped further into the darkness, one step, another, and on the third the rug beneath him gave way. He tipped forward, off balance, and flailed his arms. He grabbed a shirt that hung from a low hanger and heard it rip as he went down. He only just remembered to scream as he was swallowed. Where the floor should have stopped him, he kept going and his stomach seemed to leap into his throat. A second later, he landed on his back in shallow water. He connected with the rocky bottom and pain shot white hot from his tailbone to his shoulders. The air left his lungs and refused to come back. He lay gasping, half submerged at the bottom of a circular shaft, still gripping his torn Star Wars t-shirt.
“Mikey!” His father’s voice echoed down the shaft, too distant for Mikey’s taste.
“Daddy!” Mikey tried to yell back, but was not able to take in enough air for a sufficient sound. He tried again to breathe in.
“Mikey!” His father yelled, more urgent this time, less distant.
Mikey watched the hole at the top of the shaft disappear. Something covered it up. He hadn’t realized that it was the only source of light, and when the darkness settled onto him, panic forced out a scream. “Daddy!” He cried. “Daddy!”
He screamed until he was hoarse, splashed until his arms were sore. He heard no other sounds echo down the shaft. He began to cry. His tears were hot and the water beneath him was cold.
He focused on breathing, just like Mommy had taught him. “Take a deep breath and count to four,” she said. “You’ll see the world clearer.” One, two, three, four, he thought.
The blackness did not subside, so Mikey listened. There was a dripping sound that echoed. It made the space around him feel huge, cavernous. Then, there were wet, slapping footsteps.
Mikey scrambled to his knees. His back was on fire, and when he tried to stand, he fell back down. He swung his arms into the blackness in front of him in an attempt to ward off the approacher.
“No!” Mikey said. His voice cracked. “Stay away!”
The foul smell was so thick that Mikey struggled to maintain consciousness. A pair of slick wet hands with too few fingers gripped his arms with frightening strength.
“No!” Mikey said again, and tried to fight free. The hands held fast. Mikey tired slowly, but the hands were patient. Soon he was still, gasping, and the owners of the hands began to drag him along the floor on his rear. Mikey could hear them breathing, each exhale accompanied by a little grunt.
After what seemed like several minutes they stopped. One set of hands let go of his left arm, and Mikey, sensing an opportunity swung it hard toward the hands on his right. His fist met only air, and he was forced to the ground, face first. His captors wrangled his arms behind his back and held them there.
He heard something metal in front of him screech. Hinges, maybe a metal door swinging open. The hands threw him forward, and he landed on his stomach on a stone floor. Behind him, the squeal of metal again and a tremendous clang as the door (Mikey was now sure it was a door) slammed shut and latched. Mikey jumped to his feet and ran in the direction of the sound, his arms outstretched, and his palms hit the cold, rough metal of the door. He ran his hands all along it. There was a small hatch at the bottom, and a barred opening toward the top. He grabbed the bars and screamed. “Help!”
Two sets of wet slapping footsteps seemed to stroll casually away from the door. Mikey heard a hissing snigger.
Mikey cried. Eventually, he slept.
Crying was for babies, Mikey decided. He lay on the cold stone floor trying to forget the nightmare that had tormented his broken sleep. He was not a baby. He was seven years old–much too old to lay back and let this sort of thing happen.
Dried tears glued his eyes shut, so he forced them open. Still dark, still black. He stood up and stumbled in the direction of the door. He found it and felt it up and down again, looking for anything he could use to make his escape.
The wet footsteps approached again. Mikey made himself quiet and pressed himself against the wall beside the door, pulling in a panicked breath and holding it. The hatch at the bottom of the door scraped open and a cup of water slid in. The hatch banged shut.
Mikey was thirsty, so he drank. It wasn’t enough water to quench his thirst, but it was enough to let him think. He remembered the thing in the hallway. Had it been looking at him? Was this the plan all along? Maybe, but he also remembered that the thing was small like him. If these were the same creatures, he had a chance.
The pain came like a punch to the gut. Mikey’s vision went hazy. He doubled over and screamed, falling to his knees. It started in his stomach and moved slowly into his chest, his arms, his legs, his head. Mikey imagined fire swallowing him, burning him from the inside out.
“Daddy!” He screamed, and writhed on the floor until the pain subsided. Then he lay there, eyes closed, breathing deep and planning. Every part of him felt strange. His stomach was sore. The creatures had given him water (or whatever that was), and that meant they would be back. He would hide around the side of the door and stand still. Maybe, if they didn’t see or hear him, they would open the door and come in. He would sneak out behind them. He was reasonably sure he had seen this done on television, and that meant it could work.
When he opened his eyes, he could see. His breath caught in his throat and he coughed at the surprise. The stone around him was damp, and he could see light emanating from an unknown source glistening in the drips that fell from the ceiling. He turned and looked at the door just a few feet away. It was just taller than him and looked like it was assembled from scrap metal, tacked and pressed together.
Mikey scrambled to his feet and stood beside the door, back pressed to the wall and waited. The light must mean someone is coming, he thought.
Mikey had always been told he was patient for his age. Still, the time stretched around him as he waited, listening to his own breathing. He was unable to keep perfectly still. He kicked the ground making little scraping sounds, and stopped when he thought he heard something. It was nothing, so he kept kicking. It felt like hours before he heard the slapping footfalls approaching. As they got closer, he sucked in air and held it, pressing himself harder into the wall.
This time there was only a single set of feet coming his way. He smiled at his luck. The flip flopping stopped outside the door. Just inches to his right. He could hear it breathing. There was a pause. Mikey imagined the creature looking through the barred window at the top of the door. There was a grunt and a shuffle, and the hatch at the bottom of the door slid open. More breathing, another grunt. The hatch slid closed. Nothing for a moment, then a loud scrape-bang as the door latch slid open, and a screech as the door pivoted into the room.
The thing that trundled in was hideous. It was gray, or green; Mikey couldn’t decide. Ridiculous patches of hair adorned its naked skin in irregular tufts. Huge, unblinking yellow eyes stood far out at the front of its face. Its mouth stayed closed, but Mikey imagined a row of sharp teeth. It saw Mikey and hissed.
It was within arm’s reach of Mikey in a second. Mikey balled his right hand into a fist, his nails digging into his palm, and swung hard. The punch connected with the creature’s left eye. Mikey felt it squish. The creature screamed like an animal and fell to the floor. Its clawed hands reached up and coddled its closed eye. Mikey took the opportunity to run.
He moved fast–faster than he thought he could move–through passages that all looked the same. They snaked and wound and split, and Mikey was soon lost. He could hear more footsteps and heavy grunting breaths echoing through adjacent corridors. He kept running. He turned a corner and stumbled forward into several inches of water. The dampness soaked through his jeans at the ankles. He was in a massive chamber, and the light reflecting off the water was blinding. This was it. This was where he had fallen in.
He ran toward the source of the light, the water pulling at his feet with every step. As he came under the hole in the ceiling where light now gushed in and filled his vision like water, he had to close his eyes. He held his hands out in front of him and when he felt the wall, he dug his fingers into the dirt. They sank deeply and gripped hard, like they were made for this, and he pulled himself up. He could feel the warmth of the light above and the brightness shone red through his eyelids. Hot tears poured down his cheeks as he climbed, but he never opened his eyes.
Mikey’s arms flung over the lip of the hole, and he used them to haul the rest of his body up into the world. He smelled the lingering stink of smoke and rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. Relief tried to steal his energy, make him sleep now that he was back where he belonged, but he knew he was not safe yet. He scrambled to his feet. Daddy, he thought and bounded out of the closet.
He forced his eyes open against the light pouring in through his bedroom windows. They’ll adjust, he thought, squinting. Everything was how he left it, still stained with soot and the grease the smoke had carried. He heard voices through the windows, and knew them. His parents were still here. The other voices sounded like men, but he didn’t recognize them. There was the crackling of a radio. Police, he thought.
It took only a few seconds for Mikey to sprint through the house and find the front door. It stood wide open, and through it, he saw his parents. His mother sat on the grass, her body shaking and her face buried in her hands. Mikey’s father leaned against the side of a police car. His arms were crossed and his head was down at his feet.
Mikey felt relief wash over him. He remembered the fire, the blinding smoke, the thundering footsteps as his father stormed in to wrap him in a blanket and bring him to safety. He stumbled forward, his knees wobbling.
He attempted to say “Daddy,” but what came out was little more than a gurgling croak. He tried again without improvement.
His father’s eyes rose at the sound, and looked through the open door. He squinted and took a few cautious steps toward the house.
Mikey stumbled out into the sunlight. The warmth burned his skin and he fell to his knees. He closed his eyes against the most intense daylight he had ever seen and smiled. Daddy, he thought, this time more statement than request. He was safe.
Then his mother screamed. The sound confused Mikey. As he sat on his knees on the front porch, blinded by a blistering sun, he expected his father’s strong arms to grab him, to pull him up. He expected his mother to run to him, but the scream that reached his ears was a cry of terror. It didn’t fit.
Mikey could only force his eyes open into a watery squint, but through that he could see his father frozen on the lawn in mid-step. “Daddy,” he tried to say again, but only the watery croak emerged. He reached out his hands to them in desperation. His hands were too big, too gray, the fingers hooked into claws. He gasped inward with a grunt. He could see irregular tufts of hair jutting from his elbows.
“What is that?” Daddy said.
“Stay where you are!” Someone yelled, and Mikey knew the next sound was a gun cocking.
Mikey got up and stumbled backward.
“I said stay where you are!” The voice repeated.
“What is that?” Daddy’s voice was louder now, and panic was showing through.
Mikey heard booted footsteps thunder across the lawn toward him and he turned to run. With his newfound speed, no doubt a product of his transformation, he easily outpaced his pursuers. He skittered along the floor of the house until he reached his room. Toward the closet, now. He paused for a moment, the bootsteps approaching, to hear his mother crying through the window.
“It was wearing his clothes,” she said.
Mikey pulled the carpet over the hole as he climbed down. It was time to go home.