Nighty Night (Short Story)

For the past five years, it’s just been Ian and me.

My wife’s pregnancy with him wasn’t easy.  There were a number of scares and close calls due to health issues that she had experienced all her life.  Every doctor she had ever been to had told her that she would never be able to get pregnant in the first place.  She put on a brave face and joked that she would just get an entire litter of puppies instead, but when she was thinking about it and didn’t know I was watching her real feelings were etched all over her face.  She loved kids, and the thought of not being able to have one herself was heartbreaking for her.

We discussed other options, of course.  Adoption, fostering, you name it and we looked into it.  We even had a meeting scheduled with an adoption agency when a miracle happened.

That miracle was Ian.  Against all the odds, Ellen became pregnant.  Her doctors were at a complete loss.  It should have been impossible, but suddenly there we were, talking about converting our second bedroom into a nursery and planning out how to shuffle around our work schedules to make sure that one of us was always home with the baby.

The complications began about four months into the pregnancy.  It seemed like every few weeks we were at the hospital while the staff ran tests or performed procedures.  Ellen was amazing during all of it.  I was acting like a complete lunatic, worried out of my mind about every little thing, but she would just lay there in the uncomfortable hospital bed stroking her increasingly large belly and smiling to herself.  She would tell me that she just knew that everything would work out in the end, and that all of the issues were just bumps in the road.

She went into labor early, just a few days after the thirty-one week mark.  She waddled into the kitchen and told me in a very calm and very matter-of-fact tone that the baby was coming.  I had been getting ready for bed, so in that same collected manner she retrieved the bag we had packed weeks earlier and the car keys while I frantically got dressed and grabbed the few necessary items that hadn’t gone into the bag yet.

Six hours later, Ian was born.  He was so small, and I could feel my heart sink as he emerged.  The doctor immediately took him over to a radiant warmer table where he and a nurse began working with him.  A second nurse kept me from getting too close to ensure that I didn’t get in the way.  The activity suddenly stopped, and the most wonderful sound filled the room: our son started to cry.  The doctor informed me that due to Ian’s size he would need to spend a couple of weeks in the newborn intensive care unit, but that from what he could see the child would be fine.  I remember feeling so relieved that I had to put a hand on the bed’s footboard to steady myself.

My fingers had just touched the plastic when the alarm on Ellen’s monitor went off.

Ian and I lost her in less than an hour.

It wasn’t anything that the hospital staff did wrong, and it wasn’t anything that could have been prevented.  The stress of the labor and birth had been too much for her, and she had suffered massive hemorrhaging.  The staff did their absolute best to save her.  It just wasn’t possible.  She never even got to hold Ian before she was gone.

I never got a chance to mourn her.  I was now a single parent, and all that mattered was that tiny little baby in the NICU.  The next few weeks were spent going to work, getting through my shift, and immediately returning to the hospital to sit with Ian all night before doing it all over again.  Shortly before he was released, I secured a position with a new company.  It paid less, but it allowed me to work from home.  Without much of a family support system I needed to be there for him at all times.  After all, it was just me and him now.

I wish so much that Ellen could see this incredible child that we made together.  He’s loving, energetic, frustrating, confounding, and so much more.  He’s everything that we could have hoped for and so much more.

He also has a very vivid imagination for his age, which is partly why I didn’t believe him when he first told me that he was being visited by something during the night.

It took a while to get to this point, but we’ve settled into a routine each evening.  We have dinner together, spend about an hour running around outside if the weather is nice or playing inside if it isn’t, Ian gets his bath, and then he lays down to sleep for the night.  This routine is supposed to be finished around eight o’clock each night, but if you have kids you know that no routine is foolproof.  On the first night that he was visited I didn’t manage to get him wrangled into bed until almost nine.

I was catching up on work at my desk when I heard Ian yell for me.  I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to feel irritated.  Normally when he called out like that it was to try to get one last drink of water or to tell me that he isn’t tired and can’t go to sleep.  That would happen at least twice a week.  I said that I have an incredible child, not one that wasn’t prone to the usual four year old tendencies.

When he immediately cried out a second time, though, I stood up and pushed my chair back so hard that it tipped over.  There was panic in his voice.  I hurried up the short flight of stairs to the second floor and flung his door open, my hand immediately going for the light switch.

Ian was sitting in his bed with tears streaming down his face.  The left leg of his pajama pants was pulled up, and his hands were pressed down on the skin.  The sheets and comforter from his bed were laying on the floor.  His pillow was hanging halfway off the mattress.

I hurried over to him and knelt down next to this bed, putting down the safety rail as I did so.  He immediately flung his arms around my neck and started crying harder.  The sobbing was so intense that he started to cough uncontrollably.  I pried him off of me and held him in my lap to allow him to catch his breath.  We sat there for a long time, him crying and sniffing loudly with me gently stroking his hair and telling him that everything was all right.

When he finally calmed down, I sat him on the edge of his bed and took his hands away from his leg.  There were three long scratches running down it.  They weren’t deep, but there were a few tiny beads of blood.  I gently asked him what had happened.  He remained silent.  I asked him again, and this time he lifted his head to look me in the eyes.

“Nighty Night hurt me,” he told me in a tiny voice.

I looked back at him in confusion.  I don’t know what I had expected him to say, but it certainly hadn’t been that.

“Nighty night?” I asked softly.  “Like what I tell you at night before you go to sleep?”

“Nighty Night,” Ian repeated, more forcefully this time.  “He scratched me.  Like the bad cat did.”

Just after his third birthday, he had been scratched by a neighbor’s kitten while trying to play with it.  The claws had even punctured the skin, but the incident had stuck with him.

“I’m sorry, big guy, I don’t understand.  Are you saying that Nighty Night is a cat?”

“No cat.  Nighty Night is a monster, Daddy.  He hurt me.”

I looked back down at the scratches.  They were obviously real, but just as obviously they hadn’t been caused by any monster.  Something else had happened.

I want to make it clear that I never thought for a second that Ian was lying to me.  Sure, he was prone to the occasional fib just like any young child was, but he never lied to me about important things.  Besides, he was too scared to be making up a story.

Scooping Ian into my arms, I carried him into the bathroom and got the first aid kit out of the cabinet.  As I sat down on the toilet and maneuvered him into my lap, I mentally slapped my forehead.  The past few nights I had forgotten to trim his fingernails when I had given him his bath.  He must have scratched himself in his sleep.  It had woken him up, and his still half-asleep mind must have interpreted the whole thing as a monster attacking him.

I quickly bandaged the scratches before trimming his nails with a small silver clipper.  He had calmed down by that point, and I gave him a hug before carrying him back to his room.  When I went to put him down in bed, however, he held onto me so tightly that I nearly tipped forward.  He absolutely refused to sleep in his bedroom that night.  We ended up falling asleep together on the couch downstairs, and by the time the sun was up he was back to his usual self.  The events of the previous night seemed to be forgotten.

It was Saturday, and because I didn’t have to work on the weekends I took Ian to a local state park.  We spent the entire day playing on the playground and splashing around in the lake.  By the time we left the park and headed home we were both exhausted.  He fell asleep in his car seat just a few minutes away from the house.  I carried him inside and up to his bed.  He remained passed out through the entire process.

I planned to let him sleep for an hour or so.  He still needed to eat dinner, and I knew that if he napped for too long it would be almost impossible to get him down that night.  I kicked off my shoes and flopped down in a chair to enjoy the momentary silence.

That silence didn’t last long.  It was shattered by Ian screaming.  It wasn’t a yelp or crying out like it had been the previous night.  This was a full scream, one filled with pain and terror.  I yelled his name as I leaped up the stairs and burst into his room.

Ian was seated on the floor, his thumb in his mouth and his eyes watery.  He was rocking back and forth slowly.  He looked up at me with a blank expression, as if he knew that I was there but my presence didn’t mean anything to him.

I picked him up, and as I did so I felt something warm and wet on my hand.  I pulled it away from his back and saw that there was blood on my fingers.  Just as I had the night before, I carried him into the bathroom and turned on the light.  I immediately saw his back reflecting off the mirror over the sink, and I felt like ice was poured into my veins.

Pieces of his shirt were torn away, and the shreds that remained were red with blood.  I set Ian on the counter and lifted the shirt up over his head.  He was unresponsive during the entire process, and the part of me that was still thinking clearly wondered if he was in shock.

On his back were three cuts, each of them spaced roughly the same distance as the scratches on his leg.  These were much deeper than those, though, and they were bleeding freely.  I bandaged them as fast I could before taking him downstairs and back out to the car.  The cuts were too much for my basic first aid skills.  He needed a doctor.

The drive to the hospital was torture.  I padded his carseat as much as I could with a blanket to try to take pressure off of his back, but he started screaming in pain before we got very far.  Knowing full well that it was illegal, I pulled over, unstrapped him, and set him down in the passenger seat with him sitting sideways before getting back in and continuing to drive.  Maybe that was the wrong call.  I honestly don’t know.  All that I know is that I couldn’t stand for him to be in agony like that.

The nurse behind the emergency room desk immediately waved us through the door when she saw Ian’s back through the window.  She ran off to get a doctor while I carefully set him down on a nearby gurney.  I hugged him as best as I could without touching his back and told him that everything was going to be okay.

“I know it hurts, little man, but I have to ask you something,” I told him, giving him a reassuring smile.  “What happened?”

“Nighty Night,” he replied immediately in a matter-of-fact voice.  “Nighty Night hurt me.”

I didn’t have time to question him further.  The doctor arrived, and she took one look at Ian’s back before telling a nurse to wheel him into a nearby examination room.  I went to follow, but the doctor told me that she thought it was best if I waited outside.  Her eyes were looking past me as she spoke, and when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that she was looking at a security guard standing at the far end of the hallway.

If I had been thinking straight I would have understood what was happening, but at the time I was too worried about Ian to figure out what that look meant.

The doctor went into the examination room as the nurse came back out.  She put her hand on my arm and gently led me away from the door.  I protested, of course, but she made it clear that I had to come with her and answer some questions before I would be able to see Ian.

She started by asking me if there were any pets or animals in the house, to which I replied that there weren’t.  She then asked if we had been with anyone else when his injuries had occurred.  When I told her that we hadn’t, she followed up by inquiring if I had been drinking that day.  That was the moment that I started catching on.  The hospital staff was trying to determine if I had been the one that hurt my son.

At some point during the conversation a man in a gray suit entered the hallway and came to a stop next to us.  He introduced himself as a social worker, and he stated that it was his job to make sure that Ian was safe and got the best care possible.  He asked his own set of questions and I answered them as best as I could, but I was sure that he wasn’t really believing me.  It didn’t help that I couldn’t tell him what had happened because I had no idea myself.

Some time later the doctor came back out of the room and informed me that while one of the cuts had been shallow enough to bandage, the other two had required stitches.  To say that I was irate was an understatement.  I wasn’t upset that she had done what was medically necessary.  I was angry that I had been kept out of the room the entire time instead of being in there to comfort him during the process.  She stood there calmly as I yelled, and once I had said my peace and was winding down she told me that she was recommending that Ian stay at the hospital overnight for observation.  After taking a deep breath, I asked as calmly as I could if I would be able to stay with him.

She didn’t answer, but the social worker did.  He told me in a clearly practiced tone that due to the nature of the injuries, he was going to take Ian into his custody for the night while he worked to determine the nature of the injuries.  His tone might have been pleasant and measured, but the implication behind his words was very clear.

“You think that I hurt Ian,” I said, fighting back a second wave of anger.  “I would never hurt my son.  If you think for one second that I’m going to let you-”

“That’s enough,” the social worker snapped, cutting me off.  “You need to stop right there.  I haven’t made a determination one way or another on if I think you did this.  I will say that I’ve met a lot of abusive fathers in my time, and you don’t strike me as one of them.  I have policies and protocols that I have to follow, though.  What’s best for everyone involved is if you go home for the night, get some sleep, and let me do my job so that we can get this put behind us.”

He had caught me off guard.  I stared at him for a long moment before nodding once.  Anything I did other than what he told me to would only jeopardize my situation, and even though the thought of being apart from Ian for a night made me sick, the thought of him being taken away permanently was much worse.  I nodded again and he patted me on the arm.  He told me to come back in the morning and to ask for him at the desk before turning to go into the examination room.  As he opened the door, I clearly heard Ian call out for me.

I left the hospital feeling as if my entire world was burning before my eyes.

I went home and immediately marched up to Ian’s room.  I was determined to figure out what had happened to him.  The scratches on his leg could have been explained away by him causing them in his sleep, but the cuts on his back were another matter.  He couldn’t have reached that area of his body.  Even if he could have, there was no way that he could have made markings that deep.  Something else had happened.

I tore apart his room looking for answers.  A loose screw or nail that he had leaned up against, a broken piece of bed that I hadn’t noticed, a toy with something protruding, anything.  I examined every inch of the room from top to bottom.  I came up empty.  There was nothing that I could find that could have caused his injuries.

Defeated, I leaned up against the wall and slid down the floor.  Something caught my eye, and I reached over to pick up a small stuffed duck.  Its yellow cloth had faded, and overall it looked a bit worse for wear, but I could still easily identify it as the first toy that Ellen had bought for Ian.  It had been right after we had found out that she was pregnant.  She had named it Mr. Quackers.  An absurd name for an absurd-looking duck.

The events of the day caught up with me, and I started to nod off.  I felt my eyelids growing heavier with each heartbeat.  This was good, I reasoned.  I would get some sleep, then be at the hospital the moment the sun began to rise.

That was when I saw the creature standing in the corner of the room.  One moment there was nothing there, and the next there it was, its extremely tall gray body bent over as it pushed up against the ceiling.  Its limbs were extremely long and thin for the creature’s size.  The two arms ended in three needle-like fingers that had to have extended at least three feet from the hands.

Stretched out on its elongated neck was its face.  Its lips, dry and cracked and missing entire chunks in some places, were pulled back in an eternal grin that exposed its oversized white teeth.  The lidless eyes were black in the center, and the areas that on a person would have been white were the dried yellow collar of old parchment.  Dark ichor that had pooled in its jaws slowly dripped onto the floor as it watched me.

“Nighty night,” the creature rasped out.

My entire body jumped as I snapped back to full consciousness.  The creature was gone again, with no trace that it had even been there in the first place.  The spots where the ichor had splattered onto the floor had vanished.  I sat there on the floor, alone in the room with my pulse racing and my breath coming in short gasps.

I could have attempted to rationalize what I had seen.  It probably would have been easy enough to convince myself that I had imagined it, that it was a trick of the light that my nearly unconscious mind had twisted into a horrifying vision.  That was a perfectly rational explanation.

The problem was that I had seen it.  I knew that it had been real.  There was no question about it in my mind.  It was impossible, but I was sure that it had been occupying the corner of the room across from me seconds earlier.

My breathing slowed, and my panic was slowly replaced by nausea as a realization came to me.  Ian had also seen this creature.  It had stood over my four year old son with that nightmarish face.  It had then proceeded to hurt him not once, but twice.  If I was this scared, I couldn’t fathom how frightened he had been.

Nighty Night.  Ian had called it Nighty Night.  It must have said the same thing to him that it had said to me.

I got up off of the floor and left the bedroom, closing the door behind me.  I stood in the hall for a moment before rushing into the bathroom and throwing up in the toilet.  It went on for quite some time, so long that I started to wonder if it would ever stop.  When it finally did, I collapsed against the bathtub, light-headed and close to passing out.

There was a thud from inside of Ian’s room.  I lifted my head as best as I could and looked out through the bathroom doorway.  I managed to focus my eyes just in time to see the knob on the bedroom door start to turn.  There was an audible click, and the door slowly swung open.

Nighty Night’s face took up much of the bedroom doorway as it grinned at me.  I tried to stand up, but I was too weak from throwing up to manage it.  I could only watch as Nighty Night pressed its head against the wood frame.  It was too large to make it through the opening.

My feeling of relief was only momentary.  Nighty Night started to push its head harder.  Its face stretched back as the head slowly began to force its way through.  It was like watching rubber being forced through a hole.

“Nighty night,” it rasped, the coming out distorted through the stretched lips.

I had to leave, and I had to do so quickly.  More of the monster’s head was making it through the doorway every second, and it wouldn’t be long before it was free of the room’s confines.  Ignoring my aches and pains, I forced myself into a standing position.  My head swam and once again I was sure that I was going to pass out, but somehow I was able to  barely remain conscious.  Nighty Night’s face was almost all the way through the doorway now.  I stumbled into the hallway and pressed myself up against the wall opposite from the creature.  Being as careful as I could, I moved past it, feeling its hot breath on me as I did so.  Its teeth were mere inches away from my body.  I made it through the thin opening and hurried down the stairs.

My foot caught on the last step.  It wasn’t enough to make me lose my balance entirely, but it did trip me up and I stumbled forward before falling over the side of the couch.  My head struck one of the armrests.

I must have blacked out.  I don’t remember doing so, but the next thing I knew I was being awoken by the sound of knocking.  I sat up on the couch and immediately regretted doing so as the worst headache I’d ever had greeted me.  The knocking continued.  It took me a few seconds to figure out that someone was banging on the front door.

I stood up and took two steps towards the door before I remembered what had happened.  I looked up the stairs expecting to see Nighty Night squeezing its way down the hallway towards me, but the creature was gone.  Still a bit dazed and not sure what else to do, I continued over to the front door and opened it.

Standing on the other side was a large man in a police uniform.  He was holding a clipboard under his arm and a pen in one hand.  He nodded at me but didn’t smile.

He asked me my name and I gave it to him.  He informed me that he was here at the request of the social worker from the hospital, and that he would like to inspect my son’s room.  I moved aside and let him into the house.  I closed the door behind him and led him up the stairs.  I didn’t want to go anywhere near the second floor after what I had experienced, but if I didn’t comply with his request it would undoubtedly impact my chances of getting Ian back as soon as possible.  I took him to the still open bedroom door and we went inside.

Night Night wasn’t there, of course.  The officer took the clipboard out from under his arm and asked me a few questions, and I answered them as best as I could.  He scribbled some notes on the paper as I spoke.  Seemingly satisfied with my responses, he then got down on one knee and examined the safety rail that ran along the sides of Ian’s bed.

“Have you done anything in this room since you brought your son into the hospital?” the officer asked.

“I looked around to try to figure out what happened,” I told him.

“Okay, but did you change the bedsheets or anything like that?”

“What?  No.  I just moved things around and put them back.  I didn’t change the sheets.”

The office nodded.  “Well, it looks like Mr. Eaton was right.”

“Mr. Eaton?”

“The social worker assigned to your son.  See here?  There’s no blood on the sheets, but there are three streaks along the safety rail.  They match up to where the poles are on the rail.  Mr. Eaton thinks that your son tried to get out of bed while he was still out of it and slid over the rail.  He must have caught the poles just right through the fabric and they dug into him.  Cute kid, by the way.  He said that he was going nighty night and that his back started feeling ouchy when he got out of bed.  Eaton put things together from there.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  The theory was wrong, and Ian’s words had been completely misinterpreted.  The blood trails and the spacing of the rail poles were pure coincidence.  It was all working completely in my favor, though.

“Good thing, too,” he continued.  “If he hadn’t figured it out or if I had found anything to prove him wrong here, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.”

Seemingly satisfied with everything, the officer left and went back to his car.  I watched him through the window as he pulled out and headed down the street.  The sun was starting to come up over the trees, and I could hear the family of robins in the front yard tree chirping.  I decided that it was close enough to morning to go to the hospital and get my son back.

It went smoother than I had expected.  The social worker had me fill out some quick paperwork so that they had my statements for the record, and after that he led me to a patient room on the opposite side of the hospital.  He had barely opened the door for me when Ian came running up to me barefooted with his little hospital gown waving behind him and practically jumped into my arms.  He hugged me tightly and, being careful to avoid the white bandages covering his stitched cuts, I hugged him back.  We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, me crying and him telling me all about his stay in the hospital.

That was two months ago.  The house that I raised Ian in is currently for sale, and my realtor tells me that there are a number of people interested even though it hasn’t been listed very long.  A seller’s market, she calls it.  I’ve only been back twice since that night, once to pick up our clothes and other necessary items, and once to pack the remainder of our belongings and put them into storage.  Both times were during the middle of the day, and each time I made arrangements for Ian to stay with someone instead of accompanying me.

We’ve been living at a hotel on the other side of town.  My long term plan is for us to move far away, possibly all the way to the coast.  I want to put as much distance between us and this place as possible.

Last week, I read a newspaper article in the local paper about an officer that killed his wife.  According to the report, he had said that he had just started to doze off one night when a giant monster appeared in his room.  He had grabbed the gun that he kept in his nightstand and fired off five shots at it.  The monster disappeared, but his wife had been walking into the room at the time and two of the bullets struck her, killing her almost instantly.

No one believed him, of course.  How could they possibly have?  It was a ludicrous story.  He seemed so convinced that he was telling the truth that a psychological evaluation was ordered before formal charges were filed.

Three days later he was found dead in his cell.  Not just dead, but damn near decapitated.  The police are baffled.  He was alone in his cell, and there was nothing he could have used to do that to himself.  The guards think that one of the other prisoners got in and did the job.  Former cops don’t have a lot of friends in jail, after all.  They’re at a loss to explain just how a prisoner could have gotten into the cell and caused so much damage without alerting anyone.

This was the same officer that had come to my house.  

I know what happened to him.  It was the same thing that almost happened to both myself and my son.  It was Nighty Night.

I think that I’ve got the creature’s appearing and disappearing act figured out.  I was on the verge of becoming unconscious both times that I saw it.  The first time I was almost asleep, and the second time I was trying not to pass out.  When I actually did black out it didn’t harm me.  The officer said in his statement that he was falling asleep when he saw the monster in his room.

I think Nighty Night exists in that ever so brief moment between awake and asleep.  When you enter into that moment, you can see it… and it can look right back at you.  Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s always there, watching and waiting until it can come for you in that short time where your world and its are connected.  I don’t know.  I don’t have all the answers.  I doubt that I ever will.  

Knowing exactly what Ian had gone through might provide more insight, but it doesn’t matter.  I refuse to ask him about it.  He’s sleeping through the night now that his wounds have mostly healed, and I’m not going to dredge up bad memories that could only hurt him.  He deserves to be safe and protected from things both natural and unnatural.  He’s been through enough already.

I’m afraid that he’s going to be through more before this is all over.  Last night, as I watched him sleeping on the bed in our hotel room, I started to drift off in the uncomfortable chair in the corner of the room.  I was just about out when I heard something through the glass window to my right.  It was faint, as if coming from quite a distance away, but I recognized it immediately.

“Nighty night,” the raspy voice called out in the darkness.

I jerked awake and immediately stood up to start packing our things, being careful not to wake Ian up as I did so.  He needed his rest.  We were going to be on the road for a long, long time.

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