Henry wasn't supposed to be downstairs, not at this time of night.
On his tiptoes, Henry reached towards the water tap with one of his small hands, a hand that had lost its adorable chubbiness and held his plastic beaker with the other. He strained his arm as far as it would go but his fingers barely graced the cold metal. Henry scrunched up his face in determination and only smoothed out his delicate features when he was able to turn the tap ever so slightly. Lovely, crisp water trickled out of the tap but Henry was too impatient to wait for his beaker to collect a considerable amount of water before he removed it.
He dropped from his tiptoes and let the soft pads of his feet rest against the freezing wooden floor. He lifted the beaker to his lips, the water running down his throat, soothing the dryness and curing his hoarse voice. Once he had consumed every single drop, he was filled with the desire for more. This time he would use both hands so that the tap would produce more water, more beautiful water. Setting the beaker on the edge of the kitchen sink, Henry leant forward. Inevitably, the beaker toppled into the washing up bowl, splashing dirty, fatty red liquid into his face. Henry made a sound of disgust and wiped his face with the sleeve of his dressing gown. Mindy wouldn't be happy. She would be angry, just like when Henry had refused to eat his spaghetti bolognese.
The clock read a quarter to twelve – Henry had been learning how to tell the time and he had understood it a whole month before anyone else in his class had. Henry straightened his back and smiled to himself, remembering what his teacher had told his father (a very smart child of seven. It's surprising, really, that someone so young can surpass the knowledge of children in older years) before he smelled it. A rotten smell, like the mysterious stench in his bedroom before his father had found the long forgotten slab of gammon in his toy box (it was for a scientific experiment, Daddy, honest). He covered his nose and mouth with the dry dressing gown sleeve to filter the stench.
There was no mistaking where the smell was coming from. Henry gave an involuntary shiver. He could see the staircase from where he was standing, and the darkness that it disappeared into. He sucked in a deep breath and cuddled his small frame with his arms (Henry's a baby. Henry's a girl. Little, tiny Henrietta) and let his eyes drift into the darkness (Henry doesn't play football; he plays with dolls and girls). He released his breath and inhaled the seemingly toxic fumes and coughed. He clenched his fists (I will found out what that smell is. I will show them. I will be a man like Daddy).
He headed for the basement.
Henry flicked on the light switch on the wall at the top of the steps and as he climbed down, the smell grew stronger. When he reached the bottom of the basement steps, he found himself breathing through his dressing gown sleeve again. Henry pondered for a moment. He remembered when the basement flooded and his father had to get it drained. Could mould have made this smell? Had a small animal sneaked in and its body was rotting in some corner of the basement?
A rattling sound sent Henry three feet into the air.
Reluctantly, Henry turned on his heels, expecting to see something he really didn't want to see. Nothing. Henry, whose tiny frame was shaking, could feel something warm running down the inside of his leg. He wanted to run back up those steps and climb in bed beside his father, letting his father's deep breaths reassure him that he was safe, completely safe from harm. His daddy would protect him. His hero.
But he couldn't. He wouldn't. His father would think him to be a baby and tell him to become a man. He was seven years and four months old; he was a man, just like his father and he wasn't going to be scared of some stupid sound. It was probably just a rat running into something. It could be a burglar, a huge man with feral eyes. Henry smiled to himself; he would knock the man out with the large canister of paint by his feet and save the house – he would be a hero, just like Daddy. He lifted his chin into the air and said with as much confidence that he could muster:
“Who is it? I'm not scared.”
And then he heard something creaking. He spun around and saw the old wardrobe door opening and then the creature that stepped out of it. A lifeless thing, bony and pallid. A thing so terrifying that Henry stumbled backwards and fell right on his backside. Henry wanted to look away, but he couldn't. He could see the black stitching knots that ran down from its throat to its chest. Such a monstrous thing but somehow, he knew its face.
He was dreaming. He was fast asleep, cocooned in his snugly Marvel Heroes duvet. He was having a nightmare; there was no other explanation. He would wake up screaming with his father's arms around him, telling him that although nightmares seemed scary at the time, he'd be laughing about them later. Daddy would save him from this creature.
He must be dreaming. He was dreaming. But he couldn't fool himself any more.
The monstrous creature was approaching him; it was walking with a limp, its thin arms swaying by its sides. He closed his eyes (one, two, three. I will wake up!) and then he opened them.
In the place where the creature had once stood was a beautiful woman, her hair a radiant blonde and he eyes cornflower blue: his mother.
“Come here, my darling. My sweetheart,” his mother stretched out her arms and bent her knees slightly so that she'd be able to cuddle Henry close.
Henry hesitated, shoving his hands into his dressing gown pockets.
“Darling, I love you my little boy,” Henry watched his mother's eyes brim with tears before taking tentative steps towards her.
His mother took him in her arms and they were so close that Henry could smell her breath, which was like rancid meat. The smell of the forgotten gammon in his toy box. Henry tried to break free but his mother's hold of him was strong, despite her skeletal frame.
“Mummy, let go! Enough hugs now!” Henry grumbled as he struggled in his mother's arms.
His mother broke away from him but she pressed her hands down on his shoulders so hard that he thought that the bone would smash into thousands of tiny white pieces if she did not loosen her grip. The woman of such conspicuous beauty that stood before him lifted her lips into a snarl. Her lips split open and black blood trickled down her chin.
“What? Don't you love me? Do you hate me?” His mother's hysterical voice rose. “Although many people hate me, I never expected my own child to!”
Henry frantically searched his mind for something suitable to say. He had it. He forced his trembling lips into a smile, “I do love you, Mummy, I just... It's just that I'm a man now. Men don't hug.”
Henry took a deep breath, hoping upon hope that he had said enough to calm his mother down. He watched the black blood trickle down his mother's neck.
“Oh, darling, of course,” she laughed, but it wasn't cheerful. It was harsh and accusing: a trail of venom leaking out of her mouth.
“Let's take you upstairs, Mummy. Let's get you a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive.”
Henry took his mother's cold hand and started to walk, but his mother did not move. He turned around and faced the creature. The terrifying thing. The thing that made his heart stop.
He blinked and his mother returned.
“I don't want to go. I want to stay down here with you. We could could play any game that you want,” his mother was smiling, but her eyes were wild. In her voice he could hear every emotion; from regret to pity, from joy to fury.
“I want to go to bed now, Mummy,” Henry tried to sound cheery but his leg felt warm again. He tugged at their joined hands but his mother did not budge.
“Mummy, please, I'm tired. I want to go to bed,” he didn't even try to conceal his terror and anxiety this time.
“But I'm not tired. I think that we should stay up all night long. Just the two of us.”
The blonde hair disappeared and was replaced by only her pale white scalp with black sutures. She tightened her grip on their joined hands, causing Henry to flinch.
“It's play time.”