Light thinks it travels faster than anything, but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first and is waiting for it. Terry Pratchett
It was black just like when time began though some intellects would argue the fact that it was white nothingness. The absence of light was choking and consuming. Without light there were no demented shadows to be seen lurking behind the desk or the chair. Instead, the shadows had swallowed up one another to create a vast space that devoured the entire room from one wall to another.
The only globes of light were two bright eyes, flicking around the room in a frightened fashion. The eyes belonged to a boy with a substantial fear of the dark. But of course, they gave no comfort to him since he could not see his own eyes. The only window was across the room, the curtain strung across to block all invasions from moonlight and streetlight alike. The door was closer but he knew the black awaited him outside as well. If only he could dash to the window. But he was not a man; his heart held the innocence and timidness of a seven-year-old not the courage of war heroes. He imagined creatures lying in wait beneath his bed, a grotesque mess that snatched children from their homes.
The young boy focused on his breathing; inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, mimicking the steady rhythm of the marching band that had stormed their way through the city’s main road just last April. He sat up. The hard oak wood of the head of his bed frame jutted into his back. His whispers sounded too loud in the quiet darkness.
“One, two, three.”
He leapt off his bed, and ran across; barely escaping the snapping jaws of the creatures hiding underneath. Smoky tendrils whipped at his feet, hissing and stirring. His foot landed on something, it pierced the sole of his foot. He yelped and veered away from his intended goal; the curtained window to the door. He threw it open and was engulfed by the dark. It suffocated him. His feet lost control over movement and he wobbled about until he crashed onto the ground. The black overwhelmed him like a wave crashing onto the unfortunate ship whose sailors wouldn’t make it home to see their beloved.
A light turned on and lit up the back of his head. The shadows whimpered and retreated away from the harsh spotlight. The boy lifted his head, his smudged tears glistening.
“Erik?” a girl whispered softly, her voice heavy with a German accent. “What’s the matter?”
Erik stared into the warped dark space behind the torch glaring at him. It was a trick, an illusion. There was nothing behind the hand gripped tightly onto the torch. He couldn’t find the strength to scream or run, his energy seeped out through the pores on his skin like a leaky faucet. He scooted away from the frightening nothingness, whimpering like a puppy. The voice repeated his name over and over until it became unfamiliar to him, just a word rolling off the tongue as simple as any other.
It wasn’t until he had nowhere else to go that he stopped and stared at the darkness. A hand shot out and grasped his duck-patterned sock clad foot that he saw the arm behind the hand and the dimly-lit features of a girl. He let her tuck her arms under his armpits and lift his body a few inches off the ground, prompting him to find his own feet and walk wobbly to the room across the hall with her guidance.
A lamp was switched on lighting up the small room with a yellow, warm light. It rested on a crudely-made table which apart from a bed and a small cupboard was the only furniture in the room. The girl climbed into her bed and patted the space next to her.
“Did you have that nightmare again?” she said in German. She rubbed her hands over his trembling arms, feeling the bones protruding his body.
“Yes,” Erik answered after a long moment of silence.
“Do you want to talk about it?” her voice was soft yet drowned out every other sound outside; the chirping of the cicadas, the cars, the angry drivers who shouted obscenities to each other in a drunken daze. She tried to look into his eyes but every attempt was thwarted by his tendency to whip his eyes around the room. “Nothing can hurt you here.”
“Please don’t tell Mama and Papa about this, Kerstin. They are already troubled enough as it is.”
She kissed her younger brother’s forehead. Their parents were not the richest of parents, and despite their unconditional love for their two children, the move to America – the move to poverty and depression – tested them. They worked all day and night. Living in the countryside they did not have much to waste or spend or luxurious items were rare. When feral animals killed their livestock and weather damned their crops, they moved to America hoping for a better future. But they had very little in Germany and they had less here.
“Come, come, let us sleep,” Kerstin said, scrambling beneath the covers. On their sides they faced each other. “You must tell someone, you know. About these dreams. They are too much for you to handle by yourself.”
Erik only shook his head. He could not tell her about the bogeyman. In the past this word always reminded him of the mess that had to be removed from one’s nose. But no. The man in his dream was nothing like a slimy comical monster. He was sharp, fitted in a black suit and a red tie. His grey skin could be seen nowhere but his face having expensive-looking shoes and gloves on. He had no hair. His gruff expression was the same every single time and it always hid his eyes but Erik knew if he were to look in them he would find a cold detached soul if he had one at all.
The dreams never revolved around him, quite the opposite actually. The dream would start off normally, like any other bizarre and imaginative dreams of a young boy. The bogeyman was lurking at the fraying edges and would carefully analyse the situation before approaching him, a straight razor in hand giving off a devilish glint. When he was a hand’s width away he would smile, the shine on his teeth reflecting that of his weapon. It always happened the same way. The bogeyman lifted his weapon and before the blade punctured his skin with intent only to carve his body up for pleasure he would wake up in a sweat.
“No, not yet,” Erik replied softly. Kerstin saw his stricken face and so taking his small hand in hers and sung him a German lullaby.
Sleep, baby, sleep. Your father tends the sheep. Your mother shakes the branches small, Lovely dreams in showers fall. Sleep, baby, sleep
When her lilting voice slowed to a stop she promised Erik that the monster was not coming back for the night. She smiled pitifully when her brother asked for the lamp to be left on despite electricity bills. It was wrong for her to promise her brother that. Maybe she was giving him false hope or just didn’t know that the bogeyman would return that night and the next and the next.
* * *
Lily Jacobs was a strange little girl. She’s had the tests done and all those scientific child specialists who spoke in long technical words said she was a normal girl growing up.
But she was hardly normal.
She was extravagant and imaginative, crazy and wild, dramatic and troublesome. Her parents had to start homeschooling her because of the stress she caused her teachers from being too happy and too care-free and too imaginative for her own good. But she wanted other people to feel that way.
She would go up to people and place a penny in the palm of their hand. She would go around the neighbourhood with her pet rabbit, Bluebell, and let the kids stroke it. She would give advice to people about problems that she thought they had and probably did. She would play Ms. Doctor if a child had hurt themselves on the swings. She would ask politely whether she could just cut out the funnies out of the newspaper at the store so that other people could read the serious bits she had no interest in. These gestures were normally either returned with looks of bemusement or gratitude. To adults she was just a strange eight-year-old girl, to teenagers she was a nuisance and show-off and to the smaller kids she was the coolest person around.
Every day Lily would take daily strolls around the neighbourhood either in the morning or afternoon, whenever she had time on her hands really. She had so often seen the tired looks and hurried expressions on her parent’s faces and wished to bring happiness into people’s morning so that they could have a break from the worry of being tardy. She went up to people’s houses and blew bubbles across their windows and up to the higher ones in second-storey houses. She was doing this when she encountered something that scared her a lot.
There were three men, no, not men, boys. Bulky boys that she guessed had already started shaving and doing manly things. They wore school uniforms and beanies on their heads. In the middle of them was a boy, a boy some years older than her and some years younger than the other three boys. She guessed the younger boy to be ten plus four (she hadn’t quite gotten a hold of the answer yet before she realised what was happening).
They pushed and pulled the younger boy around. They threw punches, kicked him, spat at him. It was like a scene from a film her parents forbid her to watch but she watched anyways. But this was real. From afar she could see the red of the blood smeared across his face and the redness of his teeth every time he gritted them against the unrelenting pain. Tears filled her eyes at the hurt. After minutes of harassment they laughed and pushed him to the ground one last time before walking away, joking among themselves. The boy didn’t get up.
Scared for him, Lily tottered closer until her shadow loomed over the boy’s broken body. She crouched and nudged him in the shoulder. When he didn’t respond she began sobbing. She was scared. Was he dead?
“Wake up,” she sobbed, as she shook his shoulder harder. “Wake up. Get up.”
It seemed an age before he stirred. She was so used but discomforted by his stillness that when he lifted his torso up by his hands she jerked back and stared at the awakening boy. Blood trickled down from scratches on his cheeks and nose and mouth. It was like red paint was smeared unthoughtfully across the whole bottom half of his face, darker in some places than others. His eyes were bruised and were quickly transitioning from a purple to a black. Lily heaved a sob of fear and relief. She tucked two arms underneath his armpits and dragged him across to the pot-holed sidewalk. He leant against the wall of an abandoned building and closed his tired eyes. His breath came raggedly. His body was limp. When the little girl pushed up his sleeves and his pant legs she saw the bruises and scrapes both old and new. Taking a handkerchief out from her pocket she mopped up the worst of the blood. She tucked the bloodied material in his hand and lifted it up to his nose and pushed it against his face until his hand didn’t fall away.
She sat next to him on the pavement in the alley and stared at the ever-changing sky. It was still early. The sky slowly turned from a pearly grey to a brighter hue of blue. She took out the bubble-bottle from her pocket and began blowing out bubbles into the air in front of their faces. The unusual lack of wind, despite it being fall, left them to linger there until they popped. After a long while she looked over to the boy and saw him smiling at the bubbles. She took this chance to introduce herself.
“I’m Lily Jacobs,” she stuck out her hand. When he didn’t shake it she leant over and shook the hand that lay resting on his belly. “Those boys were doing some mean things to you. My mummy says I shouldn’t be a dib-dob but I think you should tell someone. I think it’s the right thing to do this time.”
The boy didn’t reply. Instead of silencing herself she began to chatter on about things like how she could lend him her chap-stick because his spilt lip wasn’t looking so good and that he could keep her handkerchief but it would be fine if he gave it back anyway and how she was homeschooled and how she had seen the defeatist look on her teacher’s face from dealing with her which encouraged her to try to make her feel better which ending up only making her feel worse. After all the talk was gone Lily stood up and stuck out a hand. This time he grabbed hold of it and she helped lift him up to his feet. “My mummy is still sleeping and my daddy has gone to work so it’ll be okay for you to come to my house so you can wash our face.”
He said nothing but sensing agreement she led him back to her home where she sat him on the rim of her bathtub and pretended to be Ms. Doctor again. With a washcloth she scrubbed his face of grime and dabbed disinfectant on his cuts. He winced but said nothing. She bandaged up his knees and slapped a band-aid on the cut on the side of his face. After ten minutes she gave up trying to figure out how to bandage up his split lip.
The boy received a double-dose of good deeds. She tucked a few pennies in his pocket, let him hold Bluebell, gave him advice about not particularly anything and showed him some of the funnies which extracted a laugh from the seemingly mute boy. When he left the house, Lily gave him her spare bottle of bubble liquid, a chap-stick, some bandaids and a peck on the cheek. In return he finally spoke.
“Thank you Ms. Jacobs,” he said in an accent which Lily found funny. He ruffled her hair and left and Lily Jacobs was left to finish her round of blowing bubbles to cheer up people’s days. As she walked away he called after her, his throat hoarse. “Don’t let other people change you, Lily Jacobs.”
* * *
Erik lay still on his bed, legs straight and arms by his side. He stared at the cracks on the plaster ceiling which had begun to grow over the years like curled tendrils of vine. He was sporting his school uniform, having changed into it before he slept – or rather, before he had stepped into bed for Erik had had no sleep after the last few days or much sleep over the last seven years where he had been tormented by the bogeyman in his dreams.
His alarm trilled, telling him what he already knew. That the world had turned over a new leaf to a new school day, for seven o’clock had arrived. He let it go on for twenty seconds until it automatically slowed into silence. He reached out a hand and pressed a button to prevent it from going off again five minutes later. Filtered light shone in through the window. He had never closed it again after the day where he had refused to tell his sister anything.
Sure enough, as any other morning, a grouping of soapy spheres floated upwards to his window. Catching the sunlight they cast rainbows into the small dark cavern of his room. Lily Jacobs was quite the extraordinary girl, Erik thought. Admittedly, he was embarrassed by the shower of good deeds she had graced him with a few days ago but it felt nice to have someone who had his back for a change. She reminded him of his sister who, undoubtedly, had been swayed by the promiscuity of the media and became the regular adolescent self-absorbed girl.
Kerstin thought it was ‘uncool’ to spend time with her struggling brother so she left him to deal with his own demons. She thought it was ‘uncool’ should anyone see her not wearing the latest in the fashion or the hippest of clothes. She thought it was ‘uncool’ should anyone see her natural beauty that had not been masked by branded cosmetics. She thought it was ‘uncool’ should she do anything without the acknowledgement and approval of her friends. She spoke the same tale as most of the other girls at her school. Even her German accent had been bled out of her.
They had much more money than they did before thanks to tireless hours of arduously stuffing things into boxes and shipping them away. They gave money to their children, hoping it would make up for the years of sadness and Kerstin whisked her money away on materialistic wants without a second thought.
His sister did nothing to stop the bullying. Erik had a tendency to take quick ‘naps’ in class, maybe it was the assurance and security of being awoken by the stern voice of his teacher to the bright daylight, but it won him no points with either his teacher or class mates. They thought he was a freak, a weirdo, a fucktard, the latest of a string of insults. He had friends, Danny Hessien and Stan Bowen, who were more acquaintances than friends. He sat next to them in class and they would help him when he needed it and talked to him just to make him feel better. But Erik knew they said the same insults behind his back if not in their mind. They just didn’t feel the need to voice it openly.
Erik crossed the hallway, ignoring Kerstin’s open door knowing that if he were to look inside he would find her obsessing over which colour eye shadow she should plaster over her face. He poured himself a glass of milk and ate his cereal dry. Kerstin tumbled down the stairs minutes later, her thumb raging war on her cell phone as she sent one-worded messages to her friends, complete disregard for the bill she was racking up.
She looked up and spotted her younger brother’s bandages. She smirked. The look in her eyes was condescending and Erik returned it. She made her own breakfast, pouring the milk into the bowl before sprinkling in Lucky Charms. She sat in the seat opposite him, scooping up the soggy bits of colour and dumping them down her throat.
“Don’t worry. You have four years left in school and then you can fail somewhere,” she sneered, returning to her texts.
“Don’t worry. You have a year left of being a stuck-up bitch before you learn it gets you nowhere,” he countered, almost hissing.
She glared at him astounded. Erik never spoke much but when he did he made sure it counted.
“At least I’m not the freak who has the same dream every night,” she snarled. “Is he still visiting you? Is he still fucking your mind up?”
Erik said nothing. But Kerstin continued, annoyed by his recent act of rebellion. “Are we still waking up crying every night for mommy and daddy? But they aren’t there are they? So why don’t you grow out of this little dreams and stop acting like a baby every time someone calls you bad names!”
There were a few moments of strung-out silence. Before Erik stood up, fury growing inside of him.
“I have not been slept for days! Your ‘friends’ beat me up to the point of unconsciousness! I don’t want to have these nightmares anymore. I want to lead a normal life and I needed you to help me. But you know what you did? You betrayed your own blood to become ‘popular’,” he shouted at her in German.
Kerstin did not reply until after a whole minute had passed. Her face scrunched up further with each passing second. “Why don’t you start being an American,” she said, at a defeat for a better comeback. She promptly left the house for school and Erik massaged his eyes.
He never talked enough to lose his German accent. Maybe that’s why he never talked a lot anymore, because of the teasing he endured as a kid because he was a foreigner. And then he had to tell other people about the bogeyman, making them cry home to their mummies signalling for three reports to come in about him. He should never have told anybody else. But maybe they were right. He was a freak.
* * *
Class was silly. It was Halloween and students had come dressed up in atrocious outfits only to be scolded by the teachers who were less lenient with the rules. In literature class, Erik’s teacher, Mr. Oliver, decided to do a study on the origin of Halloween. The boy didn’t bother to listen, only half-hearing Stan’s input to the discussion and Danny’s occasional outbursts of sarcasm and sardonic remarks. He stared out the window focusing on the browning leaves being blown about in the wind.
Out stepped from behind the tree was a man clean-cut in a suit. His dark eyes met Erik’s and he saw nothing behind them, cold stony pupils of black. He yelped in fright, pushing his chair over to come crashing to the ground, attracting the attention of those who had not cared to look up at his yelp. Erik staggered back, his trembling hand pointing at the man that no one else could see, uttering atrocities under his breath. When the bogeyman stepped forward revealing the blade held ever so nonchalantly in his hand he flew out of the room and down the hall and burst into the middle stall in the toilets.
Erik sat on the toilet with the lid down, gathering his wits and legs to his chest. Tears streamed down his face. The one thing that he liked about the bogeyman was that he was consistent. He only ever appeared in his dreams at night never during his short naps during the day. Maybe it was Halloween but he had already had six Halloweens before this. He had no idea what he was doing here. Now at school. Awake. Maybe this is all a dream, Erik thought. He slapped himself across the face. His cheek stung but nothing happened. He slapped himself across the other cheek but again nothing happened. Grunting in frustration he continued to slap himself, eager to get out of this dream but it wasn’t happening.
This was real.
“Erik?” Stan’s voice echoed through the tile-walled bathroom. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t ask him a thing like that,” Danny whispered harshly to his friend. “Of course he’s not okay.”
Stan ignored him and knocked on the stall door. “Come out. Mr. Oliver is worried about you.”
“And so are we,” Danny added.
“Just come on. Everything’s fine. Nothing’s out here.”
Erik said nothing. He watched as Stan’s feet shuffled edgily through the space under the door. His shoelace on his right shoe was undone. They were polished well as he esteemed himself on achieving the most awards in their year. Suddenly his feet disappeared to be replaced with badly scuffed sneakers, Danny’s, who prided himself on his athletic skills and ability to burp out the first half of the alphabet. His dirty grey shoelaces were knotted up everywhere. He banged on the door.
“If you don’t come out I’m coming in so make a choice, hombre,” Danny demanded. Erik still did not answer and soon inevitably from the next stall over his friend – or rather acquaintance – clambered over the top and landed awkwardly in the small available space in the cubicle. He grabbed Erik’s arm and pulled him upwards. When he noticed his tear-stained face his tough features softened but he furrowed his brow and opened the door, forcing him out into the open. Stan shot Danny a look before leading Erik out of the boy’s bathroom. He walked shakily down the hallway but Stan and Danny supported him from both sides. He could tell from their curious sideway glances that they were aching to ask him what frightened him so in class. They had a chance to find out as the bogeyman appeared in the doorway at the end of the hall. Erik gasped in frightened and stumbled back before turning tail and running away. He told himself to run, run, run and do nothing more and nothing less. But his plan was cut short as Danny brutally tackled him to the ground. He flipped him over and stared at him.
“There is nothing there, Erik. Nothing,” he panted, emphasising every word. “Get a hold of yourself, man!” Stan caught up. “You guys okay?”
Mr. Oliver, who had been searching the school for him, heard the commotion and appeared from a stairwell. He hurried over to them and picked light-weight Erik up, unused biceps bludging. He told the other boys to return to class and for Stan to take charge of the obvious mayhem that always coincides with the absence of a teacher.
He took the fallen boy to his office. He sat the wobbly child into a cushioned chair and took his own seat across from Erik behind his desk. He scribbled things down on a notepad. Ripping out the paper, he tacked it onto the border of the computer screen. Knitting together his hands he faced him.
“Do you want to tell me what’s happening?” Mr. Oliver said, his voice steady and calm.
Erik shook his head. His eyes flicked about the room but always settled on the teacher’s face, finding his calm demeanour soothing. Mr. Oliver was a big man but he never yelled at his students or punished them to detention. He had a meaningful talk with them instead. Despite this, no students tested him in case one day he blew a fuse from working with ungrateful kids and knocked them all out.
“I’m going to have to call your parents about this.”
“Don’t,” the German boy half-pleaded, his head too heavy and tired to be dealing with this. “They’re working.” The man gave him a steady look. “We need the money,” Erik tacked on.
After a few minutes of held gazes he picked up the phone and pressed it to his ear, dialling in some numbers. Erik closed his eyes. He had never told his parents about the bogeyman, he hadn’t even told Kerstin when they were younger and she still didn’t know. This would only turn out terrible.
“May I please speak to Kerstin Hofmann?” Mr. Oliver said. He listened to a reply and didn’t look up to see Erik’s surprised expression. “This is Mr. Paul Oliver of Hayman Middle School... Yes, I have her brother here... That’s fine.” The teacher looked up and smiled at Erik and Erik weakly returned it. Mr. Oliver was always the most considerate of the teachers and knew what it was actually like to be a kid. They did not talk in the period of time where there was no one else on the line because they were fetching Kerstin but the vibe in the room had become more relaxed.
“Hello? No, he isn’t in some trouble but I think he should take the day off and I was wondering if you could take him home... Sure, you can take half the school day off too... Okay, bye... Ask to see Mr. Oliver.”
Erik found himself liking this man; how he didn’t bombard him with 20 questions and how he knew better than to create small talk and how he didn’t feel the need to fill the silence with the awkwardness that happens more than twice in the single day. Mr. Oliver was simply content.
* * *
Erik found himself breathing in the strong lavender-scented air inside a leather-seated car. Kerstin had made it clear that nothing was to be touched except for his sitting bottom, it being her friend’s car. They drove in silence. The boy, sitting upright, looked at the gold wash over the houses but couldn’t keep his eyes away from the shadows always expecting for the bogeyman to come slinking out.
They pulled in on the street in front of their shamble-down house fit with authentic cobwebs which looked only appropriate for October. Nobody left the car. Kerstin stared ahead and Erik stared at his sister waiting for some kind of movement. She tapped her fingers on the wheel as if she was waiting for something. She inhaled deeply.
“I’m sorry, Erik,” Kerstin apologised in their native tongue. “I shouldn’t have said those things before,” she said, reverting back to English.
The boy nodded. “I shouldn’t have said what I said either.”
“What happened at school that made you so scared?”
“It was frightening.”
“Does it have something to do with your dreams?”
“Do you want to tell me about them this time?”
Erik sighed, mustering up all the courage he could. He lay back against the seat and turned his gaze to the old man watering his roses, a multitude of colours all lined up in a row. He looked further up the road to the young children playing with blocks on the lawn. He settled his gaze on a cat sitting on the white-picket house at the very end of the road. “My dreams are always normal at first. But then at the end, a man comes out dressed in a black suit. I have never seen his eyes before today. His skin is grey and his mouth is like a slit in his face. He doesn’t have any hair. He has this knife and he’s tries to...he tries to.”
“Tries to kill you?” Kerstin finished his sentence.
Erik nodded grimly. His sisters leant across the controls and wrapped her arms around her brother, letting her love for her family slip out when she seldom showed it to anybody. Erik, not used to this type of attention, kept his arm by his sides. He had never told anybody this before. He had often practised it in bed, speaking to the stale air in the room but never had he actually used that practise to go to anybody.
Kerstin leant back. Erik stared at her seriously.
“And the man. He was at school today.”
Her eyes widened at his story. “Are you sure, Erik? It could have been just any man.”
“I have been seeing his face every night for seven years. I am definitely sure.”
“It’s probably just because of Halloween. I’m sure it’ll be gone soon.”
“Are you sure, Kerstin?”
“I have been practising the art of assurance for seventeen years. I am definitely sure.”
Kerstin led her little brother into the house and tucked him in bed. She placed a phone into the blankets with him in case he needed to call her since she had to return her friend’s car. Saying good bye she swivelled away leaving him wrapped up in his blankets staring at the window. The phone vibrated, surprising Erik half to death. After a few panicked moments of fumbling he pressed it to his ear.
“Hello?” Erik croaked.
“Hey Erik, it’s Stan,” his voice sounded funny on the phone. “We were just calling to see if you were okay.”
Danny shouted hello into the phone from afar to prove Stan’s last statement.
“I’m okay. A little shaky but okay.”
“We were wondering if you wanted to go trick-or-treating with us today,” Stan said tentatively.
The phone was stolen away from him to be replaced by Danny’s voice. “Before you say no just think of all the candy we can score. It’ll cheer your day up for sure.”
Why is everyone so sure about everything, Erik thought dryly.
“I think I’m going to pass,” he said. “I’m really tired. I haven’t gotten any sleep in a really long time.”
“Oh, well. See you at school tomorrow then,” Danny said. The German boy couldn’t tell whether he was being sincere by his turn-downed invitation or not.
Erik hung up and placed it on the bedside table. Curling up in his blankets again he let his fear dissipate and his eyelids to drop, blanketing his world in darkness.
* * *
Erik woke up to the sound of children cheering outside. It was dusk. Excited fingers attacked the doorbell to oblivion, playing out a tune in a one-key sort of way. Scratching his head, he got a packet of minties from his kitchen and snipped off a corner of the packet. The children yelled ‘Trick-or-treat!’ at him when he opened the door and squealed happily as he poured a portion of the lollies into each plastic pumpkin pot until the bag was empty. There were two witches, a classic bed sheet ghost, a Frankenstein’s monster and a mad scientist. They thanked him with a chorus of cheers and tottered down the street to the other houses.
Feeling better and more relaxed, Erik pottered around the house fixing things up. But he kept his eyes open for anything out of the ordinary, particularly a man in a suit. The doorbell rung again but he had no lollies left. He didn’t know whether to answer the door, fearing that he would be tricked instead. But too tired of playing the coward, he opened the door and instead of lolly-eager children he saw Lily Jacobs dressed up as a pink fairy carrying a plate of star-shaped cookies
. “Hey! Uh,” Lily said, at a lost because he had never told her his name.
“It’s Erik with a ‘k’,” he filled the blank space in.
“Me and my mummy made you these, Erik!”
She shoved the plate into his face. “And look! Your face looks better already,” she chirped. “Have you seen the bubbles?”
Erik grinned and nodded. Her cheeriness was contagious.
“I’m sorry I have nothing to give to you.”
“It’s fine; I have a whole night ahead of me. See you later, Erik!”
Lily skipped down towards the next house down waving behind her back, beaming like a ray of sun light though the slowly darkening sky. Erik waved back before closing the door and retreating to the TV. He hadn’t really kept up with the shows but he flicked on something that would make him laugh. A few jokes confused him but most he understood but he didn’t find himself laughing at them.
The credits rolled, the theme music playing in the background. He strolled to the kitchen and poured him a glass of skim milk, downing it down his throat in front of the sink. He felt a bad presence behind him, someone standing there motionless. His heart battered his ribcage and he forced himself to chug down the last mouthful of milk. He opened a drawer and pulled out a knife as if to cut something. And that was what he planned to do.
Erik turned and screamed even though he was expecting for the bogeyman to be standing there but he was so close. He was grinning. And that’s when Erik starting noticing the flaws in his appearance. The suit was clearly a size too big as it hung off her small frame. Instead of being bald if you looked closer you could see blonde hairs pulled tight into a flat bun, covered with a grey powder. She wasn’t wearing a red tie since he never told her about it and she was holding a butterknife instead of straight razor. She has pouty lips and when he looked into her eyes instead of seeing nothing he saw laughter and smugness.
“What the hell, Kerstin!” he gasped. Clutching his hammering heart, he paced to and fro from the living room and the kitchen. He threw the knife at the sink while his sister laughed herself silly, snorting here and there.
“You should have seen your face!” Kerstin guffawed.
“It’s not funny!”
“Oh yes it is. It is funny a lot.”
Kerstin’s laughs begin to die down to a giggle. Flourishing a finger, she wiped away her tears. With a happy sigh her laughing disappears. She twirled the butter knife in circles with her hand having mastered the technique years ago.
“Why would you do that after what happened at school today,” Erik half-screamed.
“Because I wanted to,” she replied, grinning mischievously.
“You are a foul, foul human being.”
“Why? Did I scare you, did I scare you, huh?” she taunted him playfully, backing him up against a wall.
“Stop it!” Erik shouted at her. But she wouldn’t let off no matter how much he pleaded. “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”
When she twirled the butter knife near enough to nick his face he had had enough. “Stop it! Get away from me!” He pushed her with more force than he had intended. She fell back, taken by surprise. Her head banged against the edge of the stone table, a sickening crack echoing around the room. She cried out in pain but once she hit the ground there was only silence. The doorbell rung but Erik ignored it only looking wide-eyed at what he had done.
“Kerstin! Kerstin! Oh my god, wake up!” the boy sobbed.
He took a hold of her arm and pressed two fingers against her wrist like they had taught at him at school. No pulse. He pressed his head against her chest. No breathing. He looked into her eyes and he no longer saw the mischievous glint he had seen not a minute ago. There was nothing there. Nothing.
“Wake up!” he held her hand and buried his face into her clothes. “Oh god, what have I done.”
He caressed her head but his hand came away sticky with blood. His stomach churned. He wanted to throw up. Blood gushed out from a deep gash on the side of her head, pooling underneath her. Her blonde hair was dirtied and her suit soiled. Erik tried to perform CPR but he knew from the beginning that it was fruitless. Kerstin Hofmann was dead. And it was his fault.
“I’ve killed her. I’ve killed her. I’ve killed her,” he muttered over and over again. And he knew there was only one thing he could do.
Erik burst out the door, surprising the trick-or-treaters lying in wait. His feet pounded the ground as he ran away from what he had done. By the time he was at the end of the street a volley of screams had begun, each scream louder than the one before, mashing into one another. The wind burned his face, driving away his tears. He ran towards the lighter part of the sky, trying to escape the darkness of the advancing night. He only had one thought replaying in his head like a broken record.
Run. Run. Run.
* * *
Lily Jacobs visited the Hofmann’s house every day in the weeks after Erik’s disappearance. She blew up bubbles outside their windows. She left an extra amount of pennies outside their house on the sidewalk. Her and her mother baked up a storm and tried to comfort the parents as much as they could in their time of grieving, crying for their killed and the killer to return back to their arms.
No one told Lily anything. All she knew that Erik’s sister had died, Erik had disappeared and his bullies were in search of another target. She knew nothing of how Erik had self-defenced his sister to death and how he had run away covered in blood.
She was sitting in the alley where she had sat beside Erik after his severe beating. She blew bubbles in front of her face like last time but the wind was too strong and blew them all away. She didn’t have many friends. Erik was the closest thing she had to one. And for the first time in the weeks after his disappearing act she began to cry.
Someone called out to her at the end of the alley. It was a boy the same age as Erik.
“Are you okay, little girl?” the boy asked. He looked like a ragamuffin. He was wearing his school uniform that he had tailored to his standards and his sneakers were run-down and dirty. His skin was dark as if he spent all day out in the sun. But he sounded nice.
“I’m okay,” she said in a small squeaky voice.
“Why are you crying? Are you lost?”
“I’m not lost but I’ve lost a friend.”
“I know the feeling.”
He sat down next to her, crossed-legs. Lily blew out more bubbles and the boy playfully swiped at them.
“What happened to your friend?”
The boy stiffened. “He did something bad and he ran away.”
“What did he do?”
“He...” he hesitated. “He killed someone.”
“But I’m sure it was an accident. It must be.”
“Were you two really close?”
“No. He was a bit weird I have to admit. But he was a good person. He didn’t deserve all the shit he got.”
Lily didn’t like people swearing. Her parents had told her if she ever swore she would get grounded for a week. But they weren’t there now.
“Everything is so shitty,” she said sourly.
The boy looked at her strangely, not expecting such harsh words from a child. His expression turned smug when he realised he was a bad influence on her. He popped a bubble and got up on his feet.
“See you around, little girl,” he said before shuffling away.
Lily sat there blowing bubbles until the sun began to set. She returned home and it wasn’t until a few months later that she realised that they were talking about the same person. She found out more than she wished about the boy known as Erik Hofmann; she learnt about his dreams, of his upbringing, of his school life. And that night she cried for the runaway boy with the bad dreams who had been scared of the dark and had killed his sister who had let him be bullied and pushed him too far on the day he had seen the bogeyman.