Linda stared at the alarm clock in her hands through blurred eyes, her fingers smudging its glossy surface. 12:59, it blared in red, blocky numbers. 30 seconds left. Trembling, she clutched it to her stomach, ticking down in her head: 29, 28, 27...the time passed by like years as she shut her eyes, knowing the annoying, monotonous beep was mere moments away. Nothing to do now but simply wait. 15, 14, 13, 12…
In what felt like a lifetime later, it sounded, and the floodgates came crashing open. It fell to the floor with a dull clatter as Linda clutched her head in her hands and wept, tears pouring down her face. Memories rushed back to her in a tidal wave of sorrow and regret: the laughs, the smiles, the first steps, all of it. No small detail was spared.
Today marked the fifth year that Michael had been gone.
She reached for a nearby tissue and dabbed her face, sniffing and whimpering. Pushing the warm blanket off her shaking body, she swivelled her legs to the edge of the bed. Her head hung low as she rose to a standing position, throwing on the tattered nightgown from so many years ago, taking a moment to notice all its extra holes and loosened stitching. She didn’t care. She only wore it once a year, anyway.
She carried herself across the upstairs landing shamefully, her eyes already well-adjusted to the crushing darkness before her. The floor was ragged and splintery as she lay her bare feet upon it, the ceiling cobwebs reflecting the glow of the moon through the bedroom window behind her. She lifted her hand and scraped her ring across the wall as she walked, marking the fifth indentation directly below the last four. Dusty pieces of drywall flaked onto the floor as it dug into the paint. They reminded her of fingernails along a chalkboard, or the claw marks of some vicious beast along the skin of its prey.
At last, she reached the door. Still shaking somewhat, she pulled out the key from her front pocket. Like the rest of the house, it was somewhat falling into disrepair, smeared with rust. A moment of worry came upon her as she questioned whether it would still work in the lock. Gingerly, she placed it into the keyhole and turned. Her worries were set at ease as she heard that familiar click, and felt the latch turning. With a gentle creak, she slid the door open, taking care not to bump it into the wall and leave a dent.
Compared to the rest of the house, Michael’s room was a palace. It held a quietness that no other room in the room in the house could quite sustain, as if it had been caught in time, just the same as the day that Michael had gone. Linda heard her ears ringing, and her slowed heartbeat thumping in the solemn silence. She took a long inhalation. Dust hung steadily in the air, making her nose itch and the back of her throat feel scratchy. Carefully, she closed the door behind her, like the closing of a portal between two different dimensions. Despite the thick blackness, she could still make out that pleasant shade of blue painted across the walls. Michael’s favourite colour.
She found herself slipping into a trance, as she did every year, no matter how hard she tried to fight it. Her vision warped and clouded, and suddenly, Michael was there on the bed.
“But mummy, I don’t want to sleep without the night light on!”
He sat on the sheets with his legs crossed, wearing his polka-dot PJs. The night light sat in the plug socket next to the door, casting a starry pattern on the walls that struck out against the darkness.
“You’re a big boy now, Michael,” Linda heard herself speaking. “Big boys don’t need night lights. There’s nothing out there in the dark that can hurt you.”
“Promise?” Michael replied, holding his favourite stuffed animal to his chest.
“Promise.” Linda spoke once more. “Night-night, now.”
She reached down and pulled it out of the socket with a single yank. The sleeve of her night gown brushed against the floor, no longer old and falling apart, but new and as comfortable as it would ever be. The door closed behind her with a quiet click as she exited the room.
And then she felt it, that subtle feeling deep down inside that something was wrong, that motherly instinct she couldn’t deny no matter how hard she tried. She felt her heartbeat quicken, the hair on the back of her neck standing up. Had she forgotten something? Glass of milk, bedtime story, night light, what else? Everything should have been fine, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. She frowned and turned back towards the bedroom door, hurriedly pushing it open.
“Sweetie, are you alri-
For a moment, she swore she saw him, sitting there just as he was before she had left the room, but in the blink of an eye, he had vanished, as if he had never been there in the first place. Her eyes scanned across the room to no avail, assuming he was simply blending in with the surroundings.
She opened her mouth to shout but the air was sucked right out of her throat. The room merged back into the present, her gown shrinking and withering to its current state, her hair greying and drooping to the tangled mess it was now. She gasped, able to breathe again. Fresh tears were forming in her eyes, the surge of emotions was building up again, but she wouldn’t let herself cry. Not again.
Linda kneeled down. Her palm felt numb as she scooped the patterned night light off the floor and into her hand. A part of her resisted, telling her she was interfering with the tranquillity of the room, but she brushed it away. She wanted to see it again, to bathe in that warm, blue light once more.
“I’m sorry, Michael…” she whispered as she inserted it into the socket.
Immediately, the starry pattern cast itself across the room. Linda closed her eyes and took a deep breath, watching the light flicker across her closed eyelids.
Linda shot her eyes open. Michael was sat at the end of the bed, legs crossed, in polka-dot PJs, holding his favourite stuffed animal to his chest.
“Mummy, what happened? Why do you look so much older?”
“No…no…you’re…you’re not real, you’re just-just another hallucination,” she panted, gradually moving closer.
“Mummy, I’m scared. Please leave the night light on. Just for tonight.”
Linda stepped closer and caressed the back of her hand against the boy’s cheek. She looked deep into his eyes and saw that same starry look from so many years ago, caught in a deep blue iris. Without a doubt, it was Michael, in the flesh.
There was a second or two of silence before she scooped him up into her arms and began whooping and cheering. Tears of happiness rolled down her face. Michael smiled and giggled, holding onto his mother’s shoulders.
“Never leave me again! Promise me, promise me you’ll never leave me again!” She spoke hysterically, jumping and dancing around the room.
“I’ll never leave you, mu-”
The pair went tumbling to the ground as Linda’s foot caught on something. A loud thud echoed through the house as she hit the floorboards, scrambling to make sure Michael was okay.
“Michael?” she began, pawing and crawling around the room. He was nowhere to be seen. “Michael?! MICHAEL! MICHAEL! DON'T LEAVE ME AGAIN! YOU CAN'T LEAVE ME! MICHAEL!”
Linda froze in horror as she turned back towards the plug socket.
Lying on the floor next to it on the ground was a broken, patterned night light.
Written by Cornconic