It was midnight when Tyler first heard the knocking on his bedroom door. Still groggy from the haze of his dreams, he rolled over. He chose to believe his imagination was getting the best of him. Besides, no one else was home. His father was working the night shift like always, but even if he were at home, he would certainly never knock on any doors in his own house.
Tyler fluffed his pillow and stared out the window. The soft glow of twilight comforted him. But, on this night, there was nothing for him to see. The sky was unusually dark. The moon hid behind the clouds, and the stars seemed to have grown tired from blinking. They needed their own night’s rest to prepare for whatever would soon come.
He closed his eyes. Just as he was on the cusp of fading back into his slumber, he heard it again. The knock. Someone was outside his door.
Tyler sat up and reached for his glasses, which were on his nightstand. His tiny hands fumbled the metallic frames until they fell and crashed onto the cold, wooden floor. He reached down to retrieve them, but they were broken—the lenses shattered and the frames twisted into an unrecognizable shape. Still, he grabbed what remained and held his glasses to his face. He shook while holding them on his nose.
He peered at the door and noticed the knob beginning to turn.
Then, the latch clicked. Tyler gulped.
“Are you awake?” a soft voice whispered from the darkness. “Are you awake?” the voice asked again, getting closer to Tyler’s bed.
Tyler didn’t respond. He couldn’t. He pulled the covers tightly around himself and sat still. He listened for footsteps, but when that produced nothing, he searched for breaths. Still silence. Tyler grabbed his pillow and hugged it tightly. He sobbed gently into his covers.
“Ddd—don’t hurt me. Ppp—please don’t hurt me,” he said, hoping whoever was near would listen.
A hand touched his shoulder. Tyler wiped his eyes and looked up, ready for whatever awaited him.
When he saw the figure, his tears vanished. “You’re just a boy,” Tyler said.
“Yes, well no. I was a boy. Now, I’m a ghost. At least, I guess that’s what I am,” the boy said.
“You’re not a ghost,” Tyler said, poking the boy to see if his finger would travel through his body, which it didn’t.
The boy sat on the edge of Tyler’s bed. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “But there’s a reason you couldn’t hear me.”
Tyler’s eyes bulged in their sockets. “You are really a ghost? You look just like me.”
“I know. That’s part of why I’m here, and yeah, I really am,” the boy said, looking embarrassed.
“I’m not scared,” Tyler said.
“You should be,” the boy said. He quickly corrected himself. “But not of me. Of what’s coming. That’s why I’m here.”
The two boys stared at one another, waiting for the other to speak.
The boy stood from Tyler’s bed and walked over to the window. “This was my room. When I was alive, I would stare outside at night and watch the stars shining. It was peaceful. Those quiet nights—the ones where I would rest in bed and watch the sky—those are what I miss the most.”
Tyler pushed the covers to the foot of his bed and searched for his fuzzy grizzly bear paw slippers. He walked to where the boy stood.
“Those are my favorite kinds of nights, too,” he said. They both looked outside, hoping to spot at least one star.
“I know,” the boy said. “Tomorrow night will make it two hundred years that I’ve been here. I know everything about you, Tyler.”
As they stood at the window, Tyler’s side began to fog. His small breaths made tiny clouds in the cold room. He backed away and turned to the boy who stood beside him. “What’s coming?”
The boy still stared at the sky, with his side of the window perfectly clear.
“What’s coming?” he repeated.
The boy turned his face back to Tyler. “Have you ever seen a sky like this one?” he asked.
Tyler thought for a second. He hadn’t. At least not that he could remember. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“I misspoke earlier,” the boy said. “It’s not what’s coming. It’s who’s coming. They’ll try to take you. The empty sky is proof that I’m telling you the truth. It happened just like this before. It’s how it was with me. It’s like the moon and the stars—and everything else up there—is hiding. I knew something was wrong. I knew something was coming, but what could I do? I didn’t know how to save myself because I didn’t know who—or what—it was that was coming.”
The boy turned to look at the clock on Tyler’s nightstand. “It’s 12:14. I have to go. I have to go now or I won’t be able to help you. I’ll be back at midnight. Just tell your dad that he needs to be here to help when I come back. I don’t know if I can keep you safe by myself. You only have until midnight. They’re coming.”
“Wait!” Tyler shouted. “Wait! You didn’t even tell me your name. Who are you?”
Tyler tried to follow the boy, but he was gone.
He sat back on the edge of his bed and stared back at the window—at the inky sky that floated above their old farmhouse. Then, he heard the answer to his question. “My name is Lenny. Be ready when I return.”
The next morning, Tyler swore he was telling the truth. He wasn’t the kind of kid who went around making things ups. He never had been. For one, he wasn’t creative enough to be a great liar. When Ms. Jones, his art teacher, would ask the class to paint a picture, Tyler’s was always the same: a red house, a blue sky, a v-shaped bird, and one lonely oak tree. Even his clothing was plain. When getting ready for school each day, Tyler grabbed a white t-shirt and a pair of frayed jeans.
Ghosts weren’t something he had mentioned before. He wasn’t even sure he believed in ghosts until his conversation with Lenny.
His dad, Elliott, who had adopted Tyler when he was orphaned at three and bought the old farmhouse as a place to raise to his new son, shook his head as Tyler repeated the details about his night over and over again. “Ghosts are not real. You must’ve had some spoiled meat or something—maybe a bad glass of milk. You are old enough to learn to start checking expiration dates for yourself. I can’t do everything for you.”
“Dad, he was as real as I am—and as real as you. He looked like a real boy. Only, he didn’t breathe or make sounds when he walked. He was real, though. I promise,” Tyler said.
“Don’t promise things that you know are lies,” Elliott replied.
“I’m telling the truth. You have to come home early tonight. He said they’re coming for me.”
“Who is coming for you? What are you talking about? You had a dream, Tyler! Stop talking about things coming for you and ghosts! I’ve had a long night. I don’t need my son occupying a world full of made up fantasies! You had a dream! A dream!” Elliott said, slamming down his plate of eggs on the table. He stood up and walked to the sink.
He took the towel hanging from the cabinet below him and dampened it under the warm, running water before he washed his face.
Elliott wasn’t the kind of man who believed in things. He never had been.
Tyler walked to the sink and stood by his dad. Elliott didn’t face his son.
“I know you don’t believe me,” Tyler said. “But it happened. Please come home before midnight. Please, Dad. I need you.”
Tyler walked down the hallway and grabbed his backpack off the coat hanger. He turned to look back at his father, but Elliott still faced the sink.
“Just look at the sky tonight if you need proof,” he mumbled quietly. “It’ll be empty. Everything up there is hiding.”
Tyler opened the door and headed off to school.
Nightfall eventually arrived, and Tyler was, as he feared, alone.
He stood at his window until eleven, hoping to see those familiar headlights illuminate the driveway and dreaming that his dad would come to his aid. When he didn’t, Tyler crawled into his bed. He might as well watch the empty sky under his warm covers.
He closed his eyes, searching for a few minutes of comfort. He hummed softly to himself. He tightened his fists, trying to make his body rest. Nothing worked.
At the call of every squeak or the settling of every crack, Tyler jolted up in his bed, fearing that it was them.
Everything was nothing at all until it was.
The knock came. It was midnight.
Tyler leapt off the hard mattress into his slippers and darted to the door. “Dad’s not home! It’s just us!” Tyler yelled into the darkness.
There was no Lenny.
“Lenny!” Tyler called down the hallway. “Lenny!”
Then, with not even the tiniest of signals, he appeared. “Sorry,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a couple of seconds.”
Tyler threw his arms around Lenny and hugged him.
Lenny pulled away. “We don’t have a lot of time. Only fourteen minutes,” he said. “Follow me, and keep up.”
Tyler grabbed his coat and pulled it over his arms.
The two boys ran down the hallway and took the stairs to the main level of the old house. Only Tyler’s feet echoed throughout the nearly empty house. When they made it to the porch, it was darker than it was inside the house.
“I can’t see anything,” Tyler whispered.
“It’s because they’re here already. Listen. Do you hear that? It’s complete silence. Even the birds know. Come on,” Lenny said.
Lenny led Tyler out to the cornfield. The frozen grass crunched underneath the weight of Tyler’s feet. The brown, dead corn stalks, cut like razors against his bare legs. With each step he took, another swiped him. “I’m bleeding,” he said softly. “I can feel the blood seeping into my shoes.”
The further Lenny took Tyler, the more Tyler struggled against the frigid air. His breaths looked like tiny puffs of smoke, rising up above the corn.
“Try to calm down,” Lenny said. “They’ll see you. You’ll give yourself away.”
Tyler hushed himself and bent down against the ground. He crawled now, pushing his small body over the icy mounds of dirt. He couldn’t feel his toes. His ears stung as the wind smacked against his skin.
“This is as far as I can go,” Lenny said. “I’m nearly out of time anyway.”
Tyler curled up beside his friend. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“This was my family’s land. I can’t leave it or I’ll be gone for forever. Plus, it happened at 12:14. That’s when I died. I only have fourteen minutes each day in which I can take on a human form,” Lenny explained.
Tyler looked up and noticed Lenny’s eyes. He was crying.
“What’s wrong?” Tyler asked.
Lenny wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry, Tyler. I gave you a chance, but your dad didn’t show up to help you. I’m sorry for lying. I’m sorry for everything. It’s just a cloudy sky. You shouldn’t have believed me. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Then, he was gone.
Tyler jumped up to his knees and then his feet. He ran.
But it was too late. Tyler was alone and it was too dark for him to escape their clutches.
The ground rattled so violently that he could no longer stand.
The wind swirled around him and stopped and then swirled again. There was an eerie crunching sound below. Then, a grunting and a wheezing. From the ground, they came. Four bony arms reaching from their graves, searching for their son. They brought him home and tucked him in.
Overhead, three stars twinkled in the nighttime sky.
At breakfast the next morning, Elliott noticed something was off with his son.
“I promise, son, ghosts aren’t real. I know you think you saw someone, but, trust me, you didn’t,” Elliott said. He scooped up a forkful of eggs and shoved them in his mouth. He smiled, with the food still in his mouth.
“It’s okay, Dad. I have a favor, though. Do you mind calling me Lenny? My real parents used to call me that, and I’ve always kind of missed it.”
Elliott put his fork down and scratched his chin. “Lenny,” he said. “Okay, if that’s what you want. Tyler is dead to me now.” He chuckled.
Lenny took a sip of his juice before walking over to the kitchen window.
It was still dark, but the clouds would be leaving soon.
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. He is a regular contributor to BookBrowse. His work appears in Electric Literature, Fiction Southeast, The Lit Pub, Literary Orphans, The Rumpus, Toasted Cheese, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is working on his first collection of short stories.