There is something wrong in Bobby's new house.
Bobby was standing at the head of the stairs when his mother came out of her bedroom.
"Mom," he said, "can we move my bedroom furniture?"
Mrs. Allen gave him a curious look, then went to look into his bedroom. The morning sun shone brightly into it through the clear window. "What's wrong with where your things are now?" she asked her son.
Bobby shrugged. "I just want to move things." He pointed. "Move my desk there. And the bookshelf there. And the—"
"But then where would we put your bed?"
Bobby pointed to the wall under the window.
"Oh, sweetheart! We can't put it there! What if you had the window open on a hot night, and you got out of bed on the wrong side? You'd fall out and—"
She smiled tightly at him. "I think we should leave things right where they are."
Bobby sat on the bed after she had gone, with his knees tucked up under his chin. He screwed his eyes up and stared at the room.
What's wrong with where your things are now? his mother had asked.
He didn't know the answer to that question. He only knew that they were wrong, and that they wouldn't be right until they were moved to the places he wanted to move them to. Sitting in his room, looking at it now ... It felt awkward, as awkward as if he had put his shirt and pants on backward, and put his shoes on the wrong feet. It was like the room was all twisted up inside.
Even the wallpaper was wrong. It hadn't been wrong when his mother put it up. It was a soothing silver color, with narrow lines of blue running up and down, and it was nicer than the wallpaper that was hanging up when they moved in. Even Bobby had thought the old wallpaper was ugly: splotches of red and green and yellow, like flower petals blowing in the wind. But now, when he shut his eyes, he saw that old wallpaper.
He also saw his furniture where he wanted to move it. Until it gets moved, he thought, it will be all wrong.
"What did you do today, kiddo?" his father asked him at supper. It was meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
"Played outside," Bobby said.
It was early June. The sun was warm but it wasn't hot yet, so he had wandered through the grassy fields behind the house, and hopped from one wet, black rock to the next along the trickling creek. It was a new experience for Bobby, who until a few months ago had lived in an apartment building in a crowded city. Now he lived in the country, where the nearest house was half a mile away, and where the unfenced backyard opened onto the gentle slopes of wooded hills.
"Didn't you play any of your new video game?" his dad asked.
"Bobby's getting lots of fresh air and sunshine and exercise," his mother put in. "He's going to be brown as nut by the end of summer."
"Can we go fishing this weekend?" Bobby asked his dad. "There's a big pond up that way." He pointed. "And it's got—"
He broke off and frowned. "I think it's got fish in it," he said.
"I don't have a fishing rod," his dad said. "And I've never fished before. But," he added with a smile, "maybe we can go shopping for a pole this weekend."
"How did you find the pond?" his mother asked Bobby. "It must be very far away."
"Not too far," Bobby said. "I just followed the creek and—"
"You need to be careful," she warned him. "You could get lost. Or hurt. You are carrying your phone with you when you go out playing, aren't you?"
"Yes," Bobby sighed.
But that wasn't quite true. He used to take it with him all the time when he went out. But now he didn't take with him so much. It felt funny in his pocket.
It felt wrong there.
His breath scraped in his throat as he stood at the top of the basement stairs. His heart beat in his chest, and he gripped the edge of the door frame.
It's okay to stand on the top step, he thought. It can't get you on the top step. It can't get you when you're standing on the bottom step either. But it can get you on the steps in between.
"Bobby, are you getting the chicken out?" his mother called from the kitchen.
He swallowed, took a deep breath, and ran down the steps as fast as he could.
The basement was chilly and dark. There was only a single bulb for light, but it hung from the ceiling on a chain, and he couldn't reach it to turn it on. So the only light was what spilled through the doorway and down the stairs. Everything else was plunged in deep shadows.
That included the cabinets along the wall.
Usually it lurked under the stairs, where it could reach out between the steps and grab his ankles, but sometimes it was inside the cabinets, and he went in dread of the creak of a door opening. Wouldn't it be terrible to look over and see long fingers—fingers gnarled and black and missing their nails—curling around a cabinet door from inside the cabinet.
His own hands fumbled at the catch of the old freezer, and when he lifted the lid he was struck in the face by air like cold, dry breath. He felt inside for the chicken. Only as his hands closed around the icy package did he think, It could be inside the freezer too. It could grab me and drag me inside and close the lid on me.
"Bobby," his mother reproved him when, with a pale face and staring eyes, he staggered out of the basement door into the pantry. "Why didn't you turn on the light down there?"
He stared at her. She touched the wall by the door and flicked the switch his father had installed only a few days after they moved into the house.
Bobby spent a long time studying his face in the bathroom mirror after brushing his teeth. His brown freckles were fading against the darkening tan of his face, and his hair was getting golden highlights from the sun. His two front teeth had finished coming in, and one of his eyeteeth was starting to waggle.
He paused in the hallway after shutting off the bathroom light. His parents' bedroom door was open, and he could hear them talking. Usually they would be laughing and chatting while getting ready for bed. But tonight his mother's voice sounded tight and worried. It took Bobby a moment to realize they were talking about him.
"They say it's children that are best at seeing them. Children and animals," she said.
"Who's 'they'?" his father asked. He sounded scornful.
"I don't know who the experts are supposed to be," his mother sighed. "It's just something I've read. Anyway, I can't help noticing that it's like—"
"You think he's seeing things?"
"No, not like that. Only—" There was a rustle of bedclothes. "He's taken to creeping around the house. He looks inside of rooms before goes into them. His head pops up every time he hears a noise."
"It's a quiet house."
"But this creeping around—"
"Don't call it 'creeping', Marcia. You make it sound creepy."
"Well, he tiptoes around, like he's sneaking up on something. Or away from something. Not all the time," she added. "He'll be fine, and then it's like he remembers to be careful."
"It sounds like he's stalking prey. He's six years old, he's playing."
"Not with an imaginary playmate, I hope." His mother sounded unhappy.
"I used to do the same thing at my grandmother's house when I was his age," his father said. "And he's probably bored. He's bound to be missing his friends back in Chicago."
"How about you call the local school, get the names of some of the kids in the town he'll be going to school with in the fall. Set up some playdates for him."
His mother sounded doubtful when she said, "But what if some of those children know about the house? What if they tell him about the—?"
She didn't look into the hallway, so she didn't see Bobby standing there. But that's the moment she shut the bedroom door, plunging him and the hallway into darkness.
"Nice cast!" Josh called to Bobby. "You said you didn't know how to fish!"
"Maybe it's beginner's luck," Josh's sister, Joceyln, said. She reeled in her own line. "I'm going to move down to where that log is."
It was a Monday afternoon, and the weather was finally getting hotter. Midges were dancing over the pond—which was so big it was almost like a small lake—as the three children fished. A family of turtles had slid into the water when they crested the rise leading down to the water. This was their second fishing trip together.
Bobby's mom had set it up with Mrs. Jorgensen, Josh and Jocelyn's mother. Bobby had come downstairs for breakfast on Saturday, and was told that a boy his age would be coming over to play a little later. Josh turned out to be a chubby kid with big freckles and thick, red hair that stuck out all over. He had a big, friendly grin, and it didn't take long for Bobby, who felt a little shy at first, to warm up to him. Josh had brought a fishing pole with him, and Bobby's father went with them up into the little valley where Bobby had found the big pond. There, Josh had taught Bobby the basics of fishing.
Now it was two days later. Bobby's father was at work, so Jocelyn, who was eleven, had come out with her little brother to act as a kind of babysitter. They brought three poles with them this time, so they could all fish at once. They had even brought a picnic basket that Bobby's mom packed for them.
"There's no fish down there," Bobby called to Jocelyn as she turned to walk off to the new spot.
"How do you know?" she asked.
Bobby just blinked. "I guess I don't," he stammered. "I just— I'm just sure there aren't."
"Hmph," Jocelyn said, and continued on to the new spot. Josh grinned at Bobby. "That's the way to tell her," he giggled.
Whatever the reason, Jocelyn didn't have any luck at her new spot, and she was in a cross mood when she came back a little later. Bobby and Josh, meanwhile, had moved to a shady spot under a tree that bent like an old man over the edge of the pond. Bobby had picked it out. He just had a feeling there would be some fish there, and there were, and he and Josh caught three fish between them, which they unhooked and threw back. "You must be a natural at this," Jocelyn told Bobby as she peered at him through narrowed eyes.
Bobby felt drawn to the tree for some reason, and after a little while he put down the pole and climbed into it. "You'll fall!" Jocelyn warned him as he clambered out onto a thick branch that stuck out over the water.
"I don't think I will," he called back. He balanced on the limb, and there came over him an urge to rock up and down on it, like he was galloping on the back of a horse. "Stop that, you'll break it!" Jocelyn called.
And before Bobby could call back that he wouldn't, with a creak and a snap the limb broke beneath him, and he fell with a hard splash into the water. Bobby heard Jocelyn scream, and saw the brown surface of the pond rushing up at him. Then his eyes and ears were full of water.
Something was pushing him down, holding him under the surface. Bobby coughed, and felt water rushing into his lungs.
After that, there was a change. Josh and Jocelyn didn't come out to Bobby's house anymore. Instead, his mom drove him to their house. They lived in a leafy street crowded with other houses, and a backyard with a high fence. Some of Josh's other friends would come over, and after he got to know them, Bobby's mom would take him over to Mike's or Justin's house instead.
But Bobby felt restless at their houses, even though there were Nintendo games to play and basketball hoops to shoot through, and a couple of times they even walked down to the school to play on the P. E. fields in back. He missed his house and the fields and woods. "I'm going to have you all out to my house for my birthday party in August," he told the other kids, "so you can see it."
"No way I'm going to your house," said his new friend Mike. Bobby had been wary of Mike at first, because he was a husky kid who could wrestle any of the other boys to the ground. But he turned out to be as friendly as a big dog, so it hurt Bobby's feelings when Mike said this. "I'm not scared of ghosts," Mike said, "but, like, why take chances? You know?" He grinned at the other kids.
Justin, who was the tallest kid of the group, but skinny, shoved Mike. "Don't say that!" But to Bobby he said, "You don't have a ghost at your house, do you?"
"Sure he does!" Mike said. "That's the house where that kid died."
"What kid?" Josh asked.
"Ask your sister, he was in her class," Mike said. "He jumped out a window and broke his head open!"
"Did that happen at your house?" Justin asked Bobby.
Bobby felt cold. "I—"
"There's a ghost kid at your house?" Josh's eyes were big and round as he stared at Bobby.
"No, that's not the ghost," Mike said. He turned to Bobby. "You live in the Boudin house, right?" Bobby frowned and shook his head. "It has a burnt-out barn behind it?"
Bobby thought a moment. "There was an old, burned up barn there when we came out to look at it," he said. "But my dad made them tear it down. It was gone when we moved in."
"Oooh!" Mike's eyes gleamed. "I bet that made the ghost really mad! Because that's where he burned up!"
A few days later, Bobby got a text from Josh. There was a picture with it. It made Bobby feel ill just to look at it.
It showed a boy about Bobby's age. He had straight brown hair and wore a tan jacket and blue jeans. He was sitting on a bed, looking at the camera. There was a faint smile on his face.
Bobby didn't recognize the face, but he recognized the bedroom. It was his. It had the wallpaper they had torn off when he and his family moved in—red and yellow and green splotches, like leaves flying in a wind. He saw the corner of a desk, sitting where his own bed now was, and a bookshelf in just the spot where he told his mother he wanted to move his. In the picture, the boy's bed was sitting under the window, which was open.
The boy, if he wanted to or if he just got confused, could jump off the bed and go right out the window, and splat on the ground below.
That's what had happened to him. His parents had got up one morning, and found him lying on the ground beneath his open window.
Bobby crept up the stairs and looked in through his bedroom door.
It's all wrong, he thought, and he wanted to cry as he thought it. The desk should be over there, like it is in the picture. And the bookshelf would be over there. It's the wrong wallpaper! And the bed should be next to the window!
What did his mother say, when he asked to move his bed there? You'll get out of bed and go out the window. Just like this boy did.
The picture came from Jocelyn, who didn't know the boy, but had been in the same grade as him. Bobby texted her on her phone. He asked her if it was summer—a hot night when the window might be open—that the boy had fallen out of it.
But he felt already knew the answer, even before he sent the question. In her reply, Jocelyn told him it had happened in the middle of January. There was three inches of snow on the ground where he fell.
Bobby walked into his bedroom. He stood in front of the window and looked back at the door. From where he was standing—where the bed used to be—he could see straight out the door to the head of the stairs.
If something had come limping up those stairs—something with long, black, gnarled fingers, wrapping around the banister as it pulled itself up—he would have been able to see it from the bed.
Bobby closed his eyes and covered his face.
That's what he saw, Bobby thought with a shudder. Because I can see it when I stand here.
The boy didn't fall. He had opened the window and jumped out.
Because that was the only way to escape when it finally found the stairs, and crawled up them to get him.
There's nothing on the other side, he told himself as he stared at his bedroom door. Just the hallway. And there's nothing in the hallway.
It was dark, and he was laying in his bed, wide awake, staring at his bedroom door. It was shut and locked. If the knob rattled, he wondered, could I see it from here? Would I hear it?
He wanted to turn over and put his face to the wall, and to pull the covers up over his head. If I am very quiet and very still, he told himself, it won't be able to find me.
But he knew that wasn't true, and it made him wretched. His eyes watered as he stared at the door, watching for any sign that the knob was wobbling and starting to turn, listening for the creak of wood as something black and hunched and falling to bits limped up the stairs. He held his breath as we waited for it to lean against the door, pushing it, trying to get it open.
Maybe if I stare at it hard enough, he thought, that will make it go away. It will feel me staring at the door, and it will drop down onto all fours, and crawl back down the stairs and back into the basement. I'll stare really, really hard, and it will know how much I hate it and want it to go away, and then it will.
Then a terrible thought came to him. What if I'm looking in the wrong direction?
The sickness rose in him, in the back of his throat, as he thought of the window behind him, above his bed. What if I turn over and look? he thought. I'm on the second floor. But what if I turn over and look up at the window, and I see—?
He shut his eyes and tried to swallow the sickness in his chest. He felt his neck and shoulders creak as he turned over onto his back. The bed shook a little, and the sheets wound tightly around him. Just look, he said. There's nothing there, and you'll see there's nothing there. You're on the second floor. It can't even get up the stairs. How could it get outside your window?
He opened his eyes and looked.
Fingers like blackened sticks were pressed against the glass panes directly over his head. Of the face he only saw three long, white teeth jutting from a twisted jaw.
He screamed. It felt like he was throwing up.
It was just a nightmare, but it woke his parents up, and they came tumbling into his bedroom. Bobby's dad moved into his bed for the rest of the night, and he slept with his mom.
Bobby should have known it was a nightmare while it was happening. His bed had been in the wrong place, for a start. Where his bed was now, he couldn't even see the doorknob because it was hidden behind the corner of his dresser. And the window was on the other side of the room.
"Someone looks like they need some French toast," his mother said the next morning as she looked at him over the breakfast table. She made some for him, along with some bacon. Then she called around to see about setting up a playdate for him. "I'll take you over to Josh's in an hour," she said. "Go get cleaned up. Spit-spot."
After brushing his teeth and combing his hair, Bobby went out onto the back porch to wait, then wandered farther out into the fields. The grass was getting very long by now, and the bees were busy with the wildflowers. Without meaning to, he wound up at the creek, which he followed up to the pond.
It was a still, hot day, and dragonflies were whizzing over the surface. A little ways down the shore, the branch he had broken was still wedged in the muddy lakeshore. Bobby walked down to it, then on an impulse climbed out to sit on it. He looked down, past his hanging feet, at his own dim reflection in the pond surface. His hair, when it got too long, started to curl, but he had had a haircut, and now it was straight. In the reflection, in the muddy water, it looked brown, not blonde.
"I'm sorry," he said to his reflection, as though it were another boy. "I broke your rocking branch. I didn't mean to. And I think it scared the fish off from here," he added. "I don't know if they'll come back here, like they used to."
His reflection stared back gravely at him.
"I'm sorry I took your bedroom," Bobby went on. "I wish I could put it back to the way it was. I wish it could all go back to the way it was for you. I know you're scared, but I think you're just confused. If I helped you be less confused—"
Bobby bit his lip.
"I think it's confused too," he said. "I don't think it can get out of the basement anymore. As long as you—"
He twisted back and forth on the branch.
"I don't mind sharing!" he shouted. "I want to share! You can stay in my room, stay upstairs with me! I don't think it can get you up there, you'll be safe with me. It took forever for it to—"
Bobby felt dizzy. He closed his eyes and grabbed the branch to keep from falling. Slowly, he crawled back down the branch to the shore. He was shaking hard as he ran to the house.
It took forever for it to find a way up the stairs, he had heard his reflection say. The voice had spoken as clearly as he had been speaking. But it found a way. Then it found a way down the hall to my bedroom.
One night it will find a way to your bedroom, too.
"I shouldn't be telling you this," Jocelyn told Bobby. "It will give you nightmares."
I'm already having nightmare, Bobby wanted to say. Out loud, he just said, "No, it won't!"
They were in the Jorgensen's back yard. Bobby had and Josh had finished playing on the Splash-and-Slide, and now they were sloshing around in the wading pool with plastic cups of Kool-Aid. Jocelyn wasn't playing with them, but she was sitting on a lounge chair, in a swimsuit and sunglasses, giving herself a tan like she was a teenager.
It had taken Bobby that long to work up the courage to ask Jocelyn to tell him about the house he was living in.
"Well," she started to say. She peered over at Bobby. He was doing his best to look happy, even though he was dreadfully nervous.
"Well, to start with, everyone calls your house the Boudin house because that was the name of the family who lived there. It's like more than a hundred years old. Anyway, finally there was only one Boudin left, and he got caught in a fire out in his barn and burned all up. This was, like, fifty years ago?" Jocelyn squinted with thought.
"But, after that there started to be stories about it, that it was haunted. I asked my aunt to tell me about it after I sent you that picture. She wouldn't really tell me anything, she just said that people never lived there long. They would buy your house and then they'd sell it after a year or so."
"So the guy who burned up, did he turn into a ghost?" Josh asked.
"There's not a ghost!" his sister snapped at him. "It's just an old house out in the middle of nowhere, and a guy died in a fire, so people tell stories about it. They go out at Halloween and stare at it and tell stories about it."
"What about Christopher's family?" Bobby asked. That was the name of the boy who fell out the window.
"They moved away after it happened. My aunt says she thinks they're the last family that lived there before your parents bought it." She picked up her bottle of sunscreen and squirted some into her hands.
"Cool!" Josh said. He splashed Bobby. "Invite me to a sleepover some night!"
Bobby's mom was waiting for him in the living room when he got home. She looked very stern.
"Mike's mom called me while you were over at Josh's," she said. "Have the other kids been telling you stories about our house?"
Bobby hung his head, then nodded.
"What have they been telling you?"
Bobby said, "The boy who used to live here fell out a window."
His mom sighed. "Our house is not haunted," she said.
"I'm not afraid of Christopher," Bobby said.
His mother looked at him closely. "Who told you his name?" When Bobby didn't answer, she said, "Bobby, our house is not haunted."
"I'm not scared of Christopher," Bobby repeated.
His mother gave him another long look. "Go wash up for dinner," she said.
It was dark in Bobby's bedroom when he bolted upright in bed. A patch of moonlight was splashed across the floor. He groped for his phone, which he kept screen-side down on his nightstand. When he touched the screen, it said 2:23 AM.
His heart was beating hard. It's in the pantry! he thought. It found its way out of the basement and it's in the pantry!
His bed was where it should be, and when he looked around the corner of his dresser he saw that the bedroom doorknob was locked. He got out of bed and ran to the window. A round white moon stared blindly down at the dark fields behind the house. He opened the window and put his head out into the sultry night air to listen.
Something was wrong, he felt. Then: No frogs! he thought. No crickets! They're not singing!
He closed the window and turned to the door.
"I'm not Christopher," he murmured to himself. "I'm Bobby!" He flexed his fingers, as though feeling for a hand in the dark.
"It's okay," he told the boy whose hand he was feeling for. "It's okay he's in the pantry. That's all the way downstairs. You can stay up here with me. This is your room too."
Fear beat against his chest. It was like in his nightmare—he felt like he was going to throw up.
"Don't be scared!" he said through gritted teeth. "It can't get you! How can it get you? You're not like me! You're—!"
He stopped suddenly, almost like he had tripped over the word before he could say it. His chest got very cold.
That's why it can get me, he thoughts. It couldn't get me before. But it can get me now. It can see me now. It can grab me now. It can eat me now!
"You mean it couldn't before?" Bobby whispered. His head shook back and forth. It can eat me now! he thought. It wants to eat me!
Hot tears rolled down Bobby's cheeks and fell with a plop to the bare, wooden floor.
He wanted to run away. He wanted to push open the window and hop to the ground and scamper across the fields to the pond where he loved to fish and to play, back in the days before the first time he saw it—the black thing crawling feebly through the grass on all fours, smelling like smoke.
He wanted to run away but he didn't. He was shaking hard all over, but he went to his door, and opened it.
It was dark in the hall, but it was darker down the stairs. It was like stepping down into a pool of cold, black water as Bobby walked, footfall by footfall, down the staircase. In a spasm of fear he glanced back upstairs, to where a smear of light shone on a wall. But he saw nothing.
"It's just me," he told himself. He had never felt so alone.
"I can turn on the lights," he whispered to himself. "It doesn't like the light. That will make it go away." But he knew that lights would only make it hide, and it come back again in the night. It had found its way out of the basement again, and each night it would find its way closer to the stairs, and to the bedrooms on the second floor.
At the bottom of the stairs he paused and looked down the hall leading to the kitchen. It was blank as a pit, for there were no windows, only a swinging door at the end, between the hall and the kitchen. Which side of that door was it on? Bobby put his hands out, like a blind man, and slid his bare feet across the cool wooden floors as he shuffled toward the kitchen.
He smelled smoke as he stepped into the hallway.
"You can't see me." He said the words inside his mouth, so it couldn't hear him. (Could it hear?) Moving one foot at a time he slid down the hall with his hands out. The smell of smoke grew stronger. It stank of charred wood, but of something else too. Like burned meat, he thought. And other burned things. He threw up a little in the back of his mouth.
His waggling fingers touched something in the dark. It felt like fabric, but it crumbled to the touch, and he heard a deep sigh, like the growl a dog makes when it's dreaming.
Bobby dropped his hands to his side.
"We don't want you here," he said in a trembling voice, and he said it loudly enough that he heard his own voice. "Go away. You don't belong here. This isn't your house anymore."
It snuffled, and Bobby felt something brush across his face.
"Go away," he said more loudly. "Go away. We're not scared of you. You can't hurt us and we're not scared of you."
The smell of smoke got very strong.
"Go away!" Bobby yelled. "You're bad! You're wrong! You're in the wrong place! You don't belong here! You're wrong for it!"
He heard footfalls and thumps upstairs. But he was angry now, not scared, and he didn't care.
"Go away! We hate you! You're wrong here! It's all wrong here for you! Go away! Go away! Go away!"
Lights came on, and Bobby shrieked.
Bobby was listening with only half an ear as his mother and the doctor talked. He was too busy playing on his phone. Josh had beat his high score, and he was bound and determined to win back his championship position.
"Night terrors aren't uncommon at his age," the doctor was saying. "And I'm sure you remember sleeping with the covers over your head when you were his age."
"I didn't sleepwalk," Bobby's mother said.
"Not that you remember. How many incidents have there been?"
"Just the one, when we found him downstairs in front of the kitchen door."
"Are you sure he wasn't looking for a midnight snack?"
"Doctor," Bobby's mother said in a severe tone.
"You also said that was three weeks ago. Have there been any other nightmares?"
"None that he admits to." She was quiet for a moment. "The neighborhood children were telling him stories about our house. But he says now it doesn't bother him. Actually, that's something else that worries me. He's been telling the other kids that—" She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Well, that he and the boy are friends."
They talked a little more, ending with the doctor saying, "It's perfectly normal to have an imaginary friend at that age." Then the doctor asked Bobby some questions. Bobby was very cheerful as he answered them, and he only looked a little puzzled when the doctor asked if ever worried about monsters under the bed. "But that's where I keep my train set!" he said.
They drove home, and Bobby's mother walked with him to the top of the stairs. She looked into his room, and seemed to remember something. "Do you still want to move your furniture around?" she asked.
"No, I like it where it is," Bobby said. "I like where everything is." Then he said, "Can Josh sleep over tomorrow night? He says he's never slept in a haunted house."
She frowned at him. "Our house isn't haunted, sweetie."
Bobby laughed. "I told him that! But he wants to see for himself."