The ladder clattered down. A few moments later it was followed by the all too familiar pitter-patter of feet skittering across the upper floor.
“Your turn Lil’,” I said, putting my pillow back over my head. But just like every other night this week she didn’t answer, didn’t even move. She was either suddenly sleeping a lot harder or getting a hell of a lot better at ignoring me. I sighed and hoisted myself up in resignation.
“Ben?” I asked, poking my head up through the trapdoor. The lights were off, same as always. It made me shudder. I don’t know how I ended up with the one kid who’s not afraid of the dark. There are plenty of times its a godsend, but then there’s times like this where it’s downright unsettling.
“Over here Dad,” his small voice squeaked out. He was sitting in a rusted folding chair peering out the small, round window that overlooked the backyard. “There’s a deer out there.”
I finished my trek up the ladder and hunched over beside him. It was a buck, six points. “You know how to pick ’em kiddo,” I said, grinning. “You’ll make one hell of a hunter.” He beamed back at me, the scattered gaps where he’d lost his first handful of teeth making him look like a hillbilly.
We both turned back to look at the deer and found that it was staring straight up at us now. I felt a strange chill rouse my spine and Ben’s breath hitched in a sudden gasp. As if it had heard, the buck turned and bolted toward the treeline. I looked at Ben waiting for some sort of response, excitement, disappointment, but if anything, the kid looked sad.
“Alright, time for me to be a dad,” I said, hunkering down until we were eye to eye. “Why are we up here again bud?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said, his gaze shifting slightly to the right of mine, his tell. He’d been lying since he was eleven months old and while he could occasionally pull one over on Lily, he had yet to best me.
I reached out to grab his shoulder, the secret honesty-coercing move that I’d picked up from my own father. But when I did his eyes grew wide and he squirmed away. “Whoa,” I said. “What’s wrong Benny?”
“N-nothing,” he sputtered, sitting back down. He still wasn’t looking me in the eye, but I didn’t push it this time. The fear in that look wasn’t something I ever wanted to see again.
“You know Benny, you start 1st grade in a couple days. One of these nights you’ll have to get some sleep.”
The boy sniffed, then nodded solemnly.
“Is this – about school? Are you scared?”
“No,” he said, turning toward the window again. “Not scared.”
I crouched down behind him, looking out the window too. I noticed our yard was getting overgrown, the grass thick as old Roscoe’s fur. It was so strange, I could have sworn I mowed the week before. I shook the tired thought from my head and sighed. “Well then what is it then Benny?” I asked, my tone going to that stern place that still sounded a bit too much like my own dad’s for me to feel comfortable. “You’ve been coming up here every night for almost two weeks now. Your mother and I are getting a little worried.” Without thinking about it, I let my hand slip down to his shoulder. He shuddered briefly and then almost instantly began to weep.
I pulled my hand away again, afraid I’d done something wrong, but Ben didn’t squirm away this time. Instead he turned to embraced me with every ounce of his being. I squeezed back, holding him while he wept with a strange, quiet dignity only punctuated by the occasional sniffle.
After a long while, when the silent heaving of his sobs had stopped, Ben leaned over to my ear and whispered, “I miss you Daddy.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Miss me? I’m right here.”
“But you’re getting dimmer. Every night I feel you less and less.” He sounded worried now, almost frightened.
“What do you mean Benny?” I said, more than a little startled myself.
“I was lying earlier, I am scared. Scared that one day there won’t be anything left. Please don’t disappear Daddy, please?”
“Your scaring me now, Ben,” I said, setting him down, my voice starting to falter. I felt an unease growing in my stomach. “What are you talking about?”
Ben hung his head. “You don’t remember?” He outstretched his hand. I took it and he lead me to the opposite end of the attic where the old mirror was propped up against a wall. “Stand there,” Ben said. I did as I was told and watched in the mirror as he shuffled back to the attic’s opening and flicked the lights on.
The unease crashed over me like a wave, chilly and black. All I could see in the mirror was Ben standing at the light switch. He was crying again.
Originally posted as a response to a prompt by /u/dragoncaretaker on reddit.com