Sonny stepped between his toy cars, blue, red, green, parked in the ridges and grooves of the wooden floor boards. He looked up at the giant shutters, avoiding eye contact with the window. Standing so close to the glass felt dangerous; as if a spectral hand might reach through the pane, dragging him into the silence on the other side.
His eyes stole an involuntary glimpse of the street outside. Darkness loitered in the corners. Trees and flowers shrunk away from the twilight. Long black shadowy fingers reached out to rob the neighbourhood of its familiarity.
The absence of Sonny’s father added to his fears. He said he would be back before dark, said he would read him a bedtime story, said Sonny was the man of the house. Just because his father had a new job, didn’t mean he had to have one.
Sonny knew he wasn’t brave enough to be the man of the house. The house knew it too. The house had been acting awkward all day, anticipating the time when Sonny would have to protect it, starting by shutting the darkness out.
The shutters were old, heavy. Their hinges creaked under pressure, resisting movement. But someone had to shut them, and his mother had asked Sonny to do it.
Sonny closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, grabbed at the shutter but it wouldn’t shift. He tried to forget the boy he had seen in the window; sunken eyes, pale skin, panic building up inside him. A squeal resounded in his ears. The muscles throughout his body tightened. Bright lights dashed across his face. His eyelids flicked open, hopeful.
He recognised the little red car that pulled up outside. It sizzled and banged like overcooked sausages. Sonny could smell the memory of burnt toast invoked by the sight of the car. He relaxed inside his skin.
‘Daddy’s home,’ he called out to his mother.
Mother inside, father outside, there was nothing to be afraid of now. He fumbled with the shutter and put his toys away, listing stories in his mind, deciding which one Daddy would read him tonight.
The metal letterbox clanged open. His father’s voice echoed down the hallway.
‘I forgot my keys,’ he called.
‘Hold on, hold on,’ Sonny’s mother said, her slippers shuffling on the tiles. He heard the door click open, a rush of wind howling outside, his father’s footsteps, louder than usual, slapped the floor like a pair of wet fish.
He jumped at the sudden screech of his mother’s laughter, ‘What do you look like?’
Her words were followed by a smooch and a smack.
‘Sonny, run upstairs and get into bed,’ she said with a giggle. ‘Your Dad will be up in a minute.’
Sonny did as he was told, relieved that his father was home. If the dark had swallowed him up, he didn’t know what he would have done.
He heard his parents’ mumbled chatter as he climbed the stairs two at a time.
‘How was your first day, love?’
‘It was fun, but I can imagine the novelty wears off quickly.’
Pyjamas pulled on bottoms first, then top, buttons already done up. He brushed his teeth twenty times, rinsed and spat, three. The cupboard door had to be checked for monsters, pushed closed until it clicked, the bed jumped onto before something grabbed his ankles. He tucked his arms and legs in, snuggled down, waited.
The wet fish slap approached his door. His eyes travelled from oversized shoes to the bulbous red nose of a terrifying stranger. Sonny froze, petrified. He wanted to scream out for his Dad, but his lips were clamped shut in shock. The man approached Sonny’s bed. His face was whiter than a ghost, his skin flaky, unnatural. His clothes disguised the true shape of his body.
There was no way of Sonny knowing what the man really looked like, should he live to ever see him again.
The man garbled words at Sonny, but his ears had shut down, along with the rest of his senses, due to the terror. Gloved hands reached towards him. Sonny closed his eyes, hoped he was dreaming.
‘Are you proud of your Daddy for getting a job?’ said the voice of his father. Sonny looked at the source of the words, winced.
‘I’m a clown, now,’ the stranger said.