"Paget is screaming again."
Beth’s whisper snaked into my ear and brought me back to the surface of deep sleep. I blinked heavy lids and sat up in bed.
“Listen.” Her voice shot through her teeth like pressurized water.
I propped myself up in bed and listened to the darkness. A few seconds later I heard a little squeal coming from downstairs where Paget’s room was.
“She’s doing it again,” observed Beth. “Hold on, I’ll go to her.”
I sat up and threw the covers off of myself. I grabbed my glasses off the nightstand to my right.
“It’s okay. Stay in bed. I want to see this for myself.”
Beth huddled back into the bed and watched me leave the room while she curled into a ball. I forgot to put my slippers on, and my already cold feet began to freeze on the hardwood floor.
I’d been living at Beth’s for only a month, and I’d already taken up the role of “Resident Stereotypical Male” regardless of the fact that I couldn’t hammer a nail to save my life. I didn’t mind it. I loved Beth, and despite the fact that I always thought I’d never be able to love a kid that wasn’t biologically mine, I’d grown fond of her 10 year old daughter, Paget. Besides, being the “Man of the House” was a fine enough boost for a stagnant ego.
I’d met Beth one morning at a park I’d often visit while working on lectures for class. She’d been walking her dog, a little Corgi named Francis, when Francis decided to go for a run without letting Beth on to this new information. He’d broken free and was chasing a squirrel up a tree when I heard her shout his name to no avail. I looked up and saw Francis bolting past my table. Without even stopping to think, I swung my legs from around my picnic table and brought my foot down on Francis’ leash. He choked for a minute, but calmed down after he realized the squirrel had escaped his menace. Beth approached and apologized. I gave her the leash for Francis back and we went our separate ways.
I didn’t think on the situation much more after that. She had long wavy platinum blonde hair with darkly bronzed tan skin, not exactly the physical attributes I’m normally attracted to. But I kept seeing her almost every day after that. If not in the park, we would run into each other elsewhere, and after a while I finally asked her if she wanted to go out somewhere.
Before I knew it, I was being introduced to little Paget. Other than in her eyes and her smile, she didn’t resemble her mother at all. She had stringy brown hair, freckles and the palest skin. She was quiet and shy, clinging to her mother for most of our first meeting. That made two of us since I’d never been much of a kid person before meeting Beth. But around the time that Beth got a call from Paget’s elementary school, informing her that Paget had been telling all the students that there was an alligator living in the sewer grate next to the playground, I started realizing Paget wasn’t like most kids.
Around the time I moved in was when I was told about Paget’s night terrors. Beth told me they were sporadic and usually only happened about once a year. Beth would wake up to the shrill sounds of Paget screaming. When she would burst into the room she would always find Paget giggling quietly in her bed and acting as though nothing had happened. The terrors were starting to become more frequent and were seriously concerning Beth. She’d taken Paget to a doctor only to receive a shrug and an assurance that it was probably a passing phase. I told Beth I’d keep an eye out and tell her if I noticed anything strange.
After heading down the stairs, I turned a corner and stood in front of Paget’s bedroom doorway. The door was closed so that only a sliver of the room could be seen. I hovered around the door, waiting for another yelp from Paget. As I stood there, waiting, I thought I could see some kind of shadow moving through the room toward the bed. I squinted my eyes and decided it was probably just the silhouette of the tree outside the bedroom window.
Paget let out a shriek. I threw the door open and thought I heard a strange whooshing sound. I snapped the light on and found Paget sitting up in bed, rubbing her eyes.
“Malcolm? What’re you doing?” I stared at her, dumbfounded.
“Your mother and I heard screaming.”
“I’m okay.” She turned over and threw the covers back over her head. I lingered in the doorway for a moment, my hand still on the light switch.
“Turn the light out please?” she asked politely. I switched the light off and closed the door. For a moment, I thought about the sound I heard when I was rushing in, and decided it must have just been the door. I stayed in front of her door for a moment and listened. I could have sworn I heard something clicking across the floor in her room, and the soft sound of Paget giggling under her breath. I turned to walk away and tripped over something furry.
“Goddammit, Francis.” I mumbled as he whined and scurried away on his stubby legs and I picked myself up.
“What happened?” Beth asked as I got back into bed.
“Nothing,” I responded, “same as always,” as I drifted back to sleep.
The next day, Beth couldn’t pick up Paget from school because of her job. I pulled up to the school at 4:00 and helped Paget into my car. On the way back, I got her an ice cream cone. On the way back, we got stuck in traffic. She was trying her best to keep the melted ice cream off my seats with her napkins but it was a losing battle. I told her not to worry about it.
“Paget, what happens at night when you wake up screaming?” I asked her.
She didn’t answer right away and kept eating the rapidly melting ice cream.
“Mom worries even though I tell her it’s nothing.”
“But it has to be something. Those screams are so loud they wake us up.”
“I’m sorry. We try not to be so loud.”
Paget turned red. She’d obviously let something slip she shouldn’t have. She avoided my eyes.
“Paget.” I said, a little more sternly than normal.
“We’re just playing a game, me and her,” she said sheepishly.
“Genevieve. She’s very old. She’s lived in my closet since before we moved in. We’ve been friends ever since. She’s really nice. We play a game every night. If I catch her sneaking, she has to go back to the closet. If I don’t she gets to take me with her.”
I gritted my teeth and tightened my grip on the steering wheel. I obviously wasn’t going to get any sense out of her; nothing but the childish stories of a little girl who didn’t know any better.
That night, after we’d put her to bed, after Beth had drifted off to sleep, I walked back downstairs and stood in the doorway. I’d made sure the door stayed open tonight on purpose. Paget didn’t seem to notice. After waiting in the doorway for an hour or so, I heard the creak of the closet door. There was a clicking sound, like long, unkempt toenails on the wood floor. I froze, holding in my breath. A hunched figure hobbled quietly across the room. It tapped its claw-like feet on the floor each time it stepped forward; once the first time, then two times on the second step, and three times on the third step.
The thing had scabby long claws at the ends of long, bony arms that clutched a ratty old shawl around its disfigured body. I couldn’t see her face, but there was white, web like hair that fell around its head. The wrinkled skin of the thing was the color of an old dead tree.
Each time the creature tapped on the floor boards, I could hear Paget whisper the number under her breath.
The monster was only a few inches from the bed now. I saw her reach out a bony claw to Paget’s side. I turned on the light and shouted something incoherent. The monster turned around and faced me. It was the face of an old woman, but inside the sunken sockets where eyes should be were two glowing orbs. She let out an ungodly, high, piercing shriek before swooping at me. I braced myself but when I opened my eyes, the creature was gone, Paget was crying, and Beth was at her side. I tried to explain what happened, but Beth wasn’t buying any of it.
The next day at breakfast I poured a bowl of cereal for Paget as she walked into the room and sat down at her regular seat. She glared at me.
“Paget…what happened last night?” I asked, still shaken from the event.
“Genevieve’s mad at you” was her only response. She took two bites of cereal and then walked out of the room.
Needless to say, I was not on good terms in the household anymore. Beth had told me to sleep on the couch that night. Moving to the couch was fine by me, the problem was trying to sleep on it. I had finally found a position that worked to my liking when I heard a strange noise in the hallway, moving into the living room. One click. Shuffling. Two clicks. More shuffling. Three clicks. They each got louder every time. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as a heard a voice that sounded like grinding sawdust whisper:
“It’s your turn to play now.”
I heard something grip the fabric of the couch and a heavy breathing sound. The breath was hot on my neck.
In the distance, I swore I heard Paget giggle.