Jeremy’s eyes sprang open as if he’d been jolted with electricity. He heard the same sound he’d heard every night since they’d moved in.
He snuggled further under his Superman blanket. Light came in from the hallway through the crack in his door, and he felt some measure of comfort that he could see he was alone.
But, he was only alone in this room. His parents were across the hallway, but this sound wasn’t coming from their room.
Jeremy had dared to venture out into the hallway to investigate, but never made it to the stairs going down to the first floor.
His family had moved here from across the country, and they’d only been in this house for nine days. On each of those nine days he heard the sound.
Jeremy had brought up the sound at breakfast, but his parents assured him it was just the sound of the furnace. It was an older house. They said he just had to get used to it, whatever he was hearing.
But they didn’t hear anything.
Tonight he wanted to dare to go down to the steps. If he didn’t find out what it was, it might never stop. He was convinced it wasn’t the furnace. If it sounded like anything, it was a wounded teakettle.
Jeremy moved down the stairs, holding the railing to keep his feet from hitting the wood too heavily. He stopped a few times, wanting to turn back.
He kept going, and the sound was getting louder. It sounded like an animal, but not quite. It was almost human.
And it was coming from the basement.
Jeremy was an only child. There couldn’t have been any other children in the house. Though, sometimes he would pretend he had a twin, like Tommy and Brandon at school. He would sometimes whisper to his invisible twin, as if he had a confidant.
Instead of having a confidant, Jeremy sat alone on the bus and alone at the lunch table.
Maybe whatever was making the sound was lonely too.
Jeremy approached the stairs to the basement and gazed down into the pitch black. At the top of the stairs he had the guidance of night lights that his parents had put out for him.
But no one went to the basement. It was filled with boxes from the move, and his parents didn’t show any intentions of actually unpacking them. He wished they would. Some of his favorite toys were tossed into random boxes, since he’d failed to do his own packing. His Superman action figure was the thing he missed the most.
He thought back to his Superman bedspread. Maybe he should just go back.
His weight shifted back, away from the stairs, and the floor creaked. The screeching stopped. Jeremy stopped breathing, straining to hear.
Did the sound stop because of him? If it was the furnace, it shouldn’t have just stopped. Jeremy took a few steps back and waited for several long minutes. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. If there was a something or someone down there, maybe it was coming for him as he had been coming for it.
He wanted to run. His breath quickened and he felt his skin growing damp with a nervous sweat.
Then, what sounded like only a few stairs down, there was a creak. Jeremy could hear his own heart beating so loudly he didn’t know if he could believe what he had heard.
He held his breath.
Jeremy turned and ran, not looking back. Adrenaline pumped through his system and he used the railing again to haul himself up the stairs to his parents room.
He threw open their bedroom door, letting in the hallway light. The door slammed against the wall and his parents bolted upright, moaning and shielding their faces against the light.
“What are you doing, Jeremy?” His dad looked at the clock on his bedside table. “Do you realize what time it is?”
“Dad, there’s something downstairs, in the basement. I heard it. It’s not the furnace! It’s something alive, I swear.” Jeremy was panting, hands on his knees.
Jeremy’s dad rubbed his face with his hands. “Okay, okay. Let’s go check it out.” He motioned to Jeremy’s mom to stay in bed and she laid back down.
As they passed through hallways and rooms, Jeremy’s dad turned on all the lights so they could investigate every nook and cranny.
Jeremy just kept watching towards the basement. “It isn’t here, dad. It’s in the basement. Can we just go check the basement?”
Jeremy was curious but terrified. What if something was there? He grabbed onto his dad’s sleeve. “Don’t we need something to protect us?”
Jeremy’s dad sighed and dragged his feet out to the garage and came back with a bat. Jeremy pressed close to the door frame, watching over his shoulder at the basement steps. “Hurry up, dad.” He bounced on the balls of his feet with impatience.
His dad came back inside and went towards the basement. Jeremy’s throat thick, and there was a crushing pressure on his chest as his heart beat to bursting. He opened and closed his fists, knuckles creaking and cracking, fingernails in his palms.
Jeremy’s dad carried the bat in one hand, swinging it loosely. He didn’t look very prepared for what might be in the basement.
No sounds came from the darkness.
Jeremy’s dad turned on the light and his feet flopped tiredly down the steps. “There’s nothing down here, Jeremy,” he called up.
Jeremy held his breath and tiptoed down the stairs. “Are you sure?” he whispered. His dad wove through the boxes.
“Jeremy, I told you not to open these boxes yet. I don’t want you undoing your mother’s organization.”
“I didn’t touch the boxes.”
“There are half a dozen over here that are open.” Jeremy walked through the maze of boxes to a corner where several boxes had been pulled down from their stacks and rifled through.
Jeremy’s dad ran a hand through his hair. “She’s not going to be happy about this,” he muttered.
“Dad, I didn’t do it.” Then, out of the corner of his eye, Jeremy thought he saw something move. He jumped back a little. His dad was still focused on the boxes.
In the far corner, Jeremy saw something red on the floor. He swallowed hard. He hoped it wasn’t blood. But it seemed to bright to be blood.
He proceeded cautiously, worried that something would come out from behind the stacks. In the corner of the room, next to the furnace, he found the red thing. He bent over and picked it up. It wasn’t blood. It was a cape.
Jeremy knew this cape. It was from his favorite Superman action figure he’d just been thinking about. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
“Do you see my Superman action figure anywhere in those boxes?” Jeremy had backed up, almost backing into his dad.
“I don’t see anything. Come on, we can look at this later. Let’s go to bed. There’s nothing here.” His dad gestured to the sea of boxes.
“I still think there’s something here. Maybe it’s invisible.”
“Things aren’t invisible. You know that, Jeremy. If you’re bothered by those things, maybe we should stop buying you comic books,” his dad said with an exasperated tone.
“No, I’m fine. I’m sorry. It was probably just the furnace.” The furnace was quiet. It had always been quiet. But if he found the cape near it, maybe it was hiding something else.
Jeremy put the cape in his pajama pants pocket and went back upstairs. The house was quiet, and he slept.
Jeremy didn’t hear anything for several nights after that, but the cape stayed on his bedside table. He wondered what had happened to the rest of it, but didn’t dare go back into the basement to look.
Then, one night, Jeremy was awakened by another sound. Crying. As he came out of his dream, the sound grew louder. He recognized it. It was the sound that had been coming from the basement, but now it was soft but clear.
It was the crying of a child. Jeremy sat up, and tried to look around the room, but it was dark. The light wasn’t coming into the bedroom from the hallway like it usually did.
The door was closed. It was never closed.
Jeremy curled up and pulled the blankets to his chin.
The crying wasn’t coming from outside the door.
It was coming from inside the room. In the corner next to the closet.
It shuffled closer.
Sniffles, shuffles, crying.
Jeremy almost began to cry out of fear and pity for the thing that cried.
He held his breath. He couldn’t scream. He couldn’t move.
He saw it come towards him in the darkness. A small, hunched, thin figure. It held something out in front of it.
Jeremy’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. He saw Superman. A Superman action figure. And it was missing its cape.
Little fingers curled around the body of the superhero. They were blue.
There was a bit of moonlight coming in from outside, and it illuminated just enough on the floor that he could see the small creature shuffling into view.
Jeremy couldn’t completely make out its face, its back to the moon. It was a child. But it wasn’t a human child.
The child sniffled and little tufts of hair waved on its head. The child reached up and handed Jeremy the action figure.
Jeremy hesitated, but then moved a hand slowly towards it. He grabbed the leg of it, careful not to touch the child’s hand. He snatched it to his chest and let the breath explode from his lungs.
The child no longer cried. Instead, Jeremy saw white teeth. It was smiling.