Phoebe Mason always had trouble sleeping. She was only a little girl, and, as was natural for little girls, she was prone to the nightmares that shook her from sleep in a 3 A.M. panic, leaving her defenseless in darkness, half-drowned in an ocean of sheets and sweat and tears. Even from infancy, she could scarcely get a wink without jolting upright and dropping open her mouth to scream for mommy.
To her father’s chagrin, she often demanded that her mother sleep with her so that she didn’t have to be alone. Every night for years, Phoebe’s mother spent the night with her, lulling her to sleep with sweet dreams in mind or soothing her when the nightmares shook her awake. But when Phoebe turned five, her father decided enough was enough.
“You’d think the kid would be able to make it through one night by now,” he had grumbled, walking past Phoebe’s bedroom, only to find her snuggled up with her mom.
Mrs. Mason was a patient woman, but her husband was right; it was time Phoebe learned to sleep on her own. As soon as Phoebe fell asleep that night, her mother slipped away, and the little girl was alone in the dark for the first time.
The Masons had moved into the house on Danby Drive only a few months before their daughter Phoebe was born. The house had not been lived in for years, and the last family before them had left suddenly. Mr. Mason had heard that they moved away because their young son went missing, but he thought it was unnecessary to mention it to his wife. Mrs. Mason, though patient and compassionate, had too many nervous tendencies, and to hear that a child went missing in this area would only worry her. Besides, it had been over a decade ago, and there were no such records since.
The first night Phoebe slept alone was the first night of anything unusual happening. She woke not from a nightmare but from the sound of something scratching from below. She did not jolt upright or gasp in terror. She didn’t even cry. She simply opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, listening close to the scraping beneath her bed.
A muffled voice broke through the silence, and it wasn’t Phoebe’s.
“Hello?” it said. It sounded to Phoebe like a little boy.
“Hello?” Phoebe whispered back.
“Who are you?” it asked, after a pause.
“Who are you?” Phoebe retorted.
“Marcus,” said the voice cheerily.
“I’m Phoebe. Are you real?”
“I think so. I feel real. Are you real?”
“Yes! Of course I am! Where are you?”
“I’m in the floor,” said Marcus.
When Phoebe took too long to reply, he changed the topic: “Do you want to be best friends?”
“Okay,” said Phoebe, and thus began a most peculiar friendship between a little girl and the invisible boy that lives under her bed.
The next night, Phoebe insisted that she sleep alone, and this continued for several days. Mr. Mason was happier than he had ever been, particularly in the last five years, and Mrs. Mason, though she missed her bonding night times with her daughter, was relieved that the little girl was finally starting to develop a sense of independence. There were no concerns until both of the Mason parents woke in the middle of the night to the sound of their daughter’s violent laughter.
Mrs. Mason rushed into the bedroom to find Phoebe giggling to herself, hands covering her rosy cheeks in an attempt to stifle the noise.
“What’s so funny?” asked Mrs. Mason, trying and failing to feign happiness through her exhaustion.
“My friend is telling jokes,” Phoebe replied, still giggling a little.
Mrs. Mason glanced around for a phone or a walkie-talkie, finding nothing of the sort. “Your friend? What friend?”
“Marcus. He lives under my bed.”
A sudden look of understanding passed over Mrs. Mason’s face, and this time her smile was genuine. “Marcus?” she asked, and she bent over to peer under the bed. “Ah, very nice! Hello, Marcus!” her comment was directed at the dust bunnies, for she saw nothing unusual under the little girl’s bed.
“He’s not there, mommy,” Phoebe whined. “He’s all the way under the floor.”
“Ah, I see. So then what does he look like?”
Phoebe shrugged. Then she crossed her arms and pouted. “Mommy, go away. Marcus won’t talk with you around.”
“Of course not. But doesn’t Marcus know it’s bedtime?”
“Tell Marcus he should sleep, too. His mommy and daddy probably want him to go to bed as much as your mommy and daddy do.”
“But mom-my! Marcus doesn’t have a mommy and a daddy. He said they left him here a long time ago, so he doesn’t have to do what they want.”
“Well, then I’ll be his new mommy, and I want him to go to sleep. You sleep well now, all right, Phoebe, baby?”
Phoebe uncrossed her arms, placed them at her sides, and sighed deeply. “Okay, mommy.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Mrs. Mason left, shutting the door behind her, leaving Phoebe in the dark with her “imaginary friend.” A few moments of total silence passed, in which there was no scratching, no wind-blowing, no laughing, no jokes. In those moments, Phoebe was afraid that her mother had broken some spell by finding out about her friend, and now he must be gone forever. Or worse, Phoebe had ruined her own imagination by revealing it. She would have cried if Marcus hadn’t spoken up.
“Your mommy sounds nice,” he said. “She’s gonna be my mommy.”
He began scratching again, a quiet, persistent pattern of fingernails running against rough wood.
“She’s a nice mommy,” Phoebe concurred. “But I like talking to you better.”
“Someday you should help me up so she can be my mommy.” He scratched harder, the grainy sound of friction growing stronger.
Phoebe thought about this. “But I like it this way.”
“I don’t. I want her to be my mommy. Can you help me up?” Marcus was scratching madly now, hard and sharp against the wood, and the noise thundered through Phoebe’s ears until she could scarcely breathe.
Mrs. Mason couldn’t fall asleep that night. Instead, she lay completely and totally awake, scanning the ceiling, biting her fingernails. Something about that conversation had struck her oddly, and it was nagging at her.
At around 2:30 A.M., she could no longer contain herself, so she woke her husband by shaking his shoulder rather aggressively.
“What? What is it? What do you want?” asked Mr. Mason dazedly, still half-asleep.
“This house. Who lived here before us?”
“It was empty.”
“Come on, Jim. It’s an old house. Someone must’ve lived here.”
“Uh… I don’t know, twenty years ago some people lived here.”
“Why did they leave?”
“I didn’t want to tell you.”
“What is it? What happened here?”
“Their kid went missing. He was Phoebe’s age.”
Mrs. Mason had a sudden pounding of her heart, a sudden nagging feeling in her chest. Her head throbbed with every quickening step toward her daughter’s room. When she got there, she threw the door open and turned on the light only to find that the bed had been pushed against the wall crookedly, blankets strewn everywhere, and Phoebe was sitting on the floor clawing ravenously at the floorboards. There were tears in her eyes, and her fingernails bled, leaving crimson streaks on the wooden floors, but there was unbridled glee in her voice while she giggled to herself madly.
“What’s wrong, Phoebe? What’s going on?” Mrs. Mason repeated shrilly, trying to pull her daughter away from a slightly darkened spot on the floor. “You stop that! Stop this right now!”
But Phoebe was persistent, and the wood chipped away under her nails, creating little holes and crevasses in the floor. Only darkness lay beneath them, but it was an open darkness, like the space underneath a porch, filled with a vast and empty sort of black.
Mrs. Mason dragged Phoebe away but crawled closer to the spot. Gingerly, she dug her fingernails into the wood and pulled, scraping away at it. One of the boards was just faintly the wrong shape; its edges peeled in some places, leaving narrow gaps in others. It was wrong for the house, like it had never meant to be there. That was the one Phoebe had dug at, and eventually Mrs. Mason pulled the board loose. She instinctively brought her arm up to cover her face when she saw what lay below.
There lay the missing child.
There lay the body of a boy abandoned, ignored, forgotten.
A little corpse, a little mummified boy with empty, hollowed eyes, all blackened by time and rot, lying in the space below. He was covered in spider webs and dust and dead flies and everything that had ever made Mrs. Mason want to vomit. And he almost seemed alive, for his hands were facing upward, his fingernails were rubbed raw, and the petrified skin was embedded with wooden splinters that looked far too fresh.