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The Boy and the Boemen


The Boy and the Boemen
by Priya Sridhar

They took in the boy with pale skin and grey clothes; he wore a sweatshirt and jeans that matched the evening sky when it rained and thundered. Monica and Aiden Caldwell were bankers, but they liked to meditate and examine their compassion while doing yoga. Sissi, their daughter, was only a few months old then, and they went without sleep, so as to show how loved she was and how they would rear her into the perfect child.

He came the day after a funeral, when the other wealthy couple, the Livingstons, in the small town had been murdered. Aiden had stayed home from the funeral because John Livingston had been his favorite golfing friend; Monica had taken to bed because she had fought with Susan Livingston for years over a necklace one of them had borrowed. Sissi was playing with a toy elephant in her crib, making little trumpeting noises. She wore an orange onesie with witches' hats patterned over the soft fabric.

The doorbell rang. Aiden was in the library, trying to read. Sweat bloomed on his brow. He heard the familiar chimes, and the lack of movement in the house.

"I'll get it," he said, without much enthusiasm. He wore white bedroom slippers that dragged on the brown linoleum.

A boy stood outside, shivering. His sweatshirt covered his knees and hands, and curls clung to his face. There were streaks of water on his face that could have been rain or tears.

"Hi," he said. "Could I use your phone? I'm lost."

Aiden considered. Those jeans could hold a knife or a gun, given their size, but Aiden was about six feet tall and all the weight lifting he did made him strong. He was sure he could grapple with a child if need be.

"You're in the Westphalian Suburbs," he told him. "How did you get lost?"

"I got taken away," the boy replied. He pressed a hand to his stomach and winced. "They didn't tell me where I was. Do you know where my mom and dad are?"

"Sorry, no," Aiden said. "I don’t know them. At least, I don’t think I do. Maybe if you tell me your name."

"My name is Drayden," he told them. "Call me Dray."

He couldn't have been older than eight. Aiden scrutinized the brown curls that framed Dray's tiny, forehead. A grey fog overtook his mind, as grey as Dray's clothes, and he welcomed it.

"You must be chilled to the bone with the rain outside," he said.

"I’m okay," he said. "I just need a phone."

Aiden let him in. The grey fog that clouded his head made him smile blankly. He had a sensation that he ought to be recognizing something, but the fog wasn’t letting him think. Aiden didn’t want to think in any case, to wonder what he should be recognizing.

Dray picked up the receiver and pressed several buttons. Then he waited, tapping hollow fingers against the phone.

"Come on, come on," he muttered. "Mom, pick up. Pick up."

As he did so, Monica came out of her bedroom, dressed in her purple wool robe and matching rabbit slippers.

“Are you all right, dear?” she asked Aiden, not realizing a new person was in the room. “I’m having trouble lying down. Whenever I try to sleep I have nightmares of Susan, and the necklace, and I feel terrible thinking about the fight we had . . .”

Her voice trailed as she realized Dray listening. Then her lips pressed shut.

“I think we should let him stay,” Aiden said. “There’s no one else for him.”

Monica had streaks of grey and smeared face cream in her red hair, and dark circles hung under her eyes. When Dray put down the receiver, their eyes met.

"Shouldn't we call the police?" Monica said. "If there's a missing child . . ."

"I don't think so," Aiden said. "They'll just make him wait in the station for hours until they find his parents. And then what will we do? Let him call first."

“Where is my mom?” Dray asked. “I tried calling and she won’t pick up.

Monica’s eyes grew sad as she found a cigarette and lit it. The smell of burnt tobacco filled the air. Her lips moved, and Aiden swore she was repeating “Susan’s necklace” under her breath. The same grey fog seemed to enter her eyes, so that a new, sobering light shone from them.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Where do I go then?” he asked.

“You can stay,” she said. “Until we can find her. Come. I need to go check on Sissi.”

“Sissi?”

“Our baby,” she said. “She’s about a few months old. You should meet her.”

She stubbed out the cigarette in an ashtray. They went to the room with the crib, and Monica started making cooing sounds.

Aiden picked up the cigarette and tasted where Monica’s lips had brushed the damp, scorched paper. He inhaled the remaining smoke, feeling himself relax for the first time in days.

* * *

Fog remained in Aiden’s head, and he didn’t think much of it. The cloud in his mind helped him return to work, so that they could pay the bills, and to not think of the golfing dates he would never make with John Livingston. He switched to jogging, and donated the golf clubs to a recreation center.

Sissi grew from a curious baby into a tottering toddler, and she made it a point to follow Dray everywhere. In time Aiden and Monica were able to sleep through the night, because Dray would wake and bottle-feed her or change her diaper. He sang “London Bridge” to calm her.

Dray went with them when the Caldwells went on vacation; they tended to go to the beach. Sissi when she learned how to walk found a shell with a hole in it, and Dray started to wear it around his neck on a leather cord.

Every time a relative came to call, Aiden didn’t remark on Dray, and no visitor talked about the boy who liked to wear a grey sweatshirt and had to be coaxed into brand-new pajamas or a three-piece suit. He didn’t go to school; Aiden and Monica laughed when they talked about getting Dray booster shots, though later they couldn’t say what was funny. When the babysitter came to watch Sissi, she complained about how the three-year old always disappeared on her but never mentioned Dray’s behavior. In fact, she didn’t talk about Dray at all. Sissi did, though, when asked why she played hide and seek.

“It’s fun being invisible,” she said. “Dray taught me how.”

“She likes learning,” Dray said defensively. “Besides, isn’t it good to be unnoticed?”

Six years passed. Sissi was now three feet tall, and she enjoyed playing hide and seek with Dray. Aiden thought they had run out of hiding places in the house, large as it was with six rooms, but somehow the games went on for hours.

Then Delphine came. Delphine was the latest candidate to interview for babysitting, with the previous sitter complaining that the house was always too cold. Aiden had received a phone call from her, and he invited her to the house.

“This place is quite charming,” she said, accepting a cup of tea. “Oh, I haven’t had real tea in years! Is this oolong?”

“The best oolong,” Aiden reassured her. “We buy it fresh from a tea shop in North Westphalia.”

Delphine was a grandmother, about twenty years older than Monica, and her eyes were the color of silver crusted with green age. She wore her dark grey hair in an old-fashioned bun with chopsticks.

“So why do you want to take on a babysitting job?” Aiden asked. “Sissi’s adorable, but she can be a handful. So can . . .”

His voice faded, and he forgot something. The unfinished sentence hung in the air.

“Oh, I need something to do with my mind,” she said. “My son and grandkids moved to the North, and I’m living on retirement now. Used to be a teacher but with my arthritis it’s painful . . .”

She gestured with a hand; Aiden saw a simple, silver wedding ring on her right hand and several engraved copper rings on her left.

“If I may ask, how long has the boy been with you?” she remarked

“Boy?” he asked startled. “You mean Dray? You can see him?”

As the words left his mouth, he felt startled. No one outside the house asked about Dray. The grey cloud receded, leaving stray blanks in his head.

“I’m surprised you can,” she responded. “Do you know who he is or how he came to you?”

“I know he was lost,” he said.

“I figured. May I read your tea leaves?” she asked. “Drink most of your tea, but leave a little in the cup.”

She took the tiny china mug from him and swirled it around. The black dregs sifted like iron filings around a magnet. They settled into a blob with holes in the middle.

“What do you see?” she asked.

Aiden saw the shape. A figure wearing a mask, with clawed hands.

“I’ve seen that before,” he said.

“Where?”

“In my nightmares.”

“What?” She looked genuinely puzzled.

“When I was a child, I was scared of the dark,” he explained. “I used to check under the bed and closet for monsters, especially the Boogeyman.”

He shuddered as he remembered. It had been his mother’s bright idea, God bless her soul, to tell him that if he argued, forgot his chores, or didn’t go to bed on time, then the Boogeyman would come and steal him away. Only she called the Boogeyman the “Boeman” because she was German, and had married an American. The problem was that Aiden would then lie in bed, and his eyes would watch for the Boeman. He pictured them carrying bows like the evil version of Robin Hood, and shooting around his head for target practice. He hadn’t slept for months.

“But they aren’t real,” he said. “It was just something stupid my mother said so I could behave.”

“I suppose Sissi and Dray are brave children?” Delphine inquired.

“Sissi’s scared of rational things. Stray dogs. Crossing the street without an adult. Touching a hot stove. And Dray would only be scared if anything happened to Sissi.” Aiden felt indignant though he didn’t know why. “No child should be scared when the sun goes down. That happens every day, and you should enjoy every minute of your life.”

“I feel the same way,” she said. “My grandson Daniel isn’t scared of the dark either. But I imagine we all grew up, your generation and mine, with a fear of the Boogeyman. Nothing can defeat them, not really, and they love scaring children.”

Aiden swallowed. He saw that Delphine was examining her tealeaves as well.

“The problem is that the Boogeymen can be defeated,” she said. “And they fear the person who can fight them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you think the boy came to you when he was alone, and he had nowhere to go? What do you think happened to his home?”

Aiden couldn’t answer. It wasn’t just the fog; it was a sensation that whatever had happened was terrible, that Dray hadn’t just been lost but that someone had lost him.

* * *

Aiden started checking the spaces under the beds and in the closet. He made sure Sissi had a cell phone for school, since it was the most practical fad he ever believed in, and gave her the order to call whenever she finished with school, every day. Dray asked for a phone as well, and Aiden put him on a plan.

Monica saw his fear and growing panic. She came to him as he was checking under the bed, shining a flashlight against the dust and stray pencils.

“Dear, what’s the matter?” she asked.

He reached for the pencil. It was coated in purple lint, probably from one of Sissi’s sweaters.

“I have a feeling that something terrible is going to visit,” he said.

He gathered the pencils that he had found, and blew the lint off them. Monica coughed as some grey got into her nose. She bent next to him.

“I know, it’s silly,” he said. “It’s just that I have a lot of anxious thoughts. And that brings on the old fears.”

“Poor baby.” She stroked his shoulder.

They got up from the floor. Aiden replaced the pencils in the round holder on Sissi’s desk.

“The neighborhood committee sent out a notice,” she said. “Construction crew found a dead body buried in the Livingston lot yesterday.”

He froze. Monica looked at a photo of Sissi on the wall, riding a chestnut horse. She took out a white printout that had been folded several times.

“There was construction going on,” she said tonelessly. “The people digging up the foundation hit something hard; it was a tiny skull. A child’s skull.”

“The police . . .”

“They’re still there,” she said. “They’re digging up the rest of the site, to see if any bodies are there. They want to know if anyone has any information.”

“We have to go,” he said.

“But what do we know?” she asked. “We don’t know who killed them.”

“They were our friends,” he said. “Why would a child be buried in their yard? Why?”

“Sissi’s going to be home early today,” she said. “One of us needs to pick her up.”

“You go. I’ll just make a quick run, so that I can get some peace of mind. Jesus Christ.”

Dray watched them as Aiden changed into a jacket and got his car keys. The seashell necklace hung from his neck, the cord discolored from age.

“Are the Boemen outside?” he asked.

“What?” Aiden responded, startled.

“You talk about them. The Boemen. They sound familiar.”

He took a moment to respond, because the fog started to muddle his thoughts.

“I hope they weren’t a part of your life, Dray,” he responded. “Nothing worse is being scared of the Boemen. They come when you can’t fight back, and when no one can help you.”

“You can’t fight back,” he responded. “But maybe Sissi and I can help.”

“Believe me, I wish you could,” Aiden said with a forced laugh.

Dray’s suspicious, cautious expression softened. He gave Aiden a hug.

Aiden got into his SUV. Sissi had left one of her Disney CDs, and he listened to the music.

The former Livingston mansion had been demolished; water pooled in the bottom of the rectangular lot, and police tape bordering the edges. Aiden parked by the side of the road. Three cops stood outside a squad car.

“Afternoon, officers,” he told them. “My name’s Aiden Caldwell; I live a few houses away.”

“Come to see the scandal?” A large one with a bristly beard remarked sardonically.

“Far from it,” he said. “I knew the Livingstons. They were our friends. We just got the notice, about . . . the body.”

“Yes, the body.” The cop with the beard bent his head. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about a child being buried here?”

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. Susan and John, they were good people. They didn’t . . . they didn’t do it, did they? They wouldn’t have murdered a child and buried it under their house, would they?”

“Hard to say,” the second cop remarked, a younger man with a shaved head and dressed in a light blue uniform. “It’s very easy to hide a monster. They can look like everyone else. ”

“No, it was not them,” the third cop was tall and thin with peppery-grey hair, and a serious expression. “They did a rush job on the autopsy, and they’ve determined that the child was buried in the lot several years after the Livingstons were murdered. Don’t tell that to the public, though.”

Aiden swallowed.

“But why there?” he asked. “Why? Wasn’t it bad enough that they died? Who would be monstrous enough to ruin what’s left of their house?”

“Maybe you could answer that.” The policeman with the shaved head reached into his pocket. “This child went missing around the same time that this body had been murdered.”

Except it wasn’t a single portrait. The photograph was a Polaroid, the background a Christmas tree dotted with red and gold ornaments. Monica and John were dressed in matching green clothes, and they hugged a child who was smiling, his cheeks ruddy red and curls a creamy boy. The child was too familiar.

“But,” Aiden stammered. “But . . . they didn’t have children. They . . . Dray. . .”

He looked up, and his voice died. The three policemen stared at him, and their faces suddenly looked rubbery, like masks. Aiden realized they were wearing gloves, and he could see pointy fingertips pressing through the fake skin.

“He’s with you,” the serious one said. “We should have done this ages ago.”

“No,” Aiden breathed, realizing that he had given something away. “It’s not . . .”

Darkness slammed into him. Aiden stumbled and fell. He landed on his stomach and gasped, as he felt claws reaching for him.

When he regained his vision, the three policemen were gone. So was the car. Only the Polaroid remained, face-up on the pavement, as if to taunt him. The sun had gone down a few feet, indicating that some time had passed.

“Oh no,” he said, getting to his feet. “Those were the Boemen! Dray!”

* * *

The drive back was short, but Aiden pressed his foot to the gas pedal. Fifty miles per hour, and he screeched to a halt. Even as he yanked the key out of the ignition and ripped the car door open, he knew that he wasn’t going to make it. The black smoke billowing out of his house did not look like the smoke from a house fire; it was thick like liquid tar, and moved with a purpose.

His wife and daughter stood outside the house. The doors and windows were coated in black smoke, and the curtains billowed with flashes of lightning.

“What’s happening?” He asked.

“We were hoping you could tell us,” his wife responded.

“We can’t get in the house,” Sissi replied. She was wearing her plaid skirt and a red shirt for her school uniform.

“The policemen weren’t policemen,” he said. “They were . . . they’re after Dray. That’s why we can’t get in.”

She took the Polaroid he was clutching in his hands. He hadn’t even realized he had taken it from the ground and had crushed the thick paper.

“Susan and John,” she said quietly.

“And Dray’s with them. I don’t understand it,” he said. “But we have to get in.”

They couldn’t get near the front door; the black smoke clung to their hands. It left red welts on their hands, as if it were a type of adhesive. Aiden thought about trying to get a rake or one of the benches out on the road and ram the door down, but when Sissi picked up a fallen twig and poked, the smoke merely sucked in the mold-encrusted wood.

“Dray, hang on!” Aiden called.

“He’ll be fine!” Sissi said, though she also looked alarmed. “He’s just playing with them.”

As she said that, a blast of the same black smoke smashed through a window. Aiden groaned as Monica screamed. They watched as the black receded, leaving the splintered rectangular frame. A carpet of glass lay outside on the lawn. They caught a silhouette of a boy rising through the floor.

Dray was not cowering. They could see his fists balled how he planted his feet on the carpet.

“He’s . . . He’s beating them,” Aiden said in surprise.

“Like I said, he’s playing,” Sissi said. “He does the same thing when we play hide and seek, opening up new spaces in the house.”

The sun kept going lower behind them, so that the sky started to color orange. Aiden could only watch as Dray appeared and disappeared in the doorway, while he saw a figure with claws holding a tiny white thing with black holes in it. Aiden grabbed the rake.

“Let’s see if we can get Dray out of there,” he said. “Monica, stay outside with Sissi. It might be dangerous.”

“It will be dangerous for you,” she retorted, “but you’re right. Two of us have to stay outside. You should, since you fear them.”

“It’s my responsibility! I brought them here!”

“That doesn’t mean you should risk your life!”

“I’m not missing this!” Sissi said. “Dray needs all of us!”

A loud crash interrupted them. The door slammed open, and the black poured out, surrounding the family. Monica and Aiden squeezed Sissi in between them, the way dinosaurs would protect their young. The black smoke teased at the adults’ clothes, ripping holes. When Aiden tried to bat at them with the rake, the smoke yanked it out of his hands. He withdrew, pressing his legs against Sissi’s shoulders.

The tall Boemen with the solid face no longer wore a human mask or a police uniform; Aiden only recognized him because he was the same height, and had an identical solemn expression.

“Boy, you better stop playing games with us,” he called. “Unless you want to see what happens with your little sister once these claws rake into her belly.”

“Don’t worry about me!” Sissi called out indignantly, as her parents huddled in front of her. “And I’m not his sister!”

“You may as well be,” the Boeman told her. “After all, your family took him in when he was a mere ghostling, and you protected him.”

“They didn’t know,” Dray said, his voice breaking as he appeared. “I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Why did you even do it?”

He appeared in the doorway, and the edges of him seemed blurry. The tall Boemen lifted the cracked skull; Dray’s body started floating towards him. The boy dug his heels into the wooden porch.

“Why, you were destined to destroy us,” the Boemen said. “A child that would be born without fear of us, who would have known how the scary monsters under the bed could be defeated. And given the way your mother was raising you. .”

“The necklace,” Monica said in a whisper. “Susan wouldn’t return it because she claimed the opal stones were enhancing her aura. She believed in those sorts of things.”

“How did John put up with that nonsense?” Aiden asked. “He never told me. And he didn’t have children!”

“Oh, he might have,” the Boeman said. “It’s not like you would know. When the ghost boy came into your lives, you would have forgotten anything about him while he was alive. Your memories would have altered. Did you even go to the funeral?”

Aiden took in a shuddering breath. He thought back to the graves he had never visited, of the friend who in his mind suddenly became as blurry as wet ink on paper.

“You killed a child in cold blood,” Monica said. “You’re holding Dray’s remains. He was Susan’s boy!”

“She had a seven-year old boy,” Aiden breathed; some memories were returning. “He lived with his grandparents most of the year so he could go to a nice school.”

“That’s not who I am,” Dray said, shaking his head. “I wasn’t anyone’s son. I was just . . . lost.”

“A lost boy that haunted a house for six years,” the Boeman responded. “Your father was quite happy to betray you once he realized what you were.”

“That’s not true!” Aiden protested. “I didn’t know.”

“I believe you,” Dray said; his feet were starting to lift off the ground. “They’re liars and monsters.”

Dray’s hands were coated in the black tar, and in red stuff. Aiden then realized why the tall Boeman had come out alone.

Sissi jutted her lower lip out. She then stared at the ground as if in concentration.

“He’s not the only one that knows how to play,” she said, and then she vanished. It was as if the floor had swallowed him up.

Aiden and Monica gasped as they felt air rush past their arms. She had gone into the patch of grass that they occupied, and the Boeman shouted in frustration.

“What- you’re mortal! You can’t-”

“She can,” Dray said coldly. “I taught her.”

Sissi’s tiny hand appeared, and clawed at the Boeman’s black ankle; it writhed in surprise and recoiled, while still holding the skull. The hand withdrew into the earth, taking the ankle with it. The skull fell from the Boeman’s claws and shattered into a million pieces.

Aiden saw Dray open his mouth and utter a quick chant. The Boeman sunk into the grass. The black smoke receded from Aiden and Monica, so that they could move towards Dray. Sissi reappeared beside the boy and stuck her tongue out.

“If you were trying to stop me from killing you, you shouldn’t have killed me first,” Dray said, in that same cold tone. “Then I wouldn’t have learned how to defeat you.”

They watched as the figure drowned in his blackness, Dray letting the monster sink further. They heard more footsteps, and whirled.

It was a woman with light grey hair, and a necklace of opals around her neck. She wore a mink dressing gown and a purple nightgown that went to her knees.

“Susan!” Monica said. “You’re . . .”

“Dead,” Susan responded. “I came to get my boy.”

Dray didn’t move. His fists still tightened into balls, and he breathed hard.

“Come, dear,” Susan said. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. I’m sorry I didn’t save you.”

"They hurt me first," Drayden said, choking out the words. "They came to my room first, and they took me away. It was a gun with a knife at the end. It went into me, in and out."

He gestured with his hands.

"I was destined to bring them down," he said. "Even if I died, I had to fulfill that destiny."

"And now you have," Aiden said. He felt tears running down his face. "But you can't go, Dray. You have a home here. I may not be your father, but I've tried to be like one. Monica has tried to be a mother."

“And I’m grateful for that,” Susan said. She reached for Dray’s hand.

“Wait, Dray!” Sissi cried. “Don’t go! Not after what we did together!”

He hesitated, and Sissi took the opportunity to leap into his arms. They shared an embrace, Sissi coated in his aura of grey. Dray tried to break the hug, but she held on fast.

“I can’t stay, Sissi,” he said. “I’ll always love you.”

“I’ll never see you again,” she said. “None of us will!”

“He stayed for longer than intended,” Susan said quietly. “If not for the Boogeymen, he would have had a long happy life.”

“Then why can’t he stay with us, until he reaches the end of THAT life?” Sissi demanded.

Susan hesitated. Then she looked at Dray. He gave his mother pleading eyes.

“To stay longer in this realm, it would mean that you would have to wait a long time to move on. Stay here, and you will not age. Aiden will become an old man, Monica a lovely grand dame, and Sissi will have grandchildren.”

Dray pondered this. Sissi clung even more tightly.

“What about . . . what about visits? If I visited during the time I meant to live on Earth. That way I could flit back and forth.”

“Also possible,” Susan admitted. “I could teach you how to make such travels.”

“Would visits be all right, Sissi?” Dray asked.

“How will I know if you come back?” she replied. “What if I’m always waiting for you and you only come back when I’m an old lady?”

He thought about this, and fingered the cord around his neck that had once held a seashell. Aiden wiped his tears, remembering that day. Susan undid the clasp at the back, and handed it to Sissi.

“Every time you want me to come, just use this,” she said. “Think of Drayden, of how you made this together, and how you want him to go. You can even test it right after we leave.”

Sissi took the cord, and scrunched her face. Drayden’s eyes went wide.

“I can feel you,” he said. “Your thoughts are strong.”

“I’m going to keep using it,” she said. “So that it works all the time.”

With that, he managed to break their embrace, and then Aiden found himself facing the ghost boy.

“Son,” Aiden said.

“Dad,” Dray responded. “I mean, Aiden. Thank you. For everything.“

They shared an embrace. Aiden pressed his nose into Dray’s head to inhale that scent of rainy grass and ashes. Dray’s tears ran onto his shoulder. Then they drew apart, nervous.

Dray took his mother’s hand. The front door opened to a burst of white light, and they walked into it. Aiden made himself watch, Monica bit her lip and Sissi clung to the leather cord. A sound like thunder broke through the air.

The light faded. Aidan stared at the mess of their house and the puddles that blew in from outside. Then he and Monica bent, as his daughter held the cord and whispered for Drayden, and started to pick up the wet, bedraggled sheets. Their tears splattered like gentle raindrops.

* * *

Priya Sridhar has been writing since fifth grade, a year after her mother forbade her from watching television all day. This led to several published short stories, one of which made the Top Ten Amazon Kindle Download list, and Alban Lake publishing her novella Carousel. She invites readers to read her blog a Faceless Author at http://pseudonymousfictionwriter.blogspot.com

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre? 

In fantasy, anything can happen. Dragons can fly with people, witches can cast spells that make it easier to clean, and hobbits live in houses and fight spiders with swords. You don’t have to follow any real-world logic except by choice, and you can end up anywhere with just a few words.

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