A silence choked the room. It was the kind of quiet that feels unnatural and dangerously unpredictable. The presence of something lurking in the shadows would’ve gone practically unnoticed by most. That’s why, when Aaron felt a minuscule twist in his gut, he barely flinched. Rather, he continued his aimless doodles on the margin of his math homework.
He would be crazy to think anything was out of the ordinary. Instead of letting his fear consume him, he decided to rationalize the lack of noise in the house. Strolling out of his bedroom, he meandered through the house in search of family members.
Usually his sister was sketching something for her art class and blasting music from a pair of beat up headphones. Poking his head into her bright coral bedroom, he was immediately taken aback by her absence. Aaron could’ve sworn she’d taken the bus home with him that day. In fact, he was positive she had. Nonetheless, there was no light scraping of her pencil against paper or the muffled sounds of music playing just loud enough for him to hear. Her braces and auburn hair didn’t greet him as usual. No, he was met with only her vacant niche.
Feeling puzzled, he turned on his heel and started calling out, “Mom?! Dad?! Where are you? Madelyn?!” His voice reverberated back at him, leaving him with a resoundingly clear answer. He was alone.
Aaron tried to ignore the anxious gnawing at his insides. So he was alone? Fine. He’d been home alone, thousands of times. This was hardly a cause for alarm, so he decided to ignore the nagging feeling inside him. Turning around to head back to his room, he saw something strange. Doing a double take, he moved his gaze towards the family portrait that hung on the wall. In the photograph, his family’s fresh-faced grins smiled back at him. Except something was wrong. Taking a closer look, Aaron realized that the picture was melting. The pigments dripped away until there was nothing left but an empty picture frame.
Shivering suddenly, Aaron frantically looked around. The baby blue hues that covered the walls seemed darker than usual. The entire house used to feel so comforting and safe. Within a matter of minutes, however, the place he’d occupied all his life somehow felt like a million miles from home.
The uneasiness brewing in his stomach had become full fledged panic as his mind conjured up every possible reason they were missing. Fear danced along his spine and slowly began seeping into his skin. Fighting back tears, he ran down the hallway towards the front door.
He would get out of here and everything would be okay. Muttering to himself, he repeated over and over again. I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.
Increasing his pace, he made for the big mahogany door. Much to his dismay, he didn’t seem to be getting any closer to it. In fact, the hallway was getting longer. The house was being stretched like a rubber band. It was as if he were the pawn in some cruel and calculating game.
Aaron was sprinting now, in a vain attempt to escape. Wheezing and panting, he finally collapsed on the floor. Drawing in short breaths, he wracked his brain for a plan B or a possible explanation for what was happening. Breaking off his chain of thought, a sound finally penetrated the air. It was the quiet, but unmistakable, sound of laughter.
“Who’s there?” stammered Aaron. His voice sounded so helpless, even to his own ears. Instead of speaking out loud, an unfamiliar voice responded within his head. Hmm. I’m not sure I can disclose that information, Aaron.
“How do you know my name?” He spluttered. I’m afraid I know more than just your name. As Aaron struggled to comprehend what the voice meant, the walls around him slowly began to shrink. What started as a gradual change was now quickly gaining momentum. He was clearly the target the walls were closing in on. Soon enough they would completely surround him, squashing him to death.
“Please. Don’t do this.” Ha. Claustrophobic much? His palms began to sweat profusely and his breathing hitched. In a matter of seconds the walls enclosed him in a space barely large enough for him to sit in. Queasiness overtook his insides and bile soon rose up his throat. The nasty substance covered his T-shirt and jeans and reeked of fear. Aaron squeezed his eyes tightly shut and wished it were all over.
To his surprise, upon opening his eyes, he was met with entirely new surroundings. He was in a meadow surrounded by forest. Cautiously stepping forward, he peered curiously at the field in search of danger. His clothes were no longer covered in throw up; however, the bizarre sense of danger was definitely still there.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Do you hear that? That noise. It’s your heartbeat. Aaron could imagine a sadistic smile teasing upon its lips; viciously laughing at some irony he couldn’t possibly understand. The view was different from where it watched. He was blind to reality, and slowly succumbing to the inevitable void it had placed in his path.
As if on cue, a sudden tremor traveled through the earth he was standing on. The landscape began crumbling and Aaron’s scream pierced the air. It broke apart in alarmingly large chunks. He could only watch in shock as it splintered beneath his feet. And then he was falling through darkness, with no way of knowing how far the drop would be.
He spun through a pitch black abyss in utter terror; until abruptly, he met the bottom. Pain. Undeniable and agonizing pain. Then darkness.
Writhing on his bed, Aaron sat up in a pool of sweat. Carefully, he listened for the voice. It was gone. In its place were the normal sounds of the house’s regular occupants. Sighing in relief, he concluded that it had all been just a nightmare. No longer apprehensive, Aaron rolled out of bed and made his way downstairs. He could already smell the maple pancakes someone was making. Grinning, he practically bounced through the hallway. He was met with no obstacles of any kind.
There they all were. His sister, his mom, and his dad. All three of them were sitting at the table devouring the tasty little cakes.
“It’s about time, Aaron.” his mother chided, “Did you plan on sleeping the whole day away?”
“Sorry, mom.” He replied sheepishly.
“I think I finally finished that painting I’ve been working on.” Madelyn said.
“Really, honey? That’s awesome!” Their dad beamed.
“Do you think we could see the finished product?” Asked their mom.
Pulling a sheet of cloth off the canvas, Madelyn revealed the painting. It was a beautiful array of blue and black paints depicting a long, dark hallway. On the walls were empty picture frames. Aaron shuddered as the realization clicked within his head.
“You know, it’s funny. I had a nightmare last night. This painting reminds me an awful lot of something that happened in the dream. I was so relieved when I woke up this morning.” With an eerie synchronization, all three heads turned to look at Aaron. Each face leered at him menacingly. And then, in a robot-like fashion, all three mouths spoke in the same voice at the same time, “Why, sweetie, you never woke up.”