The Boy in the Mist first appeared in the anthology entitled Big Book of New Short Horror and is now available here to read for free.
— Karen was told her daughter was normal, that her imaginary friend was harmless but Karen starts to unravel as she discovers that Beth’s imaginary friend is real and he knows something about her no one is supposed to know. —
The Boy in the Mist By Marianne Su
She stood in the doorway watching Beth sleep clutching her new stuffed dog. The night light shone dimly upon the balloon caught in the flow of the air vent, dancing upon the invisible draft. Karen crossed the floor to her daughter and pulled the covers up to her shoulders. They say the first five years are the formative years. That’s what worried her.
She wondered if it was okay to make a wish on someone else’s birthday candles. She’d done it anyway. As Beth had leaned in to blow, Karen had closed her eyes and wished. It was worth a try. Like the birthday girl, Karen would never tell. No one would believe her if she told them her wish.
The eyes at the end of the bed glared at her. An army of stuffed animals stared at her judgingly from their perch at the foot of the bed. They were the witnesses. They see and hear everything. Karen felt strangely conscious of their judgement. Guilty as charged. She didn’t know what, but she must have done something wrong. The bear, cow, sheep and unicorn knew it. After all, when a child acts out for attention, it has to be someone’s fault.
Leaving the door open as promised, she quietly walked down the hall to the kitchen. Her abandoned glass of wine stood guard by the drawings on the table. Karen gulped down the wine and cringed at the bitter taste.
The teacher didn’t want the drawings with the others lining the wall at school. No, Beth’s were different. Picking up one of the pictures, she heard the words of Beth’s teacher. They were trained professionals. She’s a good girl, doesn’t cause any problems, but the pictures were disturbing. Karen lay her head on the table, staring at the offensive drawings, and fell asleep with worries for her daughter tumbling through her mind.
That’s where Beth found her mother the next morning.
Karen shielded her eyes against the glare of daylight that streamed across her face. Her arm felt numb trapped beneath her head against the hard kitchen table. She lifted her body from its awkward position. Blood hadn’t yet returned to the lifeless arm as it swung out and knocked the empty wine bottle to the floor.
Karen turned her head, braced for the crash, scolding herself for being careless. When the expected clatter didn’t happen, she opened her eyes. Beth was smiling, her glassy eyes trained on the bottle as it stood upright obediently on the kitchen floor.
“You know Harry doesn’t let bad things happen,” she said.
It used to be cute how Beth spoke of Harry. Not anymore. He was like an unwelcome visitor who refuses to leave. Karen wanted to push him out the door, lock the windows and change her phone number. None of those things would work with Harry.
“Sweetie, you’re five years old now. You don’t need an imaginary friend anymore. How about the girl I saw you playing hop scotch with yesterday. What was her name? You can ask her to come over some time. Was it Heather? No. Hailey.”
“Harry doesn’t want me to play with them. And he doesn’t like it when you call him imaginary.”
Desperately, Beth pulled her daughter close, lodged her small head under hers and hugged her tight. She knew she shouldn’t try to dispel Beth’s imaginary friend. The psychologist told her it was normal, especially for a child who had suffered the loss of a parent. Harry was her way of dealing with those anxieties and fears. But that was a year ago.
When Beth ran into the backyard later that afternoon, she looked as happy as usual. For now, it was all about the turtle pool. Beth pulled the pool away from the fence, scraping at the dry peeling wood. Once in place, the pool took up most of the small backyard.
A voice called from the neighbour’s window. “Karen, don’t forget to put sunscreen on that child.” Mrs. Mc Norris from next door. Karen wished they had more privacy but that was hard to come by in a townhouse complex like theirs.
Smiling, Karen waved at her. She was nosy but meant well. At least she’d stopped giving Karen love advice. She had gotten tired of hearing how a new boyfriend might help Beth. Karen didn’t agree that Beth needed a male presence in her upbringing. Karen didn’t have one when she was a child and she had long decided she was better off without men.
Thankfully, Mrs. Mc Norris didn’t know about Harry. Sunburn was one thing. Karen didn’t want to hear well intentioned opinions regarding her daughter’s emotional health. She didn’t need anyone’s advice. She would take care of Beth on her own.
Karen closed the back door, leaving a crack so she could hear the phone if the doctor’s office called to confirm the appointment. At first she disagreed that a psychologist could help but the school had insisted. Besides, good mothers do everything they can for the children. They make the right decisions, seek medical opinions and get help for their kids.
Beth ran for the garden hose and pulled it toward the pool, tugging as hard as she could. “No, the hose is too short. I’ll move the pool closer,” she said to herself. “Okay, I’ll ask her.”
Beth turned to Karen and didn’t seem to notice her mother’s worried expression. Maybe she thought Karen was squinting in the sun instead of examining the fragile emotional state of the little girl in the purple striped bikini, talking to her imaginary friend.
“Mommy, can you turn on the water please?” she asked.
Nodding, Karen turned the tap. Water rushed from the hose and thundered into the plastic turtle. As Karen pulled open the folding lawn chair, she forced herself to relax, to take a deep breath. Beth was happy, smiling. It was moments like that she wanted to savour. Maybe the psychologist was an over-reaction.
Summer sun streamed down into the backyard, illuminating Beth’s brown hair, turning it almost blond in its bright rays. Beth laughed as she turned the hose and doused Karen with the cold water. It felt good.
“Your turn, Harry,” Beth said.
Beth turned the hose to the far side of the pool, spraying into the air. The mist of water hung in the air, slowly drifting in the light breeze, seemingly suspended in the dreamy sunlight. Beth laughed, going from a giggle to a cackle as the drops of water took shape around a form.
A head, a body crouched with arms up, shielding, hiding. A silver shadow, the outline of a boy, lowered his arms and turned his featureless face toward Karen before the droplets of water fell away, making him disappear like a melting ice sculpture.
“Harry. That was so cool,” Beth exclaimed. She raised her hose, aiming at the spot again. “Come back.”
Karen lunged for the hose. Beth turned away, guessing her mother’s intent. Beth sprayed. Karen grabbed the thin green length of rubber, pulling. Beth tugged harder with amazing strength. Karen lost her grip. Her feet slipped on the wet grass as she lunged for the hose again and pulled it down with her to the soft muddy ground.
The hose went wild like an angry snake looking for prey. Water sprayed into Karen’s eyes, locking them shut. As she wiped them with slippery hands, the water turned warm. Warmer. Hot water streamed down on her, burning her skin.
Karen screamed, helpless and disoriented. She curled into herself and found some small refuge in the cool mud. The water fell like fire all around, her eye lids clamped tighter, protecting the eyes within.
“Stop it. Harry. No.” Beth’s voice was solid, firm, like the voice of a parent, not the child she was.
Then the water was gone. All at once it stopped its penetrating attack.
When Karen was able to blink her eyes open, the head of the hose lay still on the grass. It stared at her, innocent and apologetic. Karen lifted her head, pulling against her heavy hair, caked in thick mud. As she moved her body, Karen’s stinging skin complained. Beth’s face slowly came into focus. Quiet and innocent. Karen wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing, the water, the image in the mist, Harry.
“I told him to stop,” Beth whispered.
No. Karen hadn’t imagined it.
Karen slipped into the cold shower to tame her tingling skin, but only after safely settling Beth in front of T.V. Beth wanted Cinderella. It was her favourite. It was also the last present Carl had given her a few months before he died. He usually did buy presents afterwards but the guilt and remorse was always too late for Karen.
Karen left the shower curtain half open where she could see through the open bathroom door, down the hall. From the shower, she could hear the step-sisters’ singing lessons. Karen wondered if Beth ever remembered those moments, the ones that came before the presents. Karen never forgot.
Karen wanted to get rid of that movie after Carl died, like everything else that survived the fire. But Beth loved to dance along with Cinderella when she arrives at the ball.
The cold soapy water coated Karen’s skin, but like the presents from Carl, the water couldn’t undo what had happened. Flashes of the scalding water and screams in the backyard invaded her thoughts. She pulled the shower curtain across. The metal rings scraped along the rod, forcing out the unwanted memories.
Karen stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a thread-bare towel and wiped her hand across the fog on the mirror. Her reflection stared back, her red-tinged skin like a punishment for thinking everything was going to be okay.
Down the hall, Beth laughed. The mice were singing. Cinderella’s dress was almost ready. Karen wondered if she should throw away the movie after all. Maybe tell Beth it got lost. No girl should be allowed to think that mice can make a dress. Magic can’t turn a trampled girl into a princess. No man can save you from your life.
Damp hair fell on Karen’s shoulders as she sat next to her daughter on the couch. Karen pulled the blanket on Beth’s lap to cover them both, wrapping them together. Beth leaned in to her mother as Karen put her arm around her, placing a light kiss on her head.
“Beth.” The fairy godmother had Beth’s full attention but Karen continued. “Tomorrow you have to miss school. Just for the morning.”
Beth’s eyes stared at the movie as her head turned slightly toward her mother. “Tomorrow is computer lab. Why do I have to miss school?”
“We have a doctor’s appointment. It won’t take long.”
“That’s why Harry got mad today. He doesn’t want you to take me there,” Beth said.
“I don’t listen to Harry. I’ll do what I want.” Karen sighed, calming her flaring temper. “You shouldn’t listen to him either, Beth. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what to do. You don’t need him. You’ve got me.”
“Harry says not to trust you, that you don’t tell me the truth.”
“I think you should listen to him. He got really mad with you today.”
The fairy godmother started to sing. Beth sat up on her knees and bobbed to the music. She smiled and reached out her hand. On her feet, she grabbing the air and danced, arms outstretched. She laughed and sang along as she turned in circles with an unseen partner. Her eyes closed as she twirled around, faster, then faster.
Karen got up, ready to catch her, waiting for her to lose her balance. But Beth kept on going until she was spinning out of control.
“Stop,” Karen yelled.
She reached toward Beth, trying to grab her arm, to steady her, save her from the whirling nightmare. A blast hit Karen, cold and sharp against her skin, robbing her of air. Beth spun free, stumbled backward and crashed into the bookcase, sending its contents to the floor. Picture frames shattered as they met the wood floor. Worthless decorations Karen had collected over the years tumbled off the shelves. Carefully stacked mail and newspapers went airborne. The Cinderella case flew off the shelf and landed at Karen’s feet.
“This is not funny!” Karen picked up the Cinderella case and shook it in the air, stopping when she heard a muffled whimper. Blood streamed down the side of the child’s face from an open gash above her left eye. Karen dropped the movie case and ran to Beth, scooping her up in her arms.
Beth turned in her arms restlessly, kicking her legs and crying. “I’m sorry, Mommy. Why did you get mad?”
“Mad?” Karen carried her daughter to the kitchen, placed her on the counter and examined the steady flow of blood from the wound. “You’re okay, baby. I’ll get some ice.”
“What did I do?” Beth asked, her voice small and tenuous.
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you get mad and push me?”
“You don’t think I did this to you. Do you?” Karen asked.
Beth raised her face to her mother, one eye examining her. “He said—”
“Stop. Don’t do this.”
“He told me you want to hurt me, that you hurt everyone. Why? Why did you push me?”
Karen pulled Beth toward her, enveloping her daughter in her shaking arms. One hand lifted to Beth’s head and smoothed down her messed hair, patting and soothing the troubled head of her only child.
“It wasn’t me.” Karen closed her eyes tight. “It wasn’t me.”
The psychologist’s waiting room was small but colourful. Beth loved the books, the doll house and the rocking horse in the corner. A children’s program played on the t.v. hanging from the ceiling. Not Cinderella.
A woman with a sympathetic smile took Beth’s hand and led her from the room. The other parents in the waiting room sat silently, pretending they weren’t curious about each other. Karen walked down the hall to the elevator. She had an hour to kill. She wanted a coffee.
The elevator was empty when Karen stepped on. She tapped the button for the second floor. Then again, impatiently. Karen crossed her arms. She hated hospitals. She should have brought something to read in the waiting room but she knew she couldn’t concentrate, not in that hospital.
The elevator moved, obediently down. Then faster. Faster. The lights on the floor numbers tumbled down the list. Karen was thrown to her knees on the brushed metal floor. Her hands went out to brace the fall. She screamed as the elevator flew out of control downward until it stopped suddenly. A ping announced the floor and the doors steadily opened, oblivious to the preceding terror.
Unable to move her body, still crouched in the elevator, she stared out at the sign ahead. Emergency. She reached for the buttons and jabbed the second floor again. It didn’t light up. The ping sounded again as the ground floor button flashed.
Karen stepped out into the lobby. A sign ahead pointed towards triage. She’d been here. The night he died. The night she thought she was finally free.
The doors behind her slid shut as Karen spun around and jabbed the up button. Nothing. Then the down button. Anything to get out of there.
Karen scanned the signs for a staircase. Just one floor up to the cafeteria. She needed a coffee, the strongest they had. She flew around the corner, following the sign, narrowly escaping a collision with an elderly man.
Pushing open the heavy metal door, her feet tapped along the concrete steps as they echoed through the tall stairwell. When she almost lost her footing, she gasped and slowed down.
Then a shove.
Karen grasped the metal railing, its peeling paint rough against her sticky palm, as she glanced behind. No one was there. Then another set of footsteps, loud enough to be right behind her but again, she was alone.
Karen jumped two steps at a time, trying to escape the invisible threat. A hard jab on her shoulders made her stumble, tripping on a step and falling hard. A sharp pain hit her head, blinding her while another jab hit her ribs.
A sharp kick to her stomach knocked the air out of her and sent her hard against the wall. Her head struck the concrete, making a dull sound. Karen gasped and blinked hard, willing her blurry surroundings to come into focus.
A light blue door with the number two painted in white was just out of reach. She wouldn’t wait for the invisible enemy to attack again. Pulling herself across the floor, blood dripped steadily, making a bright pattern against the grey floor.
Her hand discovered a gash on her forehead, open and gushing blood, pouring into her eyes, tinting the world around her an ominous crimson as her tingling fingers tightened around the door knob. She squeezed and turned, dragging herself to her feet and through the door into the hallway. Pulling the door shut behind her, she peered through the glass window into the grey stairwell. Bright florescent light illuminated the stairs, eerie and gloomy in its emptiness.
Karen leaned against the door, sighing deeply. She grabbed a tissue from her jacket pocket and lifted the crumpled ball to her head. The bleeding had stopped. No blood at all, not even a wound that she was certain was there a moment before.
Her fingers examined the disappearing injury. There was no pain. No blood. No tender muscles where she was so violently attacked.
Insanity. It was the best explanation. Better than the alternative. Karen watched the activity of the cafeteria down the hall. She stumbled as she walked towards the noise, certain that she’d be safer among people. At least there he couldn’t attack her.
Back in the waiting room, Karen sipped her coffee and glanced at the other parents. A father reading a newspaper. A woman checking her messages. Another mother imploring her two children to share, the panic in her eyes gave away her expectation that the two would make a scene.
Karen eyed them all, judging like they would judge her. You never really know what’s in people’s thoughts. You can’t predict what they are capable of, no matter how normal they seem, how responsible they want to appear.
The woman with the sympathetic smile returned. She raised her eyebrows and waved Karen into the hall. She followed the doctor whose heels clicked along the scratched tile floor. Karen stared absent-mindedly at her back as she led her into a cold, sterile room. A single file folder lay on the metal and formica wood desk.
“Beth is a pleasant child,” she started. “She wasn’t shy and didn’t hesitate to answer my questions.”
Karen nodded and smiled pleasantly. She knew more was coming. She wanted her to get right to it. The doctor reached for the folder and opened it. Eyeing the paper inside, her eyes narrowed.
“Beth and I spoke about her imaginary friend,” she said. “Harry, she said his name was.” The doctor paused. “I know that’s why you’re here but I’m not concerned about Harry. Beth told me she made him up when she was lonely but she didn’t play with him much anymore.”
Karen nodded. Wouldn’t most children minimize something they think is wrong? If Karen could see that, how could the doctor not?
“Is there a specific reason you think this imaginary friend is an unhealthy presence in your child’s life?”
Karen shifted in her chair. “No.” There was no other way to answer the doctor’s question, not without explaining things that had no explanation. “Just following up on the teacher’s recommendation mostly.”
“The teachers did have concerns,” the doctor said, turning a page in the file to one with school board letterhead. “I recommend regular follow-ups and in-school consultation if those concerns continue. Otherwise, my opinion is that Beth is a happy child who is adjusting slowly to the death of her father.”
Her father. Karen’s hand swept over her forehead. Still no gash.
Karen stood to leave. “Well then thanks for your time.”
“There is something else I think you should know.”
Karen slipped back into her chair.
“Your daughter and I spoke about her father. I understand her invisible friend started at the same time your husband died. I believe the two are related.”
“Related,” Karen repeated.
“Beth’s way of dealing with her grief is to create a friend who is sympathetic, someone who can always understand her. My concern is how much detail you’ve told Beth about the circumstances.”
“Which circumstances are those?” Karen asked.
“The death of your husband, of course. It’s not advisable for a child her age to know that level of detail. The accident, the fire, his injuries.”
Karen agreed. Beth should not know those details. That’s why Karen never told her. And after all that had happened lately, Karen thought she knew who did.
Karen stared at the red light. Pedestrians walked past her absent gaze. In the backseat Beth brushed the hair on her Barbie. When Karen heard whispering, her eyes darted to the rear view to watch her daughter.
“Stop talking to him,” Karen snapped.
“I’m not. He’s talking to me.”
“I don’t care. Just stop it!” she shouted.
Beth didn’t flinch. Her steady eyes were watching the dashboard. “The light is on, Mommy. You need gas.”
Karen mumbled under her breath and turned into the gas station on the corner. “Stay here while I gas up, Beth.” Beth didn’t answer. Her head was turned toward the street. “Beth, did you hear what I said?” A man at the car next to hers turned and eyed Karen sceptically. She didn’t care.
“Can we go down there?” Beth asked, pointing to the road. “That’s where we used to live, right?”
Karen grabbed Beth’s arm, pulling down her pointing finger. “How do you remember that? And no. We’re not going there.”
Their old street. Karen avoided coming back to this neighbourhood but there wasn’t any other way to get to the hospital.
Karen slammed the door, angry with herself. He was getting to her and she was letting him. She pushed the pump into the car and tried to ignore the man who was still glancing her way. He was also judging her. And why not? She was guilty. What good mother would want the father of her child dead? Even if the man was Carl.
The gas rushed from the hose into the empty tank. Karen watched the man drive away. He wasn’t staring anymore but she was sure that he’d convicted her in his mind.
The pumped popped. The tank was full. Karen turned to screw back the cap and saw through the car window that the door on the other side was open. The car was empty. The discarded Barbie lay on the car seat, mocking her.
Karen scanned the gas station but Beth wasn’t there. Bathroom? Convenience store for snacks? No. Karen turned to the road and caught the flash of a purple jacket. A pony tail she recognized appeared between the tree branches.
“Beth,” Karen screamed.
Thankfully the man from the neighbouring pump had left.
She ran after Beth. She could catch up if she cut across the mall parking lot. Then Beth took the short cut through the park. Karen lost sight of her as she reached the park but it didn’t matter. She knew where her daughter was going, where Harry was leading her.
Turning the corner onto her old street, she saw the fence, the one the building company erected to keep out kids during the construction process. The burned house was gone. Foundation for a new one had been laid. And there was Beth, scaling the fence, one chain link at a time.
“Beth,” Karen screamed again, knowing it would only make Beth go faster. When she reached the fence, Karen pulled herself up, slower than Beth, but determined to reach her daughter.
Once inside the fence, Karen tripped on a copper pipe and stumbled toward the towering wood frame. The setting sun shifted between the iron beams of the house’s frame, blinding her as it appeared and disappeared.
“Beth,” Karen said, her voice softening, inviting her child to reveal herself. “Where are you sweetie? I’m worried about you. You can’t run off like that.” Then noticing the rising tone of her voice, Karen added gently, “I’m not mad, Beth. I just want you to come back.”
Karen paused to listen. Hearing nothing, she gripped a pillar for support and stepped onto the concrete foundation. Karen walked along the edge until she reached the wooden plank that led across to the other side. Beth must be there hiding behind the sheathing.
“Beth, be careful. This place is dangerous—”
Karen had just a second to react as she saw the metal beam fall. She raised her arms to shield her head but the beam pierced her in the chest, slamming her off the tenuous ledge and knocking her to the bottom of the concrete foundation below.
Karen struggled to move. Pain ripped through her as she brought her trembling hands to her chest. Blood oozed from her body to the fresh concrete underneath.
Through her spotty vision, Karen saw Beth standing above on the ledge she had just occupied.
“Is it true what Harry said? About Daddy?”
Beth’s voice sounded hollow. It echoed in her ears along with the sound of rushing blood.
“Beth. Get help,” Karen managed to utter, her voice weak and shrill. Could Beth even hear her? She couldn’t be sure. Beth hadn’t moved. She stood frozen, witness to her mother’s tragedy, unmoving as Karen’s vision blurred.
Karen was faintly aware of a groan of the structure above. A second beam, falling and silent, passed in front of Beth on the ledge, and straight through Karen’s heart. Karen’s empty eyes stared blankly through her daughter. As her life faded, she thought she could hear the crackling of fire. Behind Beth in the shadows of the flames, stood a figure with a thin smile of revenge on his face. The boy in the mist turned to leave followed by Beth until they were both out of sight.