At 9:30, once his father had fallen asleep in front of the television and his mother had gone to sleep, James slowly rose from his bed and went to the closet. He could hear the laughter from the television in the adjoining room, and pale blue light flashed on the carpet underneath his door. His breath tight in his chest, he eased open the closet door and winced at the shrill creaking of the old hinges. In the corner of the closet was his backpack, stuffed with two sets of clothes, a water bottle, his toothbrush, and twenty dollars in cash. He picked it up and looped the straps over his shoulders and closed the door again.
He stood in the dark silence for a minute, listening for any disturbance, then he slipped his boots on and laced them up and went to the door. He opened it a crack and peered into the living room. His father was snoring now, his head tipped back against the headrest and his mouth open. He was holding an opened beer can in one hand. James stepped through the door and left it open behind him. He thought about turning the television off, but decided against it, in case the sudden quiet woke his father.
The door to his parents’ room was shut. He imagined his mother sleeping fitfully in her bed and felt a pang of shame at abandoning her without leaving a note, but there was no time for that now. He padded gingerly across the carpet on the balls of his feet and wished in that moment that he had put them on after he left the house instead. His father must have spilled the beer on himself at some point, because he could smell it hanging bitterly in the air.
As he reached the front door, James heard his father snort, and he froze in place. He stole a glance backwards, eyes wide in the light of the television, but the snoring resumed, and James breathed deeply to quell the lump caught in his throat. He looked around the room quickly, trying to take in small details, just in case he ever wanted to remember it some time.
On the wall above the television, there was a picture of James and his father at the beach. His father had one arm around his shoulders, and in his other hand, he was holding a brightly-coloured fish by the tail. James was holding a rod and line, and staring up at the fish with a wide smile; the fish was as long as one of his legs. James’ father was grinning beneath a straw hat and a pair of aviators. For the past few years, that photo had seemed like an alternate reality – some image of an era that might never have existed, and would never exist again. The thought made his lip quiver briefly, and he hurriedly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
And then, James heard a dampened thud from across the room, and he looked to his father to see that he was staring right at him, his hands gripping the arms of the chair tightly.
“James!” he shouted. “Where in the hell do you think you’re skiving off to at this hour?” Henry rose up out of his chair clumsily and his foot kicked the beer can, which he had dropped, sending it spinning off across the carpet.
James felt his hands start to shake, and he clenched them tightly at his sides. “I–I–wh–” h stammered.
“Wh–wh–wh–” Henry imitated, his chin stuck out and his eyes wild. “What, James? We’ve got to be up at six in the fucking morning tomorrow, alright? I don’t need you stumbling around more useless than you already are. Get back to your room, and give me that fucking backpack.” Henry strode over and snatched at the pack. James tried to dodge backwards, but he hit the wall, and Henry wrenched the pack from his back, pushing James’ head forwards with one hand so that his arms bent painfully backwards.
“What have you got in here then, eh?” Henry said, rifling through the pack. “Got some clothes, a toothbrush, a bottle of water… Well, if I didn’t know any better, James, I would think you were trying to skip out on your old man – leave him high and dry to support your mother on his lonesome, eh?” Henry dug deeper, tossing out the contents onto the floor, and then he pulled out James’ money from the bottom of the bag. “Oh you little fucker.” Henry held it out, crumpled in his fist. “I told you we were hard up for rent this month, and you want to try and hoard your own little fuckin’ nest egg for yourself! Huh? What would your poor mother say?” Henry snarled and chucked the bag onto the floor amongst the mess of clothes, and he took a step towards his son. James felt a new rage building up in him and he gritted his teeth tightly and put his fists up in front of his chin, spreading his feet a little wider.
“Hah!” Henry crowed, “The boy’s got a little fight in him! Alright then, son, put up your dukes! Let’s see what you can do, you little shit.”
There was a bang as the door to James’ parents’ room was thrown open, and his mother was stood in the doorway in her dressing gown, and she screamed, “Henry, stop it!”
Henry whirled around and glared at her. “Stay out of it, Lydia! You want to keep a fucking roof over our heads, you stay the fuck out of this!”
James looked between them uncertainly, tears stinging in his eyes, and then he lunged for the kitchen. He flicked on the light and was momentarily dazed by the fluorescence. Henry moved to round the breakfast bar. He slapped the counter-top and bared his teeth in a fearsome expression.
And then James saw them begin to form beneath the lamp-shade above him – a hundred tiny beings with too many eyes and too many mouths. They had wings, some of them, and others had six legs and a tail. They were some mix of shadow and light that at once blended into the fluorescence and also struck a stark contrast against it. And they began to whisper their sinister things into his ears. “The knife!” they said. “Grab the knife!”
James whimpered quietly, but then he dove across the kitchen counter and tugged a broad knife out of its block, spilling the others onto the counter and across the floor. He spun around to face Henry, with the knife shaking in his fist.
Henry yelled in exasperation, “James, I swear to God I will chain you to that bed of yours if you don’t stop this fucking nonsense! I’ll starve you! Yeah, would you like that? I’ll fucking starve you until you…”
“Put it in,” the things in the light whispered to James. “Put it in his stomach.”
James felt tears running down his cheek and he cried out to his father, “I don’t want to kill you!” He began to cry openly, but Henry only saw it as an opportunity to ridicule him.
“You don’t want to kill me?” Henry laughed a disgusting, throaty laugh. “Boy, you couldn’t pierce my fuckin’ ear. Put that fuckin’ knife down. Look, you’re going to bed now, okay? You’re going to go to bed, we’re going to forget this little shit-show ever occurred, and then we’re going to get up and go to work tomorrow, alright? I promise I won’t tie you to your bed, but only if you put that knife down right fucking now.”
Henry lunged towards James with his arms outstretched and James turned his head away as he stuck the blade out in front of his body. He heard Henry grunt and felt a sickly pressure on the handle as the knife sliced across the palm of his father’s hand and plunged into his stomach.