We were almost done with the bedtime routine. I was taking my step-son through the standard checks: the closet, under the bed, behind the curtains. His mother stood out in the hallway, arms crossed, shaking head, saying things like what did I tell you guys about scary movies before bed? But the routine worked so well I often felt he had tricked us into it. He had invented a new meditation, easing our minds before sleep.
“No boogie man in the closet,” I said. “No monsters under the bed.” I pulled the curtains open, let the night focus, and I was about to say, “No bad guys,” when he asked, “What about the Slippery Footed Man?”
I looked at his mother, but knew I was on my own with this one. Her eyes were probably saying good luck with that as she walked down the hall to bed.
I figured he still had a few years before we got to the good stuff like Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween, but he loved Alfred Hitchcock films. “Let’s watch one of the scary black and whites,” he’d say, and boy was he right. They always gave us a good scare even when we knew what was coming. His mom wasn’t impressed. If he can’t sleep he’s not getting in our bed. You break it—you fix it.
We only had to worry about that once, his first time seeing Psycho, but even then we just ended up making forts and joking about Norman Bates’ mother. The boy could handle it.
We’d be at the breakfast table, with stayed-up-too-late eyes, while his mom gripped her coffee like she was the one who needed saving. We looked at her with secret grins we’d stop before she cracked us. He’d sit at the table exactly how I sat, and it was like I was the real dad and she was the step-mom. What kind of a secret would that be?
But we were on to something else. I was looking outside trying to see if there was anything out there, trying to understand where this Slippery Footed Man had come from. The longer I stayed silent, the more his lower lip quivered. But there was a light in his eye. Tucked behind fear was enjoyment of his creation and my inability to solve it.
The moon was our night light. I told him there wasn’t anything else out there.
“Maybe not now,” he said. “Not that you would see.”
“Anything would have to go through me to get to you,” I said, roaring and thumping my chest like a silver-backed gorilla.
“Whatever.” He stuck his head under his pillow, dismissing me.
His mom was fast asleep. I slid in bed so as not to disturb her. Watched her breathe. I thought about kids and the Slippery Footed Man. How kids can say stuff that they don’t understand. The look on his face of wanting an answer but not necessarily needing one. How I had looked out his window but could hardly see the dark moonlit grass let alone the end of the yard or the bike path behind it. I tried to fall asleep, listening to my wife breathe, trying to train my breath to hers. Even with my back to the wall, I couldn’t shake the feeling of something behind me. I grabbed my pillow and slipped out of bed. I got the sleeping bags we had built our forts with, and I found a good spot on his floor, right under the window.
A child afraid of too much grew into a man who wasn’t afraid of enough. Unable to resist a connection with a married woman, knowing it was wrong in every way, a husband and a boy, but having feelings stronger than words like right or wrong, every touch, every jump, every blind leap of faith that someday my actions would not haunt me, not that kiss on the couch in her basement, not the inevitable removal of clothes, not the sound of the front door or the pounding boots on the floor above our heads, not the defeated look on her face as I grabbed my pants and opened the basement door too swiftly with the noise of it slamming against the wall like I was the angry one, the feel of the dewy grass on my bare feet as I ran away, looking back to see if he was coming, the way gravity pulled me down the surprising drop at the edge of their yard, losing my footing, slipping through branches slapping my skin, adding red and green to the pale, spitting me out on the bike path just as a jogger went by, turning back as she ran on, making sure she got away but letting up when she saw me sitting on the pavement, a pitiful man struggling to put my clothes on, getting ready for my walk of shame, knowing that someday in the future I would have to answer for my actions. I would have to answer.
Al Kratz lives in Indianola, Iowa. He is a Senior Fiction Editor at New Flash Fiction Review.