Hunter grabbed his head in his hands as he crouched down in the closet. A single bulb buzzed overhead, but the yellow glow barely penetrated his squeezed eyelids. He could feel the cold wood against his back like a shot of ice in his veins even through his sweatshirt. He didn't know how long he had been sitting there avoiding the urge to rock back and forth like an idiot. He was too afraid to open his eyes, but maybe more terrified of what hid in the dark.
When the lonely pounding in his ears became too much, Hunter dared to see the space around him. The closet was just as it had been when he barreled inside from the kitchen. He didn't realize how much sharp object freaked him out until that day. The room was a tight square with a few propped up brooms and long forgotten crates of memories. Hunter pushed himself to his feet. Pins and needles burst to life all along his legs and he rubbed at them through his jeans. He gasped and yanked his hand back. A droplet of blood dribbled along his palm. As he looked back at his legs, he could see streaks of crimson staining his pants.
With a cry, Hunter kicked his legs out and heard small clattering on the dusty floor as sewing needles stained red dropped to the ground. He continued kicking away any remaining needles as he charged back through the door. He stood in his living room, a comfortable space with a soft tan carpet and two large leather couches surrounding a television to accommodate his mother and siblings. A few minutes ago this room was filled with chaotic shouts although by his wobbling stance, maybe he had been sitting longer than he thought. It was hard to tell time in the dark when you could only count the times your heart slammed against your ribs.
Hunter started making his way towards one of the doors on the opposite end of the living room. It was ornate in its etching and gilded design, standing out against the rather ordinary living room. Each footfall towards the door felt heavier like walking through quicksand, but Hunter forced himself to keep going. He grabbed hold of the crystal knob and twisted it, watching it spin further than it should. Hunter kept turning and turning until his wrist ached. Finally the knob popped off and fell to the carpet.
Hunter frowned and his eyes jumped back and forth between the strange doorknob and the hole from which it fell. Something in the pit of his stomach told him this was wrong. Everything around him was off, but that was normal for him when every day was a living nightmare. He was sometimes too afraid to think for fear someone would get hurt.
A thud against the door made Hunter jump back. His mind began to toss and turn imagining what could have thrown itself against such thick plank of wood and cause it to shake that much. His mother was a petite woman who barely made a sound when she stomped through the house. He didn't think she could act violently if she tried. He felt a small pang in his chest for the trouble he caused her every now and then. Sometimes he just couldn't keep his mouth shut or his mind quiet. Then trouble would followed.
Hunter gingerly stepped back towards the door and crouched just enough to meet the hole with his eye. He saw the unsteady view of his dining room bathed in shadow with the metal chandelier turned off. He could see the head chair at the end of the table that hadn't been used in years. Beyond the table was a white metal door with a screen that led to the backyard. Just out of view was the doorway that led to the kitchen where he had seen his mother last.
"Hey there, Hunt," a crackling voice broke through the doorway. It clawed against his brain sending his heart pounding once again. "How ya doin', buddy boy?"
The view to the dining room was eclipsed by what looked like a disk of black nothingness. The small glint of natural light from a window revealed that the orb was gently spinning and an impossibly darker spot rolled into place at the center of the orb. Then a textured brown lid blinked.
Hunter screamed and stumbled back, falling against what was once a plush carpet. Now it writhed under his palms in waves of jagged little knives. He tried to stand, to crawl away, but he couldn't keep his balance on the breathing floor. Millions of crawling legs raked up his arms and clawed at his neck. It was all Hunter could do to keep breathing as the eight-legged menaces worked their way towards his mouth and nose. He slapped at them, feeling some fly off and others pop like tiny goo-filled water balloons against his skin.
He blindly crawled until he could finally push himself up, still screaming and flailing. When he opened his eyes again, he was alone. The room was quiet as before and the ornate door was back to its regular, boring shape, knob and all. He didn't know if he could muster the courage to face it again. It was just like every other time he tried to face his fears. Something horrible always happened and it was always something he couldn't explain.
Ghosts didn't scare him and he never had dreams of them, but they would be easier to talk about then how an eleven foot long alligator destroyed the boy's bathroom at school and nearly tore off some dumb jock's leg. And even that could be written off before claiming some metallic skeleton shoved in furry skin could squeeze a man until his bones snapped.
"Hunter!" a woman shrilled, but it seemed to come from every door, window, and crevasse in the room.
"Mom!" he shouted back. "Mom where are you?"
"Bro!" said a new voice, cracking as it changed. "C'mon man!
"Hunt!" came a girlish squeak. "Make it stop!"
His mother and siblings all cried out and panic bubbled in Hunter's throat as he tried to find words to help. Words never helped. Screaming never helped. Hunter's eyes darted every which way, knowing who played these tricks on him. In every waking nightmare, the same creep stalked him and tried to lure him to his death. If he turned his back to an open doorway when he shouldn't have, even if he blinked at the wrong time, there was that larger than life face.
Its plastic grin had small chips from where children might have excitedly batted his face with their souvenir birthday mugs. Its cheeks were covered in matted fur that could be sticky from soda or worse. A bronze bowler hat, tarnished and scratched, bobbed along to his speech and let out a shrieking crash from its percussive symbols. It punctuated every other word when the row of teeth slid into its jaw and revealed the loose wiring no one was meant to see. Then there were the eyes, black spheres of lifeless laughs, and they held you and refused to let go.
Hunter always hated arcades and the animatronic circus act that welcomed all the passersby. His hate was fueled from fear and his fear created mayhem. It wasn't a matter of if Bart T. Bear would appear; it was when.
Hunter backed towards the center of the room until his shoulder bumped the television set. It wobbled and tipped. He watched with arms just out of reach as it struck the carpet and the screen splintered as if the floor had punched it in return. A moment of normalcy overtook him as he kneeled down to pick up the wide screen. For just a minute, he had regular worries that his mom would kill him for breaking it.
Hunter saw his cracked reflection against the glass. His face was pale and his dark hair was matted against his forehead with sweat. His reflection widened and he could see the smattering of freckles over his nose and the one silver stud in his right ear lobe. Even wider and he could see the sparse hairs that dared to give him a unibrow. Then he realized his nose was nearly touching the screen, but the face staring back was grinning. Hunter touched his stoic face as a gloved hand touched the two-foot tall smile in the screen. The unibrow became a full face of fur and the pupil dilated until it overwhelmed the entire eyeball.
"Hey, buddy boy," Bart T. Bear said between bursts from his symbol bowler hat. The hand touching its face reached out and grabbed Hunters elbow through the crack. Hunter screamed, but he couldn't resist the force dragging his arm along the shattered glass and leaving his other arm and face pressed against the solid remains of the screen. "Whatcha scared of, little man? We're just here to have fun fun FUN!"
"Don't hurt my mom!" Hunter sputtered as he pulled back. His shoulder burned and pinched as it bent in impossible ways.
"Aww, we're just-just-just-aww, we're just having fun, right Hunt?" the animatronic bear chided.
Hunter dared to look back at the bear. Its depthless eyes spun in their sockets, rolling past its skull and back again. As the plastic balls made their rounds, they were no longer black, but a brown similar to his.
"We're just-just-not fun-fun-Hunter-fun-son, Hunter." The bear's grip lightened enough for Hunter to pull his arm free from the glove slicked with red stains. Its head cocked and the bowler had slid out of place, chiming to an unknown rhythm. "Son-son-Hunter-Just having fun-have fun-have life-family fun-dad hello Hunter!"
"Hunter-don't be scared-scared-family fun-family fine-you're scared-don't be scared-scared-family fine-I'm fine-I'm fine-I'm fine-"
Hunter pressed both hands to the glass where the bear began violent convulsions and spewed a laugh that whined and then growled deep in the metallic belly of the beast. One shuttering gloved palm touched the screen with a squeak as it slipped and left a smudged trail of Hunter's blood.
"Dad! I'm sorry!"
The bear's smile began to spin like a top balanced on the plastic fuzzy chin, but the eyes were locked and brown.
"You're fine-fine-family fun-family fun-fine-don't be scared-be brave-I love you-Hunter-son."
The television set sparked. The glass trembled and then exploded sending shards careening into Hunter's cheeks, mouth, and eyes. Before the impending pain struck, Hunter's eyes flew open.
Hunter sat crouched in a tiny closet. A single yellow bulb buzzed overhead and a metal beaded cord swung gently. A bead of sweat rolled into Hunter's eye and burned.
Something knocked outside of the door.
"Hunter, honey, are you okay?" his mother said in her soft lilt. "I called the cops. Whoever that guy was he's gone now. Hunter?"
Hunter crawled a few paces to the door and opened it with a shaking hand. His mother saw him and immediately knelt beside him, scooping him into her bruised arms.
"I'm sorry, mom," he said.
"Hunt, you have nothing to apologize for. You know there are some real freaks out there. Just don't be like them. Be good and brave. Don't dress in animal suits and try to rob people." She finished her words with a soft laugh and lifted her son's chin so he could see her. There was a small bruise and a few cuts on her pink cheek as well.
"Dad would've stayed and helped."
"Your dad would've been proud that you listened to me to keep your brother and sister safe in their rooms. Bravery isn't just fighting back. Bravery is being in control."
Hunter slowly nodded. He blinked as another bead of sweat reached his eye. In the darkness behind his eyelids a plastic face, larger than life and missing a soul, grinned at him. It was just a face. Somewhere behind it was a man being brave.