OBBY. The boy stirred. BOBBY, WAKE UP. His eyes opened slowly. Had someone called his name? It came again: BOBBY. A raspy whisper that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Bobby sat up in his bed and looked the room over. Fresh birthday presents littered the floor, casting dim silhouettes of GI Joe Action figures and Fisher Price fire trucks against the bedroom wall in the orange glow of a Transformers nightlight. Bobby's favorite overalls hung over the back of his bright red desk chair. That stain will never come out, Bobby thought the words his mother had said when she saw the chocolate frosting smeared across the front.

Everything was as it should be. Except that the bedroom door was closed. Bobby never closed his door. Maybe Mommy closed it. Because he's a big boy now.

Standing, Bobby went to the door. As he reached his hand to the knob - just to check if it's unlocked; not to open it like a little, scaredy-cat boy - he heard the voice again.

BEHIND YOU, BOBBY. The boy turned and his night-light winked out. The room was dark now; just a little moonlight through the window, but in the far corner Bobby noticed a shape: a darker shape. A crouching shape. Bobby backed into the door. Banged his head on the knob. Didn't care.

Who're you? The words wouldn't come out.

HELLO, BOBBY. Its eyes gleamed red as they took the boy in. And took him in they did. Bobby was frozen with fear. He'd never had this nightmare. I'VE COME FOR YOU, BOBBY. The shape rose and started toward the boy.

Bobby's fear melted away and was replaced by absolute terror. He reached quickly for the doorknob behind his head. He turned it and for a heartbeat feared it was locked. It wasn't; it opened. Bobby ran through the door and pulled it closed with all his weight. After a moment, as he heard no signs of movement from inside his room, Bobby opened his eyes - had he shut them? - and released the door.

The small boy looked around and noticed a change. This wasn't the hallway. Well, it almost was. It was a bit darker now. Darker and longer. It must go a mile, thought Bobby. A mile is a long way. Avocado-green paint was bubbling and peeling from the grime-caked walls. Mildew crept oh-so-slowly across the ceiling. No more carpet, just rotting, stinking grasses under Bobby's socks. He could feel the wetness begin to creep through the once-clean, once-white cotton.

Bobby took a deep breath. The air felt thick and wet in his nose. It's only a dream, my darling angel, Mommy would say when Bobby woke and all would be okay. But right now all was not okay. Despite his wish, Bobby was having another nightmare. To make it end, Bobby had to find Mommy.

But where is Mommy? Bobby started down the hall slowly. He wasn't scared, he told himself. He was a big boy. A few steps and the boy found a light switch, flipped it on. An ooze-covered bulb in the ceiling flickered once feebly before flashing brightly and shattering with an electric pop.

Despite the dark, Bobby continued down the crooked hall, determined to find Mommy, but watching the drifting shadows warily. No telling what might be in them. He wasn't scared though, oh, no.

At last Bobby came to the door to his mother's room. There were long scratches in the wood. They looked like claw marks. Bobby tried the knob. Locked. He yanked and pulled and tugged. The knob came off in his hand. Dropping the knob, Bobby pushed at the door. Nothing. He knocked. Again, nothing. He shouted: "Mommy." Wait a moment, then again: "Mommy!" Bobby pounded the door with his fists. His eyes were beginning to fill with tears. She said she'd never leave.

Sobbing, Bobby sat down hard, back against the door. For a while he just sat there, feeling the tears slip down his pudgy cheeks and drip onto his favorite pajamas. The Superman ones, with the cape that Mommy said he couldn't wear to bed. She didn't want him to sufflicate - that means choke.

Mommy was gone. Gone forever perhaps?

No. I’m a big boy now, Bobby remembered, I can find Mommy. Wiping the tears away with the sleeve of his pajamas, Bobby looked around. It was dark. And dirty. He didn’t like this house. He didn’t like this place. He just wanted Mommy.

Bobby was sitting in the middle of the hall. To his back: Mommy’s door. To the right, his bedroom and those eyes. To the left, the hall continued. That must be the way. Bobby was proud of his reasoning. He was thinking just like a big boy.

Sniffling slightly and still tasting salt on his lips, the big boy stood. He started down the hall, away from Mommy’s locked door and away from whatever lurked in his room. On and on the hall went, monotony broken only by bits of rubbish that littered the floor. Rusted out lamps and pots. Broken tables and bits of chairs. Sticks and stones. A dead rat. Bobby stepped over the mess, inch by inch, until he saw a doorway ahead. Through the doorway the boy heard cackling peels of laughter, high-pitched and quick. Bobby continued slowly to the doorway and peered into the room beyond. This was the living room. But not anymore.

It was a room still, and that festering lump of cushions and stuffing had probably been a couch once. The walls were gone though, there were only trees now. Sad trees with raggedly bent trunks whose branches droopily joined overhead to block out the sky. The grasses here gave way to muddy pools of fetid water and swarms of glowing fireflies.

There, in the middle of it all, stood a clown. He wore a filthy clown-suit that may once have been red and yellow and white. His face was smeared with as much soot and dirt as poorly-done grease paint. On his feet were enormous shoes, scuffed and torn in places. The clown pranced about the murky clearing, laughing gaily as he caught glow bugs in his gloved hands and squashed them between his fingers.

As Bobby entered the room, the clown turned, staring the boy down for a moment and then erupting into laughter once more: pointing and jeering and shaking all at once.

Abruptly the clown ceased his merrymaking and tipped his hat at the boy – the kind of hat that magicians have, but this one was ragged and worn. The band was in tatters and the brim was bent and torn. “Hello, my boy!” the clown pronounced cheerily, and then, when Bobby said nothing: “Don’t be scared, my boy. It’s just a dream.”

“Hullo,” the boy offered. Bobby stood in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back, eyes down. He was not at all sure if Mommy’s rule about not talking to strangers applied in dreams.

“I’m Oscar, my boy. Oscar the clown.” With that, the clown curtsied low and smiled wide to reveal row upon row of rotted-out teeth and a bloated black tongue. Bobby cringed, but remembered: it’s just a dream.

“I’m Bobby,” the boy said, tentatively stretching out one hand in greeting. “Please to mee’chu.” The clown just giggled loudly, hands clutching at his sides. Why is he laughing? Bobby thought he had introduced himself the way Mommy said he should when making new acquaintances. Perhaps he had done it wrong.

“I’m looking fer Mommy.” Oscar only hooted harder, so Bobby said it louder, with more insistence: “I need t’find Mommy!”

“I don’t know Mommy,” Oscar chuckled, shrugging his shoulders and scratching his head. The clown wore a bald cap. Stringy, black hair sprouted through in places where it was torn. “Is that her only name?”

Bobby thought hard. Daddy had called Mommy ‘Karin’ sometimes. “I think’er other name is Karin.”

Oscar guffawed. ‘Karin,’ he mouthed, falling over into the mud, writhing about helplessly and splashing muck all over Bobby and his Superman pajamas. When the clown had calmed down he stood and brushed mud from his clothes before offering: “I don’t know any Karinses, my boy, but perhaps this will help?” Oscar pulled a black rubber balloon from his ear.

Magic. Bobby timidly took a step forward, keeping his hands behind his back. He wasn’t scared… Well, maybe just a bit.

The clown blew into the balloon noisily until it was a long, air-filled tube. Tying off one end, he began to twist and turn the inflated rubber deftly. In a moment he was done; he winked at Bobby, holding out the shape. The balloon was now a kitten.

Bobby took the proffered balloon kitty in one hand and petted it with the other. Softly, Bobby, softly, Mommy always reminded. The kitten moved, rubbing its black rubber head against the boy’s hand. It purred softly, making a sound like two wet balloons rubbing against each other.

While Bobby admired his new pet, Oscar pulled a long, rusty needle from inside his drooping sleeve. Holding the sharp sliver of metal gingerly between two fingers and grinning slyly, Oscar stabbed at the kitten. It popped.

“Now, isn’t that better, my boy?” Oscar tee-hee’ed as he dropped the needle and the deflating balloon phttt’ed off.

“That doesn’ help me fin’ Mommy,” Bobby stated. He realized that although this clown looked like an adult he was no help at all.

“Oh.” Oscar almost looked disappointed for a moment, but then he brightened: “Alright, how about this?” The clown beckoned with one gloved hand and removed the hat from atop his head with the other.

Kneeling before the boy, Oscar held out his hat. “Hold this for me, my boy. I’m gonna need both hands for this one.” The clown winked at Bobby. Bobby nearly smiled. The clown stood and began carefully rolling up his filthy sleeves. “Now, watch closely, my boy,” Oscar reached one lanky arm into the hat. Wrist deep at first, feeling around. Hmm, nothing there. He reached further in, up to his scab-covered forearm. Still nothing. Oscar feigned a look of concern. Perhaps the magic was failing. Shaking, the clown tried to suppress laughter with tightened lips, but it came out anyway in hisses and grunts.

Oscar dug deeper. He was into the hat to his shoulder now, rummaging about until: “Ah-ha! Here we go, my boy!” When the clown withdrew his hand Bobby saw that he was holding a hare – not the kind on your head.

The rodent did not look well at all. Its fur had probably been white once. Now it had mostly fallen out. What was left was brown and gray and mottled. There was blood smeared across its face and one ear was torn clean off.

Holding the hare high by the scruff of its neck, the mirthful clown giggled hysterically. He dropped the animal into the mud and it limpingly began to hop towards Bobby. Before it had gotten far the clown lifted one of his oversized shoes and brought it down on the pitiful creature. Bobby heard a squeal that ended in a crunch. The clown tittered delightedly and Bobby recoiled in horror.

“Stop it!” he shouted at the clown. Oscar looked at the boy seriously, or tried and failed. The straight face me made was quickly interrupted by a new bout of laughter. The poor boy was on the verge of tears.

“Don’t worry, my boy,” Oscar laughed, lifting his foot to reveal nothing but mud. “See?” The injured rabbit was gone. “No harm done, just magic.” The clown gave Bobby a big, rotten-toothed smile. Bobby calmed down, but thought that maybe he didn’t like clowns so much anymore.

“Where’s this?” Perhaps, Bobby reasoned, if he knew where he was he could find out where he must go to find Mommy. Bobby was thinking like a big boy. Just like a big boy.

The gruesome clown absently investigated an open sore on the back of his wrist. “We’re in the living room,” he chuckled.

“It’s’not th’living room,” Bobby stamped his foot; he’d had enough, but before he could think what to say next, the fireflies flickered and went out. Dark. Just as suddenly, the clown was silent. No more laughs. No more chuckles or titters or guffaws.

“Where’s th’lights?” Bobby asked.

“It took them.”

“Who’s it?”

“The Bandersnatch, my boy.” No time to laugh. “Don’t just stand there; run!” Oscar took off awkwardly, loping through the marsh in his enormous shoes.

Bobby followed as best he could on his short legs. Then the voice: IT’S ME, BOBBY, DON’T RUN. The boy stumbled on a root and fell in the dark. Stubbing his toe, bruising his knee, losing his breath. From behind, Bobby felt the dark, coldly fingering at his back. There was something there, but Bobby didn’t look. He rose and ran faster, or tried, but stumbled, rose again. On and on he went until he was covered in mud and scrapes and prickles. Bobby fell one last time. Too tired, too sore to move. So he just lay still, hoping it would pass. Hoping the dark would pass and the Bandersnatch, and those eyes.

And they did. Off in the dark Bobby heard Oscar laughing. Laughing in fear. ‘No,’ the clown laughed, ‘please, don’t.’ And then silence.

It was just a dream. Don't be scared…

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