Fear came with the darkness. He hated the nights. The distance between his own room and the safety of his parents’ bedroom seemed immense. Many times he had chosen to hide under the covers rather than venture out onto the dark landing outside his door.
He could see that his mother was worried about his night terrors. He would scream out loud when he had bad dreams, and she always came running. Stroked his forehead and whispered that everything was all right. Switched on the bedside lamp and opened the blind.
“There’s nothing here, David. Nothing that could hurt you. Come and have a look and you’ll see that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Like all parents, she wanted him to look for himself, see that there were no dangers lurking outside.
But David wasn’t afraid of something you could see with the naked eye. He was afraid of something you weren’t aware of until it was too late. Of dangers that moved with the darkness as their protector and silence as their companion. David was afraid of the danger against which there was no defense.
It was Avital who had told him the story. Told him about the boy who hated children and who waited for them in the barren landscape around the village where they lived. The Paper Boy.
“He sleeps during the day and wakes up when the sun goes down,” Avital said one day when they were hiding in his tree house so that David wouldn’t have to go home. “He picks out the child he wants, then he takes them.”
David felt his stomach turn over.
“How does he choose?” he whispered.
“No one knows. The only thing we know is that no one is safe.”
David tried to swallow his fear.
“You’re making it up.”
The floor of the tree house was hard, and the wind was so cold. He was wearing only shorts and a short-sleeved top, and he was starting to shiver.
“I am not!”
Avital had always been more daring. He was never scared, and he was always ready to fight for what he thought or what he wanted. But he was also a true friend. David’s father had said more than once that Avital would be a good man and a good soldier when he grew up, the kind of man who always did the right thing, who stood up for his friends and his people. He never said what he thought about David, but David assumed he had a very different opinion of his own son.
“He comes at night, when we’re asleep. He waits outside the window, and when we least expect it, he comes in and grabs us. So don’t sleep with the window open,” Avital said.
Those words penetrated David’s brain like nails and were impossible to remove. From then on his window had to remain closed.
But when summer came and the dry heat rolled in across the country, his mother had had enough.
“Being too hot can make you ill, David. You have to let in the cool night air.”
He allowed her to open the window, then waited until she had gone to bed. When the house was silent, he tiptoed over and closed it. Only then could he get to sleep.
Although you could never be completely sure.
Avital explained this to him a little while later.
“When he gets angry, he becomes very strong, and then there are no doors, no walls, no windows that can keep him out. The only thing you can do is hope.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hope he chooses someone else.”
That did it. From then on, David’s fear of sleeping alone was greater than his fear of making his way across the landing. Every night he crept into his parents’ room; they sent him away only if his little sister had gotten there first.
“In you come, sweetheart,” his mother would whisper as he slipped under the covers.
But he slept for no more than an hour or so as dawn was breaking, and that created more problems. He had just started school and was nodding off during lessons. The teachers were worried; they called his parents, who took him to the doctor.
“The boy is exhausted,” the doctor said. “A few days’ rest and he’ll be as good as new.”
David was allowed to stay at home, and Avital came around after school with his books to tell him what they had been doing. David wished the teacher would send someone else. He had been trying to avoid Avital so that he wouldn’t have to listen to any more of his terrifying stories, but it was as if he weren’t meant to escape. As Avital zipped up his backpack and got ready to go home, he said:
“Have you seen him yet? At night?”
David shook his head.
“I think he’ll come soon,” Avital said.
• • •
It would be a while before his prophecy was fulfilled.
Many years passed. David and Avital left the village where they had grown up and by chance ended up on the same kibbutz.
And then he came. The Paper Boy. A child went missing from the kibbutz. For ten days and ten nights they searched for him—adults, police officers, soldiers. Eventually they found his body, so badly mutilated that they didn’t want to tell the other children what had happened to him.
But they knew anyway.
David and Avital, grown men by this time, looked at one another in silent understanding. They knew what had happened to the boy.
The Paper Boy had taken him.
And it was only a matter of time before he returned.