Billy adjusted his makeshift blanket of tattered jackets so that just his eyes and the very tip of his freckled nose were exposed. He kept his eyes trained on a flash of black that continuously appeared and disappeared at the end of the alleyway.
“Probably just bats, is all,” he thought warily.
Each time it reappeared, however, there seemed to be more substance to the form, and it even appeared to be making its way closer in a sort of sporadic and roundabout fashion. Billy strained to hear the faint slosh of wheels through grit over the cobblestone, as well as an eerie high-pitched wheeze of laughter. There was no question that the thing, whatever it was, was soon to be very close. Billy pulled the jacket down the rest of the way over his eyes and clenched his hands tightly together, not even daring to breathe. He’d heard stories about what happened to children in the dead of night while the rest of the world slept and, remembering them now, he felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck and arms rising. He waited in total silence until the air under his jacket became so stifling that he dared to raise it up just an inch to steal a breath.
Billy, freed from the stuffy cocoon, looked up expecting to see only the milky darkness of the alley. Regrettably, this was not to be the case. Instead, he looked directly into two enormous, looming eyes, accompanied by an implausibly thick unibrow. The man bent down low at the waist, twig-like legs bowed, hands resting on a small and crooked black bicycle, while the tip of his misshapen, hooked nose nearly rested on Billy’s own. The man spoke, his mustache twitched, his fingers curled,
“Tell me, little boy. What is your greatest fear?”
As he spoke he reached for a small glass jar in the basket of his bicycle, long fingers slowly unscrewing the lid.
“I…I don’t know sir.”
“You don’t know? I’m afraid you misunderstand me. What are you afraid of, boy? What wakes you up in the middle of the night? What sends a shiver down your spine? What slithers about in the dark corners of your mind? Hm?”
“I suppose I’m afraid of spiders, sir, and…” he hesitated before continuing, “bogeymen, kidnappers, you know.”
“Yes, that’s all very good. And are you afraid of me?” He took one step forward, and placed the glass jar just under Billy’s nose.
“Well, yes, a little.”
The man drew up to his full height, eyes glinting dangerously as he leered down at Billy.
“You’d be very wise to be afraid, very wise indeed. Can I trust you to keep a secret?”
Billy nodded nervously. The man leaned in close and whispered,
“I am the bogey man.”
The inside of the jar became fogged with Billy’s short, panicked breaths. The man screwed the lid back on tightly and immediately. Strangely, at that same moment, Billy ceased to fear the him at all. He looked up at him in wonderment as the man quietly and carefully replaced the jar into his basket.
“What…what did you just do that for?” asked Billy, feeling emboldened.“I’ve just bottled your fear, my boy. I am a collector, a purveyor, and a protector of fear. In my home I have thousands of different fears, bottled up and shelved alphabetically. I appreciate your assistance. Now if you excuse me, I need to be going.”