The Night Parents

Valerie Alexander

Story image for The Night Parents by

A fter two a.m., the night parents slide out of the grandfather clock and slither across the hardwood floor and down the hall to Kira’s bedroom. That’s how she imagines it, at least, because she doesn’t hear footsteps before they come into her bedroom. She hears the soft slide of flesh over tile. But when they tiptoe in, they’re upright and normal like anyone else. Like her regular parents sleeping down the hall.

“Honey, we didn’t know if you were awake.”

Her night mother says that most nights, usually with a look of tender concern. They know what Kira goes through in the day, they always tell her. Dull classes at school. The embarrassing failure at her violin recital. The betrayal of her best friend Violet going upstairs at her birthday party with another girl while Kira was left downstairs with Violet’s grandmother.

“I’m awake,” she says tonight, keeping her voice low so her real parents don’t wake up.

Her night mother sits on the bed, smiling anxiously and smoothing Kira’s hair back. She’s wearing a cloche hat with black netting while her night father, sitting in the wing chair, is dressed in a bowler hat and suit. They often look as if they’re going to an old-fashioned party, leaving to catch a train. Maybe that’s what they do when they leave. They won’t tell her where they come from or where they go.

The bedside clock glows 2:23 a.m. in blue numerals.

“What did you do today, sweetie?”

Kira tells them how boring her advanced math class is and how she’s going to get in trouble if she falls asleep in school again. She’s already lost one library book this year and her mother called her irresponsible and said they weren’t going to Six Flags if this scatter-brained behavior kept up.

“That seems harsh for a lost library book.”

“My mom is harsh.”

Her night mother takes this in. Then she fiddles with Kira’s hair and says, “I’m your mom too.”

Orbit-sml ><

A ll the clocks in the house are set for different moments. They chime or ping or beep in different tones, a few minutes apart, because her mother sets them anywhere from four to seventeen minutes fast. “It keeps me on schedule,” she says when Kira’s father asks why. “Being on time means being five minutes early.” And it’s true that Kira’s mother is never late, that she gets her purse and laptop case and Kira into the car every weekday morning by 7:17 am.

When Kira is home alone after school, the clocks go off in a reliable order. The soft chime of the cat clock in the kitchen is followed by the ping of the mantelpiece clock, then four steady bongs from the grandfather clock. Sometimes, when she shuts off the TV or closes her laptop and the house goes quiet, she goes tense with fear that all the clocks will go off at once: a signal for it to begin. “It” being something she can’t define, though she senses it will usher in a new and terrifying world.

The night parents don’t come to her after school. They could keep her company in the solitary hours when late afternoon sun subsides into gloom and she watches TV as the living room goes dark around her. Her mother is rarely home before seven. Her father will come home very late or very early and shut himself up in his home office. And it’s hard to forget their absence because the clocks keep announcing the hours, like sentinels for a palace whose king and queen never arrive.

“Oh darling, we can’t come any earlier, we wish we could,” says her night mother when she asks. (And Kira knows that, of course; the night parents have been visiting since she was little and they’ve always come in the dead of the night.) “Here’s what we can do, though—we can look at the stars.”

She helps Kira slide out of the bed and they go together to the windows, the three of them, to look up at the sky.

“You can’t see much,” says her night father, “but there’s a lot out there worth learning about.”

From the corner of her vision Kira sees something gray and nebulous where her night mother should be. This has happened before. When she turns her head, her night mother looks normal and pretty again—smiling at her in her black dress.

Kira asks what she’s wanted to ask for a while. “Are you from somewhere up there?”

Her night parents make a quizzical face. “Honey, you’re so funny sometimes.” Her night mother kisses her head. “Sweetie, we’re from the same place you are.”

Orbit-sml ><

T hree days a week Kira leaves her fifth-grade classroom and walks down the hall to Advanced English with Mrs. Heller. It’s a small classroom with yellow walls and its windows overlook the white-trimmed field where students play soccer or dodgeball. Kira watches them, because when she listens to Mrs. Heller her voice blurs into a monotone and Kira can’t tell what she’s saying. That’s been happening a lot lately. She reports to advanced classes because of a test she took, but the teachers’ voices, the maps and equations and sentences, have been turning into blurs.

“I want you to be honest with me about why you’re falling asleep in class.”

Only the kitchen clock is ticking right now. The cat’s plastic tail switches back and forth, a temperamental entity that can’t make up its mind. Maybe it’s deciding whether this confrontation will go in her mother’s direction—angry, intent—or her father’s, quiet and watchful.

“I fell asleep one time. I don’t know why Mrs. Heller said that.”

It’s rare to have her parents sitting at the table with her and looking right at her. Odd to be focused on.

“Kira. She pulled me aside right in front of everyone at the pharmacy counter and asked me if you were getting enough sleep because you’ve fallen asleep four times in class. Four times.”

It’s the in front of everyone part that bothers her mother. Her mother wants to have a smart daughter who gets good grades and stays alert in class.

“Are you having nightmares again?” her father asks. “If you need help again, we’ll get you help.”

“No, I’m not having nightmares.” She says it with a degree of artifice, even though the nightmares did stop happening a few years ago, because she still remembers with dread the psychologist they took her to. Dr. Weischler and his implications that hung in the office air like threats, the cool reminders that only very disturbed girls saw monsters. Only mentally sick girls felt their bodies disintegrating.

“Kira, if I have to take away your iPad at night, we will. You need your rest.”

Her mother leans back and rests both palms on the table. She looks, Kira thinks, like someone in disguise, like her shoulder-length blond hair is a wig and her long nose is made of rubber. But her mother has always looked like this. Even in family pictures of them at the beach or skiing.

“Starting tonight, no iPad in your room after bed,” her mother says. “And I bet we’ll see a difference.” Then she leans over the table and takes Kira’s hands with an intensity that surprises her. “I want you to be okay, honey. It makes me sad, thinking of you awake by yourself at night.”

Orbit-sml ><

B ut saying this, Kira thinks later, makes her mother a hypocrite. Because back when her nightmares came all the time, when she was only four or five, she would walk down the hall to her parents’ bedroom and her mother would tell her to go back to bed. She’d try to be quiet and sleep on the end of bed, wanting to be close to them without alerting them, but her mother inevitably woke up and banished her.

One night she stood out in the hall in front of their locked bedroom door, trying to feel protected by their proximity, when the night parents came in from the living room. They smiled and put a finger to their lips. Then they motioned her to follow them; and because they looked nothing like what scared her in her nightmares, because they seemed sort of comforting, like characters from an old movie, she followed them back to her room.

“You won’t be alone,” her night mother said, holding her hand. “We’ll keep watch.” And in an ineffable sense of familiarity, Kira felt safe enough to go back to sleep.

Orbit-sml ><

A few nights after her iPad and laptop are taken away, her night parents bring her books. They’re huge books with cloth-like covers that they open carefully to show the illustrations. One is about a magic tunnel that leads to a cave. They watch her face closely as they explain how the tunnel in the story works. The next book is about a war and people being banished from their homeland, going on an adventure to find a new one. She’s too old to be read stories to like this but the night parents often bring her this kind of book. They watch her intently as she pretends to enjoy it.

“We’ll always be here to tell you stories,” her father says, closing the book. “Your mother and I know lots of stories. We’ll be able to explain all kinds of things as you get older.”

“Tell me about where you grew up,” she says, scrunching down into the pillow. She’s asked this before but they don’t answer.

“That was a long time ago, Kira,” her mother says. “Things are very different today. What matters is now.”

“Were there covered wagons when you grew up?”

Her night parents observe her for a few moments without answering.

“I think that she needs vitamins,” her night father says. “She looks tired. Kira, maybe you can ask your other parents to get you some vitamins.”

Her night mother nods. “Just mention it tomorrow. But no medications—just vitamins.”

“I already got in trouble because of you at school,” she says, more sulkily than she intends, “because I’ve been falling asleep. So they probably will make me take vitamins.”

Her night mother leans over. “We need you to stay out of trouble, Kira,” she says intently, her hand on her leg. “Don’t tell your other parents you’re having nightmares, they’ll make you see a doctor. We need you to stay strong.”

She shrinks back. She’s never recoiled from her night mother before but her hand tonight feels cold and rubbery. “How come?”

Her night father takes her hand. His skin feels more normal. “Because you’re special. And some kinds of medication could interfere with that.”

They have to leave. She watches them go like always but this time she creeps to her door to watch them walk down the hall. Will they turn right and go toward the kitchen and living room or will they go through the archway to her dad’s office; it’s all she wants to know. But what she sees is something undefined, obscuring her vision right before it seems to merge through her parents’ bedroom door.

She’s had two fantasies these last few years. In the first, she tells her mother about the night parents. Her family packs up and leaves the house immediately. And that night, after driving far, far away, her family is sleeping in a hotel room when a vent opens and her night father climbs out and she screams. But her parents don’t wake up even as she keeps screaming and her night father drags out her out of the room.

The other fantasy ends differently. In this one, her family moves out, suddenly, without warning. The night parents walk through the empty rooms that first night, looking at the space where her bed used to be. They stand in her dark bedroom without speaking until the gray light of dawn fills the rooms and they evaporate, permanently.

Orbit-sml ><

“W e noticed you never mention any school friends,” her night mother says. “But we always want you to have regular friends, Kira.”

“We just want you to avoid sleepovers,” her night father says. “Especially now that you’re growing up—not having nightmares anymore. Becoming ready for more.”

It’s true that it’s been a few years since the bad dreams kept seizing her brain. But even the faded memory makes her recoil: undulating things that tried to touch her, their horrible ability to grow faces from jelly. That insane feeling of rising up from the ground, of losing her body.

“More what?” she says and scoots backward toward the bed.

“More experiences,” her night mother says. “There’s a lot to discover when you’re not scared.”

“We were thinking,” her night father says, “that we might take a trip soon.”

This is new. They’ve never left her before. “How long will you be gone?”

“No—a trip for all of us.” Her night mother looks at her father and nods.

“It’ll be fun,” he says, cocking his eyebrows under his jaunty cap.

“How long would I be gone?” she asks. “I mean—my parents –“

“Let us worry about that,” her night mother says, smoothing her hair. “They probably won’t even need to know. You’d like a trip, wouldn’t you?”

They stare at her, their enormous dark eyes imploring her to love them, take this trip with them, but then her night father’s face shifts just for a moment, as if melting.

Then he looks normal again.

“Yes,” she says.

Her night mother sits back, rearranges her gloves in her lap, and smiles. “Then it’s settled.” She snaps her clutch purse shut and smiles as if with relief and triumph.

Orbit-sml ><

T hat weekend her parents, who have no real friends, invite two engineers from her father’s office over for dinner. Kira eats a frozen pizza by herself before they arrive and stays in her room while the real dinner of salmon croquettes is served. By eight o’clock, there’s loud classic rock playing from the living room, punctuated with bursts of laughter. Her mother yells her name down the hall: “Kira, come meet everyone!”

Kira gets up and goes to her bedroom window, expecting to see the night parents standing in the moonlit yard. They’ll wave, gesture for her to come out. And she could do that; could go away with them and never come back.

But the yard is empty. A sense of being the only awake person in the house comes over her.


Her socks slide on the polished oak living room floor. One of the engineers’ wives is on all fours, putting sugared cashews back in an upended silver bowl, and her mother is leaning back against the wall in helpless laughter, sagging against the drapes until she pulls them down—Oh, OH!—and everyone is laughing, her father burying his reddened face in his hands at the table. Kira gives a single, desultory wave and they laugh harder and she goes back to her room.

She’s never seen her mother drunk before. Watching TV in bed, she composes the story to tell her night parents when they arrive, about her mother’s ugly laughter, about how isolated it felt to be the only real person here tonight. But her bedroom door stays shut all night, long after the house is quiet and dark. The night parents never arrive.

Orbit-sml ><

M om, are ghosts real?

She wants to ask her parents something that scares them. She wants them to know that someone else wants her, that she could disappear before their eyes if they don’t start paying attention.

Because they’re not paying attention now, when she’s standing here at the end of the hall, the tiles cool under her bare feet. They’re asleep and the house is silent. All the clocks have stopped ticking. That means that time has stopped, probably. It means that she can stand here thinking about whether to turn the doorknob to her parents’ bedroom and explain what’s been happening or she can go through the living room and look outside, where her night parents might be awaiting with their night car at the curb, ready to drive her away.

A murmuring comes from her parents’ room: they’re not asleep. She listens at their door and then pushes it open without knocking.

The grayish jelly monster is undulating by the bed. Finally she’s looking at it head on, as real as her own thudding heart. And just like in her old nightmares it begins to grow a face. It wavers, then solidifies into her mother. Her real mother.

“It was always us,” she says. “I thought you were starting to understand.”

The other grayish thing is growing her father’s beard, she can’t look, her mouth is too dry to scream. His human façade shows through as he takes the form of the dapper old-fashioned personas they used to fool her.

“Oh, don’t,” her mother, her only mother, says to him. “We can drop the old-timey friendly ghost thing. There’s no point to that anymore.”

Kira sinks down to the floorboard, weeping.

“It’s time you started learning again anyhow,” her father says, sounding abashed. “We know you were scared before but you’re older now—”

“Would you give her a moment?” her mother asks. “This is a lot for her to accept.”

She leans her forehead against the wallpaper, sniffing. There’s a sock under her parents’ bed. A crumpled lipsticked tissue in the wastebasket. That daytime smell of her parents’ bedroom, cool and medicinal, fills her nostrils like proof of normality.

“Honey.” Her mother comes closer to her. It’s odd to hear the night mother’s maternal concern coming from her regular mother. “It’s okay. This is good, even. You’re already having lapses in school. You’ll start changing at night like us within a year, two at the most.”

Her head is hot and throbbing. “I’m not like you,” she says, though she doesn’t know what she’s denying.

“That’s right—you’re better,” her father says, kneeling. He’s mostly his regular self now but she can’t look at him. “We’ll train you each night so you’ll be fully you all the time. Not like us, you won’t be cut off from your consciousness in the daytime. You’ll meet others who are young—it will be so different for your generation.”

“You’ll do all kinds of things we haven’t been able to do.” Her mother crouches next to her, looking like her daytime self but going grayish and giving off pricks of electricity. “Your generation will be the ones to change everything.”

Kira yanks her head away from her mother’s hand. “No! I’m normal. I don’t want to meet anyone like you.”

Her parents look at each other. The night parents always had the same voices as her day parents, she realizes now, that never changed.

Her mother reaches for her hair again and Kira buries her head in her knees. “Kira, you have to listen to us,” her father says. “It’s almost dawn and we’ll be—limited again.”

“Oh, shush,” her mother says and holds her as she cries. “She’ll be okay today. You’ll make it through, right, honey? We’ll talk tomorrow night.”

Her mother’s hand on her hair is tender, rhythmic. The revulsion inside Kira quiets. She succumbs to the stroke of her mother’s fingers as her mind becomes a comforted nothingness. And then her mother’s hand grows distracted and more impatient until she sits back abruptly.

“Kira, you have to go back to bed. Why are you even in our room again—I thought we were past this.”

Kira gets to her feet, adjusts her pajamas. Pale gray light is creeping around the window blinds. Her day parents watch her with weariness and resentment.

She brushes away her tears. “Sorry. I had a nightmare.”

“The nightmares are back. I knew it.” Her mother’s voice is resigned again. “Go back to your room. We might need to have you see Dr. Weischler again if this keeps up.”

In her bed, Kira stares at the ceiling. Down in the kitchen, the cat clock chimes the first real hour of morning, followed by the ping of the clock on the mantelpiece, followed by five resonant gongs from the grandfather clock. Soon there will be the roar of the shower, the smell of coffee, her mother’s irritated complaints that her father has borrowed her phone charger again. Kira will put on her uniform for school, be reminded to pack a pear in her lunch, be examined for signs of staying up too late. Then the front door will shut behind them and the empty house will wait like a stage, a prologue for the day when all the clocks strike as one.


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Valerie Alexander

Author image of Valerie Alexander Valerie Alexander is a freelance writer living in Arizona and Oregon. Her stories have been published in a number of sci-fi, horror and speculative anthologies and magazines. Visit her at @vaxder or

© Valerie Alexander 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was whittled down from an image generated by Micah Hyatt using DALL·E 2.

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