There was something under my bed.
It scuttled and pattered and thumped, and it was definitely not the pipes or the wind or any of the other things dad told me made noises in the night. Thump! Bigger than a mouse, I thought, but smaller than a dog. I rolled closer to the edge of the mattress. If I was very careful, I could lean down for a look while being safely cocooned in my blankets.
Another thump. A couple of dust bunnies came drifting out from under the bed. My nightlight was nowhere near bright enough to see anything else and I didn’t want to stick my entire head out.
“There’s a monster!”
It wasn’t me yelling. I sat up and clutched the blankets around me.
“There’s a monster under my bed!” The voice was shrill and squeaky.
“Who’s that?” I said, before I could stop myself. Stupid! How quickly could I reach my baseball bat? And how quickly could mum get here if I screamed?
But no oozing tentacles made a grab for my blankets. The only reply was a soft whimper.
I inched closer to the edge of the bed. “Are you scared of me?”
“There are no monsters under my bed,” the voice said. It echoed slightly. “Monsters aren’t real. There are no monsters under my bed.”
“I’m not a monster!” I said. How dare the thing insult me like that! “Besides, you’re under my bed.”
This was getting silly. I could hear where the voice was coming from, after all. Did the thing think I was stupid?
“Where are you, then?” I said.
“I’m in my bed! Go away!” The voice now sounded muffled, like it was coming through a thick blanket. It continued muttering “Go away” in an increasingly desperate way.
Carefully, I slipped one arm out from between my blanket shelter and when no clawed appendages made a grab for it, I opened the drawer of my bedside table and extracted my torch. I flicked the switch and shone the beam over the floorboards. They were bare except for the dust bunnies and a toy car with a broken wheel. I told myself to stop being such a coward and leaned all the way over the edge of the bed. Even hanging upside down like this, I could tell there was nothing there.
“I can’t see you,” I said. “Are you invisible?”
The muttering stopped. I jumped out of bed and crawled underneath it, torch in one hand, feeling around with the other. Nothing. I crawled back, brushed the worst of the dust off my pyjamas and climbed into bed again.
“You’re not actually under my bed,” I said.
I stuck my tongue out even though there wasn’t anybody there to see it. “Do you think you’re in a parallel universe? Or a magical world?”
“I’m pretty sure I’m in the normal world.”
“Then maybe there’s a topographical gravity fold in the space-time conductivity.”
“I - I don’t know what those words mean.”
“I read it in a book about space travel,” I said. I probably muddled up the words a bit but I wasn’t going to say that out loud. “It’s a sort of shortcut between two places that are far apart. Maybe that’s what we have.”
“Like a telephone? Or a pen pal?”
“Yeah!” I always wanted a pen pal, preferably from Australia. Even as I thought it, I realised that it was highly unlikely due to the time difference and the two of us having similar bedtimes.
“What’s your name?” said the voice.
“Max. And yours?”
“Do you want to be friends?”
There was a slight pause before he answered. “I suppose.”
The next day passed way to slowly for my liking. For the first time in my parents’ memory, I didn’t complain when eight o’clock rolled around and they told me it was time for bed.
“Do you want a story?” mum asked after she had checked that I had brushed my teeth properly.
“No! ‘Goodnight mum, g’night dad!”
“Goodnight,” said my two very bemused parents. Dad turned off the light and closed the door. I waited until their footsteps had receded before flinging the covers aside.
“Frederick, are you there?” I whispered. I hung over the edge of the bed, my hair just brushing the floor.
“Yes,” he whispered back.
“Oh, good! I’ve got so much stuff to tell you. At school today, this kid called Billy climbed a tree during recess, and he got stuck, which was really stupid of him, because there’s branches all the way down except for the last bit which you have to jump but it’s not that high. I climbed that tree loads of times, but I never got stuck. Do you like climbing trees?”
“There aren’t many trees here. I climb rocks, though.”
“Cool! Do you live in the mountains?”
“They’re not very high,” Frederick said, but I could tell he didn’t really mind. “There’s this giant boulder not far from my house. I climb it most afternoons. You can see half the world from up there. Maybe a quarter. A lot of it, anyway.”
I lay on my side while he talked about climbing, and then I told him about the treehouse I wanted to build. I was halfway through a description of the rope bridges and ziplines when dad came in.
“Max, why aren’t you asleep?”
“I was asleep!”
Dad sat down on the side of the bed. “Who were you talking to?”
“Hey,” Frederick said. “What about the ziplines?”
“You’ve got to go to sleep now,” dad said. “All right?”
He tucked me in and left the room. I gradually became aware of Frederick’s voice. “Max! What’s wrong? Why are you being so weird?”
“My dad couldn’t hear you,” I said.
“Dad came into the room, he wondered who I was talking to, but he couldn’t hear you. Could you hear him?”
“Just you.” There was laughter in Frederick’s voice. “Is that normal for these, uhm, translogical folds in space-time?”
I stuffed my fist into my mouth so dad wouldn’t hear me laughing.
Not long after dad walked in on us talking, we developed a system of call and reply. If either of us wanted to talk, we’d knock three times on the floor by the bed. If the other replied with two knocks, we could talk. No knocks meant someone else was in the room. Usually I was the one instigating the conversations. As soon as I came home from school, I would run up to my bedroom and knock three times. Frederick never replied then. Perhaps his school days were longer than mine, I never asked. But he replied most nights, and we would lie in bed, talking for hours, while the moonlight shone through the gap in the curtains and wandered across the floor.
I had a number of friends at school. I played football with Pete and Aaron and Jenna, climbed trees with Lena, and hung around Omar while he read books and told me what happened in them in a much more interesting way than the author. My school friends were usually kind and funny, but when I was talking to Frederick I always felt kind and funny myself. I could talk to him about anything. I told him about the bullies at school and my dream of being an astronaut. Frederick wanted to be a rock star. Sometimes he played simple songs for me on his guitar. He got most of the chords right. He talked a lot about his mother, too. She was away for weeks at a time, because she worked on a ship, and Frederick was left alone with his dad and his baby sister. I don’t think he had many friends at school but I thought it would be rude to ask him outright. I could be his friend.
One night, about two years after we first met, I was dozing off when I heard three soft knocks. I opened my eyes and reached down to knock twice on the floorboards.
“Sorry I’m late,” Frederick said. “But I only just got in.”
“’S okay,” I said, stifling a yawn. “What were you doing?”
“Watching the lunar eclipse! Did you get to see it?”
That was the first I heard about it, though I usually knew the exact dates of upcoming meteor showers and lunar eclipses. “I guess it’s not visible from where I live.”
“Oh. I hope you get to see one soon. It was beautiful, even if it was just the Little Moon.”
“What do you mean?” I was suddenly wide awake.
“An eclipse of the Big Moon is supposed to be even more beautiful.”
“You have two moons?” I blurted out.
Silence. The seconds trickled by. There were crickets chirping outside my bedroom window. Then both of us spoke at the same time.
“You’re from a different planet!”
When we had stopped laughing, Frederick asked me what my species looked like.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” I said. “What if we think a word means different things? Or what if what I call red is a different colour than what you call red?”
“That makes no sense. We’ve been talking for years, haven’t we? I think the universe is translating for us.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Still, it felt weird to know I wasn’t talking to a human.
“Is your species red, then?”
“Only if we’re out in the sun too long. We are a colour that’s somewhere in between dark brown and light pink. It depends on the person.”
“We’re green. Different shades, depending on the altitude.”
We talked for half the night. I did my best to describe what we looked like - walking upright, two legs, two arms, one head - but it was harder than I thought. At one point something must have gotten terribly muddled because Frederick got the impression that we had eyes on the side of our heads and five fingers in total, rather than on each hand. Then it was Frederick’s turn to explain. Two legs, two arms, a short tail, scales on the top of his head, three eyes.
“It’s probably a good thing I can’t see you under my bed,” I said, with a giggle. “I might have hit you with my baseball bat all those years ago. You sound exactly like the monster I used to imagine under my bed.”
“I was about to say the same thing!”
It was extraordinary how this alien, who probably lived a thousand light years away, could lead a life that was so normal and so like mine. We both started secondary school the same year. Neither of us were friends with the cool kids, but we muddled along. I joined the football team, Frederick took rock climbing lessons. He struggled with geometry, algebra was my nemesis. Three knocks to call, two knocks to reply. We spent a number of afternoons locked up in our rooms, doing mathematics on the floor by our beds. I still wanted to be an astronaut so I needed good grades in every science subject. When I was about sixteen, I went on my first date. Nothing special, just a movie. Frederick spent that afternoon telling me I was cool and confident, and he was sympathetic when I came home that night and wanted nothing more than to hide my head under my pillow. Three knocks to call, two knocks to reply. A couple of months later, I convinced him to sign up to his school’s talent show. He had played me a couple of songs that he had written himself, and I told him honestly that I liked them. His guitar sounded like it had a voice of its own. Needless to say, his talent show went a lot better than my date.
When I was nineteen, I was accepted into an astronaut training course. I got the letter one afternoon and immediately went up to my room. Three knocks to call, two knocks to reply. Frederick congratulated me, but he didn’t sound happy.
“You’re going to move away from home, aren’t you?”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “You know it doesn’t. All those summers you were at your grandmother’s, we could still talk. And last year, when I was on that school trip. This phone line across the universe follows us, remember?”
“Yeah. I suppose.”
“So what’s really wrong?”
A soft melody floated across the universe, plucked from the strings of whatever Frederick’s version of a guitar was. Then it stopped abruptly. “Mum and dad won’t let me study music.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “What are you going to do?”
“Don’t know. Get a job, I suppose.”
I travelled across the continent for my training course. Frederick eventually got a job on a ship, I think his mother pulled some strings. He took his guitar with him. Our link was still open. It ran from underneath his cot on the ship to the bed in my cupboard of a room on campus. Three knocks to call, two knocks to reply. The first year, we talked every other night. Then it became once a week, then once every two weeks, then once a month. One night, we said goodbye and neither of us knocked again. Before I knew it, years had passed. Astronaut training was tough, both physically and mentally. I calculated orbits and launch trajectories in the mornings and endured gruelling workouts in the afternoons. Most evenings, I was too tired to do anything other than fall asleep on my bed fully clothed. Sometimes I thought I heard a murmured voice or the fragment of a song, but I might have imagined it, as I must have dreamed the melodies that drifted through my head in the mornings.
The war started when I was twenty-seven. It began as a scuffle over a nice little planet with a breathable atmosphere and large deposits of tungsten and cobalt. Both sides claimed they were the first to discover this planet and that it was rightfully theirs. Our important leaders invited their important leaders for important talks where nothing was resolved, and then we were fighting, Us against Them. I was recalled from my mission studying star formation. At headquarters, a stern soldier with three silver stars on his collar told me I would be flying troop transports from now on. I walked through the long corridor to the launch bay and tried to ignore the posters on the wall. They reminded me of the propaganda posters from the previous interstellar war, nearly a century ago. I had seen some in my history books at school. I had been away for so long that the hatred took me by surprise. One poster showed a man with bulging biceps and flowing locks of hair who was wrestling an oozing, many-tentacled something. Others showed sleek fighter ships flying heroically off into deep space. Phrases like “Your planet needs you!” and “Humans first!” leaped out at me. I felt faintly sick.
I flew the troop transports. What else could I do? Anti-war protesters were arrested. I told myself that flying transports wasn’t fighting. Besides, if our leaders couldn’t negotiate a peace treaty, what could I do?
On my third mission, we flew into a trap. An enemy ship came out of nowhere and took out our engines and the launch bay doors. I struggled with the controls as the ship spun out of control. All around me, alarms went off.
“We’re being boarded!” someone yelled.
It wasn’t my job to fight. The soldiers would deal with that, I just had to keep us flying. In the distance, people were screaming. I heard shots, and then a sickening crunch of metal as the doors were forced open. Smoke billowed through the cockpit. I turned in my seat and saw a chaotic mass of humans trying to hold back a group of others. Then something struck me in the shoulder. I bit down a cry and turned back to the controls. My arm hung limply by my side, heavy with pain. I fumbled across the control panel with my other hand, but my fingers couldn’t grip or push anything. The shouting around me grew muted and my vision began to blur. Slowly, I sank away into nothing.
When I woke up, my head felt full of cotton wool. Something beeped and clicked beside me.
“Easy there,” said a voice. “Don’t try to sit up.”
“You’re in the infirmary. Still on the ship.”
“The ship was boarded, do you remember? It’s all right, we fought ‘em off.” I recognised that voice, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name. One of the younger medics. “You were shot in the shoulder, and you hit your head, but you’ll be fine.”
I groaned. “Yeah. Fine.”
“Get some rest.”
There was a thick wad of bandages on one of my shoulders. I could barely feel the arm on that side. I blinked. Thoughts and images were pushing through the cotton wool in my head. I remembered the fight in the cockpit. The enemy were slightly shorter than humans. They were green, with scales on their heads, and three eyes.
The medic had left me. I shifted towards the edge of the bed and stretched out my good arm as far as I could. The floor was smooth and cold under my knuckles as I knocked three times. Then I lay back, exhausted, and waited. Don’t doze off, I told myself.
Two knocks. They echoed slightly in the space under the bed. The most beautiful sound in the world.