“Are you all right, Jared?”
His mother’s voice was soothing, gentle, like he was a nervous colt and might bolt if handled the wrong way.
“I’m okay, Mom,” he replied, forcing a smile.
Her hands fussed with his blankets, smoothing them, tucking them under his chin. “I could stay with you until you fall asleep.”
Weak smile still in place, he shook his head. “You shouldn’t, Mom. Dr. Dean said I have to get over this on my own.”
“I know.” A deep frown furrowed her brow. “I know.”
“Don’t worry, Mom.” He knew she meant well, but right now, it was really not what he wanted. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Her voice tightened with concern. “It’s just that it’s been so bad… these night terrors…”
Night terrors. Bad dreams. An overactive imagination. Too much stimulation. Jared couldn’t help but sigh. These were all the ways the grownups tried to explain away the monster under his bed.
“I’m sure, Mom.” It had been there for as long as he could remember, even though at only seven years of age that didn’t sound so long. His first clear recollection of the monster was when he was four. His parents tucked him into bed, turned out the light and left the room. Immediately, a sense of fear washed over him, an utter certainty that he was not alone, and worse, not safe. He lay there, panting in terror, unable to move, for the longest time. Slowly, he realized that the source of his fear seemed to be coming from the darkness under the bed. He nerved himself to shove off his covers, crawl to the edge of the bed, and—ever so slowly—peer beneath it.
When he saw the eyes glowing green in the deep darkness, staring back at him… well, his screams had brought his parents quickly.
Now it was his mom’s turn to sigh. “I don’t like it.” She hesitated, clearly torn between trusting the expensive psychologist and a mother’s concern for her child. “All right. Just remember—”
“It’s not real, it’s just my imagination,” Jared cut her off, reciting the familiar litany. “Monsters don’t exist.”
A faint smile passed across her face, like a beam of sunshine finding a brief break in the clouds. “That’s my little man.” She stood, the mattress rising as her weight left it. “Goodnight.”
She walked to the door, where she bent over and made sure the nightlight was plugged in and working. Her hand reached out, flicked off the light switch. Instantly, the room was plunged into gloom, deep shadows gathering in the corners. Frown back in place, she slipped out of the room, leaving the door open a handspan. She paused again, looking back through the crack.
Jared gave her another smile. Then she was gone.
Jared let out a slow breath. Already, he could feel the fear creeping back in. The glow of the nightlight did little to dispel the darkness, which seemed almost to writhe. He knew he had to do this, now, before he lost his nerve.
Moving quickly, Jared slipped out from beneath the covers, rose to his knees atop the bed. He took several deep breaths, barely loosening the tightness in his chest, the band closing around his throat.
He bent slowly over the edge of the bed, careful not to get too low. Reaching down, he shoved his hand in between his mattress and the bed board. His questing fingers closed around the cold, hard handle of the knife.
Jared had felt bad about taking the knife. He’d felt even worse lying about it, but he justified it all by telling himself that he needed it.
With the comforting weight of the blade in hand, Jared steeled himself once more. Then, with even greater care, and far more slowly, he eased himself over the edge again, hanging upside down to peer beneath his bed.
The eyes were there, staring back at him, glowing green, unblinking. He almost lost his nerve right there, almost clambered back into bed, to pull the sheets over his head and huddle, quivering and soaked in sweat, until dawn’s light chased the last of the shadows away. Instead, he swallowed noisily and slipped over the edge of the mattress, lowering himself to the floor. He didn’t look away from those eyes, didn’t even let himself blink.
Then, crouched next to the bed, he held his breath, counted to three, and crawled into the darkness, knifed held before him in a shaking hand.
Then the eyes blinked, and Jared heard the last sound he expected to hear: a soft sigh.
“Well, I can’t say I expected this.” The voice came from the darkness, from the vicinity of those glowing eyes. “Probably should have; humans are unpredictable, especially you kids.”
Jared froze. He didn’t know what to do, what to say or even think. He just lay there, knife held between himself and the monster that talked. “Huh?” he finally managed to grunt.
“Okay, look, I’m sorry,” said the monster. “I know I’ve been scaring you for a while now, but I have a good reason. Do you want to hear it, or would you rather try to stab me with that knife?”
“You’re a monster,” Jared said, his tongue ungluing enough for speech at last. “I can’t believe anything you say. Can I?” He wasn’t sure; after all, this was the first time he’d ever spoken to a monster.
“First off, I’m not a monster,” the monster said. “In fact, I’m hiding under your bed because of the real monster, the one that’s after me. See, I’m only here, and I’ve only been trying to scare you, because there’s something about human fear, something that… throws the thing hunting me off my trail. It makes hiding under your bed the safest place for me.” The voice paused, and Jared distinctly heard something lick its lips nervously. “Um, are you still scared of me?”
Jared had to think about that for a minute, only to realize he wasn’t scared anymore. He was curious. “No, I don’t think I am.”
Another sigh came from the gloom. “That’s what I was afraid of. Listen, kid, you’d better get in here with me, and stay real quiet.”
“’Cause it’ll be here any second.”
Jared opened his mouth to ask another, obvious question, when suddenly a sensation washed over him. It was like his spine had been dipped in ice water, instantly turning his skin to gooseflesh. A soft creak sounded, and the faint light from the hallway brightened, spreading as it spilled through the opening doorway. Something was in the room with him, something he knew he didn’t want to meet. He’d thought he knew fear, understood terror, after all those years of living with the monster under his bed. But now… now he knew what real terror felt like.
In an instant, all reason fled, and he scurried into the deepest shadows under the bed. He felt himself pressing up against the monster that was already there; it felt strange, both warm and cold, soft and scaly, all at once. He didn’t care; all he wanted was to make himself invisible, so that whatever had come through the doorway wouldn’t find him.
“Not a sound,” the monster whispered in his ear, so faint he felt the words as much as heard them. “Don’t move a muscle.”
Jared bit his lip to keep from whimpering. In the glow from the open door, he saw… something, something vague and unclear, enter the room. It was dark and blurry, moving in fits and starts, jerking and jittering, like trying to watch a video while driving along an unpaved road. The noise it made when it moved was a weird combination of shuffling and dragging and thumping, without any rhythm to it. And the smell that wafted towards him… it was an awful reek, like rotten fish mingled with the worst sort of flowery air freshener.
The something moved farther into the room, the only sound its strange movement. It slither-thumped one way, then the other, moving across the room, drawing closer one moment, then farther away. It was clearly looking for something it knew was there, but was now having trouble pinpointing. After what seemed an eternity, it slipped back out through the door, the strange sounds of its movements growing distant. But Jared knew that the thing wasn’t gone, not really, and the terror it stirred in him was definitely still there.
“Ah.” The soft grunt came with a puff of air against the back of Jared’s neck. “So, now you’re scared, huh? Well, I can work with that. Look, kid, I think we can agree that we both don’t want this thing finding us, so we need to work together. Got it?”
Jared drew a ragged breath. “Can’t we just turn on the lights? That always made you go away, right?”
He felt the monster shake its head. “No. That just makes it so you can’t see me. Sorry if that’s not a comforting thought. No, if we want to get through this, we need to get creative.”
“What do we have to do?” Jared whispered. He glanced at the knife he still clutched in his sweaty palm. “Can we kill it?”
“Fierce one, aren’t you?” the monster said. Then it chuckled. “No, we can’t kill it with a knife. Get close enough to even try, and you’ll never get the chance.”
Jared shuddered. “What will it do to me? Eat me?”
“Worse,” the monster said. “It’ll… take you. Put you someplace where you’ll never get out.”
The way the monster said that told Jared the last thing he wanted was for the something to take him someplace. “What do we do?” he asked again.
“Thinking,” the monster said, sounding like Jared’s dad when he’d gotten a flat tire while out of cell phone range. “Don’t suppose you know anything about non-fixed-pseudo-sapient dimensional-portal-interments?”
“Didn’t think so. Okay, listen, this thing got here somehow, it came from a different place, and it came through an entrance it made. It has to keep that entrance open to… power it, for lack of a better term. We find that entrance, we close it, then maybe we can shut this thing down. You with me?”
Jared had to think about that. This night had taken an unexpected turn, and now he found himself ready to help the monster under his bed, because something much worse now stalked his home, ready to do something much worse than kill him.
“Yes,” he said in a very small voice.
“All right. Now let’s start by getting out from under this bed. Stay close to me, or the thing will spot me and be on us in a second. Got it?”
Jared could only nod. At the monster’s prodding, he crawled from beneath the bed. Turning around in the gloom, he watched the monster follow after him. Thankfully, it was still dark enough that he couldn’t really make out what it looked like, just a vague impression of a large form, with a suggestion of teeth and claws, and those eerie, glowing green eyes.
“Do you… do you have a name?” he asked.
The monster let out a soft laugh. “Lots of them, kiddo. Why don’t you just call me Bob, okay?”
Bob. That didn’t sound scary. Jared liked it. “What do we do now, Bob?”
“We stay close together, we stay very quiet, and we find where that thing got into this reality.”
With that, the monster started off. Jared followed close behind it, doing his best not to look too closely at his new… friend? Maybe it was too soon for that word.
At the bedroom door, Bob melted into the nearest shadow, avoiding the sliver of light coming from the hall. “Turn out that light, kiddo. Don’t want to make things any easier for our little adversary, now do we?”
Jared swallowed and peered out into the hall. Nothing was in sight. Reaching up, he flicked the nearest switch. The hall light went out, plunging the corridor into darkness.
“Okay, where now?” he asked.
“This is your crib, kiddo,” Bob replied. “What’s the darkest, scariest spot you know?”
“Besides under my bed?”
“Yeah, wiseguy. Besides that.”
Jared didn’t have to think hard. “The basement. It’s dark and cold and smells funny.”
“Right. Well, that’s our best bet.”
“We’ll go down there, see if that isn’t where our visitor decided to make an entrance.”
Jared didn’t like this plan. It required going down into the basement, for starters. Part of him suddenly just wanted to run for his parents’ bedroom, screaming at the top of his lungs, eager for them to turn on all the lights, hold him and comfort him, tell him it was all his imagination. But something made him squash that thought and square his small shoulders.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
He led the way down the hall to the stairs. At the top he hesitated again, listening, sniffing the air. He could still smell the peculiar reek of the thing, that strangely putrid, cloyingly flowery stench. It made him think of all the things he’d ever seen that he wanted to forget, like the face of the worst school bully or a dead dog lying on the roadside. He shook his head and started down the steps. Bob was a silent presence behind him, so quiet that even his footsteps couldn’t be heard.
Jared turned left and entered the kitchen, where the deep gloom of night made the normally familiar space into a collection of strange, half-seen things; across the room, he saw the basement door ajar. The sick feeling of terror was growing stronger, and he knew the thing was closer now, almost as if it realized what they were planning, and was going to head them off. Rather that running in the opposite direction, which he really wanted to do, Jared kept moving toward the basement door.
Then he felt Bob’s hand grab his shoulder, claws digging into his flesh. “Hold still,” the monster said in a harsh whisper.
Before Jared could even ask what was wrong, he saw it. The thing was there, in the kitchen with them. As if it had been waiting for them. Again, he could only see the vague impression of something taking up space, flickering and jittering, its stink filling the air. Then it started moving again, a few feet one way, and then a few feet another way. Clicking claws clattered on the tile floor one second, then it was a wet, slurping sliding noise.
Jared backed away from it, pressing against Bob. He could actually feel the monster quivering in fear. He wanted to ask what they should do, but he was too scared that the thing would hear him. Instead, he looked to the doorway to the basement.
Strange lights flickered there, and the darkness itself seemed to churn. It was like looking at a swarm of fireflies caught in a whirlpool of shadows. With amazing certainty, Jared realized he was looking at the entrance that thing had made to get into his home. If Bob was right, then closing that door would cut off the thing from whatever was keeping it alive.
Steeling himself, Jared took a step towards the basement door. Then another. And another. The thing didn’t seem to be paying him any attention. It just kept on drifting back and forth, like a blind man feeling his way around a strange room.
It took Jared a moment to notice that Bob was no longer right behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the indistinct form of the monster standing right where he’d been a moment ago. Bob was frozen in place, his glowing gaze locked on the thing that searched for him.
“Bob?” Jared hissed softly. “C’mon.” He beckoned for the monster to follow.
Bob didn’t move a muscle. Clearly, the proximity of the thing had paralyzed him with fright.
Jared swallowed, turned back to the basement door. He’d have to do it himself. His mind supplied all sorts of terrible possibilities, everything that might happen when he got closer to that door. He took another step.
It was one step too far.
The flickering, pulsing thing suddenly froze, like a dog that had spotted a cat. Then it moved again, arrowing straight for Bob. Bob staggered backward, letting out a strangled yelp of terror.
Jared hesitated. For just a second, he wondered why he was doing this. Why not let the thing have Bob? Why not get rid of both monsters? Then his mouth set in a grim line. This wasn’t about Bob, or the thing that was after him. This was about fear, about overcoming the things that scared you, and doing something about what terrified you.
Jared lunged forward and slammed the door.
Instantly, the thing whirled toward him. It hovered, flickering and twitching, for a long moment. Then, in a series of swift, jolting convulsions, it got smaller and smaller, before it finally disappeared altogether. A soft pop sounded as the very last bit of it vanished.
Jared stood there, one hand on the doorknob, feeling a gentle breeze ruffle his hair. Every trace of the thing was gone, even its strange smell disappearing like a bad dream ending.
Bob let out a whoosh of pent-up breath. “Nice going, kiddo. Saved my bacon.”
“Okay,” Jared said. “What happens now?”
“Now?” Bob grinned, sharp teeth flashing white in the darkness. “Now… I leave. No more reason to hide under your bed anymore, is there?”
“I guess not.”
Bob started to turn away, hesitated. “Thanks, kiddo. You’ve got a lot of guts, doing what you did. I won’t forget it.” His smile widened. “And believe me, I’ll pass the warning to all the other monsters that under your bed is probably not the safest place to hide.”