When I was just a boy, I was afraid of the monster under my bed. I was young and much I now know was a mystery to me. I would do everything in my limited repertoire of tricks to keep from going to bed before I was exhausted. When my father was there at bed time and could remember it was bed time, he would be stern and make sure I got there on time. But, oftentimes he forgot or, being exhausted from being a police officer, would fall asleep in the big chair while I was still awake. Those nights, I would curl up on the couch with the lights on and sleep within the sound of my father's breathing.
My mother was gone when I was so young that I can barely remember her any more, except as a vague impression. The nights my father had to work (and they were many, ) Uncle Jack or Aunt Sara or Noelle or one of the church ladies would come over and watch me. Some let me sleep with my light on. Others waved away my concerns and turned off the lights "for my own good."
As soon as they put me to bed, I was up, across the room, turning on the light. I don't know how old I was when I started doing this, but I was young enough to have no guile. By the time I was five, I had figured out that I could fold up my pants after taking them off to sleep and shove them under the crack in my door so that no one could see the light was on. This got me almost a week of restful sleep before my father, opening my door to call me to breakfast, found my pants wedged there and the light on while I slept. It was the only time I could remember the gentle man giving me a spanking. Even at the age of five, I knew that his heart was not in it.
After that, I started waiting for whoever was watching me to go back into the living room and, if they were old enough, fall asleep themselves. At six, my bed time was seven thirty. I was in bed by seven thirty. The church ladies were usually asleep by nine. So, for an interminable hour and a half, I would lie in bed, staying as far away from the edges as I could, not moving and not wanting to attract attention. The monster would whisper my name seductively, "Stephen." I had no idea what seduction was at the time, but I found myself being seduced anyway, torn between wanting to give that plaintive voice whatever it asked for and not wanting to give the monster an opportunity to grab my feet and drag me into the darkness.
Of course, this still meant a mad dash for the light switch in the dark. I would wait until the monster whispered "Ste... ," then run for it, bolting across the room. It would whisper the "... phen just before I flicked the light on. It didn't matter. With the lights on, I was safe.
I'm sure that my parents knew I was sleeping with the lights on. I would wake up with my father poking his head in and announcing breakfast often enough that he must have realized what was happening. But, he made no mention. It was my introduction to the idea of an "uneasy truce."
I asked my father to come and chase the monster away, of course. But, his monster-hunting skills had sadly atrophied from his youth if he'd ever had them at all. He started out by turning the light on, thus guaranteeing that the monster wouldn't be there when he called. Then, took taken my favorite baseball bat and choked up on it.
"All right," he called, "all you monsters get out from under there. The time of reckoning is at hand."
"There's only one monster," I told him.
"Only one?" asked my father. "Well, you're not even outnumbered, then."
My eyes widened, "But, it's a monster... and I'm little."
"Well," said my father, "if it can fit under your bed, it's not a very big monster, is it?"
I thought about it. In the light, it made perfect sense, "I guess not."
"And all you have to do if it comes after you is get the light on, right?"
"Well then," said my father, turning the bat in his hand, "just keep this close to your bed. If you're heading for the light switch and she grabs your ankle, just whack her wrist with it."
Until then, I hadn't really thought of the monster as having gender... or wrists for that matter. But, I sensed that my father knew what he was talking about.
"Dad?" I asked as I leaned the bat against the wall by my headboard, "Could I maybe have a night light?"
My father's face darkened, "A big boy like you?" he chided.
I felt ashamed at having acted like a baby and resolved to sleep with the lights off that night. Laying there as quiet and still as possible, I kept my eyes closed and tried to sleep.
"Ste-phen," called the monster. Now that he'd mentioned it, I realized my father was right. The monster's singsong had a definitely female cadence to it.
I gripped the bat in my hands. Defiantly, I said, "Go away."
"Stephen," the monster said more harshly, "keep your father out of here."
My breathing became quite shallow. It was the first time the monster had said anything other than my name while I was awake. I had a feeling that it said other things while I was sleeping or half asleep, but when I tried to grasp those words, they eluded me.
"No," I shouted. "My father's going to come back and chase you out."
The monster laughed, chilling my spine, "If he comes back when it's dark, I'll eat him."
I was so scared, I started crying. I wrapped myself around the bat for protection.
"Don't cry," whispered the monster, her voice still chuckling, "I won't eat him if he stays away."
"No," I said sobbing, "you'll eat me instead."
The monster said nothing. The next day, she said nothing. For five days, I lay in bed, wrapped around my bat and fell asleep without hearing so much as my name.
The fifth day was my eighth birthday. We had a party. I don't remember much of it, except that I fell asleep at the end of it and must have been carried to my bedroom. I dreamt of a carnival and woke with the smell of fairway in my nostrils and what felt like a cat licking the dried strawberry ice cream off of my lips and a weight on my hips. The monster wasn't under my bed. It was on top of me. I shrieked and reached for my bat, but it wasn't next to the bed where I left it. The monster was off of me in an instant, disappearing under the bed.
A few seconds later, I heard my father's heavy tread in the hallway. Remembering what the monster had told me, I hurriedly ran to the light switch and turned it on so that she wouldn't eat my father.
My father and Noelle burst in, dressed for bed. My father's face was pinched and tight, "What's going on in here?"
"I..." I said, "I thought I saw something outside the window."
I thought I heard a snicker from under the bed. My father gave me an odd look. Noelle turned to my father, "Mike, turn on the outside lights and have a look around, would you?"
With a second suspicious look at me, my father went off to find a robe. When he came back, he said, "There's nobody out there. It must have been a tree or his reflection. Go back to sleep, tiger."
I was a long time getting to sleep that night. As I lay in the darkness, clutching my bat, my father and Noelle spoke to each other in low voices in the living room. I strained to hear and, several times, the words "night light" were mentioned.
The next night, before going to sleep, I shoved every item I could move under the bed until it was packed solid. Still exhausted from a sleepless night before and all the heavy lifting, I fell sound asleep, wrapped around my bat. I woke up to Noelle's shrieks of alarm. The room looked like it had been ransacked, every item I'd pressed under the bed having been flung against the walls. Toys were broken; clothes were torn; and I was grounded for the next two weeks.
I thought the grounding a small price to pay, though, when I turned off the overhead light the first night after that and a night light winked into brightness, bathing the room in just enough of a glow to keep the monster at bay.
For years, that was the end of it. I began to sleep more easily, but never with the bat far from my reach. When I turned twelve, my father tried to talk me into getting rid of the night light. I said I would consider it, not wanting to sound foolish talking about monsters again. I was nearly a teenager. My classmates who had talked about monsters had given such talk up as childish many years ago. I wanted to do the same.
That night, I heard my father and Noelle talking in low, angry voices. It was the first time I had ever heard them argue about me. Noelle, only eleven years older than me, had been my au pair, but was now more like a big sister. My father, even though he had been a cop for a long time before taking his current job, was not the sort to push me to "be a man" or engage in random acts of machismo, but he seemed to be fixated on the matter of the night light.
The next day, I did the bravest thing I'd ever done. Before going to bed, I unplugged the night light. That night, I slept fitfully, but never heard a sound. For a week, I listened to the darkness, but heard nothing but cicadas and traffic. After a month, I was sure that the monster was gone.
At fourteen, I fell in love with Gretchen Kelly. She was sixteen and beautiful and completely out of my league. I was at turns ecstatic and miserable, sometimes within the span of a single sentence. I went to Noelle for advice and she gave it until my ears burned red like they were branding the sides of my face. At night, I had the most incredible dreams about Gretchen with her soft, blond hair and without her tight sweaters.
.... There is more of this story ...