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.
I woke from one such dream to hear a loud creaking from my bedsprings and the sensation of a weight lifting off of me. Looking down, I saw my cock standing firmly at attention, glistening in the glow of the street light as if wet. I reached down with two fingers, wiped some of the wetness off and smelled it.
It didn't have the sour smell like when I masturbated. It smelled sweet. Trepidaciously, I touched my fingers to the tip of my tongue. It tasted like strawberry ice cream.
I don't know if my breathing was shallow before then, but it was shallow now. I struggled for a half-remembered sense of a sandpaper tongue licking me in my sleep. After a few seconds of hesitation, I bolted from my bed to the light switch and turned on the light.
I woke up half-willing to be convinced that I was crazy. It would have been easier if I were crazy. My father had tired of the monster long ago. Noelle would listen and humor me even now. But, I knew that was all it would be. There was no help there.
I had started a desultory program in weightlifting when I first realized how Gretchen seemed to gravitate towards muscle boys. But, the incentive to be consistent was tied to how I felt about my chances with the object of my desire from moment to moment. Now, I began in earnest. I had managed to wrangle my way into the gym at Uncle Jack's company a year earlier by virtue of being quiet and unobtrusive. I started heading there nearly every day after school. My high school had a gym too, but the senior muscle-heads treated it like their own personal domain. And, besides, middle-aged executives were much less intimidating to work out in front of than teenaged Adonises.
Sometimes, at night, the combination of muscles healing and growing pains was agony. I only cried once though, waking up with the sensation that I had just missed the monster licking my face and the sickly-sweet scent of strawberry ice cream heavy in my nostrils.
Being fourteen, my lust had cast a wider net than would land on just Gretchen Kelly. I was still too shy and awkward for it to matter to anyone but me, but it made the longing less intense to know that there was always another girl around the corner who might possibly be the one.
I even convinced myself that I was over Gretchen. I was--to the degree that the mere mention of her name no longer sent me into a state of daydreams and fantasies that blocked out all other sensation. Then, the most amazing thing in my life happened. As I was waiting on the lunch line, Gretchen came up behind me and said in her whispery, angelic voice, "Hey, Stephen. Looking good. You must be working out." Then, impossibly, incredibly, she reached out, gripped my bicep in one hand, and gave it a squeeze.
I don't remember what I said in response. I've blocked it out. I'm only left with the realization, come to many years later, that I made a fool out of myself.
Still, those words and that one touch were enough to inflame my passion for Gretchen again. I kept working out, but I spent an increasing number of hours mooning around the house over her. Noelle picked up on it fairly quickly.
"What's up, Stevie? You see kind of distant these days."
I just grunted. A moment earlier, I had been sitting on the couch, staring off into space.
"Ah," said Noelle knowingly. "Girl troubles."
I laughed, "I had no idea my grunts were so expressive."
Noelle laughed and sat down in my father's favorite chair, legs crossed Indian-style beneath her, "I'm just playing the odds. I remember how boy-crazy I was at fourteen. Since you haven't shown any bent in that direction, I figured it must be girls."
I nodded. Noelle asked, "Who is it this time?"
"Gretchen again," I admitted.
"Really?" asked Noelle. She grabbed a pillow, hugged it to herself, and leaned forward, interest keen in her eyes.
I ended up telling her everything. Somehow, it was always easy to talk to Noelle, even if she was, strictly speaking, my stepmother. She would answer any question I cared to formulate as completely as she could. Once my ears stopped burning, her advice usually made good sense. So, I asked, "Noelle, what am I going to do?"
"You really want to know the answer, Stevie?"
I nodded vigorously.
"You're fourteen. She's sixteen. That makes you at least four years younger than the guys she's liable to be interested in. Plus, you've got the great driving divide. It's going to be a real uphill battle trying to compete with guys who have cars."
"But, what can I do?" I recognized that the last word came out as a whine, but it was too late to call it back.
Noelle shrugged apologetically, "The best thing you can do right now is get on her radar. Ask her out. Let her reject you. Be gracious about it. In a couple of years, try again."
I was crushed, "You mean, there's no chance she would say yes now?"
She shook her head, "There's always a chance, Stevie. But, I wouldn't expect it."
I scowled, "I should just skip it, then. What if she told everyone I asked her out? I would die."
"You would also save yourself two years of pining over a mean-spirited bitch who would do something like that to you."
"Gretchen's not like that!" I protested.
"Then, you have nothing to worry about," said Noelle, smiling.
I resolved to do as Noelle had suggested. My friend Andy was having a huge Halloween party this year, within walking distance of both my house and Gretchen's. Despite what Noelle had said, I thought there was a pretty good chance that Gretchen might say yes. Still, I dithered and waited until the party was a week away.
I managed to catch Gretchen walking between buildings with no one in immediate earshot. Gathering up all of my courage, I said, "Uh, Gretchen."
"Oh, hey Stephen," she said, slowing her walk so that I could catch up, "what's up?"
"I... uh," I was starting to sweat. The next words came out in a rush, "My friend Andy is having this big party Halloween night. I was wondering if you wanted to come... with me."
Gretchen's face clouded up, "I would love to, but I promised I would take my little sister trick or treating."
"Oh," I said. "Well, some other time, then."
"Yeah," she said, smiling sweetly. "Some other time."
I was crushed for the rest of the day. When Noelle inquired as to my rotten mood, I tried to put her off, knowing that she'd told me not to expect success. She persisted though and, as usual, I ended up telling her everything.
When I finished, she pushed my shoulder and laughed, "So, why didn't you ask her for another time, dummy? She gave you an opening and you dropped the ball."
I lowered my head, "I didn't think I could take any more rejection."
She took a lecturing tone, "Oh, no. What you thought was that you wanted to keep pining more than you wanted to take a chance and possibly get turned down."
"I did not," I protested.
"So, ask her again tomorrow." said Noelle, shrugging.
It was said casually, but it was clear that Noelle had thrown the gauntlet. The next day, I followed Gretchen as much as I could, waiting for her to be alone and approachable. It never happened. I ended up missing the school bus in a last, desperate attempt to catch up with her before cheerleading practice.
I hung around, waiting for cheerleading practice to end, hoping I could catch her before I had to get on the extracurricular activities bus. In hindsight, I stalked her a little, but didn't know that's what I was doing at the time.
When she came out of the gym, she unexpectedly turned right. Walking forward, towards me, she would have been headed for the buses. To the left were the student parking lots. To the right were the elementary school, then nothing but woods. I didn't know why she was headed that way, but I finally had my opportunity to approach her.
Unfortunately, I did not act quickly enough and had lost sight of her. I tried the front door of the elementary school and found it locked. Running around the back of the building, I thought I saw a flash of red cheerleading uniform on a dirt path leading off into the woods. I knew the path to be a shortcut to the football field and followed.
It was dark and the path was rough. It had been worn smooth by thousands of feet over the years, but thick, gnarled roots still stuck up in places, ready to snare the unwary. I was so focused on where I put my feet that I missed the path where Gretchen had turned off in the twilight. Again, only a flicker of red, this time caught in the most extreme edges of my peripheral vision, showed me where she had gone.
I backtracked. The path she'd taken wasn't much more than a deer run and ran steeply up the side of a mountain. I didn't know how I would explain to her why I followed her into the woods, but it seemed hugely important to me that I find out where she was going.
I stumbled at one point, sliding backwards down the path and falling on my ass. I scrambled back up the path until it intersected with a dirt road. I'd never known there were any roads up here. Not seeing Gretchen in either direction, I chose one way at random, following it until it reached a long, dark tunnel in the mountain. The tunnel looked like it hadn't been used in a hundred years. It was full of undergrowth and spiderwebs. I retraced my path.
I might never have found them if I hadn't heard her voice.
"Come on, Barry," she pleaded. "It's starting to rain and I'm cold."
"But, baby," a male voice wheedled. "I've been waiting for this all day. And, I can't take you home. My folks are there."
I crept closer. There was a car parked on the road, an old Ford from the seventies or early eighties, when they still made them like boats. I saw Barry Stewart, one of the seniors who had made it so unpleasant to use the school's weight room. He was standing mostly still, eyes closed.
I think I knew what was happening, but I needed to see. I crossed the road so that I was looking straight down the side of the car. Kneeling in front of Barry was Gretchen Kelly, eyes closed, her head bobbing up and down on his cock.
Afraid of being spotted and horrified at what I had seen, I stumbled off of the road, heading down the side of the mountain. There was no path here and the darkness was close to absolute. Heedless, I barreled down the side of the mountain. At some point, I slipped on a wet patch, lost my footing, and began an uncontrolled tumble that ended when I knocked into something solid. There was a sharp pain and then, blissfully, I passed out.
When I came to, it was pitch dark. I heard rain pounding down on everything around me. I reached up and felt blood on my face. I shivered a little, but realized that it was only from cold. I, and the leaves around me, were mostly dry. I looked up at the sky, trying to figure out what was protecting me from the rain.
I could see nothing, but listening carefully, I could hear the tone of the rain. It sounded like it was hitting the roof of a canvas tent. I tried to stand up, but collapsed when I tried to put weight on my left leg. I had strained or broken the ankle.
I lay there, panting in the darkness. Above me, I heard a rustle and sensed a presence.
"Who's there?" I called out.
There was a rush of wings and I was doused in cold water. The tree I had come to rest against creaked dangerously as if a great weight had settled on it. For a moment, I saw a few, dim stars and the moon through a thick cloud, then they were blocked out by a canopy closing over me. But, in that brief instant, I had seen the shape of the canopy. It was a pair of wings, huge batlike wings.
The monster under my bed was up in the tree. I froze.
After a moment, my terror was overlaid with machismo, "All right!" I shouted. "I can't run. No one can save me. Come and get me."
I waited in the ensuing silence, expected any moment to be torn apart.
Instead, the monster started crooning. The sound was eerie and terrifying at first, but soon it became a lullaby. I felt like it must be one my mother had hummed wordlessly to me before she died, but couldn't say why I thought so.
I wept in pain and desolation and heartbreak, over being lost and wet and cold, over Gretchen and my mother. I cried like I could never remember crying. I cried myself empty and still sobs wracked my chest.
When I finally stopped sobbing, I lay there, emotionally numb and physically aching. I closed my eyes and listened to the wordless crooning. In what seemed like only a few minutes, I was asleep.
I woke again before dawn. For a few long seconds, I didn't move. The canopy was much closer now, embracing me. Arms were wrapped around my chest from behind. And, a distinctly female softness was pressed against my back.
I tried to turn abruptly. As I did, I felt a rush of wings and abruptly went from sitting up to lying flat on my back. Fortunately, my head landed on a pile of leaves. I tried to scramble to my feet and was immediately reminded not to by a warning pain in my ankle.
I looked around, but the monster was nowhere in sight. Sighing, I searched around myself for a stick that could be of the approximate length to act as a makeshift crutch. Finding one, I started to hobble downhill at a snail's pace. I fell two more times, but had been taking my time and neither fall hurt much.
At some point, the sun rose and I could see more clearly. I was close to school grounds. In another hour, I managed to get to the pay phones and call home.
My father was frantic, but primarily relieved. He and Noelle showed up at the school in record time, but instead of taking me home, took me directly to an emergency room.
While we waited, I gave an expurgated version of what had happened to me. I admitted following Gretchen up the path and finding the dirt road, but claimed that I stumbled in the dark and fell off the side of the road before finding her. Of course, I didn't mention the monster.
I expected my father to yell at me or punish me or at least say something harsh. Instead, he said quietly, "I'm getting you a cell phone."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. I'd asked my father for a cell phone over the summer. He'd told me absolutely not. I was too young to have a cell phone. We'd fought about it for weeks. It was still a sore point. I felt like I was being rewarded for being stupid.
"Thanks," I said quietly.
"Don't thank me yet," said my father. "I'm going to use it to keep tabs on you the next time you're five minutes late."
I laughed, not because I thought he was kidding, but because I knew he wasn't. My father had always been overprotective, but usually fought very hard to hide that fact.
The doctor patched me up. I had sprained my ankle and sustained a mild concussion. None of my cuts needed stitches, though. I was ordered to take a few days bed rest and report back if I had any lingering headaches.