Christopher is crying.
His tiny knees are drawn against his chest, his head hunched down between his shoulders. His voice, a gurgling mixture of snot and terror, is shuddering as he watches me through tears pooling in his eyes.
And I’m screaming at him.
“There’s a monster in my room.”
The tiny whisper is like a hiss in the darkness. My body jolts, and I’m torn from sleep. A brief tingle of adrenaline dances around my gut, while lead fills my limbs.
Anger rolls over me, a white-hot tidal wave of rage. I was asleep, dammit, asleep. It’s so hard to sleep anymore. It seems like I get less and less with each passing night. Before long, I’ll be a frigging insomniac spending his nights staring at a television.
My heart thumps hard in my chest, every bit as enraged as the rest of me. It rams itself against my ribcage over and over, with no sign of relenting.
Christopher stands beside the bed, watching me. He’s dressed in blue and gray pajamas. We bought them a size too big so he could grow into them, but he still hasn’t. The pants conceal his feet, and the sleeves all but swallow his hands.
Willing myself to overlook the chaos at play within me, I take a breath and nod to him. I open the bed covers and fake a yawn.
Christopher crawls in beside me, and I scoot over to allow him room. I bump into Maria’s hip and she groans for a moment, then dozes again.
Christopher curls up and drapes his arm across my chest. His little fingers clench and grip the fabric of my shirt. His grasp ensnares one or two of my chest hairs, making me wince for several moments until he relaxes.
Jesus. Now I’m even more awake. Each furious beat of my heart splashes hot rage against my chest. It spreads and almost makes my limbs tremble.
Then, I hear Christopher’s breathing settle into tiny, drawn out snores. His nostrils whistle with each breath, every exhale a long sigh.
The wave moves on, carrying the anger away. The pounding in my chest subsides. The acid-like warmth, which threatened to take hold of my arms and legs fades, replaced by a dull, uncomfortable numbness.
I stare at the ceiling for several moments, saying nothing and hearing everything. A car passes outside. Wind blows past the house. A dog barks across the street.
I close my eyes, but sleep doesn’t come. So I lie in the dark, begging my body to rest. Please, rest. Please.
An hour passes before it does.
“He’s not sleeping well,” Maria says.
My wife sits beside me at the dining room table. She sips from a large cup of coffee, which I assume – like her usual morning coffees – is two thirds milk and sugar. She looks past me toward Christopher’s bedroom.
“I know.” I reach into my bowl of fruit and eat a handful of grapes, then a strawberry.
“He’s having nightmares,” she says.
“I used to have those.”
Maria casts a sidelong glance at me and asks, “How much sleep did you get?”
“Two hours,” I estimate. “Maybe less.”
Christopher is still asleep in our bed. He remained in that blissful state of unconsciousness even when I climbed over him at 5:30.
“He said there was a monster in his room.”
Maria gulps down a mouthful of coffee. “A monster,” she repeats. “Where? Under the bed?”
“He didn’t say.”
She frowns. “Last night was the fifth in a row,” she sighs. “This is going to be a habit.”
Maria shakes her head. “For now,” she says. “We can’t keep doing this, though.”
She shoots a look in my direction that says I’m an absolute idiot. “Because he’s too old to sleep with Mom and Dad,” she tells me. “He needs to be comfortable in his own bed.”
I glance up at the clock, which tells me I should’ve left the house three minutes ago. I hurry into the kitchen with my now-empty bowl and deposit it in the dishwasher. Then, I rush back to kiss Maria good-bye.
“I gotta get going. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” she says, still looking toward the bedroom. “Have a good day.”
Later that morning, in between the steady barrage of digital write-up and web update assignments for my communications branch, I stare at a headline on my computer declaring, “The monsters under the bed are real.” It’s an article published by a research professor named Philip Greer from Boston University.
I discovered it during one of those rare moments of spare time. Normally, I opt to look away from the screen in such moments, but not today.
Today, I did research.
(Or at least, what passes for research when Google is your only source.)
Everything I found before Greer’s article was the usual assortment of self-help parenting blogs, with suggestions like making homemade “Monster Repellant Spray” out of water and olive oil.
This one is different.
According to Greer, the monster phenomenon is unique to the western world. It’s almost unheard of elsewhere, because in those cultures children always sleep in the same room as their parents.
“Often in the same bed,” he says. “As a result, bedtime protest is nonexistent there.”
Greer calls the issue an evolutionary mismatch. “Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers,” he explains. “We lived in a world where a child – alone, in the dark – was a tasty snack for nighttime predators.”
Although a child may be safe from such predators in today’s homes and neighborhoods, that inborn genetic fear of a carnivore in the dark remains in all of them.
Of course, it’s entirely possible something else is happening.
Another article by Greer says traumatic stress can also impact sleep. A child who lives through a difficult experience might become hyper-vigilant in order to guard against further trauma.
“If those events occur during the evening, it can cause fear of darkness,” Greer says.
“Trauma,” I mutter to myself. The word repeats over and over in my head like a chant.
Christopher is crying again.
He’s thrashing his arms and legs, caught in the middle of a violent night terror. His feet are slamming against my groin, and before I double over in agony, I’m throwing him across the room like a javelin.
He’s crashing into the wall and slumping down as I cup my aching balls. His vocabulary is limited, but he’s using three words he knows very well. He’s screaming them with a voice that’s hoarse and pained.
“Not nice, Daddy!”
“Not nice, Daddy!”
And blood is oozing from his nose and lips.
“The monster is back.”
Once more, I’m ripped from sleep. I feel dull, heavy pain in the back of my skull. It pulls my head against the pillow, and turning to look at Christopher requires more effort than it should.
He stands beside the bed again, all but disappearing in his oversized pajamas. He looks at me with wide, plaintive eyes.
The same eyes as last night.
Once more I feel that familiar anger pass over me, that righteous indignation at being torn from sleep. Why, why, that furious voice in my head demands, am I not allowed to sleep for just one damn night?
“OK,” I tell him and scoot over.
In my head, I see my chest as a churning volcano moments away from erupting. The heat from each outraged heartbeat spreads, and I start to tremble.
Maria wakes as Christopher climbs in with us. “Are you OK, sweetie?” she asks.
“The monster is in my room again,” he tells her.
I take slow, agonized breaths that almost whistle through my nostrils. Rather than wrap my arm around Christopher, I keep it pinned to the mattress until that awful trembling subsides.
He curls against me again and lays his arm over my chest. Those tiny fingers clench like crab claws, once more ensnaring chest hair and flesh.
I take a deep breath and suppress the urge to scream.
“Maybe Daddy can scare it away?” Maria suggests.
“No,” Christopher answers, and grips me tighter. I grit my teeth to avoid voicing any pain.
Sleep, I realize, won’t come easy tonight either.
Within moments, both Christopher and Maria doze. I can hear their soft, slow breaths, and I wish I could do the same.
But I can’t.
The anger takes longer to pass tonight. It lingers this time, giving rise to furious, indignant thoughts directed at my wife and son.
Why does this keep happening? Why won’t he sleep? Why won’t he let me sleep? Why doesn’t Maria give a damn?
If he hadn’t been born…
The wave crashes into those words, and all the fire and fury it brought vanishes. The heat, the trembling, the outrage, all of it goes away.
All that remains is cold, bitter guilt.
Not nice, Daddy.
A strong current of wind sweeps over the house, causing branches on the bush near our bedroom window to scrape at the glass. I turn my head and look toward the bedroom door, which stands open.
The hallway, dark and empty, is on the other side. Christopher’s room is just around the corner. Like the hallway, it too is dark and empty.
Except for the monster, of course.
I yawn and look at the ceiling once more. Please, I think, no more anger. No more regret. Just sleep.
Another hour passes before I do.
It’s the following evening, and Christopher sits on his bed, eyes wide and desperate. He’s on top of the covers, hoping he won’t be forced under them.
“You can’t keep sleeping with us,” Maria tells him. She stands beside me in the doorway. “You have to sleep in your own bed.”
I grit my teeth and say nothing.
“Please, Daddy,” Christopher repeats.
Maria looks at me. Her expression is similar to Christopher’s, seeking – no, needing – my affirmation.
“I need you to back me on this, Honey,” she says. “Please.”
“Please, Daddy,” Christopher tries. “Don’t leave me here. I’m scared.”
His voice is thick and on the verge of cracking. Tears are imminent in his eyes.
I grit my teeth again, expecting that all-too-familiar wave to hit me, but it doesn’t. I’m left feeling only hollow and frail and cold. Something burns in the corner of my eye, and I blink it back before Christopher or Maria can see.
“Your mom’s right,” I say, my voice heavy. “You need to sleep in your bed.”
Christopher drops his gaze to the floor. He says nothing, a look of absolute defeat on his face. His eyes are swimming in tears threatening to cascade down his cheeks.
He makes no further protest, however.
“I can make anti-monster spray?” I offer, but my words sound pathetic.
Christopher shakes his head, eyes downcast. “That’s not real.”
I want to say more, offer some form of comfort, but I can think of none. All I hear in my head is “Not nice, Daddy!”
“Not nice, Daddy!”
“Not nice, Daddy!”
I turn and leave the room, hoping it’s not an obvious retreat but certain it is. I enter my own bedroom and stand in front of the mirror on Maria’s dresser, staring into it and hating the man looking back.
“You did the right thing,” I hear Maria say as she enters the room. She looks at me through my reflection. “He needs this.”
“Does he?” I ask, not looking away from myself. A painful knot takes hold of my throat.
“Sweetie,” Maria says, moving toward me. She places a gentle hand on my shoulder. “You have to stop hating yourself so much. That was a long time ago.”
I feel that familiar burning in both eyes now, and I blink several times until it’s gone. “Not long enough.”
Maria moves closer, wraps her arm around me and lays her head on my shoulder. “You are a good father, do you hear me?” she says. Her voice is firm, making it clear there will be no arguing. “Now, come to bed. We all need sleep.”
But the words don’t go away.
And sleep still doesn’t come easy.
Christopher is crying again, a look of absolute terror in his eyes. “Don’t leave me, Daddy.”
He gasps, struggling to breath. He opens his mouth to speak, but his voice is choked off. A hand (my hand?) grips his throat, squeezing.
I’m torn from sleep again. My legs jerk, and my entire body spasms as though I just dreamed of falling.
I look around the room, expecting to see Christopher once more beside the bed. Staring at me with those wide, desperate eyes.
But I’m alone.
I hear Maria’s soft breaths beside me. Her body rises and falls in the slow, gentle rhythm that signifies blissful slumber. I can’t help resenting her a little.
Outside, branches of the nearby bush scrape the window again. Another gust of wind blows over the house, softer than previous nights but still just as audible.
And yet, I still hear Christopher pleading in my head, begging not to be left in the dark once more. “Please,” he’d said. “Please, Daddy.”
I slip from bed and stand, grimacing when both ankles pop and crackle as my feet hit the floor. I creep through the dark around the bed toward the doorway.
I glance at Maria one more time to be sure she’s still sleeping, then move into the hall.
I’m struck by the silence. Unlike the bedroom, there are no noises from outside here. No wind. No cars. No branches. Just pure, absolute, quiet.
I step lightly through the darkened hall toward Christopher’s room. The door stands open, and I lean inside to check on him.
Christopher stares at me from his bed, his eyes so wide it almost seems like they could pop from their sockets. His mouth is open, but no other sound emerges.
A thick, gray, scaly hand grips him by the throat.
Christopher grasps at the massive appendage with his tiny fingers, trying to pry himself free. I expect his legs to kick and flail, but they remain still, as if pinned beneath the covers by some unseen force.
The hand connects to an equally thick and scaly arm that curves underneath the bed. The flesh is gray and dark, like a wet, bloated corpse, and covered in large scales as big as quarters.
The shiny knuckles move and adjust, and the thing’s grip on Christopher’s throat tightens. I didn’t think it was possible, but his eyes grow even wider.
I should be frightened, terrified even.
But I’m not.
I feel the familiar heat of anger and fury in my gut. It’s insane to feel that now. A rational man would feel horror and revulsion, but I’m overcome with unfettered, absolute hate.
All of it is directed at me.
You did this, I think. You left him to the dark.
The screaming, the crying, all of it was me.
All of it.
Not nice, Daddy!
And now I left him to face this darkness alone.
Not nice, Daddy!
“You son of a bitch!” The words hiss through my teeth like a snake. Spittle leaps from between them.
Not nice, Daddy!
I lunge from the doorway, my hands open like claws and my lips drawn back into a snarl. My entire body is heat and smoke and rage. I land on the bed, straddling Christopher, and grasp the thing holding him by its wrist.
It’s impossibly strong, and for an agonizing moment I can’t pry it from the boy’s throat. Pain lances its way up my arms, and my shoulders burn with the effort.
But I don’t stop.
Not nice, Daddy!
The words reverberate in my head, pounding against my brain. They strike almost in synch with my volcanic heartbeats. I feel more saliva slip from between my exposed teeth, dripping away from my mouth in thick strands.
“I’ll kill you,” I growl, my voice a savage mixture of anger, pain and drool. “I’ll kill you.”
I swoop down and sink my teeth into the thing just below the wrist. The scales dig into my lips, but I ignore the pain and bite down harder.
Something thick and slimy oozes between my teeth, then slides across my tongue. It tastes of salt and metal, and it threatens to make me retch.
There’s a sound like an outraged a hiss beneath the bed, like an angry, gigantic cat growling at an intruder.
I clench my jaw harder, causing the muscles in my neck to strain and burn, and more of that awful sludge fills my mouth. It slips down my throat, and the urge to gag becomes almost uncontrollable.
Then, the arm moves. Its fingers slide from Christopher’s throat, and I pull my mouth away from the thing. I can still feel the thick, mucus-like substance dribbling down my chin.
The fingers snap open and closed, as if in the midst of a seizure. They flap open and closed, open and closed. The black-clawed fingers beat against its palm, creating a series of wet smacks, and the knuckles creak and pop as it struggles to take hold of the boy’s tiny neck once more.
“Move!” I gurgle at Christopher, and he slides away. He places a hand to his throat, gasping down mouthfuls of air as he drops to the floor and scoots away from the bed.
The scaled arm thrashes, and it’s all I can do to keep it from slipping out of my grip. There’s a deep gash left behind from my teeth, and dark liquid oozes from the wound.
There’s another deep hiss beneath the bed, and I scream, ”Go! Now!”
Christopher pushes himself to his feet and runs for the door. Once there, he stops to look back.
As if in response to the boy’s absence, the scaly arm slips from my hands. Then, like a noodle being slurped into a giant mouth, it tumbles beneath the bed and disappears. The back of its hand strikes the floor with a wet smack before vanishing.
Silence fills the room. All that remains is our haggard breaths.
“Daddy…” Christopher begins.
But I point to him, and he stops. “Go,” I tell him. My voice is a hoarse, angry croak. “Stay with your mother tonight.”
“But what about…?”
He nods and backs out of the room.
The kitchen is dark, save the small bit of light offered by a streetlamp outside. It illuminates the sink and countertop, highlighting the silver faucet and nearby knife rack. I take hold of the largest one, a six-inch blade meant for slicing large hunks of meat.
I stare at it a moment. The light from the streetlamp shines on me, and I see the dark liquid still staining my mouth and chin in the blade’s reflection.
I turn and make my way through the house. I hear wind rush over the roof. A car passes outside. Another bush somewhere scrapes against a window.
These sounds disappear when I enter the hall, and they’re replaced when I return to Christopher’s room. There’s just one sound here – heavy, angry breathing.
I climb onto the bed and sit cross-legged in its center. My knife-baring hand rests on one knee, clutching the blade with white-knuckled fingers.
Those words still tumble through my head, a chaotic chant directed at me for all my past mistakes. There can be no correcting them, no erasing them.
Not nice, Daddy.
The breathing transforms into a growl, a deep and throaty rumble like a tiger. Something shifts beneath the bed, and I hear another wet smack on floor.
I raise the knife and wait.
Son of a bitch.
I’ll kill you.
The rage that erupted in me moments ago builds again. I welcome it now. Let it in, I think. Let all of it in.
Let it in, and let me burn.
Not nice, Daddy.
My hands tremble. My heart thrashes in my chest, sending lava-like blood churning through my limbs. My breathing is ragged.
“Come out, bastard,” I whisper to the thing beneath the bed.
One way or another, after tonight, there’ll be one less monster in Christopher’s room.