lauren

 

The first time the monsters crawled out from under the bed they were very gentle.

It could have been a dream. It was the time of night where everything was a dream, even when it wasn’t. It looks and sounds like sleep, like nothing, like blackness, but if she held her breath, the house’s corners could sneak into life. The refrigerator humming was a man bored at work, muttering under his breath. Tiny creatures tried to lick the droplets of water leaking in the bathroom, drip drip drip, dancing around in a miniature inferno on their porcelain stage. Even the house grumbled, shuffling in its sleep like a giant beast in a cave, finding the most comfortable position in the dark; its cold, dense bones sagged, its brick exoskeleton cracking, crumbling. A lonely wind string quartet, out of tune, out of the house, in faint harsh whispers, tickling the windows and pulling at the trees, played a duet with a hollow drum beat dryer from the belly of the basement. Something scuttled. 

Anything is possible with her eyes closed. And she never opened her eyes that first night.

So when the monsters came, it could have been a dream, even when it wasn’t. Two of them, at first. Little monkey-like monsters, one-armed, slinking up and around the sides of the bed, crawling onto her, hairy, bristly, but despite that, softly, gingerly plucking around the corners of her nightgown, smoothing a wrinkle, hesitantly gathering a handful, tugging at a loose string. Then came another. Slithery, supple, pliant, a jellyfish of sorts, licking her neck and face. One of the little monkeys put the tender pad of its finger on her thigh, patting, once, twice, and then another finger, and another, one, two, three, four, five, rest. Then she felt the weight. 

The bed groaned. The monster groaned, a new one. It must have been a big one. Big and mostly silent, except for the sound of its breathing, in and out, in and out, staggering gasps of air pushing through inflated lungs, like a balloon about to pop, thickly sighing, exhaling, breath that almost perspired. It just sat there. Maybe it could see in the dark, maybe it could push out the sides of her dreams. Had it been waiting for her forever? She waited for the monster to do something, to say something, to reach out to her and hold her, but it just sat there. Breathing. Weighing. Waiting.

Another little monkey, more bravely, took its one, strong arm and explored her thigh. Navigating the space between the damp sheets and her nightgown and her skin, petting her, lightly reminding her that it was still there. 

She shivered. 

And the moment she moved, they scuttled away. If she had opened her eyes, she could maybe have just sensed the swift ripple of the bedskirt, the reminder that they had visited, but she didn’t. She just heard the heavy, battered breathing receding into a darker space than dark.

Something basted the house in black, and she evaporated back into sleep.

The monsters didn’t visit her again for months; they were hibernating, dormant, tepid, suspended in the space between sleeping and waking. She forgot about them. She did other things. She lived days, slept nights, and wasn’t scared.

And then one night, they came back. Apprehensive, skittish, on guard, but still solicitous, affectionate. The little monkeys pet her. The single jellyfish kissed her. The big one weighed down the bed and breathed on her. 

She would sleep, the monsters under the bed would visit, and she would sleep again. She stopped dreaming in color. As time dragged along, heaving forth the days and trickling through the nights, the monsters got braver. And scarier. The little one-armed monkeys, so apprehensive at first, ventured farther, more foolhardy, more fearless, still shy but not quite docile. The jellyfish squirmed at her neck, growing little teeth. Monkey fingers, furry and sharp, meandered up her shirt, foreign, invasive and electric, grazing the tender, weak embryos of her breasts. Not yet nubile, but also not infantile. They perked up in response, from soft and scared growing into guilty and hard. Her skin was warm, the little monkeys warmer. The jellyfish sucked and sucked. The big one breathed big, bulging breaths. The fingers pulled and tugged between her legs at the cocoon of fledgling flesh - fat, hesitant, newborn and burgeoning - prying her apart, investigating the ripe peach fuzz, flesh promise inside. Making it melt. And she liked it. Shame spread like stain from her stomach to her ears. Every so often, the slug would join them. Dry, uneasy, quivering, limp, it would simply rest on her - her face, her thigh, her chest, her hand. Then it would get more urgent, heavier and fatter, thick and insistent. It had skin like a baby, pudgy and pliant, that would become inflated and distended, branding her with invisible marks here and here and there and, after a while, everywhere. 

They were all strangers at first, the monsters were, alien and unusual, but when they didn’t visit she wondered where else they had gone. They were so warm and so alive. She wanted to keep them happy. She started to feel them everywhere. The monkey fingers would poke her from under the table at dinner. The slug winked at her from the shadow of her closet. The jellyfish sucked her in the shower. The big one was under her seat as her father drove her to school, heaving under its breath. 

She stopped dreaming altogether. 

And then they started to eat her. From the inside out, gorging on her tangle of intestines, leaving scars inside that itched for days. She didn’t tell anyone. She imagined bleeding, flows and flows of black womanly blood, with red and runny rivulets staining her sheets, scaring them away. She stuffed tissues upon tissues inside her underwear, as if that preparation could will the bloody flood into existence, engulfing the mattress, gushing onto the floor, drowning the monsters under the bed. And as soon as she imagined the bloody massacre, a million screeching electric guitars tore at her ears that no one else in the house could hear and she turned over, curling over, grabbing her legs into her, her fingernails making little crescent moon marks in the skin of her knees, apologizing, great big silent sobs, forgive me, forgive me, I never want you to leave me.

There are no monsters under the bed anymore, they were her terrible secret and they spilled out of her, uncontrollably eventually. The police officers and the social workers and the news crews and child care services and everyone found out about them and then afterwards when she went to sleep at night she was simply alone, all alone.