"Daddy!!!" The wail explodes from the utter stillness, though it's only just grown dark, the day barely conceding to the night. He's sleeping less and less these days. He's growing up, I guess.
I shuffle over and say, soothingly, "What's up, sport? Having a nightmare?"
He sniffles and stares at me. "Daddy, there's a little boy on the bed!"
I resist the urge to look up at the canopy of cobwebs and heavy springs strung comfortingly over our heads. That's what all the experts say: don't lend any credence to their fears by seeming to even consider what they say. Learning the truth too early can cause anxieties that evolve into full-blown neuroses in adulthood. Worse, fears and insecurities can disrupt sleep patterns and interfere with a youngster's ability to enter Deep Sleep. At least that's what the experts say. So, without looking up, I say, "Come on, sport, you know there's no such thing as little boys."
He stares at me for a moment in the darkness, as if wanting to argue, but then twitches, as if shrugging. "Is it time to get up yet?"
"Not yet." I drag one limb comfortingly across his brow. "You close your eyes, and pretty soon it will be time to get up."
Already his eyes are starting to roll up, though he fights it stubbornly. After a minute or two, he's sound asleep.
Only then do I permit myself the luxury of glancing at the box spring above our heads. Someday, he'll have to be told the truth. But not yet.
I whirl, feeling my hearts pound out an irregular rhythm. "Damn it, Cryffo, you startled me."
"Sorry." Cryffo slips under the bed with me. "Heard some noise so I figured you and yours were up and about. How's the little tyke?" He grins avuncularly at Junior, the boy already translucent in Deep Sleep.
"Fine," I say, absently. "You shouldn't be up and about, you know. It's barely dark. He might--" I jump back with a start.
Two enormous eyes blaze with an eerie, reflected glow from the side of the bed. Stringy threads of hair, oily smooth, dangle from porous white flesh encasing an impossibly hard, bony cranium. The pissy stench of humans washes over us, followed by the cloying stink of the shampoos they use to smother it. Cryffo inhales sharply with horror.
"I know you're there," hisses a voice, high-pitched, like the death scream of a bird. "Gonna getcha, little monsters."
I leap aside as a dirty baseball, frayed around the seams, comes shooting at me like a cannonball. It rockets past, the backdraft spinning me around in my tracks, then it's out the other side of the bed, hitting the far wall with a resounding thump.
"Oops," gasps the Little Boy and instantly he pulls his head back up, out of sight.
Cryffo and I stare at each other for a moment, not daring to breathe. Waiting. For just a moment we're unified with the creature that lurks just above us. We all wait.
I hear it first. The earth-shuddering thump thump of heavy feet.
Suddenly that grotesque visage, thankfully draped in feature-obscuring shadow, drops down again. "You're gonna fry now," he cackles, then pulls away as I swell outward and swipe futilely out at him.
Cryffo bolts from the sanctuary of the underside.
"Wait!" I shout, but he's already loping away across the tiled floor. It's a natural, understandable reaction -- and completely, dangerously idiotic. Go where you know you'll be safe, our instincts say, where you know the shadows as well as you know your own cysts. Cryffo lives under the white dresser. He doesn't make it. The hinges of the huge door shriek as it swings inward, a gust of displaced air roaring across the floor. Cryffo, panicking, throws himself into the darkness behind the door. Light from outside floods into the room. Like a sea of death it flows across the floor toward me.
It stops just millimetres before it reaches the bed. I breathe out.
"What's going on up here?"
"Mommy," whines the Little Boy, in an eerie mimicry of my own son, "there's a monster under the bed."
"Bobby," she chides pleasantly, only her gargantuan feet visible to me, "there's no such thing as monsters."
"Is!" he insists. Then, unable to keep the sinister glee entirely out of his words, he says, "Why, there's even one behind the door."
No! I want to scream. But it's too late. I see the huge feet lurch, I see the room explode with blinding illumination that is only just kept from me by the shield of the bed. My eyes feel like they're live coals from looking out at it, but I can't turn away. I strain to peer out.
There might still be just enough shadow behind the door to protect Cryffo. Providing she doesn't--
The door pulls away from the wall and light flames over the teddy-bear wallpaper, instantly consuming the shadows with its voracious appetite. Cryffo is there for a moment, his dark body writhing in the unflinching gaze of the lightbulb; then he breaks up, his form curling away in wisps of dark nothing. Like my beloved Drroni.
The Little Boy's mother doesn't notice him. "See," she says obliviously, "there's nothing behind the door." The light flicks out; my eyes still burn, but no longer from the illumination. "Go to sleep, hon." The door closes and her heavy footsteps thunder away, fading quickly.
Suddenly those large eyes are glowing again at the side of the bed, trying to perceive me in the darkness. I can't see those thin, dry lips curl in a smile, but I know that they do. "Nothing behind the door now," he hisses, mocking.
I leap at him, wanting to claw those impossibly wet, gooey eyes from their enormous cavities. He pulls back and up, and my momentum almost spills me out into the room. Which is what he wanted all along. A beam of light stabs downward, almost taking my arm off. I leap back under the bed, amongst the comforting curls of dust bunnies and old tissues.
"Didn't expect me to have a flashlight, didja, creep?"
He plops down on the floor beside the bed and sends the burning beam stabbing into the darkness under the box spring, ripping asunder my cherished illusion of sanctuary. I contract my form defensively to its smallest size, ducking behind a serendipitous barricade composed of a pair of sneakers and an empty tissue box, once hand-crafted by the Little Boy into a make-believe video camera during one of his less malevolent hours. The light hits the solid objects and veers off. He spits and hisses in his frustration.
The light skitters over Junior's slumbering form, but in his Deep Sleep translucence, it passes through him harmlessly. If he wakes up though, if his dark body were to suddenly materialize under that withering beam. . . . I think of his mother.
A rage burns inside me.
Suddenly the light falters. The beam blinks once, twice, then it implodes into darkness soundlessly. The Little Boy grumbles, "Hell." He starts to leap back up onto the bed. Not this time, I think. I explode through the rubble of shoes and boxes, swelling out to become as large as I can.
I grab his ankles and pull, and he hits the floor with a thump, dragging with him his sheets clutched in his sweaty hands. We struggle together, rolling back and forth, grunting and cursing. He's bigger than I, even at my swollen size, but I'm pretty strong in my own right. I hear his thumb frantically flicking the switch on the faulty flashlight, back and forth. The beam momentarily knifes outward, then goes dark again.
Little Boys have a consistent shape. I wonder how they survive. I stretch out one limb, out and out and out, till it sinks into the sickening softness of his cowboys-and-Indians pillow. I heft it up, then slam it down on his face, blocking out the nauseating sight of his smooth white skin, of those gleaming, square, tightly packed teeth. Of those Hellish eyes. He struggles, clawing at me, threatening to dislodge me, but I press the pillow down with all my might. I should kill him. I want to. But I know what would happen if I did: the room would be emptied, the furniture cleared away, the shadows erased; nowhere left to hide from the light.
As his body twitches once, then falls into unconsciousness, I lift the pillow quickly. Then I hear the rumbling of footsteps, feel the ground shake beneath me. I contract and dive under the bed just as the door opens and light floods into the room.
"Oh, he fell out of bed again."
I look out at him, sprawled upon the floor in a tangle of sheets and pillow.
"He's dead to the world, isn't he?" growls the Daddy-voice cheerily. "Come on, Tiger, back into bed," he whispers as he hoists the Little Boy and sets him on his bed again.
"Don't wake him," advises the Mommy-voice. "It took him long enough to drift off as it was."
In that we are agreed. In the morning he will awaken, but by then I'll be safely in Deep Sleep and he won't be able to harm or even see me. Night will roll around again, of course, but I'll deal with that when it comes.
For the umpteenth time I'm grateful that they seem to forget about us as they grow older, forgetting their own nocturnal battles, shrugging them off as whimsy or childish imagination. Misremembering all the times their own parents found them sprawled in a dishevelled state on or off the bed. Memory is like that, I guess. If someone spends enough time telling you something isn't so, you start to believe it yourself. If they remembered us, I don't doubt the persecution would continue. That's the kind of monsters they are.
Because of this lack of memory, many of us consider the space under an adult's bed choice real estate -- they're stacked two layers deep under there, I hear. That's no way to raise a child. At least, that's what Drroni felt. Besides, there are dangers inherent in living under an adult's bed, too. The lights stay on much, much later, for one.
Junior stirs at last as the massive door closes for what I'm sure will be the final time tonight. Across the expanse of the room, our neighbours start to emerge, from under the table, from inside the closet.
Junior is getting older. Soon I'll have to have The Talk with him, the one that every parent dreads. But for now he can be reassured that any snoring he might hear is just the foundations of the house settling and that the lump he might glimpse on the overside of the bed is just the shape of the mattress. And that Little Boys are just the stuff of bad dreams.
Copyright © 2000 Darren Latta
A writer and critic, D. K. Latta's fiction has appeared in Adventures of Sword & Sorcery, On Spec, Challenging Destiny, and many others. He is a contributor to Pulp & Dagger, a Webzine devoted to modern pulp-era-style adventure stories and serials.
His previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "Pvt. Parker, Missing in Action."