My own dad wasn’t around very much. He was a long-haul trucker and spent most days and nights on the road. And when he was home he wasn’t really home. I don’t think he ever even once tucked me in at night. As a kid I didn’t think much of it, until I had a kid of my own.
Suzie was four when it started. “Almost four and a half, Daddy!” she would have said. On the first night it appeared, I had just pulled the covers up to her neck and patted her gently, as I always tried to do. I remember the sheets were bright purple with pink unicorns and they clashed with her yellow pajamas. Her PJs looked like a princess’s dress with a drawn-on white ruffled collar and darkened lines along the legs to look like folds of cloth. My wife Emily always shook her head at things Suzie wanted. “She certainly didn’t get the girly-girl genes from me,” she would say.
I had reached for the nightlight but Suzie caught my hand.
“Leave it on, Daddy,” she said. She looked me straight in the eyes. Her deep brown eyes were just a little wider than they should have been.
“Hush, honey,” I said to her. “You’re getting to be a big girl now and you don’t need the nightlight anymore.” I felt bad when I said it. I wasn’t really sure why I felt that way. I said it because I had read in one of those parenting magazines that that’s what good dads were supposed to say at this age. Maybe that’s why it felt bad; I wasn’t doing it on my own.
“But, Daddy,” Suzie whined. Then she whispered, “There’s monsters under the bed.” She kept looking at me with her eyes too wide.
I sighed. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. “Ok, honey,” I said. “I’ll check under the bed.” I almost added, ‘again.’
I flipped the switch on the nightlight making the blue glow go out. A sliver of white light still came in from the hall. I knelt down on the carpet and looked under the bed. The monster was looking back at me.
The thing was dark green with brown blotches. It had a large egg-shaped body with a dozen tentacles, maybe more. They writhed slowly around it, caressing the floor and the underside of the bed. It had a head-like bulge at the top of its body with sharp, crooked teeth and two lid-less eyes on stalks. The eyes fixed to mine.
I stood very slowly, flicking the blue nightlight back on as I did. “Why don’t you sleep with mommy and daddy tonight, hun?” I asked. I picked Suzie up and she gave a little squeal of delight. I remember thinking I’d do anything for that sound.
We marched into the master bedroom and I tossed Suzie into the air above the bed. She thumped onto it then scurried under the covers. She grinned and pretended to fall asleep.
Emily peered over her book at me and arched her eyebrows. I shrugged. “She gave me those eyes,” I said. I tried to grin my foolish grin and hoped the words came out okay. I couldn’t hear them over the pounding of my heart.
Emily continued her stare. “If she’s got you this tightly wrapped around her finger now,” Emily instructed me, “she’s going to be a holy terror when she’s a teenager.” Then she laughed and put down her book.
The next day I felt foolish and tried to put it out of my mind.
I couldn’t even really remember what I thought I’d seen. I had pretty well forgotten it until that night when Suzie was brushing her teeth and I went to prep her bed. I flipped on the nightlight out of habit then paused. The thing came back to my mind, clear in focus and terrible in all of the ways a nightmare can be. I saw its eyes in my mind, almost human but hideous, waving gently in space. I concentrated to control my breathing. It was dumb. I knew there were no such things as monsters. I was an architect now. Well, a junior architect anyway. I believed in rational things.
But I wanted to look. I needed to look. I needed to know she was going to be safe. I stood stock still to hold off the impulse. I heard Suzie finish up, spit, wash off her toothbrush and put it away. She padded down the hall and into the bedroom. She was back in her yellow princess pajamas.
I lifted her up, spun her around then laid her gently on her bed. I pulled up the covers and reached for the nightlight.
“Daddy, no, please,” Suzie implored at once.
“Suzie, we talked about this. You’re a big girl now.” I felt as bad saying it this time as I had the night before.
“But, Daddy,” she pleaded, then whispered, “the monsters!”
Now I realized I didn’t want to check. I didn’t want to see it again. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I saw it – saw those eyes – again.
Suzie squeezed my arm tight. Her fingers were so small and delicate. I looked at my own hand with its thick fingers and my right pinky crooked out a little bit too far. I had broken it punching another kid in high school. I’d broken his jaw.
I sucked in air. I tried to be steady. I gently placed my hand over hers. “If I check and there’s no monsters, will you let me turn out the light?” I asked.
I knelt, slowly, trying not to look until my face brushed the carpet. Underneath the bed was empty, as it should be.
I reached for the nightlight, flicking it off. I realized I hadn’t exhaled.
The light from the hallway beamed into the room and under the bed. Nothing was still there.
I stood slowly. I felt stupid. I felt like an imposter, playing at being a dad. Like someone would come along any second and tell me that playtime was over and Suzie’s real dad would be taking over now.
I touched her hand again. “There’s no monsters, okay? Time to go to sleep.” She gripped my hand so tightly. It hurt in my chest to pull away.
I had entirely forgotten the monster in a blur of days and nights, a constant changing of clothes and furniture as Suzie’s interests swung from unicorns to horses (“That’s more real, Daddy. More grown-up.”) to fairies to birds.
There were spells when she’d ask me to check for monsters every night for a week then not again for months. I’d even gotten out of the habit of turning on the nightlight.
A few weeks past her sixth birthday Suzie had gotten herself ready for bed and tucked herself in. She was doing that occasionally now. It made me smile with a good kind of hurt.
I checked in on her as I always did and was surprised to see the nightlight on. Her eyes looked at me, too wide. It was a look I hadn’t seen in a long time. It caught me off guard.
“What is it, hun?” I asked, sitting on the edge of her bed. She whispered, “There’s a monster, Daddy. I can hear it.”
I smiled a little lop-sided smile. “Let Daddy check for you.” Then I flopped onto the floor.
The monster was there, under the bed, writhing and scraping its tentacles against the wood under the mattress. I could hear it now, too.
I remembered it in a rush. Adrenaline spiked and I fought the urge to run. It was bigger, now, stretched out under the entire twin bed. Its mouth hung limply open with its nightmare teeth grinding slowly against each other. At the end of the stalks projecting from its head-stump were those eyes. They were like human eyes, white all around with blue irises and black pupils, but they seemed lost, disconnected without a face around them.
This time I recognized its eyes.
Nothing made sense to do. I couldn’t move but I couldn’t run away. I couldn’t leave it there. I couldn’t go after it.
The eyes held me almost as a prisoner. I watched it watching me. It writhed and one tentacle stretched out toward me. I still didn’t move. The tentacle touched my right arm and bit into my flesh. The thing’s body pulled backward, away from me and toward the wall. My skin ripped and I felt blood rush down my arm. Then it was gone.
I stood slowly, holding my left hand to stop the bleeding. “It’s gone, honey,” I said softly. Suzie nodded at me.
I cleaned my arm in the bathroom sink and examined the wound. It was a nasty gash a few inches across. I wrapped gauze around it. The blood soaked through so I added another layer.
When I came to bed Emily saw the dressing and arched her eyebrows at me.
I shrugged to answer her unspoken question. “Was checking for monsters. Caught my arm on a rough board under her bed.” I clicked off the bed-side light.
I knew Emily was shaking her head at me in the dark and laughing to herself.
The next morning as I was shaving I saw the monster’s eyes in the mirror staring back at me. They were the eyes of a creature who had done many bad things.
Those eyes had watched as fists had hit faces and broken a jaw. A year later they had watched too many beers disappear, keys stolen, a car driven into a light pole, a friend’s leg shatter. They had witnessed a merry-go-round of girlfriends, each one crying and slamming the door as they left. Those eyes had seen the hopeful promises with the first wife and then the breaking of them, the descent into screaming and fighting. They had watched as fists struck out again.
I had tried to kill those eyes. Drinking worked, for a little bit. Therapy didn’t. I thought the running had done it. I thought I was holding them down, wearing them out. I realized I hadn’t run in a while.
That afternoon I bought a bat. It was a Louisville Slugger. A beautiful thing with a gentle swell from the handle to the tip. I traced the wood grain lines up and down the length of it. Black rubber wound tightly around the grip making just the right amount of rough against my palms. It reminded me of play and teamwork and the pleasures of losing but not really caring.
When I brought it home Emily gave me her eyebrows again. “It’s for Suzie,” I explained.
She maintained her look. “Do you really think our daughter would have any interest in baseball?
I fiddle with the bat. “Hmm,” I muttered. “I guess I was feeling a little nostalgic. I had one of these when I was her age.”
Emily’s look changed to you-are-such-an-idiot-but-I-love-you-anyway. I put the bat in Suzie’s closet.
That night while Suzie was brushing her teeth I entered her room and closed the door behind me. The nightlight was off. I opened the closet and withdrew the bat.
I walked to her bed and stood over it, feeling my breath. I knelt, so slowly, and looked beneath.
Of course there was no monster. Monsters aren’t real.
The Slugger remained in Suzie’s closet for the rest of the school year.
Then Emily and I had a fight. I don’t remember what started it. I don’t even remember what it was about. It probably wasn’t about anything, to be honest. But I hit the wall. Hard. I left a crater in the drywall. My pinkie screamed in pain.
I locked myself in the bathroom and held my hand until the pain subsided. I looked in the mirror and saw the monster’s eyes staring back at me. It was stupid, but I knew those eyes would be under Suzie’s bed again.
I looked for them. They were there.
I patched the hole in the wall and tried to patch our relationship. I’m not sure how well I did at either.
The next morning I rose early and ran through the semi-darkness in our subdivision. Ran might be too strong a word; I lumbered and stumbled and came back to house exhausted and half broken.
“There’s my athlete,” Emily scoffed when I walked in.
There was no monster under the bed that night.
I ran every day for a month. I was surprised how quickly it became easy again, almost pleasurable. Then I got a call from the school.
I tried to explain it to Emily that night. Suzie had attacked another girl. The teacher said they were fighting over a doll. But the other girl went to the hospital with a broken arm.
“Deal with it,” Emily told me and went to bed.
I tucked in Suzie without mentioning the fight. She didn’t look at me and turned to face the wall, pretending to fall asleep.
I crouched down and looked under the bed. The sliver of light from the hallway was enough to see it.
The monster was smaller now, but the same shape. Green and brown and egg-like with tentacles and eye stalks. But its eyes were smaller. And brown.
The monster seemed to me to be patient. Its tentacles writhed slowly. It had pulled against the wall and since it was smaller, it was out of reach of the bat. I knew what would happen if I left it alone.
I quietly left the room, closed the door and checked the clock. An hour should be fine. I changed, ran, and returned an hour later.
Suzie was asleep. The monster was still there.
I slid under the bed as quickly as I could. It stuck me hard, on my hands and face and legs. The tentacles bruised and tore at my flesh. I could see its eyes and its teeth in the light from the hall.
I shoved my fist into its mouth and it bit. I held my breath so I didn’t scream. I pushed my fist in further, feeling my skin shred and blood flow. Inside of the thing was warm and dry. This monster was not strong; it was not the blue-eyed one. It did not take long to die.
It withered around my arm, shrinking and then drying to dust. I slid back out from under the bed. The dust coated the blood on my arm.
I drove myself to the emergency room to get cleaned up and stitched up. Emily wouldn’t ask about it; I wouldn’t tell her. But it was dead now and that was all that mattered.