Prompt from Writer’s Digest
When you were little, you could swear there was a monster under your bed—but no one believed you. On the eve of your 30th birthday, you hear noises coming from under your bed once again. The monster is back and has an important message to deliver to you.
I can’t really imagine anything worse than waking up on your thirtieth birthday and realizing you’re still the same failure you were at twenty-nine, at twenty-eight, twenty-three, all the way down to six years old, before it even occurred to you that you could be a failure. But in kindergarten art class, I was a failure. Mrs. Morgenstern complained—but in a nice way, as all kindergarten teachers should—that my pictures were all the same.
“And what have you drawn, Jeremy?” she’d ask, sliding my crayon-covered scribbling out from under my palms. She’d examine the picture, lips pursing, then sigh and blow out her bangs, lift a hand to smooth them out of her face. “It’s the monster again, Jeremy.” Said in a flat, you’re-a-failure-and-you-don’t-even-know-it-you-poor-idiot tone.
“It lives under my bed,” I’d say, like I hadn’t told her that every day of art class in the weeks she’d been my teacher.
“Now, Jeremy.” Mrs. Mortgenstern would give me my paper back, a frown playing at her lips. “You know that monsters don’t really exist. You have a dog, don’t you? Or some other pet? Why don’t you draw me a picture of him?”
I didn’t draw a picture of Rover because the monster had eaten him, and drawing pictures of my dead dog brought up unpleasant memories. Not that anyone believed me about that; the story was that Rover had run away one day, “like dogs sometimes do,” according to my Mom. But she hadn’t heard the crunching, and the whimpers. I had.
In the intervening years we’d moved to a new, monster-free house, and I’d done my best to move on, too, and draw pictures of things other than monsters and think about things other than dead or missing dogs. Childhood failures fade, eventually. The adult failures are more difficult to let go of.
But back to the being thirty and a failure bit.
The night before I was to turn thirty, I shucked down my bedsheets, ruminating on how I wasn’t married and indeed hadn’t had a girlfriend in over three years, how my job as a manager at the chicken processing facility was so not what I’d envisioned my future to be, how I still lived in a crummy apartment and had no five- or even a ten-year plan to get out of it, and I thought about how all those problems would seem that much worse in the morning because I’d shifted from two-nine to three-oh.
What a difference a change in two digits can make.
At 10:32 I flicked off the light and told myself I was going to sleep. At 10:33 I heard a familiar rattling under the bed. A rattling I hadn’t heard in over twenty years; a rattling I’d have rather forgot.
“No.” I said it aloud because the negation felt more real that way. Solid. Powerful. A force to be reckoned with, as they say. “I’m not hearing anything. It’s an… aural hallucination induced by dread of turning th-th-thirty.”
More rattling. I screwed my eyes shut tight, and my hands grasped fistfuls of the sheets, willing my brain to stop hallucinating.
But it didn’t stop, and at some point you decide it’s worse to actually be insane than to let the insane thing happen. I sat bolt-upright in the bed. “All right then, you bloody beast! Come out!”
The rattling stopped. For a moment all I heard was my own breathing, harsh and ragged in my ears. Blood rushed in my head and my heart struggled to beat its way out of my chest. Images of Rover—I hadn’t been the most imaginative child when it came to naming things—flashed through my brain, his tiny stump of a tail bobbing back and forth as he bared his lips and barked and barked and barked at the thing under my bed. He’d known there was something there.
I forced the thoughts away and my breath to ease, and then I heard a sort of scuffling, shuffling noise. And I had to have imagined the slight weight pressing on the end of my bed, just past my feet. I lived alone. Not even another pet; another symbol of my failure at life. So there couldn’t be anything else at the end of the bed.
But there was.
My hand shook—only a little, I told myself—as I reached out to my bedside to flick on the light.
A creature hardly bigger than a border collie sat on my bed, blinking at me. It was purple—in my pictures I’d always used green, never haven gotten a good look at it—with bulbous, watery eyes. It lifted a stubby, clawed hand to block the light. “Would you mind putting that out? It burns.”
Automatically I reached out to turn off the light again, but then I stopped and glowered at the beast. “No. You’re the monster who lived under my bed when I was six, aren’t you.”
It squinted and lifted up its other hand to reveal a crumpled piece of paper. It peered at it, then back at me. “You Jeremy Copenhagen?”
The thing drew itself up to its full, and, now that I was six-two rather than four-two, unimpressive height. “Yeah, I’m your monster. Could you turn out the light, please? It’s hurting my eyes.”
A steady, hard anger had begun to build in my chest once I realized what the creature was, and now it burst over. “Hell no, I’m not turning out the light! First you scare me to death each night for a year, culminating in the eating of my dog, then you have the gall to invade my home twenty-plus years later and you want me to turn off the light because it hurts you? You’re lucky I don’t have access to a floodlight!”
A moment of silence. “Okay, you have a point.”
It cleared its throat while I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at it. “What do you want?”
Sighing, it blinked a few more times and then peered at its piece of paper again and once more cleared its throat. “Hello. My name is Grar. I am here because I have done you harm. I apologize for the harm I have done to you, fully and sincerely—”
My jaw dropped. “Are you serious?”
Grar glanced at me. “It’s part of Step Nine.”
Brow creasing, I said, “You mean Step Nine as in the Twelve Steps? That Step Nine?”
Grar began to look uncomfortable. “Um. Back when I. Um. It was a very dark time for me.”
I stared at the small creature.
Grar scratched at the side of its nonexistant neck. “I was under a lot of stress, you see. My wife had left me not too long ago, human kids weren’t scaring so easily since all those video games with the blood and the guts had come out, and I couldn’t sleep in the day like I should. So I started drinking just to help block out the light—” Here a hopeful glance toward my own bedside light. Face twisting, I reached out and turned the switch to shift it from 60 watts to 75. Grar grimaced and shut his—couldn’t keep calling him it—eyes, covered them with his free hand. “—then one night that little dog of yours started yapping and barking and barking and yapping, and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“So you ate him.”
Removing his hand, Grar looked at me piteously. “I was drunk! I didn’t know what I was doing!”
Swinging my legs off the side of the bed, I marched to Grar and punched his diminutive shoulder. “You ate my dog! And no one believed me when I told them!”
Grar huddled in on himself, clutching the paper to his head. “I’m sorry.”
I hit him again. He let out a small whimper, but didn’t retaliate. I drew back my hand one more time, paused, and let it fall.
Honestly, I hadn’t been that fond of Rover. He liked my sister better, and that always galled me. And Grar— it was hard to hate him, purple sniveling thing that he was. He paled in comparison to the horrors of Turning Thirty and Remaining a Failure. Beating Grar wouldn’t take any of that away.
I sighed and sat on the edge of the bed next to him. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “Will you leave now and never come back, now that you’ve apologized?”
Grar perked up. “Does that mean you forgive me?”
“Yes. No. Ask me when I’m thirty.” I stopped. That would mean he’d have to come back. “Or don’t, actually.” I made shooing motions at him. “Just… go away and don’t drink anymore.”
Grar regarded me, absentmindedly crumpling his paper. “So that’s a maybe? I can deal with a maybe.”
More shooing motions. “Okay, then. Maybe I forgive you. Now go away and don’t come back. I’ve had enough with monsters.”
He hopped on to the floor and tucked the piece of paper into some fold of skin. “Hey, thanks, Jeremy. You’re my first Step Nine, and it didn’t go as bad as I thought it would. It’s not like I’m high up in the ranks or anything, but I’ll try to make sure your kids—you got kids? No? Well, when you have ‘em, I’ll do my best to make sure my people don’t bother them.” He paused. “Only, if you get ‘em a dog, pick something that doesn’t bark so much, maybe?”
I dropped my head in my hands. “Yeah. Sure.”
Grar hesitated. “Um. I really am sorry.”
“Just go away, Grar.”
Some scuffling, then silence. I waited five minutes, then looked up and around. The only sign of Grar’s presence was a torn bit of paper hardly larger than an eraser tip. I climbed back into bed, trying not to feel hopeful.
When, Grar had said. When I have kids. Not that the monster’s words counted for anything, but maybe I wouldn’t stay a failure forever.
And maybe Rover had tasted like chicken. I really didn’t like that dog.