Note: This story uses the non-gender pronouns e / em / eirs and they / them / theirs for some characters.
“There once was a monster who lived under the bed. The monster stayed there, and slept mostly, until hungry. Then the monster ate the child who slept above, and went away, to a different bed.
“The monster ate a new child every eleven-point-six days, on average.
“The monster could go anywhere in all of time and all of space. Anywhere there were beds, and anytime there were children to eat — though that was mostly around three-forty-seven-a-m, statistically speaking.
“But that could be any day, any month, or any year, ever.
“And it could be on any one of the thirty-two planets and four-hundred-and-fifty-three planetoids that our species eventually ends up inhabiting, before the…
“Well… No sense in getting ahead of ourselves.
“So, that’s how the monster ended up under your bed, and that’s why I’m telling you this, to prepare you to meet the monster, to be eaten.”
“Ahh-hh,” the child interrupted.
“Ha! Just kidding. Har de har. Wanted to make sure you’re still listening.”
“Who, who are you?” The child pulled up a handful of blankets, protectively.
“Oh, silly. Don’choo ‘member? We were all out in the other room. I’m your frummy’s friend. Frummy told me to tuck you in and tell you all about how there are no monsters under the bed, or anything like that.”
“But, but, that’s not what you said. You “
“Might as well,” Frummy’s friend leaned over to the small table and retrieved an ornate drinking glass, a large goblet. “The monster’s not around anymore anyway.”
“Why?” The child bolted upright in bed. “Why, huh, why? ‘Cause you said the monster could come in anytime! YOU “
“Now, now. Just sit back and listen to the story, whydon’cha? Here’s how it happened, how it will happen, and how it is happening now,” Frummy’s friend attempted to lean back into the rocking chair, but was hindered by narrowing arms on the child-sized furniture.
“Oh, brother…” said the child, accompanied by an epic eye roll.
“Shush.” Frummy’s friend drank, leaned forward, and belched softly before continuing. “Now, someplace and sometime — not here — the monster was under a bed and decided it was time for supper.
“The house was all quiet, except for the small struggle on top of the bed, where the meal was having a bad dream. The monster waited for times like these, the best — the absolute best — time to eat a child. All the monster cookbooks say so.”
“I don’t like this story.”
“Shush. Frummy says you have to listen.”
“Really. So, the monster extracted this quite delicious brain juice, after a great many intricate preparations. This was quite valuable.”
“Did Frummy really?”
“Yes,” Frummy’s friend drank deeply from the goblet, then peered over the rim and waited for another interruption. The child stayed silent.
“So, besides the feasting, the monster was laying in stores, for the future.” The goblet descended into Frummy’s friend’s lap. “Oh, but the feasting, that would last some two or three days, according to our time. The preparation and preserving for the stores, there was a bit of that, of course. But mostly it was feasting. Then a big, long, happy, sleep.”
While listening, the child had retreated into the bed, rearranging the pillows, plush toys, the special quilts and coverings, and finally pulling hands and arms beneath the innermost sheet. Frummy’s friend did not react to the child’s attempted camouflage.
“Since the monster could go anywhere and anytime there were beds and children, it just slipped out of whatever here/now it was projecting into when it all began. Just like that.”
Frummy’s friend raised their hands to either side of their head, the drink tilted, threatening to spill. “Poof! You’re gone. They’re gone, rather.” The hands and cup back down, temporarily.
“The monster and its meal almost always reappear in an alcove universe — one which most experts now agree it creates for this very purpose — usually within the property of a snug, split-level ranch house, in the middle of a lava flow. It has a large indoor-outdoor kitchen and patio area, with a wonderful view and sulfur breeze, where it spends most of its waking hours.
“Oh, yes. Good times. Um, I’d imagine so, anyway.” Frummy’s friend stared down towards the remaining beverage swirling in the bottom of the drinking vessel, glancing up on the fourth rotation. “Well, don’t you have anything to say?”
“So…” the child responded from inside a short tunnel of plush, “Who cares? The monster’s still eating the, meal. I mean, you’re “
“Shush,” Frummy’s friend waved dismissively. “You’re being silly again. Frummy said you’re afraid of the monster under the bed, so I’m explaining how “
“You haven’t heard it all. It gets better and worse, round and round. You never know who’s eating who half the time.” Frummy’s friend drained their goblet and set it on the table, then turned back towards the bed and waited, head cocked.
After a long pause, a tiny voice said, “Fine.” The child pulled a heavy quilt upwards, past eir nose, then spoke louder so eir muffled voice could be heard. “Go ahead, but I’m calling Frummy if it gets weird. Too weird.”
“Sure, but Frummy is tired. And you are too…” They looked around absently, then jerked around, up, and out of the chair. “Now, Frummy’s friend will be right back.”
They stumbled into a shaft of dim blue light and white noise from the other room and returned the same way, but carrying a jug and a large piece of cake.
“All right, now.” They set the cake on the far edge of the table, then filled the goblet and set the jug on the floor against the wall.
“Gently, the monster slithered out from under the bed. The child above, tensing and loosening, struggling to scream in the nightmare climax of your — its, I mean, their — subconscious mind.”
They tore off a piece of cake, chewed, and swallowed.
“It stole quietly from under the bed and approached its meal. First one tentacle, then the “
“Stay over there,” the child warned in a wooly voice.
“I am. It’s just a story, you know. And the world is not like that — all the experts say.”
“I know. It’s just not…” The child pulled down the quilt below eir chin to be better heard. “Not helping me to sleep, for one thing. And “
“You sound sleepy already, to me. Anyway, let’s just turn down the lights. Which is your night-light? We’ll leave that one on.”
“No. NO!” Upright again, the child gestured wide, indicating the entirety of the cramped bedroom. “Leave them ALL on. Frummy does that. After I go to sleep, she leaves. And she leaves on this one, ON, here, on the bookshelf, and maybe another. The others, some of them — a few of them — can go off. You do that.”
“Okay. Don’t worry about it. Jeesh. Can I just turn off a few of the lights, now? I only need the one, right here on the table.”
“Ah, c’mon. Frummy’s friend doesn’t like all this light in their eyes, not at all.”
“Well, you can turn off that one, there.”
“Thanks.” Frummy’s friend leaned forward and switched off the tricolored disco spinner.
“You see, anyway, it doesn’t matter to the monster if all the lights are on, or not. So you might as well leave them off, as far as getting eaten is concerned. Up to you, though.”
Frummy’s friend took another drink as the child settled back beneath the layers. “Where was I? Oh, yes...
“Hook and tentacle up the side of the bed. The child twitches weakly, desperate to let loose the silent scream strangled in its throat,” Frummy’s friend rocked back and forth, hamming it up, “unable to thrash out into the waking world it senses all around.”
“In the nightmare world, the monster’s giant head rears into view. It blocks the wall, the lights of the dream bedroom. Its open mouth looms, bigger and bigger, closer and closer.
“You see inside. You see everything. And you feel wonderful. Ecstatic.
“Inside the mouth — tiny dolphins and sea otters and apple trees and jungle gyms, all attached to the sides and roof of the mouth, extending far back and down, into the throat, all dancing — little pink nodes, aware, part of the cosmic cycle and happy in their manifestation.
“Everyone participating, as matter is swapped back and forth, back and forth.
“The happy, swaying dance lures you in and you realize what it is ALL about. Finally. You peer into the abyss, a whirring cycle where you merge and you reemerge.
“Where you are remembered and reappear.
“The tongue, a warm, wet carpet slide down a familiar stairwell, while a seed of gnosis sprouts to reveal wider worlds — plural, have you — all around. You learn to step through dimensions and can continue on any timeline you want. There is death and there is transcendence.
“There is choice.
“Most, of course, pass through unknowing.” Slurp. Click. “They close their eyes for the journey. Once that decision is made, to close one’s eyes, the passage can be swift. So, for those in, uh, that there/then, there is no remembering. Their pasts are lost to them. They are onto something new, for better or worse.
“But, you see, the monster offers its meals so much more.
“If only they are brave enough to realize, to accept.
“To become the meal that sees.” Click.
“Now — and always — the terrible price of this world… That’s always there. Always. This is the predominant view, anyway, especially at moments like this.
“That’s what most folk would dwell on here, I mean there.
“But there — and here — there is so much more.” Chew, chew, gulp. “Imagine, the meal dodging into the near/then, or subsuming entirely to reappear elsewhen. To change its contingeries — the particuwots and whositarries — at its whim. At its peck and caw, if you will.
“If it chooses.”
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Gurgle, gurgle, gulp, gulp, gurgle, gurgle. Frummy’s friend repositioned the jug and sat back down in the rocker. “Sadly, it can only gain this knowledge at a certain price.” Chew, gulp.
The child moaned, nearly asleep, and turned to face the wall, away from the storyteller. Instantly, even beneath the layers, e felt eir back raw and exposed. E jumped back in one dramatic hop, the blanket fortress barely moving.
“Now, don’choo worry about me.” Frummy’s friend started up from the chair. The goblet went to the table, mashing cake and icing into the patterned cloth. “You should just close your eyes again. That’s the whole point of this exercise. To send you off into the subconscious. Aware, and forewarned, but still… Off to Oz you must go, and see it for “
“…oh, brother,” the child whispered, pulling the entire blanket terrain a few inches while turning slightly to the side.
“Always the critic, this one. Anyway, I think I might have — perhaps — become, a bit — a bit, I’ll have you — sidefracked there. So, let me pick it up again, properly.
“Have you ever seen a frog eat a large insect? No?
“Well, something like that will be the end result, of course, though the monster will first proceed with its extractions. So let’s get those tiresome details out of the way.
“And, before any of that, the ceremonies, the oblations, the recognition, the blessings, the story. Blah, blah. It’s always a different path but the same journey.
“Where and when it ends…” Click. “Well, that will be up to you, the meal I mean.”
“And let’s get this out in the open. Clear the air, if you will. It may have crossed your mind: oh no, you won’t be YOU, then, after all this.
“‘I won’t be ME, waa!’
“Well, you’re only you for right now, and not a second longer. You’re always something new, different, and always were.
“When you close your eyes here and open them again down there, you’re in the underworld, where all things are made and unmade. You can come out the other side again, of course, if that’s what you want.” Slurp. “Something always does, anyway.” Chew, chew, gulp.
“It’s up to you. If you want to continue.
“It’s easy, peasy. A dream, really. Once you decide to see.
“And, more basically, IF you decide to see. Because, if you see, you will eventually understand. And that is good, because you will need to know several terrible truths if you want to navigate your dreams with any confidence.
“And you must be careful. Despite the possibility and promise of all this jumping around, nothing is safe. If you choose to look, to see through the veil, and so acquire the possibility to travel at your will through worlds…
“Well, you need to first know this: there is only one of you. Only one you. Only one.
“Just like the monster.
“And that is a beautiful and awful thing.”
“Especially in the somewhen where digestive acids are hard at work.”
The child twisted and moaned inside a narrow pool of warm color, which radiated outward from a sun night–light clipped nearby. The reddish crown dipped into dark penumbra at the edges of the small bed.
The child had started to fall, accelerating through the night air, precipitating an abrupt end to the dreamscape. Reaching upward from the nightmare, e bumped the bookshelf, knocking loose the bulb, which flickered off.
The child peered up at the dark board and the shadow-laced ceiling beyond. The knot in eir stomach from the dream fall loosened. E moved aside the pillows and stuffed animals, then crept outward, into view.
There was just one light source inside the room now, a blue-green fish, sparkling above the toy chest in the corner. The bed was as dark as it ever had been, when the child was there. E didn’t know about other times.
A pale light from the other room fell into a slanted rectangle on the wood floor. The child got out of the bed, dipped into slippers, and slipped into what Frummy called the living room. Sinking into the thickly padded carpeting of the larger room, e felt a sense of vertigo. Then everything seemed to be underwater for a moment.
E approached a battery-operated lamp perched precariously atop a nearby fruit crate, carefully turning the big dial on top. The light was yellowish-white at the very bottom, then orange-red above, as filtered through a taped-on plastic shade. This commingled with the emanations of a blue-white rectangular screen, beaming down from a high ledge near the front door, some ten feet away.
The child navigated the cluttered area between the coffee table and the couch, then gently pulled and tugged at the macramé throw so it better covered Frummy. Retreating from Frummy’s harbor, e ventured across the sea of thick pile carpet. At the ragged edge of the room, e stopped, the tips of eir slippers brushing the border to the kitchen’s cracked red linoleum.
Despite badly craving cake, e hesitated, concerned at the darkness in the far end, towards the utility room and the head. Normally, a light in the corner of the hallway provided a reliable guide to the back part of the apartment.
It was off, or out. E stared into the dim recesses there for some time.
Eventually, the child stepped into the kitchen, climbed atop a chair, and pulled steadily down on a twine cord above the small table. A fluorescent circle buzzed to life and lit everything through a bug-encrusted dome of frosted glass. E swayed back and forth atop the chair, examining the larger of the dead moths, then clambered down to the scarred flooring.
E searched all the exposed surfaces — counters, tables, cutting board, even back out to the coffee table and fruit crate — nothing. E turned off the buggy kitchen light, since Frummy didn’t like it on when she stirred, and could wake up mad and difficult.
With only the two small lights from the living room as beacons, e stepped toward the fridge, a solid monolith of quiet power with its own cycle of purring and shuddering. A crayon drawing of a raven was impaled to its middle by a black circle magnet.
The child swung open the metal door and was drenched in the cold, greenish light. Plates of raw meat, condensation dripping from the plastic wrapping and pooling in pink puddles below, occupied two glass shelves. E searched every bright compartment — all of which went dark when no one was looking — but still no cake.
E stared at one of the meat packages, drawn to the little tubes of pink and white, curled around one another. E thought about the talking farm animals from storybooks.
There was a faint scratching in the hall and the child stood stock still, then turned ever so slightly to peer past the fridge. There was still nothing out of place in the hallway. Nothing that e could see.
But what about the utility room? And where was Frummy’s friend?
The child was thinking about the door latch — hoping it was firmly closed, in case there was some kind of creature back there, with all their old stuff and stores and boxes — when the screen in the living room went to sleep.
The kitchen side of the apartment darkened a bit — but the other side of the apartment transformed into a soft dim blur, illuminated only by weak lamplight.
Before the refrigerator door had swung shut, the child darted across the room, switched off the orange lamp, and stood in the doorway to the fish-lit bedroom.
As the green and pink light from the kitchen narrowed to nothing, e checked to make sure that the whoosh-thunk-clink sound of the refrigerator door shutting did not wake Frummy, then jumped to bed in three big leaps. With eyes closed, the child thought of cake, but saw shelves of meat.
BIO – AJD is a bookseller who has also worked as a writer, among other things.