On a cold and wet September evening, the Rhodes house bustled with activity. Bags were being packed, and cushions were searched for phones, bobby pins, and loose change. Aiden shared a sly look with Derek as they stood by the door. Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes hurried into the living room with their bags while giving the brothers a list of instructions.
“Derek, you are in charge for the next two days,” Mrs. Rhodes said, tying the belt to her overcoat. “There is plenty of food in the fridge to keep you both fed, and make sure you get your homework done.”
“And be sure not to catch anything on fire this time. Now that Peter is at college, you don’t have him fixing your mistakes,” Mr. Rhodes added, giving him a stern glare. Derek nodded, his blonde hair flopping as he did so.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m fourteen and can handle the stove.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Well, I mean it. You can count on me.”
He gave his parents a mock salute. Both adults exchanged wary looks but then turned their attention to six-year-old Aiden.
“You mind your brother and stay out of trouble. No staying up too late and no scary movies,” Mrs. Rhodes told him, crouching to his level. “I don’t want you having those nightmares again.”
“Okay, Mom,” Aiden nodded. Mrs. Rhodes kissed the top of his forehead while Mr. Rhodes ruffled his bright red hair. Mr. Rhodes checked his watch and ushered his wife toward the door.
“Come on, honey. We don’t want to miss the opening exercises. My editors said that I’ll be in trouble if I show up late.”
“I’m going, Geoffrey,” Mrs. Rhodes replied, grabbing her purse while her husband carried their suitcase. “Goodbye, boys. Please be good!”
“Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad,” Aiden waved. “Don’t worry about a thing. The house will still be here when you get back.”
“It better be!” Mr. Rhodes shouted as the front door closed.
“One, two, three, four, five, six,” they both counted out loud as they rushed to the window. “Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve,” they continued and stared out of the rain-streaked window, waiting excitedly. “Thirty!” they exclaimed as the car left the driveway and disappeared down the street.
“I’ve got the popcorn!” Derek said, rushing toward the already messy kitchen.
“Don’t burn it,” Aiden ordered, trailing behind him.
“Who, me? I’d never.”
Aiden crossed his arms, and Derek threw up his hands in surrender.
“Okay! I won’t burn it. Microwave or stove-top?”
“Microwave. You can’t catch anything on fire in there.”
“You’d be surprised,” Derek said with a nervous laugh as he searched the pantry for the kernels.
“Okay, okay. Gather all the pillows and blankets from the bedrooms and heap ’em on the couch. I’ll meet you there.”
Aiden ran out of the kitchen and straight to his own bedroom. He ripped the Spider-Man quilt off his bed, almost taking the sheets with it. He grabbed his pillow next and moved onto Derek’s room. The thick full-sized blanket from the teenager’s bed weighed the small first-grader down. He left the pillows and stumbled out to the living room. After three more trips, Aiden had gathered all the pillows and blankets in the house.
The couch was covered and barely visible in the pile of comfort. As Aiden surveyed his masterpiece, he remembered the most important object. He went back to his room and found his stuffed tiger on the floor. Clutching the animal to his chest, he made it back to the living room just as Derek walked in with the giant bowl of popcorn. Aiden sniffed.
“Did you burn it?”
Aiden scrunched his face.
“Okay, maybe a little,” he admitted reluctantly.
“And did you get the extra butter?”
“Of course I did. What do you take me for? A heathen? Turn off the lights and get the remote.”
Aiden switched off the lights in the kitchen and then the lamps in the living room, leaving them in total darkness other than the soft light of the television.
The brothers collapsed into the mountain of soft fabric, and Derek made a crevice in the blankets between them for the bowl of popcorn to sit without spilling. He flipped through their movie options, and Adien held Mr. Stripes closely as he waited to give his opinion.
“Oh, that one!” he said when Derek landed on Under the Bed.
“Are you sure? It's a few hours long, and I thought it gave you nightmares last time.”
Aiden’s adamant look faltered as he looked more closely at the title.
“I’m sure. I won’t have any nightmares,” he said. Derek searched his little brother’s face for a moment then shrugged.
“Okay.” He gave in and pressed play. The screen grew dark, and each brother grabbed a fistful of popcorn as the opening images flashed onto the TV. As the movie progressed, Aiden stared in awe and slight fear while shoving popcorn into his mouth. Derek glanced at his brother but was too engrossed in the movie to notice his brother’s shaking hands. When the boy onscreen sat up in his bed as he heard a noise, Aiden shut his eyes. The first-grader slowly looked back at the TV as the character slowly put his legs over the edge of the bed.
“No! Don’t do it,” Aiden told him. Aiden stared, horrified, as a pale hand with nails like claws grabbed the boy’s ankle. He threw his blanket over his head with a terrified yell, almost upsetting the bowl of popcorn. Derek, who had dozed off, was startled back to life and slammed his fist into the popcorn bowl. The remaining buttery kernels scattered over Derek, the blankets, and floor. He paused the movie and looked for Aiden but couldn’t find him in all the blankets.
“Aiden,” he said but was met by soft whimpering. “Hey, junior. Come on, Aiden, where’d you go?” he asked, feeling around the blankets for his little brother. He finally located him and pulled back the blankets. Aiden grabbed the fabric and tried to cover his head again. “Okay, sport. I think it’s time for bed.”
Aiden didn’t argue. He untangled himself from the blankets, found his Spider-Man quilt, and slowly walked to his bedroom. He turned on the lights and stared at his bed. He crouched and peered underneath it, searching for any evidence of monsters. Not seeing any, he slowly stood back up and kept the lamp on while he crawled into bed. He wrapped himself in the blanket and held his knees as he rocked back and forth. He heard Derek still moving around the kitchen, probably cleaning up their giant mess. Aiden curled into a ball and flinched when Derek dropped the metal popcorn bowl. Aiden hoped that the sound hadn’t woken the monsters.
An hour slowly ticked by, and Aiden was awake for every second. He had built a barricade with blankets all around the edge of the bed, avoiding leaning over the side at all costs. As he finally felt safer, he felt around for Mr. Stripes. He couldn’t find him. He shot upright and ripped through his sheets, but the beloved tiger wasn’t there. Then it dawned on him. He had left him in the living room.
Even with the lamp still on, Aiden felt unsure about venturing over the side of the bed. He scooted up to the blanket barrier and crouched. He wasn’t going to leave Mr. Stripes to the monsters. He jumped the barrier and landed several feet away from the bed. He bolted from the room and slowed down when he got to the hallway. All the other lights were still turned off, and he no longer heard Derek in the kitchen. Aiden hugged himself as he tiptoed across the hardwood floors.
He reached the living room and saw that Derek had put away all the blankets and pillows and swept up the popcorn. Mr. Stripes lay on the couch. Aiden snatched up his stuffed friend and held him tight as he continued to survey the shadowy room. As he was inching toward the hallway, he saw movement in the kitchen and froze. A tall figure was wandering around, holding something Aiden couldn’t identify. He crouched next to the couch, hoping that it wasn’t the monster from under his bed. As he watched, the figure suddenly hit something and roared. Aiden yelled and sprinted back toward his room.
“Don’t eat me, please!” he shouted. He jumped onto his bed, throwing his blankets over his head. He hugged Mr. Stripes tightly, screaming again when the blankets were removed from his head.
“Aiden! Calm down. It’s me,” Derek said, shaking his little brother. Aiden looked up at him, and his eyes grew wide. He grabbed Derek’s arm and pulled him onto the bed.
“Don’t let the monsters get you!” he exclaimed. Both brothers sat on the bed, and Aiden hugged Mr. Stripes again.
“There’s no monsters, junior.”
“Yes! There are! One roared at me in the kitchen.”
“Buddy, that was me. I stubbed my toe,” Derek said, rubbing his foot.
“Yeah, I hit it on the chair. It hurt!”
“But you didn’t have to roar at me!” Aiden retorted, hitting his brother with Mr. Stripes.
Derek threw his hands up to defend himself.
“I didn’t! Why are you so scared of monsters all of the sudden?”
Aiden fell silent, and Derek slowly put it together.
“The movie scared you, didn’t it?”
Aiden nodded. Derek’s eyes softened. The teenager threw his legs over the bed and stood up.
Aiden reached for his brother to pull him back on the bed.
“I’m fine, sport. There’s nothing under the bed. Besides, I’m too big. There’s no way a monster could get me.”
Aiden didn’t look convinced. Derek sighed.
“I’ll tell you what. Clearly you’re not going to sleep,” he started and then surveyed the room. “We’re going to build a fortress to protect you from the monsters.”
“Sure thing, and just stay there. I’ll be right back.”
Aiden stayed in the center of his bed and remained motionless until Derek came back with all the blankets he could find. Derek started building the basics of the fort, and Aiden ventured toward the edge of the bed to watch. Derek was finished within twenty minutes and crawled in.
“Come on, champ,” he said, waving Aiden in. Aiden slowly stepped off his bed with Mr. Stripes in his arms and crawled toward the opening of the fortress. Derek used the short bookshelves and the rocking chair to keep the blankets above them, and pillows and soft blankets lined the floor. “See? There’s no way the monsters will find you in here.”
Derek got out of the fort and turned off the lights. Aiden yelped, and Derek appeared again with a flashlight.
“Easy, junior. I’m still here.”
He crawled back in and sat in front of the entrance.
“And I’m not leaving.”
Aiden hugged Mr. Stripes tighter, not fully believing his brother.
“Nope. Someone’s got to keep the monsters out, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“With a flashlight?” Aiden asked skeptically.
Derek’s eyes widened.
“This isn’t just any flashlight. This is the Torch of Amittai!” he revealed dramatically. Derek waved around the flashlight as if it were a sword. “And it holds the one thing that monsters fear.”
“Light!” Derek replied with a flourish, clicking the flashlight on. He held it under his chin with a goofy grin that made Aiden laugh. “See? And monsters hate laughing. They can’t stand it!”
“Of course! This is important stuff. I wouldn’t lie—cross my heart,” he said, crossing a finger over his heart.
Aiden smiled at his brother and settled back into the blankets.
“And you’re really going to stay all night?”
“You bet I am,” Derek nodded and laid down just in front of the entrance. “No monsters will find you. I promise.”
Aiden snuggled with Mr. Stripes in the center of the fortress and soon fell asleep. Even after Aiden drifted off, Derek remained in the entrance of the fort, deep in thought. Peter had done the very same thing with him many years ago, and Derek smiled at the memory. They were brothers, and nothing could tear them apart. Not even the night monsters.