Some monsters went easier than others. Her father’s monster crawled away to die after three sharp kicks from his soccer cleats. Her mother’s monster was fatally wounded after being sliced by a paycheck. Her brother Jamie’s monster had been harder. Madison still remembered the sound of him smashing it with a frying pan. She had even heard of monsters that required lethal weapons to be defeated. She knew her monster would be one of those.
Not that she’d seen it, of course. No one ever saw the monster until it was summoned. Her parents, brother, and her teacher, Miss Rachel, always talked about growls, slime, and creaking floorboards whenever she asked them about their monsters.
Her dad would say, “I had to have three nightlights. Your granny had to check that each one was working before I would let her leave the room. I was afraid my monster would wake me up by slithering around the room or hissing in my ear. Your mom’s always tried to grab her ankles, and Jamie’s shook his mattress.”
Madison asked to hear these stories over and over. She hoped to learn something new or find any encouragement that her monster would be like her family’s. She wanted to hear confirmation that she was not the only one who heard whispers echo in her head.
“But no matter what they did to scare us, they always went away when the time came,” her dad said. “Don’t worry, Madison. You’ll do great.” He usually ended the conversation with a hug, and Madison smiled like she believed him. She wanted to believe him. She hoped that her monster would fall to the floor after being whacked by a book or a chair. Her last resort was one of the sharp kitchen knives. Still, she feared it would not be that simple unless she came up with a plan to attack her monster. Madison told Miss Rachel her decision at their after-school counselling session. She almost didn’t believe that it was her own voice speaking.
Miss Rachel clapped her hands. “That’s wonderful news, Madison! This is a big day for you, and I feel like we’ve made some good progress to get you here. So, do you want to talk about your plan of attack?”
Madison dug her nail into a crack in the vinyl chair and shrugged. “I don’t know. Guess I’ll probably just go in with some stuff and do whatever it takes to get rid of that thing.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of monster is it? Do you have any ideas about what you might need to do?” Miss Rachel adjusted her glasses and flipped through her notepad. “You haven’t said much in the past about it.”
Madison shrugged again. The afternoon sunlight flooded the office. The monster’s whispers didn’t seem nearly as dreadful as they did in her darkened bedroom at 2:00 a.m. “It’s not like I’ve seen it. But I have some ideas, so we’ll see. I do want to get rid of it,” she added hastily. Miss Rachel looked at her with concern. “I’ll figure out something on my own.”
Miss Rachel sighed. “That’s what I’m here for, though. Are you sure you don’t want to share anything? Sometimes admitting what you’re afraid of is the first step toward dealing with that fear. If you could just take that step, then we could work on solutions.” She kept talking, but Madison did not want to hear the conquering-fears-with-her-mind pep talk again. It was probably very good advice, but how would it help her kill the monster under her bed?
That evening she retrieved a knife from the kitchen, and she collected the heaviest books in the house. Then she called out that she would be studying for a big test, and she closed her bedroom door. Now, she was ready to try anything.
She spoke the traditional summons, and the monster came out from under the bed. She almost didn’t recognize it. She had expected a reptilian creature or something bigger than her, at least. But this was just a little cloud of darkness sitting on her green shag rug. It barely reached her knee.
With a sigh of relief, she grabbed the knife from her desk. If the thing was just going to stand there, maybe this would be easier than she thought.
Anticlimactic, isn’t it?
No sound came from the little monster. No sound ever had, but its voice echoed in her mind.
You wanted some giant terror to defeat, something to slay that would prove you had conquered. But all you get is me. What would everyone say? They know you’ve been terrified for years. You can’t tell them it was a creature not even knee high to you.
Wait! That was wrong. It was tall as her knees now. She gripped the knife harder, but she couldn’t swing.
You couldn’t even tell your parents you were doing this tonight. Why?
In case she failed. In case she couldn’t keep up the tradition. In case she was the only kid in the history of the world who couldn’t beat their monster.
Before she could think anymore and before the creature could whisper again, she wildly swung the knife at her monster.
When she stopped and opened her eyes again, the monster still stood before her, untouched. It was as tall as her waist now, and the whispers were louder.
You knew that wouldn’t work. You knew it couldn’t be that easy. You’ve been ready for defeat this whole time, hoping that fate would somehow take that into account and let you win despite yourself. Nice tr—
She dropped a dictionary on it.
The book fell to the floor with a muffled thud. The monster reformed, like a storm cloud briefly inconvenienced by a breeze. It stood shoulder high now and only a foot away.
We had that discussion already. Words aren’t going to fix this. You can yell at me and reason with me and plead with me all you like. I don’t care.
Madison was running out of options. She looked around the room, but she had no more weapons. Her monster was right. She couldn’t beat it.
Oh dear. It sounded almost sorry. What is Miss Rachel going to think?
Its darkness engulfed her, and she fell. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Her chest hurt, and her head was swimming. Her stomach felt like it would implode. She was shaking and gasping as she shrunk tighter and tighter into the beginnings of a black hole. There was nothing to save her from being crushed into atoms.
She’d lost. She was too weak, scared, and unready. She’d never get rid of it now. The whispers would fill her nights and leak into her days. Everyone would watch her, and she’d hope they would not notice her fear, her mistakes, and how she always fell short. She knew they would see her failure and pity her for it. The shame would be with her always, and she could do absolutely nothing.
The darkness dropped away from her suddenly. Then reached out to slowly smother her again.
She gathered enough air to say, “Well? Why stop now? We’ve got all night, no one’s going anywhere.”
It shrank again.
I will haunt your every moment. You will never have peace again, I will see to that.
“Yeah, I know.” Slowly, she uncurled her fingers from the rug, green fuzz clinging to them. “You’re going to make me think that everyone is out to get me, or that I’m a failure. And that will suck.” Saying it out loud made every rigid muscle loosen.
Make me leave, then.
“I tried that, but I’m stuck with you, okay? I wish I wasn’t, but I am. So, we’ll just have to work something out.”
There is no bargaining! Unless you kill me, I will rule your sleep and your dreams. I will always—
She stood up and stepped away from the darkness that was now only waist high. Her headache faded. “Shut up, why don’t you? I. Can’t. Kill. You. Have you got that yet?”
The ball collapsed into a puddle of dark mist, coiling and lashing around on the rug. Coward! If you were really brave, you could have killed me years ago! You’re a failure, a disgrace! How will you look your parents in the eye and tell them what happened? Its frantic whispers grew fainter as it thrashed.
She let out a sigh as she bent down to the puddle. “I’ll just tell them that I got a very special kind of monster. Now leave me alone tonight, okay? We’ll talk later.”
It muttered at her then sluggishly slithered into the shadows under her bed.
She put away the dictionary and the other books. Then she went to return the knife to the kitchen. Her dad was getting a drink of water. He watched her slip the knife into its block and raised an eyebrow. “Everything all right up there, Madison? We heard a bit of a ruckus going on earlier.”
Her stomach clenched, but she only shrugged. “Yeah, all good, no worries. Just dropped a book, that’s all!” Turning, she headed for the stairs again—
See? You’re not telling him.
She took a deep breath and turned to face her dad.
“Hey, Dad? Did I ever tell you that Miss Rachel gives really good advice?”