Nancy Lyman had a monster living under her bed.
Or in corners of the room where furtive shadows gathered, or in the closet when the door was open a crack so that something could look slyly out from the darkness there. Somewhere, watching her, waiting for its chance, something lived in her bedroom. Always had.
Well, in truth, not quite always. For a time it had faded into the uncertain landscape of the barely-remembered. But after many years' absence, it was back. And somehow its return made the passage of those many years seem unnaturally quick, in the troubled waters of her memory.
She hadn't actually seen it, at least not clearly; but she knew that it was back.
When she had been a little girl, the thing had been there, watching, always. When she had grown older, it had receded, like some noxious tide on the shoreline of her perceptions, and her false sense of security had let her tell herself that the thing had never been real, had vanished like a puff of air when her mind, her emotions grew older, so that she saw the world not through the febrile eyes of a nervous child but through the prosaic eyes of a busy young woman who had no time for monsters.
She had seldom thought of the thing during her young adulthood, her middle years, her later years with Tom and the children. It was, after all, only a typical infantile fantasy, a typical nightmare of childhood. When you thought about it, there was something almost laughably trite about the very idea, a monster under the bed, a goblin in the closet, a lurker in the shadows.
But with her own children off and gone, and with Tom dead now, the terrors of her youth were gradually reasserting themselves. Maybe they had never really been absent, but only ignored, repressed by a blasé pseudo-sophistication of the mind. Maybe she had been kidding herself all these comfortable and complacent years.
Maybe the thing had never really tired of watching her. Maybe she just hadn't noticed.
She folded her evening paper decisively, as if putting away these haunting notions as well, and surveyed the living room. It was cosy here on the sofa, in this warm wash of lamplight, and she disliked the thought of getting up and going to bed. Well, she hadn't finished her milk, and that was a ready-made reason to linger. Sipping from her glass, she thought of those far-off days, when a highstrung little pigtailed girl had been so afraid of--
That's what her grandfather had called it.
Sometimes, he had told her in his mock-horrific tones like some old-time radio announcer, sometimes you'll hear it call its name when everybody else just thinks it's the wind outside the window at night. But you know that it's saying Fwoo, Fwooooooo, and you know that it's talking to nobody but you.
Nancy got up and carried her glass to the kitchen sink, and headed for the bedroom. Her mom would always get mad at Gramps for subjecting her to such stories. Nancy paused in front of the mirror over the dresser beside her bed, and her mother's face, alive again, seemed to stare back in place of her own now wrinkled visage. "Dad, why do you insist on telling her such things? It's going to give her nightmares." Had she spoken aloud just now, mimicking her mother's oft-repeated complaint, or was this the dry, lifeless voice of memory? She didn't know, and she guessed that it really didn't matter.
When she was in bed with the lights off and with the top of the sheet pulled up to her chin, she felt that those intervening decades had never happened, that she was still the frightened little wide-eyed girl who had listened to her grandfather's creepy tales in spite of everything. What was it Gramps had said about the name. . . ?
Sometimes when it moves under your bed, or turns over, slowly, like some great dusty insect in the dark, or scuttles across the carpet just below where you can see, it makes a dry sound: fffffw--, like it wants to tell you its name, but it's teasing you, not saying it right out. Of course, a lot of things sound like that, so you can't ever be sure, can you? Sometimes it doesn't finish saying its name, and sometimes after it starts saying it, off there somewhere in the shadows of your room, the wind picks up and finishes it, outside your window: Ffffffwoooooooooooo, and you're glad, at least, that it seems to be outside after all, and maybe can't get in. But sometimes when you pull the covers up, it starts sounding like that: fffffw--, and you wonder. . . .
She shuddered, now, to remember what he had said next.
When you pull the covers up, he had said, and it makes that quick dry sound, you try to tell yourself that maybe it's not the thing after all. Maybe everything is all right.
But maybe not. And then if it ever finishes saying its name, right there in the dark and lonely room with you. . . .
And she remembered, now, the horror she had felt as a child, reaching down and pulling the blanket up, and hearing that terrible, sibilant rustle, and fearing that the thing would finish saying its name.
She realized, with this rush of memory, that she hadn't pulled up her blanket now.
She leaned forward, her head just slightly off the pillow, and groped into the darkness near her knees, and found the top of the covers, and pulled them up.
And, after some uneasy reflections, she slept.
And woke in a more practical state of mind.
Enough was enough. Why should a woman over seventy worry about the idiotic phantasms of childhood?
She spent the day cleaning the house, and paid particular attention to the bedroom, where in the calm light of day everything was normal. No matter how different everything might look at night, this familiar scene offered nothing to disturb the mind right now: the bed, the dresser, the wicker chair, the low table decorated with her milk-glass bowl and antique Hull vases. How could any of this ever look threatening?
But in the evening, reading again in that snug cone of lamplight on the sofa and sipping a cup of herbal tea, she dreaded going to bed. She was sleepy, and hadn't intended to stay up very late, but maybe she'd start reading that new novel tonight after all, and have another cup of tea. She told herself that she wasn't just making excuses, that she needed no reasons to read some more if she wanted.
But in her heart she knew better, and it was with an uneasy sigh that, only a few pages into the novel, she finally gave it up and rose from the sofa and switched off the lamp and started getting ready for bed.
Predictably, from all too much experience, nothing in the bedroom looked the same after she was in bed, the sheet tucked under her chin. Strange objects loomed about her in the shadows. Beyond the windowpanes, out in the night, a forlorn little wind moaned at the window like some strange little beast wanting to be let in. She felt jittery about reaching down in the dark and pulling the covers up. She found herself wondering, and not for the first time, why she didn't just pull all the bedclothes up to start with, and not have to grope for them in the dark. But it was her habit, had always been, to pull just the sheet up at first, and later the blanket. And besides, to pull all the covers up to start with, as she easily could--wouldn't that be a concession to her fears, a somehow shameful concession that she was unwilling to make? No, she wasn't altering her habit for some foolish fantasy.
But, reaching down in the dark, she thought: how foolish is it? What if there's really something. . . .
Pausing, her arm out from under the sheet, vulnerable, she looked around the room, feeling the darkness almost palpably close around her face like some oppressive mantle. Out there in the dark, the vague outline of the low table was somehow disturbing. Or was the source of the impression what was on the table? What could that low, dusky shape be, if not her milk-glass bowl? Nothing but overwrought nerves could have suggested that it moved craftily, or even slid off the table altogether. No, it was still there, had to still be there, and still just a bowl. How could it be otherwise?
And how could there be anything on the dresser, any low, flat shape, a shape that wasn't there before, as if something (from the table?) had slithered up there like some obscene, flat sea-creature in a sea of darkness. . . . She rubbed her eyes. Certainly not; there was nothing on the dresser, could be nothing on the dresser, nothing but what belonged there. When she blinked, the disturbing impression seemed to recede, though something of the feeling remained.
But she couldn't let herself dwell on those feelings. Swallowing, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, she flexed her fingers and reached down into the dark and pulled the blanket halfway up.
She froze, listening, thinking about the sound, trying not to think about the sound but thinking about it anyway.
Nothing, silence. Just a sad little moaning of the wind at the window.
Her eyes, a little more accustomed to the dark now, surveyed what she could see of the dim, shadowy outlines in the room. Low table, wicker chair, dresser. All normal. Nothing on the low table, nothing on the dresser but what should be there. How could she have imagined that some low, flat, lurking shape--
But no more of this. The blanket needed to come the rest of the way up. She flexed her hands again, and pulled.
It had to be the wind, of course, that last bit of sound. But in any case there was a problem. A blanket shouldn't cling, shouldn't fasten itself to you like some great sea-bottom nightmare. But it did, and she realized, with a sense of irony that almost made her laugh out loud, that she had pulled up not the blanket, but the thing itself.