It no longer stayed under the bed. As soon as Elliott’s mother tucked him in and shut the door, it pulled its twisted body up to the headboard and trailed its gnarled fingers across Elliott’s tender cheek, whispered into his sweet, quivering ear, “Shh, boy. I’m here,” and Elliott screamed into his pillow, rocking back and forth, his eyes squeezed tightly shut until he finally sobbed himself to sleep. It gently stroked his hair back off his forehead and watched him until dawn, then slithered down under the dust ruffle, missing him even before he was up and gone for the day.
It was born amongst the tangled roots of a twisted river birch. Its parents taught it to pick up the seeds that fell from the tree to plant farther along the creek. That was what its kind did, planted the wild trees along the rivers and creeks of the valley in the quiet nights. Its parents warned it to never go near the house on the ridge where people lived and children shrieked with laughter. It wondered what its parents would do, if they knew that not only had it been inside the house, but had found a shining boy to be its friend. None of its kind made friends with children.
It loved the nights when the Elliott’s mother sat on the edge of the bed reading stories from a big book with a bright, red and gold cover. While she read of dragons and knights and Elliott sat quietly listening, it gazed lovingly at its boy from the headboard. Elliott never looked at it, just leaned into his mother and stared at the pages, pointing at the pictures. When his mother finished a story, Elliott would beg her to read another. Some nights she read two or three, but eventually she stopped, put away the book and told him it was time to sleep. Elliott would cry and beg her to please not leave him alone.
“It is right there, Mom, on the headboard! Please!”
“We have discussed this before, Elliott, there is nothing there. Now close your eyes and get some sleep.” Then she turned out the light, shut the door, and it would whisper, and Elliott would scream.
It had no concept of time. Oh, it knew there was daylight and night darkness, and it waited for the dark to be with Elliott, but it had no a clue that with days and nights time passed. Elliott grew and learned, went out each day, laughing, talking with other boys, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner and stretching tall. He went to school and learned to read, to think and wonder, all while it sat beneath the bed ruffle, wringing its hands and waiting to see him come night. It saw only day and night, but Elliott moved through days, then weeks, then years, growing up.
One night, many years after it had first come to visit, though it did not know it had been many years, it was startled to realize that Elliott was looking directly into its eyes without flinching. It stared back in wonder. Elliott’s eyes were bright and shining. They held its gaze as he reached up from his pillow as if to touch its head. It cringed slightly, trembling uncontrollably. But Elliott shuddered, closed his eyes and rocked himself to sleep. It wondered what to make of this? It had prayed to the stars and the moon that its boy would come to love it. Was that happening? It slithered down under the dust ruffle, overcome with confusion and fear. Something was changing.
A few nights later, long after the light was turned off, Elliott whispered, “I have always seen you, you know. They say you are just my imagination, but I know you are really there.”
It could not breathe, let alone reply.
“You used to scare me. I used to be so scared that sometimes I threw up, and Mom would let me sleep in her room. She would tell me not to be afraid, but she couldn’t see you, so she didn’t know.”
It wanted to say something perfect and right, but could not find its voice
“I have been reading about things like you,” said Elliott. “Some books say that things like you are only real to those who believe. Mom does not believe in you, so that would explain why she cannot see you.”
“Perhaps, “it rasped.
“I guess I believe in you because I can see you.”
“Perhaps,” it rasped again, shivering.
“So, if one day I cannot see you anymore, will you still be there?”
“Perhaps,” it rasped, weeping at the thought that Elliott might no longer see it.
The boy gazed at it for a long moment, then rolled over and went to sleep. It slithered under the dust ruffle, shuddering violently.
Many nights passed without Elliott coming to bed. It crawled to the headboard, but the door never opened, no one came in. Each night it waited, hugging itself tighter and tighter, becoming smaller and smaller. It stopped slithering under the dust ruffle, hiding from the day. It missed Elliott so much, it did not care that the sunlight blinded it. It just sat there on its perch, shrinking into itself. Finally, one bright afternoon, Elliott stumbled into the bedroom making a big ruckus, throwing down a wrinkled knapsack and kicking off his smelly shoes.
“I’ll be right down, Mom!”
He sprawled across the bed, stretching and sighing, then rolled over and looked surprised to see it sitting on the headboard.
“You are here?” he whispered. “In the daylight?”
“I am,” it croaked from deep in its parched throat. “I have been waiting for you.”
“I was at camp. We slept on the ground in sleeping bags under the moon and the stars. It was great!”
“I have been here waiting.”
“Sorry. I didn’t think to tell ya. I gotta go down for lunch.”
It shivered and shook and hugged itself so tightly it felt like it would crush its own bones. When the night fell, it heard Elliott tell his mother that she did not need to read him a stories anymore. He was too big for that now. His mother gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, and after she shut the door, Elliott rubbed it off.
Elliott sat up and gave it a long, clear look
“She still thinks I am a baby, “ he told it. “ but I am ten years old. I am not her baby anymore.”
It blinked back with fear-filled wide eyes.
“I am not a baby anymore, and you do not scare me. Why are you here?”
“I live here — for you”
“But why? I have never liked you. What have you ever done for me?”
A horrible pain ripped through its heart.
“I stay close to comfort you.”
“But you don’t comfort me. You use to scare me, and now you just annoy me.”
Its heart cracked, bleeding into its belly. It pulled its arms tighter and tighter around itself for fear it would explode.
“I love you. You are my friend. You are my boy. ”
“We are not friends! Friends laugh and talk together. Friends play games and tell each other secrets. You are not my friend, and I am not your boy.”
It cried out with agony and sadness; rocked back and forth, wailing and sobbing. Its crusty thin fingers locked around its shrinking body. Then it fell from the headboard where it had sat so many nights loving its boy. It fell, and hit its head, and with the last blink of its eyes, it raised one hand and whispered, “My boy.”
It left no trace of its existence on the floor or under the dust ruffle. It simply vanished, and Elliott never saw, or thought about it again.
Elliott pulled the covers up to his son’s chin, tucking him in with a smile.
“Dad! Please do not leave me alone! It is sitting right there on the headboard.”
Elliott looked at the headboard that had been his as a child. He searched his son’s sweet face.
“We have talked about this, Michael. There is nothing there. “
“But, Dad! It’s..”
“That’s enough!. Go to sleep!”
And he shut the door.
Published in a charitable anthology SHADES OF FEAR (2014) available on Amazon