Even as there are monsters that hunt us, there are guardians who protect us.
I don’t remember much from when I was seven, but I remember the thing. I remember the fear. And I remember her.
I knew all about how houses, even new ones, made creepy sounds in the middle of the night just because of wind and other reasons that had nothing to do with ghosts or monsters.
But I could tell, I knew, that the sound I heard that night in my room was not normal. I knew it was something bad. Real bad.
It was a creaking sound. I was startled awake. My heart pounded a few times, but then I figured out what it was and I had just enough time to calm down and close my eyes and even forget about it when I heard it again. A creaking. Then the slow “shhhh” of something sliding. My eyes flew open. I bunched up my sheets in my hand. The sliding sound stopped. I pulled my bedsheet over my head. It was summer. I started sweating because it was hot under the sheets. Then it started again. The “shhh” of a door sliding, and a “tick, tick” where it hit a bumpy part. It was my closet door. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to make a sound. But if I didn’t do something…whatever was opening the closet door would get me.
I braced myself. I hoped they would come in time.
I stayed under the covers and started screaming for my mom and dad. The bedroom door slammed open and my dad called my name. I called out to him. I still wouldn’t get out from under the covers. Something touched me and I screamed, but my mom told me it was just her. I threw off the covers and hugged her. Brightness flooded the room as my dad flipped the light switch on.
Mom asked me if I’d had a nightmare. It took me a few minutes to recover. I couldn’t catch my breath. And I was crying. The tears of fear. They just streamed out. When I finally calmed down enough to tell them what had happened, my dad looked at the closet. It was just across from my bed, so sitting up, I could see it too. The door was closed, just how it had been when I went to bed a few hours before. When he reached for the handle, I think I must have whimpered or cried out. My mom held me tighter and shushed me gently.
Dad pulled the closet door handle and slid the door open. He reached in and clicked on the closet light. It was a strong light and I could see the whole closet. There was nothing there. My dad felt past all my clothes and toys to the back of the closet. He bent down and checked the back corners. He looked up and checked the closet ceiling. He may have been humoring me, but he was being thorough about it.
After he was done, my parents switched off. Dad sat on my bed holding me, while Mom bent down and checked under the bed. There was a flashlight in my nightstand drawer. She used it to sweep light back and forth. Another thorough search. I told them there was nothing down there. I didn’t want them to think I was making anything up, or just randomly scared of being in my room alone.
My dad checked the window too, but it was still latched and locked. All seemed well, so they told me to try and get some sleep. But when I thought of them leaving, I couldn’t handle it. I begged them to stay. Mom said I could keep all the lights on. I begged at least one of them to stay with me. Dad said I could keep the door open and the hallway lights on too. Finally, I begged if I could sleep with them in their room, even though I didn’t think I’d sleep at all. They looked at each other. Then they gave in and let me bring my pillow and blanket to their room. I started settling into the sofa chair, but my dad shook his head and patted the space on the bed between him and my mom. He wasn’t afraid of a monster getting me. He was afraid I would mess up my back at a young age.
It happened again the next night, and the next. My parents tried to reason with me. They tried to explain that there were no real monsters. And even if there were, they wouldn’t be able to vanish into thin air when adults came barging in. It made sense, but at the same time, I knew something was after me. It never made a sound. I couldn’t even hear it breathing. I never saw it. I always hid. But I knew it was there. I knew it.
Then one day, I came home after school and my dad showed me, to my horror, that he had fixed the closet door, so it wouldn’t creak and scare me anymore. He didn’t know that it wasn’t the creaking that scared me. It was the thing that had caused the creaking, and now I had no way of telling if it was coming for me. I wouldn’t hear the warning.
That night, I didn’t even try to sleep in the room. After Mom and Dad kissed me goodnight and left the desk lamp on, and after Dad proudly showed me how quiet the closet door was, and after they both checked the closet and then under the bed for monsters, I sat awake with a flashlight in my hands pointed right at the closet. I waited until I thought my parents were settled into bed. Then I snuck out of my room as quietly as I could and went downstairs.
I don’t know why I felt safer on the living room couch. I somehow made up limits for the thing in my mind. I thought it wouldn’t go so far as to creep out of my room and come downstairs. I figured it wanted easy pickings. It might even be afraid of light. That might be why it jumped back into the closet when my parents came in. I had my watch on and I had set the alarm to go off before my parents got up. I would sneak back up to my room. I’d be safe in the morning light.
I did that for almost a week and my parents didn’t know. They didn’t change their schedules a lot back then. Then one day, they were called in for a parent-teacher conference. When they drove me home, they told me what my teacher had said. That I must not have been sleeping well and so I was yawning and getting drowsy during my lessons. My parents said I looked exhausted. They blamed themselves for not noticing sooner and I felt bad for fooling them. I came clean with them. That only seemed to make them feel worse for not noticing what their kid was up to in the middle of the night. They told me it was temporary because I had to be independent sometime, but I could sleep in their room for a while, so I could get enough rest.
I remember how good it felt to sleep, to sleep in a bed, and not be scared. I couldn’t do it without them. Even on the couch, I kept waking up every now and then, thinking I heard something, thinking I saw a shadow. I’d had to turn the TV on a few times and leave it on mute.
A couple of weeks later, there was another parent-teacher conference and this time, my parents were happy afterwards. My grades were improving. I was eating more. I had enough energy to run around during recess. Things were good until my parents started hinting that I could go back to sleeping in my room. I started dreading it, but I knew there was nothing I could say to convince my parents not to make me do it. Sometimes I would get angry with them and think it would serve them right if I got kidnapped by a monster. Then they would be sorry.
But it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t believe me. Kids make stuff up. People make stuff up. And even I hadn’t actually seen the thing, just felt it.
I had thought about telling my best friend a few times, but when it was bright outside and we were at lunch drinking juice and talking about cartoons, the thing didn’t seem real. So it was silly for me to be afraid of something that wasn’t real. It was all in my head, I thought. And she was my first best friend. I didn’t want to mess that up. But my best friend was a good best friend. She noticed that something was weird with me. She kept bugging me to tell her. I finally did.
She told me that if I had no choice but to sleep in my own room again, then I needed some protection. The next day, while we were waiting for our folks to pick us up, she handed me a doll. It was all cloth, no creepy plastic head with creepy moving glass eyes. I smiled because she was so pretty. She had purple hair, a willowy dress, and a clenched fist at the end of one arm and tattoos along the other arm. The doll was smiling too. She looked sweet and tough at the same time. She looked cool. I instantly felt better and I hugged my best friend and thanked her. It was such a relief to tell my friend and get her understanding. On top of all that, I actually did feel safer with the doll in my room that night.
I was able to fall asleep, but then in the middle of the night, I came fully awake and I was afraid. I lay still, listening, but I heard nothing. I strained to hear sliding, creaking, anything. I heard nothing. I felt nothing. The room didn’t suddenly go pitch dark or chilly. For all I knew, I could throw back the covers and look and there would be nothing there. But I knew, I just knew that something was in my room. Something was moving in my room. I felt it. And then.
“Stay away from her.”
I jumped and gasped at the sound of the voice. It sounded like a girl, much older than me, but still young. It sounded strong, firm. And it sounded angry.
“Begone from this place.”
I tried to gulp but my throat was bone dry. Still I heard no movement, no sound other than the voice, and my own heart beating. There was no light save the night light. It was no dimmer or brighter than before.
“I don’t look like much, do I? Try me, then.”
There was a sudden bright light. Then the sound of shuffling. Then sliding and a slam. The closet door had closed. My room suddenly felt different. Emptier. I didn’t want to look. I was certain the thing was gone, but I didn’t want to look.
“It won’t bother you again.”
I was still scared. But not of the voice. I pushed down the covers and clutched them. I had taken the doll to bed. I remember hugging her in my arms. I remember feeling almost as safe as if my parents were with me.
She was on the floor. I must have pushed her off or dropped her. I got on my knees and looked over the edge of my bed as if I were peaking over the edge of a cliff.
“It won’t return. I’m sure,” the voice said. It was coming from the doll, though she wasn’t moving.
“What did it want?” I whispered. “What did I do?”
“It wanted to break your spirit and your mind, just because it wanted to. You didn’t do anything.”
I started to cry, as much out of gratitude as out of fear and confusion. But I didn’t want my parents to hear, so I cried quietly. I reached down for the doll and held her to my chest and cried. And when I was done, I gave her the only repayment I had.
“Thanks, Violet.” I had named her Violet because she had purple hair.
“Vanessa. My name is Vanessa.”
“That’s okay. You can call me ‘Violet’ if that’s what you like. It’s fun to have different names sometimes.”
“Thanks, Vanessa. You saved me.”
She laughed. It sounded…shy. “Maybe one day you’ll save me.”
“When I grow up?”
“If you don’t forget me.”
“I won’t forget,” I said, to assure her. I won’t forget, I thought, as a vow to myself.
I apologized for dropping her. She was a good sport about it. We chatted quietly all night, lying in bed like best friends.
I didn’t start off by asking her all the basics, like how she could talk, how my best friend came upon her, and was she really real, or did I just have the most vivid of imaginations?
I started by asking about her powers. There was a boy at school who sometimes ran by me and tugged on my hair when my mom put it in braids. My best friend told him to leave me alone, but he wouldn’t. I didn’t have the guts then to tell him myself. That stupid boy wasn’t nearly as scary as the thing in my closet, but I asked Vanessa if she could help.
“I can’t protect you from people,” she said. “Only from monsters.”
“But my mom says some people are monsters.”
“Then I can’t protect you from all monsters, just the ones that aren’t people.”
“Even when I’m grown up?”
“For as long as you need me.”
“Why me? What about all the other kids?”
“Because I found my way to you. And no one is powerful enough to protect all the kids.”
I got scared by that thought, too scared to really even understand why I was scared. I asked Vanessa if I could lend her to any kids I knew of who thought they might have the same problem, a monster problem. She had no objection to helping other kids, but she warned me that she could only help those who could hear her voice, and not many did.
That doll was precious to me. Even when my best friend moved away, I had Vanessa to remember her by. Even after I lost touch with my best friend, I still had Vanessa. I collected a hamper full of other toys, a giant stuffed Bassett hound, little stuffed baby chicks, even “monsters,” but Vanessa was always my favorite. She was their leader. I stopped hearing the sound of her voice, but I never stopped hearing her voice in my thoughts. She helped me defeat different monsters—math problems and stuff. She was always the voice of encouragement, giving strength, giving heart. I was getting close to entering high school when I started donating all of my childhood toys and posters and the like. I kept Vanessa. I decided I’d even take her to college.
Then it happened. That dog. I loved that dog, but she found Vanessa. After all the years I’d managed to protect my toys from her predatory jaws.
I came home from whatever afterschool activity I was doing. My mom, who always thought I was sentimental about the doll because my first best friend gave her to me, broke the news. She showed me the pieces.
I gave our dog a dark look. He cocked his head at me cluelessly and blinked his eyes asymmetrically. Dammit Dasher, I forgive you.
I took the remains to my room and placed them in a drawer, determined to put her back together again. And for the first time in a long time, I heard the voice, not as an inner voice that I could only “hear” with my mind, but as the clear and twinkly voice that my ears heard.
“You don’t need me to be in the doll anymore. You can hear me without her.”
I smiled. It had been a while. I had forgotten how comforting her voice was, my friend’s voice. Then I got excited. There was so much I had never discussed with Vanessa, so much I had never asked before, because I was too young to know the right questions. Or to care perhaps.
“Vanessa, hello. I’m so glad to hear your voice.”
She laughed. “It’s been a while.”
“I have so many questions.”
I started with the niceties of asking how she was and if she needed anything and as usual, she answered honestly. She was fairly well and needed nothing. So I burst out with the intrusive questions.
“Who are you? What are you?”
Silence was the only answer.
“Your friend,” she said at last.
“I know, but what manner of being are you? Are you…a ghost? What do you look like? Do you look like your doll?” If so, I wanted to ask about the tattoos and whatever she was holding in her hand all those years.
“I can’t say,” she said. She sounded as if she were straining. “I…don’t know if I know.”
“Vanessa? Are you okay?”
“Yes, as long as you remember me, I’ll be okay.”
I was a happy kid, a tortured teen, and a melodramatic young woman. As I grew up, I had many a doubt and demon hounding me with dark thoughts. I had low self-esteem. But I also still had that core of hope and striving. There was always that little voice inside that told me I could do it, when it seemed the rest of the world told me I couldn’t. That little voice that believed in me and understood me when my loved ones didn’t. The little voice that told me I was worthy, when the rest of the world seemed not to notice me at all. Every now and then, I would remember Vanessa, my imaginary childhood friend, and I would smile and thank her for whispering words of encouragement. I’d imagine that instead of having an angel and a devil sitting on my shoulders and influencing me, I had a little fairy-like girl, with purple hair and a tattooed arm, whispering in my ear. After a while, I didn’t really believe she was real. I believed it was just me, my inner voice, telling me to take heart and have courage.
But maybe it was Vanessa.
I always thought that if I started hearing voices again, it would be because something traumatic and life-changing had happened. But life was going well, the waters were fairly smooth and calm, when the tiny familiar voice returned several years after the last time I’d heard it. I was working full-time, not at my dream job, but at a good one. All was good with my loved ones. I was starting to take care of myself in the usual boring way that everyone should—getting regular check-ups, taking my meds, eating well, exercising. There was stress. As there always is. But nothing I couldn’t handle.
I had started taking some art classes and finally trying to reach for my dream of being a painter.
I started hearing the voice in my head encouraging me, calming my doubts, challenging me. Then one day, when I sat in front of an empty canvas in the office that my roommate and I shared in our place, watching the clock, thinking about an approaching deadline that was catching up to me, I sat back and sighed. And a voice spoke as clearly as if someone were in the room with me.
“Don’t give up.”
I started and looked around. Sound carried funny in our place. Sometimes when people on the walkway below would be speaking, it sounded as if they were in my bedroom. It freaked me out the first time I heard it. But I knew this voice. She wasn’t out there somewhere. She was in the room with me.
“I don’t intend to,” I said quietly to myself.
“That’s good, but it is all right to take a rest. Even to miss a deadline every now and then.”
“I know. My head knows that. But my ego wants to carry on.”
“You have come so far. I am amazed.”
I laughed. “Hardly. I’ve got a long ways to go.”
“Yes, and you have hard work ahead of you. But many do not dare to go even this far.”
I frowned and looked at the hexagonal tower on my roommate’s desk. It was one of those smart home interactive voice interface things.
“Come now, don’t insult your old friend. That’s not me in there.”
I glanced around the office then and up in the air. “Vanessa,” I said. I already knew it was her. “What can I do for you, old friend?”
“Let’s have a chat.”
“Are you going to throw out a bunch of brilliant ideas? Are you my muse?” I was still trying to figure her out instead of just accepting her as I’d done when we first met.
She was silent for a while. I got the sense that I had insulted or irritated her somehow. Somehow. Of course it was my constant questioning.
“I’m sorry. Force of habit. What do you want to chat about?”
She said she had been away from me for a while and wanted to catch up. So we chatted and I started absently painting, and I soon forgot that she was just a voice. My roommate often sat behind as we worked on our separate projects. I was used to chatting with a disembodied voice. It was so easy and natural to accept that Vanessa was real. I not-so-coyly inquired about her time “away,” but when she said she couldn’t discuss it, I let it go. I sometimes wondered if she was a goddess of ancient myth, walking the earth invisibly, charmed by mortals, enough to try to help them. Maybe she had been away helping others. When I suggested it, she laughed and praised my imagination. But I noticed she neither confirmed nor denied my guess. I didn’t press. I trusted she meant good for me. That would have to be enough. We’d been discussing ice cream flavors. She had never had ice cream in her life. Her life.
I had enough calm, enough wisdom, and enough strength now not just to ask but to offer.
“You’ve been there for me all my life,” I said. “Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”
There was no answer, and for a moment, I thought that she had gone away again. But then…
“I thought I could ask, and now that the day has come, I dare not. It’s too much to ask.”
I smiled. “Maybe it’s too much for me to handle, but it shouldn’t be too much for you to ask.”
“You would have to face the very creature who so terrified you when we first met.”
“That’s doable. I’m grown now. I’m afraid of grown-up things. If that thing is real, then tell me what it is. I’ll hit the books and read up on its weaknesses and how to defeat it, and then I’ll face it. But why do you need for me to do this? Will it help you?”
“Will it…save you?”
“I hope so.”
“Vanessa, I never asked. But why have you helped me?”
She laughed. “You have asked before. That and many other questions I long to answer but can’t. You have a bad memory for one so young.”
“And what did you tell me, when I asked?”
“Monsters stalk many children. But rarely do they have the power to reach them. The simple tools of light and love are enough to drive them away. And the strength one gains in growing up is enough to keep them away. But there are a few children now and then, who are especially vulnerable.”
“I couldn’t be sure. But I thought so.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps it’s how you were born. Perhaps it’s where you lived. There is no one reason. You inhabit the same space. You are…reachable. That’s also why you can hear me.”
“Are you a monster, too, Vanessa? A good one?”
Vanessa laughed again. It was musical and twinkly. More like a bird than a monster. “Yes, I like your way of thinking. There are good monsters. I am one. Or so I try to be.”
Her answered startled me. She had never told me what she was before. A good monster. Still a vague answer. I told her I would do it. I would face my childhood nightmare for her. What I told her was true. I wasn’t afraid of monsters the way I used to be (the same was true of bugs). I could face it. I owed Vanessa that much. When we first met, I told her she had saved me. She said I might save her one day in turn. Maybe that day had come. And maybe the why was not my business. Only the how.
We wasted no time. I was off from my day job for a few days. So I had time for an ancient ritual or two before getting back to the grind. Vanessa instructed me. The thing had no name and no set appearance. Its shape was determined by my fear, so she could not tell me anything about it. Not even its strengths or weaknesses. She said I would know it when I saw it. I would feel it. I had to return to the place where I first encountered it.
My parents still lived in the same house. I returned home to a surprised but grateful mother (my dad was at a work conference). I had to stay in my old bedroom.
“It won’t come for you. You’re no longer a child. You will have to go to it.”
“Sleep. And battle in your dreams.”
Vanessa explained that what I was doing would help save her, but once saved, she may not be able to stay and say goodbye. So she said her goodbye right there and then.
“Come what may, it has been a pleasure and honor being your friend.”
I was not prepared. “Thank you…for everything,” I said, inadequately. “I hope it works.”
I hadn’t had trouble sleeping in that room since Vanessa banished the thing that was after me. But that would be a problem if I just conked out without any conscious control. Vanessa said I needed to control my actions in my dreams, to move with purpose.
I had tried lucid dreaming a few times, to no avail. I would have to try again. I had read it helped to have a totem handy to focus on. Something I could hold onto in the waking world and take with me into the dream. It may seem morbid, but the thing I took was Vanessa’s hand. The doll’s hand, that is. The one that had gotten torn off when my dog destroyed the doll. The doll I’d meant to put back together again, but never did. I had saved the parts. The doll’s right hand had gotten the stuffing torn out of it. The left hand, from the tattooed arm, was open and whole. When I wrapped my fist around it, it felt as if Vanessa was with me, holding my hand.
I was in my apartment, but it wasn’t the same. The living area was bare of all furniture. There was just a desk lamp in one corner and it was turned on. There were a few boxes beside it and an open laptop on the floor. It was as if I’d just moved in. I looked at the laptop screen. Something seemed strange about it, but I couldn’t reason out what. The kitchen was dark. I tried switching some lights on, but they didn’t seem to be working. I saw the shadows of dirty dishes in the sink. Beyond the kitchen should have been a section of hallway leading onto my humble balcony. But now it led to another room, a room with a pile of clothes in the center, and beyond that room was a door that led to a bathroom, and beside the bathtub was another door that led to another room. I walked through all the rooms until I got to the bathroom. It was dimly lit. A bath was drawn. It looked warm and inviting. I reached out to feel the water and realized that I couldn’t use my right hand to do that, because I was holding something.
I looked at my fist. I wanted to open it and look at what I was holding, but I got distracted by the excitement of having all the new rooms in my place. I wondered if my roommate had seen them. I started walking into the next room, a darkened bedroom. There was another door opposite to the one where I stood. I moved toward it and when I went through I was suddenly in some kind of warehouse. Again, it was night. There was dim light coming through some windows, I think. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was trespassing. I tried looking for a door ahead. It didn’t occur to me to go back. That wasn’t possible. I had to move onward. Going back would get me nowhere. And I had to be somewhere.
I thought I heard something. People moving through the warehouse. I ducked down behind some shelves and stacked boxes until they passed. I saw a door. I tried to move stealthily toward it, but I was moving fairly quickly and making a bit of noise. I had to hurry. I felt urgency for some reason. I saw beyond the door and the windows that flanked it. It was a yard, at first, lush with life, but when I opened it, the yard expanded to a full on grounds. Manicured grass and rampant grass cohabited. A dirt path flanked with stone fountains led me on to a grove of trees.
The light was like early morning light on an overcast day, gray and bluish. I walked onward. The path climbed slightly. The grove became a forest, and the forest began to darken. There was no sound, I realized. And though it was dark, I could somehow see just enough to make my way onward. I walked with my right hand reaching out. I thought it was so I wouldn’t bump into anything, but then I felt as if my hand was being tugged by something. My thoughts were so hazy, so unfocused. I wanted to follow a thought through to the end, but I kept getting distracted. My path kept leading me to something new. I passed a great river with a bridge lying right on top of it, and the bridge bucked and fell with the river waves. I passed a great blaze that was devouring a city of skyscrapers. I was so far away, I could only watch. I could do nothing about it. So I walked onward.
And the forest dimmed again and I saw nothing but a dark shape ahead. I felt a twinge of apprehension. But I also felt the urge to follow.
Then I saw light ahead. A dim point of light. I moved toward it. It was a soft white light. A rectangle of light, but something was blocking it.
It’s the thing.
My thoughts snapped into focus. I was awake. Or, it felt like waking. I looked ahead. It was too dark to see around the thing. I couldn’t tell if I was still in the forest. The rectangle of light was growing broader. It looked like a doorway, a portal. And the thing, the thing, my enemy, was right there before it. It just looked like a skulking shadow. It moved past the doorway, through it. I rushed toward the thing. I had to catch it. I had to face it. I’d never been in a physical fight in my whole life, but I had to fight it. I moved closer as quietly as I could. I approached the doorway and looked beyond it. My eyes adjusted to the light and I saw the inside of a room. It was a bedroom. A child’s bedroom.
The baby blue paint on the walls. The sliding closet door. I saw a tiny figure lying on the floor. Lying, not standing or facing. I heard a voice. I was at the threshold of the doorway now and I saw the thing skulking toward the bed, where a tiny little heap signified a child hiding beneath the magenta-colored covers.
“Stay away from her,” a familiar voice said. A voice that—cliché but true—filled my heart with courage.
I stepped into the room.
“Begone from this place,” the voice warned. But the thing ignored her. Silent and terrible, it crept forward.
I thought about what I should do and realized that my hands weren’t free. I looked down at the fist of my right hand. I turned my hand around and opened the fist. And there was a tiny little hand. Vanessa’s hand.
She spoke again. “I don’t look like much, do I? Try me.”
I knew the thing wouldn’t fall for the bluff. I stuffed the doll’s hand into my pocket and glanced up. And I gaped at what I saw. It was no bluff. I saw her now, standing beside the doll, a figure. She was hazy, flickering. Child-sized herself. Light pulsed off her entire being. That made the thing hesitate. But the figure, Vanessa, was stooped. I couldn’t quite see her. I couldn’t see her face, her features. She seemed weakened somehow. I wasn’t certain she had any powers against the thing.
I couldn’t stand by and watch. I had to help her. Help them. The thing looked away from the doll and the figure beside it.
I lunged forward and wrapped my arms around the thing. I thought it would melt away like a shadow, but it felt solid and scratchy. Its limbs were like dried tree branches. I yanked it back and found that I was a match for it. It had weight and strength, but so did I, enough to pull it away and back. It struggled against me, making no sound. And I too resisted crying out. I planted my foot on the ground, glanced back toward the closet door, and pushed backward with all my strength.
The thing and I tumbled through the open doorway, which slammed shut, leaving us in darkness. I was scared, but I was angry too. This was the thing. The thing that had terrorized me. The thing that had tried to hurt me.
I wanted more than justice. I wanted revenge.
“I can’t let you terrorize that little girl again,” I said, my voice quivering. “Or any little girls or boys.”
I knew I could win, for I remembered never being terrorized by the creature again. So even though I felt its sharp edges slicing and bruising me, I held on to the thing for dear life. It kept changing its height. It was taller than me, then it was shorter. I started punching it randomly. I lost my grip and panicked, but my eyes had adjusted to the dark again, and I saw it trying to scurry away. I jumped on it and dragged it back toward me. I turned it around and pinned it, wondering what horror I’d see. I had begun wondering if I’d see my own face, the old cliché of being one’s own worst enemy. But it wasn’t my face I saw. Sometimes, the monster is real. This one was. It was a nightmare thing. Its eyes were red and mean. They sat in a gaunt and vampire-pale face with a bruise along one side. Its teeth were small, rotted, and sharp and they were set in a circle in the thing’s gums. I looked away for a moment, even as I held it pinned to the ground.
Now that we weren’t in the bedroom, it cried out and its cry was like a hissing hyena’s laugh. It turned its head to the left and opened its mouth. The inside of its mouth extended out and it clamped down on the skin of my wrist.
I cried out in pain and pulled my hand away. The thing let go of my wrist and pushed me off. It leapt up, but I reached out and grabbed its bony ankle. I jerked my hand back and I felled the thing. It seemed to shrink as it fell. I looked at the inside of my wrist. A circle of puncture wounds oozed blood.
I loomed over the thing. I looked into its red eyes and I asked it a question.
“What do you have nightmares about?”
I pulled my totem out of my pocket. The doll’s hand melted into my own hand. I raised my hand to the creature.
The thing looked so scared… My rage evaporated. For a moment, I felt sorry for it. I remembered that I had been terrified by it, traumatized. I remembered that I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t rest. But I had defeated it now. I didn’t have to destroy it.
I woke slowly. Before I opened my eyes, I let the tears of sadness and relief trickle down into my ear. I was lying on my back. My right hand still felt warm.
I had laid it on the creature, the way a preacher lays a hand of healing on a parishioner. A hand of purging. That’s all I did. I didn’t strike it. I didn’t punch it or choke it or hurt it. I wanted to. But I didn’t. I just lay my hand on the creature. But I did take satisfaction in watching it bubble and burn and melt away before my eyes. One less monster to trouble the dreams of the young.
“Vanessa?” I called. “Are you still here?”
There was no answer. I lay there for a while longer, and then, not realizing how exhausted I was, I fell asleep. When I woke, it was morning. I didn’t remember having any dreams. I called for Vanessa again, but I knew I would hear nothing. Nothing but my own voice.
But that was all right. We’d said our goodbyes. My own voice was strong enough now. I had learned from her how to speak to myself.
I winced as I got up. I felt a sting on my left arm. I checked it and saw a circle of pinprick welts on the inside of my wrist. I frowned. I checked my pocket, but there was no doll’s hand. I was glad that I had helped Vanessa. But it didn’t sit well with me that I had no remembrance of her but had a permanent remembrance of that cursed creature.
But I knew what to do. My friend had showed me. When the wounds healed, I went to a tattoo parlor. I’d always wanted to get a tattoo, but could never decide what or where. I’d always liked butterflies. That’s what Vanessa’s name meant. Butterfly. I asked for a Blue Swallowtail—with a good helping of unnatural purple—wings outstretched, to cover up those ugly bite marks. To cover and defeat them. The artist was a genius. The butterfly was beautiful, vivid, and luminescent. If Vanessa really were a butterfly, I was sure she would look like that.
I realized I would probably start talking to my tattoo now that that my doll was gone. Now that the voice was gone.
“So be it,” I said, looking down at the tattoo after it was all healed and ready to show off. People would want the story behind the tattoo. I would tell it.
“You deserve to be remembered and honored,” I told the butterfly. “You saved me in the best way possible. You helped me save myself.”
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel