I didn’t feel scared, really. I should have. I thought about calling out to my parents. But I decided not to. That would scare them. I didn’t want to scare them for nothing. Especially since I wasn’t scared. I should have been. Maybe it’s because I thought I was dreaming. A really vivid dream.
But it was hazy too. Like there was a film over my eyes. I could see it. I could tell what it was. But it didn’t make sense.
It had four stubby legs, and a body that was shaped like a loaf of bread, sliced bread, or like a giant bean. And its face was…its eyes were…
What was it?
I woke up to watch it walking into my room through the open door. I didn’t remember closing the door. But I always closed the door, so it should have been closed.
Part of its tail trailed off beyond the open door that I don’t remember leaving open.
It just sat there, or stood there, and I sat in bed, watching it. I didn’t say anything. I felt so tired. My eyes were sore. They wanted to close.
And I didn’t feel scared for some reason, even though there was a wild animal in my room.
I would wait and see if it did anything.
I would wait and see if I had to deal with now, or if I could wait till morning.
I fell asleep.
And when I woke up, with the sun already brightening my room with its sensible light, the animal was gone. And I thought it was a dream.
Still, I looked around a little. Peeked in the corners of my closet as I picked out my clothes for the day. Bent down to look under the bed after pulling my socks on.
I didn’t see anything.
But the next night, it happened again. The same way, pretty much. I was asleep. I woke up. I saw it walk in.
I just watched it again, sitting up in my bed. I didn’t turn the light on. There was enough light coming through the curtains (I didn’t have the light-blocking ones drawn, just the regular ones underneath). The moon was half full.
The first thought that came to mind when I first saw it was that it was an opossum. We used to have a few running around outside the apartment complex when we first moved in. One time, I saw one when I got home from school, standing beside the path that I usually took to the mailboxes. I froze. And the opossum froze. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I walked around the other way. I could check the mail later.
This animal had a tapered nose like an opossum. And it was furry on its legs and neck and face, but it had some kind of hard shell around its body, like armor, like an armadillo. That’s why it reminded me of a loaf of sliced bread when I first saw it. The armor was plated. It was sectioned.
The animal wasn’t doing anything. It wasn’t coming closer. It wasn’t making any noise. It wasn’t sniffing around my closet. But I couldn’t just go back to sleep without dealing with it.
I also couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I pictured all the things I could do. I could turn the light on. Maybe that would scare it away, but if it ran away, then I wouldn’t know where it was. Or…it might come right at me and attack. At least right now, I knew where it was. It was like a standoff. So I should try to trap it, maybe in the closet. Then I could leave it there until morning, and tell my parents. Then they could call animal control. Someone could come and get it.
But I didn’t know how I could make it go in my closet when the closet door was closed. And also I didn’t want it to be in my closet with all my stuff.
I guess I fell asleep still figuring out which plan to follow.
The next night, it happened again. Three nights in a row.
I’d had recurring dreams before, but not like this. Not so vivid. It didn’t seem like a dream at all at night when I was sitting up in bed, staring at the animal. It seemed real. I was real.
During the day, I felt brave enough to go searching the whole place for it. I even checked the air vents. I couldn’t find it anywhere, which meant that it definitely was a dream.
But at night, when it came walking into my room, when the light bent and reflected off its shell, when I heard the soft shuffle of its tail dragging on the carpet, I just knew it was real.
And I had a feeling I knew why it had come.
The animal started showing up the night after I took the test.
It was because I felt so guilty. That animal, it must have been my own guilt, visiting me.
So the next night, when it came, I thought at it. I meant to speak out loud, but then I chickened out. So I just thought at the animal, real hard.
I know what you are, I thought. You’re my guilt.
The animal that looked like a cross between an opossum and an armadillo didn’t make a sound. It didn’t move. It didn’t look at me. It just stared at the wall.
I’ll make it up somehow, I thought. I’ll even it out. I’ll make it right.
Still no response from my guilt animal.
Do you believe me?
That night I fell asleep thinking at my guilt animal.
I was starting to wake up with a sore neck from sleeping in a sitting up position.
At night, it was the animal that reminded me of my guilt. During the day, it was my own conscious thoughts. I kept arguing with myself that others did worse, that I would make it up to my teacher, that no one had gotten hurt, and that everyone makes mistakes. But I had learned my lesson. I would never do it again. Also, weirdly, I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t actually done it after all. Maybe I had only dreamed that I had done it. Maybe that was another vivid dream.
When the tests came and I saw my score, though, I couldn’t deny it anymore.
That night, when I spoke to my guilt animal, I made a plan.
The next day, after school, I took my mom aside. I told her what happened.
I forgot to study. I had a huge fight with Grace. We hadn’t had a fight like that since the second grade. I was so angry and sad that I got distracted and just forgot all about the test. I only did well on tests when I studied. And I’d gotten into the habit of cramming the night before.
“So…I cheated,” I said. I made myself look in my mom’s eyes, but I dropped my gaze right away. I couldn’t make myself look at her face. Her disappointed face.
I even admitted to her how easy it had been to cheat. The teacher trusted me. She never once looked at me. Even if I wasn’t trying to be careful about how many times I looked at the palms of my hand, she probably would not have seen.
My mom asked me why I did it.
I didn’t want to ruin my overall grade in my favorite class. I had still been kind of mad at Grace. I blamed her for forcing me to do what I had to do.
My mom surprised me by asking me how things were with Grace.
We had just started talking again. I’d been worried about that too. And I’d felt guilty about that too. Things with Grace would be okay.
I assured my mom that I would tell my teacher. And when I said it out loud, I felt my stomach lurch. Because if I told one teacher, it was like telling them all.
But it would be worth it if I could sleep through the night. It would be worth it if I would stop being visited by my guilt animal.
So the next day, I told my teacher. And my stomach lurched and gurgled the whole time. And I felt my face turn hot, and I felt sweat suddenly appear everywhere. I almost cried.
But after a long time, it was over.
My teacher would have a conference with my parents.
My grade would take a hit. I had a lot to make up for. But I would make it up…to everyone.
And that night, when I went to bed, I thought that at least I would be able to sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night.
Right away, I looked to the bedroom door.
There it was.
My guilt animal. I guess there was still some leftover guilt in my conscience.
For how long? I wondered.
I noticed there was something different about my guilt animal that night. It was already there, for one thing. It didn’t walk into the room. Now, it was facing the door, and not the opposite wall. It had grown a frilly collar around its neck, like some kind of exotic lizard on a nature show.
And its color had changed. It had been kind of a sandy green before. Now it was more like a light green, with deeper green around the edges of its shell plates. And that neck frill was sort of a dark red. It was pretty. But that didn’t make me feel any better.
I had thought the animal was a manifestation of my guilt. Or some kind of phantom of justice, visiting me to make me face my crimes.
But I had done that. I had faced my crime, but the animal was still there.
I obviously had to do something more.
I gulped. And I gulped again to push down a lump. I cleared my throat as quietly as I could, and then realized that was dumb, because I was aiming to speak, so I cleared it more loudly.
My guilt animal didn’t respond.
“Excuse me,” I said.
But my guilt animal didn’t respond.
I asked it what its name was. No response.
I asked why it kept visiting me, and why it only came at night, and where it went during the day. No response.
I leaned forward, thinking that I might as well get out of bed and approach it. But then my stomach lurched and I chickened out.
I was talking out loud. Wasn’t that enough for one night?
I kept asking it questions.
You’re not here to hurt me, are you?
You’re not here to help me, are you?
Why are you here?
Why haven’t you gone?
What’s your name?
Do you know me?
Are you part of me?
The creature answered none of my questions. It just sat there, staring out of the door.
I lay down, but with my head at the edge of the bed, so I could still see my guilt animal.
I looked at a few dream dictionaries online to see what it meant when you dreamt about specific animals. I asked my mom if I ever had any weird stuffed animals when I was a baby (Grace had suggested that when I told her all about my guilt animal.)
My mom couldn’t remember my having anything other than the typical stuff. She did remember that I had an imaginary friend when I was about four or five, and it was some kind of animal.
That’s when I started to remember.
She was right. I did have an imaginary friend, and long after he went away, I remembered him. When I was older, I wrote a poem to him or maybe a letter or something.
I searched my old school stuff—art projects, printouts of essays, and written tests. My mom kept all of it in the basement, even though I kept telling her to get rid of it.
In a bankers’ box with random painted foam balls of different sizes disintegrating at the bottom, I found an old science fair project model of the solar system, a stack of color-faded construction paper, and something that made my heart skip a beat.
When I was eight or nine, some distant cousins came to visit. My oldest cousin brother was “unlucky thirteen” years old, as he called it. And he loved comic books. He showed me the dozen or so he’d brought on vacation with him, and let me read them. And he pointed out the different art styles of different artists. I only caught half of what he was throwing at me, but for the next year, I kept begging my parents if I could start collecting comics. They refused, because they knew me. I’m not the collector type. My mom told me that if I was serious about liking comics, I should write one of my own.
So I did.
I wrote and drew ten full pages of a comic. Issue number one. A rare and forgotten volume.
In it, the main character had a very unusual sidekick, an animal that looked like a cross between an armadillo and an opossum. This “opossumillo,” as I called it, was named Milo, and Milo had the power to eat fear.
The main character was a hero, but even heroes felt fear every time they faced danger, so a fear-eating friend was the perfect sidekick. And just before he ate the fear, Milo helped the hero face that fear.
I was going to make Milo a dog, but that seemed too obvious. And the fear thing made me think of all the animals that I was afraid of, and how maybe I could stop being afraid of them, if I could be their friend. I remembered where I got the idea about the fear-eating too. It was after my dad told me not to be afraid of the lizards I saw every now and then in the house, because they wouldn’t hurt me, but they would keep the house clean of insects, because that’s what they ate. And when it came to animals, bugs had always been my ultimate fear.
I flipped to the front of the comic, to the title page, where I even had the sticker price listed, and some made-up stamp of approval.
“Kid Fearless and the Opossumillo.”
I read the tagline on the bottom.
“They eat fear for breakfast…and poop it out the next day.”
When I lay in bed that night, I thought about all the different fears I’d had over the past couple of weeks. I was afraid (and then not afraid, and then afraid again) that Grace and I would never make up, that I would lose my best friend forever. I was afraid that I would ruin my grade in my favorite class, the class I was most proud of being good in. I was afraid of what my parents would think of me when I told them I cheated. I was afraid of what my teachers would think of me. I was afraid that I had somehow ruined my entire future with one mistake—a big mistake, sure—but just one.
So many fears swirling around.
For a fear-eater, it must have been a feast. It must have smelled like a summer barbecue.
I wasn’t surprised when I woke up and saw him again.
He didn’t respond. But that didn’t surprise me either. His fur was a light powdery purple that night, and his shell was a deep, dark, midnight purple.
“I think I know why you came,” I said. “I know you’re not here to hurt me. Or punish me. You just smelled a whole lot of fear, like a five-course dinner of fear. And you went toward it.”
I smiled. I told him that in the comic I wrote, only I could see him. And he was most powerful at night, because fear was more powerful at night. I thought that was true when I was that age. Though, most of the fear I’d felt now all happened in the daylight.
“I’m not trying to be a hero,” I said, “so I don’t really need a sidekick. But I do need to sleep. I thought that you kept waking me up. But that doesn’t make sense. You barely make a sound when you come in. You don’t even come near me. You don’t bother me.”
So I wondered. Why do I keep waking up?
“I haven’t faced it yet,” I said. “What I’m really afraid of. Until I face it, you can’t help me by eating it. Is that right?”
Milo, my opossumillo, my guilt animal, gave no answer.
I sighed, and then I took a deep breath when I felt a tightness in my chest. I swallowed. I didn’t want to say. I didn’t want it to be true.
“I can’t make it up,” I said. And I felt my stomach lurch. I was getting tired of that feeling. I took a deep breath. “I keep trying to think of things I could do, or say, or promise to everyone to make it up to them, to make it right again. But the only real way to do that is if I never cheated in the first place. I can’t go back and undo it. I can’t go back. I can only go on.”
My stomach began to settle. “From now on, I shouldn’t do the right thing because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t. I should do the right thing because it’s the right thing, because I want to be a person who does the right thing.”
Milo continued staring out of my bedroom door.
What was so interesting that he was looking at? My fears?
I flipped aside my sheets. “What do you say, Milo?” I swung my legs around and let them dangle over the side of the bed. “Hungry?”
I pushed off gently and stood beside my bed. I stepped toward the opossumillo. He didn’t move. I took another step.
When I was almost next to him, he started moving. I caught my breath. I watched him walk out of my room. Before his tail disappeared, I followed him out, wondering where he was leading me.
But the hallway was dark. I reached back and groped around for the light switch in my room. I flicked it on and the light brightened the hallway. I glanced to my left, and I glanced to my right.
But I didn’t see Milo.
I searched, tiptoeing around the apartment. I didn’t find him.
I went back to bed. My stomach was quieter. My thoughts were quieter. I still felt a little nervous, a little afraid. But if I still needed help with that, I would turn elsewhere. Milo had done all he could do. He had done a lot.
I whispered a word, as I closed my eyes.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel