ROGUES GALLERY 3: Jennifer Word
The Monster Across the Street by Jennifer Word
Emma stumbled down the hallway, still half asleep. Her brain hadn’t quite caught up with her pounding heart. Already though, her daughter’s screams were planting visions in her head, pushing out her quickly fading dreams. She imagined she might open her daughter’s door to find a strange man standing over her bed. She wished she had woken her husband to go in, instead of her. How would she defend herself against a strange man in her house? She didn’t even have a weapon, unless she counted her nails. How could her husband sleep through his daughter’s blood-curdling cries? She reached Jordan’s door and barged in without hesitation.
Jordan reached out, crying hysterically. Emma was there in an instant, holding Jordan in her arms.
“What is it, honey, what happened?”
Although Emma already knew. This was the third night in a row. Why had she thought a man was breaking in to kidnap her child? They had been through this twice before.
Damn news, Emma thought.
Some little girl had just been kidnapped in the middle of the night, right out of her bedroom, in Utah. It had been all over the news for the past week. She wondered if, somehow, Jordan had picked up on this story and perhaps, subconsciously, this was the cause of her nightmares.
“A monster, Mommy, a monster!”
Already Jordan was calming down, however. Her voice was still shrill and panicked, but she was no longer actively crying.
“Honey, it was just a dream,” Emma soothed. “It was just a nightmare.”
“But it was closer this time,” Jordan whined. “It was underneath my window!”
Emma’s head snapped up with a start. It had never gotten that close before. She tried to sound calm, hoping Jordan wouldn’t hear anything suspicious in her voice.
“I’ll just look, honey, okay? You’ll see, there’s nothing there,” she paused, “because it was just a dream.”
Emma walked over to the window, pulled back the curtain, and slowly peered down into the yard. She inched her face closer to the pane and looked directly down. Her breath fogged up the window almost instantly, but she breathed a sigh of relief. There was nothing there. Just grass. She turned back to Jordan and smiled.
“See, honey? It was just a dream. It wasn’t real. There was no monster.”
She walked back over to Jordan, who already looked sleepy again. She was blinking and her eyelids were drooping at half-mast. She settled Jordan back down onto her pillow, stroking her hair. Jordan’s eyes closed.
“There are no such things as monsters,” Emma whispered.
In her heart though, she thought she knew better. She just wasn’t certain anymore.
~She was having coffee with an old friend from college the next day, when Emma finally talked about her dream. This was a friend she trusted- the type of friend a person makes in college, and somehow a bond forms, so that despite all the years that came after, Emma felt completely comfortable telling her friend this crazy thing. Years could go by without talking to each other and yet, whenever they did meet, making time in their busy schedules, making the drive, they fell into conversation as if no time had gone by; as if they were still in school, living in their dorm. Liz was always the one Emma talked to about her problems, specifically because she never interrupted. She just listened until Emma was done, then took a long pause, and finally commented, always with some sage advice that seemed to help. Until today.
She was 5 years old, the same age as Jordan was now. She had been asleep in her bed, like she had been every night for five years. This night hadn’t been any different than any other. She was sound asleep, not having any particular dreams she could recall, and certainly no nightmares. She had woken up.
“That’s point number one to remember,” Emma pointed out to Liz, before going on. “How many people dream that they are waking up? Dream that they are awake? I mean, that is just too existential for a five-year-old mind, isn’t it?”
Emma sat in her bed for a moment in the dark. She knew she was awake, but she didn’t know why. She rarely woke up in the middle of the night, unless she had to pee. She took a moment to become aware of her body, feeling for that tingling sensation in her abdomen. It wasn’t there. She didn’t need to pee. Perhaps a noise had woken her up? She listened intently to the night. She could hear the wind blowing outside, ever so slightly.
Her bedroom was at the end of the hall, far away from the kitchen. There was no hum from any appliances to wake her up. Her bedroom was normally stone quiet at night, and even now, as she strained to hear any unusual sounds, she heard nothing.
It was fall. No birds chirped outside, even the ones that might have made noise at night. No sound of tires screeching from some bored teenager who might have been driving around in the middle of the night. She tried to think of other noises that could, or had, woken her up ever in the past. She couldn’t think of any. Why did she feel so uncomfortable?
Something wasn’t right. She felt it from the moment she became aware that she was awake. She had an uneasy feeling that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
It wasn’t because she was in the dark- she wasn’t. They lived in a cul-de-sac, just two houses in, and on either side of the circle opening, on the street corners, were two tall street lamps. They were bright enough to light up most of the circle at night. Emma's curtains were translucent pink; a thin substance of sheer linen that allowed light to pass through. There was enough light in her room every night from the lamps that she had never needed a nightlight. She could see her room well enough, and she began to take stock.
First off, the closet was closed. She always made sure it was closed before bed, because every child knows that if the closet is closed, it traps whatever creatures may be in there. Whatever plans those slithery, disgusting things may have about creeping out into your room and grabbing your exposed toes were always ruined. It was a rule of the creature world that all children, somehow, mysteriously knew. As long as the closet door was closed, they couldn’t get out.
Of course, there was never any need to worry during the daytime. They didn’t come out during the day, they simply couldn’t. There were rules, apparently, that even monsters had to obey. This was fair, Emma thought. This was how things stayed in order. Justice ruled supreme in a child’s world, and any instance where justice was thwarted was simply inconceivable to Emma. The closet was closed.
As for any monsters that may reside under her bed, she had taken care of that. She knew her stuffed animals were Magic. They were not just inanimate, stuffed fluff--they were Guardians. As long as she placed one at each leg of her bed, making four Sentinels in all, she would be safe.
Emma slowly leaned over the right side of her bed. She breathed a sigh of relief. She could see her stuffed elephant, Ellie, at the front post. Mr. Frog was at the foot post. That side was okay. She straightened back up, perspiring a little. She scootched over to the left side of the bed, where things were a little bit darker. This side was by the corner of the room, the window being just slightly off-center of her headboard. She peered down into the dark, waiting for her eyes to adjust just enough to see the silhouettes of Mr. Shark and Mrs. Crab. It took a moment to be sure, but yes, they were there. Her bed was being guarded. Everything was in its proper place.
Why was she awake? She felt scared, and didn’t know why. She had a sudden thought then. It popped into Emma's head almost as if it wasn’t her own thought at all, but some thought that was pushed in there; forced in from the outside.
Outside. She needed to look out the window. The answer was there. She somehow knew this without a doubt. She had woken up, for some reason, because she was supposed to look out her window. She was suddenly terrified.
Emma slowly got up on the balls of her feet, her knees bent. Her cotton nightgown brushed the tops of her toes briefly. She spun around on the fleshy part just behind her toes, until she was facing her headboard, and the window. She placed her hands on the sill and slowly raised herself until her eyes were just able to see over and out the window.
It was as if she knew where to look. Her eyes looked out, and immediately down, towards the corner, just under the diagonal street lamp. And that is where she saw it--the monster across the street. It stood several feet away from the street lamp, just sitting there. It was looking up at her. It was smiling.
Emma paused for a moment to take a sip of her coffee. Her hands were shaking. She hadn’t recalled this incident in so many details in years. She hadn’t thought about it. Not until Jordan’s first nightmare, three nights ago- three nights ago that seemed a lifetime away. A dream where Jordan had cried and insisted she had seen a monster outside her window - across the street. Liz hadn’t said a single word yet, which Emma loved her for. She just sat there, looking at Emma expectantly, her raised eyebrows seeming to say, “go on, keep telling it. I want to know.”
So Emma went on:
“Then I started to hear something.”
Emma suddenly heard the thing speak to her, although not in words, but in thoughts. Somehow, the monster across the street was communicating with her. It wasn’t in words, but the thoughts were there, in her head. She understood perfectly. The thing wanted her to come outside. It wanted to play with her. She knew it used the thought of play, but something inside her twisted. It did not want to play with her, she knew that much, no matter what it was trying to make her believe. It wanted to do things to her--horrible things. It wanted to hurt her. For a brief moment, she thought, “it wants to eat me.” She couldn’t take her eyes off that thing. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.
It wasn’t so big, she thought.
Emma told this to Liz.
“What did it look like?” Liz asked, saying something for the first time.
It was gray. The thoughts of five-year-old Emma intruded into grown up Emma’s head. She answered Liz’s question as best she could, in her jarred state.
It was a sickening gray color that Emma could only describe to Liz as brains. She had seen a picture of a human brain in an encyclopedia, as a child. Her parents had a full set of encyclopedia’s from A to Z that they kept in a bookshelf in the living room. Emma sometimes looked through them, taking in the pictures, because at age five, she couldn’t read yet. She was just about to start Kindergarten in one week. It was a week before Kindergarten that she had seen the thing across the street - the monster.
“It was gray, like the picture of the brain I saw in the encyclopedia,” Emma paused for a moment. ""Only more vibrant. More crisp.""
Then Emma continued on with her story, her memory:
It was bulgy and blobby. It had no arms or legs, but its shape narrowed out at the top, giving the impression of a head. It was all one continuous, bulbous form. There was no neck. It sort of reminded Emma of a Mr. Potato Head. She thought this for a moment. It had eyes, but they were slightly swallowed up by the folds of formless ‘ick’ that made up this ugly thing. It was vague, in many ways. No definitive form to grasp onto. It was just a thing - a gray, formless thing. Like a creation a child might make out of play dough, or even sticky mud, but they never quite decided on what it should be.
Emma was five, but she thought in a grown up way. She looked at the thing for what felt like minutes on end, and it never spoke again after its invitation for her to come out and play. It just sat there, looking up at her. It didn’t even smile anymore. There was no mouth there at all now. Emma wasn’t sure if there ever had been. The smile seemed more something that was suggested in her mind than something she had ever actually seen.
Alarmingly, there was a part of her that did want to go out and play. Part of her wanted to get closer, and see the thing better.
Or it wanted her to think she wanted to.
Emma did not go out and play. Something stopped her. A smell stopped her from even considering going outside. Whatever it was that enabled that thing to communicate with her, it had an unpleasant side effect. Emma knew this, somehow. Whatever channel had to be opened up from this thing’s mind to hers in order for it to speak to her, it also, somehow, enabled a smell to come through.
It was the smell that broke whatever hold the creature had over her. Whatever power it previously had to make her even consider wanting to go out there to play with it.
Emma paused, troubled. Liz said nothing, she only waited.
This was the hardest part for Emma, it always had been. Over the years in her childhood after she was five, whenever she would bring this disturbing memory up in her own mind, trying to recall it, it was always the smell that was the most difficult to define.
“It was something I’d never smelled before,” she said.
She paused, looking Liz straight in the face. “EVER.”
She continued on, telling Liz that sometimes, occasionally in her life, she had experienced dreams that had certain elements that seemed real. Once she had dreamed she was outside in the middle of winter with no shoes on, just bare feet. She was walking in the snow, and she had woken up, swearing she felt pain in her feet.
“Pins and needles,” she explained, “as if I’d really been walking in the snow, and my feet were starting to get numb.”
Liz nodded. She spoke for the first time in reply.
“Once I had a dream where my hand was on fire,” she hesitated. “I forget why, but anyway,” she continued, “I actually felt like my hand was burning. I felt the pain and heat and everything.”
Emma nodded. She had experienced dreams like that, where some of it seemed to cross through to the waking world. As if the mind believed it so much, it became a physical reality.
“They say that if you die in a dream, you will actually die in real life,” Emma said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but,” she trailed off, shrugging. “I know the difference between a dream component and something that is real.”
Emma tried to explain the odor to Liz, but how could she explain a smell? Especially one that was new and unlike any other smell ever experienced? She went through a myriad of things in her life that had smelled bad. Things that had smelled awful, things that had smelled rotten and putrid. Garbage, rotting vegetables, spoiled milk, poopy diapers, sulfur, burning plastic, even her own singed hair, once. None of these things even came close to accurately describing the smell she had experienced that night, while looking down at that thing across the street.
The smell hit Emma suddenly, like a punch in the gut. Her nostrils were suddenly, unexpectedly filled with a smell so foul, so all encompassing, that Emma stopped breathing, shocked at the odor. It made her eyes water and she blinked furiously. Her heart was immediately doing triple-time.
Somehow, she knew the smell was coming from that thing, just as she knew, immediately, the thoughts in her head were it, talking to her. She knew, somehow, that whatever connection it was that allowed the thing to speak to her, it had also let in this smell as well.
Suddenly she did not want to be anywhere near that thing. The smell could not allow that. It was simply that awful. It was like nothing she had ever smelled before. Emma didn’t know what it smelled like, only that it was bad. -And just like that, the spell was broken.
Emma backed away from the window, no longer wanting to see the monster across the street. She just wanted to go back to sleep. She just wanted to go back to her normal life. Somehow, unbelievably, she had lain down in her bed, flat on her back, pulled the covers up to her chin, and had closed her eyes.
The next thing she remembered was waking up in the morning, full daylight shining into her room through her translucent pink curtains. Her first thoughts hadn’t even been of the thing from the night before. In fact, she didn’t think about the thing across the street until breakfast, as she sat eating her Cheerios, sweetened with two extra spoonfuls of sugar. She recalled it vaguely, like a far off memory. She wasn’t frightened.
It wasn’t like recalling a dream, she explained to Liz.
“That’s point number two.”
Even dreams that Emma could remember to that day, were never so complete. Never so detailed. She could remember everything about that night. And what kind of child dreams of waking up, and even more so, of going back to sleep?
“That’s point number three,” Emma said.
She remembered waking up and going back to sleep. She had never dreamed of waking up or being awake and going back to sleep at any other time in her entire life.
“EVER,” Emma stared hard at Liz. “And that smell,” she said, her eyes looking haunted.
Over the years of her life, Emma would try to recall the thing and its smell, and try to identify it- failing every time. But if she concentrated very hard and closed her eyes, breathing deeply, sometimes (only a few times in her life after the incident) she could almost smell it again, briefly, vaguely, for just a moment. Those few moments, however, were so tangible, they were enough.
What she had seen had been real. She was certain of it. And now, her own five-year-old daughter, her sweet little Jordan, was seeing it.
“How do you know it’s the same thing?” Liz asked. “The same thing you saw when you were five?” She looked at Emma with sympathetic eyes.
“At first I didn’t,” Emma said.
At first she had thought it was just a nightmare, even when the details Jordan told her raised gooseflesh on her arms. When Jordan had said she saw a monster across the street, Emma was able to shrug it off, and tell her daughter it was just a bad dream.
The first night, Jordan had seen the thing across the street, in front of their neighbor’s house. She had immediately screamed for her mother. By the time Emma came in, Jordan said the thing had gone. She said it was just a blob and she couldn’t remember much else, but it had frightened her.
The neighbors across the street, the Thurstons, had installed motion detector lights on the front of their house so that any intruders even thinking about breaking in would be scared off by the sudden flood of bright light in their faces. Even as Emma laid her daughter back down in her bed that first night, telling her to go back to sleep, that everything was all right, she had an uneasy feeling.
There was nothing outside, in front of the Thurston’s house, but the lights were on. Something had made them go off.
“It could have been a dog,” shrugged Emma.
Liz remained quiet.
“Maybe a stray dog, or some other animal tripped the lights.”
On night two, Emma rushed into Jordan’s room, again woken by her frantic screams. Jordan was at her window pointing out. It had been there again, she said, this time standing in the middle of the street. This time, she told her mother that it had been gray, and looked like “Jabba the Hut, Mommy!”
Jordan hadn’t said it looked like a Mr. Potato Head. Jordan never said that it had spoken to her, or that there had been any communication. Emma kept telling her daughter that it was just a dream, and that there were no such things as monsters. She felt like the biggest liar in the world.
Emma looked at Liz, her tired eyes pleading. She didn’t know what to do. She could not, under any circumstances, ever let Jordan see the fear in her mother’s eyes. She could not, ever, give Jordan even the slightest hint that what she was seeing was real.
Emma could hardly believe it herself, but she had never told Jordan about her dream as a child. Jordan couldn’t have guessed the details, and they were so similar to what had happened to her. She knew it hadn’t been a dream, but even so, she had never told anyone about it, until now.
“Last night, Jordan saw it again,” Emma continued.
It was why she had called Liz, frantically begging her to drive the hour and a half to meet with her. She needed to talk to someone about it. Her husband would never believe her, and he would probably just laugh anyway, or worse, think she’d gone loony.
Tonight Emma would sleep in her daughter’s bed, under the guise of providing comfort, but really, it was because Emma couldn’t bare the thought of letting her daughter sleep alone. Not when last night, the thing had been underneath her window.
It had never gotten that close before, with Emma. And Emma had only seen it once. Jordan had seen it three nights in a row. This was different. This was dangerous, and it was real.
“Last night,” Emma said, her voice shaking, “last night,” - she couldn’t continue.
What could Liz possibly say that would make it all right? What could anyone ever say, or for that matter, do, to fix this?
Emma felt as if she, herself, was five-years-old again, only there were no Sentinels around her bed warding off the monsters, keeping them under there, where they could not reach up and grab her legs and drag her under. Everything seemed to have changed - the rules thrown off to the wayside, in her view of things. Old childhood fears were awake and alive now, breathing again, inside her tortured mind. And this time, things were different.
Her closet door was no longer closed.
Emma lay in her bed (in her mind), the one she use to sleep in, in the room she lived in when she was five, and stared at the open black hole that was her closet.
The door had slid all the way open.
There was no protection this time. There was no justice. There was only the monster under her bed - in her closet - across the street.
“Last night, Jordan was crying so hard,” Emma whispered, her throat constricting.
Jordan was hysterical on the third night she saw the thing. It had not been across the street, or even in the street. This time it had been underneath her window. And Jordan said it had wanted to play with her. It was no longer willing to wait outside, cajoling and convincing the little girl to come outside and play with it. It was determined to come inside and play with her.
Liz hadn’t known what to say, in the end. This was different than any of the other problems she had discussed with Emma in the past. This was not a fight with her husband, or an illness in her family. This was something completely different.
In the end, Liz focused on the fact that Emma and Jordan were both age five when seeing the monster. Her eyes looked hopeful.
“Maybe there is something about being five?”
But even that was small comfort to Emma. Jordan wouldn’t turn six for another 4 months.
Perhaps, if Emma was there with Jordan, the thing couldn’t harm her? It had seemed unable, for whatever reason, to return to Emma night after night, the way it was doing with Jordan. Perhaps Emma could keep her safe until the danger was past?
But there were so many uncertainties. When would it be safe? Why would it be safe? How would Emma know when that time had come? There had always been rules before for keeping scary things at bay. She had always known what to do to make things okay. But no amount of stuffed animals on guard, or closed closet doors could fix this. She didn’t know what the rules were. She didn’t even know, for that matter, if there were any rules.
Perhaps that thing, that monster, had free reign?
Tonight Emma would sleep with Jordan, even if her husband balked. She would sleep in bed with Jordan for however long it took; however long it was before Emma herself, was sure that thing was gone. How long before that would be, she did not know.
Would she ever feel it was gone? Would she ever have the comfort and peace of mind that Jordan was safe in her bed, in her room, all alone? Emma did not know.
Liz only stared at her friend with deep concern and sympathy, the fear in her eyes hidden, poorly; a tear trickled down her cheek.
“Last night, Jordan said she smelled that thing,” Emma said, her voice barely above a whisper. “She told me,” Emma hitched.
“Mommy, it smells bad.”