“There’s no such thing as monsters
They are hiding and watching
Just wait and see
Oh, there are monsters
For you and me.”
Nursey Rhyme, 1903. Author unknown.
Dr. Drake Dumm waited. The two parents sitting across from him hadn’t said a word, but it was plain as day his conclusions had not been well received. The father had a strong chin and a wavy mop of black hair that was kept under control with the minimum amount of wax. He wore light denim jeans and a dark, heavy shirt. His arms were crossed against his chest, forming a barrier between him and Drake. He tapped his foot, constant enough to create a beat and his jaw was clenched tight. Any minute now, Drake knew beads of sweat would start to form on his brow – if he didn’t explode first. The mother was the opposite. Blonde and petite like her daughter, with long straight hair, she clutched her coat like her life depended on it, and her teeth were pressing hard against her bottom lip. She rubbed her left arm above the elbow with her right hand, heavily invested in a microscopic examination of her feet, visible through the canvas sandals she wore. If he pulled a gun on her now, he doubted she would make eye contact even then.
“So, she’s making all this up then, for no reason.” Bruce, the girl’s father accused.
Drake addressed him quickly and assertively, making direct eye contact.
“That a monster is visiting her nightly and tapping on her window, hoping she’ll come out and play? There should be no doubt she’s making it up Mr. Clark. But I certainly never suggested for no reason.”
“So, you’re going to tell us it’s our fault, right?”.
“Blame isn’t something I like to assert in therapy Mr. Clark,” Drake explained. “And I don’t have enough facts after a single session to determine cause.”
“Is she… unwell?” Bianca, the mother asked.
“Think of Sienna as a ball of string. We’re going to have to pull at some threads before we unravel what’s underneath. But in our session, Sienna was confident, alert, polite, and honest.”
“But you just said she was making it all up!” the father barked.
“Mr. Clark.” Drake objected, leaning forward over the desk.
Psychology 101 – move closer to be closer.
“Bruce,” he nodded, quieter.
“Bruce,” Drake acknowledged. “Sienna whole-heartedly believes every part of her story. The reason you are here is because her story comes across as genuine.”
“We obviously don’t believe there’s a monster visiting our daughter, but we thought it might be… you know, a guy, a pervert. In a mask or something.”
“In our initial assessment, you stated that there was no evidence of anyone being on your property, no footprints below the window, no security lights going on. I believe you also have a dog?”
“And a cat,” Bianca added, seemingly eager to help.
“What breed is the dog, may I ask?” Drake enquired.
“An Australian shepherd, named Dingo.”
Drake nodded. He was familiar with the breed – enough to know that they had originated from California, bred from collies. They had good herding instincts, were easy to train due to being intelligent, and were protective of their homes and family.
“Then I think it’s highly unlikely. However, one of the things I would suggest is that you set up a trail camera outside Sienna’s bedroom. But you must understand this isn’t to prove that something or someone is visiting Sienna in the night. It’s to prove they aren’t.”
Bruce nodded, although it seemed a little reluctantly.
“Having an imaginary friend is completely normal for children, and it’s more typical in girls. Especially when they’re an only child,” Drake explained. “Children with imaginary friends have been shown to be more creative, better at seeing other people’s perspectives, and are better at keeping themselves entertained. There is no link between imaginary friends and mental illness, or other issues.”
Drake shifted his weight in his seat, subtly directing his attention back to Bianca, the girl’s mother, as she had been the one to bring up being unwell.
“But… this isn’t really an imaginary friend, is it?” Bianca asked, looking directly at him. “It’s a monster.”
Drake sat back and gave a slight nod of acknowledgement, aiming to provide both comfort and a softened rebuttal.
“Imaginary friends usually fall into one of two categories,” Drake explained. “The first, often visualised as a baby animal, enables the child to take on a nurturing, teacher-like role. The other, are beings like superheroes or creatures and people with magical powers. In those cases, it’s often about feeling competent.”
“You’re losing me Doc,” Bruce interrupted, holding up a hand.
Drake gave the father the same nod he’d shared with the mother just a few moments ago.
“Let’s say Sienna needs to feel brave or good about doing something,” Drake continued. “What better way of reminding yourself, than knowing you’ve faced a monster. But, ultimately, this monster can’t and won’t harm her. And despite us associating this creature…”
“It’s a werewolf thing, I think,” Bianca stammered.
Drake smiled appreciatively and leant forward again, his elbows resting on the desk.
“We think of it as scary because we’ve seen movies and pop-culture references that tell us that. Sienna doesn’t have our tarnished insight. What she has, is a playful, brown – I assume Dingo is brown, like Sienna says the monster is?”
Both parents nodded. He could see they were taken aback and were joining the dots, just as he had.
“A playful, brown, dog-like monster,” Drake continued.
“We’re just worried that she’ll go off into the forest, at night,” Bianca explained. “You know what we’re like in the South. Locking doors is almost unheard of. But we’re checking doors and windows every night. Maybe it’s making us paranoid,” she shrugged, looking at Bruce.
“As I said, Sienna’s behaviour is well within normal expectations and she will grow out of it,” Drake said. “The only flag of concern was this latest incident, where she blamed some bad behaviour on the creature.”
Bruce nodded, a flash of colour flooding his cheeks.
“She tried to unlock the front door,” he answered. “If I hadn’t stayed up watching the TV, I wouldn’t have seen her. She snuck right past the doorway.”
Bianca offered a weak smile.
“When we asked, she said the doggy told her to do it,” she stammered, a tear racing down her cheek.
Drake turned in his chair and took the silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of the linen blazer draped over the back of his chair. He handed it to Bianca, with his gaze fixed on Bruce. By not making eye contact with the woman, he hoped to save her any embarrassment she felt for breaking down.
“Again, I want to reassure you that you’re not alone, that many other parents have gone through what you are, and that Sienna’s behaviour is completely normal for her age,” Drake smiled reassuringly. “And it is nothing that you’ve done or are to blame for,” he added.
When he looked again at Mrs Clark, she smiled, and he could see that she had wiped her tears away. The damp handkerchief had been half pushed back across the desk to him.
“The only reason I would recommend I see Sienna again is so we can guide her away from negative behaviours and prevent anything potentially unhealthy like a paracosm being established,” Drake explained.
“A para-what?” Mr. Clark asked.
“A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world that some people retreat to in order to process emotions or situations they find difficult in the real world,” Drake continued. “There are many benign examples of this – C.S. Lewis created Narnia based on a world he invented with his brother as children. However, very rarely, when a child experiences trauma, they can revert to an earlier stage of development to feel safe. A paracosm works in very much the same way, enabling the child to step out of reality to protect themselves from things that upset or frighten them. Yet, if it becomes a refuge – a place where they’d perhaps rather spend more time than the real world, then that can have significant psychological consequences.”
Drake immediately regretted his explanation, reading the wide-eyed looks of concern in both parents. He raised his hands slowly, as if in surrender.
“That is not what is happening here,” he said quietly and calmly. “Sienna is clearly imaginative and as an only child, is used to playing and entertaining herself. We just need to make sure it stays the right side of the fence.”
The Clarks didn’t take too much time deciding whether to take his advice. A few moments after they left, his assistant buzzed through to the office, confirming their next appointment, and reminding him he was clear for the rest of the day. He walked through to join her in the lobby, just off the hall of his home-turned-practice. Evelyn Harper was the embodiment of southern hospitality. The African American woman was in her late 50s and had been both a schoolteacher and a legal clerk. Drake had met her whilst volunteering at a feed the homeless kitchen, set up in the town’s community hall. Her compassion and kindness had been as genuine as her cooking, and he asked her to work for him on the spot. She turned him down then, and the next two times. Then, a little while after, as his reputation spread, she had turned up on his door one day, stated her terms, and told him she would start the next Monday. She had both a fine sense of humour and a heart that never seemed to run out of love. Many of his patients – the children of the town, knew her from the private lessons she used to give. They always seemed glad to see a friendly and familiar face.
Evelyn beamed at him as he lingered close to her desk.
“Your sister called,” she informed him.
Drake lifted his chin and smiled mischievously, teasing at the prospect he wouldn’t call her back, even though he knew Evelyn had promised her he would.
“I’ll call Amelia after I’ve taken a load off,” he assured his assistant, as she gave her best schoolteacher look in warning.
“There’s some peach cobbler and iced tea in the kitchen,” she smiled, grabbing her back and getting up from her chair.
She walked over to him and cocked her head.
“You did good,” she said quietly. “They left more hopeful than when they came in. That’s all that matters.”
Drake gave a single nod and spun on his heels, escorting her to the front door and opening it for her. He wished her a pleasant weekend and closed it behind her. He walked back along the corridor towards his office. He paused just for a moment to peer through the two-way mirror into the observation room. The lights were still on and reflected off the brightly coloured toys and highly polished surfaces. It was a far cry from the dark, clinical room he’d visited as a child. He opened the door and flicked the switch. Closing the door, he started towards his office again, only to snap his gaze back into the room through the glass. He let out a long, annoyed sigh as he noticed the light from the hall now reflecting off the black, beady, plastic eyes of the teddy bear sat on top of a bookshelf.
He’d converted most of the lower floor of the house to be his practice. A living room had become a reception and waiting room. A dining room was the observation room, and the rear parlour was his office. And a downstairs bathroom had been converted into a smaller privy, now reserved for his patients. The front opened into a large hallway with these rooms to the right of a large, open, wooden staircase that led upstairs. To the left of the hall was a second front room that acted as a library and study. He had spent a lot of time, not to mention money, on selecting just the right antique furniture to match the vintage character of the house, complete with its cherry red hardwood floors. It made those visiting feel at home, and that he, perhaps, wasn’t as much of an outsider as they thought. Drake passed through the room on his way to the kitchen in the back. He caught his reflection in the large mirror, set between two dressers. His blonde hair was slicked back, and his eyes shone blue from behind his thin, metal-framed glasses – their years of practice at hiding tiredness and most other emotions put to good effect. He wondered, if maybe, he was trying a little too hard. The braces over his softly striped, light-coloured linen shirt holding up his neat, neutrally toned trousers gave off a deliberate Atticus Finch vibe.
He passed through the double-door sized cased opening that led to the kitchen, where his slice of peach cobbler sat in a bowl, a scoop of vanilla ice cream slowly melting next to it. He picked up the bowl, complete with spoon, and the glass of iced tea next to it from the table and pushed open the back door with his foot. He walked out slowly onto the wraparound veranda and slumped down into one of the wicker chairs. Drake propped his feet up on the rail and sliced a bite of cobbler and a slither of ice cream with the edge of his spoon, before lifting it into his mouth with great satisfaction. He took his time to both enjoy the treat and the warm pink and orange sunset. When done, Drake placed the empty bowl down on the deck and took out his phone. His sister answered almost immediately.
“Hi Amelia,” he smiled.
“Finally,” she sighed in mock frustration. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Drake relied, stiffening slightly. “You?”
“I’m good, Howard and the kids too.”
“Mom, dad? Everything okay?” he asked, his throat drying a little.
“You need to ask them yourself,” she growled. There was a pause. “They’re fine,” Amelia replied. He could sense the smile returning in her voice. “I can call you without needing or wanting something, you know.”
“Yeah, but you don’t,” he accused, laughing.
“Okay, don’t freak out or lecture me, but I’ve emailed you something.”
Drake was puzzled. She sounded excited and goofball-like. So, why would he freak out. He pulled the smartphone away from his ear and hit the button on the screen marked ‘mail’. His inbox had over a dozen unread messages, and he scrolled down until he recognised his sister’s email address. He tapped on it to open it. The message was a link to a news story from their hometown of Silvertail, West Virginia – where Amelia and his parents still lived.
The headline read: Boy, 6, kills cat and says monster under his bed told him to do it.
Drake sucked in a breath.
“Why’d the parents let it get put in the paper?” he asked.
“Wasn’t their cat he killed,” Amelia said dryly. She had a morbid sense of humour. “It was the neighbours. To the back of them… Drake, have you noticed the address?”
Drake went back to his screen and scrolled through the article. Then there it was. 13 Westwood Drive. The “unlucky” house. The one they had spent their childhood in. Only… it was the neighbours with the dead cat that lived there, not the boy and his family. Drake remembered the layout and wondered if much had changed. The backyards of both properties met a no-man’s land in the middle, made up of a small strip of dense trees and scrub. But there were no fences or barriers, at least there hadn’t been then. There would be nothing stopping the boy, or anybody else, from accessing the other property with ease. And vice versa.
From a clinical point of view, the story contained two major red flags. First, the child had taken a life. Second, the boy had refused to take responsibility for it and blamed someone else. Something else. Famously, harming, torturing, or murdering an animal and feeling no regret or remorse, was believed to be an indicator of potential serial killers. He suddenly felt cold and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine, as he remembered the same was said about children who set fire to things.
“You still there?” Amelia asked, her voice bringing him back to the present.
“Is that why you sent me this? The old house?” he accused.
“You know why I sent it,” she snapped. “But it’s not just that… I know Harper. And Asher. He’s a sweet kid. The Williams folks are a nice family.”
Drake choked on his laugh.
“He was quiet and polite, mainly kept to himself. It’s hard to believe he could do something like this,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Exactly,” Amelia chimed in, all too eagerly.
“Sis, I just gave you word for word what was said about Ted Bundy,” Drake grimaced. “They just leave out the bit where he burned a neighbourhood cat alive.”
“He’s not like… that’s not what I meant,” she said.
He could tell he had hurt her feelings.
“Maybe you’re right,” she replied. “And clearly, anyone who sets fire to something – say a building, must have something very wrong with them.”
“What is it you want me to do?” Drake demanded.
“You know what smalltown America is like,” Amelia sighed. “They don’t want him in their schools. The doctors don’t know to cure anything a kid has, unless it’s with lollipops and ice cream. I… I think you can help him. I want you to.”
“Because it’ll get me up there, get me home.”
“Tell me you’re over it. Not just avoiding it. Over it. You’ve had closure. You’re free of it.”
Drake looked up at the darkening sky and sighed. He rested his elbows on his knees and rocked gently back and forth, the phone still to his ear.
“I’ll sleep on it,” he said quietly. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The light bronze Chevy Malibu, complete with rental sticker still in the window, pulled up outside the yellow-boarded house. The driver switched off the engine, reclined his seat, and began to watch for his mark.
Drake sat up in bed with a start. He took ragged, raspy breaths. Panting hard, he found it hard to move. The think grey cotton of his T-Shirt had turned dark and damp with sweat. His eyes felt too big for their sockets, and he began to panic, realising he couldn’t blink. Tremors ran down his arms and legs and across his shoulders. Someone had cried out; he was sure of it. Then, slowly, as rationality began to return to his splintered mind, he realised it had been him. Vomit rose in his throat, and he forced it back down. Controlling his breathing, he listened to the thunder of his pulse lessen in his ears and, as he began to calm, he was able to close his eyes again.
He had been free of the nightmares for years. Yet one, brief conversation with his sister had been enough to bring at least one back. He threw the covers back and dropped his feet to the floor. Rolling forward, he staggered into a standing position. Using the furniture to support and guide him, he made his way downstairs. The urge to switch on the lights was almost overwhelming, but he fought it with all his might. Not until I get to the kitchen, he demanded of himself. Leaning heavily on the banister, he poured himself down the stairs, pausing at the bottom. Shaking his head violently and running a hand through his hair, he straightened up. Calmly and collectedly, he walked slowly through the library room and into the kitchen, reaching for the light switch as he passed under the beam of the double doorframe.
He reached for a glass from the shelf and slowly turned the brass taps over the sink. He watched the water slash against the ceramic bottom and drain away, in a daze. Putting the glass down on the counter, he cupped his hands and threw water over his face. He massaged his temples and dragged his fingers down across his face, stretching the skin around his chin tightly. After filling the glass, Drake walked out into the cold night air and sat in the same chair he had in the afternoon. This time though, he looked up at the stars. There was the tiniest hint of a breeze, and it quickly cooled his sweat-laced skin. His soaked-through T-shirt felt cold, but not in a bad way. It made him feel alive and awake, and that was what he wanted. Dragging the empty adjacent chair over to him, he propped his feet up on it and sipped at the water. Ten minutes went by, then twenty. It was at the half-hour mark he truly began to feel cold, and he re-entered the house as the first hints of dawn began to creep across the sky.
He’d waited as long as he could, but now, he really had to go. Lou Green had parked the rental car in sight of the house, but also close to a little stretch of trees for this very purpose. Quietly and slowly, he opened the door and got out. Lou hesitated. It was a quiet street, and the houses were spaced far apart, with little lots of scrub in between. Although he was sure he hadn’t attracted any attention since his arrival, he still peered up the road to the next house along. It was a good two hundred yards away and shrouded in darkness. All was quiet. The only other vehicle he’d seen had belonged to the parents of the little girl, and they’d left hours ago. Lou also knew he had every right to quit. His relief hadn’t arrived, and he’d already stayed much later than he’d intended. But the agency in West Virginia had paid him good money. His motel was only ten minutes away, but he’d left it too long now. He’d never make it in time. With another quick glance up and down the street, he walked back behind the car and into the trees.
Lou unzipped his fly and relieved himself over the roots of a thick-trunked scarlet oak. The tree was so large, he couldn’t see all the way round it, and it shielded him from prying eyes. As he finished up, he heard something move in the branches above. His head snapped upwards, and he scanned the shadows. Somewhere above, a branch buckled and shook. Possum he thought, dismissing smaller critters like squirrels. Whatever was above him had some weight to it. But there was something else too. He stood still and quiet, his head craned upwards and his senses alert. There was no more movement, but there was something. God, he thought, realising he could hear the creature breathing. The noise was raspy and ragged, like the thing had a cold. Each breath was laboured and as if laced with mucus.
Then, suddenly, there was the slightest movement. Lou didn’t see what hit him, but it knocked him to the ground. Dazed, he blinked slowly, and tried to turn his head, but couldn’t. He had collapsed onto the ground, with one leg bent underneath him. His scalp felt like it was on fire. Carefully, he tried to move his arm and hand. The left was no good, but the right came free, and he touched the top of his head, near his hairline. He flinched, and a searing pain raced over his scalp. He couldn’t see in the dark, but he knew the moistness sticking to his fingers was blood. He was hurt, and more badly than he thought. He tried to get up again, which was when a shadow fell across him.
The figure was in silhouette and the moon was at its back. Lou couldn’t work out what he was looking at. It seemed hunched with rounded shoulders. The legs were thin and spindly, almost too slender to hold up the body, which was thickset. An obvious pot belly bloomed over where he imagined the waistline would be. Its arms were much more muscular, and long, thick fingers of one hand were gripped tightly round a wooden staff that the figure leant upon. Then it turned its head slightly. Two orbs of gold glowed just for a moment, where he imagined its eye sockets must be. It moved again, looking towards the house he had been watching most of the day. Doing so gave him a glimpse of the crooked, bent, oversized nose that was thin and sharp. Lou let his gaze rise along the wooden staff it clutched, and he let out a gasp of fright when he saw the gleam of metal at its top. It’s some kind of spear, Lou thought, dread and panic flooding his thoughts.
The figure took a step towards him, and its own foot touched his. That’s when Lou realised how small the thing was. He doubted it would even come up to his waist. He still couldn’t see it properly, but he could now make out the outline of clothing. It was wearing a simple vest or waistcoat that covered its torso. Around its waist was a thick heavy belt that was bent out of shape by the pot belly. Like its arms, the legs were bare, but it wore pointed boots over its long, slender feet. As it lent towards him, Lou saw the flash of its golden-coloured eyes again. There wasn’t much light, only a soft glow from the street beyond and a slither of moonshine. But it was enough. Enough to see the sneer on the creature’s face. Lou saw its jagged, irregular teeth and the singular droplet of saliva that ran to the end of a canine, before dropping onto his shirt. That’s when Lous realised the creature was standing directly over him, to the side. Unable to get up, and his head beginning to spin, Lou opened his mouth to yell for help.
The flash of the blade was quicker than his thought. He felt no pain, only shock. He could see the shaft of the spear, gripped firmly in both hands by the creature. A slight tremble from the creature’s hands ran along the metal, causing his head to move in unison. That’s when Lou realised the spear had penetrated his body. Why couldn’t he feel anything. How long had it been since he had blinked… this was the last conscious thought that slipped through his mind before the darkness came.
The creature stood poised, its grip on the weapon rigorous and dedicated. Only when it was sure the man was dead, did it pull the tip of the pikestaff from its victim. The blade had sliced through the man’s throat and out through the back, severing the spine. After mashing flesh and bone, it had sunk more securely into the tree behind the man. The creature pulled his weapon away effortlessly and rested it lengthways against the tree, tip pointed into the ground. Its eyes dropped to the dark liquid spilling from the wounds caused by the spear tips entry and exit. Reaching up, the creature removed its cap and carefully smoothed out the creases in it. Then, slowly, and methodically, it dipped the cap in the dead man’s blood until it was saturated. With equal care, the creature then cleaned the blade of its pikestaff. Seemingly satisfied with its work, it leant on the weapon, and turned its gaze toward the house the man had been watching, still just visible through the trees. It grinned… and then vanished.