A creak in Timmy’s bedroom makes an old fear pound at my heart. Wondering if he’s still awake, I hurry to his bedroom. The door is open. The light is off. The window is closed but a glow from the streetlamp outside slices a gap through the curtains. The yellow line falls across the bookcase, a pair of shoes, and the wooden sword I gave Timmy when he insisted he was old enough to sleep alone.
Visions of childhood terrors race through my mind as I step farther into the room. Timmy lies in bed with the blanket draped over his head. His left foot sticks out from beneath the blanket. His right foot dangles over the side of the bed.
A scritching sound reaches my ears. Needle-thin talons reach for Timmy’s toes.
Teeth and talons. Needle thin. Razor-sharp—
I rake my fingers down the wall and flick on the light switch. Bright light floods the room. My heart drops from my throat, allowing me to breathe. Not talons. Pipe-cleaner fingers belonging to a papier-mâché robot, last week’s school craft project, on the floor beneath the bed.
I stride to the bed and pull back the blanket. Startled, Timmy drops his torch. It falls to the floor and rolls beneath the bed.
“What have I told you?” I say, pulling the comic book from his hand.
“It’s Captain America,” he whines.
“You know that’s not what I mean. Where are your feet?”
He jerks his foot back onto bed but gives me a defiant look. “I’m not scared.”
The floorboards creak.
Fear digs its nails into my throat. I wrestle it with a deep breath filled with reasonable explanations. It’s the aging house. It’s the winter wind. It’s the heat from the fire expanding the floorboards.
Fear wins. I jump onto the bed.
“Daddy,” Timmy squeals, clutching the mattress. “You nearly bounced me off.”
I mask my terror with a mischievous smile. “I don’t want to do that. It might be hungry.”
Timmy giggles. “It’s not hungry. It’s sleeping.”
“As you should be.” I straighten the blanket and tuck it around him. “Quiet now. It’s past your bedtime.”
Timmy snuggles into his pillow. “Can I have a story?”
“Didn’t mummy already tell you a story?”
“I want another one. Please?”
“Hmm?” I clear my throat. “Once upon a time—”
“Not a fairy story.”
“This story isn’t about fairies. This is a story about a little boy who liked to dangle his feet over the edge of the bed. Now, hush and listen:
Once upon a time, there was a boy, just like you. He lived in a nice house and had a nice bed, just like yours. He even had a real sword, just like yours.”
Timmy pouts. “I’ve heard this one. I want a different story.”
“I think you need reminding why you should go straight to sleep and keep your feet under the blanket. Because if you don’t,” I shape my fingers into claws,“when the light goes out, and the room is silent, it will creep from beneath the bed, grab your foot and eat you.”
“I’d kick it.” Timmy peddles his feet at my hands.
“What if it ate your leg?”
“I’d kick it with my other foot.”
“Okay, Mister Brave. What would you do if it ate both your legs?”
“I’d poke out its eye with my sword.”
I point across the room. “But your sword is over there. You can’t jump that far. It will grab your legs when you step out of bed.”
“I’ll sleep with my light on. It doesn’t like the light.”
“The boy in the story slept with his light on. That was his mistake. The light doesn’t reach under the bed. That’s why it lives there. Under the bed is always dark.”
“I’ll scream so loud its ears will hurt.”
“Its foul breath will smother your screams. I won’t hear you. Mummy won’t hear you, either. Do you remember what happens after that?”
Timmy wriggles from beneath the blanket, jumps up and bounces on the bed with a cheeky grin. “It will swallow me whole, and devour my soul, and spit out my body as a dust bunny,” he shouts in a singsong voice. “I’m not scared. I’ll jump so high it won’t catch me. I’ll get my sword and smash its head.”
I catch him mid bounce and wrestle him back into bed. “You are Mister Brave, aren’t you? No more bouncing. No more stories. And no more Captain America. It’s time to sleep.”
I swing my legs off the bed but another creak sounding more like a yearning growl reaches my ears. Fear drives its fist into my heart. I draw my legs up and leap from the bed so high I land near the door. I clutch the door frame and look back.
The light from the torch shines beneath the bed. There’s nothing there but the robot.
I breathe out my shivers in an exasperated sigh. “Do you want the light left on, Mister Brave?”
“No. Goodnight, Daddy.”
“Goodnight.” I switch off the light. My gaze drifts to the sword on the floor near the window. A dark mark on the tip of the blade swallows the streetlamp glow—
I clench my jaw. It’s not blood. It’s not even real. It’s just the story that my father told to keep me in bed—the same story I tell Timmy. Even if it’s true, Timmy’s brave. Timmy’s safe. It only feeds on fear.
“Can I have my sword?”
My heartbeat quickens. A responsible father wouldn’t tell his son scary bedtime stories. A responsible father would show his son that there’s nothing to fear in the dark. “Of course.”
Leaving the light off, I walk across the room to retrieve the sword.
“Daddy, what’s that smell?”
Pauline Yates likes to explore the world on the other side of the improbable and write about what she finds. Her short stories have appeared in Metaphorosis, Abyss & Apex, Bete Noire, Sirens Call, Aurealis, plus others. She lives in Australia, loves writing past midnight, and lurks on Twitter @midnightmuser1.