The first time the monster under my bed grabbed my ankle, I was eight years old. By the time it—he?—let me go, I was late for the school bus. I ran, but only managed to get to the stop in time to see the bus pulling away. A few minutes later, it would blow out a tire and land on its side in a ditch off Indian Head Highway. Claire, the girl I always sat next to, wound up in the hospital for three weeks.
The second time the monster grabbed my ankle, five years later, I had almost forgotten about the first time, or maybe I’d convinced myself I had imagined it. Not so now: I was sitting on the edge of my bed and had just finished tying my shoes. When I stood and couldn’t move, I looked down. There was the claw around my ankle, crinkling the cuff of my jeans, which I had just ironed because I wanted to look nice on my first date. It held me there for five minutes, long enough for the hailstorm to start outside, the one that shattered the windshield of Jenny’s mother’s car and left her mom blind in her right eye.
By the third time, I’d figured out the pattern. The monster under my bed was trying to save me.
“What is it?” I whispered when it grabbed me this time, but the monster merely snuffled and held me there. I sat on the edge of the bed. “What am I supposed to do?”
The monster didn’t answer. In the end, I faked being sick and stayed home. I found out about the fire later. The school almost completely burned down. Katie, Mark, Sarah, and Mrs. Swanson couldn’t get out of the chemistry lab, which was where I would have been if it weren’t for the monster.
I’d wondered if the monster would follow me to college, to my tiny dorm room with the twin beds shoved against opposite walls where I brought Brendan, my heart clamoring to leap out of my throat, after the freshman Friday night dance party. My roommate was out for the weekend. I hadn’t kissed another boy before that night. When we reached for each other’s shirts and started fumbling with buttons, I felt the claw latch onto my ankle . . . and the other claw latched onto Brendan’s.
He shrieked. I panicked.
In the confusion, I put my hand over his mouth and tried to keep him from drawing anyone to the room. Eventually, the monster let him go. Brendan backed away and slammed the door behind him before I could tell him it was all right, the monster wouldn’t hurt him.
It was just my monster and me then.
I glared down at his claw and stomped my free foot.
“What are you trying to save me from this time?”
The monster didn’t answer.
After a moment, he withdrew his claw from my ankle and I flopped back on the bed. A little while later, I heard a key in the door and my roommate walked in, saying something about a girl who’d bailed on him. I thought of him walking in on Brendan and me; by then we could have been doing . . . what, exactly? Maybe it would have been worth it, even if the monster didn’t think so.
Later, when my roommate’s snoring became steady, I told the monster, “You can’t protect me from everything, you know. Not forever.”
He didn’t answer.
When I woke up later in the middle of the night, my roommate still sawing away across the room and my arm dangling over the side of my bed, I was surprised to find the monster was holding my hand.
I said nothing at first. The monster made a gurgling sound I had thought was a low-grade growl but on reflection, it sounded more like a purr, like a cat.
Eventually, when I trusted my voice, I whispered, “I’m awake.”
The purr stopped, just for a moment, until I squeezed his hand. “It’s okay,” I said, and he started purring again.
We stayed that way for a while longer before he gently withdrew his claw, and I remained awake for the rest of the night, listening to his purr.
Jeffrey Ricker is the author of two novels, Detours (2011) and The Unwanted (2014). His stories have appeared in Foglifter, Phoebe, Little Fiction, The Citron Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow, he has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Website: www.jeffrey-ricker.com
Artwork by: Ahmed Ashhaadh