It appeared on my fifth birthday.
It wasn’t given to me, exactly. On my fifth birthday, of course, my parents had a party and there was cake and there were present and the children my parents invited to play with me loved the pinnate we all got to whack at. And at some point amidst the streamers and blowing out the candles and playing tag in the yard, Bear appeared.
My parents insist that Bear must have been a gift from someone at the party, but everyone’s gifts were neatly wrapped and labelled to me from TimmyMaryJoeySusieMarkusDevoneMumnDad. Bear was just sort of sitting in the middle of the pile with no wrapping, no ribbon bow. No tag. I opened everything else I could before finally picking it up and looking it over.
Bear was just that, a teddy bear. But unlike most bears, it wasn’t fuzzy, it didn’t have shining button eyes, and it didn’t feel squishy. At least, not squishy with proper fluff. Bear’s exterior was a strange honey-colored leather, worn smooth to almost shining, and it was constructed in oblong, almost awkward pieces that were stitched together along the edges with big dark thread like they use on coats and couches. The arms were almost like paddles. The ears stuck up near enough like Mickey Mouse’s and yet still different as to seem wrong. There was no mouth, no nose, no eyes; the stitches ran from the back of the head under the ears, over the top, to meet at the front in a point along with the seam that ran up from under the chin.
Nobody claimed credit for bringing me bear, and even though my parents finally decided that either someone was embarrassed at giving it in comparison to all the other toys I had been given, I knew better. When I picked up Bear, it was warm. There was almost a sensation of pulse underneath that smooth, tough leather, and I hugged it close. Bear had come to me on its own. Bear had picked me to be with, and I was glad.
The monsters under my bed had been getting bold, you see.
They had begun slow, when I was a little smaller, just before I turned four. There would be a tiny creak from the wardrobe, or the shadows would move on the wall even though there was no wind moving the tree outside my window. Little things, and easily explained away by my parents when finally I did start calling for them.Then the little creaks became scrapes and groans, from the wardrobe and from under my bed. The moving shadows became more deliberate, becoming terrible leering grins and huge alien eyes upon the wall. Something was beginning to snake out from under my bed and move my toys; it was getting very good at flinging things up onto my bed to make me shriek, so that mom or dad would come running and trip over the truck the monster put just inside the bedroom door.
Mom and dad yelled at me for playing with toys instead of sleeping. They started taking things away that they found on my bed. They even talked about sending me to a counselor when they started coming in to find me curled up under the blankets and crying. “Big girls don’t cry at nothing,” they told me. “Don’t you want to be a big girl?”
I did want to be a big girl. But I wasn’t big yet, and there were monsters, and they WERE big.
That night I went to bed with the new toys still stacked up against the wall waiting to get fully unpacked, and I brought Bear to bed with me. It was warm, and if it squished kind of funny when I hugged it close, well, that was just what Bear was, wasn’t it? My parents kissed me good night, and turned on the nightlight in the hall for me, and mom tugged on Bear until I finally let go, and she set it on the shelf above my bed.
When she shut the door, I turned around and knelt to grab Bear, but it was already moving. Its head tilted slightly to one side, one of those wrong ears cocked as if listening for something, and I didn’t even have to hold my breath yet before I heard a scrape from under the bed. It pushed outward as I huddled down onto the pillow, hugging my knees, and this time I saw it. It was like a snake, but the back end of a snake, long and scaly and wriggling across the rug until the slender end of it was able to curl around the new dump truck I’d been given from Joey so that I could bring it to his house and make castles and forts in his sandbox. The snake-end slid under it and dragged the truck halfway across the room, and then it went tight and the truck crunched, the middle buckling in half and something snapping and a wheel rolling off across the room.
My new truck was broken, and it went slithering back across the carpet to grab another thing; the tutu from Timmy, or maybe it was from Susie (they were twins and they gave me both their presents together). As it dragged back across the carpet, another snake-end pushed out from under the bed to meet it near the broken truck, and I reached for my blanket to pull it tight around me. They didn’t usually make faces or throw things unless they knew I was awake and watching them.
As I watched, the end of one of the tentacles split open, yawning a nasty hiss over several rows of conical teeth, and it snapped shut on the tutu. The first one did the same, and wrenching sharply away from each other, they ripped the tutu in two. The sound of tearing tulle was loud in my bedroom, and I couldn’t help a little gasp. They dropped the tutu and went quite still. I knew they’d heard me, I knew it, and gathered my blanket around me like cotton candy, wanting something, anything to protect me.
The eyes appeared over the end of my bed and the blanket muffled my scream. There were three of them, all different sizes and on long stalks, all fixing firmly upon my face which was the only part of me sticking out of the blanket. I saw one of the tentacles rear up behind the eyes, and it was diving for me as I rolled face-down to bury myself under my blanket entirely. I felt something thud against the blanket on my back and roll down, halting by my hip. It was way too small to be a tentacle, and holding my breath, I dared to peek. From under the folds of cloth, I watched Bear slowly right itself to sitting with a little shake of its head. Then it reached up one of those weird paddle-like arms and, ever so delicately, picked loose a thread where the three seams joined at the point where its nose should have been. With a tug, it started to unravel, the three smooth points of leather starting to curl away, and one arm stretched out to thrust the thread in my direction.
Mutely, I dared stick an arm out from the blanket to pinch the thread, trying to look at and yet unable to quite understand the wet, red pulsating mass that I was seeing under the curled-back leather. It shifted a little, revealing a wee length of tiny, gleaming white needle-teeth that curved into an impossibly white grin at me. Then Bear pushed to its feet and, with me holding the thread so that the stitches unraveled as it walked, it tootled toward the end of the bed, toward the hissing horror that I could not see.
At the end of the bed, Bear shrugged out of its skin and dove, even as one of the tentacles darted at me again. I could not see what happened, only hear the hissing and the thumps and feel how my whole mattress shifted and rocked, and then there was a hiss worse than all the others, long and angry and ragged. It cut off abruptly into a gurgling, and then there was no more struggle. After a minute, I could hear a sound, a wet and meaty chewing like when I was having steak right before mom would tell me to stop being gross and close my mouth. It went on for a long, long time, and I held onto the thread while I watched the tentacle that had fallen upon the corner of my bed get pulled down to the carpet, and then inch by inch out of sight under the bed.
Eventually, there was silence – and then a tugging on my covers that made me burrow back under my blankets again, still clinging desperately to the dark thread connecting me to the limp pile of leather down by the foot of my bed. The thing that dragged itself up onto my bed was more disgusting than any of the yuck Devone had brought out of the swamp that was behind our back yard; it looked red and wet all over and had way too many arms and legs, more than a crab. Its head sat on top of it like a lump. It pulled itself up on top of the rumpled sheet, and then rolled upright in a movement that I abruptly realized was just like when Bear went to sit up.
As if knowing that I new it for what it was, it bared those teeth at me, grinning again. Then one of its weird limbs went to its mouth to curl around one of those teeth and yank it out with a sucking sound, just like when I pulled out one of my own teeth two months ago even though it wasn’t really ready because I wanted the quarter from the tooth fairy. It pushed upright and toddled toward me, and when it tugged on the thread I let it take it. It tied the end of the string around the wide end of the tooth, and placed it back between my outstretched fingers. Down the length of the bed it went, to climb back into the discarded skin; too many arms and too many legs it pushed itself inside the skin, filling out the shape again, and then waddled back with leather flapping to sit itself down in front of me. One paddle-arm guided my hand to slide the needle through the holes in the leather and pull the thread tight, until I had the rhythm of it and sewed bit by bit and stitch by stitch. Big, shaky child stitches, just like it’d had before, slowly closing the leather over it until all I could see was a gleam of that sharp smile.
Then I tucked the last little twitch in and pulled out the needle, left with Bear again.
I hid the needle in a little ledge under my shelf and straightened out my blankets, and nestled down under them to sleep with Bear in my arms. It was warm, and I could feel it pulsing in my arms like the beat of my own heart.
This piece of Nightmare Fuel was inspired by this picture, artist unknown.
For more info on the Nightmare Fuel project, click here.