Benny stood beside his bedroom door and looked at his bed on the other side of the room. His right hand, his only hand, rested by the light switch, one finger poised to turn the ceiling light off and let the shadows in. His bedside lamp was on, the Spiderman lamp shade cheery and bright, but it wasn’t strong enough to keep them away. Once the overhead light was out he knew the cheeriness would be gone and the masked hero on the shade would become ominous and threatening—the way he was when he became Venom. He had been standing there for almost five minutes, trying to work up the courage to turn out the overhead as he knew he had to. If he left it on much longer his parents would see the light under his door on their way to bed and know that he was still awake, or had gone to sleep with the lights on again. Either way they would be angry, either that he was still awake or that he was wasting energy. Money was tight these days.
Benny was nine, nearly ten, and that was too old to need the lights on to get to sleep. He wasn’t a little kid any more and they wanted him to stop acting like one. Benny wanted that too, wished that he didn’t have to go through this every night. During the day, golden and warm as summer lingered long past the end of the summer break, he was able to pretend that the coming night would be the one when he broke the pattern, when he found the hero inside. He thought about it as he sat in class, or hovered at the edge of the playground, too timid to join in the games he had relished before he lost his arm. In his mind he was a hero, standing strong against the monsters and the dark, the sense of balance he had known before he got ill returned. He could never keep the confidence long enough to make it to bedtime.
It was only six months since he had lost his arm, along with two toes from his left foot and three from his right, and the doctors all said that eventually his body would adapt and he’d be like he was before. It was harder for him, they said, because he had lost the big toes from both his feet and they were the most important for balance, but he’d get there. Benny knew they were right—he could walk quite a long way now before he began to wobble and almost every day he could feel it getting better. He’d watched the Paralympics last year, before everything turned bad, and he knew that disabled people could do just as much as anyone else. Knowing that things would get better, that one day he’d be able to fight the way he did in the sunlit daydreams, was no help at moments like this—when he was still weak and unsure and the monster was waiting.
No one else knew the monster was there and he had learned to stop talking about it. He had tried, before everything went bad and again after he was well enough to leave the hospital. Adults were the ones who solved things, the ones who knew about the world and all the things it contained. He had thought they’d be able to handle the monster with the same ease as everything else.
They hadn’t wanted to know, telling him that dreams couldn’t hurt him. Before it went bad his parents had humoured him as much as they could, buying him a Dream Catcher and teaching him all the tricks they knew for being brave in the dark. Even at the time he had known they found it hard and tiring, they had so much to do looking after his new brother, but he had believed in them and tried to follow their advice. Now, they didn’t have the time. He was too old to be a baby, too old for monsters and fear. They needed him to be strong, to be a man, his father said. Things would get better again, they said, but he had to do his part. He had to help them, help his sister. She was too young to understand.
Benny took a deep breath. The clock on his dresser read 22:49, his parents would be coming upstairs soon. He held the breath as he turned off the ceiling light, every muscle in his small body tensed. The adrenalin pumped so fast it made his head hurt and his vision swim. He knew the monster was there, waiting to finish what it had started, waiting for the dark. It was only when he opened his eyes that he realised they had been squeezed shut. They felt grainy and sore as he looked around the gloomy room, searching for the monster in the dips and hollows of his half-lit room. There was no sign of it but it was there, somewhere in the murk that hid his shelves of books and Lego dioramas.
“It can’t get me,” he said to himself, taking a step towards his bed, keeping his hand on the wall as if it were an anchor to safety, to sanity. “It can’t hurt me.”
The carpet was warm under his feet, the thick pile helping to support the odd roll he used to compensate for his missing toes. Last year, before the bad times, when Dad was still making money, he’d bought new carpets for the entire house. It had cost thousands and the loan was one of the weights around the family neck, one of the things dragging them slowly down. The debt was what made Dad angry all the time, so angry it made him cry when he thought he was alone. Benny had learned to pee in an empty bottle he kept under the bed if he woke up in the night. The one time he had accidentally found Dad crying in the bathroom at three am had been almost as terrifying as the monster.
Adults, particularly not strong ones like Dad who still had all their hair and good muscle tone as they passed forty-five, where not supposed to cry. The memory of the clutching embrace, the secrets and fears no son should hear, made Benny’s skin crawl. It was something he couldn’t stop thinking about. Dad felt something similar, it was clear in the wounded, resentful look in his eye every time he looked at his eldest child. It was the reason why he was so harsh about the light, so insistent that Benny man up. A weakness had been exposed, a chink in the armour that the monster adored and exploited. Benny knew it was working on his father, the way it had worked on him and his brother.
Mom just cried, all the time. She cried over breakfast, she cried when she saw Benny struggling to cut his food. She cried and cried, adding to Dad’s rage. You could measure the courses of a meal, the relentless cycle of salad, main and dessert never allowed to waver, by the way his fists clenched the cutlery and his lips contracted and twisted. Ice cream and cake tasted bitter these days, the sweetness stolen by the fear of an explosion. Even his sister didn’t complain on the nights there was no dessert.
“Not tonight,” Benny said to the shadows as he took another step and relinquished the light switch. For a second he felt he was hanging in the air, lost in a limbo between the wall and the bed, the carpet a fragile crust over a molten pit. He took another step and then he ran, or lurched, two paces before throwing himself at the bed. The landing was awkward and noisy, it made the stump of his left arm throb, but it provoked no shouting or noise from downstairs. Heart racing, curled up in the corner beside his pillows, covers kicked to the bottom of the bed, he said it to himself again. “Not tonight.”
When he was little Benny had loved to snuggle into his covers, have them pulled as close to his face as they could get. Sometimes he wished that he was like his sister and could still find some comfort in being rolled up in the covers by his mother. It was a fun game, being flipped and rolled until the covers held him as tight as swaddling but those days were gone. Even if he had been able to experience it like he used to, the way his sister still did, he’d have been able to tell that it made Mom sad, that it could never be the way it had been for her ever again. If he’d wanted to pretend he knew she would have done her best, the way she did with his sister, but he was old enough to see the sadness in her eyes and understand the soft crying immediately after the door closed. He was old enough to understand why his father shouted at the tears.
These days he couldn’t sleep with the covers over him, would have kicked them onto the floor if he hadn’t known that it would only make things worse. He couldn’t stand the thought of what was waiting in there, hidden amongst the folds and secret shadows. The monster was there, hungry and patient. There was no need for it to hunt, no need for it to take any risk. It knew that, sooner or later, something would bring Benny back within reach, dragging his family behind.
The therapist he was taken to see once a week kept telling Benny that there was nothing for him to feel guilty about, that it was okay for him to be as angry and upset at what had happened to him as it was for everyone to be mad his baby brother had died. Sometimes he thought about telling her what had really happened—she was kind and prettier than he’d been told fat girls could be—but he never could. Almost every week she told him that he was imaginative. She encouraged him to write the stories his teachers liked, silly little things about elves and fairies, told him they were delightful. If he told her the truth she’d only want him to write a story about the monster, tell him it was a good way to address the feelings he had. The feelings he didn’t need to have because none of it was his fault—he was a victim too and it was okay to be angry.
Benny was the first kid in Echo Falls to get meningitis. It began with a headache and a rash one morning, too mild for his parents to believe it was anything more than a Bart Simpson ruse. Spring had just arrived in force and everyone knew Benny would rather be out climbing trees than sitting in class. Mom put him on the school bus, baby brother cosy in the sling resting on her post-pregnancy bulge, telling him to stop being a brat. To man up and stop attention seeking. He boarded the bus, trying his best to ignore the monster as it slithered and slipped over the other children to get to where he sat at the back. The monster had been smiling, diffuse in the light. It rested for a second or two on the heads of some of the other children. They died later, in the days after the janitor found Benny in the corridor—he dialled 911 as the teachers stood around wondering what to do with the slumped child. As he was lifted onto the stretcher, Benny saw the monster stick a patch of shadow to the janitor’s back, sending it home to kill his children.
The outbreak lasted a couple of weeks, the strain more virulent than most. Seven kids, all under five, died and two others beside Benny were left disabled—one girl at another school lost a foot and an older boy was left with brain damage. Stuck in hospital, sprouting tubes and wires, Benny had missed the media circus when it came to town. There was a fresh push nationwide for a vaccination program, with all the usual shouting for and against. If Benny had been able, if any one had believed him, he could have told them they didn’t need to worry about an epidemic. The disease hadn’t changed, all the old measures were enough. It was the monster, twisting it for the hunt, that had made the outbreak so bad.
It was only ten minutes before he heard his parents making their way upstairs but it felt longer. He didn’t move from the corner, hugging his knees against his chest as his eyes darted around the room. There had been no sign of the monster for weeks, when it had appeared at the foot of his bed and spent a night just watching him. He knew it hadn’t gone away, it had tricked him like that before. If he allowed himself to forget about it, if he let his guard slip, then it would jump out, so close he could feel the chill of its bones. It needed him to get careless, to think that maybe this time it was really over.
When his parents reached the landing he turned the lamp off and grabbed the covers, pulling them up to his knees so it looked like he had kicked them free in his sleep. Then he lay down with his face to the wall and stared at the dots of colour swimming in the darkness. A second later the door opened a crack and his mother peered in. He’d have known it was her even if Dad hadn’t given up making the check himself. Most nights he stayed downstairs for hours after Mom went to bed. She stayed by the door for a moment before stepping inside and crossing over. Benny struggled to keep his breathing steady and his eyes closed as he felt her pull the covers up and tuck them around his neck. The kiss she placed on his forehead was dry and warm, it almost made him flinch. As soon as she closed the door he kicked the covers away, although he didn’t dare turn on the light.
The first time the monster came to visit Benny was seven. They’d been to the cinema that evening, his infant sister left with his grandparents for the evening. The film had been okay, another silly superhero flick, but there had been a scene with a sinking ship that had scared him. A whole bunch of people had been trapped inside a cargo hold, tied up and locked in by the villain. Of course, the hero had saved them in the nick of time but Benny hadn’t been able to stop thinking what it would be like to be trapped like those people, with the water steadily rising above his head. It had been scary, but in a good way.
For the whole journey home, and after he climbed into bed, Benny had imagined himself as one of the trapped people—and the hero. It had made him excited to feel the terror as he knew he was going to die and then to imagine the sudden daylight as the hero tore open the hull. It was even more glorious to imagine he was the one rending steel, coming to the rescue. When he was in bed, lying awake in the dark and letting his imagination run wild, he had pretended that his covers were the water. Pulling them up an inch at a time he could feel the icy cold, kicked his feet to stay afloat. After a few run throughs, it grew boring and he plunged under the covers, pretending the hold had been filled. Wriggling in the dark he had turned himself upside down, imagining that he’d escaped his bonds and was wrestling with a sealed hatch at the foot of his bed.
The monster grabbed his arms, long icy fingers wrapping around his wrists. The covers had vanished, replaced instead by the weight of freezing, murky sea water. It had been waiting for him behind the hatch, its eyes purple slits. Benny had wanted to scream but he knew he’d drown if he did, the water all around him was real. Instead he fought and struggled, somehow managing to pull himself away. The covers returned as soon as the monster let go but he held his breath until he was back in the air. Then he had screamed.
After that the visits became regular, at least two or three times a month, sometimes every night for a week or two. The Dream Catchers and night lights would work for a little while and then the monster would find a new way in. Sometimes it was waiting under the covers like the first time, they were the nights he really screamed. It never made a noise on those nights, just smiled as it grabbed his arms and pulled a little more firmly than the time before. Other nights it would lie under his bed and laugh quietly, the only sound it ever seemed to make. It would push its hand between the slats and into his mattress, reminding him that it was there. The worst were the nights it chose to just stand and stare. Sometimes it would be in a corner and sometimes at the foot of his bed. In the weeks before it struck, it had taken to standing above his head, gradually lowering its face towards his until they were only inches apart, the fear sweat on his skin freezing into tiny slivers.
It might never have grown any worse than that. Benny knew that for certain although he wouldn’t have been able to explain why. The monster needed more than just fear and imagination to come alive, it needed anger as well. Even when he was so terrified that he couldn’t sleep, a part of Benny had known that all the monster could do was scare him. It needed anger to do anything more, needed negativity to reach into the world. Benny was a happy child, confident that one day he’d be an adult and he’d know how to deal with the monster. They all thought monsters weren’t real, but that was because they had beaten theirs and forgotten that they existed.
Dad started getting angry not long before Benny’s brother was born. He acted happy and excited but the money was hard to find. Benny hadn’t understood the arguments his parents had, the ones he eavesdropped on from the top of the stairs, but they were always about money. It didn’t seem to matter to Benny how new their cars were or where his father bought his suits, but for adults it was important how new something was. Benny’s father had worked in field sales then, he said he had to look the part.
The monster fed on the anger, siphoning off a little every time Dad entered the room. Benny had seen it happening, sensed what the creature was trying to do. It was after the first time he saw it, in the clear light of day, that the game stopped being fun and he wanted to stop scaring himself. The sight of the monster standing behind his father, scooping something from the back of his head, was still vivid in Benny’s mind. In a way it was worse than the first time he had been grabbed beneath the covers.
His parents bedroom was next to his and he could hear them talking as they prepared for bed. They had an en suite, although Dad always used the family bathroom for his secret crying. Benny heard the water running as they washed and used the toilet. For once it didn’t sound like they were arguing, the last few days had been good. The interview Dad had gone for yesterday had gone well, he’d been called back, and some of the old happiness had surfaced. Mom hadn’t cried once today, at least not that Benny had seen.
Knowing they were on good terms lulled Benny and he wandered into sleep. It had been at least a week since he had slept for more than a few hours and he was exhausted. The relief he felt when he surrendered, putting his faith in luck and fortune that tonight the monster would stay away, was immense.
“Wake up. I’m stronger now. Wake up. We can play. Wake up!”
Benny would have screamed but the monster had a hand over his mouth, clenching his jaw shut. The fingers were icy, tipped with jagged claws he could feel digging into his cheeks. The monster was perched on top of him, pinning his legs down with its feet and using the other hand to grasp his wrist. The stump of his other arm flailed uselessly.
“Do you like how I sound?”
The monster’s voice was a rasp. Every few syllables it cracked and only a thin whistle escaped but even that was malicious. It held its face close to the boy’s as it spoke and the breath that carried the words was as cold as its touch. Fine spittle landed on Benny’s face with every word, as cold as everything else. Benny could feel a frost starting to build on his cheeks and eyelashes. He tried to struggle free and the monster laughed. It looked at his maimed arm and laughed again.
“Do you like what I’ve done to you? Was the pain exquisite?”
Benny tried to speak through the hand, begging the monster to go away. Only muffles came out but the monster seemed to understand. It laughed again and pushed even closer to whisper in his ear. This close its breath was enough to freeze the tears in his eyes.
“I never leave my chosen ones. I’ll be with you until you die, and that will be a long, long time, my precious little one.”
Benny tried to scream again, tried to struggle free. The monster didn’t even wobble and all Benny could manage was arching his back, slam his stump against the bed. He was sobbing now, the tears falling too fast for the monster’s breath to freeze.
“I like it when you struggle. I can feel the hate starting to grow in your happy little heart. It’s good. I want you to hate me. You hate me don’t you?”
Benny thought about his sunlit daydreams, the heroes of his stories. He told himself that he was as strong as they were, that he had the power inside him. He dug for it, screamed at the inside of his skull for it to come out. He thrashed and wriggled as violently as he could, trying to find an opening for escape. His parents were next door. If he could get to them, he’d be safe.
“I could have killed you,” the monster hissed, digging its claws deeper into his cheeks, twisting the arm it held savagely. “As easily as all the others, you could have been mine. I like you, you should be honoured. I have chosen you, you are my precious one. We will do great things together,” it took its hand from his mouth. “What do you say? Want to have some fun?”
“No,” Benny replied, forcing himself to sound as brave and strong as he could. “I want you to go away.”
“You were the one looking for me. Playing games.”
“It was only a game.”
“Games have consequences. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the rules, they still apply.”
“This isn’t fair.”
“That doesn’t matter either.”
“Please. Leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that, I’m afraid. You are just too good for me. I’ve been looking for someone like you for so very long.”
“You’re special, my little sweet. Your mind touches others, the people you meet. You aren’t locked in, you aren’t limited. You are a bridge. My bridge.”
“Please don’t do this,” Benny sobbed. He wanted to scream for his parents but he was too scared. The monster’s face was still just an inch from his own, he could feel the weight of the frozen tears on his cheeks. “Please.”
“Your brother tasted so sweet. I promise he was the sweetest thing I have ever eaten, all his dreams and hopes unformed and pure. Without you, he would never have been mine. I wouldn’t have been able to reach so far.”
“Please, I’m sorry. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No, you didn’t. That doesn’t mean anything. Life is hard, little one. Harsh and cruel. Your Daddy knows that.”
Dad didn’t cope well with the bad times. In the rush to make sure his cars and suits were new he’d let the heath insurance slip and neither Benny or his brother were covered. The bills wiped out the savings, ate up the credit cards. His brother’s funeral wiped out the little that was left, but not before Dad lost his job. A big contract fell through in the two weeks personal leave he took, his small team losing their focus without him. It would have been a loss, but Dad was stressed the first day back in the office and punched the guy he blamed for screwing the contract, broke his nose and split his lip. The guy was prissy and ambitious, he pressed charges. The job was lost and payments on the carpets and cars started to slip, the mortgage taking precedent. The cars in the driveway now were second hand and the expensive suits were starting to suffer at the hands of home laundry—they owed the dry-cleaners a lot of money.
“Do you think your sister will taste as sweet?” the monster asked. “She’s just across the hall. I can hear her dreaming.”
“Leave her alone.”
“She’s having a nightmare. She thinks she’s drowning. You helped me give it to her.”
“Leave her alone.”
“I’m going to eat her soul. Then I’ll eat your father’s. Then your mother’s. One day, when you are old, I’ll eat yours. You’ll have children first, and you’ll watch them die.”
“Please, leave me alone. Leave us alone.”
The door opened and light spilled in, his mother’s silhouette caught in the beams. The monster disappeared and warmth flooded into Benny’s bones. He sat up and held out his arms, feeling the icicles and frost melting rapidly, washed away by the fresh flood. Mom crossed the room in two strides and hugged him. She started to cry as well, clutching him tight in a way he wished would never end.
A week later a drunk ran over his sister outside the house. Benny was outside, playing with her in the garden when he saw the driver lose control at the corner and mount the kerb. The vehicle bounced twice and he had time to grab her but he didn’t.
The monster was standing behind him, hands on his shoulders and he couldn’t move. Before the paramedics took the corpse away, Benny watched the monster scooping something from his sister’s head, smiling as it did.
For the next week, there was a sweet taste in Benny’s mouth.