Loren Becker has a secret. It’s not that she’s refused to warn those around her, because she’s tried, but at seven years old, it is difficult to convince others that your nightmares are real. She has a vivid imagination, after all, and this is not the first wild tale her parents have heard.
It began, as most nightmares do, with a noise coming from under her bed. The first night, she assumed she was imagining things, but after hearing it for three consecutive evenings, she thought otherwise. It was a clicking, like when her mother drummed her fingernails on the dining room table, but without any specific rhythm. It lasted only for a few minutes the first night, but grew louder as the days passed and eventually it could be heard for hours as she lay in bed, trying to ignore it. After a week, it changed to a shuffling sound. It was then she decided to alert her parents.
Loren was an only child living in a modest house with her parents in suburbia. Her mother, Sharon, stayed at home, while her father managed a small industrial architecture firm in the city. Her family dynamic was complicated and tedious. She was a devout “Daddy’s girl” and would have been even if she enjoyed a healthy relationship with her mother. Sharon was strict; seldom relenting, she engaged in a constant power struggle with her daughter. While Loren lacked the capacity to understand the nature of her mother’s disconnection, its effects were far too obvious. Loren knew she would never be close to her mother and referred to her by name when she thought of her. She made the mistake of calling her Sharon out loud once, and Loren received the silent treatment for two days. Such disrespect could not be tolerated.
Her mother never indulged her fantasies but her father was at work, and she had to start somewhere. Sharon attributed the noises to Fluffers, the family cat, and dismissed her daughter’s concerns. Loren received a similar response from her father when he arrived, but at least he humored her and checked under her bed. Neither of them was surprised to find that the only things hiding in the shadows were dust. Even a six-year-old knows that monsters go back home before sunrise. That night, she not only heard the thing but felt it as well. The shuffle was louder than before and after an hour or so, it bumped her mattress. Fear swelled within her. She leapt from her bed, landing as far from it as possible, and regardless of their disbelief, she ran to her parents’ room, nearly tripping over Fluffers on her way. She was breathing hard, and it was difficult to tell them what had happened. She knew they didn’t believe her, but her father allowed her to crawl into bed with them nonetheless. Sharon poked her pillow and huffed in a passive-aggressive fit.
She slept well tucked in between her parents, but in the morning the fear returned as she knew she would not be allowed another night in the refuge of her parents bed. For now, however, she was safe, and she shuffled off to her room to change clothes, fists twisting over her eyes to wake them. The moment she felt it below her foot, she knew something was very wrong. She lifted her leg and stared at the wooden letter block beneath it. Having put her toys away before bed the previous night, and since she believed herself to be too mature for the blocks and had not played with them in months, she knew It was responsible.
“It got out,” she whispered as her gaze trailed over the mass of letter blocks on her floor. They were randomly scattered, save for a three letter configuration near her dresser. It spelled “CAT”. Scared and trembling, she walked to the word and kicked it, launching the blocks across the room. All she could think to do was to remove the evidence that It had been there. She dropped to her knees and pushed the blocks into a pile. Liberating a clothes basket in the closet from its contents, she hurriedly scooped the blocks into it and carted it downstairs. She knew Sharon would be furious if she saw them in the trash, so she quietly slipped out the back door and dumped the blocks into the trash barrel. After shaking the barrel so the blocks fell below the existing bags of trash, she replaced its lid and went back inside. Her mother was already screaming when she opened the door.
This was not Sharon’s usual angry ranting. It sounded to Loren like the women in the scary movies do when they’ve just come face to face with the boogieman. She ran to investigate, praying that she would see anything but It attempting to murder her mother. What she saw when she reached the kitchen was far different than she had feared. Fluffers was hanging by his tail in the pantry. His lifeless carcass was spattered with blood, as was the pantry, and his neck was twisted unnaturally even for a cat. Blood ran from his upturned nose, down his face and into the larger well streaming from his neck onto the pantry floor. Loren felt tears on her cheeks before realizing she was crying. She sniffled. Sharon snapped her head around to Loren, her face contorted with rage.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Sharon screamed. Anger was not an unusual sight on her mother’s face, but this was a wrath Loren had never seen before. Her sight blurry with tears, she backed out of the kitchen and ran to the living room couch, burying her face in a cushion, sobbing. It had killed him? It killed Fluffers! Loren quickly realized that when It spelled “cat” with the blocks, it was more to warn her than to announce Its existence. As scared as she was, Loren never believed It could murder someone in this world. She had always assumed that monsters lived off fear and that scaring people was enough. She took a deep breath and whispered to herself, “Oh, what am I gonna do?”
“What are you gonna do!” Sharon was towering beside her, still enraged. “What the hell did you do?” She glared at Loren, expecting an answer.
“I didn’t…” was all Loren managed to squeak out before her father entered from the kitchen, pulling blood-stained rubber cleaning gloves from his hands.
“What are you talking about?” he asked Loren’s mother. “What, exactly, do you think she’s done?”
“She did that!” Sharon flung out her arm and pointed to the kitchen. “She killed my fucking cat, Riley!”
Loren generally went outside when Sharon started calling her dad by his name. Sharon usually referred to him as “honey” or “sweetie,” but she used his name when she argued with him. Sharon never called Loren by anything other than Loren.
“You wanna go up to your room so your mom and I can talk for a bit, kiddo?” her father asked, his eyes worried and apologetic. Loren nodded, rose from the couch, and cautiously walked to her bedroom. She shut her door but could still hear her parents fighting downstairs.
“How in the hell do you think a child could have done that?”
“I don’t know… I just know she did! She’s always hated Fluffers, and she told me yet another ridiculous story about something in her room yesterday, and I told her it was probably him. You should have seen the look on her face!”
“It was more than likely the same look on her face when she told me about it and I played it off… disappointment.”
“Well she doesn’t look disappointed now, does she? She looks smug, the little shit…”
“She was crying, Sharon, how is that smug?”
Sharon’s voice lowered and started to break. “My cat… is dead… and you’re taking up for her.”
Loren could hear quick footsteps coming up the stairs. She ran to her bed to avoid being caught eavesdropping. Her door never opened, but the one to her parent’s room slammed in the distance and she heard Sharon crying. A few minutes later, her father was in Loren’s bedroom consoling her.
“I didn’t do it, daddy, I promise.” she pleaded.
“I know honey. Your mom’s just really scared and upset. I’m gonna check the doors and such when I go back downstairs. I just wanted to make sure you were alright. She’ll come around and apologize. Everything’s gonna be okay”
Her father patted her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. He asked that she stay put for a while and she did. With her legs rolled up to her chest, she sat on the bed and traced the flower patterns in her quilt with her fingers, trying desperately to think of how she was going to make It go away before it hurt someone else.
Even after her father came to tell her she could come out, Loren stayed in her room to think. Surely it was safe in the daylight, and anything was better than an encounter with Sharon. Her father brought her breakfast and lunch and, as he came to take her dishes, he let her know he planned to head to the hardware store to pick up a few locks. She had already heard him on the phone reporting a break-in and talking to someone else about alarms. No sooner did the garage door lift than Sharon was standing in her doorway.
“He thinks someone broke in,” she accused, “but we know differently, don’t we? He fell for your little game hook, line, and sinker ,and he’s off to fortify his fucking castle. Well, he isn’t stuck here with you all day, and he doesn’t know you like I do. I can see what you really are, you little bitch, and I won’t stand for this shit for another second! From now on, you will not leave this room while he’s gone. I may not have any say when he’s here, but you won’t poison me when I do have a say.”
Loren was dumbfounded. Sharon was not a warm mother, but she had never been this hateful before. Loren started to cry again.
“Yeah, right!” Sharon laughed. “That shit don’t work on me.” She turned and slammed the door behind her. Loren fell over on her bed and wailed into her pillow. She cried for what felt like hours until her eyes dried up, then continued to whimper while staring at her flowered wallpaper. Some time after the numbness set in, sleep must have taken her. When she woke, the house was dark and silent; It was sitting at the foot of her bed, teeth shining in the moonlight.
Loren’s breath stopped dead in her throat and burned, unable to escape. Her heart raced as the adrenalin coursed through her body. Prepared as she was to run, she was frozen. It was huge, disproportionate, and covered in coarse, gray hair. Its hands, nearly bigger than Loren, were balled on either side of it on the bed. They were attached to thick, limbering arms outstretched from its stubby torso which was less than half the length it should have been. It would have looked like a gorilla if not for the two spider-like legs jutting out from its sides. Its feet were pincers digging into her mattress. It had elongated eyes that blinked vertically. Its mouth was gaping and filled with claw-like teeth, over three inches at greatest length. They dripped with slime. Loren backed herself into the corner away from it. The corner of its maw widened, smiling at her retreat. It lifted its arms from the bed, extended its spindly fingers, exposing its talons in the process, and hugged its body. The arms flattened as they coiled around its broad chest and were long enough to wrap completely around its body, allowing its hands to open behind its back like webless bat wings. Loren flinched when it spoke.
“What isss amisss with the little baby missstresss, eh?” It hissed as it talked. She imagined cartoon snakes. “Guesssed she would be happier to sssee me.” Loren shook her head, still barely breathing. “No? Well she jussst may be excccited after she hearsss my offer. Am here to help the missstresss.”
Loren sat in disbelief. She couldn’t imagine how he would want to help her. She struggled for courage and found her voice. “But… you killed Sharon’s cat. You’re here to hurt us”.
“Not the missstresss… never the missstresss. Had to show her how evil the mommy isss. Had to make her sssee.”
“She wasn’t like that before!”
“She wasss. Jussst never let it out. She hatesss the missstresss. Resssentsss the missstresss. Thinksss she ruined her life. Massster wantsss her in hisss bed fire. Massster sssent me to make her hate. Sssent me to ssspoil her sssoul. Sssent me to give her entry to hisss chamber. Will do thisss… and will sssave missstresss asss well.”
“What for? Who are you?”
“Name isss ssso long. Call me Phissst. The mommy will hurt the missstresss. Not now… but sssoon. Am here to ssstop that. Wanted to eat the mommy but cannot in thisss form. Massster would now allow… never allow… he wantsss her for later.”
“Master? What does he want with us?”
“Not usss… the mommy. No more quessstionsss. Lisssten now. Will make all the missstresssesss fearsss go away. Will make her ssstrong and happy. Jussst sssay yesss.”
“What will happen to me? What will you do? How will you make my fears go away?”
“No quessstionsss!” he snarled. “Jussst sssay yesss!”
“No! No, I won’t do it! You won’t hurt us so go away and leave us alone!” Loren was suddenly aware that she was shouting and had risen from her slump into a kneeling position. She was still much shorter than Phist was. He smiled again.
“Isss fine, missstresss. Underssstand… won’t hurt the missstresss… jussst the missstresss.” The sides of one eye came together in the middle, winking at her. He then unfolded his arms, flattened his body, grabbed the edge of her bed and flung himself beneath it. After taking the first deep breath since she saw Phist, Loren curled up and cried herself to sleep again. When she woke in the morning, her short-lived hope was shattered when she discovered that the letter blocks were no longer buried at the bottom of the trash outside but were, once again, scattered about the room with a single word formed amongst them. This time, it spelled DADDY.
The day passed slowly with Loren in a haze. She felt as if she were in a dream, being carried through the hours instead of living them. Sharon ignored her existence, of course, though her silence was lost on Loren, as she had more important things to think about. Loren was relieved that it was Sunday, and she would be allowed out of her bedroom to visit with her father. She spent the time with him wisely. They put a puzzle together as Sharon fumed and stalked the house, disgusted. When her father noticed Loren’s preoccupation, he suggested a movie instead and she relented. She loved her father. He was her world and her savior. With her parents unable, or unwilling, to believe her, she had no ideas as to how to defeat Phist and save her father’s life. As the credits rolled on The Princess Bride, she decided she would do whatever was necessary. When the sun set, her father ushered her upstairs to change into her pajamas. After telling her he loved her and tucking her in, he left for the night.
“I love you, Daddy!” she yelled as he closed the door. He poked his head back in and winked at her before shutting the door behind him.
Loren reached over and turned the switch to the lamp on her nightstand. Light flooded the room but did not deter Phist, who was already creeping out from under her bed. In an instant, he was sitting at her feet, fists forward as he had the night before.
“Hasss the missstresss changed her mind? Or doesss ssshe want Daddy to be gnawed and sssplit down the middle?” He stared at her, grinning.
“Please don’t hurt my daddy.” Loren pleaded in a whisper. She lowered her head and refused to look as Phist’s eyes were glowing green.
“Then you mussst sssay yesss.” His smile grew wider.
Loren had no choice. “Yes…” The moment she began to speak, Phist’s skinny, segmented legs shot forward toward her and seized her ankles. He yanked to straighten her legs out in front of her and dug his pincers into her calves. She screamed as loud as she could, but if she managed it, she could not hear herself. She could barely see Phist chuckling at her through her tears. He sank his pincers into her legs to the point where they were fully imbedded beneath her skin and she screamed again. His eyes were furious and bright, dousing the room in a green glow. She sat up and tried to hit him, but he caught her in his mouth and buried his teeth in her forearm. This scream was audible. A second later, she saw the door to her room burst open and her father ran to her bedside, cradling her immediately in his arms. She cried without pausing. He pleaded with her to tell him what had happened but she could not speak. Phist was gone. Her arm and legs showed no signs of trauma. He wouldn’t believe her anyway. He would say it had all been a bad dream. Loren continued to cry as her father rocked her to sleep.
- - -
The sun came up as it always did, and Loren’s father left for work. Sharon came to remind her that after she cleaned herself up, she would not be leaving her bedroom, and that she would be lucky if she received meals. Loren smiled as her mother turned to leave the room. She got up and took a shower, remembering to brush her teeth afterward. Back in her room, she dressed in her favorite purple jumper. Her hands brushed her calves as she pulled on her socks, and she giggled as if they were suddenly ticklish. Not knowing how to spend her morning, she looked around her room. She saw a bird out the window and wondered where Fluffers was when she needed him. “Stupid little cat,” she said as she spun in a circle and dropped to the floor. The letter blocks hadn’t been picked up. She flicked one with her fingers and nudged another with her thumb. “Eh… fuck it.” She started forming words.
S… H… I… T.
F… U… C… K.
C... U... N... T.
M… E… P… H… I… S… T… O… P… E… L… E… S.
M… A… S… T… E… R.
She caught her reflection in the long mirror on her closet door and smiled, excited. She could see something shiny under her bed but couldn’t quite make it out in the mirror. Suddenly, the arms of her reflection knocked the words she had formed away and began spelling another. Her eyes were pretty, glowing green. She laughed and they brightened further, sparkling like gems in the mirror. Then Loren turned and looked down at the word her reflection had made. She said the letters aloud with a glee she’d thought was lost, “S… H… A… R… O… N.” She popped off the floor and ran over to the bed. Bending down to reach under it, using her new bright eyes to see through the darkness, she grabbed the knife and skipped off downstairs.
Sharon started screaming at her as soon as Loren landed at the bottom of the stairs. Her rampage was brief and ended abruptly with a short pause. Then she screamed for a very long time.