If you have read my stories about Angela (nameless in My Cat, a Genius and While I Was Polishing My Nails) and Azazel, perhaps you’ve been curious about her little brother, Alex. This story is about him; Angela and Azazel are only mentioned. If you haven’t read them, no problem. This story was meant to stand on its own.
The Ones Who Choose to Die Under the Bed
Fingers of a child taste like chicken, did you know that? At least that’s what I’ve heard. Couldn’t tell, really. I’ve never tried chicken.
I like the kids scared. It’s not that I’m a bad person, I’m really not. It’s my kind, the boogeyfolk who need adrenaline. There are others, those who need endorphin. They have a variety of methods to please their food, to make it feel good. They are also pretty to look at, at least by human standards. To tell the truth, they look nice to me, too. I like to watch how humans react to them, how they embrace them, even fall in love with them. To fall in love with the one who’s going to devour you! Oh well, humans are not my kind; guess I’m not supposed to understand them.
Anyway, since it’s adrenaline I need, my choice is either to scare the little ones or to make them angry. It’s a lot easier to scare a kid than to make it angry, trust me on that. I’ve tried both.
Scaring them, now that’s an art. The hatchlings just cut the food with their claws. It sure scares the babies, but a one-moment scare doesn’t produce that much adrenaline. Therefore hatchlings have to hunt often. Hunting is always risky; the more often you hunt, the bigger the chances you’ll run into an intelligent, caring parent or sibling. Since human adults are considerably bigger than a hatchling, you can guess the outcome of such an encounter. Only a quick-learning hatchling (or an incredibly lucky one) has a chance to survive. Me, I was lucky. I’ve only run into parents twice, and was always fast enough to escape.
As I grew, I learned to be patient, to overcome my hunger, to check out the house and see if there were adults or young adults who were likely to make trouble. Of course, since I’m not a hatchling anymore, my choice of food is not limited to babies. I’m big enough now to completely devour an average seven-year-old.
So, first I check out the house. If it seems safe, I hide in the closet in the kid’s room (we usually enter the human world through closets) and start making what they call “strange noises” at night. It scares them a bit, but they usually overcome that fear. That’s good. They can overcome the first fear, but they won’t forget they were scared.
Once I let them see me a little (usually I show them my eyes; for some odd reason, red-glowing eyes scare them, as if the white bunnies they like so much don’t have the same eyes in the dark) they are afraid again, plus they remember their previous fear and get scared even more. Then I start whispering to them the worst, the ugliest, the scariest stuff I can think of. Like the rest of my kind, I’m not very imaginative, so I pick up that stuff from humans. Their stories, their books, their movies, things they say to each other when they’re angry. Quite often I don’t really understand what I’m saying, but I guess that kids do, since it always works.
Then the kids start peeing into their little pajamas. Sometimes they even shit into them. The parents usually get angry about that. I don’t. It’s all part of the process. The smell doesn’t bother me. I’m going to eat the entire kid anyway, with all of the contents in it.
By that time, the kid has produced quite a bit of adrenaline. The scent is intoxicating to me. I come closer and closer, sniffing the kid, the wonderful odor invigorating my hunger, my mouth drooling, my entire body trembling in expectation. That’s the riskiest time, the time when my greed for the adrenaline-soaked flesh can get the better of me. If I wait too long, scaring the kid more and more, even lousy parents may become concerned (or just tired of their screaming offspring) and send my prey to a hospital. The kids in hospitals are too hard to safely prey upon, so I lose them, and have to start all over again. Considerably weakened by hunger.
Not that I’m that greedy. Better a little early than too late, that’s what I think. So I come out and let the kid see me completely for the first time (and for the last time, of course). I quickly put one of my tentacles into the kid’s mouth, so it can’t scream and wake the parents. Sometimes they manage to bite me, but it doesn’t matter; my kind heals quickly. I enfold the kid’s body with my other tentacles, the teeth on them already sinking into the tender flesh and tearing it.
I can’t control myself completely during the feeding; my teacher says I’m too young to maintain complete control. I do have enough brains, however, to drag the kid through the closet, into safety, where no human can follow. There I eat them, drooling all over the food, trembling in ecstasy. Oh, the sweet time of feeding!
Basically, there are just a few rules for a safe hunt. Don’t hunt where the surrounding adults are caring. Don’t get greedy. And never, ever have a conversation with the kid.
My teacher told me the last one.
“You’ve survived long enough to be worth telling something,” he said. I listened. It was the first time I was approached by a grown-up. They never harmed us, but they never talked to the young ones either. It was a great honor to be approached by a grown-up.
“If you have a conversation with a kid, you’ll die,” he said and left.
To have a conversation with a kid? Why would I want to have a conversation with food? Those of us who crave endorphin pretend to have a conversation with their prey if that’s what pleases the prey, but it’s just pretense. There can be no real communication with the food, just an illusion.
I never understood that warning; I failed to see why it was necessary. I followed it, though; the grown-ups knew what they were saying.
Then I met this kid.
The house was perfect. Two parents, but none of them caring. One older sister, but she would even like her baby brother to die. And a cat. Now, cats can be a problem, since they’re always aware of our presence, but this cat was the sister’s, and wouldn’t mind if I took the child. Perfect. A fat seven-year-old and no danger around.
One night, I began to growl from the kid’s closet, loud exactly enough for him to hear. It took me a lot of time to learn not to be heard from anyone else.
The kid woke up, just like I wanted, and said, in uncertain voice:
“Hello? Is someone there?”
I growled again. The kid strained to see in the dark, then remembered to turn on the light. Such a quick reasonable reaction is rather unusual for one so young. I should have known there would be trouble. I should have left then, good hunting ground or not. But I didn’t. I growled again.
The normal reaction is that the kid tries to hide under the blanket, maybe to ask again if someone’s there. And to tremble, wide-eyed, and try to figure out what to do. In a good house (good for me, that is) the kid doesn’t call for help; he already knows he won’t get it.
But this kid said softly:
“Who are you?”
I should have left. That would have been the reasonable thing to do. But I didn’t. I just stood there, in the closet, the doors slightly ajar, and wondered what was the matter with this kid.
“I’m Alex,” the kid said. “What’s your name?”
I almost told him we didn’t have names. The kid waited, then spoke again: “Does the light hurt you? If I turn off the light, will you come out?”
I said nothing. The kid — Alex, damn him — turned the light off. I did nothing. Neither did Alex. He waited in the bed. I waited in the closet.
Finally, my curiosity won. I remembered my teacher’s warning, but I didn’t intend to have a conversation with the kid. I just wanted to take a look at this strange little boy who wasn’t afraid of me. I could smell almost no adrenaline.
I came out and looked at the boy. At first, he didn’t move; then he straightened in his bed and looked at me. I was standing in the moonlight, so he could see me pretty well. The clear sight of me is more than enough to make any kid scream in terror, but Alex was just a little scared.
“How come you’re not afraid of me?” I couldn’t resist asking.
“I am afraid of you,” the boy replied. “A little. I’m more afraid of waking my sister, she really doesn’t like me. And of her cat.”
That was new to me.
“You’re afraid of a cat?”
“That cat tried to kill me when I was a baby,” the boy replied solemnly. “Mom told me that. Tried to smother me.”
“How come your parents didn’t get rid of the cat?”
“Angela didn’t let them.”
“Angela’s your sister?”
I thought about all of this. Was my teacher, somehow, wrong? I was having a conversation with a kid, and I wasn’t dead. Strange.
But I didn’t think about it for long. This sister – Angela — was more successful in scaring the boy than I was. Perhaps I could learn something, I thought.
“Why are you so afraid of your sister? Just because she doesn’t like you? Because she maybe told her cat to kill you?” I asked. The boy shook his head.
“I don’t know if she told Azazel to kill me. He doesn’t like me. Angela… she’s weird. I think she’s very smart, but she doesn’t like anybody. Except Azazel, of course,” the boy rolled his eyes at that. “She’s… Sometimes she reads to me, when Mom and Dad tell her to. I can read, but Mom and Dad say my big sister should read to me sometimes, because she’s my big sister and all. She doesn’t read the kid stuff to me.”
“What does she read to you?” I asked. Was that what scared him so much?
“Whatever she’s reading at the time. Scary stuff. Stories by Lovecraft, Poe… She read the entire Dracula to me.”
“Why do your Mom and Dad let her read that to you?”
“Angela told them that was beyond my age, but that I liked it anyway. Dad asked if I really liked it and I said I did. They were very happy and said it was all right then, and that they were very happy I was so smart.”
Now I was puzzled.
“Why did you say you liked it?”
“I do like some of it. And Angela was sitting next to me.”
All right, the sister he’s afraid of was sitting next to him so he didn’t dare to contradict her, that much I understood. But — he liked some of the scary stuff?
“What did you like?” I asked.
“Some stories. And Dracula. He’s not that bad, he just has to drink blood or he’ll die,” Alex paused. “I think he was lonely, too.”
“But wouldn’t you be scared if he tried to take your blood?”
“Yes,” Alex said, and I understood. He would be scared, just like a baby when a hatchling injures it, but not more than that. If I was to eat him, he would be scared, but he wouldn’t think I was a bad person. Maybe he’d also think I had to be lonely, too.
I ran away. I’ve never been so afraid in my life. I don’t know exactly what made me so scared, not then. I couldn’t see any rational reason for such fear, but I ran as fast as I could.
Others like me, they didn’t really ask what happened. We’re all loners, anyway. One or two said something like “Bad house, huh?” and that was it.
I was hesitant to return to that kid’s house. I thought of searching for another house, another kid. But I was curious, so I returned.
Alex was awake, waiting for me.
“Hello,” he said. “I hoped you would come.”
“I shouldn’t talk to you,” I said. “I should scare you and eat you.”
“You eat kids?” he asked, as if he wasn’t a child.
“I’m too small to eat adults. And besides, kids are easier to scare.”
“Why do you have to scare them?”
“I need adrenaline.”
“That’s what humans produce when they’re scared or angry. I’ve heard the word on TV.”
“You watch TV? Do you have TV where you come from?”
“Sometimes and no.”
Alex thought about what I told him, which gave me time to wonder why I liked talking to him so much. That was the truth. I liked talking to him. I liked him. There was something about the way he listened to me, something which made me feel… Good.
Which is nonsense. He was, well, food. I mean, I can run from a human or eat it. Those who need endorphin sometimes keep humans as pets, but my kind doesn’t.
“Are you going to eat me?” Alex asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“I don’t know,” I said. He looked at me, confused.
“Alex,” I began, uncertain. “If you’re not my prey, and if you’re not my pet, what are you?”
I thought he was going to say “nothing”.
“A friend?” he said, after some thought.
“A friend,” I said, trying the word. I wasn’t sure of the meaning, but it felt true.
“A friend, then,” I said.
“I never had a friend before,” Alex said.
“Me neither,” I replied.
Alex approached me. I just stood and looked at him. I didn’t know what he intended to do, but he wasn’t afraid or angry, he wasn’t a threat. He touched me. No one ever touched me before; touch was a threat. I touched kids only to rip them apart and eat them.
But I liked Alex’s touch. He caressed me, gently (I learned those words later, from him), and I enjoyed it. It was nice. I didn’t want him to stop. After a while, though, he yawned and I knew he needed to sleep, so I left.
Alone, I thought about what happened. I couldn’t see anything threatening in the situation, so why that warning about the conversation? Was it possible I had discovered something completely new for my kind? Or was I dead already, without realizing it?
Then I thought about finding a new house and a new kid. If I wasn’t going to eat Alex, I had to eat some other kid. Not that I thought of Alex as a kid anymore. He was, well, Alex. Neither a prey nor a pet. A friend. Alex.
And then I thought, what if the next kid was like Alex? Kids I looked for were lonely. Maybe the next kid would welcome me as a friend, too. Maybe not immediately, but if I was nice to him for a long enough time… And maybe the kid after that one would like me too. And another one. And another. It wasn’t impossible. Lonely kids often accepted cats and dogs and birds and fish as their friends. Some of them might also accept me.
Finally I understood the wisdom of the warning. We are not like humans. Once we learn something, we can’t forget it. We can’t just push the knowledge aside when it suits us. I couldn’t just forget kids could be my friends and keep eating them at the same time.
And it’s human flesh we need. We can’t survive on plants or animals.
I wasn’t scared once I realized that. I felt nothing. I just found the grown-up who warned me and told him I had a conversation with a kid. I tried to explain, but he stopped me.
“I don’t want to know the details,” the grown-up said. “I have no intention to die.”
I wondered if it was the end of our conversation.
“So it’s true,” the grown-up said. “If you have a conversation with a kid, you’ll refuse to eat it. That’s how my teacher explained it to me, but I’ve never seen it happening.”
He paused, then looked at me.
“The curious ones learn quickly, but often die because of curiosity. Still, since you’re going to die anyway, would you like to hear a legend?” my teacher asked.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what that was about.
“As you probably know, after we die, we turn to ashes and, after a while, get born again. We have to start all over again, like hatchlings.” My teacher shuddered at that. No one likes remembering what it was like, always hunting, always hungry, always in danger.
“The legend is, if you accept to die because you had a conversation with a kid, you are granted a choice. You can die here, among your own, and you’ll be born like one of us. Or, you can die under this kid’s bed. If you do that, you’ll be born like one of them. I have no idea why anyone would want to be born like food, but maybe it makes some sense to you.”
I thought about my teacher’s words for a long time after he left. Did I want to get born as a human? Or did I want to be a hatchling again, with no memories, eating the ones who could be my friends? No, I definitely didn’t want that. But what if the legend wasn’t true? What if I had no choice, what if I had to eat kids again and again and again?
In that case, I hoped I’d make one clumsy hatchling.
Then it hit me. I was going to die. I knew what hunger felt like, how painful it was. And there wouldn’t be the relief of feeding, not this time.
Refusing to torture myself with such thoughts, I went to see Alex. I told him nothing, of course. I’d feel hurt if I knew he was going to die; I didn’t want him to feel hurt. One morning, he’d find some ashes under his bed, and I won’t come back the next night, and that would be it. Maybe he’ll miss me, but he won’t die of it. And others of my kind won’t come near his house, that’s for sure.
Not much left to tell, really, and I’m tired and it hurts bad. I’ll probably die before morning. I came to Alex every night and stayed with him until he fell asleep, still holding one of my tentacles. We talked a lot, and we even played a bit (careful not to wake anyone, of course). I enjoyed every moment spent with him. I never had second thoughts about my decision, not even when it began to hurt. He sensed something was wrong, but I refused to talk about it, so he left it alone.
Sometimes, I wonder about others who had chosen to die under the bed. If the legend is true and they were born as humans, have I eaten any of them? Is Alex one of them? Do I like him because he’s one of them?
Mostly, though, I don’t think. I just hope. I hope I’ll meet Alex again, as one of his kind, and be his friend again. I’ll have no memories of this so I won’t be able to recognize him, but maybe, somehow, he’ll be able to recognize me. I hope for that while I lay under his bed, holding his hand in my tentacle, waiting for the pain to stop. Perhaps, with it, the other pain (Alex told me the word for that one was “loneliness”) will stop too, and perhaps it won’t come back.
Perhaps we’ll be friends again.