If I Don’t See Them

If I don’t see them, they won’t see me.

If I don’t see them, they won’t see me.

If I don’t see them…

It was my childhood mantra. I’d repeat it to myself whenever I was alone and afraid. It helped keep the monsters at bay.

No one else seemed to know they were there.

I heard them, though, and smelled them, and I could feel them, but I never saw them. No, I was careful, I was cautious. At the first sign of their approach, I’d squeeze my eyes shut and make myself very small and I’d wait. It was hard, the waiting. I knew they were looking for me. They’d snort and hiss and growl in the darkness around me, their claws scraping across the ground.

But as long as I didn’t see them, they didn’t see me.

I don’t know what drew them to me. I was eight when I woke up one night with prickles dancing across the back of my neck and the certainty that something was in my room with me. It should have been impossible, it was a tiny space in a mobile home with barely enough room for my bed, dresser, and a wobbly desk my parents had built for me. No one could have snuck in without bumping into something.

Still, the feeling persisted, it grew, and with it a panic like I’d never known wrapped itself around my heart. There was a soft scratching at the foot of my bed, like something was trying to crawl out from under it. I threw my comforter over my head and screamed for my mommy.

She was the one who suggested I just close my eyes and wait for the feeling to pass.

“Nothing is going to hurt you, Tyler,” she told me. “As long as you keep your eyes closed, you’re invisible to all monsters, ok?”

To her, it was probably just an attempt at a quick fix, the same way some parents tell their kids that spray bottles filled with water are boogeyman repellent so they’re not afraid of the dark, but to me, it was practically the word of God. If Mom said it would work, it would.

And it did.

Belief is a powerful thing and I wrapped myself up in my mom’s words like armor. These nighttime visits became regular things, often starting with a subtle scritch scritch from beneath my bed or with a creak from my bedroom door. I woke each time, paralyzed with a primal, instinctual knowledge that I was not alone.

If I don’t see them, they won’t see me.

I kept my eyes shut tight and lay very still, hoping that the rapid, loud thump of my heart wouldn’t betray me, and I’d listen as they slowly crawled out of their hiding places. They smelled foul, like sulfur and mildew, and beneath my closed lids, my eyes would water from a mix of fear and the stench that polluted the air.

They’d breathe heavily, a guttural, rumbling sound, and some would pace the few steps back and forth across my room. Others would linger in place, smelling the air, seeking me out. The worst were the ones who climbed onto my bed. The mattress would dip beneath their weight beside me and my blankets would twitch and tug as they pawed at them. Sometimes, if the dip they created was deep enough, I’d roll into them. The icy coldness of their flesh sank through my pajamas until it almost burned, but I’d force myself to remain quietly in place in case willful movement or sound caught their attention. If they could feel me in return, they showed no sign of it.

The whole time, I kept my eyes clamped firmly shut.

They would retreat again after a while, back to wherever they’d come from, but I never relaxed immediately (if “relaxing” is the right word for what I did at all). I was always afraid one might have stayed behind and was waiting quietly for me to let my guard down. Usually I waited until their stench had dissipated completely before I dared to open one eye again, and even then it was only a tiny bit.

Mom and Dad were skeptical of my tales of nighttime visitors, which I recounted each morning after an incident, but assured me that as long as I kept my eyes closed, I’d be fine. Apparently Dad had been an active dreamer when he was my age and they just assumed I was, too, albeit with darker themes than he’d had. To their credit, they never outright stated that they didn’t believe me, but I knew even then that that didn’t think it was real. After all, they’d never heard or smelled anything and our home was so small that, if there were horrible, stinky monsters breaking in at night, surely they’d have known about it.

While they never asked me to stop talking about it or discouraged me from expressing myself, I eventually did stop sharing what had become my “norm”. It was after I’d told some friends at school about it and was teased in return. I realized that people were going to start thinking I was weird, that there was something wrong with me, and, in its own way, that was almost scarier than the monsters.

I dealt with it in silence. In darkness. Alone.

By the time my ninth birthday rolled around, I was spending most nights tucked as far beneath my sheets as possible with my eyes screwed shut.

If I don’t see them, they won’t see me.

All I wanted for my birthday was to have a sleepover with my best friend, Robby. He lived in the same trailer park as me and we played together often, but he’d never spent the night. In addition to being able to hang out longer than we usually could, I thought that if I had my buddy with me, I’d get one good night’s sleep without any interruption. The monsters had never come when my parents were present, so I thought Robby being there would have the same effect.

Robby’s mom walked him over at six. We ate pizza, watched a movie, played a game on my brand new, used Nintendo that I’d gotten as a gift, tried our hand at poker with my parents: I did everything I could think of to keep us up. I didn’t even realize at first that I was stalling, not until Robby whined that he was getting sleepy and wanted to get to bed. My earlier confidence that having another person in my room would keep the monsters away had ebbed away into a tingling fear.

I tried to argue that it was my birthday and if I wanted to stay up, then Robby should, too, but Mom quickly squashed that notion. She thought I was overtired as it was, which had made me cranky and defiant, and she ordered me to go brush my teeth after Robby and go to bed. My parents tucked us in, me in my bed, Robby in the small space on the floor beside me. After they’d shut the door and their voices had drifted to their room at the other end of the trailer, I turned on my side and peered over the side of my bed at Robby.

“Don’t open your eyes,” I told him.

He blinked owlishly up at me in the glow of my nightlight. “How come?”

“‘Cos of…” I hesitated, remembering how I’d been made fun of the last time I talked about the monsters. “Just don’t, ok? No matter what.”

“Weirdo,” Robby said.

I threw my extra pillow at him and rolled over again, my eyes closing. I was uneasy for a long time, especially after my parents had gone to bed. Robby snored contently from his spot wedged between my bed and dresser. Outside, I heard our neighbors talking on their back porch, dogs barking in the distance, a noisy car rumbling by, but nothing inside. No scratches or snorts and no terrible smells that marked their coming. As the night wore on, I gradually began to relax, until sleep took hold of me.

A muffled yelp woke me after what seemed only seconds.

The heavy stench of rotten eggs had filled my room more thickly than ever before. I gagged, but didn’t open my eyes to look. There was a scuffling sound from beneath my bed, right beside where Robby was lying. He cried out again, but it was a soft sound, muted, like something was covering his mouth. It was followed by a deep, hungry growl and my entire bed shook as something under it moved again. Robby was sobbing. The edge of my blanket was yanked downward, grabbed by either my friend or a monster, I didn’t know.

If I don’t see them, they won’t see me.

And I didn’t open my eyes.

Part of me wanted to. I didn’t want Robby to get hurt! But I was also afraid. I’d told him not to open his eyes! I’d told him not to look! Robby tried to scream, but hardly a sound came out, and there was a hiss and my bed shook again. I felt hands tugging frantically at my bedding, desperately trying to gain a firm hold, but first one slipped away, and then the other.

Slowly, I started to stretch out a hand towards him. If I moved too quickly, I was scared the monsters would see me, too. They’d get me. My fingers made it as far as the edge of my mattress before the thing beneath my bed made it shake again. I yanked my hand back, my teeth clenched tightly together to keep from shouting.

Robby must have wiggled loose just for a moment, because he started to call my name. His voice was thin and reedy with horror. He was cut off by a hard, meaty thud, and my room became quiet again.

I was frozen in fear, curled into a tiny ball with my hands pressed over my eyes. My terror had made me useless.

The smell started to fade, but I didn’t relax as I usually would have. I didn’t peek over the side of my bed. I didn’t even try to check on Robby.

The monsters had gone.

I knew Robby was gone, too.

But unlike the monsters, I doubted my best friend would ever return again.

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