idol season 11 | week 19 | ~2600 words
I Can't Get Calm
I have no idea where the thing came from, but I first noticed it sneaking after me in the shadows by the edge of the woods.
I was out for a walk that night, taking my usual route toward the park and then around the back of the baseball diamond. Then I heard this rustling sound, and when I looked behind me, I saw this purple and black and greenish thing moving along in little bursts. It looked kind of like a giant bruise with eyes, except it was blurry.
"What do you want?" I said.
It froze, like that would make it invisible or something, which it never does.
"Yeah, you with the horns," I said.
It squeaked, which I did not expect, and then its eyes darted around like there was maybe some other horned creature I was talking to.
"Why are you following me?" I asked.
"I… don't know where I belong. My home is gone," it said.
"Gone how? Like, bulldozer gone?"
The creature looked so confused, it was almost cute. "Gone as in…the room I lived in is empty. I must have overslept—there's nothing there."
"So it isn't gone."
"Yes it is! A room by itself isn't a home. Not without a bed."
"Oh, so you need a place to sleep, then."
"Yes!" It bounced with excitement. "Yes, please!"
"Okay, why not. I'll see what I can do." I motioned for it to follow me. "But this is just for tonight, you understand."
"I understand," it said, scampering after me.
I knew what I had, of course. More or less. I mean, we'd all seen the PSAs:
Whether you've found a stray monster or you're ready to adopt one, C.A.L.M. can help.
Why waste what can be rehomed?
I couldn't tell whether the monster I'd found was especially valuable or rare. It was pretty small, so it was hard to get a good look. But it'd be easier to figure out in daylight, and it wouldn't kill me to keep the thing overnight.
And it probably didn't eat much.
We reached the walkway leading up to my front porch. "All right, this is it," I said. "It ain't much, but it ain't bad. Do you like hot chocolate?"
"I don't know," the monster said.
"Well then, I guess we'll find out…"
The monster said its name was Zanzubitranos—what a mouthful—and the hot cocoa didn't make him sick. That was a lucky break for both of us. I padded a drawer with a pillow and bedded him down next to the sofa, and said goodnight. It had been a busy weekend, and tomorrow was Monday. I was whipped.
I was still pretty tired the next morning, but the kitchen was oddly neat. I didn't remember cleaning it before I went to bed.
Maybe I'd found some kind of OCD monster, and he'd tidied everything up while I slept?
He was still in the kitchen, eating something that looked like a fried dust-bunny over by the sink. It actually smelled kind of like it, too.
"What is that?" I asked.
"It was under the sofa. I didn't think you'd mind." The monster stopped chewing. "Or did I overstep?"
"No, no worries—knock yourself out," I said.
I made some toast to eat on the way to work, and told—Zanzibar? Zippy? I'm gonna call him Zee-Zee—not to break anything while I was gone.
It was a typical Monday at work. Everyone looked trashed.
"So, how was your weekend?" Jimmy D. asked.
"Good," I said. "I found a monster last night."
"Really?" Jimmy set up the filter for the breakroom coffee pot. "What kind?"
"I dunno. It seemed kind of rude to ask."
"Where is it now?" he asked.
"At the house. I haven't decided what to do with it."
"Geez, Pete, you left it there alone?" Jimmy said. "You have no idea what it could do!"
I shrugged. "So far, I think it cleaned the kitchen…"
"Huh." Jimmy whacked a pair of sugar packets against his hand. "You decide not to keep it, let me know. I might be able to give it a home."
I stopped by the grocery store to buy milk after work, and made it back to the house by six. Zee-Zee was already asleep in his drawer when I got in, which was awfully cute. I ate dinner in the bedroom with the TV turned down low, and went to bed early. I had an eight o-clock meeting the next morning, thanks to a senior manager determined to be the vanguard of some new corporate cruelty.
I was awake half the night, dreaming of lions chasing me around and around a black forest until I grew too tired to outrun them.
Oh, morning. Why did it have to come so early? I could hardly remember to put on shoes.
The day was a blur. Meetings, more meetings, and I drank so much coffee my stomach burned. I might have agreed to take on a new project, or just imagined it? Hard to be sure.
"Long day?" Zee-Zee asked when I got home.
"You're awake," I blurted. "So, what do you—I mean, where—"
"It can wait."
I didn't remember eating dinner. I was naked in my dreams all night long, trying to find my way home from a city I didn't recognize.
"Wow, you look like crap," Jimmy D. said when I rolled into work the next morning.
"Thanks," I croaked. It was the kind of support you really counted on from a friend.
"Whatever happened with your monster, anyway?" he asked.
"Still got him," I said. "I was gonna call in about him, but I've been too tired."
Jimmy's mouth fell open. "But you don't know the first thing about him! Who knows what he's up to?"
"More cleaning, I guess. The bathroom's spotless."
"Hmm. Still, you ever wonder if he might be what's making you so tired?"
"Huh?" I said.
I looked up the number for C.A.L.M. later that morning, though, and I called during my lunch break. All I got was a busy signal. I'd have to try again later, I supposed.
I thought about what Jimmy had said. Surely, a little investigation couldn't hurt?
That night, before I went to bed, I quietly placed every shoe I owned under the covers to make lying on them uncomfortable. Then I slipped in on top of them and let them dig into me, periodically poking myself with a fork I'd snuck in from the kitchen to help me stay awake. Still, I was nodding off when I heard the bedroom door crack open.
I didn't dare look. I just lay there, breathing slowly and heavily, and waiting for the right moment.
After a few minutes, there was a voice:
"It's dark," the voice whispered. "Dark and raining, and you're driving on a lost highway where the road keeps changing. You don't know where you are or how you got there. Suddenly, a gigantic truck looms up behind you…"
I closed my hands around the flashlight next to me, and leaned quietly toward the side of the bed as the voice kept talking. Then I lunged over the edge and turned on the flashlight, searching down and across the floor and finally underneath the bed.
"Aha!" I yelled.
Zee-Zee stood beneath the headboard, frozen in the flashlight beam.
"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" I said.
He bolted out the door.
"Oh, no you don't!" I said, stumbling out of bed and crashing after him. I turned on the light, and then the lights in the hallway, the bathroom, the living room, the kitchen.
"This is how you repay my hospitality?"
Zee-Zee spoke from behind the television. "I'm a nightmare-weaver! It's what we do!"
Oh, god, I'd been so stupid. No wonder I was so tired all the time. "Well, you can't stay here anymore. You need to leave."
"Why would I do that? This is a great setup! It's a nice house, and it has a dreamer and all the cobwebs and under-fluff I could ever eat!"
I lunged toward the back of the television. "I'll bet you weren't even lost when I found you!"
"I was!" Zee-Zee shouted up at me. "I'd been at Julia's so long, I forgot what it was like to find a new place to live!"
I glared at him. "Tell me what happened to Julia."
"I don't know!" Zee-Zee said. "When I got there, she was just a little girl. I lived under her bed, and sent her scary dreams at night, until one day she found me. But she was nice, so she decided to let me stay if I only gave her nightmares once in a awhile.
"She got older and older, and harder to scare. At first, it was all monsters, and kids being mean to her. Then it was cheating boyfriends and flunking out of college, and then mortgage payments and losing her job… She never moved out of that house, and maybe she even forgot I was there, but she got so hard of hearing that I had to shout to get through to her while she slept. By then, it was stuff like going to the store without her dentures, or falling down the stairs and breaking her hip.
"And then I woke up after a long, long nap, and the bed was gone and everything was quiet, and I couldn't find Julia anywhere… Why did she leave me?"
God, he was just so pitiful. "She must have died, or gone into a nursing home."
Zee-Zee drooped against the baseboard. "Oh…"
I sighed. I was tired, and I didn't have the heart to keep fighting anymore. "We'll talk about this later."
I went back to my room and dug all the shoes out of the bed, and locked the door. There were no more dreams that night.
The next day was better, but I was still dragging. Sleep deprivation will do that to you, and it takes a while to make up for it. I asked Elyse to check my math before sending out the review timeline for next week, and I struggled to process the results of Tuesday's meeting minutes. Project Bottlecap… Yes, I had definitely volunteered to work on that. Crap.
Zee-Zee was asleep in his little bed when I got home. He'd been there when I left that morning, and I wasn't sure he'd even bothered to get up that day. Realizing what must have happened to Julia had hit him pretty hard.
Friday was at least not Tuesday or Wednesday, and I felt marginally less stupid than the day before. Still, I was glad when it was over. After work, I went out for a few beers with Jimmy and Dave at a place that had great cheeseburgers and brats. I got home at ten and went straight to bed, prepared to sleep all the way to Sunday if I needed to.
There were zombies. In the buildings, on the roads, stumbling through the woods, lurching around corners. They swarmed around me, their teeth tearing into my flesh—
I woke up, and heard a little voice muttering, "The smell of death is everywhere, and you can't breathe—"
I jumped out of bed, but he was already running for the door, even though I could have sworn I'd locked it the night before. I was right behind him, but when I reached for the door handle he disappeared, and I smacked into the door instead of opening it.
I had locked it, but somehow he'd still gotten in. Hey, for all I knew, he could slip under doors or through the cracks around windows. Apart from the eyes and the horns and the little tail, he was kind of amorphous.
I threw open the door and ran after him.
"I want you out of this house!"
"You'll have to catch me first!" he said, and scurried under the sofa.
Damn it. His size was really an advantage for him, and he was a lot faster than me. I thought about sucking him up in the vacuum cleaner, but I was afraid it might kill him. I wasn't ready to go that far.
Instead, I got out the phone and dialed the number for C.A.L.M. again.
Busy. Well, that was annoying. I tried again and again, and kept getting a busy signal.
I noticed it was daylight—already after twelve, in fact. I'd slept later than I thought.
I pulled on some clothes and shoved the phone in my pocket, and then I went out for a walk.
It was a beautiful day, I guess. In truth, it was bright and piercing, thanks to all those nights with so little sleep. I should've brought my sunglasses.
People were mowing their lawns and washing their cars and riding their bikes and walking down the street. People who probably didn't have monsters living in their houses and trying to push them over the edge. I tried the number for C.A.L.M. again, but it was still busy. Why couldn't I get them on the phone? Did anyone even work there?
After a good half hour of walking around, I felt better. I called one last time as I turned the corner onto my block. Finally, someone answered.
"Hello," she said.
"Hi, my name is Pete Everdale, and—"
"Thank you for contacting C.A.L.M. No one is available to take your call right now, but if you'll leave a message—"
God, this is useless!
I stomped across the walkway and up the stairs to my porch, and went inside. I heaved out a noisy breath and looked around. A pair of little eyes peeked at me around the edge of the sofa.
I sat down on the armchair, and thought for a minute.
"Zee-Zee," I said, "they have exterminators for this kind of problem, but neither of us wants that. Why are you so stubborn about leaving?"
"I like it here!" he squeaked. "I like you. You're nice, just like Julie was."
"Okay…" I jiggled my leg. "I like you too, but—"
But what? How could I explain this in a way he'd understand? "But, I can't live with all these nightmares destroying my sleep. I'm so tired, I'm screwing up at work. It's going to cost me my job."
"Oh," Zee-zee said. "But I'm a monster—it's what I do."
"Have you ever thought about… retiring?" I asked. "Like, if nightmares were your job. At some point, you'd be done working and you'd spend the rest of your life playing checkers and reading books and working in the garden, or something."
"Retiring?" He came out from behind the sofa.
"Or even just making interesting dreams instead of scary ones. That seems like it'd still be fun."
"Maybe." He bounced a little. "Would I still get to clean?"
"If you want," I said. "That part's kind of nice."
"I can give it a try. It sounds like it could be nice, though it might take me a while to get the hang of it."
"I'll make sure to remind you every night before I go to bed. We'll take it one day at a time," I assured him.
"And if I goof up once in a while?" he asked.
"As long as you're working hard at it, I'll try not to be mad."
"I'd like that," Zee-Zee said.
"Good. And if you still feel like you need to give nightmares to someone, you can go outside and scare the rats and mice out of the shed..."
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.