MONSTERS

By John Thomas Tuft

Dread arrived each night with the first footfall at the bottom of the stairs. Up in his bedroom, the boy cringed and tried to disappear beneath the covers, all too aware that not all monsters hide under the bed or lurk in closets. Each and every night the same routine. The heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, treading down the hallway, the dark shadow in the doorway, the loud sigh of exasperation, “Why do you make me do this? You know I don’t want to hurt you, but here we are.” The belt being unbuckled, the swish as it is pulled through the loops. “This hurts me far more than it hurts you. You understand that, don’t you?”

The belt being laid on the bedspread, the one with the images of cowboys on the prairie, with cattle wading through a cool stream wandering toward some hoped for distant refuge in the mountains, is a prelude to an annunciation: “Just tell me that you love me. Do that, and I’ll chase all the monsters away.” It is almost a pleading tone, a child’s prayer beseeching the shadows dancing across the ceiling above the bed. But the prayer of a child, like a story in search of a hero, wanders in search of redemption. Pain inflicted by damaged love is still pain. The damage inflicted by painful love is still damage. Of such things are monsters created.

Twenty years go by. Anxiety arrives each night with the first footfall on the bottom stair. The son is now a father.  The anxiety is not for the son who awaits, safe in his bed. Rather for the father who climbs the stairs feeling the weight of his own dread. He feels inadequate to the job and floundering with trying to control what his son thinks of him. It is a monster inside of his chest, haunting every shadow on his heart. Pain, regret, and his longtime companion, fear, jangle through him each time his foot hits the next stair. He opens the bedroom door with a sigh. “Daddy, there are monsters in my room. Can I leave the light on?” pleads the boy in the bed.

The father sits on the bedspread, the one with the images of cowboys on the prairie, with cattle wading through a cool stream wandering toward some hoped for distant refuge in the mountains. “There are no monsters,” he insists, while noticing his own shadow looming across the face of the boy, seeing in his eyes another frightened little boy. “Don’t be such a baby,” says the father firmly, hand raised. “Make me proud.” The boy’s lower lip trembles and a tear escapes the corner of one eye. The father’s hand falls to the bedspread as that single tear finds the tiniest of cracks in his own heart. Pain inflicted by damaged love hurts through the generations. Healing that pain can dispatch monsters. “How about if I read you a story?” he asks.

Another twenty years go by. Pain arrives each night with the first footfall at the bottom of the stairs. The son who became a father must now take care of another. He carries a pile of folded laundry, a glass of water and a bottle of pills. Each and every night the same routine. The painful steps up to the second floor, treading down the hallway, his shadow darkening the door, the loud sigh of tired exasperation, “Dad, you need to stay in bed. Be careful, there might be monsters out there.” The old man who turns back from the window looks anything but a force of dread. He is now shriveled and pale, bent and in pain. Wearied by fighting the monsters, real and imagined, who drain all hope.

The son guides his father back to the bed and settles him in. He pulls the cover up under the old man’s chin, the bedspread with the images of cowboys on the prairie, with cattle wading through a cool stream wandering toward some hoped for distant refuge in the mountains. The son gives him the medication and starts to put away the folded clothes. “Don’t put any wrinkles in them. You know I don’t like wrinkles,” demands the old man. “I’ll make you proud, Dad,” says the son. “Can you leave the light on?” asks the father in a plaintive voice. “I don’t like it when it’s dark. I’m all alone now.” The son sits on the side of the bed and takes his father’s hand. “I will leave the light on. Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll chase the monsters away.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.