Oliver loved the monsters.
They lived in the basement, behind the small, slatted door just past the furnace. The hinges creaked with rust, and he had to duck his head and wipe away cobwebs to get through, but Oliver didn’t care. The monsters were his friends.
He used to be afraid of them. He used to wake up crying in the night, dreaming of their dark, shadowy shapes, their long gleaming teeth and claws, their scales and slime and hot, fetid breath. Their snarls and grunting growls reverberated through his nightmares. His mother would come and hold him, rock him, whisper him back to sleep. He remembered the scent of her, her long red hair, her sadness.
It was his mother who taught him the taming trick. She had to. Oliver’s father was getting angry at being woken up every night with his screaming.
“Shut that kid up,” he yelled from their bedroom. “I’ve gotta work in the morning, goddammit!”
Oliver’s father was often angry. His mother wore the proof of it on her face now and then, purplish bruises that she tried to hide with her hair, or sunglasses, but never with make-up. His father didn’t like her to wear make-up.
On the fifth sleepless night, she taught him how to tame the monsters. “Look them in the eye. Hold their gaze and don’t look away. In this way, you’ll hypnotize them and they’ll be yours. They’ll do whatever you want. Understand?”
He nodded, sniffling and hiccuping.
“That’s my brave boy.” She tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead. “Now go to sleep, quiet as a mouse. Remember what I said. Oh, and one more thing. Always keep them fed, for they are always, always hungry.”
Oliver knew that. Every night, he heard them, their low, gravelly voices waking him, floating up from the basement like some terrible, discordant song. We’re hungry, they moaned. We’re hungry, we’re hungry hungry hungry hungry…
When he heard them the next night and woke, he didn’t scream. He shivered and cowered underneath his blankets for awhile, covering his ears and shutting his eyes tight. But he could still hear them in his head. We’re hungry, we’re hungry, we’re hungry hungry hungry…
Remembering what his mother said, and wanting to be her brave boy, he slid out from under the covers and tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen. In the refrigerator, he picked out one piece of bologna, one slice of cheese, one pickle from the jar; from the cupboard, a few squares of graham crackers. He put it all in his lunchbox-quiet as a mouse-and then turned toward the door that led down to the basement.
He stood with his hand on the knob for a long time. He still heard them: Hungry, hungry, hungry, in time with the pounding of his heart. But he was seven, and too old to be afraid of monsters, and besides, his mother had told him the trick. He turned the knob and opened the door.
Darkness. He flipped the light switch on the wall to the right, and a single bulb at the bottom of the stairs, hanging from a long chain, flicked on. Grasping the lunchbox, he descended slowly, one step at a time. As he neared the bottom, the cold crept over him, like icy fingers cutting through his Spider Man pajamas. It was always cold down here, even in summer. It smelled of damp earth, and living, wriggling things.
At the bottom, he hit another switch, illuminating the main room of the basement. A few shelves were crammed with overflowing boxes of odds and ends, his father’s tools, old picture frames. Empty buckets clustered in one dark corner, along with a snow shovel and a half-filled bag of salt melt; in another corner leaned some bald car tires, a jack, and some rusty hubcaps. Cobwebs plastered themselves along the beams overhead, and dust settled on every item.
A door stood at the other end of the room, leading into another, smaller room where the furnace sat like a dark rhinoceros, with the dusty, slatted door beside it. Where the monsters lived.
Oliver trembled, with the cold, and with his fear that was like an animal inside him. Down here, their voices roared and vibrated against the inside of his head: Hungryhungryhungryhungryhungry…
He heard them moving around, bumping and thumping against one another behind their door, their movements wet and squelchy. He stood frozen at the bottom of the stairs, but he had the food, and he knew the trick.
He crossed the room and opened the door. There was no light in this room, only the illumination of the room he’d just left, and in its dim, slanting light, the slatted door waited. The voices had stopped, and it seemed the whole word was quiet and still, poised on the edge of this moment.
Oliver reached out and slid the bolt to unlock it, and though it was old and rusty, it moved freely. His hand turned the cold metal knob, and the door, no taller than he was, swung open with a creak.
It had bean easy, really. His mother was right; once he held them in his gaze, they fell to his feet like purring kittens. He opened the lunchbox and threw them the food, and they slurped and chewed what little there was, lapping with their long, slithering tongues. Once fed, they were quiet and docile, curling up against each other to sleep.
Oliver went down to the basement every night after that. He’d wake to their hungry calls, and slip down to the kitchen to get their supper. He never took enough to be noticed, just a few scraps and crumbs, a slice of bread with peanut butter, an apple, one raw hot dog. He’d throw the food through the door, and they’d pounce on it, gobbling with ravenous grunts. Once sated, they’d sidle up to him, mewling with gratitude and love. But Oliver could tell the little bit of food he brought wasn’t enough; they were still hungry. He could see it in their beseeching, multiple eyes, hear it in their puling cries. But he didn’t dare take more, and what he gave them kept them quiet until the next night.
This went on through the rest of summer and fall, and into winter. The monsters were tame, but his mother got sick. She was always so tired, and she wouldn’t eat, and got so thin that Oliver thought he could see right through her. She went to the doctor every week, and all her beautiful red hair fell out. She finally went to the hospital, and never came home again. The last time he saw her, he sat next to her on the hospital bed, and she took his hand and kissed it, pressing it to her pale, dry lips. She didn’t cry, he remembered that, though his own eyes filled with tears.
“Are they tame?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Are they fed?” He nodded again, and she leaned back against the pillow, relief showing through the pain. “Good. Now I know you’re safe.” She closed her eyes and didn’t say anything more. She never opened them again.
The doctors said she died of cancer, but Oliver knew better. He knew it was his father’s fault. He was evil, that’s what he was, and his evil caused something bad to grow inside her, and it killed her. When she died, his father yelled and cried and threw things around the house as if he were sad about it, but Oliver believed he was just angry he couldn’t hit her anymore.
The monsters weren’t evil. They were beautiful, and he wondered how he ever could have been afraid of them. At school he drew vivid pictures of them, showing the colors of their shiny skin-black and red, purple and yellow, great slashes and swaths of color, the color of bruises. He drew their glowing eyes, like fires burning, and their huge gleaming teeth and claws, white as ivory. He spent a great deal of time on these drawings, filling in every detail, and his art folder filled with their terrible beauty.
When his teacher, Ms. Graham, called to talk to his father, Oliver quietly picked up the receiver in the other room..
“-just need to talk to you about Oliver, Mr. Hennessy.”
“What’d he do? He in trouble or something?”
“Well, no, he’s a very well-behaved boy-”
“Then why you calling me?”
“Oh. Well, I’m just concerned about some drawings he’s made in the past month-”
“Drawings? You kidding me?’
Ms. Graham cleared her throat. “No, Mr. Hennessy, they’re a little disturbing. In fact, they’re very disturbing, and Oliver has become withdrawn since, well, since his mother’s death, and I thought you might want to consider getting him some professional help.”
“You mean a shrink?”
“A child psychologist, Mr. Hennessy, or at the very least, a grief counselor, who can help him sort out his emotions-”
“I’m not spending a hundred dollars an hour for some shrink to tell me my kid is missing his mommy.”
Oliver heard a click and a slam from the kitchen as his father hung up on Ms. Graham.
After that, the monsters became hungrier than ever. The bits and pieces he brought them every night were nowhere near enough. They roared and screamed, until the very house shook. How could his father not hear him? But he was unmoved by their pain.
Oliver could finally bear it no longer, and dared to bring more food down to the basement. Whole sandwiches, an entire box of cereal, several sleeves of Ritz crackers, whatever he could find. The refrigerator was never quite as full as it used to be, as his father was a neglectful shopper, but it would have to do. The monsters devoured whatever he brought, but it still wasn’t enough. They cried for more.
After a week of this, his father stood one Saturday morning at the open refrigerator door with a puzzled look on his face. Oliver came into the kitchen and retrieved a cereal bowl. As he set it down onto the table, his father turned to him.
“You been stealing food?”
Oliver looked down at his bowl and said nothing.
“Answer me when I ask you a question. Have you been stealing food?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“No? Then where the hell’s my pastrami? Where’s my sausage links? Huh? Answer me!”
Hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry…
“It’s for the monsters,” he whispered.
“The monsters? The monsters?” His voice skirled up with disbelief.
“They’re hungry,” Oliver explained.
“The monsters are hungry, huh?” His father’s voice was quiet now, the kind of quiet that always preceded an explosion. “You want to know who’s hungry, Oliver? I’m hungry!” And with his words an arm came up, like a darting snake, and backhanded him.
Pain blossomed across his face. He didn’t remember falling, but he found himself on the floor, holding is hands to his face. His father was saying something, something about the supermarket, but he couldn’t hear him for the ringing in his ears, and the monsters’ deafening howls.
Eventually the ringing faded, and the monsters quieted enough for him to hear the front door slam and the car drive away. He sat on the floor and thought of his mother. Her long, red hair, like a protective curtain. She had shielded him from his father with her own body, but she wasn’t here anymore. It was then he understood the gift she had given him.
When his father returned home from the supermarket, he would feed his monsters.
Oliver was sitting on the couch watching cartoons when his father stomped in from the cold and set the grocery bags onto the table. He slammed cupboards and muttered to himself as he put the food away, and then came into the living room and sat down heavily next to Oliver.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re stealing food or where you’re putting it, Oliver, but you don’t have to do that anymore. There’s plenty of food in the house now, okay?”
Oliver looked over at him and nodded. “Okay.”
His father noticed the bruise swelling on his cheek. His eyes flicked away, then back, and said, “Now, I’m sorry I hit you, but you got me angry. You got to promise not to get me angry anymore, all right? You promise?”
“All right then.” He got up and went into the kitchen and made some bologna and cheese sandwiches. He brought them into the living room and handed one to Oliver. They ate in silence for awhile, watching Looney Tunes.
His father turned to him. “I’m glad we’re friends again.”
His father suddenly shivered. “Jesus, it’s freezing in here.” He got up and put a hand on the radiator on the far wall. “Ice cold. Goddamn furnace.”
When his father marched down the basement stairs, Oliver followed. The monsters were quiet. Earlier, when he had come down here to turn the dial down on the furnace and slip the bolt free on the slatted door, he’d told them: Wait. Be patient.
His father opened the door to the small room with the furnace. As he peered at the dial in the dim light, Oliver stood just outside. He looked at the slatted door. A dark, slimy tentacle slipped out, wiggling, as if tasting the air. And then another, and another.
Oliver closed the door to the small room and bolted it.
“Godammit, Oliver, open the door, I can’t see,” his father’s muffled voice came from the other side. The doorknob rattled. “This is not funny, Oliver. You open the goddamn door, right now. You hear me? Open the door, you little shit! Open this-”
Creak of the hinges. Wet, squishy sound of movement.
“What the hell?” his father began.
And then the shrieking, and then only the crunching and slurping, and then finally the silence of profound satisfaction, of hunger abated.