Rain fell on the roof, in the gentle patterns that often helps insomniacs find calm that ushers them into the world of long sought sleep. Ben would find no sleep this night, nor did he care for the rain, no matter how beautiful and peaceful it sounded. He lay in his bed, covers thrown askew, drenched in sweat from his unrest and the humidity of the hot summer night. The dim glow emanating from the face of his alarm clock was a constant reminder he should have been long asleep.
Tonight was his last night at home. Time had crept up on him and tomorrow he would leave never to return; college, a place of his own, even if it was but a crowded and cramped dorm room, loomed before him. Yet, it was not thoughts of his future that kept him awake. He stared at the white tiles of the ceiling and listened to his nightly tormenter. The soft scraping and scratching of tiny feet, made him wonder how, after all these years anything was left for them to scratch.
His whole life, he had been haunted by nightmares of whatever lurked in the crawlspace between the ceiling and the actual roof of the house. Fear was an emotion Ben came to know intimately, from the early days of childhood to this very moment. He wished feverishly he could convince himself the creature was a phantom conjured up by his own imagination, but he knew the creature was real.
Other people had heard the awful clawing and pitter-patter of tiny feet rushing about above his bed. Especially his mother to whom he had run as a child.
"Mom, the monster's back!" he would cry. "It's coming to get me."
His mother would always take his hand and lead him calmly back to bed. As she tucked him in tightly, she would whisper in his ear, reassure him it was only a baby bird from a nest in the crawlspace, that hadn't yet took flight or at worst a rat, which she would promptly take care of in the morning. Her story changed from time to time, but in the light of day, she did ascend a ladder to the dark place. Perhaps over the years, she became immersed in her own form of denial, for the noise never went away.
Tonight, the claws dug with a fresh zeal, as if somehow sensing, soon Ben would be gone. Remembering the nights spent, pulling covers over his head, the hell of sleeping only at its whim, anger grew inside Ben, deep and burning.
He climbed out of bed, clad only in a pair of ancient boxers and stumbled his way through lightless hallways. Once in the kitchen, after quietly shutting the door, did he turn on a light, trying hard not to disturb his mother.
With care, he selected the tools he would need. A sharp, stainless steel knife his mother used for cutting meat and a broom with a long handle spanning several feet. He cursed the fact no one in the household owned a gun, it would have made things so much simpler. His mother would not tolerate such an instrument of death under her roof while she still breathed. Broom and knife in hand, he tip-toed back to his room and gently shut the door behind him.
He switched on the lamp, resting upon his pale white dresser, which had helped him to make it through so many nights before and laid the knife beside it. He took a moment to steady himself and muttered a prayer to a God in whom he didn't fully believe. Then he climbed upon his bed, the mattress bouncing slightly under his weight.
He stood there on his mattress and listened. The noise had faded, maybe the thing realized what he intended. None the less, he waited, broom pointed towards the ceiling.
He didn't have to wait long. He heard the noise and pushed the broom upwards at an angle dislodging the tile, which fell with his monster to the floor. Ben leapt off the bed, half expecting to find the rat of which his mother spoke.
He found instead a creature with the writhing body of a bloated snake and three thin arms with long dirty fingernails on odd shaped hands. Runny sores here and there leaked a green puss Ben could smell. Less than two feet tall it pulled itself up on pale infant like legs. Tiny yellow eyes in a skull like head stared at Ben and pierced his soul. "What are you?" he blurted out unable to stop himself.
Black decaying teeth parted in the hideous parody of a smile. "Don't you recognize me? Am I that different than you? Why do you think our mother could never destroy me?" the creature asked.
"I don't understand. Why should I recognize you? Who are you?" Ben asked.
"I'm your brother. I was born the year after you but with me, our mother took drugs, some prescribed for her by the doctor." The deformed mouth belched out a horrible putrid stench and Ben gagged.
This made the monster angry. He screamed at Ben. "I hate you, I've always hated you. You received all our mother's love while she hid me away in the crawlspace. Even when she fed me she never looked at me. I disgusted her. I wanted a nice room and to be fed at the table. No not me, she was ashamed of me. She told everyone she lost me in the toilet. I tried to tell our father and she killed him. Oh, they thought he had a heart attack but she gave him a shot of insulin. That's why no one noticed." The thing belched again, scratched at one of the sores with a dirty fingernail and then put the finger in his mouth. "All these years my only pleasure has been to slowly drive you mad."
Ben gagged again and then he swung the broom handle in a mighty arc bringing it crashing down upon the abomination. His brother squealed in pain. Repeatedly, Ben struck amid its pleas for mercy. Never once did it strike back.
Ben never recovered. When his mother burst into the room, she found Ben sitting motionless in a pool of blood with the broken and battered body of the thing that came out of her clutched tightly in his hands. Ben spent the rest of his life, a hollow shell, resting in a sterile white asylum bed.
Copyright © 2003 by Eric S. Brown and Susan Kingsolver