This is one I wrote in response to the 'Monsters Under the Bed' Halloween short story competition.
“So,” said the woman at the front of the room. “Can anybody tell me why we are here?” A few hands twitched feebly into the air. The woman ignored them and they slowly lowered again.
“We are here,” she continued, “because this office has had a few problems with tolerance.” She emphasized the last word with back-breaking contempt. “My name is Jennifer, and I am going to run you through the company’s guidelines regarding equality and diversity…”
I leaned back in my chair, carefully located as far back as I could go without drawing too much attention to myself, and rubbed absently at an old scar on my leg. They are different from us, said a little voice in my head. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or crazy.
Jennifer was talking again. She had pinned up some pictures – Count Dracula, he of the bared fangs and the stiff collar; the Creature from the Black Lagoon; a snarling werewolf with a tattered shirt hanging off his arms. “Can anyone tell me,” she asked, her gaze once again sweeping the room, “what it is that we have here?”
“Monsters,” came one man’s tentative answer. Jennifer turned quickly to the source of this grievous error, who hunched slightly into his chair.
“Wrong,” she said firmly, gesturing to the pictures. “What we have here are stereotypes. Damaging stereotypes which unfairly profile a valued section of our workforce…”
Through the window I could see a few of the office’s non-human employees going about their work. Maybe I’m the one who’s crazy.
Bad as the seminar was, at least only humans had to attend. Later I sat at my desk, frantically rifling through piles of paper. I was looking for a lost scrap of paper I’d written a client’s private number on. I already knew I wouldn’t find it, but I kept searching; it delayed the inevitable. I already knew I only had two options. The first was to not call back, and invent some awkward excuse when it finally came up that I’d been ignoring a client. The second was to ask Rob to write out the number for me again.
Rob was “differently aligned.” That’s the official term for the slimy, tube-mouthed bog monster who sat at the receptionist’s desk. Ron looked like he was stitched together from swamp mud and the nightmares of children, and for all anyone knows, maybe he was.
I approached the desk with a carefully calculated casual look. Jennifer was standing beside me. Her and Rob were chatting. Rob looked up, and his mouth – the tube-thing that dangled below his twitching slit nose – flopped around horribly. My legs went weak at the sight.
“Hey there, pal,” Rob said cheerfully. His voice was the deep bubbly echo of water going down the bath drain. I’d always been scared of that sound as a child.
“H-hey, Rob,” I replied, detecting a slight tremor in my voice and trying to mask it as a cough. “I just need a new copy of – uh, that number you gave me earlier…”
“Oh, sure thing,” Rob regurgitated in reply. He discreetly wiped his webbed hands on a moist paper towel before scrawling out the number on a new scrap of paper. He wasn’t quick enough, however; a rope of green-brown sludge, freshly secreted from his damp leathery skin, dripped down the length of the pen and soiled the last few numbers. He held it out to me anyway. Jennifer stared at me intently, daring me to object. I hesitated just a moment too long. Rob’s bottom-feeding proboscis flattened out, curling up slightly in some grotesque smile. I took the paper and tried not to show that I was turning the stained side away from me. I glanced up briefly, once I was safely at my desk. Jennifer was writing something down, one eyebrow arched in disapproval.
That night I dreamed. The dream started a little different every time, but I always knew how it would end.
I am young again. Four, maybe five. I have just finished my bath. I have dried myself off and put on my pajamas, but the bath is still full. I don’t like the sound the water makes as it gurgles down the drain. I imagine it is the laughing of goblins as they wait in the darkness below. I plan to pull the plug and run out of the bathroom as quickly as I can. Rehearsing the action in my mind, I roll up one sleeve and reach down to pull out the plug.
But this time my plan fails me. The water doesn’t gurgle but roars; it is pulled down the drain with incredible force, and I am sucked down with it. I am half-drowned and battered about in confining darkness, helpless in the pull.
Eventually the water settles, and I find myself in the ocean. I am wearing a snorkel now – like the one I received on my ninth birthday, the day my family and I went to the beach – and I watch the fish. That is when I see a jellyfish, drifting lazily towards me. I take a few strokes back, confident I can keep away from it. I don’t move. With sudden panic I turn and try to swim away, but still I make no progress. Nature has conspired against me and I am trapped in an undertow.
The jellyfish approaches unhindered, its tentacles slowly spreading out to snare me. I feel them – horrid soft things that slide slowly up the back of my legs. There is no pain, not quite yet, but the strength drains out of me and I can no longer even try to resist. As the tentacles reach inexorably upward the stinging pain hits. I look back and see my legs disappearing into the massive, swollen mantle of a creature far bigger than the one that left a scar on my leg on my ninth birthday. This monster is bigger than anything, bigger than the world. As the tentacles encircle my waist it speaks to me. Hey buddy, it whispers, the words buzzing in my ears. I am pulled in up to my chest, my shoulders, my neck.
That was when I woke up. And I thought the same thing I thought every night; that as terrible as my fear is, the fear of being judged is greater.
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