Matt woke up from his good dream about monsters when he heard the door open. He heard footsteps downstairs, and shuffling noises. He figured hazily that it must be Chelsea. Didn’t mom say that Chelsea was sick? Didn’t she go to bed early? She must have been faking it, like Luke had been. She was out all night having adventures. He blinked sleepily and got back to remembering his dream.
There had been blood and body parts in the room, and it had smelled like rotten meat. He had seen the viscera splattered across the floor, and the sinew stretching like thread from wall to wall in patterns, vibrating in sympathy with his breath. It was still there when he closed his eyes, creeping at him in vines. But the man in the room –
The man in the room was wonderful. He was like a bright, bright light, and a playground. And Matt wasn’t afraid anymore. There was nothing to be afraid of in the whole world, if someone like that told him it was okay. Even the old house on Mulhead didn’t look so scary in the daytime.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
The old house on Mulhead was scary, but he could beat it. It didn’t count as courage if it wasn’t a little bit scary.
The rest of the dream had been very lonely, everywhere except for the room. In the room there was the man and two of his other friends. Jake was there, and another boy, with a shaved head. The hallway was very empty, though. He recognized them. It was a house he had seen before. It was his aunt Sam’s house, he realized. The house with the living room with two doors, and the attic. In his dream, no one was around. There were noises and creaks and smells, but aunt Sam must have been gone. There had been a vague sense of something high above him, straining against a sort of filmy membrane, trying to reach him with long fingers. He had been too scared to look up.
But he knew that if he had that dream again, he wasn’t going to let some monsters stop him. He would fight them all on his own.
And he resolved that he’d prove it. He’d have the dream again and beat that hallway and whatever lived in it. And maybe, he thought in a small voice, he would see that man again, and this time he would go inside his room.
Should he tell Charles? Or was the dream just for him?
Maybe just for tonight he’d save it for himself. If he had another adventure with his new friend he would tell Charles, and they could all play together.
But for now –
He couldn’t wait. He repeated what he was told as he closed his eyes again.
He lived in Pennsylvania in a small house – he was six. And life was very sweet.
Who would wish to die?
But there was nothing behind his eyelids. He rolled over again, shutting his eyes tighter and tighter. He looked at the clock, restless.
4:30 in the morning, and he was wide awake, squeezing his toes in excitement. His head spun. He tried thinking about something else, to distract sleep so he could take it by surprise. Frustrated, he sat up.
And heard music.
His heart skipped. A slow melody creeping around and wavering up and down. He hopped out of bed and crept to his door, following the noise. As quietly as he could, he opened the door and stared out into the dark, dark hallway in front of him. The music tugged at him, leading him through fear and out again. He stepped into the hall and turned to go down the stairs, ignoring the early-morning shadows that might be sneaking up behind him. He didn’t even turn around. The music was coming from below. Through the living room and the kitchen and past Chelsea’s room, down the hall and into the basement.
Out of sight, the clock on his bedside table ticked to 4:31.
He reached for the knob. At his touch, the music stopped, and the house was his house again. Immediately the dark pushed into him, without the music to protect him. Matt began to shiver. He turned towards Chelsea’s room. She could help him. She could keep him safe from the dark. But she was sick, and mom had said not to bother her.
He went to open her door and found it locked.
He rattled the doorknob and called softly to her.
“Chelsea? Chelsea, I’m scared. Are you awake?”
He got no response.
Matt began to cry. Where had the music gone? Why wouldn’t his new friend come to play with him? What would he do?
Be brave. Be like he would be.
Life is beautiful. Life is very sweet.
Matt began to hum. And he opened the door, and walked down the stairs into the basement. Halfway down he saw what he had hoped to see. Standing in the dark. In the middle of the room was a tall figure, head cocked with his ear pointing at the ceiling. All at once the figure twitched and turned toward him.
Matt walked down to meet him.
“Hello,” the shape said.
Matt smiled. It was the same voice. He ran forward and embraced his friend around the knees. He knelt down and reached for Matt’s hand. Grasped it warmly.
“Am I dreaming?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I don’t remember falling asleep,” Matt said.
“That’s alright,” said the man. “What do you remember?”
Words flooded Matt’s head.
“I’m six. I live in Pennsylvania in a small house.”
The man smiled tearfully and hugged Matt tight. “What is there to be frightened of?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Matt said. “Life is beautiful.”
The music began again, swaying. The man pulled away and held Matt by the shoulders. He looked into his eyes.
“Do you want to play with me?”
“Okay,” Matt said.
The man stood up very slowly and took Matt’s hand. Around them, the room started changing. The floor bubbled up, spiking in front and behind him. It shrieked like a boiling, hissing liquid. Matt was not afraid. Purples and greens and oranges erupted from the metal-grey of the basement, mixing together all around them and bursting into new colors. The colors took shape, and suddenly the maelstrom settled into a room. Matt looked around. He had been here before. It was the same room – strings and threads and meat.
“This is where I live,” the man said.
“It looks like …”
Matt could not find a word for it. Or maybe there was a word, but it was a hard one. The man smiled at him.
“Try,” he said.
“It looks like it’s very lonesome,” Matt said after a moment. That hadn’t been exactly what he meant, but it was very close. Something like it.
“Lonesome,” the man said. “But you’re here with me, and you’re very special. How could it be lonesome here?”
Matt nodded. That was true.
“And some of my other friends are here, too, sometimes. The last time you were here you saw them, remember?”
“Yes,” Matt said.
“They were Jake and Zig. When they come back later on we can all play together. May I show you something?” the man asked.
Matt smiled and nodded.
The man ran his finger across one of the hanging strings, and gently let go. A tone filled the air, and on cue the room became to change again. A fissure appeared with a crack, snaking its way through the room and gouging away at the floorboards and carpet. As they flew into the air they coalesced and wrapped themselves around each other, bending and weaving and vanishing into the currents of the room. The walls melted, froze, and shattered. The pieces congregated and changed color and texture and became the floor. The room reassembled itself into a new shape, longer and narrower, like a hallway.
Through it all, Matt could hear only the hum of the string as it vibrated and shook. And he was not afraid.
“Matt,” the tall man said.
“If your friend asked for help, you would help them, right?”
“Yeah! You have to help your friends.”
Everyone said so.
“I think you’re right, Matt. Do you think your friends are more important than other people?”
Matt thought for a long time. “My mom says not to treat anybody different than anybody else.”
He considered and nodded. “That’s true. But do you always believe her? She’s your friend too, right? Would you help her if she needed help?”
“Even if somebody else would be sad? What if someone was hurting her? You’d protect her, right?”
“Yeah,” Matt said.
` “What if you had to hurt them to save her?”
Matt grinned. “I’d beat them up all by myself!”
He nodded. “You have to protect your friends, Matt. No matter what you have to do in order to do it, you have to protect them from anything that can hurt them. Always remember that, okay?”
Matt nodded and smiled.
“Will you help me, Matt?”
He knelt down and touched Matt lightly on the shoulders.
“You’re very special,” he said again. “You’re the only one who can.”
When the noise ended, the man took Matt’s hand and led him down the new hallway, around a corner and to a door.
“Can you open this for me?” his new friend asked.
Matt touched the door and felt heat coming from the other side. He pushed it open.
His friend smiled as big as he could. He held Matt’s hand, and together they walked out of the little prison and into the world.