What Doesn’t Eat You

Tommy knew there was a monster in the bathtub. You could have told Tommy that the bathtub didn’t *exist* more easily than getting him to give up his belief in the monster. The monster wasn’t just real, it was hungry, it was mean, and it wanted Tommy. Tommy was sure of it, more sure than a seven year old could be sure of anything. His parents tried cutting off television. They tried taking away his comic books. They tried a therapist. The therapist said his belief in monsters was natural and would pass. It didn’t.

Tommy’s father went so far as to plug up the overfill holes in the tub. After all, he had fantasized about monsters when he was a kid. They either lived under the bed, or in the closet, or in the basement, or they lived in the drain. He had seen an episode of the Night Stalker, when he was little, about snakes coming up through the drain, and wasn’t there that story you had to read in school – The Speckled Band, and there had been an animated movie called Rikki-Tikki Tavi, one of the stories from Kipling’s Jungle Book, that was all about cobras. For a while, the childhood version of Tommy’s Dad had worried a cobra or a sea snake would swim up the drain pipe and into the toilet and bite him while he sat on it. He wet the bed once or twice rather than get up in the night and use the bathroom, but he wasn’t about to admit this past vulnerability to his son. Better Tommy think of Dad as always unafraid of anything.

Tommy didn’t think the monster lived in the overfill holes. He didn’t think it would come up the drain. It wouldn’t fit in a place so small, anyway. Tommy’s monster wasn’t the conveniently pint-sized creature that would hide easily where you least expected it. If it had been, Tommy might have been able to rationalize it away, as some fear of the imagination. Tommy was top of his class in science. He knew from toddler age how to think through problems efficiently, even psychologically challenging ones. But this wasn’t so easy. Tommy knew the monster lived *in* the bathtub itself, because he could see it quite plainly. It was oversized, bulky, and didn’t fit well in a standard-sized tub. It was difficult to stuff a monster into your box of irrational fears when you were floating in the bath at night with something that took up most of the space.

Tommy tried to argue that they should measure how much water it took to fill the tub, with him in it, and with the monster’s sizeable legs. Displacement. He had learned about that in school. But they didn’t listen. Parents were incapable of hearing of the existence of monsters. They had long since lost the ability to think logically. Tommy thought it was because his parents were in love with each other, which was nice, but love ruins you for rational thought. He was seven, but he was well aware of things going on around him. His teacher, Mrs. Glibnacek had said he was precocious for his age. That was a nice word that meant you made too much work for her, asking questions that didn’t fit the curriculum.

The confusing thing for Tommy, for quite a while, was that the monster didn’t eat him. And it didn’t step on him. In fact, the whole time Tommy would be taking a bath, the monster never moved, except for its eyes. The eyes watched Tommy as if at any moment that mouth would open up and bite Tommy’s head off, just like he did to those Monster Crackers they gave boys who were one or two years too old for Circus animal crackers. It didn’t seem like a just revenge on the monsters’ part.

Tommy had tried closing his eyes for thirty seconds, holding his breath, and then opening them again. He had tried a minute, even 90 seconds. That didn’t work. He had tried shaking his head and saying “I don’t believe in you”. He had tried not eating the school lunch. Nothing helped.

So, after weeks of calling his mother and father into the bathroom, only to be berated, and with the torment they put him through, taking away his comic books and curbing his cartoons, the only thing left to try was to accept what his mind and his eyes were telling him, and to not be afraid. Tommy decided to give up. Better to end up in that thing’s belly than miss what happened to Morpheus in the newest Sandman. And that was the best thing he could have done.

Giving up and letting the monster do what it wanted was how Tommy began to understand it. There’s a point where you decide you’re not going to live in fear, no matter what it costs you – even if the monster devours you. Tommy came to that point when he was seven years old, which is a lot sooner than most. Some people don’t get there until they’re forty, and some never do. It depends on your capacity to resist, and the depth of your resolve. It actually takes more determination when you’re older, but Tommy was able to decide young.

So Tommy took his baths with the monster. He took better baths than he had in weeks. He actually washed, behind his ears and all. Sometimes he sang when he washed. His parents relaxed, and eventually gave him back his comic books, and he was able to catch up on Sandman fairly quickly.

One night when he was bathing with the monster, Tommy looked up at it, watching him, lolling its eyes, as the monster always did, and Tommy said, “I believe in you.” After a moment, and for the first time, the monster opened his mouth. Tommy thought it was going to eat him after all. And if that was the case, at least he wouldn’t have to try to convince his parents anymore. They’d be sorry when their only son was gone. But the monster didn’t eat Tommy. Instead, it looked intently into Tommy’s eyes, lowered its head, and said in ordinary English, “I believe in you, too.”

After that night, Tommy began to notice all kinds of things that other people didn’t seem to. To recount them all would, unfortunately, be a violation of Tommy’s copyright since, as you might guess, Tommy was really only fit for one vocation from that night onward. At an early age, he began to write stories, always fantastic, but they always felt visceral and real. Of course, he grew up to be a horror writer, and he’s quite popular – one of the best. The one thing Tommy never told anyone is what happened to the monster in the bathtub. And since writers, on the whole, are quite boring, and the world doesn’t need another story about a writer, it’s better to focus on the monster.

It’s still there, actually. The parents remodeled the bathroom. The monster had a tough time of things, for a week or so, trying to stay out of the way, and often had to resort to standing on one foot. The dust and paint and caulk fumes sometimes made it gag and sneeze, but fortunately only Tom, when he was helping out, could hear it, so the parents never noticed.

It hasn’t eaten anything in quite a long time, and never any little boys, to Tom’s knowledge, though it’s not exactly true that it hasn’t eaten at all. There was this chihuahua that Aunt Sonya had, that used to shake and pee on itself all the time, and yip at you non-stop if you got out of your chair. Everybody thought the darned thing must have gotten outside, because one evening they just never saw it again. That was when Tommy was ten years old.

According to Tom, who is now something of an expert, some monsters really don’t need to eat very often, and the chihuahua will only be missed by Sonya, so it’s evidence that they can live in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of us. Everyone else thought that yapper was the most annoying creature they’d ever encountered. Tom felt morally justified in never mentioning its true fate, since the monster, on the whole, has been decidedly well behaved toward anything that wasn’t so foolish as to pee on that bathroom carpet.

At a conference last year, Tom was asked what advice he has for aspiring writers of horror fiction. He thought for a minute, seemed to border on giving one of those standard answers like “never give up, always pursue your dreams,” etcetera. But he’s not known for standard responses. Instead, he leaned forward into the microphone, and spoke in a low, direct voice, looking right over the top of the audience as though something seemed to hover there. And he said, “Give in to your monsters, and let them have you.”

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