Something woke Julie in the darkness. She lay awake for a while, because the moaning of the wind and the creaking of the rafters made her restless. She did not even hear the whispering until she decided to get a drink out of the bathroom tap. Only when she opened the door did she see that the lights were on in Eric’s room.
Mom, standing in the hallway out of sight of Eric’s open door, beckoned Julie closer and silently shushed her at the same time.
The soft voices of Eric and Tim became clear to her as he came alongside Mom.
“It was the same way when I was your age,” Tim was saying. “This was my bedroom, then. Did you know that?”
“You stayed in here too?”
“Absolutely. My brother David and I shared this exact bed until I was fourteen years old, and he was sixteen.”
“What happened then?”
“Oh, let’s see. Our big sister moved out, because she was all grown up, and David got to have her old room.”
“Is that Julie’s room?”
“The very one.”
“What was her name?”
“Oh. Barb. Barbara. But what I’m saying is, if there was a monster in the closet I would know about it, wouldn’t I? Because it was my room.”
“And was there?”
Tim laughed softly, then said, “Of course there was. There was a monster under the bed, too.”
Out in the hallway, Mom silently smacked her own forehead with a grimace of exasperation. But the voices went on, and Eric didn’t sound quite as scared as before.
“What did they look like?”
“I don’t know. I never actually saw them. I was too scared to look, by myself. But my brother believed in them, and so did I.”
“So what happened?”
“What happened is: my father had to come in here about twice a week, and shine a big bright flashlight under the bed, and turn on the light in the closet and rummage through everything in there. And he always said – guess what.”
“There was no monster in the closet.”
“Or under the bed.”
“Did that make you feel better?” Eric’s voice sounded hopeful.
“Not in the slightest. You see, Dave and I knew better. We knew that the monsters were still there, only they were very good at hiding themselves. Especially when the lights were on, and when adults where around.”
“Were they invisible?”
“Maybe. Or maybe they just knew how to blend in with their surroundings. So when Dad turned out the lights and left the room, we were right back in the same spot. We just learned to keep our feet off the floor, and everything snug under the covers, until the sun came up or the lights came on again.”
“What if you had to go to the bathroom?”
“Well, when we were littler, we sometimes went in the bed, but I wouldn’t advise that. And sometimes we yelled until Mom or Dad woke up and escorted us to the bathroom, but we had stopped doing that by the time we got to your age. David got very good at walking on his hands, and I figured out how to open the door and get out into the hallway without touching the floor at all. But after a certain age, we stopped worrying about the monster in the closet and the monster under the bed.”
“Well, because they hadn’t done anything to us. Why should we live in fear when they gave us nothing really to be afraid of? Why let them give us nightmares, eh? We both grew up without ever getting so much as a scratch off one of those monsters.”
“So,” Eric said, sounding almost persuaded but still a little trembly, “so there weren’t really any monsters?”
“Oh no, of course there were.”
Mom closed her eyes and shook her head. Julie stifled a giggle.
“But I thought you said they...”
“I said they never touched a hair on our heads. But that didn’t mean they weren’t there.”
“You’re supposed to say there are no monsters,” Eric said, sounding slightly aggrieved.
Mom nodded in fervent agreement. Julie was chewing on her knuckles to keep from laughing.
“What good what that do?” said Tim. “You’re as smart as Davey and I were. We knew, when our father said there were no monsters, that it wasn’t true. Would you believe me if I told you the same thing? Well, would you?”
Eric whispered, “No.”
“Well, then why should I bother to lie? I’ll tell you what, though. As we grew up, my brother and I worried less and less about the monsters, and after a while I mostly forgot them. But Dave didn’t forget them. When he went away to college, he took special classes about monsters. He studied them for years and years, and then he got a job catching monsters. And to this day, he is still learning more about monsters every day. And do you know what my brother Dave told me?”
“No,” said Eric, a little more strongly.
“Do you want to know?”
“All right. This is what your Uncle Dave learned about monsters. Now it is true that the monster under the bed likes to eat leg-of-little-kid. But there is one thing he likes even more, and that is rack-of-monster-in-the-closet. And there’s another thing: the monster in the closet’s second-favorite food is boy chops; but his favorite favorite food is monster-under-the-bed soup. Do you know what that means?”
“It means, Eric, that they are in a stalemate.”
“A stale meat?”
“No, a stalemate. It’s like when you’re playing a game against Julie, and any move you make will cause her to win, and any move she makes will cause you to win. So neither of you can do anything – a stalemate.”
Eric considered this for a long time, then asked, “Why?”
“Well, don’t you see? If the monster in the closet were to come out of the closet, say, to nibble on a little boy, he would be instantly gobbled up by the monster under the bed. And if the monster of the bed were to stick one hairy claw out from under the bed, the monster in the closet would slice him and dice him into a monster stew. So as much as they would like to chew on you, they’re held in check by their fear of each other. Not to mention their longing to catch the other one, just once, and have him for a midnight snack.”
Eric again pondered, long and silently. Tim waited. Julie and her mother gaped at each other, impressed.
“Can I ask something?” came Eric’s small, tired voice.
“Sure, ask anything.”
“Well, what if the monster in the closet got eaten? Then, wouldn’t the one under the bed be able to eat me any old time?”
The bed creaked slightly, and Tim coughed. Then he coughed again, and said, “Well now. Let me think back to what Dave told me. Oh yes, I remember now. It’s a funny thing about monsters in the closet and monsters under the bed. Whenever one is destroyed, another one just like it comes to take its place. I think it’s called the Law of Conservation of Monsters. That’s very advanced science, you know.”
“So they would still be in stale meat?”
“But then...what if the one under the bed was full from eating the first monster in the closet? Wouldn’t the new monster in the closet have a chance to get me?”
“Oh, no. No, no, not at all. You see, monsters under the bed have a bottomless appetite for rack-of-monster-in-the-closet. Just as monsters in the closet can never get enough monster-under-the-bed-stew. Uncle Dave calls it the Insatiability Principle.”
“That sounds cool.”
“Yes, it does. And it is cool. Because – you know what that means?”
“What?” Eric’s voice sounded softer now, farther away.
“That means that those monsters are never, ever going to eat you. They’re so greedy, stupid, and scared that all they can do is drool miserably and wish they could eat you. Of course, it helps to keep your toes off the floor, and the covers up to your chin. But really, as long as you don’t crawl under the bed at night, they’ll just have to go hungry. What do you say to that?”
Eric had nothing to say to that. He was asleep.