The Monster Is Not In the Closet

He looked like Gollum. Not the Gollum from the movies. His skin wasn’t leathery or gray. He didn’t move like a monkey and his ears weren’t as big as saucers. And not the Gollum from the books. She hadn’t read them. She could have because she read well above her grade level, but she believed they were all about monsters and she didn’t like monsters. Not even heroic ones.

No, the Gollum he resembled was entirely the product of Holly’s imagination – something she pictured after her cousin had tried to scare her with a story about a monster that lived in her closet - a spindly, spider-like creature with long, stringy black hair and caterpillar eyebrows and an Adam’s apple that bobbed not just at Halloween parties, but year ‘round.

“He’ll drag you outside by your hair and throw you into an alligator pond,” her cousin had said. She knew he was just saying that because he was jealous of her tri-color pen. Who wouldn’t be? It could write in green or blue or red with the click of a slider button. But she wasn’t going to give it to him.

So when Holly met the man her mother called Nicholas she was predisposed to think of him as a monster.

He was a tall man. In the daylight, like when he shuffled into her room to ask if she needed help with homework (she never said “yes,” even the time when she’d forgotten what “congruent” meant), the stray hairs on his head brushed against the top of the door frame. At night, when he came in to stand at the end of her bed and mumble “good night” he always had to duck on the way out.

“You’ll get used to him,” her mother had said. That was the morning after the night when Holly had gotten up to get a drink of water and happened upon him in the kitchen. He was standing in front of the refrigerator, bent into a lower-case “r”, door handle in one hand, jug of 2 percent milk in the other. He didn’t move for what seemed like minutes. When he finally did, it was only his head that turned and it snapped to the right so suddenly Holly thought it might spin all the way around.

“He’s just a bit eccentric,” her mother had said between bites of sausage. Holly wanted to ask what “eccentric” meant but Gollum walked into the room just then. He stepped over to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of juice, poured himself a glass, returned the bottle to the refrigerator sat down at the table. He tried to smile at her, but his eyes didn’t obey. They were an odd gray color. On a girl or a horse, they might have been mysterious and pretty. But on a skinny old man who stared into refrigerators, they just looked creepy.

“You’ll learn to love him like I do,” her mother said one afternoon.

“When?” Holly asked.

“He’ll grow on you,” her mother said.

“Like the measles?” Holly had asked, proud of her cleverness for all of three seconds until her mother scolded her, not with her angry voice, but her sad one.

It was well past midnight the first time she saw his silhouette in the doorway. The dim blue nightlight in the bathroom across the hall threw his shadow into her room, his legs stretching across the uncluttered floor, his shoulders bending up the foot of her bed, the tip of his head nearly touching her blanketed toes.

He lifted a hand to his face and the long shadow fingers brushed across the soft underbelly of her stuffed tiger, Snow, who had rolled or crawled off the pillow when she’d climbed into bed. She shivered on Snow’s behalf, then slowly pulled her legs up to her chest, offering a silent apology for leaving him to the shadow’s mercy.

From that night on, she always made sure Snow was tucked securely under the covers within hugging distance.

Sometimes Gollum stood there for minutes that were longer even than the ones she counted second by second at the close of a school day, his scratchy breathing and the scrape, scrape, scrape of long fingernails against dry skin interrupting the familiar rhythmic bubble and hum of her fish tank.

Other times he paused only long enough to sigh before shuffling down the hall to her mother’s bedroom.

Holly wanted to say something to her mother. She wanted to tell her how he looked like a construction paper puppet standing in the hallway. Not a good construction paper puppet like the one she made of Abraham Lincoln for the Presidents’ Day presentation, but a bad one like the spiders that danced on the neighbor’s front porch every Halloween.

But her mother had been through a lot. That’s exactly what she’d said, “I’ve been through a lot.” She’d said it with her saddest voice of all and Holly knew it had something to do with Daddy going away, but she never asked about him anymore. Not since the time her mother answered in her bitter voice, “He’s a very sick man and he’s not coming back!”

Holly woke to a voice whispering her name, but she did not open her eyes. It seemed to come from far away, like a fading dream. She reached for Snow and strangled him in a hug. The bubble and hum of the fish tank was joined by the scrape, scrape, scrape and the scratchy breathing. And then another sound. A tapping. Footsteps.

She dared to open her eyes.

Gollum was standing at the foot of her bed. He held his finger to his lips.

“Shh…” he rasped.

Shadows moved across the floor but Gollum remained stick still.

A sour smell blew in through the open window next to her headboard. There was a shuffling sound and a grunt. Gollum reached the window in two giant steps and grabbed the creature, pulling it the rest of the way into the room. It fell to the floor with a thud and a crunch and made the most awful noises. But the sound that scared her most?

“Holly,” it croaked. “I’m here to take you home,” it slurred.

Moments later, sirens. Then flashing red and blue lights spun through her room. Gollum, still sitting on the monster, looked over at her and tried to offer a reassuring smile. Then Holly’s mother rushed into the room and grabbed her. Holly held tight to Snow and all three of them retreated to her mother’s bedroom just as the police appeared to help Gollum defeat the monster.

Not monster, thought Holly. Daddy. My very sick daddy.

Not Gollum, thought Holly.

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