This story is part of a series I’m doing on childhood dreams, nightmares, and distorted perceptions of reality. Some of the stories have autobiographical ties, but they are mostly fiction. And some of the stories reflect fiction I was writing at that age. It might help to consider all of them and how they all fit together.
Tommy told them about it on a clear bright day just after a brief thundershower had blown through. The air was warm and heavy, steam rising off the sidewalks. The monkey bars at the apartment jungle gym dripped with some of the raindrops, but they were still hot to the touch. The dirt beneath the bars had turned to dark mud. Tommy told them, “You don’t want to fall off the bars into the mud. If you land too deep, it will get you and pull you under.”
Now, they are supposed to be going to sleep, but it is still light outside and Jeff is standing on his bed looking through the miniblinds.
“Whatcha doin?” says Sean.
Jeff whispers back, “Seeing if it comes out at night like Tommy said.”
“Mom’s gonna catch you and we’re gonna get in trouble,” says Sean.
“Only if you keep talking to me,” says Garrett.
Sean falls silent, and Jeff keeps staring at the mud under the monkey bars as the day’s light fades. Even without rain, the sprinklers come on in the evening and turn the dirt to mud. The monster can rise up from the mud every night.
“See anything?” Sean whispers finally.
“It looks like some of the mud has gotten bigger, like maybe it’s trying to push its head up to see if it’s dark.”
“You’re lying,” says Sean.
“Am not,” says Jeff. “Come look if you don’t believe me.”
Sean shakes his head but goes quiet again for several long moments. Finally, he breathes loudly and says, “I think the mud monster is make believe like Mom says. Can you stop and we can just go to sleep?”
“Only one way to find out if it is make believe.”
“Jeff, come on. I don’t wanna get in trouble.”
“Then be quiet and leave me alone,” says Jeff. He studies the mud. Is the head pushing up? Or is that just a shadow? The sprinklers hiss, and that annoys Jeff because he wants to hear if the monster makes noise. As the light dims, he can see less and realizes that his eyes might be playing tricks on him.
He sinks back to his pillow. Sean is snoring lightly. Jeff closes his eyes. Instantly, he can see the monster rising slowly from the mud pit under the bars. It is thick with mud. It has a mud head and body, mud arms and legs. It has coal black eyes and gleaming white teeth.
It’s make believe like Mom says. Tommy tells lies all the time.
But what if Tommy isn’t lying this time? What if Jeff’s mind is showing him what the monster is doing? Should he get up to ask his mom or dad to check outside? If he does, his mom will erupt, will hiss at him, “There’s no such thing as some damn mud monster! Now get your little butt back in bed before I beat it for you.”
But you only have to be wrong once about a monster for it to kill you. Jeff lies there trembling, fearing to look, fearing to ask his parents to look. And yet, in his mind, he can see those coal black eyes glaring at him. Finally, he whispers, “Dear Heavenly Father, please keep me and Sean safe from the monster.” It never occurs to him to pray for his mom and dad. Why would a mud monster ever bother them?