Cindy stands in her kitchen, sipping a cup of tea and savoring a rare moment of silence. Her children, three-year-old Toby and four-year-old Tana, are playing in Tana’s bedroom. They aren’t fighting. Or shrieking. Or sobbing. Or banging pans together. Or throwing things.
Frowning, Cindy strains to hear the low hum of the refrigerator and the gentle purr of the water heater. It’s too quiet. Something is wrong.
She runs down the hallway and opens Tana’s door. The room is dark and empty, except for an explosion of toys. A lightning bolt of adrenaline crackles through her. Where are they? Then she spots a sliver of light marking the bottom edge of the closet door.
Inside, she finds her children huddled together on a nest of T-shirts and wadded jackets, quietly crying. Tana’s long, reedy arms wrap protectively around her brother’s solid form. Toby’s face is blotchy. Snot streams freely from his nose.
Tana answers with a catch in her voice. “We’re hiding from the monsters.”
Toby hiccups and adds, “Big monsters.”
“They want to eat us!”
Cindy smiles at her children’s tender imaginations. “I don’t see any monsters,” she says with what she hopes is appropriate gravity.
“They’re under the bed! And they’re so big!”
“Let’s take a look, shall we?”
Cindy turns on the overhead light, snatches a flashlight from the top of a bookshelf, and coaxes her children to follow. Kneeling, she shines a light under the bed, illuminating a long-abandoned sippy cup, a crusty plate, and an unhealthy amount of dust.
“See? No monsters!”
The children look, but their faces remain skeptical. Wary. Perhaps, thinks Cindy, the monsters are invisible. She shrugs. “Let’s make dinner. Next time, try playing with some little monsters.”
Dinner has been eaten. Teeth have been brushed. Toys have been collected. The children scurry into Tana’s room for story time. Cindy clears her throat. Her voice is rough from a long day of saying no. She hopes the children will pick something short tonight.
“What would you like to read?”
“Dragons Love Tacos,” says Tana.
“Yeah,” adds Toby. “Tacos.”
Cindy scans the bookshelf and frowns. She can’t find the book. It must be in the living room…or the kitchen…or Toby’s room…or anywhere, really.
“I’m going to find the book,” she says wearily. “Stay here and play with your plastic pets. I’ll be right back.”
After an epic search of the house, Cindy finally finds the book in her own bedroom under Shelby, their ancient Labrador Retriever. I should have looked there first. Tana’s always pretending to read stories to the dog.
As Cindy returns to Tana’s bedroom, she hears light, cheerful laughter, and she smiles. This is what children should sound like. But, to her surprise, the children aren’t playing with toys at all. They’re reaching their hands under the bed and bringing them to their mouths.
“What are you doing?”
Tana giggles. “We’re playing with some little monsters. Like you said.”
Then Toby smacks his lips and rubs his belly. “We’re eating them!”