That’s What You Think
Illustration by Xene Cabahug
You hear that same something under your bed but ignore the signs that you might be living in a scary story. Things aren’t really what they seem, right?
The clock ticks very slowly, like it really is one second per second. This night is . . . What’s the word for it? Endless.
The thing under your bed starts talking to you.
It doesn’t like the way your mom tells you to do your homework every night, or how your dad tells you to clean up your room, and it will have to change hiding places again when that happened. It remembers before you think to remind: it didn’t like living in your closet anyway. Too stuffy in there. You recall its complaining, shifting tones echoing from shadows, bringing you to wide awakeness in the dark.
It is almost amused how your parents still make a show of checking under the bed and in the closet for monsters, even after you’ve stopped begging them to. It’s been years since you’ve last asked, and they still do it. They’ve also allowed you to leave the lights on. In a statement of maturity, you turn the lights off after they leave. Not that it helps. The insomnia still haunts.
You can feel your heart doing what it’s been doing for years.
Beating, beating. Somehow you will it to beat faster, but it’s calm and rhythmic, like you’re asleep.
Except you know you’re awake, because the thing is still talking to you, and you can’t sleep otherwise. It doesn’t want you to call it the “thing.” Everyone alive needs a name, it tells you.
“What’s your name, then?” you ask it.
“I don’t know,” it says, “You didn’t give me a name yet.”
You try to sleep, but the thing wouldn’t let you. “What’s my name?” it keeps asking.
“I don’t know,” you tell it. “What do you want to be called?”
It’s impatient now. “I want you to name me.”
“Shut up,” you say and duck under the blankets.
“Yeah, shut up.”
“Short for Shutter Upp, maybe?”
You hear happiness in its voice. It’s almost never happy.
The thing is as dumb as the bed it’s under. It thinks Shut Up is a name.
You smile despite yourself and peek over the blanket. Shutter is sitting on the edge of your bed. It’s facing the window and you see a smile on its face that mirrors your own. The moonlight makes its skin look white but you know it isn’t. Its hair looks blue. It was purple yesterday.
“Shutter?” you say.
It turns to you, but doesn’t say anything.
“Why are you here?” you ask.
Shutter waits for four seconds to tick away, then replies, “I’m lonely. You’re my imaginary friend.”
“No,” you tell it. “You’re the one who is . . . imaginary.”
You don’t feel like calling it your friend just yet. This is your longest conversation so far. You wait for it to talk. It nods once, giving in, humoring you.
“We’re both imaginary to each other.”
You sit up and the air is cold, but you don’t shiver. “Why didn’t you have a name before?”
“I’m your imaginary friend, you have to name me.” Shutter looks at me. “I’ll call you Myya.”
Myya. Why Myya? “What does that mean?”
Shutter answers, “It means ‘good friend’.”
“Why don’t you use my real name?” you ask. Of course it knows your real name. It knows everything about you.
“Because it’s real and you’re imaginary. What does ‘Shuttupp’ mean?”
Shutter’s voice is strange. You’ve never heard anything like it before.
“It means peace and quiet,” you say.
Shutter turns to smile at the moon again. You think of something to say. It’s almost impossible to sleep now.
“Most people choose their imaginary friend. The imaginary friend doesn’t choose them.”
“Everyone chooses their friends.” Shutter closes its eyes. “I was tired of waiting for you to choose me. You’ve been alive all these years and you never chose me.”
You hear your mom’s footsteps.
Shutter slides under the bed again silently.
You listen to your heartbeat going in rhythm to the ticking of the clock. A second per second.
Your mother comes into your room and snaps on the light. She hurries to your bed and shakes you by the shoulders. “Wake up, honey, wake up! It’s just a bad dream.”
You blink at her and you feel your heart run faster and the air in your lungs go out. “What?”
The moon is gone and the sun is shining. The world looks beautiful. Your mom looks troubled.
“What’s wrong?” you ask her. Strangely, your heart is running in a steady panicked pace, the peace of before a memory.
“You were having a bad dream,” she says and sits on the edge of your bed, where Shutter was just a few seconds ago. “I heard you screaming.”
“I wasn’t screaming.”
“Yes, honey, you were. But it’s okay now. The dream is gone. It’s over.” She stands up, walks to your closet and closes the door. “I told you to keep this closed.”
She looks at you, changes the subject. “What did you dream about?”
“I don’t remember,” you lie.
Your mom’s face is disbelieving, but she nods slowly and begins to walk out. At the door, she hesitates. She looks back and there’s a fear in her eyes you can’t place a reason for. “Is something bothering you, sweetheart?”
It’s the question you want to ask her.
She nods again. “I see. Well, if ‘nothing’ bothers you again, you know where to find me. Alright?”
Her tone is almost pleading. You smile to put her out of her misery, hope your nod is reassuring.
When she’s gone, you look under your bed. “What are you grinning about?” you ask Shutter.
“Your mom doesn’t like me,” Shutter says. “That’s okay. I don’t like her either. Shuttupp is a better name than Nothing.”
You walk to school.
You look up behind you and you see Shutter’s purple hair through your bedroom window.
It’s dancing again.
When you get back, your mom will blame you for something that’s been recently broken while they were away. Her voice will climb in hysteria disproportionate to your crime. She will cry, she will beg you to admit you did it. And you will confess, and you will have to look guilty, because any betrayal of your innocence, a hint of confusion, and she will lose her mind. Your dad will take you aside and caution you again about the delicate state of your mother, and to avoid upsetting her at all times. And later tonight the newly named friend will hear all about it and laugh its strange laugh.
“She is the strangest one I’ve imagined so far.”
Suddenly you’re happy to be away from it, happy to go to school, even for once.
Right now your heart is so calm you hardly realize it’s there.