(An Imagining of Nightmares)
“Parker, keep kicking the floor like that, and you’re gonna wish you were born without feet!”
His dad’s voice came booming from the bottom of the stairs, reverberating off the walls. His dad angry was scary but nowhere near as scary as the thing under his bed, which was the source of the noise. Parker moved to the center of the bed, staying away from the edges. His nightlight was on, but it was weak, only shining on the foot of the bed.
The rest of his room belonged to the shadows.
From under the bed came the sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor, and Parker knew Hammer-Jack was readying itself for the next round. There was a slight grunt of effort, and then the dragging sound stopped. Parker’s bed raised as the mattress was pushed up from underneath. Parker had never seen it, but he knew with certainty that Hammer-Jack was raising its great namesake high with three of its arms—each of them ending in a twelve-fingered hand that had large and pointed claws with serrated edges (perfect for sawing) at the tips of its fingers—as it positioned itself for the blows to come.
The grunt came again, followed by a brief silence and then the great rushing whoosh as something of great weight tore through the air.
Three quick, loud bangs came from under the bed, followed almost immediately by the sound of Parker’s dad running up the stairs. Parker’s door swung open, and the light in his room was switched on. As Parker’s eyes adjusted to the flood of light, he saw his dad—red-faced and sweating—with a look of mixed fury and bewilderment on his face.
“What…” his father said, too loud at first and then tapering off because he was winded from the effort of hauling his weight up the stairs two at a time. He couldn’t finish his sentence with the level of menace he’d planned, so he glared at his son and raised his eyebrows inquisitively, to try and make it seem as if he’d intended to say only “what,” and nothing more.
“But you should believe me this time!” Parker yelled. “It’s down there! I hear it moving.”
“I heard moving, too, and it’s driving your mother and me crazy,” Parker’s dad said, his words spaced out to allow for deep inhales and exhales to regulate his breathing. He came into the room, saying “If you don’t knock it off, I’m gonna pull your sheets so tight you can’t move. That’s what my dad used to do when I was restless. I didn’t like it, and you won’t either, so maybe you can give it a rest and save us both the—”
“It’s not me! I’ve been here the whole time!”
“What did we say about interrupting, Parker?”
“Dad, this is important!”
“What did we say?” Parker’s dad asked.
“—because interrupting someone is rude!”
Parker said nothing and sat staring at his father.
“What, no laugh? C’mon, that was pretty good. Alright, then. Silly’s out, and serious is in. Knock it off—whatever you’re doing, however you’re making that ungodly sound, just knock it off. It sounds like you’re moving the bed around, or something, and it needs to stop. You know how your mom gets when she doesn’t get to hear those trashy shows she likes.”
Parker couldn’t tell if his dad was being serious or trying another joke. His mom likely didn’t realize the TV was even on. Parker knew she would be curled up on the couch, at least two books beside her and another one in her hands, open somewhere toward the end. She seemed to be always just about to finish a book. She would read the last few lines twice before she set a book aside and called it done, and she never read just one book at a time. There were books left out all over the house, in every room, just in case the opportunity to read presented itself. She would not care about being unable to hear the trashy shows Parker’s dad watched.
“But it’s not me making the noise!”
“Parker, you’re literally the only person in this house who could be doing it. The only other people here were downstairs, trying to find out whether Casey is going to end up with Brad or not.”
Parker was pretty sure Hammer-Jack wasn’t in the house at the moment. There had to be a hole or tunnel in its world allowing it to get under Parker’s bed. But, he didn’t think he could explain this to his dad. His mom would believe him, and there was a good chance she’d run across something like this in books. She might even know how to get rid of the thing.
Mom could take care of the problem quick and easy, but unfortunately it was in dad’s hands.
“Just stop, ok? You sound like a herd of elephants running around up here.”
“It’s a parade,” Parker said.
“A group of elephants is called a parade, not a herd.”
“Well, that’s not the way I heard it.”
“You heard wrong,” Parker said, denying his dad the recognition he clearly wanted.
“Alright, then, smart guy—you know what a group of crows is called, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Parker said, the thought of the word chilling him to the bone.
“Good—keep it in mind and stop making noise.”
Parker’s dad walked over to the bed and picked Parker up under the arms and pulled back the covers, then set Parker down and fluffed up the pillow around his head. He pulled the covers to just under Parker’s chin.
“Alright, good night, sleep tight, don’t make any more noise or you’ll never make noise again. Your mother and I love you forever and we’ll keep you for always, even if it’s against our better judgment, and there’s no such thing as monsters. Did I miss anything?” Parker’s dad said.
“You forgot to check under the bed.”
“You’re eight years old, and you need me to check under the bed? There’s nothing down there, Parker. I mean, I’ve been standing here for a good bit of time—you don’t think Hammering-Jacky would’ve smacked my toes if it were really under there?”
“It’s Hammer-Jack,” Parker said.
“Whatever the name, it had plenty of opportunity.”
“It’s not you it wants,” Parker said.
“Well, that’s tough because it’s me it’s getting,” Parker’s dad said, dropping to the floor and wriggling under Parker’s bed. The bed frame creaked in protest as Parker’s dad attempted to wedge himself underneath.
“There’s a whole lot of stuff down here that should be put up where it belongs,” Parker’s dad said, his voice muffled. “But there are no monsters.” He squeezed out from under the bed, pushed himself up from the floor, and stood in front of Parker, breathing heavy from the effort and trying not to show it. His shirt was speckled with clinging bits of blackish fuzz and small orange flecks from ancient cheese crackers that had somehow found their way under the bed.
“No monsters, and not a single hammer in sight. Feel safe—there’s not enough room for anything, let alone a hammer monster, to hide under there. You know, when we tell you to clean your room, that doesn’t mean to take everything on the floor and shove it under the bed.”
“But it’s off the floor.”
“The floor doesn’t end just because it’s under the bed.”
Parker stared at his father in disbelief, trying to figure out how someone could so drastically misunderstand how real life worked. In a room, there was the floor, and then there was under the bed, and the two had no connection.
“No more noise, right?”
Parker said nothing. He couldn’t answer the question—it was Hammer-Jack that would have to decide, one way or the other.
Parker’s dad walked over to the door and went halfway out before peeking his head back in.
“You know what a group of giraffes is called?” he asked.
“A tower,” Parker said.
“Did you know why giraffes have a reputation for being loyal?”
Parker knew, but he could tell his dad was trying, so he indulged him.
“No,” Parker said.
A look of excitement came over his dad’s face as he said “Because they’re always the first to stick their necks out for a friend!”
Smiling wide, Parker’s dad went to turn off the light.
“Can you keep the light on, please?” Parker said. “Just till I get to sleep?”
“Twenty minutes, ok? After that, lights out.”
“Thank you, dad.”
“No problem,” Parker’s dad said as he left the room, closing the door behind him.
For a while, there were no noises, no indication at all that Hammer-Jack lay in wait. Parker thought there was a chance—maybe just a chance, and a thin one—that the light had scared Hammer-Jack away. Never once did he think Hammer-Jack would stay away. This was the worst time, counting down until the inevitable return, when the great hammer would be brought down. He imagined it would be his toes first, then the feet and the ankles, shins, and knees. The work would be quick—three fast blows on each section of his body—and the pain would be, well, that was beyond imagining. Intellectually, he knew what broken bones were, but he had no practical experience. His friend, Jeremy, had broken his arm last year, but Jeremy and his parents were on vacation when it happened. Parker only saw the cast—when the arm had already begun healing—and not the damage underneath.
As he thought about it, Parker realized he didn’t have a clear, consistent image of the hammer, either. Most times, it looked like Thor’s, with squared ends, but other times it looked like the claw hammer his mom used to drive nails into the wall when she wanted to hang something. And sometimes it was a combination of Thor’s hammer and a claw hammer, which looked ridiculous. With the claw on one side, the hammer—far from being scary—looked like it had a mullet. Parker began to laugh quietly at the thought of a mulleted hammer.
Movement to his right made Parker stop laughing and jerk his head in that direction, and then he saw it, spreading across the floor and up the wall. Parker did not move to confirm it, but he knew the shadows were coming from under the bed. Three long, gnarled and twisted shadow arms snaked along the wall, each one ending in a twelve-fingered hand. Parker was too terrified to scream. The hands slowly slid back down the wall and over the floor, then back under the bed. Something pushed up on Parker’s mattress, with much greater force than last time, and then the shadows returned. There was no noise as the shadow arms wound their way across the floor, twisting over themselves, and this time carrying a great, shadowy hammer.
Which looked kind of stupid, to be honest. The claw part did not go with the squared-off front. It seemed silly. Everything up until the reveal was nerve-wracking. The shadow arms and their horrid movements, the shock of something pressing up from under the bed, all of that was perfectly terrifying, but the centerpiece—the big, dumb hammer—wasn’t scary in the least.
“That looks stupid,” Parker said.
A sound somewhere between a growl and the machinery of a great factory came from under the bed, and mixed in with it were whispers, moans, and distant, desperate cries. Parker covered his ears, trying to block it out, but the noise grew louder as he tried to cut himself off from it, as if it was particularly insistent upon being heard.
Eventually, the sound coalesced into something resembling speech.
“The fault of the execution, if there be one, cannot be said to be strictly ours,” the sound said. There were echoes that accompanied its voice, most in languages Parker didn’t know, or never knew existed. “We work with what we are given. If the raw materials are weak, a house will never stand, no matter how talented the builder.”
There was horror to be found in that voice, and in the echoes accompanying it (including mournful cries and the occasional English word like “pain” or “dread”), but Parker didn’t focus on that. He wasn’t a dumb child, and he knew when he was being insulted.
“What do you mean?” Parker said. “How’s it my fault you have a stupid hammer?”
“A nightmare, even a waking one, is a collaborative effort. We have done our part.”
“You’re not a nightmare. You’re a monster, and my dad…he’s a big guy, and my mom is really smart, and they’re gonna hear you, so you should just leave and never come back.”
“We must warn you, true as that may be in any other circumstance—say, if a burglar were to break in through your window, which we know is something that keeps you awake at night—in this instance this conversation will remain between you and we.”
“They can’t hear us?”
“Not being able to hear is different from being unwilling, but your description suits our purpose.”
“And if I scream?”
“You will get in trouble—child, this is not a new experience for us, and if we do not wish to be heard, we will not.”
Parker sat up and looked at the shadows that still radiated their darkness from under the bed and onto the walls of his room. The shadow arms were thin and knobbed, almost branchlike. The fingers jutted out, almost at random, from the arms, and the nails on the ends of the fingers were larger and wider than the fingers themselves.
“You look like a tree,” he said.
“A very specific one, in fact. Well-identified. It takes quite a bit of awareness—not to mention thought and wit—to be able to pinpoint the source of one’s nightmares. We would be more impressed if you could remember exactly why you have this fear, but that is likely asking too much of you. It was, in fact, one of the very first things you were ever afraid of, an elemental dread tucked away quite deep within your memory stores, largely forgotten. But not by us.”
“Take that tree away,” Parker said. “Please.”
The shadow play of Hammer-Jack’s arms dissolved into shapeless darkness, which wormed and skittered down the wall, snaked across the floor, and slid back under the bed.
“Where do you come from?” Parker said.
“Child, we come from a land of darkness.”
“Is it far away?”
“Farther than you can ever imagine or measure,” Hammer-Jack said.
“And what do you want?”
“To smash you with our hammer!”
“So why didn’t you?”
“If you came from very far away,” Parker said, “and all you want to do is smash me, then why didn’t you?”
The sounds within Hammer-Jack’s voice conversed among themselves in unknown tongues. Even though he couldn’t understand their words, Parker knew confusion when he heard it.
“We are…we are toying with you,” Hammer-Jack finally said, sounding quite unsure of itself.
“You’re full of it,” Parker said, thinking he probably could’ve used a stronger word but still not entirely convinced his parents wouldn’t hear him if he swore.
“Child, we will…we’ll smash, and bash, and…and you will need…a cast!”
“That’s not scary. It sounds like you don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
The cacophony of anguished sounds swirled from under Parker’s bed, eventually settling into a tone slightly north of disheartened.
“Child—this has been a long night, and we are weary. Can you, perhaps, desist in your hounding?”
“Why should I?” Parker said. “You came into my room and said you were gonna smash me. And you got my dad all mad at me because you were making a bunch of noise with your dumb hammer. Why should I give you a break?”
Parker wasn’t exactly sure what kind of break he would even be able to give Hammer-Jack. After all, Hammer-Jack was the monster, and Parker was pretty sure the way the world worked was that the monsters, especially when armed, got to make the rules. Still, he felt strangely in control.
“We understand your anger, and we hope you would reciprocate and understand our frustration. The raw materials for your fear are of the highest quality and would be the envy of other nightmares, if you were not so persistent in your refusal to remain afraid of them.”
“Why is that bad?”
Something like a sigh came from under the bed, accompanied by a sonic knot of half-heard voices.
“For you, it is not. For us, it is something akin to—we think this is the term you would use—an occupational hazard. Not to mention, a source of embarrassment.”
Parker had never given monsters much thought beyond how scary they were, but even if he had, Parker doubted he would have ever imagined they could become embarrassed.
“What’s so embarrassing? You were scary, at first. You were really scary.”
“Child, that is much appreciated.”
“But, then it just got dumb, and it was so dumb that it made the scary stuff seem not so scary anymore. But I guess you said that’s kind of my fault, though.”
The sigh came again, more intense this time, and resigned.
“The fault is not with you. We are to blame. This is a difficult assignment, and we fear we may have been too ambitious in our plotting for this night. In our realm of shadows and darkness, you have the reputation for being a difficult frightening, and we assured our colleagues we would not only rise to the occasion and emerge victorious, but also that we could do so at the end of our night. It appears we have failed—quite spectacularly—in both regards.”
Hammer-Jack sounded disappointed in itself, and Parker could not help but feel sorry for it.
“It’s ok. You tried your hardest, and that’s what’s important. I think so, anyway.”
“We cannot believe we are being comforted by a child. This experience is surreal, to say the least.”
“Everyone needs to be comforted sometimes, I guess,” Parker said. “Even monsters. But it’s pretty weird for me, too. It’s probably the strangest thing I can think of.”
“I am housemates with the being assigned to your imagination—believe me when I say to you, child, this is assuredly not the strangest thing you can think of. You can, and you will, think of much more fantastic scenarios than this, places and events that would astound even the greatest of fantasists.”
“Really? When does that happen?”
“During sleep. You will never remember the details when you wake. You will, though, carry with you the feeling that you may have experienced something truly amazing, and you will feel you can almost remember every detail, but you will never be able to.”
“That’s…that’s kind of sad,” Parker said.
“Child, that is life, and melancholy will be your most frequent traveling companion, often keeping to the shadows, but just visible enough to remind you of its presence.”
“That’s sad, too!”
“We beg your forgiveness. It was not our intention to sadden you. We meant to instill fear, and instead we provoked a depressive state. We have been of a peculiar mood in recent nights, child. This was to be our last frightening before we move on.”
“What do you mean? Does that mean you’re dying?”
“No, child,” Hammer-Jack said, “we are merely changing form. It is an ineluctable eventuality that all nightmares know must come to pass.”
“So you’re not really a monster, then,” Parker said.
“Not in the sense you mean, no.”
“Are there real monsters?”
“There are many things in this world, and others, that terrify, or horrify, or revolt, but what makes a monster—like all labels—is largely a matter of consensus.”
“So, what are you becoming? You said you’re not gonna be a nightmare after tonight.”
“We shall be split, and embark on divergent paths, each of us destined for the Peculiar Scourge, which is what we believe you would call ‘personal demons.’ Already we begin to part, to separate and change.”
The attendant voices surrounding Hammer-Jack’s own began to fade, lessening in volume until they were only barely audible. Parker was not sure if he could, in fact, even hear them at all anymore, or if his ears were playing tricks on him.
“What about tomorrow night? You won’t be back?”
“No. You will not see us again. Not in this form, anyway. Our next encounter won’t be until you are significantly older. That will be a…difficult time for you. But, you are strong, child, and you will continue to be. Never doubt this.”
“Does that mean no more nightmares?”
“Certainly not. Our replacement will be here tomorrow night, eager to prove themselves.”
“What am I supposed to do, then?”
“You will do what you must, child, the same as always. However, as a boon for our parting, do you happen to know what a group of nightmares is called?”
“No,” Parker said.
“An imagining. No matter how powerful or frightening we seem, we are only ever as real as you allow us to be. We are all an imagining.”
Parker was silent, trying to will himself to remember that forever, to keep it for always.
“Goodnight, Hammer-Jack,” he said, finally.
“Goodnight to you, as well,” Hammer-Jack said, its many voices dissipating into random patterns of noise, then fading faintly before disappearing altogether.
Parker lay in bed with his eyes closed, pretending to be asleep and waiting for his dad to come in and turn off the light. Keeping his eyes closed for show, Parker eventually drifted off.
Parker’s sleep was restful, and when he woke in the morning, Parker felt happy, as if he had experienced something truly amazing. And, he felt that if he just tried hard enough, he would be able to remember all the details.
Zach Davis is a writer living and working in the beautiful Appalachian region. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in print and online in The Fertile Source, Bartleby Snopes, FortyOunce Bachelors, Drunk Monkeys, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers (numerous volumes), The First Line, Five2One Magazine, Gravel, Visual Verse, Rabble Lit, and Carve.