When Dan awoke, he could not move his arms or legs. His eyes darted about the darkness of his room, picking out faces watching him from afar. His mouth was dry, but he tried to swallow, tightening his throat. A silent scream died in his chest.
After ten minutes trying to turn away from the faces, Dan managed to move his toes. He moved them subtly, barely tensing them, so he did not disturb the folds of his blanket. Monsters could sense movement, he knew, and the subtlest disturbance in the flatness of the blanket would alert them. So he lay like this, struggling to control his body yet unwilling to make any movement which would get him gobbled.
Something jumped onto his bed.
Dan tried to shout, but instead he twitched with all his arms and legs, finally shaking off the paralysis of sleep. He sat up to see the thing in his bed as it approached him. It breathed on his face, and dug claws into the blankets. “Oh,” said Dan, “hi, Django.”
The cat kneaded the blankets and purred.
Now adjusting to the darkness, Dan could see that the faces watching him were his stuffed toys, lined up against the wall. Their matte-black eyes looked lifelike in the dark. “Django, help me,” said Dan. “I need to go to my parents’ room, okay? Can you lead me through the hallway?”
Django the cat leaned against Dan and curled into a circle. It licked itself once before settling in to sleep.
“Okay.” Dan got up on his own, carefully inspecting the shadow below his bed for monsters before putting his feet on the floor. He selected a stuffed animal from the wall—a Teddy Bear with a pink nose—and turned on the light-switch.
Django blinked in the light and stretched, swaying his orange, striped tail. “Mrow.” It dropped to the floor and joined Dan at his bedroom door. “Mrow.”
“You want to come?” Dan cracked open the door and peered into the hallway. His Teddy Bear’s matte-black eyes checked every corner for movement. “It’s not so far. We can make it.”
“Mrow.” Django snuck through Dan’s legs and took a few steps to the kitchen. Then it turned as if to check whether he was following or not. The light from Dan’s room reflected off of the cat’s eyes, giving them a shiny gleam. “Mrow.”
“Oh,” said Dan. “You want food.”
He followed the cat into the kitchen. It sat next to its empty food bowl and stared at a giant, plastic container of kibble. “Mrow.”
Dan rest his Teddy Bear on the tile floor and put a hand on each side of the container’s lid. Only by twisting his whole body could he open the container; Django stood on its hind legs to see inside. “Just a little, Django.” Dan scooped handfuls of kibble into the cat’s bowl. “Just a little.”
Dan spun. Two people had entered the kitchen, a Latina in a white bathrobe and a black man in boxers.
“Jillian, are you okay?” asked the man, kneeling next to Dan. He had glasses and a short haircut. “It’s just past midnight.”
“Django was hungry,” answered Dan.
“Django’s fine, sweetie.” The woman picked Dan up one arm and grabbed his Teddy Bear with the other. “Your father will feed him when he wakes up for his flight. Right, Ethen?”
“Of course.” Ethen picked up Django by the shoulders and held the cat to Dan’s face. “Wanna say goodnight, Jillian?”
“Wait!” Dan kicked the air. “I remember! I woke up because I had a nightmare.”
“Oh, sweetie.” The woman brushed his hair back. “Let me take you back to bed and you can tell me about it, or I can read you a story.”
“Thanks, Camilla.” Ethen ambled back to their bedroom. “Jillian, I’ll probably be gone in the morning when you wake up, but I’ll be sure to call you guys tonight, when my flight lands. Okay?”
Dan was silent as Camilla carried him to his bed. She set him under the covers, and put his Teddy Bear by his side. “I’m sorry you had a bad dream, Jillian. What happened?”
“I was in a desert with Faith,” said Dan, “and we went into a hole in the ground, and in the hole there was a monster with arms and legs. And it ate us!”
“Faith?” Camilla pulled the covers up to Dan’s chin. “I don’t think I know Faith. Did you meet her in preschool?”
“Preschool?” Dan looked at his hands, as if for the first time. “Mommy, how old am I?”
“You’re four years old, sweetie.” She felt Dan’s forehead, checking for a fever. “Why?”
Dan sat up in his bed. “What do you keep calling me?”
“No,” said Dan. “My name. What’s my name?”
“Jillian,” said Camilla. “Your name is Jillian Diaz-Jackson.”
“Has it always been?” asked Jillian. She kept looking at her fingers as if something was wrong with them.
“Well, of course it has.” Camilla checked her daughter’s forehead again. “Are you okay? You seem confused.”
“I don’t wanna go to bed.”
“Oh,” cooed her mother. “Poor thing. Did you know that I had nightmares, too, when I was younger?”
“Yes.” Camilla shook her head. “But after a while, I started to recognize the nightmare, because I had the same one every night. Eventually I learned to tell when I was dreaming, and then the nightmare couldn’t hurt me. In fact, after a while, I started to get pretty good at controlling my dreams.” She scratched her daughter behind the ear. “So, do you remember what that monster looked like?”
Jillian frowned and nodded.
“Then the next time you see it, you’ll know you’re in a dream,” said Camilla. “Then you can say, ‘you can’t hurt me! Make me an ice-cream sundae!'”
“Yeah!” Jillian smiled now. “Make me a sundae!”
“That’s right!” Camilla bumped her forehead against Jillian’s, and both of them laughed. “I’ll see you in the morning, sweetie. Tell me about your sundae on the way to preschool tomorrow, okay?”