When Dan woke in his bedroom his limbs were frozen with fear. His eyes darted about the darkness finding faces watching from afar. His mouth was dry but he tried to swallow, tightening his throat. A silent scream died in his chest.
After some time trying to turn from the faces Dan managed to move his toes. He barely tensed them to preserve the flatness of his blankets. Monsters could sense movement, he knew, and the subtlest disturbance in his blankets would alert them. So he lay struggling to control his body yet unwilling to make a move which would get him gobbled.
Something jumped onto his bed.
Dan tried to shout but only twitched with all his arms and legs, shaking off the paralysis of sleep. He breathlessly watched the creature slink up to him. It exhaled moistly on his neck and dug its claws into the blankets. Four fangs filled its face. “Oh,” said Dan. “Hi, Django.”
The cat kneaded the blankets and purred.
Now adjusted to the darkness, Dan realized the watching faces were his stuffed toys lined up on shelves and cabinets. 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 hall?”
Django the cat leaned against Dan and curled into a circle. It licked itself to smooth its fur before settling in to sleep.
“Okay.” Dan sat up on his own. He carefully inspected the shadow below his bed for monsters before setting his feet on the floor. He selected a stuffed animal from the wall—a purple Teddy Bear with a pink nose—and flipped his bedroom light-switch.
Django blinked in the light and stretched with a sway of its orange, striped tail. “Mrow.” It hopped to the floor and followed Dan to the door. “Mrow.”
“Do you want to come?” Dan opened 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 stepped towards the kitchen. It turned to check whether Dan was following or not. The cat’s eyes reflected light from Dan’s bedroom with a green gleam. “Mrow.”
“Oh,” said Dan. “You want food.”
Dan followed the cat to 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 both hands on the container’s lid. To remove the lid Dan had to grunt and twist with his entire body. Django stood on its hind legs to stick its head into the container and smell the dry food. “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 as he knelt next to Dan. He had wire glasses and a close haircut. “It’s past midnight, Jillian. What are you doing out of bed?”
“Django was hungry,” answered Dan.
“Django’s fine, sweetie.” The woman lifted Dan with one arm and his Teddy Bear with the other. “Your father will feed him when he wakes up for his flight in a few hours. Right, Ethen?”
“Of course.” Ethen hoisted 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 on my plane before you wake up for breakfast, but I’ll be sure to call home tonight when I land. Okay?”
Dan said nothing as Camilla carried him to bed. She tucked him under the covers and set his Teddy Bear beside him. “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 to check for a fever. “Why?”
Dan sat up. “What do you keep calling me?”
“No no no,” said Dan. “What’s my name?”
“Jillian,” said Camilla. “Your name is Jillian Diaz-Jackson.”
“Has it always been?” Jillian kept inspecting her fingers as if something had changed.
“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 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, I got pretty good at controlling my dreams and flying and having fun.” 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 tell that monster, ‘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?”