Betty was hanging wet towels on the clothesline when a faded blue Plymouth Roadking came up the drive. Someone had donated the car to the Six Sisters orphanage back in 1952, and Sister Mary Margaret was the only nun who knew how to drive it.
A new girl got out of the car — maybe five years old, with brown hair and lots of freckles. Skittish little thing, probably terrified of monsters. It’d be no problem getting her to follow the rules. Betty hung the last towel and wiped her hands on her skirt.
“Since you’re done, you may show Catherine around the orphanage,” Sister Mary Margaret said.
“Yes, Sister.” Betty grabbed Catherine’s hand and pulled her inside. “Come on. You’ll be sleeping on the third floor, but you gotta learn the rules first.”
“Mary Margaret told me the rules in the car.”
“Sister Mary Margaret,” Betty corrected the younger girl. “These are different rules. These rules will keep you from being eaten.”
Catherine had no answer to that. Betty took her to the second-floor room she shared with Janet. The walls were bare and both beds were neatly made. Betty knocked on the closet door three times, paused, then pulled the door open. Taped to the inside of the door was a sheet of blue-lined paper covered in small slanty handwriting.
“This is the Treaty of the Bathroom Alcove,” Betty said. “It keeps you safe from monsters, so pay attention.”
The rules had been written in pencil by the Giant Unsquishable Cockroach who lived in the coat closet in the front hall. The treaty had been signed in the bathroom alcove because that was neutral territory — not quite a closet because it had no door, but kind of like a closet because the nuns stored towels in there.
Betty read the treaty out loud:
(1) Closets and under the beds are monster territory. Children may obtain items from the closets during daylight hours, as long as they knock before entering. Items that fall under the bed should be considered lost forever.
(2) Monsters must not be seen during daylight hours. Monsters are free to roam the orphanage at any hour of the day or night, so long as they are not seen.
(3) Monsters may not eat children during daylight hours.
(4) Monsters may eat children at night ONLY if the child (or any portion thereof) leaves the safety of its bed.
(5) Children may ask adults to check for monsters under the bed or inside the closet. However:
(6) Children may not, under any circumstances, request that an adult drag a monster out of its territory to shoot or otherwise kill the monster. Violation of rule No. 6 will release the monsters from the terms of this treaty.
The treaty was signed by Roach and by Allison Michaels, who lived in Betty’s room until last year, when she got adopted. One corner of the paper was missing, and Betty suspected that Squelchy Saurus — the monster that lived in her closet — had eaten it. Squelchy was fond of paper.
“Do you understand the rules?” Betty asked.
Catherine nodded, and Betty sent her upstairs to the big third-floor room where all the younger girls slept.
Squelchy Saurus lived in a closet. It was a nice closet, small and cozy, full of delicious-smelling clothes. With the door closed it was wonderfully dark, and it kept her hidden from the terrifying grownups who sometimes came to make sure the room was clean.
Squelchy wasn’t as quick as Stabby Gnome, or as strong as Crushmonster — she wasn’t even clever like Gooey-Blob-That-Can-Look-Like-Most-Anything (aka “Bob the Blob”). As monsters went, Squelchy Saurus was disappointingly ordinary. The thing that made her special was where she happened to live — inside the closet of Betty Williams, the oldest girl, and the one who had given the monsters their current names.
Betty had given Squelchy her first name because her skin oozed with clear slime, and her last name because her shape resembled a dinosaur from a book on the shelf above the bed. Squelchy decided to try and get the book. She balanced on her hind legs and bumped the corner of the shelf with her head. If she got the book, she could use it to lure Betty out of bed after dark.
She wasn’t sure what she’d do if Betty did leave the bed, but the girl was too smart to fall for any of Squelchy’s tricks. The attempts seemed to amuse Betty, and it kept Squelchy entertained, too.
Squelchy heard a sound and darted back to her closet, afraid it might be one of the nuns, but it turned out to be Poison Bitey-Snake. Bitey fit under the bed and seemed to dislike any monster that didn’t.
“Hi Bitey.” Squelchy said, creeping back out of the closet.
Bitey hissed. “Those are her namesss. Must you use them?”
“Well, what should I call you?” Squelchy asked. Bitey didn’t answer. Monsters were good at many things, but terrible at names.
“So,” Bitey said, “have you heard the newsss?”
Squelchy shook her head, sending droplets of slime spraying everywhere. “What news?”
“Theresa Smith was adopted, and before she left, she broke the treaty. All the monsters on the third floor have been shot.”
Squelchy felt sad for the poor dead monsters, but Bitey clearly didn’t care.
Bitey slithered up one side of Janet’s bed and coiled himself around the pillow. “We no longer need to obey the rulesss. Today, we will plan our strategy. Tonight, the children are ours for the taking.”
Betty finished her chores and went back to her room to read. She was nearly done with Animal Farm, and she had just enough time to finish it before dinner. She reached for her book, then noticed that the room was messy — both beds were rumpled, three books had fallen off her shelf, and Janet’s pink hair ribbon was on the floor. Sister Mary Joseph was strict about keeping things tidy, and the room was definitely not as Betty had left it.
She knocked three times on the closet door and opened it. Usually the closet smelled musty. Today it didn’t.
Squelchy Saurus had gone somewhere.
Betty picked up Janet’s pink ribbon and put away her fallen books. One of the covers was slimy, pointing again to Squelchy.
Betty peered under the beds, careful not to let any portion of her body extend into the shadows beneath the mattresses. There was a blue hair ribbon under Janet’s bed which, by the rules of the treaty, was now lost forever.
Under her own bed there were two books. One was the copy of Lolita that her step-daddy used to read to her, back before the police took him to jail and brought her here. She’d torn the cover off so that the nuns wouldn’t recognize it. The other book was The Velveteen Rabbit, which she was too old for now, but it was the only thing she had from her real dad. She remembered unwrapping it on her fifth birthday, a couple weeks before he left for Korea to fight in the war. Every time she looked at it, she felt silly for not reaching under the bed and grabbing it, but she couldn’t bring herself to break the treaty.
Betty sat on her bed to think. There had been no sign of Poison Bitey-Snake under the beds, but it was daytime, so of course there wouldn’t be. Still, something felt wrong, and if the monsters were up to something she’d have to find out what it was.
Squelchy sat at the back of the meeting, her tail looped over a sack of potatoes and her head resting on a basket of onions. Her slime dripped down onto both the onions and the potatoes, making it rather likely that they would go moldy, but there were a lot of monsters at the meeting, and the pantry was crowded. Bitey, unfortunately, was sitting on the shelf above her head. She’d hoped to save that spot for Pink Fluffy Flesheater, who she used to share a closet with.
“All nine monsters living in the attic were killed in last night’s tragic shooting,” said Bob the Blob. “Crushmonster saw the whole thing. Theresa convinced a grownup to drag each monster out from under the bed, and — with a gun made from his thumb and the first two fingers of his hand — he executed them without mercy. Our brave comrades on the third floor stayed true to the treaty until the end, remaining completely invisible even during the massacre. The children violated the Treaty of the Bathroom Alcove, and the terms are clear. We are free to do as we please.”
“Yesss!” Bitey shouted, his voice blending with the cheers of other monsters.
Squelchy said nothing. It seemed unfair to take revenge on the children who were still here. It was only one adopted girl who had disobeyed the treaty. Squelchy tried to remember the girl. She had been timid. Not the sort to cause trouble, and not the heroic type either.
“Strange,” Squelchy muttered, “that such a quiet child would cause so much trouble for the others.”
Bitey, having heard her, dangled his head down from the shelf to whisper in her ear, “Someone might have given her the idea. Pity about the third-floor monsters, leaving all that nice space underneath the bedsss.”
Bitey had never gotten along with the third-floor monsters, but Squelchy never imagined that he would arrange to have them killed. She wondered if anyone would believe her if she told them what he’d done. Probably not. She had a reputation for not being very smart.
The meeting continued all afternoon. They decided to take the children just before dawn, while they slept in their beds. According to Stabby Gnome, the children thought all of the monsters were gone, so they wouldn’t expect an attack. They could drag the little girls out of their room through the secret passageway in the back of the cupboard, and feast on tender flesh and lightly roasted bones.
Squelchy went back to her closet. She had no interest in eating the children, though she did enjoy nibbling on their hair and fingernail clippings, and stray socks and mittens were nice to gnaw on if they’d been recently worn and smelled of child.
She decided to pretend that the old rules still applied. She hunkered down in her closet, back behind the laundry hamper where no one would see her, and curled up for a nap.
As the oldest girl in the orphanage, Betty usually didn’t pay much attention to the third-floor girls. She taught them the rules when they arrived, then left them alone. They stared at her when she sat down at their table at dinner.
“Hi Betty,” one of the girls said. Her name was Elise or Erica or something. Eliza. That was it. Eliza had been adopted but then “returned” for reasons that were not entirely clear. Rumor was she bit her adoptive older brother, and if that was true, the boy must have had it coming because the nuns didn’t punish her when she came back.
“Hi, Eliza,” Betty said, “I need to know what’s going on with the monsters.”
Anna smiled. She was four years old and had dimples that pretty much guaranteed she’d be adopted. “I can tell you! Teesa’s new daddy came to the attic yesterday and he got all the monsters and he shooted them — Bang! Bang!”
Anna and the other kids made shooting gestures. Betty had tried shooting at Bitey-Snake like that once, angling her hand to point under the bed before squeezing her thumb as the trigger, but it hadn’t worked. Only adults could kill monsters.
Catherine, the new girl, was practically bouncing out of her seat. “Now we don’t have to do all those silly monster rules anymore!”
Poor dumb third-floor kids. They didn’t realize the danger they were in. It didn’t matter if you got an adult to get rid of the monsters you knew about, there were always more. The treaty was the only thing that kept them safe. Now everyone was in danger of being eaten.
“Theresa’s new daddy didn’t get all the monsters,” Betty informed the little girls. The monsters from her room had escaped, and she suspected that all the monsters on the main floor had also been spared. That meant at least a dozen closets worth of monsters, and several of the older girls’ beds.
There was no way to get rid of all the monsters, even if they asked the nuns for help. No, she’d have to come up with some way to reinstate the treaty, and for that she’d need something to negotiate with. Prisoners, she decided. They’d need to set traps. She told the other girls her plan. “Get ready for bed, but after Sister Mary Gabriel checks on you, sneak down to the second floor. Come in pairs, and be as quiet as you can.”
It was a Monday, and after the children went to bed the nuns watched _I Love Lucy _on the black-and-white TV the Anglethorn family had donated to the Orphanage when they brought Eliza back. Their hearing was terrible, so they turned the volume up loud. They’d never notice that the girls were out of bed.
“I’ll take care of the rest,” Betty said.
Day turned into night, and Squelchy Saurus huddled in the back of her closet. She hadn’t heard Betty or Janet come in and go to bed, which was odd. Odder still, there were voices coming from the big common room across the hall. Children’s voices.
She strained to hear what the voices in the other room were saying, but slime from her head dripped into her ears, so her hearing wasn’t very good. She crept out of the closet and across the room. Suddenly Betty and Janet and several other girls came down the staircase from the third floor.
“The beds are ready,” Betty told the younger girls. “Now we wait for the monsters to make their move.”
So they waited, the children in the common room, and Squelchy — paralyzed by fear of discovery — just inside the doorway of Betty’s room. She chastised herself for being such a pitiful monster. The children should be afraid of her, not the other way around!
Finally, at four o’clock in the morning, the floor above the common room creaked under the weight of a herd of monsters. Led by Betty, the girls poured out of the common room. Thankfully, they hurried past Squelchy without stopping. Squelchy expected them to go upstairs, but instead they went down.
She listened for any sign of the children, and when she didn’t hear anything, she crept downstairs. The girls had found the end of the secret passageway — a fireplace in the front sitting room — and they’d covered it with the fireplace grate. They were now pushing furniture up against the grate. The nuns would be furious — the children weren’t technically allowed in that room at all.
Squelchy shuddered at the thought of furious nuns, but they were nowhere to be seen. Satisfied that the children were busy blocking the passageway, Squelchy went to the third floor, oozing so much from the effort that her feet made a squelching noise as she climbed.
On one side of the stairwell was the little girls’ bedroom, a long narrow room with a window on the far end. The white cupboard with the secret passageway was in the corner, doors wide open. There were two rows of beds, and each one had the enticing odor of a small child. The bleached-white sheets were rumpled, as though recently slept in.
Squelchy knew this was a trap — the beds had not been used tonight, and the children were blocking off the secret passageway. She hovered in the doorway. Under the bed nearest the door, Stabby Gnome clutched a pair of red rubber boots, coated in mud. Not something that would appeal to Squelchy, but Stabby Gnome was fond of boots, and having once been a garden gnome he often spoke wistfully of dirt.
The next bed was covered in colorful candy wrappers. Pink Fluffy Flesheater, lacking any childflesh to eat, was perched atop the headboard, chewing enthusiastically on a mouthful of toffees.
Several of the other beds were carefully arranged to attract monsters. Here a bed with a ragged stuffed animal, there a bed piled high with freshly washed towels. Then she saw it. Her bed. Betty knew her so well. The bed was littered with hair brushes, strands of hair woven all through the tines. She drooled big globs of drool that mixed with her general sliminess before dripping to the floor.
If she was quicker, she could grab the hairbrushes and come back out. If she was cleverer, she could think of some plan to get the brushes without getting trapped. But she wasn’t clever or quick or strong, so she backed away from the large bedroom. She heard the children coming up the stairs, so instead of going to Betty’s room, she went to the only other room on the third floor — the bathroom.
The children slammed the bedroom door shut. One of the older girls must have stolen the keys from Sister Mary Magdalene, because after the slam Squelchy heard jingling keys and the click of the bolt. Squelchy backed into the bathroom alcove, the worn white towels soaking up her slime.
She heard the children celebrating their victory. She was wondering what she should do next when she heard footsteps in the bathroom.
“I’m coming in, Squelchy,” Betty called, “I know you’re in there.”
Betty left the other girls in charge of guarding the door and went into the bathroom to talk to Squelchy Saurus. As monsters went, she wasn’t bad — slimy and oozy and unpleasant to look at, but also kind of shy. She was certainly better than Poison Bitey-Snake, who Betty was afraid of, even though she was too old to be afraid of monsters any more.
Squelchy was in the back of the alcove, sitting on a towel. A washcloth fell onto her back, and slowly slid down toward the pink tile floor, carried by the flow of slime.
“We need a new treaty,” Betty said, inching forward until the tips of her shoes were in neutral territory. With all the shelves, there wasn’t room for her to get all the way into the alcove, and she didn’t want to get too close to Squelchy anyway. She wondered if Allison had gotten all the way in. The Unsquishable Giant Cockroach was smaller than Squelchy, so there might have been room.
Squelchy crept forward and licked one of her shoes.
“Sorry, they smell yummy.” Squelchy backed away. “I can’t make a treaty. I’m not a leader.”
Betty knew she’d rather deal with Squelchy than any other monster, so she went and pounded on the bedroom door. “Okay, prisoners — either you can agree to be bound by whatever treaty I negotiate with Squelchy, or you will still be locked in here when the nuns come up to wake the girls.”
Monsters were afraid of grownups, and terrified of nuns. She hoped their fear would keep them from realizing that if the nuns found everyone out of bed, the girls were in worse trouble than the monsters.
The monsters discussed their options.
“We have voted, and we accept Squelchy as our representative,” said a raspy voice that probably belonged to Stabby Gnome.
“This is a bad idea,” Poison Bitey-Snake hissed. “Ssshe is not a clever monster, and the girl will trick her into thingsss we don’t want.”
Betty smiled and returned to the Bathroom Towel Alcove.
After an hour of negotiation, Squelchy was ready to sign. Most of the terms of the Second Treaty of the Bathroom Alcove were the same. The monsters kept their territory of under-the-beds and inside-the-closets, and would hide during the day and refrain from kidnapping and eating children so long as they stayed in bed. The children were allowed to get things from inside the closet during the day, and were not allowed to have monsters shot or otherwise killed.
The only thing different about the new treaty was that items under the bed would now be treated in the same way as items inside closets. During daylight hours, children would be allowed to retrieve them as long as the monsters were given ample warning beforehand. This seemed fair to Squelchy. Children had always been allowed into her territory, why shouldn’t they be allowed under the beds?
Satisfied with the terms, Squelchy picked up a crayon in her mouth and signed the bottom of the paper. Then she ate the crayon, which was crunchy and waxy and smelled a little bit like Betty.
Betty checked the hallway clock. The treaty was signed, and daytime rules were in effect. She read the treaty to the monsters locked in the bedroom. Janet and some of the other girls went downstairs to unblock the other end of the not-so-secret passageway. When the living room was back in order, Betty told the monsters that she would open the door in thirty seconds.
She counted to thirty. There was rustling on the other side of the door as monsters hurried to find hiding spots.
“I’m coming in,” she announced. The room was quiet and empty, and Betty stepped inside to make sure it was safe. Poison Bitey-Snake darted out from behind the door.
“Under the bed is my territory! Things down there are forever lossst!” he hissed, and bit her in the leg.
Squelchy charged into the bedroom when Betty yelped, and other monsters came out from under attic beds. Crushmonster and Pink Fluffy Flesheater subdued Bitey and threw him out the window.
Squelchy went to check on Betty.
“Will you move up here, now that the treaty is signed?” Betty asked, rubbing the spot where Bitey had bitten her. “You’ve earned the promotion.”
Squelchy shook her head. “I like my closet. I’ve got it all set up the way I like it.”
Janet went downstairs in search of Sister Mary Margaret, who was the most likely to help Betty without asking why everyone was out of bed. Squelchy snuck downstairs to her beloved second-floor closet.
She hid behind the laundry hamper when two nuns brought Betty in. They cleaned her leg and asked questions about the rat Betty claimed had bitten her. Squelchy waited quietly and hoped the towering figures in their scary black-and-white clothes wouldn’t notice that the closet door was ajar. Eventually, the nuns left.
Betty kicked off the covers and examined her leg. The area around the bite was red and irritated, but Poison Bitey-Snake looked (and acted) more poisonous than he actually was.
“I’m getting things from under the bed.” Betty announced, even though there weren’t any monsters under her bed. No one wanted Bitey’s old territory with so many nice third-floor beds available.
By convention, monsters and children weren’t supposed to talk to each other, but after retrieving her books Betty said, “I don’t need this book any more, I’ll toss it in the closet.”
The book hit the hamper and dropped to the closet floor. To Squelchy’s surprise, it wasn’t the children’s book that Betty had given up; it was the other one, Lolita. Poison Bitey-Snake had spent a lot of time reading that one. He almost never deigned to read the other one, the one about the rabbit that was so well loved that he became real.
Squelchy Saurus wondered if Betty would ever love her that much. It must be a wonderful thing, to be real. Could children love monsters? Squelchy suspected it was rare. But if Betty was leaving snacks for her, they were off to a good start.
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Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in August 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.
About the Author
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria and winner of the John W. Campbell Award, the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Her second book, The Winged Histories, is forthcoming in 2016. She co-edits the journal Interfictions and lives in California. You can find her at sofiasamtar.com and @SofiaSamatar.