Under the Bed

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Sid fights. His face is twisted up in a look of menace. He screams and struggles with the enemy. But he is tired of war.

The tides of war take him past a bed, in a ruined house.

A hand from under the bed reaches for his ankle.

He is tired of war. He lets it grasp him. He lets it pull him under. He plans to let it eat him, or carry him off, or whatsoever it is that boogeymen do.

But in the darkness he finds that he cannot let himself die.

There, under the bed, he is drawn to struggle once again. His hands form claws. He fights in darkness. It draws him deeper. Then, with one hand, he recovers a flashlight from his pocket and turns it on. He shines it below his face, which is still twisted in a horrible look of menace.

There is a scriddling and a scrabbling and the boogeyman is gone.

Sid sags. His arms are bleeding. One leg is half-shredded. He will not make his way back to the battle tonight.

He shines the flashlight around the space.

“It is more cavernous,” he says, “than I would have expected, under a bed.”

“Yes,” answers a voice. It is not the boogeyman’s voice. It is strangely human. He turns the flashlight towards the voice, and the light comes to rest on the face of an enemy soldier. The soldier wears a uniform. Her hair is close-cropped over a round face. Her eyes are squinty and her mouth is twisted into a horrible scowl. It is like the horrible faces that a child makes to scare her peers. Sid drifts the light away.

“Sid,” he says.

“Emily.”

He blinks. He processes her image again in his mind. “A woman?”

“Yes.”

“You’re no camp follower,” he says.

“It’s normal for a woman to stay out of the fighting,” she admits. “And just provide the cooties necessary to poison the armament.”

“It’s an effective contribution,” Sid says. “I lost a lot of my squad to cooties.”

“But I wanted to fight.”

“Girls shouldn’t—” Sid starts. Then he shrugs. “I guess once your face is stuck like that, there’s nothing to be done.”

“Yeah,” she says.

“Ever regret it?”

“No,” she says. “You?”

“It was an accident,” he admits. “I was just playing around. Making faces. And then one stuck. It wasn’t because I wanted to fight. It was just … something that happens to kids, sometimes.”

“Were you disappointed?”

“I was going to be a banker,” Sid says. “But it’s honest work, you know. To go out and scare the enemy with your twisted face, to protect your country. To have your face stuck in a horrible position, it makes you someone important. Someone who can fight. It’s good. It’s important. It’s necessary.”

“It is.”

There’s a bit of a silence.

“I cried for weeks,” Sid says. “And then more, every few months, every year as I grew up. It was just a stupid kid thing. ‘Let’s see what I look like with my cheeks puffed out and my eyes rolled back. I bet it’d be really scary!'”

“Scared the boogeyman good,” she says.

“And then I was stuck this way for the rest of my life.”

Sid looks down the boogeyman’s tunnel.

“Will it come back?”

“Dunno,” she says. “It tore me up pretty good, but then it must’ve sensed the cooties, ’cause it just left me here. Like it’s waiting for something. I guess maybe the cooties stop when you die.”

“Not in India,” Sid says. “There you actually get special dead flesh cooties.”

“Huh,” she says.

There’s another silence.

“That face isn’t such a bad look,” he says, “on you.”

There’s a soldier’s pride in her answer, then, sharp and angry. “Put your light back on my face and say that,” she dares him.

“I mean, you’re pretty.”

“Oh.”

She laughs. Her laughter comes in short gasps and then falls silent.

“Oh,” he agrees.

“If we could stand up,” she says, “and leave this place, I’d have to kill you. With my horrible face. You know.”

“I know,” says Sid. “But we can’t.”

He can sense her trying to smile.

“So I guess your face isn’t so bad, either,” she says.

“Thanks.”

“We could make wishes,” she says. “Maybe if we wish hard enough we won’t be here any more. I’ve been trying, and not much luck, but two wishers are better than one.”

There’s a silence.

“I can’t wish that,” says Sid. “I don’t want to go back.”

There is a soft sigh.

“I understand,” the enemy soldier says.

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Categories: Hitherby, Legends, On Wishes and Things That Grant Them, The Essential Sid