“But how can you have no socks?”
“It’s the sock monster, Dad.”
I dug through Sam’s drawer again. It wasn’t that there were no socks, it was that not many of them seemed to match, and the ones that did had holes in them. Big holes. Sliding on the rug in your stocking feet holes. I gave him my sternest look. “What’ve you been doing with all the socks?”
“It’s not me. It’s the sock monster.”
I sighed. “Well, you’re going to have to wear different socks.” I balled up a pair and tossed them across the room. Thomas the Tank Engine stared at me out of one mournful eye, a hole swallowing the other. “How about – one Ironman, one Hulk?”
Sam shrugged, and held his hand out. “I don’t care.”
“Good for you.” I gave him the socks and went to make sure the sock monster hadn’t been at the porridge.
The days always go so quick. I ran out the door that afternoon, cursing myself for forgetting that we needed to go shopping and I had to drive. It always takes longer to drive to school – all the parents out in their stupid damn people carriers, double parking and waving and air kissing. My poor old car clattered and belched exhaust fumes and stalled at the lights, and when I finally pulled into the pick-up area there was a grim-looking woman standing next to Sam, holding his arm at a too-high angle, like a teddy bear being hauled about by a careless toddler. I swung out of the car, waving. Sam waved back enthusiastically – I guess I’ve still got a couple of years before he’s impossibly embarrassed by me.
“Sam! Sorry I’m late – traffic. Let’s go!”
“Mr Moore, a word?”
I tried on a flirty sort of smile. “I can’t leave the car here -”
“It won’t take a moment.” Her face had the same sharp angles as her shoulders, hair terrified into submission.
I sighed, and closed the car door. “What can I do for you, Mrs Jones?” Who’s called Jones? I mean, really? It’s like Mr Smith.
“We had sport today -”
“Oh, no – oh. No, I packed your gear, didn’t I, Sam?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but the teacher talked straight over him. Nice. “His socks, Mr Moore. His socks were in a deplorable condition.”
I had a momentary image of a basketful of socks jumping around, supporting Trump, and had to bite the inside of my cheek to hide a smile. “I don’t understand – his PE gear’s washed after every class.”
“They were clean.” She glared at me, as if I’d somehow disappointed her, and I fought the urge to put my hands behind my back and bow my head, the naughty kid being told off after class.
“Then I’m afraid I still don’t understand.”
She whipped a hand from behind her back and brandished a small white sock in front of me, damning evidence of my failure. “Look at this, Mr Moore. Do you understand now?”
I stared at the sock, which had most certainly been in one piece when I tucked it into its brother and zipped it into Sam’s backpack. The toe swung forlornly, just a few threads attaching it to the foot, as if someone had tried to turn it into a very small legwarmer.
“Mr Moore? Do you see that this is unacceptable?”
I took the sock and shoved it in my pocket, my chest tight with shame and rage. How dare she? Out here, in front of everyone, waving a perfectly clean sock at me like a murder weapon, like indelible proof of my lack. “I’m very sorry, Mrs Jones,” I said, my voice as level as I could make it. “I don’t understand how this happened.”
“It’s not me you need to apologise to,” she said, and pushed Sam in front of her. His face twisted with irritation, and I crouched in front of him.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “It’s the sock monster. She,” and he jerked his head with great disdain towards Mrs Jones, “She doesn’t believe in it. She says it’s carelessness.”
I looked up at the teacher, trying to keep my expression friendly. “Carelessness?”
“The evidence speaks for itself.” Her mouth was a tight wound in her face. “I feel you may be over-stretching, keeping him at this school.”
I bared my teeth in something that I hoped passed as a smile. “I appreciate the feedback, Mrs Jones. Have a lovely afternoon.” And I took my son’s small hand in mine and went back to my rust-stained, dented car, my head as high as I could carry it. There wasn’t much else I could do.
We had mac and cheese for dinner, sitting at the little kitchen bar while Sam told a convoluted tale involving various classmates, and I wondered glumly how long I could keep him in the school. It wasn’t easy on freelance wages. But going full-time, even if I could find a position, meant after school care, and I didn’t want to do that. By my figuring I’d have to land a bloody good job to make it worthwhile, anyway.
“You’re not listening,” Sam accused me.
“I – no. I’m sorry. I wasn’t.”
“Are you worried about the sock monster?”
“Should I be worried about the sock monster?”
“What if she eats all the new socks?”
“The sock monster’s a she?”
Sam gave me the exasperated look only seven-year-olds seem to have really mastered. “Why not?”
“Well, very true. I imagine being a sock monster is an equal opportunity position.”
He snorted – probably more at my stupidity than at my pathetic joke – and slid off his stool, carrying his bowl carefully to the sink. “I don’t think we should have put the new socks in the drawer.”
I watched him rinse his bowl and put it in the dishwasher, still well-crusted with cheese. “I’m sure the sock monster only likes old socks.”
He frowned. “But new socks are nicer.”
“Maybe to us, but sock monsters probably have different tastes.”
He gave a very adult sigh. “I hope you’re right. I don’t want to have to go through the sock thing with Mrs Jones again.”
“Sam, I won’t be angry. Just tell me the truth.”
“It wasn’t me! I told you we shouldn’t have put the new socks in there!”
He was close to tears, and I wasn’t far off either. I’d picked up a pair of brand new socks, still chatting happily, and unrolled them to find one had a hole in the heel, the other one under the foot. The next pair had holes in the toes, the next tiny tears like they’d been run over a grater, and all of them, all of them were unusable. I pinched the bridge of my nose, imagining Mrs Jones grinning humorlessly over this latest evidence of my poor parenting skills. “Sam, there’s no lies in this house. You know that, right?”
“I’m not lying!” He screamed it at me, tears spilling onto his pink cheeks. I shook the socks at him, hating myself for it.
“Then what’s this? What did you use? Scissors? Why? Why, Sam?”
“I didn’t do anything! It was the monster! It was!”
I stared at him as his words dissolved into a wail, and realised that he believed it. He really believed it. I dropped the socks and scooped him off the bed, skinny arms and legs everywhere, hugging him to my chest. “Shh,” I said, kissing his forehead as he tried to push me away. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I should have believed you. It’s okay. It’s okay.” I sank into his solar system sheets and rocked him, surrounded by distant stars, fear, and confusion.
I called the school and told them Sam was sick, then took him to the local surgery. The GP checked him over cursorily – taking his temperature and peering into his eyes with her little eye thing, listening to his chest, then smiled at him and said he could wait outside. He looked at me questioningly, and I nodded, waiting until the door snicked shut before I looked at the doctor.
She sighed and went behind her desk to sit down, distancing herself from me. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”
“Okay, but this behaviour -”
“Chopping up socks?”
“He’s blaming it on monsters. Lying.”
She gave me the knowing smile of a parent who’s been there, seen that. “Hardly unusual. You might want to look at how much time you’re spending with him, though. In my experience, this sort of thing tends to just be attention seeking.”
I leaned back in my chair and watched her clicking the keys with her short, sensible nails. It all sounds so simple when it’s not your kid. When it’s not your life.
Friday night is fish’n’chip night, and we ate in front of the telly, making chip butties out of white bread and lashings of ketchup. Sam giggled his way through the whole meal, perfectly happy to have an unexpectedly long weekend. I wasn’t as happy – I’d managed to persuade the GP to give me a note, but it’d be another black mark. The dear Mrs Jones had sent me a clipped, formal email that all but implied I’d kept Sam home because I couldn’t care for him properly. She very sweetly reiterated the school’s uniform and attendance policies, and suggested that maybe I needed to think about other options if I couldn’t stick to them. I wrote a very angry reply that included my own suggestions about what she could do with her advice, then deleted it. It made me feel better, though.
Now I picked up our greasy plates and pointed Sam at the stairs. “Go wash up. Don’t touch anything on the way, alright?”
“Alright!” He bounced off the couch and upstairs, sounding like a small, pyjama-clad elephant.
I was stacking the dishwasher when his voice floated down to me. “Dad?”
“I think the monster’s been.” His voice was wobbly, frightened, and I dumped the plates unceremoniously, taking the stairs two at a time. He was standing in the doorway of his room, soap suds still smeared on his knuckles, shoulders hunched towards his ears. He looked up at me fearfully. “I didn’t do it,” he whispered. “I didn’t.”
I stared past him, into his room. It had been tidy when I’d come to pull the curtains, toys stacked in their corner, books away on their shelves. Now socks were strewn across the floor, scraps of torn fabric littering the carpet like the scales of some unusual, decimated fish. The windows were closed. The doors were locked.
I put a hand on top of Sam’s head. “Stay here.” I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt. I edged into the room cautiously, checking behind the curtains, rattling the windows on their latches. Nothing. I opened the cupboard, then crouched at a safe distance to check under the bed. There was nothing but an alarming amount of dust bunnies and an old book. But he hadn’t had time. Had he? Maybe when I was writing my fuming email? Had he done it then, hidden the evidence, and just thrown them out of the drawer now? That must be it. It had to be. I ran my hands back over my hair, looking at the eviscerated socks. There went another ten pounds, and it meant we’d have to go shopping again tomorrow. I closed my eyes, took a shaky breath, and said, “It’s okay. I think the monster’s gone.”
Sam ran to me, wrapping his arms around my waist. “Why?” he demanded, and I could see tears on his cheeks. “Why’s she doing this?”
“I don’t know,” I told him honestly, and crouched so I could hug him. “But it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” He started to cry while I rubbed his back, feeling the skinny knobbles of his spine under my hand, and hoped I wasn’t lying.
There’s this romantic notion of what it’s like to share a bed with your kid, but it never works that way in my experience, especially when you’re both trying to fit into one kiddie-size bed. Which is why I was awake when I heard it. Sam was snoring, and had just hit me in the face with an out-flung arm, so I was lying there staring at the ceiling with a smarting eye when I heard chewing. My breathing stopped, just stopped, as if I’d forgotten how to do it, and I heard the scrape of a drawer being pulled a little further open, a gulping swallow, then more chewing. I slid my hand towards the edge of the bed as carefully as I could, resisting the urge to sit up and shout. The chewing stopped and I froze, taking deep, slow breaths, a dreamer in the depths of sleep. After a moment there was the scrape of something hard – nails? – and the sound of tearing fabric, and the chewing started again. I resumed my slow-motion reach for the light, too wary of disturbing the intruder to turn and look at him. What kind of freak was this, anyway? He’d been sneaking into my son’s room, going through his drawers? I’d tear his head off.
My hand had made it to the switch on the light cord. This was it. I’d only get one chance – light on and jump, and don’t think about whether he was armed or not. Some weirdo climbing into kids’ bedrooms to chew on socks, probably not. I’m not the biggest guy, but I was pretty sure my fury right then was going to be enough. I hit the light and jumped.
The dog-sized thing standing on its back legs, rooting through the sock drawer, turned horrified yellow eyes on me, enormous pupils contracting as the light hit it. It screamed, I screamed, and Sam sat up on the bed and joined in. My jump was off, because I’d assumed I was about to tackle a full-sized human, so I bounced off the chest of drawers as the creature dropped to all fours, and almost landed on top of it. It screamed again, and swiped at me with nasty-looking claws that just missed my nose, then I was scrabbling to get hold of it. It moved like a cat, all muscular wriggling and slick fur, nothing to get a grip on, thrashing around with those horrible talons while I bellowed abuse and Sam kept screaming, and it hissed and spat and swore right back at me. And then, somehow, I had its throat in one hand, my fingers almost meeting at the back of its neck, my other hand trapping its powerful back legs down so it couldn’t disembowel me, its front paws scrabbling at my arms, shredding my t-shirt and tearing the skin.
“Stop it!” I shouted. “Stop it right now, or I swear to god I’ll snap your neck!”
It stopped, eyes narrowing, and I could see the rapid rise and fall of its chest, hear its panting breath. It smelled faintly of fabric softener and dust.
“Dad! Dad-dee!” Sam was shrieking, and both the monster and I looked up at the bed. He had a pillow in his hands and looked like he wasn’t sure who to throw it at.
“It’s okay, Sam. It’s okay. You go downstairs.”
“No!” He screamed the word at me – at both of us. “The monster’ll take you away and then I won’t have anyone!”
“Oh, Sammy -” I wanted to scoop him up off the bed, to assure him I wasn’t going anywhere, but I couldn’t let go of the creature. “Okay. You sit right there, alright? No closer.”
He sobbed something incoherent, but stayed where he was, and I looked back at the monster. It glared at me.
“Have you been stealing Sam’s socks?” I asked. It blinked at me, then pointed at its neck. I could feel its throat move under my hand, and I eased my grip carefully. It swallowed, eyes squinting in pain, and I tried to convince myself that I didn’t feel guilty. “Don’t try anything,” I warned it.
It rolled its eyes. “Considering you still have a death grip on me, what am I supposed to try?” Its voice was unexpectedly musical and quite certainly female. Her, then.
“I dunno,” I said. “Monster stuff. Magic, whatever.”
“Monsters aren’t magical.” She touched my hand, the pads of her paws smooth. Her claws had retracted. “Please. That’s really hurting.”
I tightened my grip. “You would say that. What, I let you go and you attack us?”
She gagged, eyes rolling in alarm, and Sam gave an unhappy little wail. I eased the weight of my hand. They were both looking at me reproachfully, and I flushed. “You might have!”
“If I wanted to do that,” the monster whispered, “I’ve had plenty of chances. You’re the one that jumped me!”
I stayed where I was for a moment, then groaned and sat back, letting her go. “Don’t try and run,” I warned her.
She nodded, pushing herself up onto one elbow. “Not much point. You’ve seen me now.” Her voice was raspy, and I gave up pretending I didn’t feel bad. In truth, I felt ridiculously guilty.
“Here,” Sam said, and offered her the glass of water from his bedside table. She took it gratefully in both hands, long hair swinging like a fringe from her arms as she drank.
“Thank you,” she said when she’d finished. “That’s better. So – what’s it going to be?”
“What’s – what d’you mean? Why are you eating our socks?”
She stared at me. “That? You attacked me for that?”
“Well, you were sneaking around our house,” I pointed out, offended.
“I’m a monster. It’s kind of in the job description.”
“You have a job description?” I was starting to feel very strongly that the mushy peas has been off and this was all some weird hallucination.
“Yeah. We start with sock or pen stealing, then graduate through under-bed haunting, closets, and finally attics and basements. Indoor monsters, that is.”
“Well, yeah. Bridge monsters are too clumsy for the fine work, water monsters can’t, obviously -” she stopped as I held up a hand. “What, you didn’t know?”
“Monsters don’t exist,” I told the monster sitting on the bedroom floor, and she rolled her eyes like she’d been spending a lot of time in teenagers’ bedrooms.
“Yeah, clearly.” She sat up, claws popping out and making me draw back in alarm. She gave me a peevish look, and started grooming the tangles out of her thick coat. “So you obviously don’t know what happens when you catch a monster.”
Well, what the hell. “What happens when you catch a monster?”
“You get to wish the monster onto someone else,” she said patiently, worrying at a particularly stubborn knot. “Honestly, humans. How do you get through life without falling into troll-holes, or tripping over pixie mounds?”
I squeezed the bridge of my nose. Monsters and pixies and trolls, oh my. “What if we just want you to go away?”
“Doesn’t work that way. I got assigned this house. I can only leave if you wish me on someone else’s.”
“Is there – is there a monster under my bed, too?” Sam whispered.
She gave him a wide smile, surprisingly sweet for the teeth it revealed. “No, kiddo. And – don’t let on you know – even if there was, you don’t have to be scared of them. They only eat dust bunnies and burglars.”
“Burglars?” he repeated, awe-struck.
“Absolutely.” She winked at me, and I felt my lips drawing into a answering grin. God, I needed to get some friends. I was bonding with a sock monster.
“So – we just have to give you an address?” I asked.
“Not even that. A name will do.”
My grin widened. It couldn’t hurt. Hallucination or not, it couldn’t hurt. “I can work with that.”
And now you’re expecting me to say, and that was the last we saw of the sock monster.
Only it wasn’t.
I know you’ve guessed who we sent her to – but what I hadn’t actually realised, through my own fear and anxiety and put-upon-ness, was that Mrs Jones was less hard and more brittle. Fragile. By the end of term she’d had to be removed from the classroom, because she was making all her students take their shoes off so she could examine their socks for holes, and burst into hysterical tears when she was the only one in the room with laddered tights. There was indefinite leave and hospitalisation for exhaustion, counselling for the kids (although, as Sam pointed out, they’d all just found it hilarious. They needed counselling for the pre-sock monster Mrs Jones), and a round, bubbly substitute was brought in, opposite in every way it was possible to be. Her name – I swear I’m not making this up – was Miss Smith.
We visited Mrs Jones in the hospital a few times – we both felt guilty about the sock monster thing. I hadn’t thought she’d take it so badly. She was very sweet to us both, her hair a loose halo on her shoulders, voice softened by medication. She said she didn’t get many visitors. I offered to water her plants, and she was so grateful that I felt guilty all over again.
The sock monster was investigating the remnants of Mrs Jones’ stockings when I flicked the light on. She hissed, spinning around, then stopped as she saw me propped up on the bed.
“You,” she said, sounding more resigned than angry. “What, you going to send me to drive some other poor soul crazy?”
“No,” I said. “I want you to come back.”
She looked puzzled. “Why?”
“Because when she comes home, you can’t be here. And I can’t wish you on anyone else. It’s not right.”
She thought about it for a moment. “Well, there’s no law saying you can’t wish me back on yourself. I just don’t think anyone’s ever done it before.”
“There’s a first for everything. Do I need to actually catch you?”
“Oh, no. Please don’t.” She looked distressed, and I sighed. Man of the year, me. Even scaring monsters.
I got up, and said, “See you there, then?”
“Sure.” She was already sliding under the bed. I tipped a salute to a portrait of the late Mr Jones, and left.
So, right now, the sock monster (her name is Delilah), is watching TV with Sam. She graduated to dust bunnies quite quickly, which makes life easier – I’ve got plenty of those, and keeping the whole house in socks was getting quite expensive. As soon as I’ve finished this, I’ll shepherd them upstairs, and we’ll read a bedtime story – Delilah loves them even more than Sam does. She says stories matter, and telling them matters even more so. She says stories are how we shape the world. She listens avidly, her orange eyes as wide as Sam’s brown ones, and never interrupts or stops me. Unless I pick up the wrong story, that is – she gets quite upset about the inaccuracies and prejudicial attitudes towards monsters.
And some nights I’ll deliberately pick up the wrong book, because then she’ll snatch it out of my hands and tell her own stories, stories of myth and magic and the blurred boundaries of our world, stories of belief and trust and hope. Stories that tell me the world has a different shape to what I always imagined.
Stories like the one I’m telling you now.