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Ermynegarde knows there's something waiting for her.
An only child, she had a room to herself and a king bed far too large for a child her age. And she was sure that underneath this bed, there was something waiting for her every night.
Her parents’ room was all the way down the dark, narrow hall from hers, and Ermynegarde was not the kind of child to complain of night fears anyway. She was not inclined to screaming or crying, and she knew that even if she did breach the subject, her parents would smile at her quaint concerns, pat her head fondly, and send her off to bed insisting that monsters didn’t exist.
So every night, Ermynegarde struggled into her oversized bed and listened to the dry rustling beneath her dust ruffle.
On one such night, she was lying with the covers pulled up to her chin, holding her breath to avoid the musky stench that only she could seem to smell, flinching at the clicking of talons against the floor . . . and finally this queer child - already more pragmatic than most adults she knew - decided that she could not ignore the issue any longer.
She gathered her courage, tightening her weak, tiny grip on the comforter, and solemnly whispered, “I know you’re under there.”
There was no reply, but a slight creaking of the floor as the hidden beast shifted its weight back and forth. Finally, a voice crawled up from beneath the bed - a voice like marbles skittering across glass. Well . . . well, I . . . I know you’re up there, too!
Ermynegarde was so startled, both by the fact that it had spoken and that what it said was so ridiculous, that she broke out in soft peals of laughter. Such a display of emotion was rare for the sober, somber five-year-old. But she suddenly caught herself and straightened her face again. “Why are you here?” she asked quietly.
Because this is where I live, the monster replied. Ermynegarde thought it sounded puzzled, and she accepted its explanation as reasonable.
“And what do you want from me?”
The monster considered, rumbling softly in the back of its wide throat. If I tell you, you’ll be frightened.
Ermynegarde swallowed softly and tried to be courageous. “I’ve been scared until now anyway,” she said, “so a bit more can’t hurt.”
It grunted (whether in approval or dismissal, she couldn’t tell). Then it cleared its throat. Your innocence, it stated simply,
And Ermynegarde found she wasn’t frightened at all, because she didn’t understand at all. “Why?”
So full of questions, the monster thought gruffly. But it obliged her curiosity, mainly because conversation was a remarkable novelty for him. Because it’s what monsters feed on. I will wait until you are old enough, then devour that sliver of your heart.
Ermynegarde shivered violently, and it could feel the movement through the mattress. Still, it continued. Then you will no longer be a child, and I’ll move on to another child’s bed.
“So you need to eat . . . to eat that . . . or you’ll die?” She couldn’t keep a quaver out of her small, thin voice.
No response. Ermynegarde took its silence to mean affirmation.
“So if I refused to let you” - the monster rolled its many eyes, as she seemed to misunderstand the concept of being devoured, but didn’t interrupt - “then that would be murder, wouldn’t it?”
More silence. More affirmation.
“Well,” she said slowly, “is that how . . . how all grown-ups lose their innocence?”
Most. Unless their innocence is taken too early, by something other than a monster.
Ermynegarde considered that carefully. “Then Mother and Father lost theirs, and do fine without . . . and so did the maid, and the teacher at school . . .” She stared at the ceiling, her queer grey-green eyes too mature for her soft, round face. “Then I shall do without as well,” she announced decisively.
Now the monster was startled. It seemed to it that somehow, this strange girl was accepting it - in her own odd little way.
Well, it said brusquely, maybe . . . maybe you should get some sleep?
“I usually do,” Ermynegarde replied gravely. She closed her eyes, but paused to ask one more question. “Are you a boy monster or a girl monster?”
I am male.
She gave a sleepy sigh and tightened the covers around her shoulders. “What’s your name?”
There was a long pause. I don’t remember, he finally said. No one’s ever asked.
“Tell me when you remember,” she yawned. And then there was nothing but her breathing, and the creaking of the mattress, and the rustle of scales and the crackle of matted fur beneath.
And as the monster lurked, his many spider-like eyes blinking all at different speeds, his pointed purple tongue flickering behind his rows of serrated teeth, he realized he’d been enchanted. Ensnared by this bizarre child who was curious about his name. And he decided then and there that until the fatal act, up until the last second before he tore that most precious part from her heart, up to the penultimate moment before ripped her soul and her childhood asunder, he would protect her.
The next night, Ermynegarde went to bed armed with more questions.
“What do you look like?”
Why don’t you come look for yourself?
Ermynegarde shook her head, though she knew he couldn’t see the gesture. “If I get out of bed, and I get on my hands and knees, and I stick my head under there - how do I know you won’t tear my face right off?”
The monster laughed, the sound of a thousand shrieking rusty gates. A valid point.
“Where did you come from?”
I was born of the darkness in the minds of adults - the lack of innocence. Most monsters are. Maybe that’s why we feed on innocence; because we have none of our own.
“Do you remember your name yet?”
He clicked his talons in rhythm against the bedframe, making her giggle. I think it’s Ambrose.
“That’s a nice name.” She tapped on her headboard with him, trying to match his pattern. “I’m Ermynegarde.”
I know. I hear people talking outside of this room. He made the rhythm more complicated, and she lost track of it, giggling even more.
“We should talk like this every night,” she murmured. A little yawn escaped her lips. “Goodnight, Ambrose.”
He stopped tapping and rested his massive chin on his paws. Goodnight, Ermynegarde.
And they did talk every night. Nights became weeks, weeks became months.
Over and over again. And finally the two stumbled across Ermynegarde’s sixth birthday.
“Ambrose, when do I lose my innocence?” she asked. Though she did not want him to realize it, she was anxious. Anxious about how much time they had left.
It varies . . . it depends completely on the child. Ambrose chewed on one of his talons, using his free paw to groom the venomous sting at the end of his long, scaly tail. I’ve had as young as eight years old and as old as sixteen. By around seven years old, though, most children stop believing in me. I don’t scare them anymore, those last few years, he sighed.
“Well, I’m still terrified of you,” Ermynegarde offered kindly, as way of consolation.
Ambrose thanked her, and allowed himself a private smile at this sweet, naïve little lie.
Another year and she was seven, in her third year of school. She excelled (of course) and she had absolutely no friends (of course). She was pretty enough, with her ringlets of ash-blonde hair and her solemn, imperious eyes, but she knew being pretty only collared favor with grown-ups. Children only wanted you to be fun to play with.
“There’s a beast under my bed named Ambrose,” she remarked to one of her classmates. “I sneak him orange peels at night. He doesn’t like them, but he eats them anyway to be polite.”
Word quickly spread that Ermynegarde was not a desirable playmate.
She didn’t mind. Her monster was the only company she needed.
Birthdays, however, now held a pall of dread for both of them. Most children couldn’t wait to grow up. Ermynegarde, however, felt that each day brought her closer to the death of love.
On the night of the dreaded eighth birthday, Ermynegarde realized with a jolt that even after almost two years of vespertine companionship, she still hadn’t the faintest idea what Ambrose looked like. She had postulations, of course, half-formed theories and hazy mental images comprised of equal parts stereotypes, nightmares, and Maurice Sendak illustrations.
What are you thinking about? Ambrose asked, and she realized she had been quiet for quite some time.
“Ambrose . . .” She sat up, feeling the squeak and sway of her mattress, her hair frosted silver by the watery moonlight that splashed through the gap in her curtains. Hesitating, nervous, she let first one foot, then the other, touch the wood floor.
She could feel his hot, acrid breath on her ankles.
“Ambrose, she said again, her voice a little more confident now. She slowly kneeled, her legs disappearing into the folds of her nightdress as it pooled on the floor. “Do you remember when I said I wouldn’t look at you because I was afraid you’d hurt me?”
He rumbled softly. Yes.
Slowly, slowly, Ermynegarde slid down until her eyes were just above the edge of the dust ruffle. She touched it lightly, pulling it up a fraction of an inch with one extended finger. “Well, I . . . I trust you . . . not to do that.”
Ambrose realized that, all that time ago, she had not been lying when she said she was terrified of him.
“I trust you,” she repeated softly. And she lifted the fabric.
Dozens of mucus-crusted eyes stared back at her. The fur of his snout was matted with filth and peppered with mange. His teeth shone wetly, and dirt and blood were thickly crusted beneath his long, yellow talons. His scales were rotted and molting. The stench of musk and blood and waste was overpowering.
Are you afraid? he whispered.
“Yes,” she breathed back.
One shaking hand reached out, into the unknown of the dry, reeking darkness. Her fingers met one of his horizontal horns. She brushed away the clotted, crusty gore and stroked the bony keratin cautiously. She realized that this was his first time seeing her face, as well.
Ambrose was trembling.
She moved her hand to his taut jowl, sliding her fingers into the feculent, tangled fur, feeling the vague warmth of his bumpy black skin.
He opened his mouth to say something. Suddenly Ermynegarde snapped her hand back, eyes wide, heart pounding. Ambrose quickly clamped his jaws together, hiding his teeth, ashamed. She crawled back into bed.
He could feel her shaking through the mattress. After that, she never touched him again, and to the end they never spoke of that night - not once.
Ermynegarde was thirteen and still innocent. She had grown into a beautiful young woman, with a full head of sleek, curly blonde hair and stern, flashing eyes like Athene. Ambrose, her only love and her best friend, had grown only uglier over time.
He caught glimpses of her sometimes, or at least of her slim ankles and delicate feet. He never ventured out from under the bed. Many, many, many nights, he had struggled with the temptation to creep out and watch her sleep, but he was afraid she would wake to see him looming over her. It was safest to stay hidden.
“Ambrose, my dear friend,” she whispered one evening.
“I’m going out tonight!” He could hear the excitement bubbling in her voice, a shocking change from her usual calm monotone. He didn’t reply, waiting for her to go on.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed, and he could see her lithe fingers flashing as she laced up her ankle boots. She was still petite enough that, from the height of that massive king bed, her toes dangled a half-inch above the floor. “I’m going to the nickel cinema with a boy in my class . . .”
There was a soft, shy smile in her voice. Ambrose’s insides were shattering, slowly and precisely. He cleared his throat. That sounds like it will be fun.
“I hope so! His name is Edgar . . .” She continued enthusiastically as she brushed her hair, but the words ran together to him. He watched the loose strands of her ashy-blonde hair waft to the floor.
Edgar was a name that sounded like death.
After the movie, Edgar offered to walk her home, and she accepted. He was a quiet, serious boy, the perfect match for quiet, serious Ermynegarde.
It was dark out, overcast and cold. The only illumination was the greasy yellow-orange light of the gas lamps.
The man appeared out of the alleyway like a lightning flash. There was barely time to think. Edgar attempted to defend Ermynegarde and was swiftly knocked unconscious against the sidewalk. The man fell upon Ermynegarde.
She did not scream. She did not cry. She did not beg for her life. She was not inclined to those sorts of things. Ermynegarde simply squeezed her eyes shut, ignored the pain and the horror and the fear as well as she could, and wished that Ambrose had devoured her sooner.
And then Ermynegarde was in the dark.
She didn’t come home that night.
The next morning there were voices outside the door, barely audible over the wailing of Ermynegarde’s mother. Ambrose listened, mad with anxiety, as unfamiliar voices discussed “that poor Edgar boy” who “didn’t remember a thing after being assaulted, didn’t even catch a glimpse of the man’s face, but they’re questioning him as a suspect, you know” and “Oh her poor parents must be mad with worry, oh good lord if that was my little girl I don’t know what I’d do.”
The next night, new voices where discussing where the police had found the body.
The night after that, policemen came into Ermynegarde’s room, picked up those stray strands of hair, searched for evidence, and discussed the crime between themselves in agonizing detail.
They left and Ambrose was alone.
Those shattered pieces that were still lodged within him since three days ago seemed to move in him now. They lacerated and ripped and tore and hurt until the Ambrose lurking under a dead child’s bed was a very different Ambrose than the one who played silly midnight games with a five-year-old.
The pain turned into agony and the agony turned into rage, and that rage became a fierce, brutal need for violence. It coiled in his stomach and sparked off his talons and leaked from his body in his putrid breath.
He emerged. He fled. He could taste Ermynegarde’s scent through the heavy rain, tainted with blood and tears and sweat and evil. And he followed it until he found himself hiding in the shadow of a man.
This man didn’t have time to scream, because the monster tore off his jaw with the first swipe.
The blood of a rapist was splashed across the slick dark street, running in ever-weakening rivulets with the rain towards a storm that would eventually swallow it, along with its history - the handiwork of a monster who had just learned the true definition of the name.