The night was a starless one in late summer, the type when you leave the windows open for a cool breeze and the crickets lull you to sleep.
Charley knew the danger.
“Mommy, you can’t close the curtains all the way. If you leave one open They can’t get in.”
“Charlotte, honey, the streetlights are too bright. You won’t sleep. You still have your nightlight.”
So the curtain was closed, the blue-green faded ballerina light was turned on. Charley was tucked into bed with a brush of a kiss and a pat on the head. She closed her eyes to a slit, her whole being set for action, as her mother closed the door.
Charley was out of bed in a heartbeat, padding like a cat across the muddy carpet. She knew the urgency.
A breeze wafted the curtain, throwing splatters of light from the streetlamp to the ceiling. The crickets droned. She had ten seconds at most.
Breathless, she tied her blanket tight around her neck, draping it skillfully to the floor. She felt on the third shelf of the bookcase for her tiara, frantic, grasping. Philemon lifted his fuzzy head with the blank stare of the recently awakened.
“Philly, They’re coming.”
Philemon blinked three times, slowly. Then alarm entered his black eyes. Charley had her tiara on.
The curtain suddenly stopped hovering and fell back, hanging like a dead thing from the gallows. The knife-edge of lamplight disappeared.
Charley whirled, reaching desperately behind the bookcase, shielding the nightlight with her pink cloak.
Fingers of darkness began soaking the edge of the window, like a towel catching water from an overflowing bath. Slowly, slowly, at first, then more quickly until the stain was almost a foot wide on every side. The air was still, offensive, and Charley covered her mouth with a corner of her cloak to filter it.
Philemon T. Bear leapt from the bed to her side, his small form growing to child-size as he landed. He turned to the window and produced a heart-shaped shield of red metal, emblazoned with his family’s coat of arms.
“As many as last night.”
The stain grew to two feet.
“Or… maybe more.”
Click. Shuffle. Creak.
To the untrained eye, the change was subtle. Charley knew the signs, knew to look for the places where emptiness replaced darkness, and saw the claws grasping the edge, the dribbling tentacles slip to the floor, the horns, the teeth, the eyeless heads.
Philemon held, readying his weapons. Her hand found what it had been looking for.
The Nightmares gathered at the corners of the window, cautious, smelling the air and reaching out. In her favor was that they couldn’t see her, being eyeless, and they always assumed, being witless, that she would be in her bed.
Philemon growled low. Their heads snapped toward him, and silently the bodies followed.
The Nightmares heard her. They moved more quickly toward the corner.
Philemon stretched his bow as she threw back her cloak. The warm glow of the nightlight blasted the first two rows of Nightmares into ash. The back rows fell to the edges of the glow, clicking and gnashing their empty teeth at them, but couldn’t escape the first salvo from Philemon’s bow.
Philemon had recently sharpened his extensive collection of Crayolas, and now put them to good use. A tentacled mass was decimated in midair by Forest Green, and Electric Pink snuffed out the scuttling blight to his left.
Charley drew her wand, acquired at great price ($2.25 plus tax) from a street fair vendor two weeks earlier, and lit it by whacking the head off a snaky blot who’d slid past the line. The red and blue flashing lights confused the demons, and the rubber spikes hardened to titanium in her hand. The flying ones attempted dives at her head but rebounded back from her crown.
She cut down great swaths of Nightmares, leaping and spinning, stabbing and swatting, Philemon by her side, firing Tangerine’s and Cherry Red’s into the heart of the horde. Together they whirled around the room, by the bookcase, atop the table, bouncing from the bed. Her heart sung in her chest as each fell, and their numbers could not dismay her.
Until the nightlight flickered.
She glanced back at it, doubtful, and tread on her cloak.
Her blanket slid from her back. She fell, it seemed in slow motion, from the bed, landing on Philemon and crushing two crayons and her tiara beneath her. Her wand slipped in the process, and landed a foot from her wild hands. It flashed twice, and with no further impact to keep it alight, went dark.
The nightlight flickered again, and the Nightmares, sensing weakness, grew larger, closer, substantial.
Philemon struggled out from under her and leapt to the fore, his shield blazing red as he took a blow meant for her.
“Quick, take my cloak.”
The sturdy knit shrunk in her hands to the size of a doll’s blanket, useless.
“Milady, you must believe!”
Charley slid to the wall, setting her back to it and turning her face from the darkness. Philemon leaped to her, smaller, smaller, his shield slipping. The Nightmares cackled in triumph, flaunting their growing reality, and closed in.
Charley cried out.
The door swung open. Life-giving lamplight scattered the closest monsters into nothing, and the others cringed. Charley looked.
Her mother, framed in glory, stepped brazen into the fray, broom in hand. She swept back the horde, catching a web-winged object full in the face and laying a spiky hulk flat into fragments. Charley recovered enough to retrieve her wand, and knocked the nearest many-legged creature into the bookcase. It exploded to absence with a satisfying splorch.
In seconds it was over. Her mother lifted Charley in her arms and held her, stroking her hair.
Charley clung to her for a good while. Being five (almost six), of course, she didn’t really need that long, but she wanted her mother to feel needed too… Eventually, her mother carried her to bed, fished the blanket from behind the bed, and tucked her in tight.
“I’m always here.”
She picked up the broken pieces of warfare from the floor and placed them on a shelf. Then she dusted Philemon off, set his shield right, tied off his cloak, and slid him in next to Charley. Charley held him tight, her stalwart, and whispered.
“Th… the nightlight is going out.”
Her mother saw the flickering and exited, returning in moments with a new bulb. The light now shone steady.
“Charley, I’m here with you. Even when you can’t see me, I’m here.”
A snuggle. A kiss. A whispered love. And she was gone. But she left a spell of protection behind her in the room, one which the Nightmares couldn’t break. The darkness seeped away, and the night breeze wafted the streetlight’s glow onto the ceiling.
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”
G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles