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"P" Is for "Phobia"

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I don't want to make it sound like I have a wicked stepmother. She's hardly a bitter old witch. She was a college student when my dad first brought her home to meet me, and was full of youthful spirit. She wasn't much different from the teenage babysitters I'd had, except for the part where she moved in permanently. She was beautiful in a modest way, with brown hair she wore in a conservative hairstyle and a fondness for turtleneck sweaters in muted colors. Overall, she had and still has all the qualities of a first-rate Nick at Nite-worthy mother. The worst thing she ever did was make me surrender to a monster.

Since before I can remember, there was a vicious fiend in our house. I heard it gurgling and splashing and roaring and hissing and groaning. I saw it slither and twitch and glisten in the dim light. It would taunt me by appearing around corners then quickly retreating to its den. I never saw its teeth, but its surrogate jaws seemed powerful enough. It nested right around the corner from my bed. And the worst part was, every adult wanted me to feed it. I would have rather let its meals go to waste in my training pants.

There's only one viable floor in our house. My dad stopped being Mr. Fix-It when my first mom left. Now he's got a different career and different hobbies. He probably doesn't even believe himself when he says he'll finish the house one day. As a result, the attic is a woolly death trap of fiberglass insulation, and the basement is a leaky dungeon. We basically have a house with one floor, and naturally there's only one bathroom. I've never really believed in my heart of hearts that that room was safe. Sure, the old house is full of places where creatures could hide in and move through unseen. I recall a tall and cadaverous headhunter in the basement, and a sheetlike jellyfish that slipped through the walls to visit every closet and cupboard. But the one in the plumbing scared me the most. I continued to fixate on it long after the other monsters had disappeared.


A fountain in Brussels (

My only episodic memory of my natural mother was her keeping me safe from this monster. It comes from the period of my life where memories are as hazy as dreams, and it's hard to tell which I'm recalling. But as I see it in my mind's eye, I was walking to the bathroom to take care of business like a big boy when I caught a glimpse of something horrifying in the twilight of the night light. A dark thing that gleamed like wet tar held the toilet lid just a tiny bit above the seat.

"Mommy, Mommy!" I cried. She came rushing in to see what was the matter, scaring the monster back into its hiding place. By that time the big boy ship had sailed, but my mom comforted me, changed me, and acted like she believed me. She even stayed in bed with me so I could go to sleep, even though I knew the monster sometimes ventured out of its watery lair.

But soon she was gone. My dad was understanding, but rather stern. After much coaxing, lecturing, and a few harsh words, he eventually convinced me that every other toilet in the world was safe, and even this one was safe during the daytime. I still believed in a plumbing monster that could harm me in the night, but this was the greatest victory he could hope for. I made the transition from training pants to Treasure Planet underwear and started kindergarten only one year later than a child without a disabling phobia would have.

There was still the problem of the night. It didn't matter if the lights were all on indoors, or if my big strong dad was right there to protect me. I just couldn't risk a monster attack. Even leaving my bed seemed like a putting my life on the line. So my dad let me keep an empty Smuckers jar next to my bed.

By the time the new mom moved in I had advanced to a Ball jar hidden in my nightstand that I was expected to wash with the dishes every evening. Little else had changed. By then I wasn't convinced that there was a monster, and I told my dad that I didn't really believe in it, but I was still scared. That sort of fear that makes you believe you'll fail a test you've already handed in just because you told your friends you'd nailed it. That strong fear without strong belief is in everyone, and it was certainly present in me all the nights I sat on the edge of my bed with my most sensitive organ resting on the lip of a cold glass jar. It was humiliating, but the humiliation never outweighed the fear. That is, until the first time my stepmother cleaned my room. I snuck the jar out and vowed to never use it again. I thought I could do better for my new mom, my new friend. This was a terrible mistake.

My dad's work kept him away from home more and more. Pretty soon my mom was caring for me almost exclusively. It was like I'd exchanged one parent for another, one of no real relation who would have been in her early teens when I was born. It felt different having her in charge, and very different having to answer to her when I did something wrong. Before long, I was doing something wrong pretty often.

It was because of the plumbing monster, of course. When night fell and the house was full of mysterious noises I couldn't bring myself to approach those porcelain jaws. I certainly tried. I would walk out of my bathroom and into the hallway, turn the corner, walk up to the open bathroom door, then realize I just couldn't do it.

My last trip to the bathroom at sunset had to last me until the morning light. Some nights, perhaps most, I made it. It was hard drifting off without feeling comfortable inside, and I'd wake up with a bladder so full it was excruciating, but I could manage it some nights. On many nights I didn't. I'd toss and turn and feel worse and worse. It would get to where it seemed like there was a sea urchin nesting in my pelvis, sticking its spines deeper and deeper into my soft tissue. Eventually I'd hear that familiar hissing sound, then fall asleep in the damp, muggy warmth.

No one even mentioned it the first time it happened. I knew my mom knew, because she had my bed looking and smelling fine when I came home from school, but she didn't say a word about it. She probably thought it was a fluke, and didn't want to embarrass me over something that would never be important again. But by a week or so, maybe a month, a clear trend had emerged.

My mom confronted me about the accidents. I let slip that I wasn't really a bedwetter because I was always awake when I peed. She went through the roof.

"You'd better have a good reason for that," she said in a very mommish tone.

"I do!" I asserted. "Somebody's keeping me out of the bathroom, and I can't always hold it 'til I fall asleep."

As I recall, that explanation calmed her down a little. It didn't last, though.

"Oh, sweetie," she began, "if you ever need to use the bathroom badly and I'm in there, or your father is, you can just knock on the door and tell us. It's not hard to hurry up and let you go. You don't have to wait if you can't."

"It's not you. It's the monster that lives in the plumbing." That set her off worse than before.

When my dad came home, I ran to him sobbing.

"Daddy, Daddy! Mommy's being mean to me!" were my most likely words.

Once we'd both presented our cases, all he had to say was, "Listen to your mother."

She said the sort of things I'd heard for years. Monsters weren't real. All the noises in the house had explanations, even if my father with a background in home repair couldn't explain every one. No adult had ever seen this monster. My parents used the toilet at night all the time, and they were both still alive. These arguments were old hat. I dismissed them all, and refused to promise I'd risk my life to protect some cloth.

My mom "forbid" me from wetting the bed, but that didn't mean anything. She shot down my dad's suggestion that I go back to using a container.

"We don't live in the nineteenth century," she told me in an unnecessarily educational outburst. "You do not get to keep a chamber pot under your bed. We have the modern miracle of indoor plumbing and you are going to use it, day or night. Do I make myself clear?"

Nothing was resolved that day. The only change to the status quo was that I got yelled at each time I lost control of my body during the night. But it wasn't long before my mom came upon a means of enforcing her ban on bedwetting.

It was a night like many others. I was lying in bed filled with fear and urine. Without the option to void my aching system, I was trying to fall asleep when I happened to cough. My mom was fortunate enough to be in earshot.

"Are you awake in there?" she called through the wall.


"Do you have to pee?"

I paused, not sure if it was worse to lie or to deal with the consequences of telling the truth. She spoke again before I answered.

"Just to be safe, you should go pee."

I got out of bed, turned on my light, and walked out my bedroom door sideways, with my back to the northern half of the doorframe. That way I could see and react if the monster lunged out of the bathroom. The room was in darkness, but I could see just enough to tell something was moving. I stood there for some time, trying to summon up the courage to walk forward and turn on the light.

"Are you in the bathroom yet?" my mom asked from the other room.

"Almost." I kept my feet planted well away from the bathroom door as I leaned forward and stretched my left arm out. It took a couple tries to hit the light switch, but when I succeeded my fears were confirmed.

The toilet lid was about halfway up. The monster especially bold that night. I could see it clearer than ever before. Its body was a very dark reddish orange, almost like molasses. A long strip of glistening flesh was lolling over the seat like a tongue. A nozzle-like appendage was sticking out sideways to its left. But the worst part was smack in the middle, and was holding the lid up. It was a long neck or tentacle that ended in a single eye. It was smooth and bright orange, like fire trapped in a marble. It had a pupil shaped like four-armed starfish, which glared at me with unfathomable malice.

I was only half-surprised by this scene. My belief in the plumbing monster had been eroded over the years, but part of me had known it was real all along. Most boys in my place would have wet themselves then and there, but I was a veteran of monster encounters, and I didn't waste much time before I acted.

"Mommy, Mommy!" I shouted at the top of my lungs. "The monster's here! Come see it!" Once I heard her coming I ran back into my room and dove under the covers. I hoped to hear a scream as she saw the monster, but instead I heard a stern lecture.

"Young man, we have been over this. There is no monster in the plumbing. That's what little kids believe, not ten-year-olds."

I came out from under the covers to argue face to face. My mom was standing my bedroom doorway wearing a nightgown in some muted color.

"But I just saw it! It had a tongue and a big orange..."

"People get put in the crazy house for saying things like that. Now stop telling me nonsense, stop making a racket, and go finish what you got up to do."

I protested, but she marched over to my bed, grabbed me by the wrist, yanked me out of bed, and led me around the corner. She opened the toilet lid and pointed at the bowl, which contained nothing but clear water. She only said one word: "Go."

"It'll just come back," I explained, but my mom was resolute.

"I'm right here. Nothing's gonna happen to you." Then she turned to face the wall and give her boy a little privacy.

I hoped this grown-up was enough to keep the monster at bay, but I doubted it. I reached to lift up the seat, and jumped back when I saw something dart out of the hole at the bottom of the bowl. Both seat and lid fell down with a clatter. A tongue stuck out between them and licked its lips.

"It's back!" I yelped as I grabbed for the doorknob. My mom stopped me.

"There's nothing here," she said, which was true at the moment and probably true by the time she had looked. She moved to block the door, faced me, and repeated the command. "Go."

I began another argument, but she cut me off.

"I don't want to hear another word out of you, young man. Just go."

I remember staring into my reflection in the toilet lid as I procrastinated over lifting it. When I finally did, there was nothing menacing underneath. I lifted the seat up. Still nothing. I paused. I opened the hole in the front of my tighty whities, then paused some more. I guess I stalled for too long.

Without warning, my mom took hold of my penis and aimed it at the toilet bowl.

"Pee," she ordered.

"But there's a monster!"

She stung my eyes with a look that injected terror into my blood, then stared expectantly at my prepubescent private parts. "If I have to wash your sheets one more time, you'll be better off with the monster," she spat.

As if it heard its name called, the monster began to make a racket. I heard a loud and lusty "glug glug glug!" Large bubbles rose to the surface. I closed my eyes, afraid the creature would show its awful face again. The water that had been welling up in them streamed down my face. I tried to jerk myself away from my mom, but it was no use.

"Pee!" she shouted, her fingernails digging into my skin.

"The monster's right here!"

"I don't care if it is!" she countered venomously.

What choice did I have? I somehow blocked the fear and shyness out of my brain and concentrated only on the muscles in my body. There was a drizzle for a few seconds before my equipment seized up.

"Keep peeing!" my mom barked, as if I had stopped on purpose. I summoned another tentative trickle, which relieved pressure from my aching bladder in fits and starts before finally gaining strength and becoming a useful stream. I felt like I stood there for hours in the spotlight with the lurking monster and the furious stepmother who didn't trust me with my own penis. My face was wet with tears, and my chest and throat were periodically seized with hiccough-like weeping. The outpouring from my urinary tract finally ebbed, then stopped entirely.

"Are you done?" my mom asked. All I could do was nod. She shook my penis like a dog trying to snap a snake's neck, freeing me of the final droplets. Then she tucked it back into my underpants and flushed the toilet. I just stood there, head hanging low.

"That wasn't so bad, now, was it?" she said. Then she shooed me out of the room because she needed to sit on the toilet she'd proven harmless.

I didn't let the plumbing monster keep me out of the bathroom after that. I was more worried about the monster who slept with my dad. Over time, even those harsh feelings faded away. I was a child with an overactive imagination, and she'd solved that problem without even having to pay a psychiatrist. Before too long, I'd forgiven her and forgotten the monster. It was all buried in the past.

On a night not so long ago, something exhumed that old memory and phobia.

My dad started renovating the bathroom before he had to leave town, and now

Plumbing in an unfinished basement (

a large rectangle has been skinned from the western wall. I expect it to be there for some time, and I've made the most of it. It's actually pretty interesting.

If you look in the right direction you can see yards of open space in the wall, with nails jutting out like teeth. There are gaps in the boards leading to more empty space that's impossible to see. There are spiderwebs everywhere in there, so I know that there are not only many spiders living in our walls but a population of insects to sustain them. There are also scraps of paper, chips of red terra cotta from a potentially beautiful brick wall buried somewhere out of sight, rock like fragments of other building materials, and other less obvious things. I fished one out using a coat hanger because I was so curious. I thought it was probably a rotten old banana peel, but I wondered how it could have fallen inside the wall. It was actually a dead bat.

There's a whole country in the walls that I never see. That was an intriguing and somewhat disquieting realization. So the whole idea of hidden creatures was fresh in my mind the night of the event I'm about to describe.

It was the middle of the night, I was in bed, and something seemed wrong. First it was a strange noise, then the vague impression of something moving in the dark.

My mild unease escalated to anxiety when I heard what I could have sworn was the laptop on my desk closing. My heart raced, and I curled into a fetal position, unsure what else to do. I hadn't been this frightened by anything in years.

It was childish. There is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on. The rational part of me had fully realized that years ago. But the irrational, emotional part still responded like a little boy to the slight suggestion that there was some Bogeyman in my room. I felt a very strong sensation of wrongness that seemed to permeate my entire darkened room like some supernatural poison and filled my entire body with profound disquietude.

I also had to pee. Eventually I would have to get out of bed, monster or no monster. I really wished I wasn't in that situation. I wished I knew for certain that the sounds were just the house settling and the movement was only in my mind. I wished I could just forget my fears and go to sleep. I wished I could find relief of my need without getting out of bed and moving through a potentially demon-haunted room. But no amount of wishing could erase the fear in my mind or the urgent sensation in my bladder. I had to face the unknown terror to get to the bathroom.

This is silly, I told myself. I'm a teenager in high school afraid to go pee because there could be a monster in my room.

On further reflection, it was even sillier than that. Hundreds of times every year I thought I was seeing something or hearing something in my darkened room, and it had never once turned out to be anything. Not even a mouse. The only times I'd "seen" a real "threat" were years ago when my rational mind was rudimentary and I was almost a different person. When I thought about how unreasonable what I felt was, my hand barely hesitated in switching the lamp on.

"Don't be afraid," a voice from the direction of my desk said. My blood chilled, and the air in my room grew thin. Half illuminated by the lamp on my nightstand, sitting on my desk, was what I can only describe as a monster.

Its shadowy shape recoiled from the light. Then it straightened itself into a rippling sheet and poured down the side of my desk, collecting on the chair next to it. The wooden backing hid most of it from the light and my vision, so all I could see was a dark pile of something with little legs or feelers twitching about. My verbal reaction to this spectacle wasn't exactly profound.

" A monster."

"I suppose you could call me that," the thing said. "I'm not in any of the planet's major phyla."

"What do you want with me?" I asked it. I suppose I should call it "him."

"Nothing. I came here to take someone home. He died here years ago, but we couldn't retrieve the body until now."

I was awestruck. I don't think I need to explain the ramifications of what I'd just seen and heard, or the many avenues of speculation it opened up. It just changed everything I thought I knew.

"How did you get in here?" I asked.

I was expecting to hear something about magic, parallel universes, folded space, or other such wonders. His answer was, "Through the dryer vent, across the basement ceiling, through the heat register, and over the desk that's blocking it." That made sense, because that register was one of several that weren't connected to ducts and simply led to cavities in the basement's open ceiling. More of my dad's unfinished work. "I'm sorry to intrude on your bedroom, but I can't get to the body without going through here."

"Where is this body?"

"We're not sure, but we've narrowed it down. Getting it to its rightful resting place will be harder than finding it."

Throughout the conversation I thought about turning on the overhead light and getting my camera out of my desk. I never did, because I was afraid to leave my bed. The monster seemed friendly enough, but I thought he might turn nasty if he thought I was going to impede his mission or jeopardize his secrecy. There was also the fact that I'd woken up with an extremely pronounced and persistent erection that would have been obvious once the covers were out of the way. So I stayed in bed while my guest went about his task.

The bunched-up monster startled me when he began to move in strange ways. I guess he was looking around, but there wasn't any continuous motion, and the jerks and shudders weren't localized to any one part. His whole body would twitch and reposition itself every few seconds, as if I were watching video that was randomly fast-forwarded every so often.

I was startled even worse when he suddenly made a move for the window. I was interested in seeing what he looked like, but his speed and the low light were both working against me. He fell out of the chair and rapidly scuttled to where he was adhering to the window next to my bed. "Scuttled" might be the wrong word, since it reads like a sound effect and this was without any noticeable sounds, but it's the best way I can describe the lightning-quick movement of this thing that was almost all legs. When he was on the window he was behind the curtains, so I didn't see many details as he unlatched the window and forced it open. He accomplished the latter task by scrunching himself up like an inchworm then straightening out.

This might seem funny to read, but it was unnerving in person. Every one of this thing's movements made it seem scarier. Sometimes it's hard to write "him" instead of "it."

After opening the screen he scuttled backwards into the hallway, turned himself around in a quick fluid motion, and disappeared into the bathroom. I soon heard the distinct gravelly sound of something moving inside the wall. It's a sound I've gotten to know well, both from my dad's handiwork and from the mice and bats that have been in the walls over the years. At least, I thought they were all mice or bats.

Again I considered fetching the camera, but the monster was back before I knew it, giving me a little start. He was carrying a cigar-shaped bundle on his back. He paused in the middle of the floor, probably thinking about how he was going to carry this outside, and the final foot or so of his body was in the light. I was finally able to see something of this monster, but my attention was drawn to the thing poking out of the cloth wrapping.

It was a silvery grey head about the size and shape of a furless male raccoon's head. The mouth was sort of like a wildcat's, and there was a mosaic of scales where the nose should have been. Appendages growing from the sides of its lower jaw had broken off, forming stumps of various lengths. There were two pairs of gaping holes where I assumed the eyes had been. They must have been much smaller than I thought, just like so many other things I remembered from my childhood. It didn't look scary at all. It looked sad.

This monster, which probably had family and friends, had died far away from home, and sat rotting in our wall instead of being laid to rest properly. He had never meant me any harm, but I'd hated him. I got a little choked up.

"I'm sorry if any of us have frightened you," the live monster said to me before he moved along. "We bear no ill will toward the educated chordates. We wish you the best of everything."

I didn't know what to say.

I did finally find my tongue just before the monster disappeared into the night with his departed comrade.

"Nobody's going to believe me," I told him. He paused on the windowsill.

"I'll see what I can do about that." With those words he crawled out of the house, closing the window and screen behind him.

Once he was gone I walked into the bathroom and used the toilet without fear. I smiled as I transformed the water's calm surface into a foamy yellow tempest. This room would never be dangerous again. Better still, I understood that it had never been dangerous in the first place.

The next morning there was a card lying on my nightstand. It was a photograph of one of the monsters resting on a bed of rocks on a sunny seashore. I turned it over. The back read, "Hot Spot 11, C. J. R. Boygins, 30949-53." Below the English was a line of blocky hieroglyphics and another of tangled squiggles and circles. I now held in my hands the proof I had never had before.

My mom was in the bathroom, but I couldn't wait. I pounded on the door a few seconds after I heard the shower shut off.

"Mom, Mom! I've got something to show you! It's incredible! Are you decent?"

When she let me in, I held out the photograph. She adjusted the fuzzy white bath towel she was wearing and leaned over to get a close look, trying to focus her contact-free eyes. She didn't say anything. I stared at the photograph too as I told her about my monster encounter the night before.

Then I realized something that made me stop my story mid-sentence.

The monster in the photo was long and thin, and its body shone in the sunlight. That much matched how I pictured the plumbing monster. This monster was an orange-tan color, not far from human flesh. Besides the mammal or reptile-like head and the unfathomable shapes at the other end, its body was entirely covered in armor divided up into segments. Each segment had a pair of spindly legs like on a daddy longlegs, and many had a shorter secondary pair with fingers, suckers, or both. All in all, it matched the bits of the monsters I had glimpsed the night before, but bore almost no resemblance to the one I'd spent most of my life fearing.

The most troubling part was that it had four blue eyes with round black pupils. I hadn't seen a trace of that bathroom beast in years, so I couldn't be sure I remembered exactly what it looked like, but that diamond-pupilled eye from my memories haunted me. That part had to be accurate.

"This isn't the right monster," I mumbled quietly as my brain soaked up the disquieting implications. "This just proves that the house's monsters are real, and the plumbing one is still at large."

My mom smiled, looking genial and maybe a little condescending. "Oh, sweetie," she began, "I know for a fact there's no monster in the plumbing."

"How?" I asked with wavering voice.

"Because," she replied in a stern tone. For a moment I thought that was all she had to say, but she continued to explain her reasoning. "...It crawled out of there years ago."

I just stood there dumbfounded. Is this a joke? I wondered. Is there more to it? The silence was suddenly broken by a gurgling and churning noise. It was louder than any of the strange noises that normally permeated the house, and sounded even less like it belonged in a human dwelling. But it wasn't coming from the toilet, the tub, the sink, or any of the walls around me. It was emanating from the middle of my mom.

I should have looked away when she let the towel drop to the floor, but somehow I couldn't. I was paralyzed, eyes wide, as my nude stepmother turned around, bent over, and placed a hand on either side of her round bottom. With her fingers pressing into her flesh, turning the rosy post-shower hue into a deathly white, she pulled her cheeks outward. Her anus puckered, domed, and widened. I could see something that didn't belong. The orifice grew wider and wider, finally stopping at four inches in diameter. Much wider than that was the partly extruded sphere. In an instant, its molasses surface retracted to reveal the fiery orange eye from my traumatic childhood memories.

"It's in my plumbing now."

Written by Floyd Pinkerton
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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