Howie was five when he heard the voice in the wall.
He didn’t think much of it at first. A disembodied male voice was nothing compared to that life-sized monster under his bed, the one that was always hungry and came with a funny smell.
It wasn’t until the voice spoke his name one night that Howie paid attention. Before, the voice had just been making odd noises for attention. A gusty sigh, an irritable tsk!, a low ululation that Howie found annoying, particularly when he was watching cartoons in the afternoon.
This time, though, Howie heard his name. Not a question, but a quiet statement out of the blue, as though the speaker was considering it most carefully. The voice came from the space between his bedside table and toy cupboard, where Howie was just able to squeeze into.
A series of raps – two slow, three quick – came at a hollow corner of the wall. “Howie,” the voice said again.
Howie inched towards the corner, pushing an errant toy train carriage out of the way. “It’s not fair that you know my name but I don’t know yours.”
“You can call me H.”
“That’s my name.”
“Now you’re just being pedantic.” Howie didn’t know what pedantic meant, but he didn’t share that information. “You wouldn’t by any chance have a light, would you?” H said. “It’s immensely gruelling to be trapped in here.”
Howie didn’t know what immensely or gruelling meant, but he did have a light. He totted over to the store cupboard where all emergency kit was kept and reached for the torchlight, then hurried back to his room before his mother could notice he was up past his bedtime.
“Why do you need a light?”
“Have you never been trapped in a wall before?”
“Well, lucky you,” H begrudged. “It’s the pits in here. I’m dying for a smoke.”
“Mommy says smoking is bad.”
“You sound young. Are you young?”
“I’m turning five in a week.”
“That’s young. Where’s my light?”
Howie shone the torchlight at the wall.
H gave a shout, letting out a few angry-sounding words Howie once heard his father say. “Put that out! Are you trying to blind me?” Howie switched off the torchlight. “I didn’t mean a torchlight, I meant – never mind. Just don’t do that again.”
“Are you a monster?” Howie stole a glance at the pair of gleaming eyes watching him from behind. “The monster under my bed is afraid of lights, too.”
“I beg your pardon. I may not have won pageants, but I certainly am not monstrous.”
“A ghost, then?”
“That’s insulting, too. Do I sound dead to you?”
Howie was beginning to get very annoyed with H. “Then what are you?” he yelled, before remembering to keep his voice down. His mother slept very lightly these days – sometimes not at all – and he didn’t want to get in trouble for staying up past his bedtime.
“I’m the same as that thing under your bed.”
Howie took another peek at the monster. It was still watching him silently, almost possessively. He turned back to the wall and whispered to H, “He’s very troublesome, but he makes good company when I hide there.”
“Shh!” Howie hissed, his ears pricked. Footsteps. Coming down the hall.
H made an indignant noise, but obliged to stay silent.
Howie scrambled into bed, ducking under the covers. The door creaked open. It had been a while since the door hinges around the house were oiled.
Howie kept his breathing evenly spaced, hoping that he would still find H where he was after his mother left. He needn’t have worried, though. H’s constant moaning filled the room. Howie feared his mother might chase H out of the walls – he had only just made a new friend – but she only pulled the door shut and headed to her room.
After his mother left, Howie kicked off the covers and leaned over his bed.
“How come I’m the only who can hear you?” he said. “Daddy thought I was lying about the monster, and Mommy looks at me sadly all the time now. She thinks I’ve gone crazy.”
“The monster lives inside you, Howie. That’s why you can see it.”
“And you? Do you live inside me too?”
H didn’t reply. Howie figured he had no answer for that.
After that first encounter, Howie would hear from H three more times. Each time, H showed up whenever his father visited. Each time, he sat with Howie and told him stories of all the old tenants until the fighting outside died down. On nights when H wasn’t around, Howie would crawl under the bed with the monster. Even its silent presence was comforting.
There were monsters that turned into companions, and horrors that turned into confidantes. There were people who wanted more of you – grow up, Howie! speak up, Howie! for God’s sake, stop crying! – and those were the monsters who stole your voice and ate up your dreams.
Eventually, his father stopped visiting and his mother sold the house. Howie and his mother moved to a smaller apartment next to a busy street.
Some nights, out of nostalgia or foolish hope, Howie would peek under his bed and knock on the walls, hoping for a sign of the monster or H. By then, he had known to look in the mirror for the real monsters. But he kept a light in his pocket anyway, to welcome the horrors home.