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The Best Gifts

Give until it hurts

By Vanessa GonzalesPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 18 min read
2
The Best Gifts
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

I.

Toby heard the creature before he ever saw it.

He heard it late at night, rustling and shuffling and thumping under the floorboards in his room, too soft to make out clearly and too persistent to ignore. It stopped when he switched on the light, so he told himself that it was just his imagination running away with him (one of his mother's favorite phrases) and went back to sleep, after first making sure all the tasty bits of himself were covered by the blanket.

Monsters couldn't get you if you were under a blanket. Everyone knew that.

II.

A week passed.

Toby was in his bedroom, supposedly doing his homework, but really goofing off while his mother was occupied with the dinner dishes. His math book lay open and face down beside him, ready for him to snatch it up as soon as the water shut off in the kitchen. He was staging an elaborate battle between his plastic dinosaurs and his die-cast cars—the cars were winning—when the thing under the floorboards made its presence known again.

He sat cross-legged on the blue wool rug in a patch of warm lamplight, with his head cocked to the side and a car in each hand, and listened. Before the sound had been light and muffled, but now it was a heavy, uneven sliding, like someone dragging a sack of sand across rocky ground, stopping to rest and then starting again. He imagined a blind, legless creature pulling itself along down there, in the dark space between the floor and the foundation, and went to tell his mother.

“Ma, there's something under the floor in my room.”

“What kind of thing?”

“I dunno. Something crawling. I heard it the other night too.”

His mother turned around from the sink, wiping her soapy hands on an old yellow-and-white-striped dish towel. “God, I hope it's not rats. Have you been sneaking cookies in there?”

“No ma'am.”

“Well, be sure you don't start. I'll put down some traps this weekend.”

“It sounds too big for traps,” Toby said, and his mother laughed and ruffled his hair.

“Don't let your imagination run away with you, son,” she said.

III.

On Saturday morning, while Toby was still parked in front of cartoons with a bowl of cereal, his mother, true to her word, produced a paper sack from the hardware store and went around the house, placing traps everywhere she thought rodents were likely to scamper. When Bugs Bunny ended and the boring dance show after it came on, Toby got up and counted them: seventeen in all. They looked very flimsy, he thought, just bits of plywood and spring with a sticky, oily brown glob of peanut butter for bait. He wondered if the thing under the floor liked peanut butter, or if it was more interested in other foods.

“Don't touch those,” his mother warned, when he knelt to inspect a trap up close. “They'll take your finger off.”

Toby imagined one of his fingers caught in the trap's metal jaws, freshly severed and oozing, perhaps twitching a little. That, he thought, was exactly the sort of bait the floor-creature would enjoy. A hot, sweaty wave of nausea swept over him, and feeling like he might throw up, he crammed both hands into his pockets as deep as they would go.

“I won't touch them,” he said.

“Good boy,” said his mother, and started to head back toward the kitchen.

“Ma?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think they'll work?”

Toby's mother had thin, dark eyebrows that she plucked into dramatic arches with the help of a lighted magnifying mirror. Now they drew together in a quizzical expression, as if she thought his question was both mystifying and a little crazy.

“Well, sure,” she said. “Why wouldn't they?”

“No reason,” Toby said.

IV.

The following night, the creature spoke to him for the first time.

He was almost asleep when it happened, drifting on the blurry boundary between dreams and waking, but when he heard his name he was instantly and completely alert.

“Toby,” the voice whispered again.

“Who are you?” Toby whispered back.

“I’m me.”

Toby’s mother would have said “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer” to that. He wished she would come in and say it now. But she was asleep in her own bedroom across the hall, and he was here on his own, and for all he knew, if he screamed for her the creature would gobble them both up in two big, messy bites. He tried again.

“I can't see you.”

“But I can see you.”

“How long have you been there?”

“Always.”

Toby pulled the blanket up higher, under his chin, staring wide-eyed into the dark. He couldn't see the creature, but he could smell it, wet and swampy and moldy, like old stagnant water in a moss-encrusted rain barrel.

“I never heard you until a few days ago.”

“I was sleeping,” the creature said. “For a long time. But now I'm awake.”

“What do you want?”

There was a lengthy, thoughtful pause, as if the creature were giving serious consideration to this question.

“People used to give me presents,” it said at last.

Presents? Toby wondered. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting the creature to say—maybe raw meat or blood or your soul—but it definitely hadn’t been that.

“What kind of presents?” he asked.

“All kinds.” Was that a movement in the shadows under the window? Toby strained his eyes until they ached, but couldn't be sure. “Interesting things. Things they liked. Things they wanted. The best gifts are the ones you'd like to keep for yourself, you know.”

“I know,” said Toby, remembering a long-ago birthday party where he'd cried because he had to give up the beautiful Army tank he'd brought as a gift. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted the other boy to have it; it was just that he’d wanted it to be his, too. “I can give you a present if you want.”

“Yes, a present!” Now the voice was full of horrible eagerness. “Give me a present!”

“Not now. Tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow? I want it tonight.”

“I'm not allowed to get up after lights-out,” Toby said. “But in the morning I'll give you a nice present before I leave for school. Only you have to take it and go somewhere else.”

“But I can't go anywhere else,” the creature said. Its voice was suddenly closer to the bed than it had been before, and Toby cringed, pulling his blanket up until it nearly covered his head.

“Why not?” It came out as a terrified squeak, the sound of a rabbit cornered by a fox, but Toby was beyond caring about how he sounded.

“Because this is my home,” the creature said. “This earth here.”

V.

He thought he wouldn’t sleep that night, or perhaps ever again, but somehow he managed to doze a little before the alarm clock went off. When it did, he pulled back a corner of his blanket and peered out, afraid of what might be there, but in the weak winter sunlight, his room looked like it always did: small and square and unusually tidy for an eleven-year-old boy’s. His mother did not like mess, and he had learned through bitter experience that if he didn’t keep his things picked up, she would come in with a trash bag and throw them away.

Slowly, ready to leap back under the covers at any moment, Toby put one foot on the frigid floor, then the other, and stood up, feeling exposed. Not a sound came from the crawl space, and he relaxed a little—but only a little. Out in the hallway, he heard his mother’s door opening and her slippers slapping their way toward the bathroom. He would have to find the creature’s present in a hurry before he was expected at the breakfast table.

He padded across the floor and opened the door of his closet. Until a year or two ago, he had been sure that monsters lived in there, and while he didn’t know the word irony, he knew, instinctively, that there was something funny in a horrible way about that. The monsters were real enough; he’d just gotten the place wrong.

Lifting the lid of a plastic storage bin, he grabbed the first thing he saw—an orange butterfly yo-yo—and paused for a moment. Where should he leave the gift so the creature could come and collect it? If he pulled up the floorboards to put it there, he wouldn’t have to worry about being eaten in his bed. His mother would kill him first.

Half in a panic, Toby looked around until his gaze fell on the rectangular metal vent where hot air from the furnace came out in winter. It wasn’t exactly under the floor, but it was close enough. He got a dime and used it to unscrew the cover, working as fast as he could before his mother appeared, and stood at what he felt was a safe distance to drop the yo-yo in. There was a creepy dark hole at one end of the vent, leading away into an equally dark tunnel, and he could easily imagine a claw or a tentacle or who knew what else shooting out of it to grab him.

He had just gotten the cover fastened back on and was on his hands and knees, picking up the bits of fluff and dust that had fallen from it, when he heard his mother hollering down the hall that his oatmeal was on the table, and did he want to have to eat it cold?

Thinking that cold oatmeal was the least of his worries, he called back “Coming!” and hurried away, only stopping once to cast an uneasy glance back over his shoulder at the empty room.

VI.

On Tuesday, he gave the creature an iridescent blue guitar pick that he'd found on the sidewalk outside school. He didn't own a guitar and couldn't have played one if he did, but holding the pick made him feel like a rock star, and he hated to give it up. He supposed that made it an ideal gift by the creature's standards. Better yet, he could drop it through the slats of the vent without having to unscrew the cover. He didn’t want to look down into that dark hole again if he could help it.

On Wednesday, he pushed a barely used Pink Pearl eraser into the vent, and when that didn’t seem like enough, he pulled the rubber stopper from the bottom of his Batman coin bank and shook out all the money inside: two quarters, three dimes, a nickel and a penny. Into the air vent they went, each one making a bright metallic clink against the grate and then a dull clunk on the ductwork below. He wondered whether the creature was waiting down there, watching them fall, or if it would come oozing and slithering out later to do whatever it did with the things he gave it. Overall, he thought it was probably better not to know.

While he was putting the bank back in its place on top of his dresser, his mother walked in and nearly gave him a heart attack.

“What are you fooling around with that for? It’s almost seven-thirty.”

“I--”

“Yes?”

“I was going to buy a pencil,” he blurted. “Out of the machine at school. I thought I had a quarter, but I don’t.”

“Well, take one from my purse if you really need one, and then get a move on before you miss the bus.”

“Yes ma’am.” Toby headed for the door, and she stood aside to let him pass, but at the last minute she caught hold of him by the shoulders and turned him around.

“Look up here at me.”

Toby looked up obediently. He had to lean back to do it, because his mother was a tall woman. She had told him once that she’d wanted to be a fashion model when she was in high school, before he was born, and he was sure she had been pretty enough. She still was pretty, even when she was angry. He was expecting her to be angry now—she didn’t approve of “fooling around” at any time, but especially not when the bus was on its way—but all he saw on her face was confusion and concern.

“Is everything okay, Toby? You’ve been acting funny. Are those kids bothering you at school again? Because I’ll go back to the principal if I have to, don’t think I won’t.”

Toby forced a smile, but from the look she gave him in return, he thought it must not have been a very good one. “No, Ma. Everything’s fine. I just haven’t been sleeping too great, that’s all. The—the lights from next door shine through my window and keep me awake sometimes.”

His mother held onto him a moment longer, searching his face as if she could extract the truth from it with her eyes. At last she said “Hmm,” and turned him loose.

“Go on, then,” she said. “And behave yourself.”

“I will,” said Toby, and fled the house as quickly as he could.

VII.

On Thursday night, the creature visited his room again. He wasn't anywhere near sleeping this time; in fact, he hadn't done more than doze fitfully ever since the night of that first conversation.

“I want another present,” the creature announced from the shadows under the window. Its voice sounded stronger than before, as if it had gained energy over the last week, and Toby wondered whether his mother would hear it. She had a gun hidden in an old metal cash box on a high shelf in her closet—he wasn’t supposed to know about it, but had found it accidentally-on-purpose one afternoon when he was at home alone after school. Maybe she was fetching it right now, and any minute she would burst in and shoot the creature in the head, if it had one. They would dig a hole in the backyard and bury it secretly, the way people did in crime shows on TV, and it would be gone forever. Or maybe they would take pictures of its dead body and sell them to one of the cheap black-and-white newsprint magazines at the supermarket, the kind with stories about alien ships that crashed in cornfields and snake men who lived in the jungles of Guatemala. They would be millionaires. His mother could quit her job and they would—

But his mother didn’t come, and the creature was still in his room, dragging itself closer to his bed so the swampy smell of rot and mold nearly overwhelmed him.

“Another present,” it insisted.

“Okay, I'll find something in the morning—”

“Not these little presents. I want a bigger present.”

Toby was not supposed to swear, but a few of the choicer four-letter words he had heard at school ran through his mind at that. What did the creature expect from him? Was it going to keep demanding more and more until he had nothing left but his own life, and then take that too?

Emboldened by frustration, he sat up in bed, though he prudently kept the blanket raised high for protection.

“I'm just a kid,” he said. “I can't go out and buy you a car or anything. I have to give you what I've got. Plus I have to be able to fit it in the vent.”

“You find me a bigger present or I'll find one for myself,” the creature said. “That’s a promise, Toby.”

It was one of his mother’s phrases. The thing had been listening to them from below, lying in its dark, damp lair and absorbing every word either of them said.

Toby clapped a hand over his mouth to stop himself from screaming, and left it there until morning.

VIII.

When the sun rose on Friday, he got out of bed feeling as if he was on his way to fight in a war. He had thought for hours and hours about what sort of present would be big and important enough to satisfy the creature, but there was nothing he could give, nothing that he owned except the odds and ends he had already offered up. His eyes felt hot and itchy as he stumbled down the hall toward the kitchen, lightheaded with fatigue, bumping into the walls like a loose pinball.

“Toby!” His mother bolted up from the table where she’d been drinking her coffee and met him at the kitchen door. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” He swayed a little, and his mother’s strong fingers gripped him hard by the arms, so hard that even in his daze, he still felt the warning in her squeeze and flinched.

“Don’t tell me ‘nothing.’ You look like you’ve been dragged through a bush backward.” She propelled him to a chair and pushed him down into it, the green-and-gold-flowered vinyl seat cushion letting out a long sigh as it took his weight.

“Toby. Toby!” He forced his eyes open and tried to focus on her face, only inches away from his. Her voice was a dull roar in his ears, fading in and out as if she kept leaving the room and coming back again. “Look, you sit in that chair and don’t move. I’m going down to the basement to get your clean clothes out of the dryer, and then as soon as the doctor’s office opens, I’m taking you there.”

“You can’t. You have to go to work.”

“Never mind that.” She straightened up and looked down at him, seeming taller than ever, an impossible woman. “Something is very wrong, son. If you could see yourself, you’d know what I mean. Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what it is?”

Toby wondered if he had anything left to lose. He decided he didn’t.

“Okay. I’ll tell you.”

“I’m all ears.” His mother put her hands on her hips, waiting, and he took a deep breath and began.

“I heard a monster in my room—”

“Stop right there,” his mother said. “I don’t want to hear any made-up stories. You can let your imagination run away with you some other time.”

“I’m not letting my imagination do anything,” Toby protested. “It was there. It smelled like the old wet leaves in the rain gutter, and it made me give it presents. It lives under the floor, but I think it only comes out at night. We need to kill it, Ma.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Toby.” Her voice sounded disgusted, and suddenly he felt like crying. “Not another word. You sit here and wait for me, understand? We’ll talk about your punishment for lying later.”

“It’s not a lie,” he said, but his mother was already on her way to the basement, high-heeled shoes clicking briskly on the tile. As she vanished down the stairs, he slumped in his chair, wondering how he would ever get through the rest of today, never mind tonight, or the night after that, or the night after that. For the first time, it occurred to him that maybe he should just stop trying to appease the creature and let it do whatever it wanted to him. At least then he wouldn’t have to be afraid of it anymore.

He was still turning that possibility over in his weary mind when, from the depths of the basement, he heard his mother scream.

“Ma?” Toby was up off the chair in an instant, exhaustion temporarily forgotten as adrenaline flooded his body. It seemed he made it to the door in two giant, floating steps, the kind that usually you could only take in dreams. The basement light was switched on, casting harsh shadows on the concrete floor, but he couldn’t see around the bare wood supports at the bottom of the staircase to the alcove where the washer and dryer were.

“Ma, what is it?” He clung to the doorframe, leaning out as far as he dared. “Ma?”

But it wasn’t his mother’s voice that answered.

“This is a big present, Toby,” the creature called to him from down below. “This is a good present. This is the best present. You give the best gifts, Toby. I knew you would.”

Wide-eyed, Toby took a single step back, and then he turned and ran, tearing down the hall, yanking open the door to his mother’s bedroom, dragging the stool from her dressing table over to the closet. For a moment he thought the cash box was gone, and he let out a desperate moan, but then it was there under his trembling, scrabbling hands, and there was the gun, as heavy and cold and deadly-feeling as he remembered from before. He didn’t know how to load it or even to check to see if it was loaded already, but his mother believed in being prepared. If she had a gun, surely she would keep it ready to use.

He jumped from the stool to the floor and nearly went flying, but caught himself, twisting his ankle in the process without feeling any pain. He was back in the kitchen, he was on the stairs, and now he could see that the door of the closet near the washer and dryer stood open, a gaping black mouth ready to swallow whatever was within reach. There were no voices now—not his mother’s and not the creature’s—but there were terrible wet sounds coming from inside, squelching and sucking and slurping like someone walking in thick mud with heavy boots on.

As he approached the closet, Toby raised the gun the way he had seen people do on television.

It turned out there were bullets in it after all. He fired every last one of them.

fiction
2

About the Creator

Vanessa Gonzales

“Rule one, you have to write. If you don’t write, nothing will happen.” - Neil Gaiman

When I'm not writing, I take photos. You can see them here.

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