It was dark. She didn’t like that, had never liked it. Sensations came to her one by one, slowly because they were unfamiliar. She realized she was lying on cold metal, on her back. She never slept on her back. The muscles in her shoulders ached and her limbs felt stiff. There wasn’t a source of light to be seen, no thin glowing line at the bottom of her bedroom door at home, no street lights spilling into the windows.
Maybe, she thought, something’s wrong with me. Maybe Mom and Dad took me to the hospital and I’m on the operating table. She shivered with a cold delight, excited at the prospect of her being whisked away in the middle of the night by doctors. But why didn’t she remember it? And what could be wrong with her? She felt fine, as far as she could tell.
Maybe it was a dream. But she had never had a dream this vivid before. The feeling of being in a dream was very special, very distinct—your senses never coordinate exactly as they should, your body’s response is never so exact. Instinctively, she knew she was awake, but she didn’t know why she wasn’t panicked or scared.
Maybe, Ghouli had brought her here. She had been toying with the idea for months now that Ghouli wasn’t a monster, at least not in the sense most people viewed monsters. Ghouli was terrifying, yes, with razor sharp teeth and legs like a spider’s, but during their last encounter she’d gotten the impression that Ghouli didn’t want to hurt her.
Ghouli—it had a name now. A quick Google search and she’d found the website with all the scary pictures and posts she didn’t understand. The only thing she could comprehend on that website was the drawing of the monster. That drawing was how she knew she wasn’t crazy, and she liked that the thing she’d seen out of the corner of her eye for her whole life had a name. Ghouli. Ghouli. She mouthed it to herself, and was surprised to find that her mouth was dry and her tongue felt heavy. Overwhelming thirst overtook her, and she sat up, the bones in her back popping and cracking as she adjusted her position. How long had she been lying there? The question came and went in a fleeting instant, overtaken by one thought: I’m thirsty. I need water.
For the first time, she felt afraid. Clearing her throat, she called out in a shaky voice.
“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Hello? Can someone hear me? I’m thirsty! Please, can I get some water?”
Tiny bolts of fear rippled through her stomach and she slid off the cold metal surface, which, running her hands over it, she noticed had the shape of a very large tray. She still couldn’t see anything; it was pitch black. Maybe I’m underground, she thought. Maybe I’m in a cave. Maybe this is Ghouli’s lair and it wants to… to see me. Eat me? No, it didn’t do that last time. Or the time before that. All it did was watch her. The first few years she’d seen Ghouli, she’d been so afraid she could barely get through the day without screaming hysterically. But after a while that faded and she’d come to regard Ghouli as a kind of silent companion. None of the other girls or boys wanted to play with her or talk to her, and her parents were busy. But Ghouli was there often, in the corners, watching. She liked that it didn’t speak and she told it everything.
That’s not to say she completely trusted Ghouli. She was still aware of its sharp teeth and monstrous face. But they didn’t scare her anymore.
She wished she could see her surroundings. Her feet were bare, and the floor felt like it was made out of linoleum. School floor, she thought disappointedly. Maybe she wasn’t in a cave after all. Maybe she was in a school or office of some sort. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
A sudden noise—a jolt and a rattle, only a few feet away—startled her so badly that she screamed. She heard jiggling and realized that there must be a door somewhere, and someone—or something—was trying to get in. Her heart beating wildly, she backed up as far away from the noise as she could get, but ended up ramming backwards into the metal tray-table.
“OW!” she yelped, and if on cue, she heard the door bang open, although it was still so dark she couldn’t see anything. Shaking, she tried to feel if there was anything underneath the table. Feeling nothing, she crouched down and slid herself underneath it.
Then a soft green glow filled the room. It started out incredibly dim at first, making her wonder if she was seeing things, and then grew brighter. Trembling, she poked her head out from underneath the table and gasped.
She was in a morgue. The tray she’d been lying on was the place they cut up dead bodies to see how they’d died. What was that word? Autopsy. She felt sick, like someone had punched her in the gut with a stone fist. She saw the drawers where she knew they kept refrigerated dead bodies and wondered how many dead people were with her in this room right now.
Her gaze snapped to the doorway, and at once she felt an overwhelming sense of relief. There it was, the six-legged, slimy-jawed, spiderlike creature that had haunted her since her earliest memories.
“Ghouli,” she said in wonderment. “Ghouli, where am I? Why am I here?”
The monster extended a long, black claw and pointed to the table. “You should not be up,” it hissed, in a voice spun by spiderwebs and dripping with dust. “Go back to your bed.”
“That’s not my bed!” she protested. “This isn’t my room! You’ve seen my room a hundred times, Ghouli! You know what it looks like.”
“Go baaaack,” hissed the monster.
“But why? Why, Ghouli? I want to go home. I want to see my parents. I’m thirsty.” She felt a lump in her throat, and finally felt like she was in danger. “Please let me go, Ghouli. I know you’re nice. I know you don’t really want to hurt me.”
Ghouli approached. Its deerlike legs exuded power with each step, though they made no sound or vibration. It stopped once it stood directly over her, and opened its jaws. Its breath was putrid and its mouth was dripping with mucus. She trembled and began to cry.
“Ghouli, please,” she wailed. “Don’t hurt me. Don’t kill me.”
But the monster never touched her. “I cannot kill you. You are dead,” it rasped. “Get back to your table, dead girl.”
Three months later, her parents found her cold, lifeless little body, stiff and pale, in the woods near their house. There was not a scratch on her. Her eyes were closed and a smile was frozen on her face forever. She was only eight years old.