Caleb Down’s eyes snapped open and he was surprised to find himself standing in a pure white room with no ceilings or walls, with the whiteness extending beyond the vision he was capable of. The last thing he remembered was falling asleep in his bed after a busy day at school.
Gazing around the room, Caleb was unbothered at first by his predicament, but with each passing moment of eerie silence he began to feel the creeping feelings of panic. Though his eyes surveyed the area, there was nothing for him to see. Caleb was imaginative and possessed a library of previous fantastical dreams for his twelve years of age, but this was a scenario unlike anything he’d encountered before. Looking away from the whiteness, he glanced down and saw that he was wearing the same T-shirt and Spongebob pajama pants that he’d worn to bed. This was strange, as usually after he went to bed he’d “wake up” in different attire fitting of the scenario that his brain had concocted for him. Something was different this time. Something was wrong.
As he mulled over these thoughts, Caleb realized that a table and two chairs had materialized themselves a few feet away from where he was standing. Staring at them, after a moment Caleb walked over and noticed there was a pen and some pieces of paper on the center of the table. He picked up the pen, feeling it around the palm of his hand.
“What in the world is going on?” he mumbled.
The answer to his question came swiftly, as Caleb became aware of a stomping sound in the distance. However, as quickly as he noticed it, he realized it was getting louder. Closer.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Looking over his shoulder, Caleb spotted in the far distance an orange and black blemish in the whiteness. It was only a small dot at first, but within seconds it had grown and taken the shape of a lopsided-looking creature. It was moving incredibly quickly towards him, whatever it was, and squinting his eyes Caleb was soon able to make out the blurred outline of some of its features, such as its long arms and exceptionally large head. As he stared, fixated with a mix of intrigue and fascination, Caleb was suddenly struck with the horrifying realization that he was about to be face-to-face with the creature he was looking at.
Scanning across the whiteness, Caleb’s worries were confirmed when he realized there was nowhere to hide. His feelings of terror spiraling into outright panic, Caleb watched in awe and despair as the creature grew closer and closer with no one to protect him, and nothing to defend himself with. He snuck one final quick look at the creature in time to see it raise its oversized arms. It was really close now, and the stomping sounds were so earth-shatteringly powerful that Caleb could feel the vibrations with each step it took. His immaturity and fear finally getting the better of him, Caleb dropped the pen he had been holding and cowered, his eyes shut as he felt them start to well up. A few yards away from where he was standing, Caleb heard the creature stop and let out a roar so great and mighty that it shook the walls that the room didn’t even have.
But nothing happened after that.
After a few seconds of surprising silence, Caleb opened one of his eyes. He expected to see the beast tearing at his body as it consumed his raw flesh, but instead he was greeted by an outstretched hand, curiously held out in a shaking gesture. Caleb stared at it, then his eyes moved up to the beast’s face, where he saw that it was contorted into an unmistakable, horrible smile.
“How was that?” the beast said in a calm and composed voice that made Caleb jump.
“T-t-terrifying,” Caleb responded, his entire body still quivering with terror. “Wh-what do you want? Please don’t eat me!”
“Eat you? Why would I eat you?!” the beast said with an exuberant laugh, so loud and spirited that it made Caleb stop cowering in order to cover his ears. “I’m vegan! It’s the new trend in my hometown, and I’m totally getting into it. L-O-L, I’m such a follower!”
Caleb did a double take. That response wasn’t anything near what he was expecting. The bizarreness of the answer coupled with the fact that the beast had actually just said each letter in the abbreviation shook the terror that Caleb was feeling and made his eyes narrow in suspicion. He quickly looked the beast over.
The creature was a tall beast, at least three feet taller than Caleb, and had orange fur that sprouted from his body like feathers on a bird. Nestled between the fur on his large face were a regular pair of eyes, though they were irregularly yellow in color and possessing of a delicate warmth that would have put Caleb at ease if they belong to a normal person. His large arms (or were they paws?) had sharp-looking nails at the ends of his fingers, but smooth hands that were padded and looked soft to the touch. Despite the lopsidedness of his physique, up close he gave off an impression of genuine innocence, and there was a certain aura about him that made him seem young and immature, but at the same time also sincere and kind. Just like Caleb. The only thing that really was off-putting about the beast was the outfit he was wearing. Now that he was standing up close, Caleb could see clearly that the blackness he noticed at first was actually a hairy suit that the beast was wearing. It didn’t quite fit him well, and Caleb could see that there were a few buttons missing from the shirt underneath his jacket. Despite the mess that it was however, there seemed to have been some genuine care put into assembling it, and Caleb could see that the creature had even put some effort into combing the fur on the top of his head.
What seemed like only a moment to Caleb as he made these observations was an uncomfortable silence to the beast, and it broke the tension by making a coughing sound and gesturing towards his still outstretched hand. Glancing still distrustfully at it, Caleb slowly raised his own hand and took the beast’s and shook, though in actuality the beast’s hand was so large that he practically shook Caleb’s entire arm. With a nod, the beast released his grip, and bent down and retrieved the pen Caleb had dropped and handed it back to him.
“So,” the beast said finally. “Did you like the roar? I’ve been practicing it for weeks to get it just perfect for the interview. It’s kept me up a lot of nights, but I think it was pretty good that time. Mother said it should start more subtly, but I think she’s way off. I mean, what kind of scary nightmare monster roars subtly!? I know she means well, but if you ask me she has no idea what she’s talking about. My buddies though, they were the ones who said I should just go all out with it. I’m a little nervous if you can’t tell, and I’m Jerry, by the way.”
The beast, or rather Jerry, was talking a mile-a-minute, and Caleb could barely keep up with what he was saying. His eyes fluttering, Caleb latched on to the one thing that stood out in Jerry’s ramblings.
“Wait a minute,” Caleb said. “What interview are you talking about?”
Jerry’s eyes grew wide and his mouth fell open. By the face he made, Caleb might as well have told him that his first born son had just wandered off into the woods to live with a pack of wolves.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” he sputtered, holding up his hands and gripping both of his cheeks. He looked like he was about to start crying. “Did I screw up already? Am I late? Oh no, mother’s going to be so angry at me that I messed up so quickly.”
Tears began to form and then drip down Jerry’s furry cheeks. He slumped to his knees and within seconds was bawling and howling like a baby. Stunned, Caleb stood in awe at what was happening in front of him. His little brother would sometimes have breakdowns like this, but Caleb had never seen one coming from an adult. He didn’t like to see his brother sad, and the similarities invoked Caleb’s compassionate side. He stepped forward and began patting Jerry’s shoulder comfortingly and was surprised to find the fur quite soft between his fingers, almost like a teddy bear. Looking back now in retrospect, Caleb was shocked that he ever found Jerry scary to begin with.
“It’s okay!” Caleb yelled over Jerry’s howls. “You didn’t screw up! I’m sure you’re going to do great in your interview! You’re just in the wrong place is all!” Remembering what his mother used to say to his little sister, after a moment he added: “Just take a few deep breaths!”
Jerry’s sobs slowly began to subside, and he took a few long and drawn-out breaths that seemed to calm him down. Wiping away a few remaining tears from his face, he clumsily got back to his feet. “Aren’t you Caleb Down?” he slobbered.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Caleb said after a pause, curious as to how Jerry knew his name.
“Well I scheduled my interview with the higher ups for today,” Jerry said before fishing out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and holding it out to Caleb. “Here’s the application form I filled out on Indeed.”
Caleb took the paper and unfolded it. At the top of the page were the words “Nightmare Monster-Entry Level Position,” and below that were a list of qualifications and objectives that included many big words that Caleb didn’t understand. At the bottom of the page was a short form for applicants to fill out with some basic information.
Caleb looked up at Jerry. “What’s a ‘nightmare monster?’” he asked.
“A nightmare monster is a monster, like me, who deals with dream-life.” Jerry explained matter-of-factly. “When you go to sleep and have nightmares, we’re the ones on call who, let’s say, keep things interesting.”
Caleb shrugged in acceptance. He’d heard of crazier things in his cartoons. “I guess I do have an interview with you today then,” he said, pointing to a date, today’s date, which was scribbled onto the bottom of the application in messy handwriting. “It says so right here on the paper.”
Jerry cleared his throat and straightened his suit, a sudden manner of professionalism shifting in his personality. He leaned in towards Caleb and asked softly, “If it’s okay with you, can we maybe pretend all of that didn’t just happen and start fresh?”
Caleb shrugged again. “Sure,” he said. “Why not.”
“Awesome!” Jerry replied, the shadow of a nervous grin flickering across his lips. He held out a hand and motioned towards the table and chairs. “After you.”
Finally at ease, Caleb smiled and plopped himself down in one of the chairs, setting the application on the table to his right. He pulled one of the papers in the center towards him, and wrote his name with careful attention at the top of it. He’d seen quite a lot of TV shows that featured interviews, and he was excited to get to do one himself. He came up with some questions to ask and scribbled them down on the paper.
“Where do you come from?” Caleb started asking after Jerry took a seat.
“Montana,” Jerry replied with a gentle smile.
“What’s the weather like there. Is it hot?”
“It depends on the time of year.”
“How did your fur become orange?”
“I was born this color. My mom is yellow and my dad was red.”
“If you could pick another color for your fur, what would it be?”
“Nah. I like orange.”
“Why are you so tall?”
“I’m actually pretty short for my age. Some of my friends are way taller than me.”
“How old are you?”
“Five and a half, but monsters measure our ages differently than you do. We use a system where we age a year once we’ve accomplished a set number of milestones.”
“Do you go to school, like me, and get homework?”
“I was homeschooled by my mother and graduated when I was four, but yes.”
“What’s your favorite food?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Yep! Her name’s Colleen.”
“What does she do?”
“She works in a toll booth.”
Caleb smiled. “Is she pretty?” he asked.
“Very,” Jerry said with a grin.
Caleb glanced down at his notes. Those were all the questions he had written down. Looking back up at Jerry and then back to the paper, he created an awkward silence as he quickly wrote some more down.
“I’m surprised you didn’t dress up for the interview,” Jerry said, pointing towards Caleb’s pajamas in an attempt to compromise the awkwardness. “I always knew humans do things differently, but your dressing customs are quite enviable. I wish they mentioned that in the application. I would have dressed more appropriately.”
His train of thought interrupted, Caleb ignored Jerry and his eyes flashed back to the application. Reading down the list of objectives, one word in particular caught his eyes. “What does it mean by ‘vacancy’”? he asked.
“You haven’t heard?” Jerry replied. “Brian quit like a month ago to pursue his dreams as a tap-dancing recording artist. He’s wasting his time if you ask me, but I’m not complaining about the opening. You were lucky to have him though. From the way the guys talk about him and the scares he’d pull off, I hear he was one of the best in the industry. He seemed like a stand-up guy.”
“What did he look like?”
“Oh, well, I’ve never met Brian,” Jerry said with a shrug. “The guys did always mention that he had green scales and eight pairs of eyes though, if that helps.”
Strangely enough, that did ring a bell. Occasionally when Caleb stayed up late enjoying his favorite combination of ice cream and video games, he’d meet a monster fitting that description in his dreams. Whenever he’d appear, he’d act as a catalyst that would turn a good dream sour, and Caleb remembered many nights where he’d wake up in a cold sweat after being chased by him. As he remembered him, Brian was quite relentless, and preferred chasing Caleb around with a chainsaw.
With a shrug, Caleb accepted it all and went back to thinking about questions. He settled on three that he liked in particular and was about to start asking them when Jerry piped up and said “I just realized, I forgot to give you my resume!”
Jerry reached into his pocket again and pulled out another folded piece of paper, holding it out for Caleb. Taking it and unfolding it, Caleb began to read through it, but not before saying to Jerry, “What are some interesting things you can tell me about yourself?”
Jerry breathed and launched into what sounded like a very rehearsed speech.
“I’ve wanted to be a nightmare monster ever since I was a child,” Jerry began. “I grew up in a small town and live with my mother, who has been very supportive of me as I pursue this dream of mine. She started out a bit hesitant, but she’s come around to believing in me. After I graduated magna cum laude from my college, I started working in sales to help fund my-”
“You spelled ‘laude’ wrong,” Caleb interrupted.
Jerry blinked. “What?”
“On your resume,” Caleb said, pointing to the top of the paper where Jerry had listed his education. “’Laude’ is spelled with an ‘e’ at the end, and you left it out.” Caleb glanced down at the paper, then was struck with a sudden inspiration. “I mean, ‘laude’ have mercy, that’s quite the ironic thing to misspell.”
The interruption to his speech made Jerry fluster and he hesitated. Caleb tut-tutted and mumbled, “I’m going to have to take points off for not laughing at that one.”
Jerry opened his mouth as if to say something, but Caleb cut him off. “Can you tell me about a weakness of yours?” he asked.
Jerry reached into the breast pocket of his suit and pulled out a thin index card and held it out. Giving Jerry a quizzical look, Caleb took it and saw that scribbled clumsily on the card were the three words “I over prepare.”
“I got that one from Reddit,” Jerry said with a wide smile.
Caleb smiled back. Glancing down at his notes, he realized that he had just his last question remaining. “Why do you want this job?” he asked.
“Because I need the money to support my crippling gambling addiction,” Jerry replied, then thinking ahead, added: “Don’t worry, the higher ups handle all payments.”
That made enough sense to Caleb. Though he felt he should have had additional and better questions, he could feel the effects of losing sleep start to hit him. He felt fatigued and longed for his bed back in his room.
“You did a great job,” Caleb said with a yawn. “You’re hired.”
Jerry’s eyes widened and he looked like he was about to start crying again. He stood up in his chair and covered his mouth as tears began to fill his eyes. In a snap though his professionalism returned to him, and he quickly wiped the tears from his eyes. “That’s great news,” Jerry said. “I’ve been stressing about this interview for weeks and I’m glad you appreciated my efforts.” Then after a pause, Jerry added, “Thank you for believing in me.”
Caleb nodded in reply. “So can I go home now?” he asked.
“Of course you can!” Jerry beamed. “This is your dream after all. You can go home whenever you want by pinching yourself.”
Relieved, Caleb held out a hand and shook with Jerry. “I guess I’ll see you in my dreams then,” he said. “Try not to scare me to badly.” Then with a final nod, Caleb pinched himself.
Except nothing happened.
Caleb’s eyes flashed to Jerry. “What’s going on?”
Confused himself, Jerry gaped at him. “That’s strange, that really should have worked!” he exclaimed. Then, a sudden impossible thought crossed his mind, and he held up one of his furry hands and pinched his free arm.
– – –
Jerry bolted to a sitting position in his bed, sweat cascading down his forehead. He was back in his room in his house where he had been all along. Drawing long and heavy breaths, his eyes blinked uncontrollably as he came down from the high of the fantasy.
“Oh no!” he yelled to the silence of his room. “It was all just a dream! And I did so well that time…”
Jerry’s voice trailed off similar to his hopes of having a successful interview with Caleb. Burying his face in his hands, he could feel the heat emanating from his body. He didn’t cry though, as at this point his emotions were beyond tears. Lifting his head up after a moment, he looked through the darkness to his calendar, which hung near his closet next to his desk and computer. The coming day was marked with red ink that was circled and underlined saying: “The big interview! You’re gonna do great! :-)”
“Everything’s going to be alright,” he said aloud to the calendar but more for himself. “And even if the interview doesn’t work out, I’m sure mom will let me stay with her for as long as I need.”
“The hell you will, Jerry!” Jerry’s mom, who apparently was awake, called from her room. “You better get the job and move the hell out of my house already! I’m getting pretty sick and tired of your shit!”
Jerry sighed and laid back down in his bed. He rolled to his side and went back to sleep.