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MARCH OF THE MONSTERS: DOCKER SUE

Pip's bedroom was silent. Of course it was. It had been silent for years. Why would there be any noise in it now? Bollinger stood there, watching it anyway, just in case. His hand only shook a little bit, just enough to make the ice cubes vibrate, and none of the Captain spilled over the rim. That was very important. Even now. Especially now.

He turned away, pulling the door shut with a minute squeak. He took a step away. Another step. Nothing spilled yet. Very important.

Then, a giggle. Rum and ice cubes shot up out of the glass like a geyser, soaking Bollinger's arm and sinking into the shag carpet. He gasped and turned back to the door, slamming his drink-free hand against the semi-gloss paint.

“Go away!”

For a few seconds, silence. Then a voice. A faint, scratchy whisper, sing-songing happily.

“This is Fred. Fred likes his bed. His bed is wet. His bed is red.”

The voice paused while tears started to roll down Bollinger's cheeks. Then the voice continued, “Fred's bed is very wet and red. But Fred doesn't care....”

Against his will, Bollinger found himself whispering the words along with the voice. “... because Fred is dead.” Then he shouted, louder this time, “go away!” and threw the glass at the door. The rum ran down the white paint. Then the laughter started.

Fred Bollinger ran down the stairs.

Later, much later, years too late, he called the only person he could think of that might help.

“Hello?” she answered, voice full of sleep.

“Linda? I heard him today, Linda.”

There was a long pause.

“For the hundredth time, Fred, I am not your sponsor.”

“He can't help me.”

“Neither can I. Are you still seeing that doctor?”

“Silverman? No. He can't help me, either. I heard him, Linda.”

“Heard who?”

“Docker Sue.”

She skillfully turned her “oh, fuck” into “for crying out loud.” She had always been smooth like that. Nice, polite. Perfect wife.

“I heard him!”

“Fred. We've gone over this a million times. There is no Docker Sue. He was a figment of Pip's imagination. You've got to stop doing this. Call Silverman tomorrow, and get back on the meds that you need to be taking.”

“They aren't helping me. They're just making it so I can't hear him.”

“Which is exactly what they are supposed to do, Fred.” Same conversation, every time. There was a fundamental failure to connect. They had been having communication problems even before Pip vanished, but since that event the cracks between them had become a gaping ravine that it was now impossible to bridge.

“But he's still there!” he cried. “And if I can't hear him, how will I know....” He can't say it.

“Fred, I can't do this anymore. You need to stop calling me. I can't help you at all unless you get back on your medication. Do that, and maybe we can talk. I'm hanging up now.”

“Where did Pip go, Lin?” he asked her quietly.

“I don't know, Fred.” Was she crying? “I have to go now. Don't call me anymore.”

Click.

Fred is dead.

Fred needs a drink.

Much later, he slept. Not a good idea. Sleep was visions of Pip running through nonsensical primary color landscapes, chased by something he had never been able to describe to his parents. Something that sang to him in words of one syllable. In parts of the dream, Pip was three again, the age he had been when Docker Sue first showed up in his nightmares. In other parts he was thirteen, which was as old as Pip was ever going to be. He was a statistic now, part of Group B or Subgroup D or some other thing in a national database. Early teen missing persons. Fred knew that the suspicion, in the absence of evidence of a homicide, was that these kids had run away. For a while, he had almost believed it himself. Then the dreams had started.

He woke up, covered in cold sweat. The sheets and pillowcase were drenched with it. Again, this was nothing new.

But there was something new after all. The voice. He could hear it outside his dreams now. Docker Sue's scratchy, whiny whisper, drifting down the hallway.

“Where is Pip? Where is your son? Pip is in here, having fun.”

That was new, too.

Fred sat up in bed. He had heard Docker Sue's annoying sing-song several times over the years, but he'd never said anything like that. In here? Having fun?

Where was “in here?” They had always assumed that Pip had been taken away, or perhaps wandered off in response to Docker Sue's call. Of course, the police had never found any physical evidence of wrongdoing, but Docker Sue wasn't exactly natural, was he? Obviously he could make a boy disappear without a trace. Fred had no problem believing that. Docker Sue was like Jesus, or Keyser Soze in “The Usual Suspects” – the real trick was believing in him in the first place. If you believed in him, you knew he could do just about anything. Making a child disappear was, pardon the pun, child's play.

But what if he hadn't really disappeared? What if Pip was still alive, just hidden somehow? Could he really be hidden away in his own room? Fred had been in that room a hundred times since Pip's disappearance. How could a boy be hidden in there? Where was there to hide?

Could he have missed something?

He got out of bed, wondered for a moment if he should have a little something to fortify himself, and actually poured a glass of the little something. Then he set the glass down without drinking.

That was another first, and it was hard. He hadn't really done anything difficult without the Captain, or maybe the Captain's good friend Johnny, since a few days after Pip disappeared. But the nice part of that was that once he had set that glass down, he wasn't afraid to walk down the hall. He was pretty sure that if he had taken the drink, he would be quaking with fear right now, making every step towards Pip's room an agony of fright. But since he had not taken it, his mind was busy with thinking how much he wanted that drink. It didn't make it any easier, but at least he wasn't wetting his pants in fear.

There's irony for your blood, he thought. And just as quickly, thought, screw irony. I want to go back for that drink. Whatever is in that room, I want the Captain on my side.

Scratchy giggles came from Pip's door. Fred shook his head and opened the door, swallowing. He wanted a drink.

The room was empty. Pip's bed, covered with the beautiful dragon coverlet Linda had made for his twelfth birthday, was undisturbed. A couple of model fighter jets dangled motionless on nylon fishing line. The bookcase was neatly arranged according to Pip's preferences, with pride of place given to the fantasy series Pip had loved. Earthsea, the Lord of the Rings, Conan and John Carter alongside the first three Harry Potter books. Fred would never discover what happened to Harry. He knew there were two new books out, and the world was going Harry crazy, but he couldn't stand to hear about it. Harry Potter had been Pip's latest passion when... when it happened.

The cops, of course, had gone through Pip's room with a fine-tooth comb when Pip disappeared, and they had made an unholy mess of the bookshelves. But Fred, who shared more than a little of the obsessive compulsive tendency with his son, had carefully put every book back where it belonged when they eventually dropped the case. In the beginning at least, he had believed that Pip would be back any day, and he wanted his room to be ready for him. Like nothing had ever happened.

Like their lives hadn't all been flushed down the toilet. Like everything was normal.

He hadn't known about Docker Sue's connection to the vanishing when it happened. They had all still thought that Pip had run away or been taken by some sicko.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at the shelves. Alice In Wonderland was right in front of his face. It had been one of the perennial favorites. They had lost themselves in its lunacy several times together before Pip was old enough to read it for himself, and Fred guessed that he had read it at least two or three times alone since then. This copy of the book could actually qualify as a family heirloom, he realized. It had originally been his mother's. Four decades ago, she had been the one reading aloud, and Fred had been the listener.

He pulled it off the shelf and turned it in his hands. It was comforting to feel this solid, cloth-bound thing that had woven such magic around him as a child. Comforting to feel an artifact that three generations of the family had gone to sleep with. He still knew Jabberwocky by heart.

“Pip is here...” came the scratchy voice from close by, making Fred jump and grip the book tightly so he wouldn't drop it.

He stood up quickly, screamed, “where are you?

And the world fell to pieces.

The bookshelves erupted. It was like an explosion in a paint factory. Yellow, blue and red shot everywhere. Fred staggered back and flung up his arm to protect himself. Brightly painted fantasias swarmed past him, covering the room, dissolving everything they touched. Twisted, curlicued palm trees leapt up around him, interspersed with spiky little bushes. Where there had been a hardwood floor, was now a grassy ground with vertiginous dips and towering outcroppings, as if the world had been created in a gravity-free zone.

The only things that hadn't changed were Fred and the book he held.

The trees blocked his view in most directions, but he could see that he was in a much larger space than Pip's room. He turned around, trying to make sense of his senses. Behind him was a steep incline going down to a group of smaller hills, rounded like scoops of ice cream. Beyond the hills was the sea – a sea of sharp, storm-driven waves. He could see tall triangular fins slicing those waves. Sharks, clearly, but enormous sharks with exaggerated dorsal fins in shades of purple, green, and orange.

He had a feeling that if one of those sharks surfaced and showed him its grin, it would have teeth like carving knives, longer and sharper and more triangular than any real shark's had ever been.

Something buzzed past him, and he turned again to see a red-striped insect, like a wasp with too many legs, zoom away into the trees, only to reappear a second later, flying away at a different angle with a zig-zagging flight path that somehow managed to suggest terror.

Then he heard the cracking of the trees, saw fronded palms being flung through the air, felt the vibrations in his feet. And out of the jungle came Docker Sue.

Pip had never liked to fall asleep. He had always fought to keep his eyes open until the last possible instant, sometimes literally keeping himself awake until he fell over. When questioned about it, he told them that he was afraid he would see Docker Sue. He hadn't, for the most part – as far as they knew, Docker Sue had only actually showed up in his dreams six or seven times in all those years – but the fear of him had tainted Pip's sleep for most of his short life.

Fred could understand that now.

They had never been able to figure out what Docker Sue looked like, or what made him such a terror. Pip became totally incoherent when he had to talk about him. They knew that his name was three-year-old Pip's corruption of Doctor Seuss, and from the name, Fred had at first thought of a malevolent little man wielding a scalpel, perhaps looking something like Szell in Marathon Man. The fact that Pip was afraid of doctors seemed to bear this out. But once, during his most concerted effort to tell them about Docker Sue, Pip had said something about “lots of arms” and “a long rat tail” that didn't make any sense if Docker Sue was a doctor, or even if he was human. And he wasn't. Not even close.

He did have lots of arms. And most of them were long, and spider-thin like his legs. His eyes were cold blue fire. His hands were the size of pitchforks. His skin was scaly. And he looked like he had been drawn by Maurice Sendak, if Sendak had taken absinthe and crystal meth on a really bad night and still been able to draw.

He looked... drawn. Flat. Unreal. Not like he wasn't there – he was definitely there – but like he was made of ink on board instead of muscles and bones.

And he reminded Fred of something. What it was, he couldn't remember, but the shape was familiar somehow. Something that was as much a part of his childhood as the nightmares had been part of Pip's. What was it?

The creature towered over Fred, leering at him with a grin full of needles.

“Hello, Fred,” it laughed. “How do you do? Pleased to meetcha. I'm Docker Sue.”

He had Fred's voice and accent, down to the last detail.

The preying mantis claws that tipped some of his many arms flexed happily, and his long tail – which was indeed ratlike – curled behind him, balancing his monstrous body.

Fred was terrified. He couldn't even run away. But after a second, he found that his fear turned into something else. Something he hadn't felt in years. All his emotions since Pip's disappearance had been tragic ones. He'd felt sad. He'd felt lonely, betrayed, hollow, empty. He'd felt like he needed a drink. Mostly that. But now, looking at the monstrous thing that he now knew for sure had taken his son and ruined his life, he felt something different. He felt a wrath so intense that it burned away his fear.

He didn't want a drink. He wanted to kill.

“Where,” he asked the imaginary monster, “is my son?”

Docker Sue laughed, and the world rippled around them. Out of the corner of his eye, Fred saw new trees sprouting on the hillside, and the existing trees grow more twisted and bushier. But he didn't care.

“Do you miss Pip? Never fear. Pip is here. He's very near.” Saliva dripped from his fangs in glistening ropes, dangling and running down his vest.

Fred blinked. Down his vest? Yes, it was true. Docker Sue was wearing an old-fashioned vest, the kind of thing you expected to see adorned with the chain of a pocket watch. Just like another monster Fred remembered.

“Do you want him? Let's make a swap. Your soul for his, a son for a pop.” The air behind the monster shimmered, and Pip appeared. Not the little Pip who had first dreamed this Seussian vision, but the older Pip, the son Fred had lost. Standing there, scared, trembling, silently begging Fred to do something.

“Fuck you, and fuck your swap,” Fred snarled.

He remembered now. He knew exactly why Docker Sue looked familiar. He had never been as traumatized as Pip, but he had had his own childhood monster, hadn't he? Like father, like son. They had both had abnormally active fantasy lives as children. He had woken up a few times seeing that chimera, remembering its eyes of flame hovering over its bed. Remembering –

Docker Sue snatched at him, wrapping his ridiculously skeletal fingers around him and squeezing his chest like an anaconda. He hit its arm with the spine of the book, but to no visible effect. Sue's strength was outrageous. A real, breathing creature couldn't possibly be that strong. Only a creature of fantasy could wring such power from fingers that flimsy.

“Wait!” he gasped while he still could. “Answer one question!”

“Very well then. Ask away. We have lots of time to play.” Its voice, Fred decided, was the most irritating thing about it.

“Where are we?”

The creature grinned. “A world of books poured through Pip's head. Parts of all the books Pip read. In here I grew, thanks to you. The written word, and things he heard, and every fear on which I fed.”

That, when he sorted through the rhymes, was pretty close to what Fred had guessed.

“Then,” he said, straining to get the words out while he still had breath in his body, “if you've got me, you might want to meet my own nightmare.”

And he held up Alice and let the pages fall open, to the place where it always opened. To the picture he had always turned to, the poem that was the only work of English literature he had ever memorized, and the monster that terrified and fascinated him as a child. The manxome foe with eyes of flame, come burbling and whiffling through the wood. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch.

Docker Sue, meet Jabberwocky.

He had thought perhaps it would just pop out of the book as it opened, but it was stranger than that. For a second, it seemed that nothing was going to happen. Docker Sue's claws tightened around his chest once more, forcing the air from his lungs. Then the trees around them seemed to change. Black lines appeared on their trunks, crosshatched patterns darkening the Seussian fantasia, and shadows grew between them. The trees began to change in shape, and their part of the weird jungle became a tulgey wood. And then came a whiffling, and a burbling that grew louder by the second. Docker Sue looked around in alarm, just in time to duck under the Jabberwock's swinging claw.

He dropped Fred to the grass that now looked more like a Tenniel drawing than Doctor Seuss. For a few seconds, he knelt there, doubled over, trying to get air back into his lungs, while the two monsters slammed at each other and circled around. They seemed evenly matched – the Jabberwocky was larger than Docker Sue, and it could flutter awkwardly with its undersized wings, but Pip's nightmare was more wickedly armed and faster. They screamed in unison as the Jabberwocky pulled off one of Sue's arms, and Fred noticed that Sue's blood was dark red. And everywhere it splashed, the scenery dissolved in smoke, as if the blood was acid.

Fred crawled over the grass to where Pip stood. The monsters continued to fight, screeching and tearing at each other, spraying blood around the wood. The trees were giving off a fair amount of smoke now from the scattered blood. Pip met Fred halfway, falling to his knees to hug him. What should have been a tender reunion was cut short by the thrashing combat of the monsters.

“What are we supposed to do now, Dad?” Pip asked.

“I don't know,” Fred admitted. “I didn't plan any of this. But I think -” he had to stop and pull Pip behind a tree as Docker Sue leapt onto the Jabberwocky's head and they crashed to the ground together. They watched while the Jabberwock's lithe tail wrapped around Sue's throat and flung him into a tree. Acrid smoke erupted from the tree, and when it dispersed, they could see blue, like the walls of Pip's room.

“Pip, I think this place will fall apart if Docker Sue dies,” said Fred. And it seemed like he was right. More and more holes in the scenery were appearing as the battle continued.

“Dad?” said Pip.

“What?” Fred hopefully eyed a large gash in the ground. He could see the floor of Pip's room through it, and there was the foot of his bed.

“You have to stop calling me Pip. I'm thirteen years old, for crying out loud. It isn't cool.”

“Okay. Promise. Listen, I think we can jump through that gap.”

“What?”

“Jump through. We should land in your room.”

“I thought you said Docker Sue had to die first.”

“Well, he's weak. The Jabberwocky's wounded him pretty bad, I think.” Indeed, it looked as if Docker Sue was in dire straits. Several of his arms had been torn off, and he was bleeding all over. He wasn't about to stop fighting yet, but it didn't look good for him.

Trust me,” said Fred. “Can you do that?”

Pip looked unsure, but nodded.

“All right then.” There was an especially loud screech as the Jabberwocky slashed at Sue's chest, spraying blood across the clearing. Fred took a deep breath. “We jump for that gap on three. One....”

Docker Sue suddenly looked at them, as if sensing what they were about to do. He shook his head mournfully, and the Jabberwocky slammed into him from the other side, hurling him to the ground and striking at his throat. The gap in front of Fred and Pip widened considerably.

“Two... oh, fuck it. Jump!” They jumped just in time to avoid a last flailing strike of Docker Sue's mantis claws. There was a momentary sensation of falling in several directions at once, a lurching feeling like heavy turbulence on an airliner, and a thud as they crashed to the floor of Pip's room and the Seussian landscape disappeared from view.

“Oh my God,” Fred gasped, hugging his son desperately. “I thought you were gone forever. I can't believe I found you.” He was crying now. But Pip wasn't returning his embrace. He was as stiff as a corpse in Fred's arms.

“Dad....” he whispered.

Fred's face was buried against Pip's shoulder, tears running into his boy's T-shirt.

“What is it, son?”

“Why is everything backwards?”

Fred opened his eyes and looked up. He looked at the bookshelves next to the bed. He shook his head. Something was wrong. The books were all there, all the familiar covers, but they were all wrong. After a moment he realized why. The titles were all written backwards.

He looked up at the clock on Pip's wall. It, too, was reversed. In fact, everything in the room was a mirror image of what it should be.

“We're not home, Dad,” said Pip. “We're in Looking Glass World.”

From a great distance away, they heard the mournful cry of a Jub-Jub bird. And much nearer, the whiffling burble of a Jabberwocky on the hunt.

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