"Dad, there's a monster in the basement."
Richard's voice was trembling as he spoke, his eyes darting around like those of a frightened deer.
Martin allowed himself a wry smile. Richard had been muttering about the basement for days, probably an after-effect of the movie he went to with his friends last Sunday.
Might not be a good idea to have young kids watch Hollywood, he mused to himself.
"Honey, we've talked about this. There are no monsters." He typed on without looking back, his fingers dancing over the keyboard. He had to hand in the report by tomorrow, and he's still only halfway there.
"I saw it!" The boy was on the verge of crying, "Something black just went into the basement."
Martin heaved a sigh as he turned around, telling himself to be patient. The boy seemed awfully scared. All kids are over-imaginative — think of the closet monster and you'll know.
"Honey, there's nothing to be afraid of. It's probably just Betty taking a walk around the house."
Betty was the big Czech Wolfdog his wife Nabil kept. He was not exactly a very friendly creature — kept flashing his teeth at Martin whenever he got too close. It might've been a good idea to tell Nabil to get rid of him, but Martin had never found the courage to do so.
"No, Dad. Betty's sleeping upstairs." The boy was breathing harder and faster now. He kept throwing quick glances over his shoulder, as if watching out for some kind of invisible assailant.
"Maybe the monster will come and get me."
Martin thought about it and realized that he had locked Betty in Nabil's room this morning.
"Dad, can you close the basement door for me please? Just in case the monster gets out?"
Martin looked at the half-finished report, and the reproachfully flashing cursor on the screen. "Can't we just wait a moment, honey? You see, I got some work to—"
Tears swelled in Richard's eyes. The corners of his mouth drooped and he was shaking violently. Martin looked at him and saw the eyes of a boy who was truly scared and seeking protection from his father.
Damn it. What could he do anyway? He'd been sitting here for hours. He could use a break.
He placed his hands on Richard's trembling shoulders, and smiled as fatherly as he could. "Hey, there you go, big boy. I'm going down the basement, and if there's nothing there, you gotta be good and let daddy do his job. Deal?"
"Yes, Dad," Richard answered quickly.
Martin descended the stairs, leading the boy by his hand. The first thing that caught his attention was the tiny side door leading to the basement. It was standing ajar, and a gleam of light was shining through the crack. How funny, he thought; he had turned off the light in there last night.
"Did you turn on the basement light?"
"No, Dad!" Of course not. No kid would venture into basements haunted supposedly by monsters.
Nabil went to work early today. He passed the basement door on his way to the bathroom this morning, and the lights were off then.
The flash of uneasiness was washed away as quickly as it appeared. After all, all the doors and windows were shut. Can't hurt to be sure, though. "Wait here, honey. Daddy's going in to take a look."
"If there's a monster, you're going to drive it away, aren't you?" The worried look on Richard's face had Martin smiling.
"Sure thing, honey."
"Thanks, Dad!" The boy seemed finally relieved, and he too, was smiling.
Martin pushed through the basement door and descended the creaky stairs. Everything was exactly where he had left them: stacks of old newspapers, a large plastic box and a wooden shelf where he kept all the tools. For a moment, he thought somebody had actually broken into the house, seeing that the lights were on; it was a very off chance, but...
This should put an end to Richard's constant muttering about the basement, though.
Martin turned around, only to see Richard standing at the doorway, peeking through a crack between the door and its frame, as if ready to flee.
"Don't worry, honey, it's all clear," Martin said as he ascended the stairs, "there's nothing here—"
Richard gripped the door handle with both hands and pushed inwards as hard as he could. Martin saw the door swinging at him, and jumped back reflexively, only to miss a step and land in a miserable heap at the bottom of the stairs.
"Get him!" the boy screamed. Martin turned and saw the gleaming fangs of Betty. He'd been hiding behind the shelf all along.
Richard watched with satisfaction as his stepfather's struggles died away. He turned and walked back to his room, locking the door behind him.
What an unfortunate accident. Betty had never liked his stepfather. The poor old man went down to the basement — kicked the dog out of his way, maybe — and oops.
And as he sat there with a bag of chips in his hands, he couldn't help but wonder if his mother would ever realize that he never wanted a stepfather.