“What does tilting at windmills mean?” Colin asked Mom while she tucked in the bedcovers.
“Where did you hear that?”
“You told Dad to stop doing it.”
“Oh, well…” Mom furrowed her brow, searching for words, “tilting at windmills means battling imaginary monsters. Dad is under a lot of pressure at work, and sometimes, I think he sees problems and setbacks bigger than they are.”
“Oh, I see,” Colin answered, though he understood nothing about Dad’s work or his problems and setbacks.
Mom kissed him on the forehead, wished him good night, and flicked off the light as she left the door ajar.
Colin stared at the gray darkness. A thin shaft of light seeped in through the threshold, and the nightlight burned with a weak yellow hue. He still thought about this new concept as his eyes tried to pierce the tangled shadows that the old birch tree beyond his window cast on the wall. The waning crescent moon shone its tiny sliver of light on the birch’s white bark.
Colin’s teacher had once asked the class to describe the world outside their bedroom window, and Colin had said the tree was ‘ghostly’. The teacher had frowned and asked if it scared Colin.
“No,” he had answered, “it’s good ghostly, not bad ghostly.”
Now Colin stared at the birch as it swayed in the breeze. Mom always left the window ajar for the night air to waft in and perfume the room with the honeysuckle that climbed up the trellis beneath his window.
An owl hooted in the birch tree.
The teacher had once asked the class to describe their mothers. ‘Ajar’ had popped into Colin’s mind and slipped out of his lips. Once again, Colin had to explain.
“Mom leaves everything ajar; the doors, the windows, the closets and the cabinets, too. My house is never closed, it’s always ajar.”
Colin liked his bedroom door ajar, he took comfort in his parents’ footsteps and murmured voices as they settled in for the night.
He loved his window ajar too; the night was a new world yearning to come inside and tell him all that happened when the sun slept and the moon reigned over the sky. He enjoyed listening to the night creatures and imagined their lives in the darkness.
The closet door was always ajar, and that he disliked. In the daytime, the clothes hanging in the closet seemed mundane; pants, shirts and jackets, nothing else. But at night, they took on the shape of silent sentinels.
Colin’s eyes traveled from the window to the closet.
“Tilting at windmills,” he whispered, “means battling imaginary monsters.”
The closet door creaked, and Colin’s breath hitched. He pulled the covers up to his chin as it squeaked open. It was now ajar-plus, and the swirling phantoms within fluttered in anticipation.
Colin knew all about monsters and how they were not imaginary but real. He also knew they lived in the world beyond the closet, flittering and snickering with excitement at night. He also knew that ajar meant easy entry, and the soldier-outlines of his hanging clothes did nothing but stand like petrified gendarmes.
Colin forced himself to look away from the slithering fingers that pushed the closet door open little by little. He gazed at the birch, whose spectral shadows had spread across the walls.
The new concept was not imaginary monsters but the battling of them. How did you battle monsters? He could not touch them, only see their shapeless mass and perceive their leering giggles. He wrinkled his nose from their fetid stench and tasted their rotten evil in his mouth. Yet he could flail his limbs until kingdom come, but never touch them.
The thing slipped between the closet door and its threshold. The sliver of moonlight shone on the birch branches, and their skeletal shadows expanded as they oozed through the window like jagged claws. The tree cast its protective shadow-claw over the bedspread and onto the headboard as the thing slithered closer.
Every night, the sentry-clothes stood and stared as the creatures slipped past them into the room.
Every night, the tree protected Colin, and the things retreated whence they came.
And every night, Colin thought about screaming, but never could.
Tonight, he had learned a new term, a new concept.
“Battle them,” he thought as the putrid shape crept onto the bed and drifted toward his neck.
The wind howled and rustled the birch boughs. Its protective silhouette quivered and trembled and Colin, awed and scared, saw the birch-shadows and their wraith-like talons clasp something.
A flash of lightning zapped the windowsill, and the bedroom shook.
The sentry-clothes sprang into action and ambushed the things awaiting their turn to enter.
A shriek rang through the room; the walls shuddered as the closet door banged shut.
Thunder clapped and, amid the rumble, Colin detected the distinct sound of something ripped from the walls.
A low, painful whimper faded into the gray darkness.
A trample of footsteps in the hall and light flooded the room. Mom and Dad stood in the doorway, now wide open.
“Buddy, are you okay?” Dad asked, “We heard a slam. What’s going on?”
“I was tilting at windmills,” Colin pointed at the closet door.
Mom opened it; his clothes lay in a crumpled pile on the floor.
“Huh?” she frowned.
“The wind slammed the closet shut,” Colin whispered as the rain fell, tapping on the windowpane.
“They must’ve fallen from the force,” Dad said, attempting reassurance, though perplexed.
His parents scanned the room, yet found nothing amiss. They wished him good night, and each kissed his forehead.
“Should I close the window?” Mom asked.
Colin shook his head, “please leave everything ajar.”