Maynard stared hard at the murky darkness under his bed and frowned, squinting as he tried to see what might be there. His mother had ordered him to clean his room, starting with the bed – which was in sad, sad shape. The bedspread was flipped over the end and draped across the floor; the blanket slid off to the left while the sheet slid off to the right. All three mingled with small dust motes and dog hair from their bearded collie. The bottom fitted sheet and mattress pad had slipped off both edges at the top of the mattress and were crumpled into a ball in the middle. All were grimy from little-boy dirt that seemed to follow all nine-year-olds as if they went out each day and rolled in dust and sand and mud. Which they probably did.
Maynard’s mother poked her head in the door. “Well don’t just stand there,” she ordered. “Strip that bed. It looks like a pig sleeps in it.”
Maynard made oinking noises at his mom, which she frowned at but otherwise ignored. She ducked back out to pester his older brother, Kurt, or so Maynard hoped. He cautiously approached his bed, first grabbing the furthest edges, tugging the bedspread off and tossing it into a corner. He circled to the left, careful to stay as far away from the bed as possible, and pulled off the blanket. He then skirted back around to the sheet. All were tossed in large, crumpled up balls to the same corner as the bedspread. With all three off he had a better view of the depths under his bed, but the dark- ness sat like someone had colored the area in with a black magic marker.
Maynard had learned to be cautious of what was under the bed. Things disappeared there, never to reappear. Socks, underwear, shoes, toys; if they did reappear they were either broken or had new holes in them. His shoes had come out with long gouges in the leather and bite-marks in the soles. Once, his teddy bear had fallen on the floor and under the bed. Maynard had searched and searched, trying to find it, until he finally knew it couldn’t be anyplace else but beneath the bed. He really, really wanted his teddy bear back, so he’d taken some deep gulps of air, got down on his hands and knees, and crept slowly to the edge of the bed to look. He could see the bear just inches from his grasp. It would only take an instant to grab it and pull it out. He reached cautiously, hesitating, then stuck his hand under as fast as he could, grabbing the bear. As his fingers closed over the toy, he felt a sharp, painful stab to his wrist. He jerked back quickly, pulling the bear out with his hand. He dropped the bear and looked at the back of his wrist. There were twelve small puncture wounds in his skin forming a small circle; six punctures on top, and six punctures on the bottom. They were beginning to bleed, but only a little, and they smarted. Maynard picked up the bear to hug it for comfort, but when he turned it so he looked at the face, he found one eye and the nose missing. Gaping holes with white stuffing were there instead. He looked closer and found one arm half torn off while stuffing spilled out, and the tail looked like it had been gnawed on. Maynard peered at his wrist again and counted himself lucky. The bear hadn’t gotten off so easily.
Then there was the time Maynard lost Boris, his tarantula. Maynard had forgotten to put the lid back on his cage again and Boris had crawled out. It wasn’t really a big issue, as Boris always showed up again somewhere. It was the where Maynard was worried about because his mother hated the spider. She’d already found Boris twice and experienced an actual, honest-to-goodness meltdown each time. He’d had to get old Mrs. Torres next door to calm her down. After the last incident, his mom told Maynard that if Boris got out again and she found him, she’d squash him. So he’d fretted, and searched, and worried. Boris didn’t show up again for months, and by that time Maynard figured his mom had found him and he’d come to a messy end. That was, until a spring day when Maynard’s mom opened the windows of his room to air it out. The breeze had scooped itself under the bed and blown out a husk. That husk had been Boris, and he was upside down on his back with his legs curled inward, dead. Maynard believed the dust bunnies had gotten him.
“Oh for heaven’s sakes, haven’t you done more than that yet?”
Maynard jumped about a foot while a high and squeaky “Huh?” escaped his mouth. His mom didn’t seem to notice.
“We need to get those sheets washed and fresh ones put on before the end of the summer!” she exclaimed. She walked to the bed and with a quick motion had the mattress pad and fitted sheet off before Maynard could say anything. But that was actually OK with him. He didn’t want to get too close to the bed with so much of the underneath exposed. He watched as she balled all the bedding up under one arm and rested it against her hip. That left one hand free, which never boded well, because his mom could handle a lot of things with just one hand. She walked to the doorway and reached around the corner. Pulling her hand back, she now held a dust-mop which she shoved toward Maynard.
“Ok, now start chasing all that dust out from under your bed. Your room is probably why the house looks like the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.”
Maynard took the dust-mop from his mother as slowly as he could. Once he had hold of it, his mother turned with the laundry still balled against her hip and walked out the door. “I’ll be back up in a bit to see how you’re doing,” she said. Maynard knew when she’d reached the stairs because her sneakered feet struck each stair, causing them to mumble with a dull hollow- ness, creak as the wood slid against old metal nails and crack as the polished boards protested added weight. As he listened, his fingers fidgeted against the smooth handle of the dust mop while he turned his head back to the bed and the “underneath.” Even though the bed spread, sheet, and blanket had been removed from around the bed, the underside still loomed murky and dark, so dark it was almost solid, like if you got too close, it could reach out and grab your ankle and pull you under. It made Maynard shudder and, as hedid,asoft,low,evillaughdrippedoutfromthedarkness. Maynard’s eyes widened, big and shiny as tacky alien spaceships from 1950’s “B” movies. He took a step back. Then another, and another until he stood in his doorway with a wary eye still watching under the bed. As he stood, shifting from foot to foot and debating if he should leave against his mother’s orders, he realized he had to pee. Bad. And the urge wasn’t helped by the fact that the longer he looked at the darkness underneath, the bigger the darkness (and urge to pee) grew until it loomed so vast and dark that it seemed to leap out right in front of him.
“Aw, heck! I can’t do this!” Maynard exclaimed. He threw the dust mop to the floor where it clattered loudly and Maynard turned to bolt through the door. Except he couldn’t get through the door: it was like a big, dark barrier had been put up, preventing escape. While it was soft, it still held him in place and he opened his mouth in the beginnings of a scream.
“Hey! Watch it you little twerp!” Maynard’s brother whoomphed from out his mouth and through his nose. Maynard looked up from the door frame where he’d bounced back and saw Kurt scowling and rubbing his stomach where Maynard had just head-butted him. “Where do you think you’re going, you little zombie-puke?”
“None of your business, hummus-brain!” Maynard shot back.
“Didn’t Mom tell you to clean your room? What’re you doing out of your cage?” Kurt seemed to look Maynard over, as if figuring out what an unimportant insect was up to. “Oooh, I get it,” Kurt breathed slowly. “You’re in a freak-out about the imaginary dust monsters under your bed.” Kurt started laughing in a way that was hard and mean.
Maynard narrowed his eyes to slits and frowned. “I am not! And they’re homicidal dust bunnies!”
Kurt started laughing even harder. “Man, this is great. Wait ‘til I tell the kids at school that you’re afraid of dust.”
Kurt nodded his head up and down emphatically. “Instantly!” “You…you better not, or I’ll…” Maynard stuttered, trying to think of something good to say, “or I’ll…”
“You’ll what? Tell Mom? Beat me up?” Kurt widened his eyes and feigned looking scared, while he held a hand up to his face and fluttered it. “OOooooohhh, I’m scared!”
Maynard pushed on his brother. He was easy to move, because he was laughing so hard. As he walked toward the bathroom, Maynard yelled over his shoulder.
“You should be afraid! I’ll think of something, and it’ll be really good!”
Kurt just kept laughing.
When Maynard came out of the bathroom, Kurt was gone but May- nard was still mad. All his brother did was tease him and he was tired of it. As he stalked back into his bedroom, Maynard huffed and snorted in anger. He thoughtlessly grabbed the dust mop in both hands.
He has no right! Maynard thought, steam beginning to build pressure in his brain and tea-kettle out his ears. He’s just mean! Maynard stabbed the dust mop under the bed. And nasty! He jabbed it around to different areas, and clumps of dust and hair started flying. And hateful! Which is why he has only mean friends! Maynard was so engrossed in his thoughts, he didn’t hear the growls and squeaks coming from under the bed and flying out with the dust to the corners of the room. I’ll fix him! Just wait and see.
Maynard pulled the dust mop out from under his bed and paused. Too late, he realized what he had done as he began to notice low threatening growls, snarky grumbles and angry screeches coming at him from all direc- tions. Uh-oh, he thought as he looked at the bottom of the dust mop, finding scores of dust bunnies squashed and trapped in it. A few of the bunnies were still wiggling and jerking, attempting to get away.
Uh-oh, Maynard thought again, unable to process any other thoughts at the moment. As he watched, the dust bunnies on the floor appeared to be swirling, converging together, while a fuzzy line was forming along the edges of the bed. Maynard did the first and only thing that came to his mind; he ran to a window and threw the sash open, stuck the end of the dust mop out and shook it as hard as he could, causing the trapped dust bunnies to fall off and down to the ground below. He heard angry yells as some of them hit the bushes and got caught up in the leaves and branches. Yanking the dust mop back in, he turned to find a united front of dust bunnies forming rank like soldiers. They were completely silent… deadly silent.
Maynard did the only thing he could; he held tight to the dust mop and began sweeping the floor as hard and fast as he could. At the same time, the dust bunnies launched into the air at him. They swirled and flew about his feet and his knees, biting, clawing and grasping at whatever they could. Larger bunnies jumped higher and flurried about his torso and face; Maynard felt stinging nicks against his arms, on his neck and his cheeks, but when he stopped swinging the dust mop to swat at them, they shimmied away like gray ghosts. They moved quickly, precisely, and seemed to know his next move before he did.
Blinking his eyes through the grit and dust, Maynard realized the mop was full of dust bunnies and not one more would fit. If he hoped to catch any more and stop them from biting him, he would have to shake it out again. He ran back to the window, plowing through and scattering dust bunnies as he went. He jabbed the mop out the window and shook it as hard and fast as he could, causing a storm of flurrying fuzzy clouds to float and fall, screaming and cursing in a dust-bunny language that Maynard didn’t need to understand to know what it meant. As he emptied the dust mop and turned back for another onslaught, a movement outside in the air caught his attention. He turned back to look, disbelieving the sight.
A strong breeze had kicked up outside the house, and the dust bun- nies were riding it, surfing the currents back up and to his bedroom window. Maynard opened his mouth in a gasp of surprise, with the beginning attempts of a scream, when the dust bunnies sailed in through the window and right into his mouth. When Maynard tried to spit them out, others stuffed them- selves up his nose. He coughed and sneezed, attempting to dislodge them, but it didn’t seem to do any good. They just wouldn’t come out, or if they did, they jumped back in with the next breath he took. Maynard began to see silvery spots in his vision as he struggled for breath. Then all went black.
He awoke some time later, coughing and spewing black junk. He tried to remember what had happened, but nothing would come to him. With a groan, he turned his head to the side to survey the room, and came eyeball to eyeball with the biggest dust bunny he had ever seen.
“Let’s make a deal,” it said.
It was a gorgeous spring day as Maynard bolted out the back door of the house and down the steps to the yard. But it was more than just a spring day; it was Saturday, and school would be ending in a couple of weeks. Kurt was miserable, which was a delicious topping for this day, and the dust bunny problem was solved.
Everything’s great! Maynard thought as he trekked across the grass and stopped, stooping to look for bugs. He needed to find a nice, fat bug to feed to Boris the second, a new tarantula his dad had gotten him against his mom’s protests. This one wasn’t just gray, like Boris the first; this spider had brown and black stripes on his legs, which made him seem even cooler when he was walking.
Yup, everything had just gotten better since he’d woken up from the fight with the dust bunnies. Maynard grinned to himself as he remembered the first time he’d met Burr, the head dust bunny. Burr had been sitting next to Maynard, waiting for him to wake up.
“Hello,” Burr had said.
Maynard stayed quiet, not sure what was going on yet. His eyes felt gritty and he cautiously brought his fists up to rub them. When he looked again, Burr was still there watching him through one eye that was charcoal black, and another eye that looked suspiciously like it had belonged to his teddy bear. Burr blinked, but only the charcoal eye blinked, and it looked more like a film of dust sliding down over the eye instead of an actual eyelid.
The film slid back up, and the charcoal black remained fixed on him. “What’s the matter? Troll got your tongue?” it asked as a shudder rippled through a body that looked like a tumble-weed, but seemed to be made of hair, dust, dirt, cloth remnants, and what looked like one of Maynard’s old socks.
Maynard carefully sat up, ensuring he kept the dust bunny in sight while he did it. All he could say was “Whhaaaa??”
The dust bunny blinked again. “Troll. You know, don’t you?” Maynard just continued to stare at him.
“Oh, well. Anyway. I’m Burr, head Tumble-Dust. We’ve got a deal to make with you.”
“A deal?” Maynard choked. “Tumble-Dust? Aren’t you dust bunnies?”
Burr looked horrified. “Dust bunnies? Heavens, no! Real dust bunnies are mean!” he rumbled with a quiver in his voice. Burr seemed to quake all over, causing grit and dust to fall off while bits of hair floated away.
“Dust bunnies are…mean?” Maynard repeated, sounding more like an echo than a nine-year-old boy.
Burr nodded, although Maynard wasn’t sure how he accomplished it. “Yup! Mean. Don’t ever cross ‘em.” Burr looked Maynard up and down with his eye, and squinted it as if he were trying to figure out what kind of strange creature he was, or if he was dense. He cleared his throat. “Now, I know we haven’t always gotten along, but it’s time to put all that behind us.”
“Uh-huh.” Maynard nodded his head robotically.
“Our population has been growing and frankly, your bed is just too small now. We need a new home.”
“What’s that got to do with me?” Maynard gulped.
“You can help move us. We’ve agreed to a truce if you help relocate some of our growing families to a good place.”
Burr stopped talking, and the silence grew; the two sized each other up. Finally, Maynard spoke, slowly at first.
“Ok,” he nodded. “I’ll help, but I have a condition of my own.”
Burr blinked his one eye but nodded again, indicating Maynard should continue.
And so the deal was struck and Maynard was outside on a glorious spring Saturday, hunting bugs for Boris. As he picked through the newly grown grass, he spied a large beetle scuttling along. He quickly picked it up and plopped it into a small jar and screwed on the lid. With prize in hand, he walked back into the house. On his way to his bedroom, he passed Kurt. He was sitting at the kitchen table and Maynard noted that he looked pale and had dark circles under his eyes. Kurt kept staring at Maynard as Maynard paused momentarily to stare back, and Kurt looked at him strangely, almost fearfully, then looked quickly away. Maynard smiled to himself and contin- ued on his way to his bedroom. His thoughts turned back to Burr and the Tumble Dust colony. Kurt had a king sized bed, and after some discussion, it was agreed the Tumble Dust would move there. When the relocating group saw it, they were super-excited, and were so grateful they made Maynard an honorary member of their families.
Paybacks can be a booger, Maynard sang to himself as he walked into his bedroom and closed the door.