Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
The monster came right before the end of summer. Nobody knew it was a monster, of course. No one ever does.
The Nettletons used to live in the house it moved into. Dani knew Imogene, their daughter. The two were in the same fifth grade, rode the same bus. They were friends. Sort of.
Dani didn’t really like Imogene, partially because Imogene talked incessantly about bats. That was her only conversational topic. Dani thought bats were nasty. She was happy when the Nettletons moved away and could she stop pretending bats were beautiful or interesting. Dani thought pretending ugly things were beautiful was the saddest thing. She hated to think of people spending their whole lives thinking something was pretty when it just wasn’t.
She may not have missed the bats, but she certainly did miss visiting Imogene because she loved her house. It was beautiful, an old stone Tudor with a gorgeous garden. She worried about what would happen to the garden after the Nettletons moved. Her mom told her not to worry: everything always works out in the end.
But sometimes things don’t.
One day, Dani saw a new car in the driveway. It was a convertible, shiny and new, Granny Smith colored. A few days later, walking past the house with her brother Nick, she saw the monster working on her garden. The lilies she had planted were a shocking white against the deep green of the lawn.
The monster waved and laughed, “Come on over!” she called, “I’m new to this neighborhood. Please, sit down. I have lemonade and cookies.”
She poured lemonade from big glass pitchers with big ice cubes and they laughed along with her big laughs that shook the garden. For someone so small, in her bright blue shirts and white and red gardening gloves, she laughed so big. She showed all her teeth when she smiled.
Her and Nick went over, almost every day. They didn’t tell their parents. Ever since Nick got sick the previous winter, their parents worried about him all the time. That was all they talked about, other than getting into arguments with each other late at night about medical bills and the odds of remission and which oncologist they should believe more.
But the monster didn’t argue loudly and say meant things; the monster was nice. She made you feel electric when you were with her. Everything reminded her of a funny story. Everyday was beautiful outside. Every glass of lemonade tasted sweeter. The sky stayed permanent blue. One day, she had a boxy old, antiquated camera. She took a photo of Nick while he laughed and told her to stop. She took a picture of Dani too, who smiles as big as she could but, she realized later, never heard the click of the shutter.
“She looks like a movie star. Like Julia Roberts,” Dani would whisper to Nick when they were walking home, “Why do you think she lives here, in silly old Greentown?”
“I guess we’re lucky ,” Nick smiled. “She’s so pretty.”
It took Dani a while to hear about the missing children. School had just started, and although her parents tried to keep it quiet, they couldn’t always be around to change the subject or shoot a warning glance at someone. So she found out at recess, from Agnes, the fat faced girl who was always forgetting her homework. Kids had disappeared from the middle school. Two in two weeks. No one knew if it was related or not.
“Why would someone take a kid,” asked Dani, who was ten and very smart but in some ways not very smart at all.
“I don’t know,” admitted fat face Agnes, who wasn’t very smart about most things save gossip, “but whatever it is, it can’t be very good.”
That night, Dani wanted to ask her parents about it, but of course she couldn’t. She decided she would settle on asking Nick instead, but he disappeared to his room after dinner and was no help at all. He hadn’t been recently anyway, she had noticed. Something was bothering him but he wouldn’t say what when she asked. She was worried he was getting sick again and no one was going to tell her. That was why she was trying to worry about the missing kids instead.
After her parents stopped paying attention to her, she was able to slip off and use her dad’s iPad. She had, through trial and error, become fantastic at disabling the blocking software her parents had installed and, once situated, she was able to read up on the vanished children online.
They were boys and both twelve. Same age as Nick. The police weren’t saying it was connected, but the comments section of the local paper was full of hysterical chatter about the boys claiming to have met someone. Someone older. One of the comments said one of the boys told a friend something about a green car.
There was a storm that night, a big awful one. All wind and rain and lightning. Raindrops banged against her windows like fists. Since she couldn’t sleep, Dani found herself thinking about the story. What happened to those boys? Did they know each other? What happened? She could hear the tv in her parent’s room. Some crime procedural show. She heard it click off. She stood up and walked to her window. The rain was still falling, but could see the monster’s house. She could see the car parked in the driveway, emerald and brand new.
The next morning, Nick was gone. Her parents were hysterical, calling everyone he knew, then the police. The police came; it felt like a movie. Dani felt numb, weird, as if she was watching a television show that confused her but she kept watching.
The policemen were nice, but they didn’t really talk to her. Her parents fluttered about, they discussed when they last saw Nick, what he was wearing, what he had been talking about. A girl, his dad said. He said he had been talking to an older girl.
The policeman smelled like cigarettes and paperwork. Did Nick say a name? But no. No one knew a name.
Dani went to her bedroom on the second floor and looked out at the neighborhood, its perfect streets, its perfect trees, its perfect world. She stared at the house where the green car had been parked. But not anymore. The driveway was empty.
Six years later, she was sixteen, riding the bus alone. Her parents were divorced. She lived with her mom. They had an apartment now, instead of a home. House. She meant house.
After Nick vanished, her parents didn’t let her out of their sight. Everywhere she went they followed, becoming tangible shadows on high doses of anxiolytics in the process. But watching her obsessively didn’t bring him back, and so they faded out into arguments with each other. Whose fault was it? Who can I blame? How can a horrible thing happen unless someone allowed it to? How could the world allow that?
Eventually, Dani drifted away from them, into the inchoate simultaneous anger and boredom of adolescence, and they let her go. Perhaps her parents felt, in losing one child, they had committed too grievous of a sin to even deserve the other.
The day she was waiting for happened when she was coming home from her friend Madeline’s house. Madeline wore sailor moon sailor inspired outfits and only watched movies made after 1985. Her dad was teaching summer classes at Artuad College, so the house was always empty. Madeline’s mom was dead. Dani didn’t know the story and Madeline didn’t really volunteer any details so it was one of those Things People Don’t Talk About. It was ok. Dani never talked about Nick. History was just something that happened anyway. Madeline had a koi pond in her backyard. Dani loved to watch the fish swim off into the edges, their giant mouths opening and closing.
“Did you read that book for class?”
“It’s not a book, it’s a story,” responded Dani, “and yeah, I did.”
“Did you like it? I didn’t,” clarified Madeline, “but, full disclosure, I don’t like anything by Henry James.”
“I didn Sort of. Wait, you know what? I liked it. It was pretty messed up,” confessed Dani. She both hated and loved how Madeline had an opinion on Henry James. Madeline was forever someone to envy and despise. “This guy — what was his name?”
“His name is John Marcher. Mar-cher. Why Madeline hates Henry James example one: his character who is always moving is named “Marcher,”” she shook her head, “for the love of Christ.”
“Right, right, so anyway, John Marcher,” continued Dani, undeterred, “waits his whole life for something impossibly awful to happen. He has this feeling of doom his whole life. But in the end? Nothing happens. No ominous event. No tragedy. And that’s the tragedy,” she paused, “if that makes sense. Does that make sense?”
“Sure. Maybe. We all waste our life, tho, don’t we? He takes such a long time to make that point. I asked my dad if it was about repressed gay stuff,” Madeline continued, leaning against the edge of a tree in the backyard. She leaned well, noticed Dani, “and he said if you’re ever in doubt writing about literature, always argue the whole thing is about repressed gay stuff.”
“Good rule. If I go to Artuad College, I’m definitely taking classes with your dad.”
“Just don’t let him sleep with you like he does his other students. That would make things between us sooooo awkward. Come on. Let’s feed these fish.”
Dani thought of the koi the whole bus ride home. She had touched one once. It’s skin felt strange. Alien. She thought of Madeline, and that story. The beast in the jungle. Life’s the jungle.
She almost didn’t see it. Later, thinking about it, she wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t looked out the window that moment. All lives are caused by these tiny accidents everyone pretends were choices.
She could see the dark clouds above the bus. It looked like a storm was coming. Everything had a trembling vitality to it; bent trees released bright green leaves. The pavement seemed to glow. And she gasped, and pulled the bus cord to stop. For there, on a street in the nondescript neighborhood, was a bright green car.
After the bus pulled off, she stood in an astonished daze next to a bench. There was a convenience store across the street, a woman walking a dog. Cars drove by. The green car was parked in front of a nondescript house. Well trimmed hedges. Mowed lawn.
There was no question in her mind if it was the right car. It was, it was, it was. Every little part of it was in her head and had been, for five years. Things can get stuck in you and never leave. And that car was one of them.
Her body felt so abstract, so distant at that moment. What do you do when you spend your whole life waiting for something and it happens?
The monster stepped out of the house. Dani ducked behind a mailbox. Fight or flight, she thought, just like she learned in biology that year. What was it called?
She peered out around the edge of the mailbox. The monster opened the car door. She looked the same. Exactly the same as she had before. Like someone had taken a picture of her and wrapped her up in it. The door closed. The car drove off.
Flight or fight.
As soon as the car was gone she was running. Down the street. Eyes wide. Breathing hard. Her entire body alive, raw and continuing.
Autonomic nervous system reaction. That’s what it was called. Your body tells you that you have to do something. It floods your neurons. You have no choice.
The front of the house was too obvious. She couldn’t go in that way. Besides, it was almost five o’clock. Cars were starting to pull into neighboring houses. Somebody would see her. She ran to the fence and climbed over, tearing a hole in the knee of her jeans.
The backyard was full of lilies. They looked like bones in the green body of the yard. She tried the French door. Locked. Standing there, tremulous, she saw a landscaping rock. She grabbed it and felt the weight of it in her hand. Fight or flight.
The rock shattered the glass. She reached in, carefully but still cut her hand. She unlocked the door and pushed it open. She was in the house. Into the jungle, looking for the beast.
She expected horrors. Dead bodies, gruesome signs of inexplicable evil. Things she would never be able to forget. But instead? Nothing. It was just a suburban home. Nice couches. Tasteful, if non-interesting, paintings on the wall. Hardwood floors. Stainless steel refrigerators. Complete blandness.
She wandered through the kitchen, the living room, upstairs. Everything looked horrible normal. Nothing out of the ordinary.
And then she noticed the closed door.
It was on the first floor. The only door, she realized, that wasn’t open. Inside of her, every nerve was surging, like she was electric cords across a wet sky. She took a deep breath. Fight or flight. She opened the door. And screamed.
There were shelves nailed into the walls. Bright green shelves. And on them, overflowing them, were the jars. And the things inside the jars.
They looked like they might have once been humans, but now they were shrunk down and distorted. A cross between a fetus and a fish on first glance, floating in dirty, brown yellow water the color of leaves in October. On the front of each jar, a photograph was taped, carefully. Each of a boy, twelve years old, smiling at the camera, smiling at their photo being taken.
The thing in the jar she was staring at was pink, malformed, gelatinous. It’s eyes were different colors. And then it pushed against the jar.
She screamed, again. Had she even stopped screaming from the first time? She wasn’t sure. In the face of impossibility, meaning slips away. All these things were alive, in some sort of horrible manner, she realized. Which meant if Nick was here, he was too. Mutated and disgusting and trapped.
She started pawing at all the jars, staring at photos, desperate to see his face. His stupid hair. The things in the jar were jumping, banging against the dirty glass. They let out bubbles from holes that might have been mouths. Their eyes were pale jellies.
She never heard the door open behind her. She was so intent on the jars, she never heard footsteps. She never felt the breath.
“It has been,” said the monster, “utterly too long.”
She didn’t scream. She wasn’t sure how. She turned around. The monster still looked the same.
“I’m disappointed you don’t look scarier,” Dani said. Her body was vibrating, “I thought you’d have, like, a final form or something.” Her heart was pounding.
“Would you like me to have one,” the monster smiled like a movie star. She stepped closer.
“You’re a monster. Why don’t you look like a monster?”
“I’m not a monster.”
Dani looked at the jars, the abominations in glass. Her brother in one, somewhere. The monster watched her. She saw her bemused expression in the reflections of the glass under the bright recessed lighting.
“They don’t know what’s happening,” she said, “they can’t see any of this.”
“You think that makes it ok,” she asked, as one of the things mouthed near the top of the water, near the lid, “that doesn’t make it ok.”
“I didn’t kill them. I made them into what they wanted. They wanted to be with me. They are.”
“This isn’t what he wanted.”
“Your brother didn’t want to grow up, Dani. He didn’t want to get sick again.”
“He didn’t want this!” she screeched. Her voice echoed everywhere. The little blobs floated.
“How do you know? Do you? Do you really? Because I know,” said the monster. “I know everything. I know you. That’s why I came back here. I don’t like to come back to places, you know. People can get ideas. If they recognize me. If they wonder why I look the same. It’s nice, you know, always looking the same. It’s nice always being beautiful. You’re beautiful Dani. You know that. But you know you won’t always be.” She walked to Dani, closer, then said, staring at her, “but it was the worth the risk, coming here, because I knew you. I knew you wouldn’t ever let him go. And I wanted to tell you that you don’t have to let him go. You don’t have to let anyone go.”
Dani didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Her blood was throbbing.
“You don’t have to let anything go if you don’t want to. You don’t have to let go of you, Dani: you can hold onto yesterday forever. And it can always feel like today.”
“You’re a monster.”
“This world is the monster. The world makes you grow up, makes you get sick, get unhappy, miserable, die. I don’t want them to die. Nether do you. You can make them live forever. You can make them happy. You can be happy. Don’t you want that?”
Dani went to scream, she wanted to scream, she felt like screaming, to tell her as a matter of fact she was a monster. She wanted to kill it and find her brother and set him free and live happily ever after —but when she opened her mouth, she didn’t say that. She didn’t say that at all.
Later, after the house and after the monster, after she got home to the apartment and had an awful and quiet dinner with her mother, she sat in her bedroom and looked out the window. It was a summer night, deep in the lushness of July, and the last dredges of sunshine had yet to cede ground to the inexorable night. Kids rode by on their bikes, happy and laughing. She was holding the old, beautiful camera. She was thinking of the explanations. The rules. She would start taking photos tomorrow. The monster said practice makes perfect. And now she could start to make everything perfect.
Credit To – Kevin Sharp