So this is the first one I’ve written since the novel, and reading it over I feel a bit rusty on the short story front, but I’ll warm up to it again. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it, more as I went along, and I think it’ll be the same for you. Just a little something to remind you that monsters aren’t all bad. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
Monster, when she found him, wasn’t yet Monster. He was more of a creepy looking insect, so small that he was almost indistinguishable from any other crawling bug, and one that would have given any other girl nightmares. Good luck for Monster, then, that it was Mary who found him instead of a normal girl, and good luck for him also that he was almost indistinguishable from run of the mill crawling bugs, or she might just have squashed him all the same.
Mary was sitting down at the river bank at the bottom of the garden as she often did, her old dress getting muddy and her feet trailing along in the cool water. She could sit there for hours, and often did on summer afternoons, watching the water running, sun glistening off the ripples and leaves dropping from above. That day something else dropped from above, from one of the infinitely tall oaks that hung all down the river, but she didn’t see it (or rather him) until he grabbed her big toe out of desperation to keep from drowning.
An ordinary girl would have screamed at the unexpected touch – and some pain as tiny teeth sunk into the skin just beneath her toenail – but Mary merely let out a surprised gasp and brought her foot in for inspection.
Monster was there, and she was on the point of flicking him back into the water when she realised he wasn’t the spider she’d supposed. He was the wrong colour for one thing: mostly black but with twirling lines of red all over his body. And then she saw that he had only four legs instead of eight, and only two eyes. Spiders and insects tended to have pincers, but this thing had a mouth. She couldn’t see his teeth, because they were sunk all the way into her skin, but she did note that his mouth wasn’t wide the way a shark’s mouth is wide, but more tall, like a rat’s mouth if you took away its snout.
She analysed the thing, and while she watched he closed his eyes and his whole body began to pulsate gently as he sucked her blood into himself and his belly swelled to the size of a peppercorn. ‘Well, you’re greedy, aren’t you?’ she said. He paid no attention.
‘What’s your name?’
At last, he drank his fill and opened his mouth, retracting two lines of needle sharp teeth the way a cat retracts its claws. He scuttled up her ankle and along her leg until he reached her knee, where her skin was dry, and there he took refuge briefly, beady eyes flicking here and there, though back then he was so small she couldn’t make out his pupils.
‘I think I’ll call you Monster, because that’s really what you are, isn’t it? A monster.’ She could feel an almost imperceptible pressure as its four legs gripped her skin and it rested its belly on her.
She sighed and shook her head, and though she was curious she was still not above flicking the funny creature right back where it came from, but before she could make the fatal blow, Monster did a strange thing: he closed his eyes, relaxed his tight grip on her skin, and smiled. It was an odd, hair raising smile, full of black gums, but a smile nevertheless, and it stilled Mary’s hand the way mere curiosity could not. She decided to take him home.
For her last year of primary school, Mary was happy, and so was Monster. She kept him in a huge terrarium she’d created using the largest fishbowl she could find and several types of obscure plants. It sat on her desk in front of the window, and while it had initially been nothing more than decoration, soon after Monster it became a place for her to keep any interesting or helpless bug she happened to come across in the garden.
Soon, however, she discovered that some of the bugs were going missing, and Monster had his peppercorn sized belly more often than not. She began to add more bugs, and even things as boring as ants, to satisfy him. By the end of summer her terrarium was a veritable jungle of squirming, eating, fighting, mating insects. She made another just like it and put the two side by side, and when the population of the first was suffering, she would move Monster from that one to the other, so that he never went hungry. He must have been grateful, because though she handled him quite roughly at times he didn’t bite her again.
As for Mary, she had two loving – if distant at times – parents, four close friends, got consistently high grades at school and in general did well at life. So, they were happy. Then high school began.
Mary’s four friends all went to another school, St. Claire’s, while Mary’s parents bizarrely, unexpectedly, stupidly were adamant on sending her to Sion Secondary just because her mother went there. That was their sole reason. She fought with them and lost, and lost dessert for the next seven dinners for the things she said. Her first report card in seventh grade showed one B, three Cs, and two Ds. Her parents shook their heads and said they were disappointed. No one seemed to like her in her class, thinking her too snobby for them and their school, and she knew it was because she could only ever talk about her other friends and St. Claire’s.
It got worse. By the beginning of eighth grade, Mary found herself completely alone on the school ground, an outcast, the butt of every joke she pretended not to hear. When anyone tried to speak to her, she made an effort to be nice and smile, but somehow everything she said related to her house, or her family, or her clothes, and they always thought she was trying to show them how rich she was. They smiled at her face and laughed at her back.
But Monster was always there. He had grown, and now when he ate a big meal his belly was more like an acorn than a peppercorn. He was easily the best and biggest insect she had. Many of her afternoons were spent patrolling the vast garden for living things to drop in the terrarium, no longer for her enjoyment but for his. Whatever squeamishness she once had about bugs she lost in this pursuit. There was something satisfying about watching Monster gulp down a millipede and give her that cute smile of his. It was worth it.
Mary decided to take Monster to school one day. He was her only friend, after all. She put him in her pocket with a stern warning, and pushed some dead ants into a plastic baggie in her other pocket so she could feed him during the day. Even though he was just an insect, when she spoke to him and told him all her worries, he seemed to listen, and whether he understood or not it gave her comfort.
At lunch time, she took him to a wooden bench on the side of the football oval and put him beside her so she could feed him ants while she spoke. He sat comfortably and chewed on the little black bodies while she told him about the cruelty of the other girls and about how she was going to be a famous singer when she grew up, but before she could tell him how she’d spend her future millions, someone came and sat beside her.
Her name was Linda, one of the most popular girls in the year level, beautiful and smart and nice to everyone. She beamed at Mary, who was unable to give her anything in return besides a dropped jaw.
‘Hi, I’m Linda,’ Linda said, holding out her hand.
‘I know,’ Mary said, shaking it, and then realising how dumb she sounded.
‘Oh, K. Do you like it here?’
‘Yeah, I mean. Yeah. I just feel left out.’
‘Don’t worry about that, everyone’s very, I dunno, in their groups. But I think you’re okay.’
‘So what were you doing all the way out here?’
Mary shrugged. ‘I just like… Well I don’t know who to talk to. God, my only friend is a bug.’
Linda’s smile faltered for a moment, but then laughed, and not in a cruel way. ‘Well that’s alright,’ she said. ‘Some of my friends are bugs too.’ And she nodded her head mischievously in the direction of the group of girls she’d left to come and talk to Mary. They were talking in low voices and occasionally glancing their way with scandalous faces. Mary giggled, tempted to say that some of them did in fact look quite like bugs, but she was afraid of being rude.
‘Anyway, I’m having a party on the weekend and I wanted to invite you.’
‘Really? I mean, thanks, I’ll be there.’
‘Okay,’ Linda said brightly. ‘And don’t worry about them, they’ll like you once they get to know you.’
‘Thanks.’ But the other girl was already moving off to her group, shaking her head at once of the glaring ones and saying something that made her turn red. Mary couldn’t help but feel admiration for the girl, and all the lonelier to be sitting alone on her bench. Monster nipped her hand and she dropped him back into her pencil case, where she kept a supply of ants she’d burned with a magnifying glass before school. That should keep him busy.
Years passed, and Mary seemed to rise to the challenges of high school. Her parents saw a healthy glow in her and she was smiling more often than not. Even the bitchier girls of the group accepted her after a while, especially once she learned to hide that tomboy side of her that had once kept her from making many friends. None of them ever saw her bedroom or met Monster, and her parents kept a respectful distance from her room once she put a DO NOT DISTRURB sign on the door made out of a small wooden board and blood red nail polish.
In her final year, she and Linda were best friends and the most popular and most beautiful girls in school. Their parties (always held at Linda’s house, of course) were legendary. And yet… Mary never quite seemed happy. She smiled, certainly, but there was always something else in her eyes. Like longing, Linda thought – and she thought she knew why.
One day, lying around on Linda’s Queen sized bed and listening to old music, Linda said: ‘I’m going to set you up, Mary.’
The other girl shot her a sideways glance. ‘Yeah? Who with?’
‘Ooooh, nice. Greasy hands and face for the rest of my life was just what I always wanted.’
‘He’s not greasy.’ She paused. ‘Well, not that greasy anyway.’
‘Besides,’ Mary said after a while, ‘If anyone sets me up, it’ll be me.’
‘Yeah?’ Linda sat up and turned the music down, then a little bit up again in case anyone was listening. Her mother could be so nosy.
‘Stilts, you mean? Really?’ Ryan Skelts was just on six feet five, and while he wasn’t fat he had plenty of meat to go with it. He had a slow way about him and an easy going attitude. Still, Linda didn’t see it.
‘He’s nice,’ Mary said, but there was a gleam in her eye Linda didn’t think she liked. There was something mean about it, and she caught a flicker of something else. Almost like her eyes had turned another colour for a second. ‘Do you wear contacts?’ she said, leaning closer.
‘What? No. Weirdo.’
They laughed, and the song ended so Linda changed her playlist and they talked about bands for a while. A little while later Mary said, ‘So will you help me?’
‘What, with Stilts? You don’t need my help, honey.’
‘Come on, I’m shy.’
‘Sure you are. ‘Course I will. Chin up, girl! Just look at you! You’re a man eater!’
For some reason, the joke struck Mary as particularly funny and she threw herself back onto the bed and laughed until her sides ached, and Linda joined in although she didn’t really know why, laughing more at Mary’s joy than anything else. Such a strange girl, she thought, but fun, really fun.
*** *** ***
When she fell into step with him after school, he was more than a little surprised, but other than a sideward glance and a raised eyebrow he didn’t show it. It wasn’t that they didn’t speak or get along, but she’d always been a cold fish in some ways, and she sure as hell wouldn’t be walking with him, alone, when her house was in the other direction. Yet here she was.
‘Hey Stilts,’ she said, ‘how’s life?’
‘Ah, not bad, not bad,’ he answered in that ponderous way of his. He gave her a smile. ‘What’s up with you?’
‘Not enough. I’m bored.’
‘Yup, schoolwork’ll do that to you.’
‘It’s not the schoolwork.’
He didn’t know what to say to that. For now most of his effort was concentrated on slowing his heartbeat to something resembling the normal rate and trying to remain as casual as possible.
‘So did you wanna chill out somewhere after school? Linda said you like the old school Arnie movies, like me?’
‘Uh, yeah, love em.’
‘Cool, I’ve got like a thousand. That’ll be something to do, right?’ She cast an innocent smile up at him and he gave it back, not believing it for a second. It had to be something, no one was that naïve, right? The girl was all over him.
‘Yeah, I’m for it,’ he said at last.
‘Nice, I’ll see ya tomorrow.’ She slapped his back in a friendly way, same as Jimmy or any of the others would have, only it made his skin tingle, and then she turned and headed back.
He let out a breath, turned to watch her go for a little while, and then headed home, the day suddenly looking a little brighter.
As soon as he couldn’t see her, the smile disappeared from Mary’s face. Her stomach growled and squirmed painfully and several times she glanced down at it, worried that it was protruding enough to make a bulge in her dress. It seemed alright, but she was still queasy, and didn’t eat much when she got home.
‘Are you alright, dear?’ her mother said, when she pushed her plate aside and stood up.
‘Fine, just tired.’
‘You sure?’ Cocking her head to one side.
She forced a smile even though she was burning to get upstairs to her room, where her real meal was waiting. Her insides were screaming for it. ‘Yes I’m sure. Besides I’ve gotta get some homework done.’ Before her mother could say another word, Mary left the kitchen and took the stairs two at a time, pulled open her bedroom door and locked it tight behind her.
The room was dark and cluttered. Clothes and books and papers scattered all over the floors and bed, everything either damp or muddy, and piles of boxes stacked in the walk in closet. Several of these tumbled out as the closet door slid open and round balls of wriggling worms, wingless flies and ants poured out and disappeared into the wreckage of her room.
She’d lowered the rolling curtain all the way down and duct taped the edges all around the window, and after she kicked piles of clothes against the bottom of the door the whole room was dark as a cave. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh, relaxing.
A deep purring came from the closet and Monster came forward, only his eyes visible in the dimness. His teeth had been out, but as she came to him he retracted them and rose up to embrace her.
‘Oh, God I missed you today,’ she whispered. When he spoke it was in a series of low clicks in the back of his throat and short, soft purrs – a kind of Morse code she’d developed for him years ago, when she discovered just how well he could understand her.
‘Really?’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t miss too much school. And I’ve been worried about… you know what.’ He growled an answer that made her smile and hugged her tighter, his black and red arms pressing into her back and warming her a little. Once he’d learned to communicate, she’d been shocked at how intelligent he was, soon matching even her sharper than average mind, and when she discovered the sheer depth of emotion he had… The rest was unavoidable, really.
Finally they parted and she felt another wave of discomfort roll over her, almost bringing her to her knees. He moved to hold her up but she held up a hand. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘I just need to eat… some real food. I…’ But the pain deepened and she couldn’t waste another second. She spun around and pulled one of the spilled boxes over to her. Many of the worms had escaped but there was still a solid layer at the bottom and she plunged into this with both hands, sucking down squirming and dead bodies alike.
After her third handful she slowed down and began to pick the juicer specimens, and a few minutes later she pushed the box away and let herself fall back, blissfully into Monster’s strong arms. She let him carry her to the back of the closet and lay her down in the nest he’d made there, and it was so comfortable she almost fell right asleep. She couldn’t allow that, though, not yet. There was still a lot of work to do before tomorrow.
She rested with him for a while, enjoying the soothing relief as the worms reached her stomach and it stopped revolting and settled into a pleasant sense of satisfaction. She turned and looked at the red eyes beside her. She could see the smile in them and wished she could return it, but she was so worried.
‘It’s getting close to the time,’ she said.
He purred back to her and she nodded, but didn’t feel any better.
‘I just wish there were another way, that’s all. I’ll do anything to, you know, keep them, but… It’s sad in a way, isn’t it?’
He pressed closer to her and purred and clicked to her for a long time, and in the end she was comforted.
Ryan Skelts took his time, not rushing, talking to Jimmy and Dean like he always did, being normal. He waved goodbye as they peeled off the road and headed off to their respective houses, but as soon as they were gone he turned down a side road, doubled back and headed for Mary’s house. He’d thought about telling them what was going on, but word got around too fast for his liking and if Mary heard it might ruin his chances so… screw it. Just call him Mr. Bond.
By the time he reached her house his heart was hammering in his chest. He fixed an easy smile on his face and knocked on the door, preparing himself for the appraising glare of a stern father or judging tight lipped mother.
But it was Mary herself who opened the door, bright as ever, and beckoned him inside. He opened his mouth to speak as he stepped into the hallway but she put a finger to her lips and pointed through the tall archway on their right into the adjoining room. It was a cosy looking living room, and both of her parents were sitting on the couch watching television, only the backs of their heads visible above the cushions.
‘Hi, Linda, come quick, I’ve got the craziest video to show you,’ Mary said, pulling him out of view of the living room and up the steep flight of wooden stairs.
‘Hello, Linda!’ Mary’s mother called after them in a singsong voice. Luckily they were already far enough away to pretend not to hear and then Mary was pushing him into her bedroom and shutting the door behind her. She leaned on it once they were inside, grinning.
‘Sorry about that,’ she said. ‘My parents can be a bit… weird with boys.’
He glanced around the neat room and thought how unlike any girl’s room it seemed. True, he’d only ever seen a few in his life, two of them being his sisters’, but they all seemed to share the same common characteristics: they tended to be messy, smelled sweet, and were littered with hundreds of objects – books, jewellery boxes, makeup bags, etcetera. This room had none of it. There was a dressing table with a couple of rings and bracelets. The walls were completely absent of posters or decoration of any kind, and the overwhelming smell was of lemon scented cleaning product.
‘That’s alright,’ he said easily, sitting down on the side of the bed. ‘I get it. My parents are pretty strict about stuff, too. They think I’m at the library right now.’
‘Really?’ she chuckled. ‘Adults are weird sometimes, aren’t they?’ She brushed back a lock of golden hair and opened her mouth to say something, but before the words escaped her she half doubled over, clutching her stomach and grimacing.
‘Uh, you okay?’ he half stood up, not sure how he was supposed to help, but thankfully she recovered a moment later and shot him an apologetic glance. ‘Sorry, just stomach trouble. I had a bug a few days ago and I’m still recovering.’
‘Oh, okay, you sure?’ he said, sitting back down a little uneasily.
‘Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.’ She sat down next to him and he felt decidedly better about everything, and when she looked up into his eyes, her smile returning to the corners of her mouth, and said, ‘So…’ he felt better still.
He decided she’d made enough of the moves and went to kiss her, but she was already going for it and they clashed too hard, his teeth mashing against her top lip. He tried to pull back and apologise but she hadn’t noticed, and now she’d pushed him back onto the bed and was sitting on top of him. He could taste blood. Just go with it, man! This shit doesn’t happen every day, his inner voice cried joyfully.
Indeed, it didn’t.
Her tongue felt strange. Much too long, and thick with saliva somehow – almost suffocating him. She’d obviously had plenty of tic tacs but there was something else beneath the heavy mint that made him want to retch. He tried rolling her over on her back so he could take a break but she pushed him back down, playfully. Finally, he opened his eyes, hoping he could give her some kind of warning look to say she was coming on too strong, but by then, of course, it was too late.
Her eyes were already open, wide as fists with pupils the size of raisins, and they were focused on his with a kind of blank intensity.
He tried to sit up, pushing hard with both hands on the bed, but she moved her weight forward at just the right time and he fell back onto his elbows, and in the same motion her tongue pushed further into his throat, much further than it should have been able to go. It was blocking his airway completely now, and the base of it was so swollen in his mouth that if he’d tried to bite it off he wouldn’t have been able to – his jaw was forced too far open to lend a bite any force.
He felt a hand run down his flank and one long nailed finger – at least that’s what it felt like – snaked under his shirt and settled on his belly button.
He panicked, his body suddenly revolting against her with every ounce of strength in all six feet five of lean muscle. Such an effort – even without the added power that terror lent – had in the past dislodged three opposing players pulling him down on the football field. By all accounts it should have propelled the girl clean through the opposite wall.
Instead, the energy pulsed through him, his mind electric with it, and died in his muscles. He got all the way into a sitting position, pushed ineffectually at her shoulders, and then fell back under her weight again. He was weak, like he’d just run marathon at a full sprint. His extremities were going numb, and the oxygen was stale in his deprived lungs. His screams sounded only as low groans from deep inside him.
Her finger pierced his belly, but he didn’t feel the pain. Only the sensation of splitting skin and tearing muscle. The wound just kept on widening, until it felt like her whole hand was inside him, stretching the flesh, making a space inside his stomach. He was completely relaxed now, his whole body a strange kind of numb, all feelings seeming far away from him and unattached. He stared at the ceiling.
She dropped the last of them into his stomach cavity, letting out a gasp of surprise at the sudden relief. She felt light on her feet, if a little exhausted, and when she stood up to look at her babies she was breathing hard. Monster came out of the closet and stood behind her, purring congratulations in her ear. After a few minutes he went over to the bed and began to seal the opening in Ryan’s stomach with deft movements.
‘He won’t suffer any more, will he?’
Monster told her he didn’t think so. He was right, as it happened. While they fed on him for the next few days he would feel nothing but a sense of calm and contentment. By the end of the week, when the babies had grown as large as a human hand, he would simply find somewhere dark and secluded, go to sleep and not wake up. They would eat for another day, until they were the size of a human head and there was nothing at all left of him.
‘Won’t he remember?’
Monster didn’t think he would, and he was right again. Mentally, Ryan would be on autopilot, moving and talking without really thinking about it as if he were in a dream, barely self aware.
‘That’s good. I hope we can find our babies later and look after them. They look so cute.’ She caught a glimpse of an innocent gleaming eye before he sealed the last of the wound and turned back to her. Ryan let out a groan in the back of his throat and his finger twitched.
She watched him, Monster beside her, feeling strangely melancholy. It was a long while before she shook it off and got back to her feet, feeling decidedly better.
‘Alright. I suppose now’s as good a time as any. I’m a bit nervous, though.’
He clicked and purred and she smiled back gratefully. ‘You always know just what to say, don’t you?’
*** *** ***
Jean Tiller, Mary’s mother, was setting the table while Mary’s father sat cross legged in the study, reading the paper. When she turned and saw Mary she sucked in a breath and put a hand to her heart. ‘Mary! You almost gave me a heart attack sneaking up like that.’ Seeing the embarrassed look on Mary’s face, she cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow.
‘So what’s news?’
To her amusement, the girl flushed red and averted her eyes. ‘I… I’ve got a boyfriend,’ she said.
‘Really? Well… I suppose you’re about the age, aren’t you? Why so shy, Miss Mary?’
‘It’s… I mean I’m a bit worried because… he’s a little different. A lot different, actually.’
‘Oh?’ She folded her arms, a handful of knives still in her left hand. How different could any of the boys from school be, she wondered? Probably he had a disability of some kind or – she thought with a stab of worry – he was much older than she was. Whatever it was, she determined then and there to keep her face as neutral and friendly as possible when she met him. If there was something she didn’t like she could talk to Mary about it afterwards.
‘So where is this mystery man?’ she said, keeping her tone light. It didn’t seem to comfort Mary, who was looking more and more nervous by the second, and kept glancing over Jean’s shoulder at the double doors that were open on the dining room. Jean felt her back itch and had a feeling she was going to meet the man himself sooner than she expected. She resisted the urge to look around and prepared herself instead, setting the cheerful expression on her face. She didn’t want to embarrass Mary with any odd reactions.
‘Promise you won’t freak? He’s really nice, mum, and he treats me really well and everything, okay?’
‘Okay, honey. I trust your judgement,’ she said, now more curious than anything else. She’d never seen her daughter act like this before. She gave her a look that said: out with it girl, show me the goods.
At last, Mary relented with a final cautionary glance at her mother. She gestured at the interleading doors just as Jean had predicted, where the boy was probably waiting in a nervous sweat by now. Best smile, best smile, she thought to herself as she turned around, arms coming unfolded now in case he went for the handshake or even, if he was bold, the hug.
The smile remained plastered obscenely on her face even as her eyes registered the thing, black skin and red eyes and gums stretched in a friendly grin.
In the next room, Mr. Tiller, who had been listening to the conversation with great interest, heard what sounded like a loud, high pitched hiccup, followed by a familiar sigh of distress he’d often heard Mary utter. ‘I knew you wouldn’t understand,’ she said.
He stood up and folded the paper, dropping it onto the coffee table with a frown. If even Jean couldn’t hold it together, it couldn’t be good. He was going to have to have a long talk with Mary later, he suspected. Ah well, the joys of fatherhood. He left the lounge, shaking his head. He had a bad feeling about this, a very bad feeling indeed.