Monster

This was an experimental one, because the idea itself – essentially a monster under the bed tale – is not original. But I wanted to do it as a test of my own ability, to see if I could take a plain, cliche idea and write it in an original way.If I succeed, it means I have created my own originality outside of the crazy ideas I’m always coming up with. If I fail, well, back to the drawing board. Either way, I had a blast. Enjoy the tale of Charlie and the Monster…

 

Monster

Ben Pienaar

 

The shed, where the monster came to live, had always been a source of dread for Charlie Grove. It stood apart from everything else, hunched in the far corner under cover of the elms as though it were hiding. Old wood groaned beneath the weight of rotted leaves and two splintery doors hung on old hinges. It had no windows, and a single light bulb hung from the middle of the ceiling which never turned on the first time you flipped the switch and never completely illuminated the interior.

One night, not long after his tenth birthday, he heard it.

It was a still night – that was how he knew. One of the doors creaked and something snapped strips of rough wood as it brushed by. The door bumped shut, and a full minute later a series of bangs sounded as things rolled across the floor.

Charlie didn’t breathe, blanket pulled up to his neck, sure his father would hear the racket and stomp outside, baseball bat in hand, commanding the thief to come out or be dragged. But the bedsprings in the adjacent room did not whinge and no further noises sounded from the shed. Charlie wasn’t fooled: The monster had arrived.

 

*

 

 

The next day was a Saturday – the sky bright with spring light and his mother’s friends were over for tea, filling the house with chatter and frequent laughter. Charlie went out into the garden with his Swiss army knife, telling himself he didn’t have to go anywhere near the shed if he didn’t want to.

Curiosity prevailed. It was, after all, such a nice day – and his father was close at hand, reclining on the porch with a book and a beer in one brick sized hand. Charlie took the Y shaped branch he’d half carved into a slingshot and moved over to the patch of elms, close enough so that he could see the shed door and his father. Nothing seemed strange, but he shivered all the same. The shade stole the pleasant warmth and safety of the day all at once. Spring may have come to the rest of the country, but this corner of the garden hadn’t forgotten winter. The leaves were dead.

Charlie wasn’t a big kid – was in fact considered on the scrawny side by the boys at school – but none of them ever picked on him, because something of his father had rubbed off, and it was that same something that acted on him now. He dropped the slingshot and walked all the way up to the half open shed door.

Too dark to see. The light switch was stuck in a corner, so he’d have to walk two full steps blind to switch it on. Charlie decided to look from a distance, first. He used a couple of rocks to prop each door open as wide as it would go, and then stood back and looked straight in.

Empty, save the tools and sacks of fertiliser that lined the walls, and though he couldn’t see all the way to the back, he sensed there was nothing there. Everything looked as it should, and he breathed a sigh and shook his head, smiling at himself. No monster after all. Triumphant, his fears slain, his bravery solidified, he marched forth into the shed to claim his territory for good.

And knew immediately that he’d made a mistake.

It was the smell: A sweet tang of overripe fruit underlay a mixture of dead fish and manure. An animal had been in here. A dark patch stained the floorboards against one wall, and its significance was not lost on Charlie, who at his young age was still in tune with his primal instincts: An animal had been here, and it was going to come back.

He backed out, hairs prickling, and placed two large stones in front of the double doors. The sun had never been more welcome on his skin.

 

*

 

Richard looked up, squinting into the sun, and saw his boy coming up from the shed. He took in Charlie’s pale face and clenched fists, and wondered what the hell could have him so shaken up on a day like this. He set down his lukewarm lager and waved.

‘Hey Charlie, what’s up?’

Charlie shrugged and shuffled over, hand up to shield his face.

‘See you put some stones there on the shed doors, eh? Why’s that?’

‘I think… there’s an animal or something getting in there, so I wanted to keep it out.’

‘An animal?’ Richard put the eye on his son, a trick he’d learned from his own father. You leaned forward and squinted with one eye, unblinking, and didn’t say a word. If he was lying, the truth came out soon enough.

One, two, three seconds. ‘A monster,’ Charlie said.

Richard rocked back in his chair and laughed, slapping his knee. ‘There’s no such things as monsters, lad. The only monsters in this world are men. If there’s a man in there, maybe we’ve got a problem, eh?’

Charlie shook his head.

‘Ah, then you were right the first time, weren’t you? It’s an animal. But why’s there anything in there in the first place?’

‘It peed in there.’

‘What?’ Goddamn cats, wild all over the neighbourhood. Next he’d be finding bird heads strewn all over the front doorstep. ‘Let’s have a look, then.’

The boy showed him a dark patch on the sawdust strewn floor, and he bent to sniff it. Ah, it was piss alright, the tangy and rancid leavings of a feral. The whole place smelled like a doghouse. ‘Christ,’ he said, rubbing his nose and getting back up to his feet. ‘Well, not a lot we can do about that just yet. Maybe it won’t come back.’

He looked around the shed, thinking he had to give it a good clean anyway, and caught Charlie squirming in his peripheral vision.

‘What’s the matter, son?’

Charlie shook his head, shrugged, mumbled.

‘Come on, I didn’t raise you to mumble! Speak your mind.’

‘I just think the stain’s too big for a cat. And I… the thing I heard last night was bigger.’

Richard squatted to Charlie’s level for a minute and met his eyes. The boy was scared enough alright. ‘Course he couldn’t say he didn’t jump at a few shadows when he was ten. It might all make a good life lesson. He put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and smiled.

‘You can say it. You think it’s a monster, don’t you?’

‘Well… Yeah.’

Richard leaned in closer, looking left and right. ‘You know, son, now you mention it, I think you might be right.’

‘You do?’

‘Yes. The stain is definitely too big for a cat, and it smells rank. A monster is a definite possibility. But that’s no reason to panic now, is it? Oh no.’ He stood up, stroking his grey beard with one hand. ‘Just because it’s not an animal, see, doesn’t mean it won’t die like one. And I can show you just how to do the job. Forget about that slingshot. Actually, don’t forget it – you can use that to shoot the bloody cats once you’re done with your monster. Come over here.’

He took the boy to the far corner of the shed, where he kept his favourite toolbox – a stainless steel beauty that until now he’d forbidden Charlie to touch at all. He swung it open and selected a few choice pieces, which he handed to Charlie, chuckling at the look of awe on the boy’s face. Among the tools were a ten inch length of flat steel, a carving blade, glue, sandpaper and some blocks of dense wood.

Charlie carried the bundle in both arms toward the door, but Richard steered him around by the shoulders. ‘Not there! This is our shed, isn’t it? No monster’s going to take it away from us. There you go. Now take the bit of steel. You’re going to sharpen that good. We’re not making any rat killing blade. This has to be a monster killing blade.’

Like magic, Charlie’s fear was replaced by a joy Richard wished he could remember from his own childhood. The two of them sawed and sharpened and sandpapered until their fingers hurt, and the weapon Richard envisioned took shape with impressive speed. It was a knife, in the end, but to call it a knife would be to call a machine gun a water pistol. It was seven inches of exposed steel sharpened so keenly on both edges that to touch it was to draw blood. The handle was smooth dark wood, with a twist of rope glued near the top for grip.

Richard told Charlie to carve some designs in the handle to symbolise that it was his. ‘And, you have to give it a name, too boy. The Vikings used to name their weapons, you know.’

When it was done (Charlie having christened it ‘Slayer’), Richard showed him how to coat the handle with varnish so it would dry smooth and solid. ‘That’s it, boy. Now we leave it here to dry and hope your mother left us some dinner.’

‘I can’t take it now?’

‘No, no, leave it to dry. You can come back for it tomorrow.’

Sore and sweaty, the two of them left the shed with smiles on their faces, and leaving the cold blue twilight for a hot meal of buttered corn and roast chicken.

Full darkness descended an hour later.

 

*

 

Charlie dared to return for Slayer alone, when the sun was at its highest and his father was outside pulling weeds from the rockery. The monster had come again that night.

Its steps were too heavy on the grass to belong to a cat, yet not evenly spaced like that of a man. Charlie was certain, because he listened extra carefully, tense and breathless beneath his covers. His window was open a crack, and as the steps rustled past he wondered if a hand might snake through the gap and claw his face apart. He didn’t dare move away in case it heard him. But the monster’s many legs pattered past, dragging something – perhaps a distended belly – through the grass.

Now, he stood just out of range of the shade, looking from the large stones tossed aside to the hanging doors. The inside was as dim and musty as ever, though nothing appeared out of place. Except the work station, where only a varnish stain marked the place his knife had lain.

 

*

 

Richard watched his son pace the perimeter of the garden, carving his slingshot with furious concentration. Why the hell wasn’t he playing with the blade they’d made? Maybe it hadn’t dried? Yes, the boy had gone to the shed, so if he didn’t have it with him the cool dank atmosphere must have kept the varnish wet.

At least he thought that must be it until he looked up from his weeding half an hour later to pause for a breath of sweet air, and something metal glinted from behind the rockery, where his herb patch met the back fence. Some drunk chucked his bottle over. The thought angered him, but when he saw what it was, he wished it had been broken glass after all. At least then he’d have felt only anger, and not the painful sinking of his heart that accompanied it.

It was Slayer: the blade broken in half, semi buried in fertiliser, varnish ingrained with dirt.

He turned it over under the garden tap, cleaning it and shaking his head at the damage. On his way into the house he noticed one of the large stones Charlie had insisted on placing in front of the shed doors lying far from its station, most likely what the boy had used to crush the metal. And for what reason? He’d seemed to enjoy himself the day before – this wasn’t any rebellion. It’s a damned fantasy. One which you’ve encouraged. Charlie would claim the monster had done it and point to the blade as proof, hoping that his father would join him in his fairy tale. It was Richard’s own fault for playing along.

Tonight, Charlie’s mother would be seeing a movie with her girlfriends, and it would just be Richard and Charlie and some takeaway. He slipped the broken knife into his pocket and went inside. One way or another, this nonsense would have to end.

 

*

 

Charlie’s Dad was in a strange mood. Normally they would have made the trip to Donner’s Burgers together, but tonight Richard left alone, grunting at Charlie to watch the shed and make sure his monster didn’t escape. It must have been a joke, but no smile nor wink accompanied the suggestion, and then Richard was gone with the slam of a door and the roar of an engine.

Charlie stood in the driveway for a long minute, shivering as a whirlwind of dead leaves blew against his legs.

Inside, the central heating lent him no comfort. He paced the house, made sure the doors were locked. The dining room looked out onto the back porch via two tall panes and a sliding door, so he could stand in the brightly lit room by the dinner table and watch the frosty garden.

What if his Dad was right? Richard seemed to be right about most things, and especially things which concerned being a man. He was strong, respected, stern, brave, if at times bad tempered and harsh. What if it had been him lying in the bed and listening to the monster make its way to his shed? Would he have pulled the covers up to his neck? More likely he’d have headed straight out and beaten the thing to death with a stick. That was how Richard Grove dealt with monsters.

Charlie smiled. That was how you did it – you just went. He tapped his fingers on the tabletop once or twice, nodded to himself, and went into the kitchen. It took his knife? So what – there were plenty more. Maybe he’d get Slayer back.

Imagining himself seven feet tall and thick with muscle, he took not one but two steak knives from the kitchen drawer and opened the sliding door with such force it cracked alarmingly against the frame. Eyes narrowed, he stepped out onto the porch with arms out on either side like a gunslinger ready for a dual. A chill wind hit his face, warning of the cold to come. He took it with head up and eyes on the back fence.

Twilight came and went. Charlie could see every inch of the back garden from the porch, and he would stand guard here and prove to himself that his father was right and that there was no monster.

The minutes ticked by, and the fence fell under the deep cover of the elms, and then disappeared altogether. The world drew closer, and the streetlamps switched on, casting shadows at odd angles across the garden. Charlie’s feet turned numb on the porch step and he shifted from one to the other. He was covered in gooseflesh. A car hooted far away. The back garden remained still, and the house quiet. He breathed mist.

What was that?

Something dropped down from the fence in the far corner of the garden and disappeared behind the rockery. Had it been a black cat, or was it too large? He licked his lips, opened his mouth to shout ‘Who goes there?’ in a commanding voice, but the words didn’t come and he took a step back instead.

Quick feet tracked along the edge of the garden and Charlie followed with his eyes, but the light of the stars and streetlamps were not enough to see anything, until a silhouette crossed a lit part of the fence from the bushes to the elms and he made out the shape of the thing for a split second: an arched back, naked and ridged with a knobbled spine, supported what might have been a head. Four spindly legs carried it across the visible gap and a pointed tail flicked by, and then it was gone. Charlie only saw it at all because a car had driven past and cause the shadows to move for the crucial moment.

It was all he needed to see.

 

*

 

Richard found his son cowering behind the dining room table, staring out at the garden with a steak knife in each trembling hand. He placed the burger boxes on the counter and Charlie spun round, startled. The boy looked guilty, and as he came to the counter he glanced back at the sliding doors twice more.

‘Hey, Dad,’ he said.

Richard said nothing, took the burgers into the living room and dropped them onto the coffee table. Charlie came in a moment later with a comic in his hands as if nothing had happened, though he didn’t make eye contact. Richard let the silence drag out for a minute or so, the clock in the kitchen ticking loudly. He didn’t touch his food.

When he sensed Charlie squirming, he drew the blade from his pocket and lay it on the table.

‘O – oh. It’s Slayer. Where’d you get it?’

‘Listen, I don’t care about your damn monster games. But there’s no reason to break the things I give you, understand?’

Charlie jumped at the last word, swallowing his burger. His voice shook. ‘Dad, I didn’t do it.’

‘Don’t you dare lie to me, boy. Who else did it? Your monster?’

He didn’t answer at first, just looked down at the comic book in his lap, grinding his teeth.

‘Why did you do it, Charlie?’ The plaintive sound of his own voice surprised him, and it was enough to break Charlie’s resolve. Tears spattered the open pages. He sniffed.

‘Charlie…’ Richard couldn’t help but feel some sympathy. Whatever his reasons, he seemed genuinely frightened.

‘I saw it, dad,’ he said. ‘I saw it tonight, creeping around at the back of the garden.’

Richard straightened in his seat, an unwelcome prickle running up his neck. ‘Is that right? Tell me exactly what you saw.’

Charlie swallowed. ‘It was… I mean I didn’t see it exactly, just a, a kind of shadow. A car went by and the headlights shone for a second and – but I know it was definitely the monster!’ He looked up as he said the last, his eyes wide and teary. He knew how ridiculous his story was.

Richard stroked his beard and settled back into his chair. Charlie’s strange behaviour made sense, now. The poor lad genuinely believed there was a monster living in the shed, and the tricks his own mind was playing on him weren’t helping. He’d broken the blade in an effort to convince Richard of the thing’s existence. It was another way to get his father to check under his bed and in the closet for him.

But Charlie was ten years old. It was time he started learning how to be a man, and leave the ways of boys behind. Now would be as good a time as any.

‘Charlie,’ he said. ‘I know you believe you saw something. But I also know that monsters do not exist. Now I could go and search the shed tonight, and find nothing, and you could stop being afraid. But real men don’t rely on others to conquer their problems. Real men face their own fears and solve their own problems. I think you should do that tonight.’

Charlie put his face in his hands and let out a dry sob. Richard sighed and set his burger down. ‘When I was your age,’ he said, ‘I was bullied by a big lad called Andy Poss. He beat me till I bled every day and I never fought back. I told my father, and my father told me that I had a simple choice to make. He said I could choose to hit Andy Poss, or I could choose to be hit by Andy Poss. I made my choice, and it was scary and difficult, but it was the right choice.’

Charlie nodded and sucked in a breath, wiping his eyes. ‘But what if it’s r-real, Dad?’

Richard lifted the broken blade from the table and lowered it into his son’s lap, folded his arms and smiled.

‘Charlie, call my name and I’ll be right behind you. But listen: there is no monster, only your imagination. If you stab anything it’ll be one of those bloody stray cats, and I’m fine with that, eh?’ They laughed, Charlie wiping his eyes and grinning.

‘Come on, son, what do you say?’ He put on a hearty medieval voice. ‘Let us make our final stand against the demons and show them what real heroes are made of? Eh?’

‘Dad, that’s corny.’ But he was smiling ear to ear, gripping the knife like he meant to use it, eyes bright and keen.

‘That’s my boy,’ Richard said, ruffling his hair. ‘Let’s go kill some monsters.’

 

*

 

Charlie’s bravado vanished the moment he laid eyes on the shed. The stones weren’t in their places: they were absent. The doors hung half open and the interior was impenetrable darkness. The apple sweet compost rot filled his nostrils with its richness, making him scrunch his face.

‘It’s just a shed, Charlie, remember that.’ His father put a warm hand on his shoulder. Charlie knew he was right. He’d never heard of any monsters killing anyone in the news, after all. And what evidence did he have? Sinister sounds at night, a shadow caught against a fence, a mysterious smell. And Richard Grove, the man who owned the property, the man who’d have the most reason to be worried about an imposter, was telling him that there was no such thing.

‘I’ll kill it dead, I reckon.’

‘If you don’t, I will, lad. Just call and I’ll be there with you.’ He stepped forward and pulled the rusted doors open as far as they went. ‘Tell you what. Go and touch the back wall of the shed with that knife of yours, and I’ll let you take off school tomorrow. Heroes don’t have to go to school every day of the week.’

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

He gripped the wooden handle, the patterns he’d carved digging into his skin, the sharpness of the half broken blade reassuring. He stepped into the shed and tried not to breathe. Cat piss, he told himself. Something real, something explained. Not a monster. His father, the man, knew what was real and what wasn’t. If he wanted, Dad could sleep all night in the back of the shed without stirring. Monsters didn’t bother real men.

Charlie took another step, and then another. He put out a hand he touched the workbench, which meant he was close to the back, the place a part of him still believed the monster resided, watching and waiting.

He had never been in the shed after dark. It was like being deep underwater, or in outer space. Sound and fresh air were far away, as was his father. His eyes were open but he couldn’t make out the slightest shapes, and he moved with exaggerated slowness, like an astronaut, so that he didn’t trip. He breathed loud and slow.

As he took another step toward the back wall, holding the knife in front of him like a sword, it occurred to him that he’d already won. He was here, at night, in the middle of the shed, the very place that terrified him. The wet stench of the beast was here, as was the creeping sense of a presence nearby – but so was Charlie. He’d beaten his fear. The thought gave him the strength to take the last two strides, and when he reached the back wall he planted the blade into the wood with enough force to hold it in place.

‘Hey dad, I did it!’

Arms rising above his head, triumphant, Charlie turned his back on the dark. His father’s huge form was silhouetted by the moonlight, close and yet distant. Now that he was walking out of the blackness, Charlie felt a powerful urge to look behind him, to quicken his pace and sprint into his father’s arms, but he resisted. He was a man now, and he wouldn’t let his fears rule him any longer. He kept his head up and walked with measured paces, though his knees were weak with adrenaline. He was still grinning.

He was inches from the threshold, his trial complete, when his father’s face transformed. His eyes flicked up to something just above Charlie’s head and his mouth fell open in surprise. He unfolded his arms and made as if to step forward, but the move was reflexive and not purposeful, an inbuilt reaction that he restrained at the last minute as if what he’d seen was not what he’d thought, after all. Or impossible.

Charlie met his father’s eyes and saw the truth there, and bitter dread filled his belly as a broken shard of steel touched the soft flesh below his Adams apple and then curved all the way to the back of his neck in a single neat motion. No pain, but a flash of white across his vision as his eyes took a final snapshot of life: The Man himself staggering backward, a guttural sound escaping his open mouth as if someone had slugged him in the belly.

He of stern words and unwavering strength, turned his back on his son and ran.

Charlie was glad, as the wet hands settled on his forehead and mouth, that he would not see what had him.

The look he’d seen in his father’s eyes was enough.

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