This story is by Susan Liddle and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
It first happened on the bus one morning, on my way to work. I caught a glimpse of something large and spider-leggy out of the corner of my eye and turned in surprise to stare directly at the thing. All I saw was a slightly balding middle-aged man in a navy blue raincoat, staring into space, with a black briefcase on his lap. I turned my head away slightly, and in my peripheral vision he transformed back into a many-legged creature wearing a navy blue raincoat, staring into space with many eyes.
Was I going crazy? I stared directly at him for just a couple of seconds, noticing the black briefcase resting incongruously on some of his legs. For the rest of the ride to work, I kept my eyes glued to the window and concentrated on breathing in and out to keep the panic at bay.
The fear that it would happen again faded over the next little while and was replaced with fascination. I tried to draw the two versions of the man on the bus, but I couldn’t get the details right. I almost wished I could see him again to confirm a few things. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to see another insectoid creature. What if it was beside me on the bus? How would I keep my fear of spiders under control?
When I saw another monster overlay a couple of weeks later, I was relieved that there were no long legs or insect eyes. Sidelong, I watched a white-haired woman fold up her knitting, stow her yarn and needles, and get carefully off the bus, knitting bag in one celery-green hand and cane in the other. She unfurled beautiful translucent wings that wafted gently behind her as she painstakingly made her way down the sidewalk.
Now that I knew that not all of the monster overlays were bug-like, I relaxed into seeing them. They were suddenly everywhere. A scruffy teenage boy with a fidget toy became a human-sized groundhog-like creature with a fidget toy. A little girl in a sparkly pink dress and Spiderman shoes was a lizard-like humanoid, still with the sparkles and shoes.
I started carrying my sketchbook and pencil in my hand so I could catch impressions and details right away. I’d draw one frame showing a person and the second showing that person as a monster.
I sold a few drawings to a t-shirt company, then others online. I quit my job and started drawing full time. The more I drew the people/monsters going about their daily business — in the grocery store, at the gym, in the park — the more I saw them.
Art critics praised my imagination and wanted to know what my message was. When I didn’t reveal my intended meaning (mainly because there wasn’t one), people made things up to explain them. I couldn’t help wondering, every now and then, if it was wrong to profit from this gift.
Some of my friends and family had monster overlays, but I kept that to myself. I got used to hugging them or shaking hands and seeing a talon or tentacle in my grip out of the corner of my eye. I learned to accept people for how they behaved, not how they looked — either directly or peripherally. The overlays seemed unrelated to behaviour, age, race or any other kind of trait I could think of. I never figured out why I could see the monster versions of some people, or if I was the only one who could.
But I was lonely. I longed to share the truth of what I saw. I wanted to nudge someone in the side as we walked down the street, to whisper that the teenage girl who’d sold us our coffee had secret goblin ears and was seven feet tall.
Then one afternoon as I got off the bus, I saw out of the corner of my eye an entrancing wolf-like creature. I turned my head to look directly at a man with intent brown eyes flecked with gold. We hit it off, and after weeks of walking and talking, I told him my secret, and he believed me absolutely. In quiet moments, I wondered if perhaps this gift mine was my own special path to learning acceptance. If so, great! I was well on my way, I thought smugly.
I married the wolfman, and the sketches of my bridesmaids (some regular humans and some monsters) covered the cost of the wedding.
But it seemed that I hadn’t finished learning about acceptance. When I became pregnant, I secretly worried about how I’d react if my baby looked like a monster in my peripheral vision. Would I really be able to accept a child with an overlay of a monster? Could I live with a teenager who looked like a monster? And if I couldn’t, who was the real monster? I shoved the worry away until the baby was born.
I lay in the hospital room with the amazing wrinkled little boy cuddled against my skin. My wolfman stood beside me, tears streaming down his furry cheeks and a huge smile on his face.
“He’s beautiful, so beautiful,” he said. Then he glanced at me and placed his paw on my arm. “No matter what.”
I’d been staring fixedly at our baby, barely blinking, not turning my head. I was paralyzed with fear of what I might see if I looked at him indirectly. But wolfman’s words unfroze me, and all of a sudden I felt a rush of love like nothing I’d ever felt before. I knew then that my heart understood what my head was still working on: this baby was mine, and I loved him fiercely, no matter what, monster or not. I finally understood acceptance.
I turned my head slightly towards my wolfman, allowing my eyes to drift away from our baby. Then I smiled and reached for my sketchpad.