This story is by Samantha James and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
By the time I made it to the surface, I was in bad shape. My left limb was dangling by my side, and the jabbing pain under my puckered scar was slicing through my torso. I was sweating profusely. The kids behind me must have noticed the way I lurched sideways from time to time, but they were silent and none offered to assist me. It was a sombre affair – I made sure it was, this was life or death – and the children were glum, lifeless. I stopped just shy of breaking the surface and waited until they were bundled in a circle below me, thankful for the time to recover. The other adults ringed them, ready to usher them down in the emergency formation we had been training for months.
“As you can see, I have met the monster,” I began, swirling around to fully expose my mangled flesh and the scar that ran across my body from my shoulder to limb. The kids had seen parts of it before, but never the full length. There were some gasps, and one even whispered, “ew.”
“It was a terrifying experience, but it taught me something valuable,” I continued, eyeing the disgusted child. “I was about your age when it attacked. My father, like yours, had warned me about playing around the surface, but I loved watching the lights.”
As I spoke, I looked beyond the walls, at the twinkling light to the east boundary. It flashed on and off, like clockwork, that same steady light I watched all those years ago. The children followed my gaze, and there were more than a few droopy eyes after a moment. I raised my voice to shock them into alertness. “If you watch the lights long enough, they make you sleepy. I fell asleep here, at the surface.”
Every time I recalled the memory, it was happening again; the shock of waking, the sudden movement and pain, and the low, rumbling sound from above. At first I hadn’t understood, but as the huge shape came down above me a second time, quick as a whip, I was spurred downwards in a flurry of bubbles and panic, my limbs unresponsive, the pain throbbing down my side. Later, sobbing in the safety of our dark house, my mother stroking me, I pieced it together. The monster’s flailing limb had scratched a long, deep gouge down my side. I had been moments, and inches, from death.
“It happened so fast that I didn’t even know what had happened. It’s big, but very fast, and its sharp hooks never miss.” I mimed the attack, surging forward towards the group of kids, who looked more bored than anything. I growled and stopped inches from the first child, who shrunk back. I made eye contact with every child in the group, happy to see I had their full attention, and some fear.
“I realized later that my father had saved my life, shoving me down moments before the monster had taken me.”
He had returned hours later, looking weary and haggard. I cried and begged and grovelled, horrified that not only had I almost died, but I had forced him to put himself in grave danger to save me. He had been ready to sacrifice himself.
“I never snuck out again, because I never wanted to meet the monster again.” I began pacing back and forth, ignoring the stabbing pain through my skin. “But I never completely healed, either. My flesh knitted itself back together, but I never came back to watch the lights.”
The children were watching me now, following as I travelled back and forth in front of them, eyes running over my torn muscle, puckered skin. I tried to show them how useless I was, how much of a cripple I had become that night, letting my limb drag behind me.
“But I also hated the monster for doing this to me, to us. We had never done anything to deserve this torment. Why should any more of our number die? Why should we continue to live in fear? I decided to fight back.”
This wasn’t entirely true. I was omitting the coward part of my life. I lived in self-pity. I was useless now, a waste of space. And worse still, I could never escape the pain, because the damn thing that caused it came back again and again, killing others. Each time, I relived the nightmare of that night. I rarely left our house, even as my brothers and sisters grew and thrived. Even as they moved away, started their own families. Even as those children ventured higher and closer to the light, seeking the unknown above. Yearning for the outside, as I once did.
“My father died not long after he saved my life,” I told the children. “He had a bad heart, and he was never the same after I was slashed from head to toe. The shock of the beast’s attack killed him.”
I cleared my throat and moved away, turning to face the boundary to compose myself. My father’s face was flashing through my mind, his disappointment heavy in the air. My mother’s silent tears, her pitying looks. I had done this, I had killed him. But the monster would pay.
“So that’s why I’m telling you this,” I turned back to face the children. “Because it’s important to remember the monster is real. Look at me. This isn’t a story, this is real. The monster is real, and you need to be careful at all times. Do you understand?”
I watched as the group nodded, and wondered how much they actually understood. Were they nodding in fake obedience? I hadn’t been the last child to sneak up to the surface at night, and I hadn’t been the last victim. I had been the lucky one. Now I was the one who sounded the alarm during an attack, the one who pushed others down – to honor my father.
The journey back down to the depths of safety wasn’t as hard, but I was exhausted by the time the children left. The monster’s attack was replaying over and over in my mind. I had studied the incident many times, trying to learn something. No one knew the beast’s weakness, where it came from, what it was. It had been visiting as long as anyone could remember; the shadow, those huge, gleaming eyes, thin like rakes and black as night, slithers of green. Its body was said to be round and stocky, with a tail like a whip, but those were rumors. No-one alive had seen its true form, only a glimpse of color, distorted by the glimmer of the surface, a trick of the lights. My own memory was shadowed by the fear of a child – reduced to savagery, movement, pain. Sometimes the memory was so clear it was as if I was there again, watching it happen and paralysed by fear.
Mother embraced me then, and I realized I had been standing still, eyes closed, in the dark of our home. I sighed and opened my eyes to see her tender gaze on my face.
“Every time you go up there to teach those kids, I think of how strong you’ve become,” she said. “He would be so proud. You’ve saved lives.”
No, I thought. He saved lives.
Later that night, I made my slow way back up towards the surface. To patrol the boundaries and make sure no one was putting themselves in danger. The journey the second time was easier; for some reason, I felt light, rising upwards like a bubble, ready to burst on the surface.
I blinked at the shapes and colors of the outside world, distorted as always. The lights bounced off the surface, making colored patterns as they flashed their never-ending cycle. I still found it fascinating.
Even as the huge shape loomed above me, the low rumbling sound filled the air. Even as the beast struck me a second time, I watched the lights.
When the teeth tore into my already-mangled flesh, tearing it into strips, I remembered the contentment I felt staring up at the world. My body flopped, limbs flailing like branches in the wind, and I marvelled at the beauty all around me. I thought of my family, swelling with pride at my father’s approval, my mother’s love.
I was gasping for breath as I first glimpsed the world from the outside. Not clouded by the glimmer of the boundaries, of the ripple of the surface, I saw the world as it really was – sharp and crisp, full of color and sound and shape. I couldn’t breathe in this new air, in the world of the beast. My bones crunched under the monster’s jaw. The last thing I heard, besides the low rumbling of the beast as it vibrated through me, was a voice, screaming, “No, Snowball! How many times…? Drop the fish! Bad cat!”