This story is by Elizabeth Nettleton and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A monster lives in my house.
I learnt this a few years ago, when the neighborhood children first gathered on my street. They marched forward with bulging pockets, and after one brief nod to each other, rained their arsenal of stones upon my door. With each blow that landed, they called out for the monster with a hunger for vengeance they didn’t understand. It was then that I finally realized what I was.
They come for me almost every day now, curving their backs and raising their hands in exaggerated claws. How do they know that I am here? Can they hear me? Perhaps they can smell me, their noses attuned to the differences between us.
My Auntie Anne says that I should fight back, but my mother insists that we ignore them. She tells me the children will grow out of it and that she doesn’t wish to upset their parents. So, I turn the other cheek, and give them a new place to bruise.
The children are gone now.
I pull my curtains apart and watch the sun begin to dip towards the horizon and paint the street in orange and red. Soon night will be here, and darkness will seep through my house and steal away my sanctuary.
The fading light has hidden my reflection in the glass, so I follow my outline with my finger. Mother has covered all the mirrors in the house apart from her own vanity, so my opportunities to see myself are scarce. Sometimes when she leaves for the market, I sneak into her and Father’s room and examine myself. I trace the scar that passes from my forehead to my chin and watch my ribs and curved spine ripple beneath my thin shirt. As I take in my frail and uneven body, I understand why I am not included in the family photographs that hang along our staircase.
Father is a very handsome man. My mother likes to remind me that he was the most popular boy in her class, with his wavy dark hair, broad shoulders, and mischievous grin. He is the son of a war hero and was the captain of several sports teams at school. She was lucky to marry him, she muses over half-closed eyes.
I do not resemble my father. Even if I had been born free of irregularities, my blond hair and gray eyes mirror my mother’s. This disappointed my father, who always imagined that he would lead a family made up of versions of himself. Still, I probably would have been forgiven if favoring my mother had been my only sin.
Whenever Auntie Anne comes to visit and hears one of Mother’s stories, her mouth tightens. She tells me her own stories of things I have done that made her proud, and asks me to read with her. We like to make up voices for each of the characters, and she always applauds at the end. Then she must leave, and my mother returns to her bedroom.
I slide my hand along the shelf and pull out a small, leather-bound book. It is one of my favorites; a story about a dashing prince who rescues the princess from her evil captor. The villain is supposed to look like me, but I imagine myself as the brave prince instead. I tame dragons and ride a brilliant white horse through haunted forests. I am handsome and brave. I love and am loved.
It is nearly five o’clock, so I go to the kitchen and carefully fill the mottled copper saucepan with water. I listen to it hiss its indignation at the droplets of water that made it to the base of the pan and find a moment of calm within the rolling bubbles.
The aging hinges on the front door announce my Father’s arrival. His heavy footsteps climb the staircase in the next room, and I hurry to pour the water into the teapot. With some luck, it will brew quickly.
A loud crash startles me, and I drop the saucepan. It clatters to the floor and I stumble backwards as the boiling water nips at my bare feet. The voices above me twist together, a duet of anger and fear that they have sung so many times before, and I place my hands over my ears. It’s time to go.
With soft, deliberate steps, I leave the kitchen and open the front door. Behind the neglected flower bed is a small, wooden enclosure that once claimed to be a doghouse.
You can’t hear it out there.
I cross the yard and crawl inside the kennel. The night sky pokes through the cracks left between the slats of wood, and I wrap my arms around myself. It will be over soon.
My breath forms tiny white clouds. Beyond the shrubbery that frames my house is a street filled with people getting home from work. They file into their houses, lifting their hats as they greet their wives and children, and I bite back my pleas for help. They may nod towards my parents as they leave in the morning, a silent recognition of a shared community, but their children are the ones who throw stones at my house. And who was it that taught them such good aim?
The night breeze tickles my legs and I watch as the shadows behind the curtain move in and out of view. From here, it is easy to pretend that they are merely dancing; they are performing a show for me, and soon I will be able to boo and hiss at the Father’s cruelty, and cheer when the Mother and Son escape into the forgiving night. The stars will be their candles, and they will find refuge with a stranger who replaces brutality with compassion.
Instead, I wait in the kennel, underneath the blankets I have supplied for nights like this one. As the moon rises above me, the shadows retreat in the upstairs bedroom and I can rise from my cramped position.
I have travelled the path between my house and this kennel so many times that I have forged my own trail. The grass has folded itself under my feet so that I can make my retreat as quickly and quietly as possible. It lays ready for me; patiently waiting. My eyes shift towards the road. Would a new path treat me so kindly?
Auntie Anne lives two miles away, in a town called Wetherton. We have driven there before in our spluttering Sedan, and I follow the road in my mind. It would take a long time for me to walk there, but it is quiet at this hour.
I run my hand over my scar. What would my punishment be this time if he finds me?
My legs tremble as I make my way towards the front door, and I pause before nudging it open. No sound or movement within the darkened hall alerts me to any activity, so I head to my bedroom. I fill a knapsack that is older than I am with clothes and my favorite stories, before throwing it over my shoulder and creeping towards the door.
Light now spills from the kitchen into the entrance hall and I hesitate. My father is sitting at the table, facing away from me, and I step back into the darkness. It is too late.
There is a clink as my father’s cup meets its saucer, and I remember the tea. I imagine my father’s face contorting with rage as he notices the puddle that I left on the floor in my haste to escape. He reaches for a towel with knuckles that are spotted with blood, his badges of honor for the night, and vows to teach me a lesson. There are so many lessons he wants to teach me.
My hand curls into a fist and I inch towards the door, careful not to cast any shadows as I edge past the kitchen. For once, I am thankful for the difficulty it takes to lift my feet. Shuffling makes me that much quieter.
With one deep breath, I squeeze through the door frame and I am outside. I lumber towards the road and hear the soft crunching of tiny stones beneath my feet. If I keep out of sight, I will not hear these stones when they land against my window tomorrow.
The journey will be long, so I recite my favorite story to myself. I am a knight. I am strong and tall and protect the realm from the King’s injustices. I am not the main character in the neighborhood children’s nightmares. I am not the beast that hunts them, or an experiment that went wrong.
A monster lives in my house.
But it was never me.