“Monsters” – Sara Ross Witt

Right now, my sisters, Anne and Cass, are trying to take a picture of one of the twins naked. They know he is embarrassed and his trauma is funny to them. I think this is strange, though I am staring at them as I stare at the TV on Saturday mornings, in a cartoon coma.

I will be ten at the end of the summer. My four older half-siblings—twin brothers and two sisters—will be gone by then. They will go home, a three-hour drive south of here, to live in their big house, retreating into their large individual bedrooms. They don’t have to share. Their father and stepmother will excitedly greet them. (I know because I’ve watched their reunion from Mom’s car.)

Confused? Yeah. Me too. Let me explain: my mother married her first husband and had those four older kids I just mentioned, my half-siblings who visit us for a few weeks every summer and for certain holidays. Mom divorced their dad, married my dad, had Jonathan and I, then divorced my dad. I am the youngest of six kids. We’re the poor ones.

After their visit it will just be Jonathan and me. I’ll have a quiet birthday with him, my mother, Granny and Dad. Dad will be apologetic for avoiding us for the last half of summer. He doesn’t like our older half-siblings, the leftovers from mother’s first marriage. That’s what he calls them.

Jonathan and I like them, I think. They are dangerous and sometimes mean; they enjoy embarrassing each other, playing pranks on one another, and picking on our neighbors. They are without mercy. We now have a feud going with the kid living two houses down. One of the twins, I cannot remember which one, threw a mud patty at him. He cried. My siblings found this very funny, except Jonathan, who hung back from the group and forced a smile. He was doing that for show, I knew, because if he didn’t they’d tease him, call him fatty.

Like me, Jonathan knows that we aren’t the popular kids in our school and we have to be at the bus stop in the fall with that boy. We live in a run-down duplex, we wear hand-me-downs (do you know how traumatic it is for me, a little girl, to wear her brother’s oversized old clothes?), our mother works two jobs “just to feed us,” and we receive donated gifts for Christmas.

Anne and Cass have Jamie cornered in the bathroom; the other twin, Will, as always is trying to defend his brother. The girls are pushing the bathroom door in; the boys are holding it closed. Hinges groan from their abuse. Anne and Cass are cackling because Jamie is screaming high-pitched and girly.

I am sitting on my hands. Grandma told me that is what she had to do while growing up. “Children were seen and not heard,” she said. I don’t know how sitting on her hands made her quiet.

“Okay, Jamie. We give up,” Cass calls. She shoves the camera into the waistband of her white and red shorts. Anne has a matching pair because my mother likes dressing all four of her children alike—the girls in matching outfits as well as the twins. Jonathan and I sit shabby next to them. We don’t have a matching anything.

“Give me my clothes,” Jamie yells. Anne throws them at the door, the belt buckle smacking the hollow wood, a dull thud. Jonathan jumps at the sound.

“Come on, guys. Leave Jamie alone,” he says.

“Quiet, Johnny or I’ll give you another titty twister,” Cass tells him. He drops the Atari controller and covers his chest with his arms.

The bathroom door opens a crack, Jamie’s hand darts out feeling along the carpet for the crumpled clothes. The girls rush the door, crashing into it. There’s a loud noise, the splitting of wood. We all start screaming.

Through our screams, we hear it: the sound of the garage door lifting, a car engine shutting off. It’s late and dark. Our mother is home from work.

Now the six of us huddle in the bedroom Jonathan and I share. He is hiding beneath his blue E.T. covers trying to cry without notice. Anne and Cass are squished together on my twin bed. They aren’t crying but I can tell Cass wants to. Her eyelids blink rapidly. Will and Jamie are stretched skinny beside each other on the floor, lips in stiff straight lines. I am standing by the door, fingering the edge of my nightgown, a faded pink lace. I have been wearing it for three years, it is too short really to be an appropriate nightgown—Lori Denson told me so when I wore it to my one and only slumber party last year. A pity invite for the poor girl.

There’s no space for me. They never make space for me even though it’s my room, my bed. As the youngest, I’m automatically pushed out. I’m pretty sure Cass, or maybe it was Anne, said I shouldn’t own anything anyway. They don’t trust me.

I open the door. “Going to tattle, Chrissy?” Anne asks.

“No,” I say as I slam the door.

“Do not slam doors in this house!” Mother screams from her bedroom. Her door is also closed.

“Sorry,” I mumble into it. “Can I come in?”

I press my ear against the door. I listen for movement. I tap the wood again with my tiny fist. “Please?”

My stomach knots a hundred times before she opens it. Even though her eyes are puffy, red and rubbed raw from her tears, she is beautiful. Her hair is white blonde and curled daintily against her chin. Her teeth are capped pearly-whites; she flashes them often, especially when she laughs. She has a deep belly laugh that bursts forth from her wide-open mouth and travels around her shiny perfect teeth. People recognize her laugh. It is an infectious laugh. Her eyes are lawn bright green. My eyes are brown and my hair is an even lazier shade of brown.

People tell me I look like Anne but Anne looks like Mom, and I know I am not pretty like she is. Jonathan and I are dark like our Dad; dark hair and dark eyes, with soft edges and puffy cheeks.

I sit next to her on the bed as she cries fresh tears. “My children are monsters.”

She lumps me with them. I want to say that I was being good, that even Jonathan was trying to calm those four. We did not break the door. But that would be tattling, and she wouldn’t believe me anyway.

“I’m going to send them home. I’ll call their father in the morning.”

“Please don’t,” I say.

“Why not?” She is furious that I contradict her, I defend them, but I know this is what she wants, what she expects. This routine happens every visit—trouble ensues, mother yells, tells them she will send them home to their father, I talk her out of it, and the next day she is all smiles for them. She cooks them breakfast, bacon and eggs with buttery toast. They will snicker at me and call me a traitor, even though I saved them, and Mother won’t come to my defense because she hates me a little bit too. Jonathan and I are her mistakes.

She has told me she never loved my dad. God, that hurts. Why tell me? I was eight, I think, when she first said that. See, Mom thinks it’s okay to say these things to me because, as she says, I have psychic talent. According to her, I can tell how people are feeling, what they are thinking, and what will happen to them in the future. She believes this about me because that’s what her psychic friend Dolores told her. That my spirit is blue or something, and now I have to hear things that hurt.

“Because they’re good. They’re having fun,” I say. “They love you.”

“They love their father. They don’t even know me.”

“No. They hate him, they told me. He drinks.”

Mother nods, “I know. He’s an alcoholic. He’s no good for them. The courts gave him custody because his parents have money.” This story I have heard many times before.

“Cass’s crying,” I tell her.

“Really?” Mom asks. “She doesn’t want me to send her home?”

I shake my head.

“That door is going to cost a lot to replace. How am I going to afford that? I can’t tell the landlord, either. He’d kick us out for sure. I’m making friends here, Christine. We need this.” Then, tucking herself into bed she says, “I’ll think about it. I’ll call Dolores in the morning.” She turns off the light. “Go to bed, Chrissy.”

I maneuver out of her dark room. There is nowhere for me to sleep in my room; Jonathan and the four having fallen asleep despite their fears. I walk in the dark downstairs and curl into a ball on the couch.

I wake up cold, curled in the same tight ball. The twins at the end of the couch are playing Atari. Jonathan is watching, giving commands they shrug off. I unfold from my cramped position, mumbling “ow.”

“Should’ve used a blanket,” Will says. His eyes never leave the TV.

I want to say There weren’t any extra blankets, asshole. Mother calls  us that when she’s upset, “her asshole children.” But I keep my mouth shut and walk past the duct taped bathroom door into the kitchen. Cass is helping with breakfast, carefully breaking the eggs over the hot skillet. Mother, her arm around Anne’s shoulder, is singing along to the radio as she presses bacon into the pan.

Every morning I eat breakfast of bitter oatmeal. I hate oatmeal, always have. Mother never comes to Parent’s Day at my school. She gave my snail away to that fat snob Bryan McBibb! I think all of this as I watch their happy little scene and I want to throw myself onto the ground, have a good childish tantrum, the kind I’ve only ever witnessed at the mall. Instead, I stick out my tongue at their cute little scene and march to my room.

It is empty. And quiet.

I’m still cold so I tug on jeans and a sweatshirt. I pick up the phone to call Dad and complain. I dial the first three digits: eight–nine–zero. By the time the dial completes the rotation from zero, I hang up. If he answered, he would tell me to have fun and not to worry. He would say I will be okay. I want to tell him it will never be “okay,” even after my half-siblings have gone home. I have a fear of the future, of my whole life being lived in this cramped, noisy, moldy house, never escaping. My chest starts beating quickly. I feel my breath coming out funny. I sit down on my bed and rest my head on my knees. Nobody knows I get like this—freaked out.

My sheets smell of the sisters’ perfume, bubblegummy sickly sweet. I pull my pink blankie from under my bed, shoved there when they arrived two weeks ago, and wrap it around my head. It smells of me. I feel calmer with each inhale. I pull my book from under the bed, too. Bridge to Terabithia feels warm in my hand, and I read until my eyelids droop, then I put it next to my blanketed face and fall asleep.

I’m hanging from a rope over a black gulf. The edge that I must have jumped from has disappeared. The other edge that I was jumping towards has also disappeared. My dream world is fading. There’s a black noise that’s eating it.

There it is again. I hear it more fully. It’s not just a noise: it’s several voices. I cannot keep pretending my dream hasn’t been interrupted by the outside world. My eyelids flick open and I scan the room for Jonathan’s digital clock. 8:00 p.m. How did I sleep through the entire day?

I dangle my one arm and one leg out of bed. Moving feels like a chore. Staying in bed and finishing my book is appealing, but those aren’t just loud voices, they’re sharp yells. Then I hear Cassie’s scream, it’s really scary and animal, and I’m on my feet and hopping down the stairs cricket-quick, blinded because every light in the house is on. The sound is chaotic, I can’t understand a word of the accusations, but my eye catches the shoe in Cass’s hand and I feel in my stomach that this is not going to end well. Cass punches hard like a boy. She once beat the crap out of some girl in a bathroom for poking fun at Anne.

It’s one of the twins she’s aiming at now. “Watch out!” I yell to Jamie. He ducks as the shoe blasts out of her hand. It sounds like someone hammering a rock when it hits the wall; it goes right into the wall, it just digs in.

“Damn,” Jamie wails. Of course they’ve all forgotten themselves, because there’s Mom, fuming, her jaw clinched, her brow furrowed. I feel like I can see every bone and vein in her face. Why, or how, did she let them get so out of hand? She stalks over to the shoe buried in the wall; glares at it, like her stare will make it go away.

Jonathan walks over and pops the shoe out of the wall. I can see splintered wood and crackling drywall and cotton candy insulation. He drops the shoe in front of the hole, wipes his hands on his jeans, like touching it will mean he did it. Jamie’s on the verge of tears, and of course Will is pissed; pretty soon he’ll be shouting and throwing his fists. I’m still not sure why Cass wanted to hurt Jamie so bad.

I look back at Cass. She’s just shaking, sort of how the tree in our front yard moves during a storm, like it might snap. I watch sort of hoping that it will snap. Cass is looking at Mom. Mom is looking at the wall. Anne has her arms crossed, her hip cocked to the side, her toe tapping. Her face is calm, like this happens all the time, and with those four I imagine that it does, and there’s a tug on her mouth, she might laugh.

God. Please don’t laugh. Please don’t laugh.

Mom is quiet. We’re waiting for the eruption, for the screaming, for the threats. For the hitting. I wasn’t here. I don’t know what happened but I’d better think of something quick, something that will soothe the situation.

She’s still not speaking—the angry hum of the appliances filling the space. Mom grabs her car keys from the hook by the door, walks into the garage, and leaves the door to the house wide open. She never does that. She never does this; no talking, just walking away. I look at Anne, who raises her eyebrows and shrugs. She follows Mom. I go too, closing the door behind me, and get in the backseat of the car, just as Mom backs down the driveway. I hope Jonathan is okay with Cass and the twins. They were about to kill each other but this—being in the car with Mom and Anne—feels much scarier.

I close my eyes for the entire drive, which isn’t very long. I don’t want to see how we’re getting to wherever we’re going because that feels safer. Anne hasn’t said anything, which is a relief because she tends to say things that piss Mom off. Everything pisses Mom off. But this quiet is killing me.

I peek out the window. It’s not pitch black yet. Just a summer dark that starts gray, goes to purple, and then finally races to black. Right now we’re in purple and I can see curved headstones and shadowy statues.

We’re in the middle of Blendon Cemetery. Mom turns off the car, gets out and picks her way amongst the graves. Then suddenly she’s on her knees near a grave in the dark.

“This is creepy,” Anne says. “What the hell’s she doing?”

Getting out of the car, I follow Mom’s path. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I feel like I can’t sit in the car with Anne. There’s a sense of adventure, and also, separation, the need to pull away from Anne, Cass, and the twins, to take back my summer.

Sliding along the grass, careful to avoid walking over graves, I find Mom kneeling by a new plot—just a metal marker bearing a name I can’t read in the darkness and a mound of soil. Her hands are in the dirt, she’s looking up at the sky, waiting. I’m used to this, Mom’s bizarre meditative moments: Indian dances, séances, taking a day off school to drive two states west to have her aura cleansed. Trying to trance so she can have an out-of-body experience. Writing fake checks to herself and hiding them for good fortune. This is almost a normal Saturday night for me.

“What are you doing?” Anne asks, finding us as the sky turns all black and I finally notice the moon. It seems to hang low, a pendant.

“I’m gathering dirt,” Mom says.

“What the hell for?”

“For a curse.”

I get on my hands and knees to help her remove dirt from the fresh grave. The soil feels like cookie dough in my hand, wet, as though it has recently rained. It hasn’t rained here in weeks. If he was buried today, could the tears have soaked the ground or is it juice from the dead? I’ve never been to a funeral and have only visited cemeteries during daylight. Every horror movie I’ve ever watched is playing through my brain. I shudder.

Stop it, brain.

“Mom, this is fucked up.” Anne says. She must get away with cursing at her dad’s home. Mom usually never allows it but she doesn’t stop shoveling handfuls of dirt into a little brown paper bag. “This is crazy,” she says. I hear how frightened Anne is. There’s a tremble in her voice. “Dad’s right. You’re nuts.”

She walks toward the cemetery gate. “Where are you going?” Mom asks.

“Home!” Anne yells back. “To Dad!”

I’m guessing Anne can make the walk back to our house easily; we’ve ridden our bikes to the cemetery many times.

“Christine, we’re going to spread this on Chuck’s welcome mat,” Mom says. “We’re going to leave a message to all who enter his home that he is a false man.”

“You mean a liar?”

“A false man.”

I don’t really understand what she means. I’ve met Chuck once; I know he is a real man. I also know he is married but he told my mother he loved her. The one time he came over to our house, he told Mom that he was going to leave his wife. She and Chuck held hands and kissed. I was upstairs in my room but I could hear their talking and their laughter and imagined how they embraced, then they called me downstairs and I saw that my imaginings were true. “Tell her, Chuck,” Mom encouraged. “Tell her.”

“I’m going to marry your mom. I’m going to live with you, be like your dad. ‘Kay?”

“Okay,” I said, though I knew no one would be like my dad. My dad is quiet and sweet and silly and teaches me new words from the dictionary. Words like ennui because I am always telling him I’m bored, even when I’m not. Chuck was loud and had no sense of humor. He pretended to like us. I suspected like my father he would have a hard time with “other people’s children.”

Chuck went home the next morning to “get his stuff.” He and his wife made up so he broke it off with Mom. That was a year ago. Since then, if a car pulls into our driveway and then backs out, she goes to the window and wonders if it was Chuck thinking about coming back to her. Or if the phone rings but no one is on the line, she thinks it was Chuck checking on her.

Now we’re driving the voodoo dirt to Chuck’s home. My hands are definitely being sat upon. I peer at the grave dirt in the back seat. Every time I look back I expect to find the ghost sitting there, the owner of that sacred dirt, and he’ll be mad because we stole something from him. We stole his peace. He just wanted to pull the dirt over him like a heavy quilt, we took it away. I worry he’ll haunt us for the rest of our lives.

She turns off the headlights as we enter Chuck’s cul-de-sac. We park near the entrance of the street, darting our eyes from lit window to window. There’s an upstairs light on at Chuck’s house, she tells me. She opens her door, I get out too. I stand there, in eighty-degree heat, the heat from the sidewalk pushing up against my legs, crawling on my skin like spiders, yet I shiver. I’m holding the bag of dirt, it’s damp, and I feel cold to my bones. Mom cuts through yards to avoid the street lights and sidles up against his house. I mimic her every movement, though I am shaking and the bag feels heavy, feels a ton. I have never lifted anything so heavy. My arms ache.

She whispers in my ear, “Christine, you’ve got to do it. I can’t walk past his house. I’ll be seen through the window.”

“No one’s downstairs. The lights are off,” I say.

“You never know.”

“You could crawl.”

“I don’t think—”

I cut her off. This is probably a defining moment that will be recounted to her psychic friends for the next ten years, but I don’t give a damn. I am not cursing Chuck. “If I do it, the curse won’t take. I’m not the one he upset, it was you. You definitely have to do it. But I’ll…I’ll help you.”

In the darkness I can’t see her face but I know she’s giving me the same look she gives me when I predict her future the way she wants to hear it. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” she finally says.

We crawl between his bushes through mulch, our knees pierced by the wood, splinters in our hands. We shake the bag over his front porch and really push the grave dirt into the cement. The whole time I tell myself not to think a single bad thought about Chuck or anyone.

We crawl back to the side of his house, stand up and start running. The ghost is behind us. I can feel its breath on my shoulders and if I look back, he will swallow me taking me straight to Hell. I wrench open the car door and jump on the seat with my eyes closed. I don’t open them again until we’re out of his neighborhood.

“I’m afraid to look in my rearview mirror,” Mom says.

“I was afraid to open my eyes when we were running,” I say. “I didn’t fall. I thought I would trip and fall.”

“No, you didn’t fall.” She says. Then she laughs her deep belly laugh, and I turn to look at her fully, see the glint of her white teeth. “Do you think Anne walked all the way to her Dad’s?”

I’m supposed to say I’m sure she’s waiting for us at the house. I don’t. She’s their mother; she should want them to stay. I shouldn’t have to convince her and I shouldn’t have to curse her ex-boyfriends. But I did. And I would do it again. Maybe my siblings are the normal ones and I’m crazy? I don’t care. I didn’t have one of my “attacks” and I can run. I can run without looking back.

“I think they want to go home,” Mom says. “They aren’t having any fun. I never realized how different they’ve become. They’re not like us, Chrissy.”

Thank you to Sara Ross Witt for sharing the complete text of her story “Monsters” for free on the web.  The complete book book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Sara Ross Witt, a native of Columbus, is a graduate of the New School University M.F.A. program. She authored Pregphobic and Pregnant, a blog about pregnancy and motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Arch City Chronicles and Parent to Parent. She lives in Chicago.