Sometimes, monsters are closer than we’d like to think.
(A little behind schedule this week! We’re off to Hawaii tomorrow and this whole week has been a blur of trying to get ready while fighting off sickness.)
A monster lived at the end of Lacey’s hallway.
Lacey knew this with the instinctive certainty of children: the strange uneasy shudder that sent a sinking feeling from her heart to her stomach, the prickling chills that gathered down her back when she was alone. She knew because of how the tree whose branches brushed the window was always brown and dead, even during the height of spring rains.
She knew because once her cat had escaped and refused to run that way; instead, it hissed and ran immediately back inside. Her mother had called it luck.
Lacey knew better.
The monster looked like an old man with soft round cheeks and a soft round belly. He looked a little like Lacey’s grandfather. He rarely spoke above a whisper, and there was always a gentle, faraway smile on his face.
Lacey’s mother liked him. His name around her parents was That Nice Mr. Clubs, and her mother would talk to him whenever they ran into each other by the mailboxes, on the sidewalk, wherever.
“I think he’s just lonely,” she’d say. “Be nice to him if you talk to him, Lacey.”
Lacey, cold with just looking at him, just nodded.
Lacey’s brother Josh was five years older, a burgeoning teenager with everything that came with that. He was loud and tall with a neck that was so thick his jaw nearly disappeared when viewed from the side. He played football, some position that Lacey kept getting mixed up. Running quarter? Something back? Her inability to remember frustrated him, and he took it out on her in a particular way.
“Only babies are afraid of monsters,” he liked to say, sneering with each word. “You’re almost twelve. Why are you afraid?”
Each time Lacey’s throat closed up and she couldn’t answer.
“We should be back by midnight,” Lacey’s mother said, stooping to kiss Lacey’s cheek and ruffle her hair before rushing for the door. “Josh, don’t stay up too late! Remember you have practice tomorrow!”
The door shut, the lock turned, and they were alone.
“Whatever,” Josh said to the silence. He put a hand on Lacey’s head and shoved in a mockery of their mother’s touch. “I’m gonna watch TV. You do whatever. Don’t let the scary monsters get you.”
He wiggled his fingers at her, then laughed as he walked away.
Lacey tried not to cry as he did.
The first hour went by without much incident. Lacey listened to Josh laughing at whatever was on the TV, louder than entirely necessary, and tried to focus on her coloring book. Her mother had bought it for her after the first months of her trying to speak about the monster at the end of the hallway. It was supposed to calm her.
Lacey picked a red crayon and carefully outlined one of the birds on the page. When she drew a circle around its eye, it looked tired and expectant.
“Don’t think you’re safe,” it seemed to say. “Be careful.”
The second and third hours also passed quietly. Josh continued to watch TV. Lacey passed him on the way to the kitchen and he threw a chip at her. It bounced off her temple and he laughed louder.
Despite the efforts of his noise, a bubble of silence wrapped the apartment. It felt thick and heavy, like Lacey could physically touch. Everything inside was muffled; everything outside seemed amplified until Lacey could hear everything. A neighbor’s dog barked and fell silent. Heavy footsteps tromped overhead. A car on the street revved its engine.
Down the hallway, the door creaked open.
Once, two weeks ago, the monster had trapped Lacey in the elevator.
He’d gotten on at the second floor, where the laundry room floor, and smiled as Lacey tucked herself hard into the far corner. He never spoke, but only continued to smile until they reached the fifth floor. Lacey had wanted to wait for him to leave first, but when the doors began to close she’d darted out, running as fast as she could for the relative safety of her own apartment.
It was only when she’d gotten the door open that he spoke.
“Have a good night, Lacey.”
Now Lacey fled for her own bedroom. Josh yelled something after her, but she barely heard. She slammed the door and yanked her desk chair under the knob, then ran for her bed. Without bothering to change into pajamas, she crawled under the covers and pulled them over her head. Her throat hurt from suppressed noise.
Only when she knew she was completely covered, breathing warm recycled air, did she try to listen again.
The footsteps in the hallway had neither slowed nor stopped. They came rhythmic and slow, one, two, three.
She heard Josh yell again, and then silence.
Lacy awoke to pure silence. When had that happened?
The TV was off, and even through her blanket she knew it was still the solid darkness of late night. Inside her cocoon everything smelled stale and too warm, but she didn’t dare move for fresher air, just in case the monster was still lurking nearby.
But the next time Lacey opened her eyes, to her relief, it was morning. Sunlight wouldn’t banish the monster entirely, but it would make it retreat.
She crept from her room and found a note.
“Took Josh to the doctor. Breakfast is on the table.”
Josh was never quite the same, after. He still went through the motions of life, but he was quieter, after that day. Duller. Drained. Something vital had been sapped from him.
Three months later, the monster moved out.
Lacey came home from school to find a truck parked out front and the monster overseeing boxes of his belongings being packed away. She ducked her head and tried to slip past unobtrusively, but of course he noticed.
What he said, as she passed, sent ice down her spine.
“It’s a good thing,” the monster said, “to know when to be afraid.”