Until I was twelve years old, my sister Cecilia read me bedtime stories about monsters.
I sat up on the stained mattress next to her, my eyes wide and waiting. We were alone in the house, our father long gone and our mother at her midnight job or her midnight bar.
“And what then?” I asked, as Cecilia turned the page. “Does the maiden defeat the beast?”
She smiled. “Of course, Annie. The maiden always wins.”
Cecilia was two years older than me, so I believed her. I didn’t realize then she only chose the stories with the happy endings.
Once the dragons and witches and beasts were vanquished, we flipped off the Hello Kitty lamp on the nightstand and waited until dusk.
Until our own monster arrived.
It crawled on its belly, writhing and scratching at the floor. It was smaller than we were, no more than a shadow, but it was strong. And smart. We could hide in light or dark, but it would come for us wherever we went—the bedroom, the rec room, the alcoves of the backyard we thought were ours alone.
It would come, and it would always choose Cecilia.
The first time, we fought it together. She swatted, and I kicked, but it didn’t help. The monster was wild and cruel and patient. It simply waited until we tired ourselves out. Then it crawled up the length of my sister’s body, its forked tongue in the soft flesh of her ear.
“You’re too old for monsters,” Mama said when we tried to tell her, as if there was an age limit, the inverse of those colorful yardsticks at the mouth of a carnival attraction. Instead of “you must be this tall to ride,” it was “you must be under this age for monsters.”
But like the bedtime stories that lulled us in the dark, monsters were made for the young. They belonged to us.
And we belonged to them.
“I’m pregnant.” On the other end of the phone, my sister’s voice is thin and strange.
It takes me a moment to recognize her, and a deep shame settles in my guts. I don’t know my own sister. I’ve become that person I always loathed, the city transplant, cold and removed from what came before. Cecilia’s practically a stranger to me now. It’s been ten years since I was home, since I saw her face in the doorway the day I left at eighteen. I begged her to come with me, but she shook her head.
“Someone needs to stay and take care of Mama.”
“Let her fix up herself,” I said and squeezed Cecilia’s hand. But it wasn’t enough. Our Mama, grinning through ruined teeth, her skin bile-yellow with gin and regret, had won. I hated Cecilia for that, for choosing her over me, but I didn’t argue. It was her choice.
“Goodbye,” I said, and meant it. I didn’t come home—wouldn’t come home—not when Mama went into renal failure, or into hospice, or into the ground. I never planned to come home again.
But with Cecilia’s quiet tears salting the line, all my lingering resentment melts away, and I just want to hold my sister.
“Are you keeping it?” I ask at last.
Cecilia sucks in a heavy breath. “Yes.”
“Do you want me there?”
I hang up the phone and take the next plane back to Indiana.
The cloudless sky rises to meet me, and I stare out my plexiglass window, thinking how I shouldn’t be surprised. With our parents sick and dying, we’re becoming parents of our own. This is the cycle, how it always goes.
On the way home from the airport, I smoke my last Marlboro Light and slip the Uber driver an extra twenty to detour past the old factory outside of town. Even the off-the-book tip almost isn’t enough to convince him.
“Nobody goes there,” he says, and shudders a little.
I know why. We all know why. The ground there is bitter, the gray weeds twisted with a sickly sheen of rot and secrets.
Our secrets. The ones we could never bury deep enough.
Not every kid had a monster. We learned this early. Cecilia and I became good at picking out the ones like us. On Sunday mornings, we would sit cross-legged on the lawn of the church, and whisper to each other.
“The Rigsby twins,” I said. You could tell from how their collars were pulled up to their chins, hiding their pink welts. Dressed in too-long skirts, they shuffled everywhere they went, heads tipped to the ground, murmuring to themselves as if they were praying. Maybe they were. Prayers against monsters were as good as any other wards. As in, no good at all.
“Bobby Miller,” Cecilia whispered. He was a high school freshman like her, and his marks were the color of storm clouds, speckling his arms and throat. He could see it in us too, what we were hiding. He flashed a grin at Cecilia, and we clambered to our feet to outpace him, as the church bells clanged.
“What’s with the blotches, Cecilia?” He followed close behind, his breath hot and sticky on the backs of our necks. “You know, if you’re ever interested, I’d like to give you some marks of my own.”
I whirled around to face him, my hands wadded into aching fists. “Leave her alone.”
He guffawed. “Or what?” he asked, and flicked my nose hard.
In a flurry of thrashing arms, I launched at him and scratched his too-close eyes, and we tumbled in a ball of spit and rage on the churchyard, until the pastor came and plucked us apart like flies on yellowed paper.
“That’ll be enough,” he said and left us heaving and sneering in the grass.
During the sermon that Sunday, the pastor preached forgiveness, and I about puked on the pew. It was always the same shtick. Pardon this. Absolve that. Surrender your wrath because it only hurts you. The way the congregation talked, forgiveness sounded the same as an apology. But why forgive something that hurt you, and would keep on hurting you if it had the chance? Something that probably only stopped when you gave it no other choice.
“What does that old pastor know about forgiveness anyhow?” I asked on the ride home. “What’s the worst thing anybody’s done to him?”
“You hush, girl,” Mama said, her fingers tightening white on the steering wheel. “That pastor is ten times wiser than you’ll ever be.”
“I doubt that,” I murmured, and gazed out the backseat window at the empty sky.
We turned down our street, and our next-door neighbor Maribelle was loitering on her porch. She was a permanent fixture on the block, her figure as lithe as a lamppost, lips the color of the rusted-out stop sign at the corner. At fifteen, she’d dropped out of high school and assumed a full-time profession of lounging. She did a passable job at it, draped across the front steps, her body dripping down the concrete like the head of an ice cream cone melting in the lazy July sun.
She smiled at us in our itchy Sunday best. “How was church?”
“Better without you there,” Mama said, trudging up our driveway. “The whole steeple would probably go up in flames if you crossed the threshold.”
“Now that would be a good time.” Maribelle laughed before slipping back inside through her sagging screen door.
Mama didn’t stay for lunch. She’d done her good Christian duty—crooning the right lyrics to all the hymns, tithing in that little golden dish—and now she could go as she pleased.
In the hallway, she shed her ivory cotton dress for a pair of blue jeans. “Take care of your sister,” she said to Cecilia, and locked the front door behind her.
After Mama’s beat-up Pinto vanished around the corner, Cecilia and I bounded to our bedroom and swapped our church dresses for shorts and tank tops, the last remnants of a summer slipping away too soon.
For hours, we played Twister in the rec room. Cecilia always won.
“It’s not fair,” I said, scowling. “Your legs are longer.”
She grinned and pulled me into her and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe.
I scrambled to break free. “I’ll grow tall as a redwood someday,” I said. “And just as strong too. Then I’ll beat you. I’ll beat anyone I choose.”
She ruffled my hair. “I bet you will.”
When we got hungry, Cecilia boiled us hot dogs in an old pan and cut the mold off the week-old buns. The meal tasted like mush, but I never complained. We were together, and that was all that mattered.
“I wish it was just you and me,” I said, as we cleared the table. “That everybody else was gone but us.”
Cecilia hunched over the sink, our dirty plates clutched in her hands. “How about Mama? Do you want her gone too?”
Especially Mama, I wanted to say. Mama and the pastor and all the other adults who moralized and yelled and didn’t ever listen to what we said. They pretended to be strong, but when it really mattered, they turned away and let the monsters come. They couldn’t see because they didn’t want to.
Cecilia poured me a tumbler of neon green juice and set it on the table.
“Drink up,” she said, as if that was an answer.
I stared at the round juice can on the kitchen counter. The label featured a slobbering green beastie, his arms flailing and eyes wild. He looked nothing like our monster.
Nothing looked like our monster.
After the dishes were done, we curled up in front of the television on the brown shag carpet and watched reruns of Looney Tunes. Cecilia painted her nails, each toe a different color, while I scarfed down cheeseballs from a shiny silver can, my fingers sticky with orange fuzz.
We pretended we weren’t waiting until night. Until it came for us.
“Why does it hate us so much?” The question escaped my lips before I could subdue it.
“I don’t know,” Cecilia said, her eyes downcast, studying the curves of her feet. “Maybe hate’s the only thing a monster can feel.”
A twinge of pity tightened in my chest. How lonely a monster’s life must be. In that way, it wasn’t so different from us.
But then Cecilia rolled onto her belly, and under her waist-high shorts, her bare thighs gleamed in the yellowed incandescent glow of the rec room. There they were, those marks in the shape of wilted carnations. The marks of a monster.
I turned back to the television set, and inside me, something cracked in two. In the flicker of the screen, I promised myself I would never again feel pity.
Not for monsters. And not for us.
Cecilia embraces me at the front door. “I’ve missed you,” she whispers, and her belly presses into mine, the three of us entwined as one. “Your room’s ready for you.”
I shiver against her. My old life, just waiting for me to slide back into it.
All night, I dream of suffocating, of earth packed solid and deep in my lungs.
The next day, on our way to the grocery store, we drive by the old factory. It looks the same as last night—cold and strange and terribly familiar.
The industry here long ago abandoned us, but even back when the whole town paid union dues, this ground was already ruined. That was why the owners never built here, why they left this field fallow. The derelict factory with its heavy metals and hopelessness was only the excuse our parents used to explain why the grass would never blossom.
But we know why, even if we wish we didn’t.
In her second trimester, Cecilia develops morning sickness, and we stay in most days, the two of us twisted up together on that old shag carpet, watching Gilligan’s Island and The Price is Right.
“If you need to go home,” she says to me, but I shake my head.
“I am home.” I smile and squeeze her hand.
On one of her better afternoons, we drive downtown and have lunch at the diner. Bobby Miller is slinging milkshakes and fries at the counter. When we come in, he smiles at Cecilia, and she smiles back, and the way they look at each other makes me seasick sitting still.
In a corner booth, I flick my lighter and let it fizzle, not looking at her.
“How’s he been?” I ask, but she pretends not to know. Cecilia was always such a terrible liar.
Before we head home, she and I take our usual detour. But this time, it’s not the same. When the factory comes into view, all the breath leaves my chest.
The ground is disturbed. Like something’s burrowing up from the dark.
Cecilia’s skin turns pale as the dead. “They’re returning,” she says.
That night, she crawls into bed with me, and we coil together like children.
“What if we’re like Mama? What if we can’t see them?” She cradles her belly in both hands. “What if I can’t protect her?”
“You protected me,” I say.
But she shakes her head and turns away. “I’m not sure if I can do it again.”
In January, Cecilia’s morning sickness worsens, and I take trips to the grocery store alone. In the canned soup aisle, I pass the Rigsby twins in their same faded skirts. They smile at me, ask about my sister, and tell me—without my asking—that they’ve forgiven their monster.
“It’s the right thing to do,” they say, as I struggle to pick out the beef barley from the chicken noodle, my gaze wet and bleary with panic.
I fill my cart with an armful of random cans and shove past the twins, but they follow me into the deli.
“It’s not fair to leave them alone out there,” they say, and talk about digging up what’s in the field.
I order a pound of ground chuck and pretend not to hear them, but my chest burns with hatred, not just for monsters, but for those who protect monsters, who proffer them all the power they need. Because monsters can’t exist without us, without our denial and our forgiveness.
But I don’t soften, and I don’t forgive. Day after day, I sit across the table from Cecilia, watching her belly swell, holding her hand, protecting her the best I can.
And I try not to scream.
It was September, a month before my thirteenth birthday, when the monster turned away from Cecilia and lapped at my ear instead. We never knew why. We didn’t know if the monster knew why either.
“Don’t worry.” I tugged my sister’s hand in the dark after it had gone. “If it has me, it won’t bother you so much. Maybe it’ll be better this way.”
“No,” she said, and the edge in her voice chilled me. “This is worse, Annie. So much worse.”
We no longer read bedtimes stories. Now all she could talk about was how to distract the monster—to use herself as bait, to lead it out of town like she was a Pied Piper.
“It’ll be okay,” she said, her voice quivering over a bowl of stale cornflakes. She was always a terrible liar.
Maribelle was the one who suggested the field near the old factory.
“That’s where everyone goes,” she said with a languid wave of one hand. Then she sighed and went back to sunning herself on her overgrown front lawn, as though she gave directions for dispelling monsters every day and it was all so terribly pedestrian.
We believed her, of course. Maribelle knew about the world. She’d seen things, done things—“Too many things,” Mama always said—and when personal experience failed her, she’d heard about things. And sometimes that was enough. Having an answer, even the wrong one, was comforting in those days.
“Go at sunset and leave it there,” she said.
I raised one eyebrow. “Why?”
She shielded her eyes from the sun and frowned at me. “I don’t make the rules, pipsqueak,” she said. “Just bury it deep. Deep as you can.”
“How do we get it into the ground?” Cecilia asked, fidgeting barefoot on the sidewalk.
Maribelle scoffed. “You’ll figure it out.”
In the late afternoon, I retrieved a shovel from the shed, and Cecilia and I dressed in ratty clothes. Except for our Sunday gowns, most of our clothes were in tatters, which made it easy to choose what to wear, what outfits we would ruin.
The factory was a ten-minute walk from our neighborhood, at once too close and too far away. Ten minutes to leave home. Ten minutes to find where all the monsters had gone.
There was a whole graveyard of them, more mounds than there were kids in this town. The plots were marked off with clumsy symbols—a mishmash of flat stones gathered up from the river and graying limbs broken off once-beloved dolls. I didn’t know if these were commemoratives like gravestones or if they were warnings, tiny portends cautioning others to stay away, to not dig here. Monsters lived in this earth.
We weren’t alone. Along one edge of the field, Bobby Miller hunched over a grave, perhaps paying his respects or only checking to make sure what was there had stayed buried. He kicked a stone and wept under his breath.
“I never knew he was afraid of anything,” I whispered.
Cecilia sniffled in the gathering cold of the evening. “Everyone’s afraid of something, Annie.”
We waited to the side and pretended not to see him. When he was done, he slouched past us, his head down.
“Good luck,” he said and disappeared into the dusk.
We picked a spot in the middle that bore no marker. The earth was soft, and Cecilia moved a shovelful without strain. But the silver blade hit something small and gray. We squinted in the waning light. A creature writhed beneath the soil.
I heaved out a wheeze, but Cecilia shook her head.
“It won’t hurt us,” she said.
I inched backwards, the soles of my worn-out Keds making squeak-squawk noises on a slick of dead weeds. “How do you know?”
She shrugged, and a shiver like a death throe ran straight through her. “It doesn’t belong to us. Maribelle says other people’s monsters rarely turn against you.”
Rarely. Not never. This was hardly comforting.
I said nothing as Cecilia heaved the restless dirt back into the grave. When she was done, she patted it in place with both hands, as though she were comforting the earth. Or comforting the monster.
I tipped my head back to the sky. The light was leaving us. Our nightmare was on its way.
Cecilia led me to the far corner of the field. “How’s this spot?” she asked, and I nodded.
With a steady hand, my sister plunged the shovel into the earth and started to dig.
In the checkout line, the Rigsby twins invite Cecilia and me over to their house that night.
“To discuss our problem,” they say, as if everyone is overreacting but them.
I agree, only because I want to convince them not to dig up our past. It’s coming back on its own. It doesn’t need any help.
We’re a half hour late—Cecilia is kneeled over the toilet most of the evening—and the Rigsby twins scowl at us for our tardiness as they usher us into the living room. Thanks to that Sunday preacher, they found Jesus, though judging from the crowded walls and curio cabinets, they didn’t find him just once. They’ve unearthed their Savior in every thrift store and yard sale on the East Coast, along with a dizzying array of cats. I count seventeen, a yowling clowder of tabbies, calicos, and Manx with their stubby little tales.
Slung over a winged-back chair, Maribelle is already here. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in ten years. She has a few sprouts of gray hair, but otherwise, she’s the same old Maribelle, lounging in the corner with her red lipstick and her ennui.
“Hey, pipsqueak,” she says to me, and smiles.
Bobby joins us last, still stinking of hamburger grease from the diner. On the couch, he sits next to Cecilia, careful never to look at her swollen belly, as though regret lives there.
I stand alone against the wall as we decide what to do.
“This is what’s meant to be,” the Rigsby twins say. “If they want to come back to us, we should accept that.”
But Bobby shakes his head. “My cousin has a construction company,” he says, his words careful, as though he’s practiced this speech a hundred times. “We could dump a truckload of fill on that field.”
Maribelle tosses her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t know if that would be enough.”
“Ten truckloads then,” he says. “We could bury them as deep as we always wanted to.”
Cecilia crosses her arms over her belly. “I don’t think it matters what we do,” she says. “They’ll still find us.”
This goes on for hours, the back and forth, the this-not-that. My hands tighten into fists, and I bite down to keep from shrieking. We can argue or plead or try to reason, but there’s no answer that’ll satisfy. Not why the monsters chose us or why they’re coming back or what we should do.
We were always so afraid of being devoured whole, of the monsters biting deep and not letting go. Instead, they devoured us slowly, one aching piece at a time.
Before Cecilia and I leave, Maribelle pulls me aside.
“I was wrong back then,” she says. “Burying them didn’t help. It only incubated them. Kept them close.”
“And if you could do it all over?” I stare at her. “What then?”
“Run,” she says. “I’d run and never look back and hope they didn’t catch me.”
I smile and say goodbye, but I already know she’s wrong. Monsters have all the time in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
And besides, you can’t run forever.
The monster found us in the field at dusk. It came like it always did, discovering us wherever we were.
Cecilia kneeled in the dirt, in the grave that she’d hollowed out for the monster. It went for her again, like a goodbye, gliding up her thighs and suckling at her throat.
“One last time to placate it,” she whispered.
When it had finished, the monster slid down her body, its belly distended and eyes glazed in the dirt. It was pliable now, and we were ready. Her gaze set skyward, Cecilia crawled from the grave, and I shoveled earth over the creature. It writhed and mewled as the dirt filled its lungs, but it didn’t lunge at us or lap at our flesh with its long, thin tongue. Instead, it fell back into the soil. As I heaved the last mound of earth over its hideous face, it flashed us what looked like a smile, as though this were all part of the plan.
Like it had done this before.
We left no stone or trinket to mark the resting place of our monster. We didn’t have to. Our feet could have found that place on a moonless night.
In the dark, Cecilia and I shambled home, our shoes caked thick with bitter earth and shame.
That should have been the end of it. The happily-ever-after. Our monster was buried, wasn’t it? We’d won, right?
The next morning, Cecilia slept in, her knees tucked tight into her chest, and I was sipping the last of the neon green juice at the table when Mama stumbled in.
“Who tracked dirt into my kitchen?” Her eyes stained red in the corners, she glared at me and pointed to the floor, like I didn’t know which mess she meant.
Then with the gray earth at her feet, her face twisted for a moment, as though remembering something.
“You’ve been in that field outside of town, haven’t you?” Her voice was garbled and strange like someone speaking through tin cans tethered together with limp string.
I gripped my juice glass tighter, my words globs of glue in my throat. When I said nothing, Mama grunted and leaned into the refrigerator for the last slice of leftover pizza. I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. How could she recognize what came from that field?
Unless she knew. Unless she’d always known. Maybe those stone markers were older than we thought. Maybe they all left something behind in that ground, even that useless preacher lecturing us on forgiveness, as though he had any right.
I moved toward Mama, grasping at her arm like an infant.
“You too?” I asked.
But she yanked away and pretended not to understand.
“You’re not the only one with pain, Annie,” was all she would say.
I never told Cecilia. I might have been wrong anyhow. I hoped I was wrong.
But that didn’t stop Cecilia and me from talking about that field, and what we’d left there.
“What if it digs its way out?”
“What if it comes back for us?”
“Won’t it hate us even more for what we’ve done to it?”
These questions squeezed the air out of our lungs and roped barbed wire around our hearts. In the days before we condemned the monster to its grave, at least we’d memorized its patterns. We knew when it would come and what it would do. Now we could be sure of nothing.
If it would stay buried.
If we’d done the right thing.
If we were even the same girls after everything we’d seen and done and felt.
If we were anyone at all.
It’s past midnight when Cecilia and I return home from the Rigsby twins’, the stench of old cat litter and zealotry clinging to our clothes like a disease.
The rec room is dark, and neither one of us turns on the light, half-afraid of what could be waiting for us in the gloom.
My fingers fumbling, I strike my lighter, and we sigh. The room is empty.
“It’ll be here soon, though,” Cecilia says.
“No,” I say. “It won’t.”
I take her hand and lead her upstairs where I tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead. Beneath the comforter, the baby kicks.
“Good night,” I say, and close the door behind me.
Out back in the shed, I find the old rusted-out shovel, and with my lighter in my pocket, I take the long walk out of town.
I can’t heal my sister’s scars. I can’t wipe them away like tears and pretend they didn’t happen. Not even time can do that. But I can do something else.
I can stop hiding. We can all stop hiding.
The field waits for me. Nothing’s buried deep here. We were so young, so small, our arms soft and weak. We couldn’t delve deep enough to bury these things in the hopeless dark where they belong.
But now I don’t want them buried. I want them gone. All of them gone, enough nightmares to last a thousand lifetimes.
In the icy air, the shovel struggling against the frozen earth, I dig up the plots, both marked and unmarked, a hundred or more tiny sepulchers. Cecilia’s words from that long-ago night echo in my head.
Other people’s monsters rarely turn against you.
Rarely. Not never.
But these things aren’t as we left them. Like our parents, the monsters are old now, their bodies shriveled and weak, mouths expanding and contracting like a dying snapper beached on a shore. They’re burrowing their way out, only because they need the cycle to continue. Without our children, they’re weak and restless and wanting.
But I won’t let it continue. Not this time.
In the corner of the field, I save the worst for last. The shovel moves the heavy earth, and I find it there, waiting for me.
With my breath knotted in my chest, I pluck it from its grave, and I cradle our monster. It’s smaller now, so small and strange and nothing.
There’s no violence in my hand. I won’t become a monster, too. I won’t do to them what they did to us.
But I won’t close my eyes and run either.
This is my choice, even if it’s my final one. These things can turn me to cinders if they’d like, but I won’t fear them, not anymore.
My fingers quake, and fury burns inside me, brighter than the torches of a pitchfork mob. And it’s enough. All around, the earth rumbles with a choir of restless, cowering beasts. Now they fear me, what I’ve become, the strength I hold inside me. Our monster gazes at me, its eyes gray and empty. It mewls once before folding up in my palm, its body curling into itself, useless and thin as a paper fortune-telling fish.
When we were young, we learned there was power in forgiveness. But there’s power in grudges too, in rage that never abates, that never wanes like the moon. Rage that warms you from the inside out and destroys all the bad in this world—or at least all the bad that lives in this earth beneath our feet.
But I’m not done, not yet. One by one, I reach into the open graves and lift out the monsters. I hold them close, a last embrace that stills their hearts. Their chests no longer rising and falling like the tides, they’re tranquil and right and resting at last. This wasn’t just a gift for us, after all. It was a gift to the monsters too.
When I’m done, there’s nothing left to burn.
I strike my lighter and burn it anyway. I burn the ash and the poisoned earth that incubated these nightmares. I burn the past, and I revel in it too. With childish whoops to the sky, I revel in the good and the clean and the parts of us that were never defined by these things that did everything they could to destroy us. They lost. Of course, they did. That’s one thing the old bedtime stories got right: the monsters always lose.
When the last flames wink out, I turn toward the dawn, leaving behind the stones and scorched toys as reminders of who we were. Sometimes, remembering isn’t so terrible. Sometimes, there’s strength in it, in not forgetting, in not forgiving.
In the spring, when the ground thaws and the sun shines lemon-yellow in the sky, the grass will return, green and gleaming. I’ll return too. I’ll tow barrows of fresh earth and sprinkle pressed packets of wildflowers across the field.
And when she’s ready, I’ll bring Cecilia. I’ll bring her children and maybe someday mine as well. We’ll bring all the children here, and we’ll tell them about the monsters, about the things that suckled at our skin and siphoned the joy from our hearts. Our children will listen, patient and wide-eyed, but they won’t believe a word of it. As though it’s a most delightful yarn, they’ll just laugh.
We’ll laugh too.
Originally published in Suspended in Dusk II, edited by Simon Dewar.