Jarod K. Anderson
The monster’s knees hurt when the cold fronts rolled in and when they rolled out again. She was used to it, but that’s not the same as not noticing. She noticed. The ache reminded her of younger days when enemies with their own faces and fingers and plans had to break their backs for a shadow of a chance to inflict an ache like that on her. Now, it was the cold. A change in the weather. A faceless, fingerless, planless shifting of air masses. Undignified.
Not long ago, as a sort of retirement gift, she took to calling herself Tamara, but the name had trouble sticking. All real monsters are Marxist about names. They share with the other tragedies of the world, only borrowing a name while they need it: The accident, The missing person, The attack. Nothing is strong enough to shoulder those sorts of names alone. From each according to ability, to each according to need.
Her stone house had enough turns and corners to keep out the sun. She’d earned that. Long years had made her rich with the things that seemed like riches to a monster. Most of her time now was spent reclining on a deep couch of hemlock boughs, staring blankly up at the insect-warfare that forever raged in nameless battles on the stone walls and jagged ceiling. She wondered if they had secret names or banners or insect historians and poets to keep score. She wondered, but never found out.
She had grown too fat for battles. Her sprawling asymmetry was wound round with the yellowy bulk she’d built from the bodies of countless lonely rail yard workers and the other sorts who had found themselves getting comfortable in the dark, empty spaces. Those spaces had always been set aside for monsters. The looks on their faces when she came, like they’d been betrayed by modernity, by their own senses of the world, those looks and last moments built for her a comfortable endowment of flesh and terror. She was well invested. Back when she got out more and worried aloud about the boredom of retirement, other monsters had suggested that she build a library, so she did. She’d stolen away five big old shelves full of leathery books; they made the place stink of mildew and furniture polish. The insects treated the shelves like great fortress cities, and they were ruthless in their constant conquering and defending of them.
A thing that seemed to have a presence in every sand dune gave her a sort of required reading list. The thing thought she should think on Shelley and Milton and on things that had never asked to be born, but were born anyway. That’s what the old sand-thing loved and it had sounded like a good idea at the time. But she could never put it into practice. Books seemed like obscene little things in her great hatchet-fingered hands. The books weren’t made for her and she felt it in their touch. But she kept them for the insects’ sake.
I don’t know how many decades she spent like that. Trying and failing to enjoy the rest she’d earned. Half-hoping for some great sign of a new beginning or a final end, anything to punctuate her nearly comfortable inactivity.
When something finally did happen, it began as a small, fragile thing — a fleck of color in the vast monochromatic landscape of her golden years. Four hikers, barely more than children, found her door in the mountainside. Long ago, she knew, the door had been hidden under a tumble of rotting logs, but she hadn’t bothered to look at the entrance for years and years.
The monster went stiff when she heard their laughter and smelled the salty savor of their blood. She didn’t dare to breathe. This is it, she thought. Something new! Something is happening! But her sudden excitement was mingled with doubt. She felt a new feeling. It was like the weather-ache in her joints, but it was a thing of mind and spirit. She was uncertain, and that uncertainty crept toward desperation.
Before she had retired, she would have known just want to do. She’d pick the lucky one who would die fast and spectacularly. The others would see and they’d fight with themselves, fight to not understand what they were witnessing and feeling. Then she’d feed on the blood and the horror far from help and hope and it would last and last. No other monster could ever make it last like she could. But she was retired. All her hungers had been sated, all her thirsts quenched. She had made a squirming victim of her own desires.
When the first flashlight beam turned the corner and entered her main chamber, the insects all struck a hasty truce — light and movement were the common enemies of them all, and that shared hate brought sudden unity. They fled. The light fell on the bookshelves.
“Holy shit, get in here!” said a young woman with dark hair.
She raced to touch the shelves and paw at the moldy old books. The other three fell over each other to rush in after her. They saw the books. They made excited noises and speculated about origin and value and none of them saw the milky bulk of the monster watching them with wet, eager eyes.
She hung over them like a pale-bellied question mark, like a curling grub that had sprouted jointed limbs and mouth meant for its larger, future body. Her eyes, stung by the lights, strained to follow the movement of their hands. She tried to grasp the thread of their conversation and maybe learn some kernel of information that could germinate into a plan, a hope, an idea of what to do with these shrill little children who had beaten back the terrible sameness in the monster’s life.
“I’m Tamara,” said the monster to the hikers’ backs. She meant for her voice to be calm and quiet, but all four of the people lurched forward against the shelves as if they’d been pushed. The monster cringed. Another first.
The wave of thick, nourishing fear hit her even before the hikers had turned around. The cloying intensity of it made her gag, but she was determined to remain polite. She’d try again.
“Hello,” said the monster as the hikers turned their flashlights on her.
They all screamed with one voice. It was too much. The hikers ran for their lives, but their fear filled the cavern like a sticky-sweet flood. Her stomach seized and she vomited.
Out came the black, ancient contents of the monster’s gut, more and more, until the entirety of the cavern was wet with it. When she finally finished, her whole body was trembling. She lifted herself up off the befouled floor and felt a strange electricity in her limbs. She felt lighter. Newer.
For the first time in long years she felt it again. Hunger. Beautiful, purposeful, hunger like the voice of a trusted friend and teacher. Mother and father.
When she looked around, the colors of the cave seemed brighter. The tingle of new strength was vibrating in her sinews and it compelled her clench and unclench her long, willowy fingers. All her senses were awake.
A hundred feet down the mountain, she heard a noise that tugged the corners of her mouth into a slow smile. She could hear panting breaths and frantic footfalls in the leaf litter. She moved without thought, heading toward the sound with cheerful certainty. She still thought of manners. What could be more polite than sharing the best of your art with new friends, freely and without pretense or hesitation?
West of the mountain, a thunderhead was building on the lip of a cold front. The leaves in the valley all drooped before the coming rain. The monster didn’t notice.
Formerly, JAROD ANDERSON taught English at Ohio University. Currently, he works at a foundation that raises money for a wide range of college scholarships. He writes about education by day and ghosts, monsters, and madmen by night. It’s a good arrangement. Jarod is a fan of comic books, John Milton, tattoos, pulp detective novels, herpetology, folklore, video games, and all things sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Growing up, he wanted to be either a ninja or a maple tree. These aspirations led him to teach college English. Teaching college English led him to change careers. Find him online at jarodkanderson.com