I could hear the debate raging a few paces away. It grew more and more heated until, finally, one of the children flounced over, determined to have the final word on the subject from an adult. Arms folded, eyebrow raised smugly, he asked, “Are monsters real?”
I looked from him and his compatriots, so confident in their superiority, to the lone child looking to me pleadingly for defense, and I almost hesitated in my answer. I did not want to crush their fantasy.
But I don’t lie to children. So I told them the truth:
“Oh yes. Monsters are real.”
They stared blankly, not sure if they had heard correctly.
“I mean, not with fangs, and claws, and horns, and such,” I brushed off flippantly. “Much scarier than that. Because real monsters look like you and me. And they’re everywhere.”
A slim wraith of a girl sat in the darkness in a rocking chair with her knees pulled up against her chest, listening to the muffled sobbing in the room beyond. Beside her, the baby in the crib began to sniffle. She knew it would start crying soon, but she didn’t know how to stop it. She had tried to pick it up once, but her arms were too weak, and it had just made the thing cry harder.
She pressed her face into her knees, trying to drown out the sniffling with darkness.
“Just stop it, you,” she whispered vehemently at her kneecaps. “You didn’t even know him. He was my daddy, not yours. You don’t get to cry. If I don’t cry, you don’t cry.”
To her surprise, the sniffling stopped. The girl looked toward the crib. There beside it stood a young boy, thin and malnourished, not more or less than a year difference from herself, holding the baby in his arms. It smiled back at him.
She hated him immediately.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, letting her legs drop involuntarily and standing.
The boy glanced toward the rocking chair, as if noticing her for the first time. “Oh I’m sorry, did you want her?” he pushed his arms out toward her.
“I-” she hesitated, remembering the way her arms had strained to lift the baby, how it thudded against the crib when her muscles had given out under its weight. How it had wailed when she had tried to comfort it afterward. She hardened herself. “Of course not. Why would I want that thing?”
He grinned, causing his green eyes to sparkle in the darkness, “Then you wont mind if I take her?”
“No, you can’t!” The girl’s voice squeaked out quicker and higher than she intended. She grit her teeth and swallowed before continuing with forced calmness. “What I meant was… Mommy wont be happy if you do. She likes it. I don’t know why – I don’t know why anyone would like it, but she does. So you can’t take it.”
“Oh, I wont go anywhere with her,” he agreed eagerly. “I just want to… play with her. Keep her quiet for you. You know, so you don’t have to put up with her crying anymore. Mommy wont even need to know.”
She hesitated. Something told her that she should say no. But… all the crying was exhausting. Mommy already cried enough for all of them. And… the baby smiled at him again.
She forced her lips into a grimace. “What do I care then? As long as Mommy doesn’t find out.”
“Come on, Emmy, say my name.” The girl watched from the corner as the toddler clung to the boy’s fingers, pulling herself up to a standing position. Mommy was concerned that the toddler was late in speaking, but Mommy was too busy to notice that the toddler had been practicing for months. “Come on, Emmy. Say Peter. Peee-ter.”
The toddler giggled and drooled at him. The girl’s face twisted into a pout and she turned her attention back to her book. “Can’t even say a stupid name.”
“Mag.” The girls eyes shot up as the toddler started to sputter.
“Magmagmag. Gee. Geeeeeeee.”
“Maggie?!” the girl squeaked. “Are you… are you saying Maggie?”
Peter pushed hard with his fingers, and the toddler landed on her bottom with a thud.
“Hey!” The girl jumped to her feet defensively.
“Hey yourself,” Peter laughed viciously. “Are you really jumping to the defense of a baby who wont even look at you? And you’re stupid enough to think that she’d be saying your name?”
“Well…” Maggie paused. “I know I heard-”
But she was interrupted. The door opened, and Mommy glared through it. “Maggie! Why are you yelling at your sister?”
“I wasn’t, Mommy! I-”
“Don’t lie to me, Maggie,” she snapped. “I heard you yell all the way from the kitchen, and she’s sitting in the corner crying. What did you do to her?”
“Mommy, I didn’t-”
“In your room, now. No more arguing, Maggie. I’m sick of it.”
Maggie opened her mouth indignantly once more, then glanced at Peter, who sat snickering in the corner, and snapped it shut. She wouldn’t get herself into more trouble. Not in front of him. And certainly not over a toddler that wouldn’t even look at her.
“Yes, Mommy. I’m sorry I argued, Mommy.” But she wouldn’t apologize for yelling at the toddler. She hadn’t done that.
Maggie squealed to a stop on her rollerblades. Her eyes moved across the park, to where Peter was pushing the little girl on the swing.
The little girl giggled wildly, “Higher! Higher!”
Maggie watched as the swing came up almost parallel to the ground. “Hey,” she called out, “Not so high!”
Peter hissed something into the little girl’s ear the next time the swing came down, and Maggie soon heard it echoed in a shrill cry from the swing, “You’re not my mommy! You can’t tell me what to do!”
Maggie rolled her eyes and started skating again. “Good riddance, too. Though, if I was, at least I’d have better things to do than babysit you at the park.”
A shrill cry jettisoned Maggie out of her thoughts though, and her eyes flashed back to the swing – still going at top velocity, but with no one riding it anymore.
“Emmy!” she shrieked, pushing off hard on her rollerblades, and launching herself straight into the tanbark.
The little girl was curled up on the ground at the base of the swingset, not moving.
“Get out of my way, Peter!” Maggie growled.
Peter stood up and spun on her, green eyes flashing dark.
“Don’t,” she warned, “Don’t even start. Just let me see my sister.”
“Your sister?” he asked with mock incredulity. “You mean, the girl you call names with your friends. Or maybe… the girl you terrorize with snails and centipedes. Oh, I know! You mean the girl that you laugh at when she wakes up crying from nightmares. You really think she really wants to see you right now?”
Maggie took a step back and stumbled on her rollerblade, feeling suddenly small, despite how she now towered over the boy. “I just want to know if she’s ok.”
Peter tossed his head back and laugh, “Well believe it, Maggie, she’s fine.” And as if on cue, the little girl pushed herself up on her palms. “She doesn’t need you to be fine. Never has, never will.”
Maggie thought of the baby wailing in the darkness as she tried to comfort it. The way it had smiled when the boy had first picked it up. Her face hardened. “Well good then. I’m glad we got that straightened out. Sure makes my life a whole lot easier.”
She turned and stomped off on her rollerblades. She didn’t see the little girl look up with tears in her eyes. Didn’t hear her whisper from beneath the scrapes and bruises, “…Maggie?”
“…Maggie?” the young teen knocked louder. “Maggie, are you awake yet?” She turned the door knob, gently pushing it open, “Maggie, Mom just called and she-”
She stopped, and everything stopped with her. Maggie hovered mid-action above a half-packed suitcase, reflecting the look of shock that the young teen felt on her own face.
“I have to,” Maggie mumbled eventually, as if that one sentence explained everything.
The young teen choked out a laugh, but there was no humor to it. “Have to what, Maggie?”
Maggie began packing with renewed vigor.
“Maggie, what are you doing?” Silence. “Where are you going?” More silence. “Well, when will you be back then?” The pitch of the young teen’s voice began to rise. “Maggie, when Mom finds out-”
Maggie snapped her head up finally. “When Mom finds out, she wont care.”
“Maggie, you can’t!”
The rage behind the young teen’s voice surprised Maggie, enough to uncover her own, “I can, and I am!”
“Please, Maggie…” the young teen’s rage melted into pleading, “You can’t leave me. Who’s going to take care of me? Of Mom?”
Maggie hesitated for the first time since the door had opened. She looked at Peter standing in the doorway, snickering silently at her. She thought of the baby, crying as she tried to comfort it. She thought of the way it had smiled – the way it still smiled – at Peter. Her heart grew hard.
“I’m not your mother, Emmy.” She grabbed her bag and pushed past. “I’m sorry.”
The young teen was left behind, tears pooling under her eyes, but not alone.
“I told you that she would leave,” Peter said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “Just like Mom always does. Just like Daddy did.”
“My daddy didn’t leave, he died.” It was the first time Emmy had ever snapped at Peter, and he didn’t take well to it. He dug his fingers into her shoulder and spun her around. “Oww, Peter, stop it. You’re hurting me!”
“Your daddy died?” he asked incredulously. “And how did he die, Emmy? Out trying to buy a high, instead of at home, with you. Would he even be dead if you had been more lovable?”
Emmy opened her mouth to rebuke him, but the words died before they reached her lips.
It’s true, a voice whispered in her ear.
“Like it or not, Emmy, I’m all you’ve got. And you’re lucky you’ve even got that, with the way you treat me.”
Emmy swallowed hard, and wiped away her tears. “You’re right, Peter. You were right about everything, even Maggie. I’m sorry I snapped at you. I was just angry at her. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
He wrapped his arms around her and rubber her back. “I forgive you, Emmy. Because unlike everyone else, I really do love you.” He pulled back. “Now let me see you smile.”
Emmy pasted a smile on her lips, but it wasn’t the same grin the baby had given him fourteen years ago. And it never would be again.
She was the last one. After fifteen years, I had dared to become hopeful, no matter what the monsters told me. I really thought she would stay with me, rescue me. I didn’t know that she couldn’t rescue me even if she wanted to, that she was barely strong enough to rescue herself.
So I hated her that day. I chased her out the door with callous, cutting words, and told her good riddance as she climbed into her car.
But on the inside I was screaming, begging for her to turn around and come back. To say that she loved me, that I was worthy, that I mattered. But she couldn’t hear my silent screams, and I took it as confirmation of the truth of the only one who did hear me: “You see? They don’t care. They don’t want you. Only I want you. Only I will ever want you.”
[This is fiction, but it is also truth. My sister broke free of her monsters that day. I would nourish mine for another ten years before finally breaking free.]