Monsters Among Us – Monica Rodden

Catherine stared out the window of her bedroom and thought about throwing herself out of it. She could do it, too. There was a screen, but she could unlatch it, or kick it out the way people did in movies. Or cut through it with a knife the way the serial killers did in movies. She’d crawl out like a cat onto the roof, the tiles hard and gritty under her palms, then she’d stand up, breathe in the gray winter air, and run until that was all there was under her bare feet. “Catherine?” She turned, dropping her duffel and stepping away from the window. Her mother was in the doorway, all soft blond hair and wide eyes. Her sweater was overlong and swallowed her wrists. My mom is smaller than I am, Catherine thought. When did that happen? “I wanted to see if you needed anything,” her mother said, taking one small step into the room. Catherine shook her head. “Your father could have gotten that for you.” A gesture toward the bag at Catherine’s feet. Yes, Catherine thought, he could have. But that might have required him to look at her, and he didn’t seem able to do that since she came home.

So different from just Thanksgiving break last month, drinking cider on the couch, small dessert plates balanced on their laps, all of them laughing at a car commercial for some reason she couldn’t remember. But now there was something between them all, a wall her mother touched with outstretched fingers, making patting and smoothing motions without actually reaching her. But her father made no attempt at all, seeming grateful, in fact, for the barrier. “It’s fine,” Catherine said. “I think I’m going to sleep.” “Of course.” Her mother, after a brief hesitation, crossed the room, hands reaching out. A nurse’s hands, slightly rough, used to dealing with emergencies that weren’t her own. “Can I…?” “Oh.” Catherine swallowed.

“Sure.” Her mother hugged her. “I’m so sorry, dear.” Catherine nodded against her mother’s neck, her eyes fixed on the flat of her bed, the stark white coverlet, dotted with gold and silver suns, moons, and stars. “Hey, Mom?” Her mother pulled away, wiping her eyes, which were a little darker blue than Catherine’s. A little more beautiful. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t.” Catherine shook her head. “No, it’s just…can you not tell anyone?” Her mother stared at her blankly, eyelashes wet.

“About what happened,” Catherine added unhelpfully. “I wouldn’t—” “No, I know. I just wanted to—” “Right—” “I just don’t want to talk about it. Whatever it was.” “Of course not.” A pause. “Do you remember anything more?” “No.” Catherine walked toward the bed and crawled under the sheets. They were cold. She made herself smile at her mother.

“The curtains?” Her mother made to draw them closed. “No,” Catherine said, a little too quickly, then—“Sorry. No. Leave them. And the light, too. Please.” Her mother left. Catherine turned where she lay and looked out the window. It was a typical Washington afternoon, low gray light and the promise of rain. Trees everywhere, the ones not bare such a lush green they looked painted.

She’d been studying William Blake at the university: his poetry and his art. One of his works, a depiction of Dante’s hell, was called The Woods of the Self-Murderers. Suicides were damned to the seventh circle and entombed in trees—trees that Blake drew hunched and brittle-brown, so unlike the tall, healthy ones outside her window. Catherine noticed something in that painting, something you had to look at closely to see: human forms traced inside each trunk. A man was hidden in the right tree, but she had eyes only for the woman on the left, who was trapped upside down, her hair spilling over the roots, her feet lost in the branches above. “They are the only souls in hell with no possibility of redemption,” Professor Graham had explained in the dim light of the classroom, the watercolor projected massively on the wall, “as they rejected God’s gift of life.” Catherine twisted away from the window now, eyes screwed shut. Do you remember anything more? I was still, she thought. Couldn’t move. There was laughter.

Pain. Like hell. Like I deserved it. — She didn’t think she’d slept at all, but when she finally sat up the clock on her nightstand read two in the morning. She got up, wrapped herself in a thick bathrobe, and felt her way along the dark hallway to the stairs. When she reached the kitchen, she flipped the switch that turned on the light just above the sink; turn the other switch and the whole kitchen would light up like a spotlight and there would be no shadows at all. She poured herself a glass of water and went onto the porch, but she stilled as soon as she opened the door. Her father was sitting on one of the porch rocking chairs, eyes staring out into the darkness. “Catherine,” he said, turning to her. “I was just getting water.

” He nodded, leaned back in his chair. “It’s cold.” She didn’t know what else to do, so she took a sip of water. “Smells like snow, doesn’t it?” he said. Catherine had no idea what snow smelled like; it barely snowed at all in West Falls, just a few inches each year. She drank again, trying to drain the glass so she could make an excuse to get more and then go back upstairs. Her father looked smaller than usual in the rocking chair, as though he’d lost weight. His dark hair was thinner too, his eyes just as dark behind those wire frames. She remembered seeing a picture of him once without them, when he’d been much younger. She hadn’t recognized him, so straight-backed, his hair thick and glossy.

He was the kind of man who looked like he’d been born middle-aged, with glasses and a slightly rounded spine, but then, maybe all children saw their parents like that. He taught history at the alternative high school on the edge of town, talking endlessly of wars and commanders and laws created and amended. He even had a table of antiques upstairs, collectables from years of infrequent, all-day auctions, him coming back with wrapped packages, carefully unfurling brown paper at the kitchen table, his eyes alight with excitement. “Your father’s Christmas,” her mother had called it. Catherine blinked at the night, trying to get her father into focus. “It’s cold. I think I’ll go back upstairs.” He nodded. She heard the creak of the rocking chair. He was right; the air did sort of smell like snow.

Or maybe it just felt like snow, a heaviness to the air, a potential energy waiting to fall from the sky. — The facts were these and she was not proud of them. One: she’d gone to the party. Sigma something. Maybe a Psi in there as well. Two: her dress was yellow and short and thin cotton that danced when she moved, her blond hair curled at the ends to brush her collarbone. And she did move—three—dancing and spinning. Four: she drank. Cheap boxed wine and then something green-blue that burned. No drugs in the drinks—she thought, then tried not to think about that at all.

Just too many of them. Strangely, she felt guiltier for that. So much on her shoulders, her choices all her own. Five: blackness. Or was that with four? Levels of drinking. All of them wrong but some more wrong than others, like Dante’s circles of hell, a punishment to fit the crime and she was a woman upside down in a tree, damned, her hair tangled in the tree’s roots, all the blood rushing there as though the tree were feeding off her blood instead of rain. He fed off her too. She didn’t know who. She didn’t even remember getting to the dorms back on campus, much less who the room belonged to. The one she woke up in hours later, before the sun was up, a dark room with a tall figure standing over her.

He’d been hard to see without any lights on and the window showing only a black sky. He was shaking her. She tried to push him off, turn over, into the cool covers, but the covers weren’t cool and she smelled smoke and turned the other way, coughing. She shoved at the hand on her. “I’m up,” she managed, pulling herself into a sitting position. “Doesn’t look like it.” She wiped her eyes, swallowed. Her throat was so dry it hurt and she wanted to cough but was almost afraid to. “Water,” she said without thinking. Her dress felt twisted around her.

A sigh. Footsteps. The tall shadow in front of her walked to the other side of the room. She heard a tap run and then shut off seconds later. “Here.” A cup in front of her face. She could just make out the edge of the rim. She took the cup, feeling for the first time a shiver of unease, but she was thirsty so she drank. It was just enough for a mouthful. “Thanks,” she said.

“Where—?” But she broke off. She’d righted herself a little more, shifting against the mattress, and an awareness of her body flung itself into her mind like a blow. She froze where she was, not moving at all, her mouth half open as her lungs inhaled sharply, burning her raw throat, which the water had not helped. Fear came like a blackout, sudden and complete. A terror out of nowhere. Now she noticed the height of the shadow—person, man, stranger—before her, how he was just inches away, looking down with a featureless face. The cup dropped from her hand and clattered—plastic—onto the floor. She heard every time it hit the floor. Five times, before it rolled away with the sound of grinding pebbles. “Get up,” he said.

She hesitated for a moment, then stood. She tugged at the hem of her dress. The collar felt all wrong, too high against her neck. Backward, she realized. It was on backward. Shoes, she thought, because that thought was safe. She felt for them on the floor, crouching like a child. Ankle boots with a low heel. She pulled them on. Her toes hit something hard in the right one.

Her cell phone. She took it out and put the shoe on. There were other thoughts in her mind—not cell phones and not shoes—struggling to get to the front, but she was stiff-arming them to the back like a no-nonsense hall monitor. “Go.” She looked at the shadow. She was slick all over, her skin twitching and sweating so much it was like it was trying to slide right off her bones. Fear again, breathing at the place behind her ears. She went. Her sleep was a broken thing she couldn’t put back together. But she did try—over-thecounter sleeping pills: white and chalky.

When she went back upstairs after talking to her father, she took one. Then another an hour later, her eyes dazedly scanning the back of the box; what was the max dosage? Did it matter? Her mind was thick with slow thoughts that scraped against the inside of her skull. Don’t think. I don’t want to think. Slowly she fell into blackness and woke coated in a thin sheen of sweat. She smelled. When she sat up she realized she’d kicked the covers off her bed and that the room was lit gold from the sun through the thin, closed curtains. Her clock read three in the afternoon. She stayed in bed for two more hours, watching random things on YouTube, letting the next video play without clicking, not even bothering to skip the ads. Her mom came in to check on her.

Brought her saltines as though she were recovering from the flu. “Can I get you anything else?” “No. I’m okay.” But her mom brought her tea, then ice water, then a small bowl of spaghetti shiny with butter. Catherine ate it while watching a documentary about steroids in the Olympics on Netflix. When she heard her parents’ bedroom door close just after ten, she got out of bed. She splashed cold water on her face in the bathroom and saw it catch on her eyelashes. She didn’t recognize the girl looking back at her: a mess, her blond hair dirty, the careful highlights barely noticeable under the grime. She had bruises: one at her neck, another on the inside of her right knee. They seemed to hurt more, the longer she looked at them.

She remembered seeing those bruises for the first time in the hall bathroom two days ago, a pulsing sort of heartbeat under the color. Her hands had gone to touch them, then had slid away, her feet moving almost of their own accord, to the showers. She’d stood under the water in her dress until she couldn’t feel her skin anymore, then took the dress off, her hands shaking on the zipper at her throat, her fingers slipping on the slick fabric. When she was done, she took the soaking dress and shoved it in the trash can, just as her RA, Cordelia, came in, wearing sweat pants and an irritable expression. She took one look at Catherine and rolled her eyes. “You know you can’t throw away your own trash in here.” She pointed to the sign on the wall. “See? No nonbathroom trash. It’s already too full.” Catherine said nothing.

Cordelia sighed. “Look, just take it outside to the dumpster if—” “I’m not going outside.” Raised eyebrows. “Suit yourself then.” And to Catherine’s disbelief, Cordelia started to take the dress herself, picking it up with her fingers like it was something gross. “This is soaking. Holy crap. What did you do, go swimming in it?” Her eyes, suddenly searching, caused a dull foreboding to prick at the back of Catherine’s neck. She dropped the dress back into the trash. “Catherine? Catherine? Are you okay?” She closed her eyes, shutting out the memory, telling herself she wasn’t there, that she was home and safe and fine.

She tried to think of how to pass the time. She didn’t think she could sleep any more, and the idea of scrolling through her Netflix recommendations made her twitch. It seemed to take her brain a long time to come up with something, but then she remembered with a little jolt that in two days, it would be Christmas Eve. She wrapped herself in sweats and a bathrobe and tied her dirty hair in a low ponytail. The hardwood of the stairs was cold under her feet, the kitchen air chilled. Outside the window, the night was dark, but the porch light was on, and she could see that her father had been right: it was snowing. Light, drifting. She sat at the kitchen table and looked at the two gifts she’d brought down: a book for her dad, a paint set for her mother. She’d gotten the paints on Etsy, had paid extra to make sure the set shipped to the university before she left. She remembered getting a notice that she had a package, the day before the night it had happened.

Her parents still kept the scissors and tape in that long, narrow drawer to the left of the oven. She slid the scissors through the wrapping paper. It made a sound like a snake and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, there was someone outside the kitchen window. She could just make him out by the glow of the porch light on his blond hair. He was walking a chocolate Lab that was sniffing a tree in Catherine’s front yard. The boy seemed to sense somebody watching him, because he turned slowly, head tilted a little, and met her eyes. He raised a hand in greeting and after a moment, Catherine waved back. They looked at each other for another moment and the dog began to wag its tail madly, straining at the leash; unable to help herself, she got up and went to the door. When she opened it, the dog barked and jerked the boy forward with its enthusiasm to get to Catherine.

She knelt down and stroked the dog’s head. “Hey, Molly,” she said. The dog was somehow cold and warm at the same time, her muzzle grayer than Catherine had ever seen it. Catherine stood up and half smiled at the boy in the doorway. “Henry,” she said. “You need a hat.” He ran a hand through his short hair with a grimace. “No one told me about the snow.” “Yeah, I know.” She took a step back, letting both him and the dog inside, and closed the door.

She leaned against it, arms crossed, looking at him a little wonderingly.

.

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