Sasha lay in bed, filled with the certainty that there were dark creatures beneath her who fed off her terror. The wind hissed through the loose windowpanes, almost masking the sounds of malevolence that drifted upward.
They spat and hissed in a rapid, staccato rhythm that spoke of malicious intent, although she wasn’t sure to whom it was directed. The cadence of the foreign tongue of malevolence filled her with dread. She pulled the sheets up over her head, imagining the creatures whose spiked tongues were meant for biting and chewing innocent flesh. They were small, slithery creatures with black eyes and claws in the place of fingernails. Her teeth only stopped chattering when she fell into fitful sleep full of dreams about eyes that penetrated the soul.
When she told her mother about what she had heard the previous night, her mother hugged her tight and told her that there were no monsters. That night, her mother led her around the room, looking under the bed, in the closet, and behind the door. She even crawled under the chair and waved her thin hand and said, “See, baby girl? There aren’t any monsters. You’re safe.”
Sasha clutched her doll, a pitiful thing that was more rags than toy, and whispered, “I heard them, Mommy. I heard them. They’re real.”
“There aren’t monsters, baby girl.”
“No, there are!” she cried. “They’re hiding somewhere else.”
* * *
Sasha sighed as she undid the buttons of her suit. The stiff, unyielding fabric constricted her all day as she sat at the desk, but she didn’t mind. A suit with pointy high heels meant business. It was just that simple: to do business, you had to look like you meant business. It didn’t matter that only her boss and four of her colleagues saw her in the suit as she scoured the financial documents to ferret out fraudsters. She meant business.
The streetlight flickered as she drove by, turning her sigh of pleasure into one of exasperation. She had called the guy at Town Hall, who was supposed to report the problem. That had been more than two weeks ago. It just wasn’t safe. The inconstant light would summon robbers and thieves like a birdsong during mating season. The ponderous voice at the other end of the line had promised her that a maintenance worker would be sent. Yet, she could see that the light was still broken. Still unreliable.
When she had called about the pothole on highway 23, it had taken them over a month to fix it. The day that she had seen the bright orange cones circling the crater, she had smiled and laughed. The sullen workers had looked up in surprise at her glee.
Potholes caused thousands of car accidents, she knew. A man had died after his car careened into a median after hitting a pothole.
As she parked in her driveway, she added a new entry to her to-do list: “Call the Town Hall about the light at the corner of Noyes and Fulton.” She didn’t need to enter the phone number, as she had committed it to memory.
The light drizzle shrouded the street in gray haze, the few functional streetlights metamorphosed into eerie torches that lined a dark and dank dungeon deep in a castle’s bowels. A simple little thing like rain had the power to transform this little ordinary suburban street into a medieval landscape where ghouls and witches still roamed.
She touched her keys in her purse, reassuring herself of their presence. All she needed to do was get out of the car and walk home. Then her day would be over and she would be safe.
As she put her hand on the door handle, she saw movement deep in the grove’s darkness. Her hand froze as she squinted, searching for the black shadow against blackness. Nothing moved. She decided it was nothing more than an errant deer who had wandered off from its herd. The ruminants often passed through the grove, searching for the juiciest grass as they lived out their lives of aimless grazing.
The mayor’s office had declared just a month ago that it was hiring someone to shoot them dead because of the overpopulation problem. She supposed that the deer’s days were numbered now and bade a silent farewell to the graceful creature that ate people’s gardens.
* * *
She found her first monster while channel-surfing. The twelve-year-old Sasha sat up straight as the news anchor said the words: “Local man sentenced 15 years to life for serial kidnapping and rape.”
The television screen faded to a picture of a neat little ranch house, where he had kept eight women captive over the course of fifteen years. She recognized the house immediately. It was the house that she passed by every day on the school bus, its gray exterior blurring as she whizzed by.
The anchors went on, explaining how he had doused the women with alcohol and injected drugs into them before he dumped them on the side of the street. “Our experts theorize that he picked women from disadvantaged backgrounds—sex workers, non-English speakers, teenage runaways—because people would be less likely to believe them if they reported him. He was right … until now.”
The camera cut to a young woman with drawn cheeks and vacant eyes saying in monotone, “He didn’t rape me or nothin’ right before. And .. I had a past. Those cops just didn’t believe me. I’m not some hoity-toity fancy lady, so I guess I don’t matter.” The anchors added that the police department had asserted that the women never brought them sufficient evidence. A beefy man in an ill-fitting suit said, “Without good evidence, there’s nothing much we can do. They didn’t give us much to work with.”
Her throat grew raw as she watched the serial kidnapper-rapist. He sat in his orange suit with a tranquil smile, gazing into the camera. “This is all very strange. I didn’t think I’d be in here for all that long. A few days, maybe but … not fifteen years. Never thought that. This whole thing is silly, if you ask me. My lawyer said that I better put in a guilty plea, but the truth is … what am I really guilty of?” His voice was calm and smooth, one of a man who knew no guilt.
By the program’s end, she was trembling all over. The terror of that night when she had heard the monsters returned in full force. Now she knew where the monsters had escaped to.
* * *
Sasha gripped her keys as she prepared to exit the car, a little trick she had read in an article about self-defense. The thirty seconds that a woman spent outside of their home was their most vulnerable moment. Lulled into a sense of security, they fished around their purses for their wayward keys without giving a second thought to the strangers lurking in the shadows.
She glanced up one final time before she exited.
Something moved along the edge of the grove, expanding the blackness outward. A silhouette of a deformed humanoid figure, its head grotesquely bulbous and slanted, detaching as it walked toward her. Her keys cut into her palm as she watched the shadow move toward her with a loping gait. The darkness was too deep for her to discern anything other than its shape.
The light flickered on, only to die once more a moment later. In that instant, a young male face dotted with sparse, aspirational stubble was turned toward her. His lip was curled outward, weighted down by the metal studs and rings that gave him the look of a fierce bull. What she had thought was a misshapen head was just a loose beanie pulled low over his forehead, like all those teenagers she saw loitering in parks and malls. The flash was too brief for her to catch a glimpse of his eyes before the shadows enveloped him once again.
The boy craned his neck as he half-hopped, half-strode down the street.
“He’s casing the neighborhood,” she whispered, the keys rattling in her hand.
There had been a string of petty thefts and acts of vandalism in the neighborhood. The Ewings had their garage lock cut one night and woke up to find their brand-new bicycles missing. The Kims had a mailbox sprayed with graffiti in broad daylight. Paulette Jankowsky came home to the sight of her flower pots smashed and her poinsettias trampled.
The light flickered, catching the boy’s face directly this time. His eyes fixed on hers and held her gaze until the light went out again. His eyes were narrow, framed by thick black eyelashes—dreamboat eyes, except for the fact that they only held suspicion and anger.
She shrank back into her seat, her heart pounding.
* * *
She found her second monster in her high school cafeteria when she was seventeen.
Two uniformed police officers walked into the packed room and approached a boy who had his feet up on the table as he laughed. As soon as he saw the man and woman standing there, his smile faded. After the female officer whispered something into his ear, he nodded and shuffled through the large doors, flanked by two black silhouettes.
HIs name was Noah and he sat next to her in English. He spent most of the class reclined in his seat, his hair covering his eyes to disguise the fact that he slept through nearly every class. As his eyes fluttered closed as the teacher droned about Lady Macbeth’s perfidy, a faint smile remained on his lips.
She would peer at him over her shoulder, transfixed by the smile. What good dreams he must be having, she thought enviously.
When he felt talkative, he would lean close and whisper, “Don’t you ever get tired of paying attention? Mr. Rendell has a thing for Lady Macbeth if you ask me. He likes ‘em bossy.”
She couldn’t help but giggle at the notion of their mild-mannered and gentle English teacher cavorting with the likes of Lady Macbeth. “Shh,” she replied with a smile. “Pay attention.”
“Aw, c’mon. You’re too good. You should loosen up sometime. I bet that’d be a sight,” he said with a wink.
She kept her eyes on Mr. Rendell, her heart racing at the memory of Noah’s wink that had been veiled by the curtain of his wayward hair. Hope bloomed in her: hope that he would utter the magic words, “Hey, let’s grab a movie sometime.” She imagined herself accepting the offer, sitting down next to him in the darkness, his hand slipping around her shoulder. Finally, she could almost see their lips meeting. Those thoughts exhilarated her, filled her with a joy that she didn’t think was possible to get from a mere daydream.
Soon after he had disappeared with the police officers, the stories began circulating the halls. Noah and two friends had been drinking one night. They had staggered over to the town’s idyllic pond, a tranquil pool of water full of geese gliding along. One or all of them, nobody knew, but someone had splashed through the pond, grabbed two geese, and broke their necks. They left the waterfowl on the steps of the town hall, their carcasses gutted and splayed open.
His lawyer issued a press release, “Noah Dunham is an upstanding man who made only one mistake. He drank too much around the wrong people. He is just as shocked and appalled by the other boys’s actions as the town is. He was an innocent bystander.”
Within the week, he returned to his usual seat, silent and sullen. She never saw him smile again. His trademark laugh had disappeared as his fellow students spat on him as he passed, dotting the lower leg of his pants with spittle marks. He whispered, “It was just a dare. Just a dare,” but his words were swallowed up by the passersby’s jeers.
She watched him in the peripheries of her vision and wondered how she could have missed it. How she could have mistook the glint of malice in his eyes for alluring intensity. How she could have laughed at his jokes and dreamed of his malevolent hands on her. How she could’ve missed the evil that lurked beneath the sly smile.
Noah left school to serve eight months out of a 18-month sentence. The only time she heard about him again was a passing remark by a classmate at their 10th class reunion. She talked about how he had ended up as a crack addict somewhere in Chicago. “Good riddance,” the classmate had said.
Whenever Sasha went on a date, the memory of Noah’s flirtatious wink stuck to her like a burr. She watched her date’s smile, trying to decide if it was a veneer of charm that concealed a black soul. At their touch, she imagined their hands covered in geese blood and recoiled. The more she listened to their cajoling to go back home “and watch a movie,” she heard the malevolence underneath. When they called her frigid bitch, she walked away, knowing that her assessment had been right. They were just another monster wearing human skin.
* * *
The boy yawned and shuffled back into the grove’s shadows. His silhouette was barely visible as he crouched down at the base of a stately oak tree. A small flame rose up as he lit a cigarette dangling from his lips. The brief illumination made him look like the relaxed, happy fifteen-year-old he should’ve been as he closed his eyes to take a long drag. The match went out, plunging the boy back into the shadows.
The streetlight flickered on again revealing that the boy had replaced the cigarette with what looked just like a beer bottle wrapped in a brown bag.
She retrieved her phone to report the flagrant violation of smoking and drinking laws. Her finger instinctively moved to the 9 in a reflexive twitch. This would be her 64th call to the police—to both the emergency or non-emergency lines— this year. Most of them had just been about open garage doors and noisy violations.
The best call had happened last year. She had spotted the eerie blue-white fluorescent light blazing in a shabby little house several streets over. No matter the hour, the lights lit up the house. One day, when she gathered up the courage to knock, a man deeply browned by too much sun answered the door. As he spoke, his cracked, dry lips started to bleed.
“I saw you have your lights on all night … is everything all right?” she asked.
The reedy man blinked, then drawled, “I have a medical thing. I’m an albino. Gotta get that light, y’know?”
As he slammed the door in her face, the skunky musk of marijuana smoke filled her nostrils. She called the police as soon as she got home.
She was parked down the street when she saw the police offers flashing a piece of paper—a search warrant, she knew—before barging into the house. Twenty minutes later, they were dragging out the man and an emaciated woman who was crying. When the man got closer to the car, he began to thrash, nearly escaping the officer’s grasp. The tall officer pushed him down and placed a knee on his back until he grew still.
As soon as the police car disappeared, she smiled. The neighborhood was now safe. That night, she slept soundly and woke without the residual fear one feels after a nightmare.
The worst one had been the time when she called about the flower planter that kept moving in front of the Laughlins’s house. The officer who had responded was a familiar face—Officer Grimes, a portly man well into middle age—who trudged up her driveway with his mouth set in his trademark scowl.
“Ms. Burkin, here I am … again,” he said with a sigh. “This is in regard to your most recent call. Something about a planter, was it?”
His scowl deepened as she explained that Kathleen Laughlin loved her flowers and would never move them around so often. “There’s something wrong there, Officer Grimes. I just can’t see her doing that of her own will. Maybe there’s … someone in there. I don’t know … Please look into it. I’m worried about her. It’s just her and her daughter in there…”
“Did you ask her about it”
She had known Officer Grimes for long enough to know that this wasn’t a fact-collecting question. “I can’t … She … isn’t exactly talking to me right now.”
Until a month prior, Kathleen was one of Sasha’s only friends on the street (or anywhere else). Kathleen was a rowdy divorcee who liked to collect gossip rags from the supermarket newsstand and roar in laughter over the antics of the reckless celebrities. Averse to cooking, she replaced the kitchen stove with another refrigerator to keep all of her takeaways. Sasha kept her well-supplied in cakes and cookies as Kathleen brought over flowers from her prize garden.
When Sasha had seen Kathleen’s fourteen-year-old daughter clad in a tube top and short shorts, she had told the girl that she should cover herself lest she attract unwanted male attention. She had the most angelic face with a gymnast’s body, a pervert’s wet dream come true. “Go put on something longer and thicker. You’ll get raped if you go out like that,” she had told the girl. When Kathleen found out, she called her an old biddy who had repressive ideas about female sexuality. Sasha had cried herself to sleep that night, dreaming of the girl’s innocence ravaged by a monster. Kathleen didn’t realize that there was evil creatures out in the world.
“Of course not,” Officer Grimes muttered, almost too quietly for her to hear. “Ms. Burkin, do I need to remind you that 911 calls shouldn’t be made lightly? We appreciate your concern and attentiveness, but … we need to focus on the people who are actually committing crimes.”
She stiffened. “I’m a good person, Officer. The police can’t do everything—there’s only so many of you. I’m doing my part here. Too many people just pay attention to themselves and their lives. Don’t you remember Kitty Genovese? There has to be someone who looks outward … or we’ll all be lost,” she said before slamming the door shut. When she heard him walk away, she covered her face with her hands, feeling every bit the spinster that she was.
She watched the tip of the boy’s cigarette glow as he took another drag. Her cell phone beeped as her unfinished call timed out. “They always come too late, anyway,” she told the empty car.
* * *
The third monster had moved in next door seven years ago.
The Schwartzes were a nice and pleasant couple when they bought the townhouse next to hers. Ted Schwartz jumped into his brand-new Mercedes every morning with a quick grin and bright eyes. Linda, his wife, always shouted, “I love you!” out of the window as he backed up. Whenever Sasha heard their terms of endearment, she would sigh and wonder if she had been wrong after all. Wrong about those men she had dated.
Something had changed along the way. Ted began to dawdle as he got into the car. His once-impeccable appearance became slovenly. He began coming home later and later, sometimes pulling into the driveway at one in the morning, rousing Sasha from sleep. Their cars went from top-of-the-line luxury cars to mid-range economy cars, then finally, to clunkers that rattled every time anyone drove them. An otherwise brand-new bassinet with the handle snapped off appeared beside the trash can, waiting to be tossed into the dumpster. The sound of Linda’s crying became a familiar and sad lullaby in the night.
One night, Sasha was startled by the sound of something shattering and the shouts that followed. “Jesus Christ, not again! How are we going to replace that?” A sharp sound followed, one that could’ve come from a hand slapping a face or a table. “Don’t!” Linda shouted. All was silent after that.
Her hand was shaking so badly when she dialed that she kept pressing 8 instead of 9, but she managed.
The police came hours later. As she peeked through the curtains, she saw Ted, who had grown stouter over the years, shaking his head as Linda, whose litheness had turned skeletal, stood beside him. She looked silent and drawn. “Just an accident, officers. I got a bit mad—I’ll admit to that—but nothing bad. Sorry about the bother.” Linda murmured something to the officers, so low that Sasha couldn’t hear. As the officers turned to leave, Ted looked up and their eyes locked. The evil was in his eyes, she saw it immediately. Sasha yanked the curtains back.
The next day, Ted pounded on her door. When she didn’t answer, he barked, “Mind your own damn business, cunt.”
The ugly, violent word made her tremble all over and wish she could crawl under the covers like a child. She called the police three more times in the next four months. Each time, the police walked away and the sounds grew louder and more violent.
She intercepted Linda only once when Linda was at the mailbox. Blocking Linda’s way, she extended a card with a safe house’s information on it and murmured, “You don’t deserve this. Run away, please.”
Linda had stared at her, her blue eyes round with terror as if Sasha were the monster, not Ted. “Please don’t. If he sees … I’m so sorry if we’re bothering you … We’ll be quiet now.”
“Take it.” Sasha pushed the card toward her.
“You’re making everything worse. Stop,” Linda hissed before running inside, letting the card flutter onto the ground. Sasha
Six months later, she came home to flashing lights and paramedics carrying a motionless Linda into an ambulance. Ted was straining against his handcuffs, tears streaming down his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Linda!” he cried. “I didn’t … I didn’t mean to! My hand slipped! Please don’t go, sweetie!”
The blow to her head had been so heavy and her bones so brittle that the damage went deep. Linda would spend the rest of her life in an assisted-care facility, being fed, washed, and led about by aides. At night, she would murmur her husband’s name as he sat in prison. Ted would get out in three years as Linda remained in her own prison.
A few weeks later, Sasha began shooting lessons. As she spread her feet and pointed the gun at the target, she imagined a new her. A woman who opened the door when a monster pounded on it and told the horrible creature to fuck off. A woman who stood up to monsters. A woman who made the monsters treat their wives right. A woman who didn’t cower in a dark corner as a monster crushed an innocent soul.
* * *
She squeezed her purse, the hard and pointy feel of its contents reassuring her. Keeping her eyes on the teenage interloper, she exited her car and walked toward him. She made certain that her chin was raised and shoulders back as she approached. These things were signs of authority and strength.
The boy was so absorbed by his drinking that he jumped when she spoke. “Just as you know, there are anti-loitering ordinances around here. You better go home.”
The boy peered at her, his face all sullenness and resentment. “Who in the hell are you?”
“I live here. What’s your name?”
“I don’t have to tell you nothing. I know my rights.”
“Then go home.”
The boy laughed. “Go home? Why do you think I’m out here in the first place? My dad and his new girlfriend’s fighting. They don’t want me around.”
“They’re probably done fighting by now.. You can just go on home.” She made certain to keep her voice firm and authoritative.
“Sure, sure. By now they’re probably fucking. They love their make-up sex. The girlfriend of the week sure doesn’t want me around for that part. Trust me, they’re not looking for me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. They’re probably looking for you by now.”
“You don’t know them, so how would you know? And they’re not.”
She shivered in the damp night air. It had stopped drizzling, but the cold dampness clung to her and her clothes, making her exhaustion from the long day seep even deeper. The high heels were pinching her feet, the purse heavy on her shoulder, and her hair hung limp in her face. Here, out in the wet, gloomy night, was the last place she wanted to be. She wanted to be inside of her home, in a warm bath, drinking a cup of hot tea, not talking to some recalcitrant teenager.
A surge of irritation rose in her. “You’re not old enough to be smoking or drinking. If you don’t go home, I’ll have to call the police. You don’t want that, do you?”
The light flickered on. Her world was bright for a moment. The boy sneered at her, his mouth grotesquely twisted by the heavy rings. For the first time, she saw the inscription on his shirt: Going to Hell in a Handbasket and Loving the Ride. Just before the light went out again, he gave her the finger, startling her.
“Why are you telling me what to do? I’m not bothering nobody. Just leave me alone.”
“Go home or I’ll call the police.”
“You’re a dried-up cunt, you know that?”
The word made her reach into the purse to feel the reassuring solidity of hard metal under her hand. “Don’t use that word!”
“Freedom of speech, old lady,” the boy said as he heaved himself to his feet.
The sudden movement startled her so much that she yanked out what she was holding in her purse and pointed it at him. “Don’t move!” she shouted.
The light flickered on, catching the slack look of surprise on his face as his eyes fixed on the .22 silver handgun in her hand. “Wha—”
At her scream, the boy dropped the beer bottle, which shattered by his foot. The boy lurched forward, almost as startled by the noise as she was.
An image of Ted flashed in Sasha’s mind. It was from the day when she had seen him raise his hand to her, telling her to back off after she had called the police. That day had been the day that he had finally cowed Sasha into silence. The day that she had lost her will to fight the monsters.
She pulled the trigger.
The kick-back jarred her hand, the bang filling her ears. It was only the time that she had spent at the shooting range that stopped her from dropping the gun. Even a moment later, the sound of a gun firing continued to reverberate in her ears, making her dizzy.
Once the ringing subsided, she opened her eyes to the vision of the boy staggering backwards to lean on the tree. The light flickered on and stayed on. The boy’s eyes were dazed as his hands came up to his chest, where there was now a small hole ringed by gunpowder. His hand came away covered with crimson.
The boy sat down hard, wheezing. “Oh, my God,” he whispered. “Oh, my God.”
She stood frozen in her pose, the one that she had practiced for years at the shooting range, staring at the deep pit gouged into the tree’s flesh. The bullet’s in there, she thought, almost indifferently.
She couldn’t quite understand anything else.
“Why?” the boy wheezed.
The question snapped her out of her stupor and she gasped. Her fingers went to the gun lock in a reflex and clicked it into place before she lowered it. “Oh, my God. I … I… don’t … I’m sorry … it was an accident,” she rasped.
The boy was no longer paying attention to her, grimacing and panting. “Oh, God. It hurts now.”
The thought occurred to her that she should help. Press something on the wound. Call the ambulance. Something.
By the time she knelt down, the boy had closed his eyes and his hands lay limp by his sides. His breaths came in erratic wheezes and gasps. She pressed her hand against the wound, but blood trickled through her hands. It was a good shot, one through the heart. Even as the blood slowed and grew thicker, she pressed harder.
His face had gone slack and pale, his mouth open as the breaths stopped. Completely relaxed, the boy looked more like a twelve-year-old who had put on his mother’s earrings on his mouth for Halloween. His outfit of baggy pants, studded necklace, and combat boots now looked ridiculous, something a child would put on during a game. For the first time since she had seen him, he looked like the boy he was.
She pulled away, her hands covered with wet soil and blood. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember why she had pulled that trigger. Her memories of what had happened after the boy said “cunt” was covered in gray haze.
She sat there for what felt like a very long time, simply looking at the boy.
The sirens wailing made her look up in surprise, wondering who they were for. When two trooper cars pulled up alongside the grove, she watched indifferently as the officers pointed their guns at her. Someone shouted for her to stand up and puts her hands in the air. It was only then that it occurred to her that she was the perpetrator.
Two strong hands wrenched her arms behind her back and began to recite her rights. The words that she had heard so often on crime shows now sounded nonsensical and tinny. Someone barked something at her, but she kept on staring at the boy, who was being attended to by an EMT.
She didn’t feel much of anything when someone led her and tucked her into the back of a trooper car. More and more cars and people were arriving on the scene as she sat motionless, staring at her reflection in the rearview mirror. The woman peering back at her wasn’t someone she recognized. She was a haggard, wild-haired woman whose eyes were full of fear and suspicion. It was a face of a monster.
Officer Grimes got into the front seat. “How did this happen? I … I can’t believe this.” His usually scornful face was now slack with shock.
“I looked for monsters everywhere except within,” she told him.
© Cristina Hartmann